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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Inara meets an old friend, River learns something she already knew, and some of the crew take part in irresponsible adult activities.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1933 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I’m just playing.
Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don’t want to give things away. In general, don’t be getting into any of this if you’re not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.
Many thanks: to several fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and www.chinesetools.com provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally – kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.
Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ) and Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.
Inara meets an old friend, River learns something she already knew, and some of the crew take part in irresponsible adult activities.
House Medrassa, Sihnon
The small, pillared balcony jutting out of the south wall of the House was seldom used, given its location high up in the deepest regions of the rambling building. But it fit Inara’s needs perfectly. It was a pleasant place for drawing, quiet and cool even at midday. The overhanging roof blocked out the sun, which burned brightly at this time of year, and screens were positioned to calm the breezes that rose in the evening.
The view was one Inara had missed while she was away; in the valley to the west, off to her right, the towers of the distant city rose from a wide, shallow valley. The hills to the east stood in contrast to the urban center – though they were populated with luxurious homes, the tree growth was mature and dense enough to hide most of the buildings.
The day after the visit of the OPR agents, Inara spent the late afternoon capturing the changing light outside the balcony as the sun sank behind the city. She didn’t use pastels often; she generally preferred the graceful, simple lines of calligraphy. But her time in the Black had made her miss the array of colors that one could only see planetside.
While her hands and eyes were busy with her hobby, her mind was elsewhere; she needed to consider the situation with the OPR agents. She had to be prepared for their inevitable return – whether or not they carried through on their threat to arrest her, they certainly wouldn’t give up on their questions. She had to have a passable description of Serenity’s stop on Oeneus, and the truth wasn’t anywhere close to acceptable. She’d already abused Mal enough, she wasn’t going to be responsible for getting him arrested as well. She’d be damned before she told him that Mal had broken out of Alliance custody.
If they were after her client, the honorable Arthur Yeng, chairman of Oeneus’s Committee for Agricultural Development, they could have at him. But she wasn’t about to believe anything the agents told her; she’d have to always be on her guard.
River’s presence on her shuttle was one thing that needed much care. It was Guild rules that all novices had to undergo a rigorous application process, and be accepted by a House Priestess. If the OPR officials checked with House records and found no mention of the fictional Novice Daphne, Inara would have to cover for River. She would claim to have been acting independently. It would likely get her in some trouble with the Guild, but that was better that than to see River – or Mal – taken into custody.
Then there were all the minor details of timing and location… when had her shuttle been parked at her client’s estate? When had she placed waves to Serenity? Those messages were likely recorded in some communications database, proof of her location, and she couldn’t make any errors. There were so many chances for snags, little inconsistencies that might lead them to the bigger lies she needed to tell.
Before she could consider the more mundane details of her time on Oeneus, the high clouds over the city lit with the last fiery rays of the sun. She last track of her scheming while she savored the short-lived sunset.
The city lights were beginning to show against the deepening violet of the sky when Lina came onto the patio. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there to share Inara’s enjoyment of the view.
“Inara,” she announced, “you have a guest.”
Inara froze with a pastel poised over the paper. She had never expected the agents to return so soon; she thought she’d have a few more days at least…
Her rising alarm receded as she fully processed Lina’s words.
“Only one?” Inara asked.
“Yes – a man. He claims that he is not here for business, which is a shame.” Lina’s face lit in a teasing smile. “He is quite a pretty one.”
Inara set down the crayon and exhaled deeply, relieved. The woman, Alvarez, had been the clear leader of the OPR team, and Inara doubted that Kain would return on his own.
But who was it then? An irrepressible hope rose in her chest – she’d never call Mal a “pretty one,” but she supposed that someone who’d never had a conversation with him might. He did have decent enough eyes…
Inara swallowed thickly. “Did he tell you why he’s here?” she asked.
“He claims to be an old friend, someone you met in your journeys. His name is Marone.”
Inara certainly wasn’t expecting to hear that name. “The Prefect?” she asked Lina. “Here?”
“He gave no title,” Lina replied. “Just a name – Trevor Marone.”
Inara set aside her drawing pad, moving slowly to give herself time to think. She wasn’t frightened – she’d genuinely liked Marone, and would always be grateful to him for the help he’d provided. Without him, the Alliance interrogators on Oeneus would certainly have broken their way into Mal’s subconscious, and he would have told them about River. The whole crew of Serenity would likely have been arrested, Inara included.
However, the timing of his visit was worrisome. It couldn’t be coincidental that Marone was here the day after the OPR; there had to be a connection.
Inara realized she’d been sitting still too long; she collected herself and rose from her chair. “Where is he waiting?” she asked.
“In the same parlor where you met the agents.”
Inara nodded her thanks and left the balcony and the fading sunset behind, but Lina followed.
“Inara – are you sure you want to talk to him? I can make an excuse if you wish to avoid him.”
Inara paused. She still wasn’t used to being around other Companions, and being read so easily. She should to take more care to hide her feelings, even with someone she trusted as much as she did Lina.
She turned back and smiled. “Thank you, but he really is an old friend. I look forward to catching up with him.”
Lina didn’t ask for further explanation, but Inara was aware of her friend’s curious gaze following her down the hall.
Inara couldn’t help but smile when she reached the sitting room and saw Marone – indeed, he didn’t look like a man visiting the House for any reason besides the usual. He had an air of self-satisfied, middle-aged wealth, the same affluent pleasantness that had misled her when she first met him. He seemed to have put some extra effort into his appearance, perhaps on account of Sihnon’s high standards of fashion. The blonde highlights in his hair were emphasized by an artfully arranged shaggy hairstyle, a look perfectly coordinated with his slightly rumpled cream-colored linen suit. The one change since she’d last seen him involved his neatly-trimmed beard, which he had done away with.
But Inara had learned not to judge Marone by his appearance. The man had dedicated himself to an upstart planet located well outside the bounds of active Alliance interest, and he’d spent his life bringing civilization and modern comforts to Oeneus. He’d chosen to help the crew of Serenity because he knew that the successful economy and lush environment of his world was drawing the eye of the Alliance. Clearly, he didn’t approve of the government’s involvement. For good reason – his daughter had died in the aftermath of the war, on a civilian transport shot down by Alliance warships.
That was the story he had told Inara at the time. She’d never had any proof of it, but she’d seen no lie in him, nothing in his words or actions to earn her distrust.
“Miss Serra!” he called out with obvious pleasure as soon as she entered the room. He rose to meet her, placing a gallant kiss on the back of her hand. He hadn’t lost his charm.
“Prefect,” she replied, “I’m so happy to see you again.”
“Please,” he said as they seated themselves. “I resigned my position on Oeneus. I’m plain Mr. Marone now – Trevor, if you’ll do me the honor.”
Inara smiled easily – his presence was as soothing as she remembered. “Trevor, then. Are you on vacation? Enjoying the city?”
“Actually, I’m traveling on business.”
“But that can wait. Tell me what you’ve been doing with yourself for the past few months.”
Inara assumed he’d want to avoid speaking of Oeneus just as much as she did. As far as she knew, no was listening in, but openly discussing illegal activities seemed an invitation to disaster.
“I’ll spare you the details of my misadventures in the Black –” she started, but he interrupted eagerly.
“I do wish you wouldn’t. I think about the crew of Serenity often; they are good people, as you told me yourself. I’ve wondered how things went for you all. You left Oeneus under difficult circumstances.”
“We did spend some time far from the Core,” Inara said hesitantly. “We weren’t sure of the kind of attention we’d drawn on ourselves, and certainly wanted to keep our business to ourselves.” That was as close a reference as she going to make to Mal’s trouble with the Alliance, and she hoped that Trevor wouldn’t speak of it plainly either.
He seemed to understand, although he didn’t leave the matter alone. “So you still feel cautious toward those who gave your captain such a difficult time?”
“I prefer to leave that business where it belongs – in the past. I’ve returned to the Core, and have no plans for further travels.”
He studied her openly, as if he doubted her, and her mind tumbled questions back and forth, one in particular: What business does he have here, only a day after the OPR agents?
“Well, my dear,” he finally said. “I hope you haven’t shut that door on the past quite yet. I’m actually here asking after the captain. You may recall that I always was eager to meet him, but circumstances prevented that.”
“What business do you have with Captain Reynolds?” Inara asked sharply, and she felt her defenses rise.
“Did I say I was on business? That was an exaggeration. It’s really just a matter of friendly curiosity.”
“I’m afraid you’ll get no satisfaction here,” Inara said, smiling to soften the impact of her words. “I left the ship. I’ve been back at the House for several weeks, and I’m not in contact with the crew at all.” Kaylee’s short letter didn’t really count, she reasoned to herself. “I don’t plan on it. I’m done with that part of my life.”
“Really?” Marone asked. He looked disappointed. “That is a shame. But… do you have any idea of where Serenity was headed when you left?”
“You seem to have a pointed interest in finding them,” Inara replied.
“Please be assured,” he said, “I mean no harm whatsoever. I only wish to… ask the captain a few things about his experiences on Oeneus.”
“Why is that?”
“As you recall, I was interested in the interrogation method being used on him. But… it would be better if I keep the details between myself and Captain Reynolds.”
Inara felt herself tense up further. “You’ll excuse me if I feel somewhat cautious,” she said, her voice hard.
“Towards me?” he asked in surprise, then his mouth pulled into a rakish grin. “Whatever for?”
Inara didn’t soften her manner at all. “You’re not the only one to come asking after Mal this week.”
“I’m not?” His playboy charm cracked, showing a hint of real concern.
“No. And I’d like to know why you and the Alliance’s corporate police are sharing the same purpose.”
He didn’t reply verbally, but his reaction showed on his face with more than enough clarity for her to read – surprise, confusion, realization, frustration – one after another in quick succession.
“What’s really happening here, Trevor?” she demanded.
Even before he spoke, she knew she wasn’t going to get a straight answer. His eyes narrowed just slightly and his lips tightened; he was preparing to tell a lie.
“I’m afraid you’re making too much of an odd coincidence,” he said. “And I’m shocked that you doubt me. Do you really think I’d mean you harm, after the risk I took in helping you before?”
Inara didn’t get a chance to reply; they both started when the door opened.
“Pardon me for interrupting,” Lina said, “but may I borrow Miss Serra for just a moment?”
A second’s displeasure crossed Marone’s face, but he acquiesced with a nod and a sudden warm smile. “Of course. I’ll just help myself to another cup of this excellent tea.”
“Please do,” Inara said, trying to sound pleasant for Lina’s sake. “I won’t be long, I’m sure.”
Lina wordlessly led Inara to a small side room located just off the main entrance; it was used for security and communications, and normally only the staff occupied it. It was empty now. Inara fixed Lina with a questioning look.
Lina’s reply was to sit down in front of one of the many cortex screens. “I saw your trepidation,” she said as she tapped at a keyboard, “and knew you must suspect some ill from this visitor. So I sought to help. I will spare you the details; it is sufficient to say that I tracked this Mr. Marone back to where he came from – the Ziyuan landing port.” Inara wasn’t surprised that Lina could do this – any Companion had connections among city officials, and could receive such favors as tapping into the city’s video monitoring grid.
“What did you find?” Inara asked, her voice tight. She knew that Lina wouldn’t have called her away if this was good news.
Lina answered by playing a short vid; it showed a craft landing at a minor landing field that Inara recognized; Ziyuan was often used by the private charters of the wealthy. The ship on the vid was small in size but of high quality. Unexpectedly, it had military designations of its wings. It was the kind of craft that an important military official in need of speed would use.
Inara’s breath caught when the hatch opened and Trevor Marone stepped out, but she hadn’t seen the worst of it yet. Two uniformed soldiers were waiting to meet Marone, a man and a woman. As they shook hands with him, Inara recognized their faces. Her blood froze.
The last time she’d seen those two, they hadn’t been wearing Alliance military uniforms. They’d been two of the four hijackers aboard Serenity, and the attractive black-haired man had been the worst of them all. Inara’d never found out what he’d done to Mal, but it had been bad enough that Mal had lost all memory of it.
And Trevor Marone was working with them.
“Merciful Buddha!” Inara said in a gasp, and she turned away from the screen. There wasn’t room to pace, so she could only fold her arms around herself while she tried to think.
“I thought this would concern you,” Lina said. “You were upset after meeting with the officials yesterday, and you have been so worried…”
“Thank the Heavens you read me so well!” Inara said breathlessly.
“Inara – what kind of trouble are you in?” Lina’s question was all concern, not accusation.
“It’s not me, it’s the man I traveled with. I believe he’s in danger. And don’t look at me like that, Lina; this has nothing to do with what my feelings for him might have been. The danger includes everyone on that ship, and it’s one of the few situations where they really were innocent.”
Lina said nothing, but her eyes continued to sparkle knowingly. Inara ignored her and struggled to calm herself enough to decide what to do.
“He’s Alliance,” she muttered, incapable of keeping her thoughts to herself. “Marone is Alliance, or at least working with them. Will and Ginger... They must have been setting Beyla up, on Niflheim. The OPR said there were undercover agents – they tracked Ginger’s calls….” She raised a hand to her forehead as the implications crashed down on her. “My gods – they’re Alliance, and yet they treated the crew like that. Will tried to… ”
She realized she was talking aloud to herself, as if she’d gone mad. She glanced at Lina, then continued her reasoning mutely.
Will and Ginger, undercover…. It explained how the Alliance had come upon Serenity at precisely the right time to catch the hijackers red-handed. When the OPR agents told her that there were government moles working the case, Inara had assumed they’d be embedded in Beyla’s cartel, not taking part in the crime itself.
How could they have the gall? And how had they gotten away with things they’d done?
Of course – Ray had been in charge of the crime. How clever of them, to set up an outsider to take the blame. Inara felt a second’s pity toward the man whom life had treated so harshly, but then her eyes fell on the vid screen. Lina had paused it with Trevor walking beside Will and Ginger, smiling placidly.
Inara’s stomach twisted with anger. Marone had lied to her – and she’d fallen for it. He’d been lying just now, and had very likely been lying on Oeneus. He might even have been working with the Alliance at the time. Perhaps they had chosen to let Mal escape from the base, and now, for whatever reason, they wanted him back. Inara had learned how little respect the Alliance had for the mind of a single human; they’d torn an innocent teenager apart, they could have no moral dilemma over finishing what they’d started with Mal.
She quickly moved to an idle cortex screen. The code for Serenity was still fresh in her mind, and she keyed it in.
“Inara…?” Lina asked.
“I have to tell him,” Inara said, her voice hard with determination. “I have to warn him.”
Still she waited while the system searched planetary registries across the `verse, looking for the Firefly. As vast as the system was, this process was usually quite fast.
“Come on… ” Inara whispered, imagining Marone pacing in a room not twenty meters from here, wondering what was keeping her.
Finally, the screen lit up with a message: RECIPIENT NOT FOUND.
Inara swore and turned away. The ship must be lying low, staying hidden while on some illegal job. So she’d have to stall Marone, put him off until she could reach Mal…
But the threats of the OPR agents came back to her. What if they arrested her, took her away? Such things should be impossible, especially when a Registered Companion was involved, but she’d seen enough of the powers of the government to know better. If Marone was working with monsters like Will and Ginger, then he’d have no problem locking her away, possibly even using her to draw Mal in.
Her anger grew at her lack of options. Anger at Marone, anger at Will and Ginger, anger at Mal for getting into this mess, as unreasonable as that may be, and, most of all, anger at herself for not seeing this coming.
“I can’t believe I read him so poorly!” she said. “That dăi, chòu … gŏushĭ duī… tù zăi zi!”
“Inara!” Lina said sharply. “Collect yourself. Tell me what is happening.”
“This man,” Inara said with a wave of her hand in the direction of the sitting room where Marone waited. “He’s… evil! The things he’s been involved in… I can’t tell you the details – I won’t draw you into this.”
“That is fine,” Lina said calmly. “But let me help you. What can be done?”
Inara pulled herself to her full height, as if strengthening her stance would harden her will. She knew what she needed to do, and it was the stupidest thing imaginable.
“I’m leaving,” she said firmly. “I have to find Mal. He thinks he’s safe; he could be in the Core right now.” On Londinium, doing some job for Badger...
“But his ship cannot be contacted,” Lina said, her calm voice carrying reason. “Perhaps he is in custody already? Or do you believe he knows of pursuit and is hiding?”
Inara shook her head. “If they had him already, they wouldn’t be talking to me. And if he’s hiding… it doesn’t matter. I can’t wait here, not knowing. I have to try.”
To Inara’s relief, Lina made no more arguments. “How can I help?” she asked.
Inara considered it for barely two seconds. Now that she’d decided, her path was clear in her eyes. “Stall Marone for as long as you can. I’ll need a few minutes to grab my things… I’ll take a House shuttle into the city and buy a transport there.”
“Don’t be foolish. You know I have a yacht – ”
“No, I have to travel without drawing attention to myself. They might be watching me even now. I’ll have to very careful.”
“Inara, I ask for no details, nor will I attempt to dissuade you. But, for your own good, I must ask… you know what this will cost you?”
Inara certainly did, but her good standing with the Guild suddenly seemed meaningless. She wouldn’t let Mal come to harm.
It occurred to her that one of the most recent hurts he’d suffered had been done by her. She shook her head – an expression of her own regret, not a reply to Lina’s question.
“Rén cí de Fozu,” Inara said to herself. “I shouldn’t have left him.”
Lina surprised her by smiling. “That is quite clear. I will let Mr. Marone sit for some time, then I will tell him you were called away on urgent business – something involving family and illness. That is generally an effective tale.”
“Tell the same to the agents if they return – and for Buddha’s sake, Lina, don’t let them know that you’re in any way involved in this. These people don’t play by rules that you and I can fight.”
Lina nodded solemnly. “I understand. Go now, and do not fret. I will be careful.”
Outskirts of Breskens, Belgium, 1944 AD
River is completely overwhelmed. Years of study at the finest boarding schools on America’s East Coast have done nothing to prepare her for the horrors of war, and the short training course she’d been given on the trip across the ocean is of little help, either. The wounded keep coming, waves of them carried across the canal and into the old stone building being used as a hospital. Some of the men howl in agony, some are empty-faced, shock and blood loss taking over. And so many die...
The ground rumbles continually as the nearby battle wages. For a full day and a night, it’s been ongoing. River's beyond exhausted, but she's willing herself to make it to dawn, as if the sun will bring some new hope with it.
But there’s still no light in the sky when a deafening explosion rocks the building and the power generator fails. The room is cast into total blackness. It’s too much for River; she stops where she is, unable to see enough to take a single step, then falls to her knees in despair. Another shell lands nearby, temporarily casting an orange glow through a window, and she crawls toward the nearest thing to her – a cot. She buries her face in the blanket and sobs, regretting that she’d been so stubborn as to do this. She should never had snuck away from her home. She shouldn’t have used a false name when she’d signed up for the Army Nursing Corps. Now, she’s going to die, and her family will never even know...
“What’s all this?” a weak voice asks in the darkness.
She gasps when searching fingers touch her hair, then a large, warm hand settles over her head. The soldier in the cot she’s cowering against is awake.
“I got a lady cryin’ over me?” he asks. His voice is hoarse, but his tone is warm. There's just a hint of humor, too, and it makes her think that maybe the world isn’t ending. It calms her, a little.
She shakes her head in answer to his question. He must feel the motion, because he chuckles softly. “Could at least lie,” he says. “Ain’t nothin’ bad for a wounded man to think there’s a woman cryin’ over his hurts.”
She lifts her head, looking toward the source of the words, but all she sees is black. She doesn’t try to pull away from his touch; in truth, it’s the best thing she’s felt since she left home. His hand shifts so his palm is against her cheek, his fingers still in her mussed hair.
“So why you so sad?” he asks.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she replies, finally finding her voice. “I’m not doing anyone any good, and we’re losing. The Germans will come kill us and my brother doesn’t even know where I am, and… and…”
She stops trying to explain, knowing she’ll just break down again. The man’s thumb gently passes under her eye, wiping a few tears away.
“This your first time?” he asks. “First battle?” She nods, making sure he can feel her wordless response. “Ain’t a good way to start,” he says, “but don’t be layin’ down to die just yet. We’ll hold that canal, and they'll be runnin’ out the far side of the town `fore long. We got you ladies, bravin’ the battle to help us heal. That means a lot. Means a whole lot, havin’ you here.”
Just then, the lights flicker back on, and River finds herself staring into eyes so blue they make her ache. Activity picks again in the makeshift hospital, but it’s as if time has stopped around this one little cot as River and this man stare at each other..
Then he smiles and strokes her hair back from her face. “Well,” he says softly. “Ain’t you a pretty thing.”
River smiles back. She wants to stay here forever, basking in this stranger’s gaze, but an unwelcome voice breaks the spell.
It’s the head nurse. “Is this her?” the woman asks.
“Yes it is,” a man replies. His familiar voice makes River turn away from her soldier in surprise. “Simon?” she sputters. “How… ?”
“Thank God I found you!” her brother says, stepping around a cot to come toward her. “Come on, you’re going home. You don’t belong here.”
River finds that she’s holding the hand of the soldier, and she’s suddenly determined to never let go. He’s right – she can help these people. She can learn. “Yes, I do belong,” she says firmly. “I can make a difference– ”
“She’s completely lacking in expertise and experience,” the head nurse says to Simon, ignoring River’s plea. “She hasn’t helped anyone. It’s really best that you take her away.”
To River’s distress, Simon grabs her free arm and pulls her to her feet. She loses her hold on the soldier with the blue eyes and the kind words.
Even worse, the nurse takes River’s place, crouching next to the cot and taking the soldier’s hand in her own. “Let those with more training take over,” she says to River, looking up with beautiful brown eyes that don't look even a little tired. Her face has no shadow on it anywhere; her make-up is perfect, and her hair frames her face with tight black curls. “I’ll take better care of him than you ever can,” she adds with a stunning smile.
River looks at the wounded man, expecting him to protest, but he’s looking at Nurse Serra now. He’s smiling at her like the moment that just passed with River means nothing to him.
“No,” River says, then louder, “No!”
“Go home, little girl,” Nurse Serra says, and she turns her smile on the soldier.
Simon pulls at her arm, trying to lead her away. River acts without thinking – she twists free of him, spinning away and planting her left foot in one smooth motion. Her momentum carries into her right leg, and she lands her foot in Nurse Serra’s stomach, sending the woman flying away from the cot…
River sat up with a gasp, opening her eyes wide.
“I would never!” she exclaimed to herself. Hopefully to herself. She looked around wildly, hoping she was alone.
She was. The infirmary and common room were deserted and dim, only the minimal night lights on. There was hardly a vibration of human wakefulness moving through the air. It was very late. Very early, really.
“I would never, ever hurt anyone!” she added. “Didn’t mean for it to go like that!”
She sat up and wrapped her arms around herself. She must have fallen asleep, or very nearly, for her story to go so wrong. She wouldn’t hurt Inara. Yes, she was angry, and Inara had certainly acted very badly, but she didn’t deserve to be hurt for it. River wouldn’t do that!
Exercise: Use the foot’s contact with the floor as a base to gather power, recalling as always that balance is the key.The words passed through her mind and she straightened. It had been so easy, she realized, moving like she had in her dream. Pulling away from Simon, spinning…
Exercise: Use the foot’s contact with the floor as a base to gather power, recalling as always that balance is the key.
River stood up and moved into the open space in front of the dormitory. She was still for a second, rocking slightly to center her balance on the balls of her feet. She lifted her elbow out beside her, as if someone was holding it there. She pictured a large, strong hand clutching her forearm. Not Simon’s – this was someone Bad. Someone who needed to be fought. All it would take was an inward twist of her arm, a step onto her left foot, then a spin and a tilt of her upper body to counterbalance her leg as she lifted it and…
…raise the extended leg as high as possible, sweep outward to the side, in a circular movement to strike the opponent’s head or shoulders. She did exactly that, whirling and kicking at her imaginary captor, then landing perfectly balanced and ready to move again. Maybe… a chop with her right hand, and raise her left arm to block a swinging fist from a second attacker, then kick backwards at a third, sidestep a club as the first man come in from her blind side (foolishly thinking she can’t hear him), then drive an elbow to his neck and land a kick on the second man…
…raise the extended leg as high as possible, sweep outward to the side, in a circular movement to strike the opponent’s head or shoulders.
River came back to herself after a series of moves that came out of her body as easily as dance ever had. But this was no dance; she’d imagined her attackers so vividly that she knew exactly how they would have fallen to the floor and could describe the injuries she’d given them in enough detail to rival a diagnosis by Simon.
She’d done this before. For real.
She lifted her hands and looked at them in shock. “I know how to...” she mumbled to herself, but she couldn’t finish.
It wasn’t like she didn’t know. Of course she knew about all the training they’d given her. Of course she’d seen little bits of it in her dreams now and then: the men in padded suits, the diagrams in her head telling her how to win, the physical pain (and inner satisfaction) of landing the edge of her hand exactly where she needed to…
She just hadn’t known that she knew.
“This requires more thought,” she told herself. “This requires a lot more thought.”
Oddly, good smoke wasn’t something they came across often in the Black. Maybe because priorities were a little different out here – and money was scarce. When Jayne had wrangled some of this out of the second whorehouse they’d visited, Wash had spoken up quickly, saying that he expected a fair cut. Jayne had laughed in his face until Wash had mentioned that Zoë would take up the negotiations if Jayne didn’t settle up fair.
“Gorramn,” Zoë said when it was her turn, “I ain’t had any this fresh since the war.”
“You smoked in the war?” Wash asked.
“Not often. Just got lucky sometimes – after raidin’ Alliance camps, if you’ll believe that.”
She handed the little pipe back – they both had to stretch to make the exchange. Zoë had her head on the pillow, making proper use of their spacious bed, but Wash had opted for a different view of things. This way he could wrap one arm around her knee and rest his cheek on her ankle.
“Wouldn’t it make the… ‘grunts’… too mellow to kill people?” he asked.
Zoë’s answer was simple. “When the time comes for that, ain’t no such thing as mellow.”
Wash propped himself up on an elbow while he took another long inhale.
“Mal’s changed, you know,” Zoë said, her eyes on the ceiling.
Wash straightened a little more and stared at her. He had two excuses for not replying. First – he had no idea what the hell she meant. Second, he’d wasn’t ready to exhale.
“Since he got Serenity,” Zoë said, “he’s changed.”
Wash’s lungs took over and emptied themselves for him. “Are you tellin’ me that Mal used to be a pussycat?” he asked with a few half-coughs.
“Nope. He used to be a very angry man.”
Wash choked out a sarcastic laugh. “Um… I hate to point out the obvious… ”
She ignored his reaction. “Gettin’ this ship meant havin’ a home,” she said. “And gettin’ the crew... it all changed him. Gave him somethin’ to take care of. When he loses that…”
Wash set the pipe aside and scratched his head. Certainly, his perceptions were a little distorted. Maybe he was hearing this wrong.
“You mean Mal’s going to get worse?”
“Ain’t a matter of worse,” Zoë said, lying still, her eyes focused on the ceiling as if the drug didn’t effect her at all. “I’m just tellin’ you why I got to get him off this ship.”
“So, what – he used to shoot babies for sport?”
Zoë tilted her head to the side and looked at him, not at all amused. For a dizzying second, he saw something darken her face: it was the story of Zoë and Mal that lived somewhere inside her head. He’d seen it shine through her eyes from time to time over the years, nearly frightening in its depth and weight. Maybe, he thought, she was finally going to open up and tell him about it…
But she didn’t. She dropped her head back onto the pillow and the moment passed.
Wash picked up the pipe and offered it to her.
“One’s enough,” she said without looking at him. “I gotta be ready to move, if the Shepherd calls.”
“Mal won’t be waking up for a while, the way he’s been.”
“Don’t matter. I gotta be ready.”
Wash shrugged and stretched out on his back, holding her leg close again. He shut his eyes and drifted off as he felt her strong fingers working on the back of his knee.
The ship outside his bunk was empty and quiet. Used to be, on the rare times Jayne went out and about in the wee hours, it was an even chance that he’d run into someone creeping around on their own business. Mal’d be walking his rounds like the little ship needed somebody on guard duty. Or maybe Inara’d stop by the galley to fix herself up some kind of stinky tea or another. She’d roll her eyes and disappear in her quiet way when Jayne asked if a lack of business was getting to her. It’d never been rare to hear tinkering sounds from of the engine room in the dead of night, as Kaylee worked out some kink in the system. Less often than that, River’d float through the halls like a spirit that couldn’t find any rest. Jayne hated it when the girl did that.
What he didn’t see often in these quiet hours was the preacher.
“What’re you doin’ up?” Jayne asked the old man seated at the table. “It’s the middle of the gorramn night.”
Book softly hushed him with a shhh. He nodded toward the little sitting area; Mal was there, lolling back in one chair with his feet up on another and a blanket spread over him.
“And you’re a bit off,” the Shepherd added in a soft whisper. “It’s near breakfast time.”
“Ain’t so,” Jayne said, keeping his voice low. Book just shrugged.
Jayne turned away, aiming to find someplace else to ride out his high. He was sick of the captain, sick of dealing with the man’s nuttiness, and – truth be told – more than a little offended that he’d been forgot. He needed a break, needed one bad enough that he’d even consider putting on a suit just so as he could get off this gorramned ship for a spell.
The infirmary and common room were empty, and he sighed his relief as he collapsed back on one of the sofas – it was much easier than taking a “walk” outside.
But his alone time didn’t last long. It wasn’t a minute before he noticed two big eyes, glowing like the lamps on an owl, peeking out from above. River’d gotten herself up in the criss-crossing ducts, and was stretched out on one of them like some gorramn monkey.
Book’s wakefulness, on the other hand, had no unnatural chemicals or escapism behind it. He had a very real matter to weigh in his mind, and sleep wouldn’t be coming until his decision was settled.
He’d come to the dining room an hour ago in search of tea, and found Zoë sitting guard over the captain, who was again sleeping in the alcove. Book had been happy to take over, letting the woman get her own rest. This condition of Mal’s was hitting Zoë the hardest of all of them, though she was the best at hiding it. Zoë’s soul was tied to the captain’s in some deep way, and seeing the man fade must have been like watching a part of herself die.
Which lead to Book’s problem. Zoë couldn’t be left to care for Mal by herself, not even for the short time it would take Simon to do his task. Book was the obvious choice to stay with her on the moon.
His hesitation to insist on it had nothing to do with Mal’s cold refusal. Mal wouldn’t have talked like that if he’d been fully in his right mind, and, in any case, Zoë’s decisions were the ones that really mattered now. Book had an idea that she wouldn’t be so quick to turn down his offer of help.
No, what troubled Book about leaving Serenity was his other charge. He’d come here for the sake of River, and he didn’t like leaving her with the way things were. In all their concern for the captain, the rest of the crew seemed to be overlooking the danger the girl was still in, and not seeing the worst consequences of the attention they had drawn to themselves on Londinium.
They didn’t understand as fully as Book did. He must not let her get taken. What the Alliance would do to her... what they could possibly do with her…
But Book couldn’t be two places at once; he couldn’t take care of them both. The truth of it was, he needed help.
He was sprawled on his back on the catwalk, staring up at the shadowed ceiling of the cargo bay. He wasn’t sure how River had talked him into this, but the scrambled state of his senses had to be a big part of it.
“That was down,” River explained. She was lying on her back too, a little further along the catwalk so that her head wasn’t far from his own. She had one long skinny arm pointing up the ceiling. “No gravity,” she continued. “I flew all over. Landed on the ceiling, hung from the floor.”
“Hunh,” was all Jayne had to say.
She dropped her arm down, then added like she was sharing her opinion about what’s for dinner, “Still don’t want you. For sex.”
“Makes sense,” he replied. “Seein’ as you’re crazy and all.”
“Not just that,” she said. “Many complicated factors to consider. Short term pleasure is not enough. Many people don’t understand that, but I’m very smart. It’s only logical – have to consider all wavelengths in order in optimize gratification.”
Jayne hardly heard her. He was stuck back on thinking of the ceiling like the floor. “You do this gōushī while you’re swimming, too, huh?” he asked.
“Pay attention! I don’t want you. Need to hear that.”
“I got it. Ain’t surprised.”
“I ain’t a nice guy.” It didn’t upset him to say that; he’d known it all his life.
“There are more important things than being nice,” she said. “Nice is boring. Right?”
Jayne tipped his head to the side enough to see her, but she wasn’t looking back. She was staring straight up.
“How’s come you make more sense when I’m high?” he asked.
She lifted her arm and touched her finger to her head, right by her ear. “Altered brain,” she said. Then she pointed to Jayne’s head, not quite coming close enough to touch him. “Altered brain.”
“Oh,” he replied. Again, it made sense. Then he was off on his own thoughts for a while. It was good stuff, this herb he’d got from the whores. Not so crazy that he lost track of everything, but good enough that every little idea he thought on took a life of its own. He never liked thinking so much as when he got high. Never liked thinking at all unless he was high.
“Ya know,” he said after a while that could have been ten seconds or ten minutes, “if you really wanted me to, I’d sex you up. You ain’t bad to look at.”
River didn’t answer right away. She thought on it, then said, “You don’t really want to. You like women to be sturdy. Also – you think I’m guàidàn.”
“Well… yeah. But when it comes down to it, I ain’t that choosy.”
Jayne frowned. That was gorramn close to an insult. “You got no idea what you’re sayin’,” he told her. “I’m real good at it. Never met a whore wasn’t happy to see me second time around, and it ain’t `cause I pay ‘em extra.”
River wasn’t impressed. “Of course they act happy,” she said. “Good for business.”
Jayne didn’t answer until she added a half minute later: “They fake it.”
He rolled to his side, propping himself up on an elbow so he could glare at her. “Just when I’m gettin’ to think you ain’t bad, you go and say somethin’ like that.”
“Yeah, I told you I wasn’t – ”
“I’m not nice.”
He frowned. That much was obvious to him; he’d known it for some time. But he hadn’t thought that she saw it that way too. “That so?” he asked.
River nodded without looking at him. She was still lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling. Her hands were resting on her stomach, and she began to twist them together and rub her knuckles, like they were sore.
“I’m not nice at all,” she said softly.
He must hate her now. She hadn’t just refused him, she’d led him on, then refused him. She didn’t want to even try to explain, even though she did owe it to him. She needed time to figure it all out herself, first.
She finally crept out of her bunk sometime between breakfast and lunch, fixed her tea as fast as she could, and went to hide in the engine room. It wasn’t likely that anyone would bother her there; she had nothing to do with any of Zoë’s plans, and no one needed to be talking to her.
Turns out, she wasn’t right about that. It wasn’t an hour before there was a knock. She looked up – it was Simon.
“Zoë wanted me to talk to you,” he said before she could even think of what to do. He held out a few sheets of paper and a data disk. “I’ve drawn up some plans,” he said, his voice flat and emotionless. “If we can’t purchase what we need on Highgate, we should have a backup. We may have to build this thing ourselves.”
“Oh,” Kaylee said stupidly. He was talking so calmly, like nothing had ever happened between them. Worse than that, he was looking at her like he hardly knew her.
When she didn’t reach out to take the papers, he bent to set them on the deck. “Well, see what you can do,” he said, then he turned and left, seeming like he couldn’t get away fast enough.
Kaylee took a deep breath and picked up the papers. In truth, this was a blessing. She needed something to occupy her time, besides thinking about Simon. She went to the dining room and spread the diagrams over the table, studying them as intently as she could. No matter that other things were in her mind, she had to work this out. It might be the only chance the captain had, and she wouldn’t be letting her own problems come in the way.
This thing was so exact. Simon had made plenty of notes on the plans. (It was his way of talking to her without having to actually talk to her; she knew that full well.) There were messages about sensitivities and error bars and geometrical factors… Kaylee had her doubts, and the longer she studied the plans, the more she doubted. If it was any other kind of kind of project, something about getting big greasy engines turning, she’d be fine. But delicate science-y stuff like this wasn’t for her. There was no way she’d get this thing to work anytime soon, definitely not in the next few days.
But how could she tell that to Simon? How could she face that blank look in his eyes again, and tell him that he couldn’t count on her for this, either?
She clutched the diagrams tighter and tried to get her mind back on business. There had to be a way…
She heard steps coming in from the crew quarters, but didn’t look up until the captain spoke.
“Uh… `scuse me, but can I help you with somethin’?”
He words were kind but his tone was firm, almost demanding. He was staring in from the fore hatch, not looking hostile like he had with River, Simon, and Book at the birthday party, but clearly he didn’t know her.
Her time had come, then.
“Uh… well…” Kaylee looked down at the papers, trying to think of anything reasonable to say. She should have prepared herself for this, but somehow she hadn’t figured on being alone with the captain when it happened. And she’d never have thought it would be so soon. She tried to calculate… he’d just forgotten Jayne last night….
“Okay, then,” Mal said when she didn’t go on, and now he sounded impatient, “how ‘bout you help me out and explain who you are and why you’re on my ship?”
Kaylee could only stare at him with her mouth half open. He was frowning at her, suspicions all over his face. He wasn’t yelling, not yet, but it had to be only a matter of time. It took her back to the day after they’d got him off Oeneus, when he’d forgot where he was and had thought she was someone else. He’d pointed a gun at her then.
This was different, and it was worse. He may not have a gun on his hip, but he was seeing her exactly as she was, and he was ready to take her for an enemy anyway. It nearly broke her heart.
“Zoë,” she finally managed to say. “Zoë asked me to, uh…”
Mal turned around and punched the comm. “Zoë!” he yelled into it. “Get up here!” He released the button and took a few more steps toward Kaylee.
“She asked you to what?”
Kaylee shrank back into her seat. She couldn’t help it – he was frightening, talking hard like that.
“I was helping…” No, can’t mention Simon. “I was helping her with building somethin’.” She held up the diagram like it would explain for her. “I… build things.”
Mal stepped closer and snatched the paper away from her. “What the hell is this?”
“Never you mind, captain,” Zoë called out as she jogged in from her bunk. “That’s just a lady friend of Bester’s. We’re givin’ her a lift out to Highgate.”
Kaylee blew her breath out in relief when the captain turned his confusion on Zoë; it was like a painfully bright light had been moved off of her.
“Since when did we become a gorramn floating palace of sin?” Mal demanded. “That mechanic needs to keep busy fixing my ship, not offering free rides to every floozy who gives him a bit a’ trim.”
“Floozy?” Kaylee repeated to herself.
“And when the hell did someone paint flowers all over my galley!” Mal demanded, his voice raised almost to a yell. Kaylee looked around at the paintings that had taken her several days to do; at the time, Mal’d told her he liked them. He’d said they made the place homey.
“Captain,” Zoë said quickly. “This girl’s doin’ good work. She’s helpin’ Bester out.”
“I don’t need two gorramn mechanics and I certainly don’t need an extra mechanic that I never even offered a job!”
Zoë sighed and looked at Kaylee. “How ‘bout you go to the engine room and check on Bester while I talk to the captain,” she said.
Kaylee nodded and gathered her things while Zoë started in on the usual argument with Mal – the one where he told her she shouldn’t go and do things without his permission. It made Kaylee want to scream, hearing him say that again. It made her want to grab hold of him and shake him, to demand that he stop being like that. There had to be some way he could just cut it out!
But of course there wasn’t. He was sick, and she should be feeling bad for him, not angry.
She ran out of there as quick as she could, starting toward the engine room, but then she turned aside. She couldn’t just stay still - she needed to talk to someone. Not Simon; there’d be no more kind words and silly movies with him. She’d ruined any chance at that. But she had another choice; there was one person who would really understand and say all the right things to keep Kaylee from fallign all apart.
She ducked into Shuttle One, closing the hatch behind her, and sat in front of the cortex screen. Zoë’d taken them off the system as soon as they got away from Londinium, so none of the baddies would be able to track the ship. She’d be mad as hell if she found out about this, but Kaylee had to talk to Inara.
It didn’t take but a minute to find the address of the House on Sihnon. The Companions there weren’t listed by name, so she waved the main line.
“Hi,” Kaylee said to the pretty face who answered. “I was hopin’ to talk to Inara Serra if I could.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman replied. “Miss Serra no longer resides here.”
Kaylee couldn’t speak for a few seconds. It’d never even occurred to her that she wouldn’t be able to reach Inara. “Can ya tell me where she’s moved to?” she finally asked.
“She left no contact information.”
Kaylee felt like the shuttle was closing in on her. Inara gone? Out of reach?
“But… I really, really got to talk to her,” she said. “Ain’t you got some way of finding her? Ain’t it Guild rules that Companions have to let you know where they’re at?”
“Inara Serra is currently suspended from the Guild.”
“Suspended? But – why?”
“That’s a private matter. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“I…. No, I guess not.”
Kaylee shut off the cortex screen, then she folded her legs up on the chair and buried her head in her hands.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 7:13 AM
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 8:20 AM
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 1:12 PM
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 3:52 PM
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 3:55 PM
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 5:06 PM
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 6:00 PM
Wednesday, June 13, 2007 3:14 AM
Thursday, June 14, 2007 8:02 PM
Thursday, June 14, 2007 8:51 PM
Friday, June 15, 2007 10:58 AM
Saturday, June 16, 2007 12:52 PM
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