BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories II, Chapter 16
Friday, February 29, 2008

More of the crew’s adventures on Highgate: Kaylee, Jayne, Wash, and River each have their turn to do the telling.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2426    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I'm just playing.

Many thanks: fireflyfans.net members: leiasky and nosadseven for beta-reading and mphillips for the artwork on earlier chapters.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

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House of Huāzhù, Highgate

Zoë fiddled her thumbs as she sat on the end of the dark pink bed, but her impatience didn’t have the chance to build to any kind of breaking point. Which was a good thing – she had no wish to lash out at the doctor. He’d been under a pile of stress, and he’d come through where it counted, though it’d taken him more time than she’d have liked. The captain was getting his help, and Simon’d earned this chance to tell of his trials.

More than that, he wasn’t taking long to do the telling. No, it was clear to Zoë that he was rushing, leaving out a pile of details. Kaylee’d done the same. The doctor and the mechanic were sitting across the small room from each other, Simon in the chair against the far wall, Kaylee at the head of the bed with River curled up beside her, but Zoë could see that something was up between them. The basic gist of it was clear enough from the looks they shared, but she couldn’t see the full path of twists and turns. She wasn’t too concerned with it; what they’d been up to in bed wasn’t relevant to the task at hand: getting the ship back. But Zoë did want to hear more about this lady doctor. Something in how these two avoided talking about the woman in any detail made her uneasy.

She shifted in Wash’s arms to change her focus to Kaylee. The girl was draped over a pile of rose-colored pillows, looking as loose as a well-cooked strand of spaghetti. She’d gotten herself comfortable while she watched Simon recount the meeting at the Salty Tongue saloon. “All right then, Kaylee,” Zoë said. “So you worked with the doctor lady. How was it?”

Kaylee lifted her head and sat up, and her brow pinched in a sudden frown.

* * *

35 Hours ago, Highgate colony medical clinic

The morning started with a long, uncomfortable hour for Kaylee. She sat in a small lab in the back of the clinic and twisted a dark blue knitted cap in her hands. Simon had insisted on wearing it, like it was necessary to disguise him. Kaylee had told him how silly it looked, but he hadn’t given in. Not until he got to the clinic and Doctor Zhou had given him one look and laughed out loud.

“That’s worse than your haircut, Simon.” Tori’d said, and Simon had pulled the hat off and handed to Kaylee sheepishly. It seemed that the doctor’s opinion held some weight with him.

Now, Kaylee had nothing to do but wait while Tori showed Simon the ropes. Every now and then, she caught glimpses of the two doctors passing down the hall, or heard bits of conversation as Tori explained this and that important detail of the clinic’s workings. Simon mostly nodded in return, serious and tight-lipped, his eyebrows drawn together in concentration. A few times Kaylee heard him ask some short and to-the-point question that she barely understood, and every time Tori’s steady voice went on with a long, detailed reply.

After a half hour, a few people showed up to work in the lab, running vials of blood and other more mysterious fluids through med equipment that purred smoothly. Kaylee didn’t know what a single of these machines were, but every one of them glinted and shone, their perfectly clean outer shells proclaiming proudly that they were as new and fancy as any hospital in the `verse could want. They spat out reports that the workers noted and slipped into color coded envelopes.

Kaylee felt a bit out of place here. It wasn’t anything like Serenity’s engine room or her Pa’s workshop back home. She started asking a few questions of the workers, but they seemed too busy to be bothered and set on ignoring her.

Finally, the clinic opened for the day, and the patients started coming back one by one to have their troubles seen to. The workers moved up front to aid Simon in his business and Tori came back into the lab, clearing one corner of a counter for Kaylee to use.

The doctor brought out all kinds of electrical tools; a few were common and familiar to Kaylee, but a larger number she’d never seen in her life. She had no choice but to ask, and Tori sighed as she explained the purpose and usage of each. She might as well have come out and said what was on her face – this girl’s an ignorant fool and I should just do this myself. But she did take the time to explain, and though her loud, forced tone was grating, Kaylee had to admit that the woman explained well. She may not have been friendly, but she knew her stuff.

After a bit, she brought in a bag from her office and pulled out the Takara cap. Kaylee had to fight back a silly urge to put the thing on and go hunting for a mirror, because it looked to be a headdress from a picture book of old Earth-That-Was. Some kind of chain mail, though this was too delicate to turn aside any blow. More decorative and ceremonial than meant for real use, maybe. Fine silver wires connected into a grid of oval nodes, and an edging of thicker silver lines held it together, forming a circle that would edge the wearer’s forehead, wrap behind the ears, and come together at the nape of the neck. The controlboard sat back there, a thin rectangle of circuitry etched onto a flexible bit of plasticized silicon waferboard. It would bend to the wearer’s neck, and not be itchy or uncomfortable to wear while sleeping.

All in all, it was a beautiful piece of tech. Not that Kaylee imagined the captain would think so; he was gonna hate like hell wearing this thing.

“I soaked it in solvents last night to remove any rust, but I know several of the connections have broken. You do know how to solder?”

Kaylee couldn’t help but bristle at that. “I done it a time or two. Or million, mayhap.”

Tori wasn’t ruffled. “Good. We’ll also need to get into the controlboard, wire it into the computer to test the connections and functionality. Have you worked with circuitry this fine?”

Kaylee shifted uncomfortably as she looked at the flexible panel on the back of cap. There were a whole bunch of wires in there, tiny things that criss-crossed over and under each other like the pattern of some complicated Core-world dance. “Maybe… not so fine as this… but how hard can it be?”

Tori sighed again, quick and heavy with impatience , then pulled out a set of wires that ran into a controller box setting on the bench. “We’ll find out. Here – connect these lines into the controller’s i/o. I’ll start building the sim. I still have the software I used in MedAcad, but lord knows if it still works on modern systems.”

Kaylee turned to the wiring. She had to be shown how to deal with the size of it – there was a microscope and a special soldering gun that attached to the table and was controlled by fine dials, since a human hand was too shaky for the job of lining it up to the tiny board. Kaylee practiced on a bit of scrap metal, then moved on to the real thing.

To her satisfaction, she didn’t mess up once. This earned her a look of appreciation from the doctor, and they dug into testing the thing.

The next several hours passed in a blur. Kaylee’s experience as a mechanic had mostly involved big things that moved, and if she knew computers, it was only because they controlled the moving engine parts that were her real love. The Takara cap was something new. Though it was in some way a machine with moving parts – electrons buzzing around in the wires and electrical fields pulsing out of the silver mesh, focusing in complex patterns – it all happened invisibly. The only way to see and direct it was on the cortex screen, on the controller sim that displayed the cap’s status.

Truthfully, it did confuse her. But once Tori got focused on technical matters, she was a good teacher. It was almost like she forgot to be snippy, and she was almost easy to work with. The two of them stayed bent over the lab bench, identifying bad connections and soldering them shut, till mid-afternoon. The only thing that broke it up was a sudden loud growl of Kaylee’s stomach.

Tori sat back on her stool and rubbed her neck, but she was smiling. “I take that as a suggestion,” she said. “I’ll grab some sandwiches.”

“See if Simon’s ate yet,” Kaylee said. She didn’t mean it as anything but common friendliness, but Tori’s smile took on a knowing edge.

“Of course,” the doctor replied.

But she returned a moment later all alone. “He ate already,” she said. “Didn’t want to disturb us.” She held out a cup of lemonade and two sandwiches for Kaylee. “Ham and cheese. Simon told me this morning about the food on your ship. I thought you might want to fill up on something decent while you’re here.”

It was true, and it was a kind offer. Kaylee hadn’t had a lunch like this in a while. She said her thanks and set to.

Tori did the same. She had just one sandwich, and she amazed Kaylee by chomping it down in a few huge bites, as if fast was the only way she knew how to do anything. She finished in a jiff, then wiped the crumbs she’d spilt off her lab coat before she started fiddling with the cap again.

But she didn’t dive back into serious work quite yet. Instead, she asked Kaylee a casual question.

“You like living on a ship?”

Kaylee nodded; her mouth was full.

“Must get boring.”

Kaylee shook her head.

“I can’t imagine Simon living like that, on a single small ship – and not a very comfortable one, I take it.”

Kaylee frowned, but the doctor didn’t seem to notice.

“The crew can’t be very big.”

Kaylee set down her sandwich and started to hold up nine fingers, then changed it to eight because of Inara, then changed it to seven. Best not to include River; though she had no idea what Simon’d told this woman about his sister.

“You and Simon and five others. No, not many at all. And you and he are…?”

Kaylee frowned again, but then took another big bite of sandwich and shrugged. It was none of the doctor’s business what she and Simon were.

“You know, I lied last night,” Tori said. She was still looking down at the cap, but the corner of her mouth was pulled back in a small smile.

Kaylee squinted at her.

“About me and Simon.”

Kaylee stopped chewing and gave the doctor her hardest stare.

Tori laughed. “Nothing so serious. I lied about why I broke up with him. I mean, sure he was square. Completely bound to the system and the rules, but I knew he was just sheltered and young enough to learn better, eventually. That’s not what did us in.”

Kaylee knew she was being invited to ask, corralled into the conversation like a pig pursued by a bacon-loving farmer. But she couldn’t think of a way out. And besides, she had to admit that she wanted to know. She took a swig of lemonade, clearing her mouth enough to speak.

“So, what was it?”

“He was terrible in bed.”

Kaylee choked on a last little bit of sandwich, and she had to turn to the lemonade again. She wasn’t expecting that!

In any other situation, she’d be eager to hear the details – for her own entertainment and to have some dirt to tease Simon with. It didn’t bother her at all that Simon’d had sex before. A good looking man like him must surely have had his share; to Kaylee’s view, that was just healthy, happy living. Nor did it bother her that the tumble hadn’t been so good for Tori. Actually, Kaylee thought she might have a chuckle over that idea later on, when she had a moment to herself.

But, at the moment, there was no room for humor. Tori was looking down her nose with a superior smile, as if she thought Kaylee was too dumb and too low class to know good sex from bad, and that was grating. It made Kaylee uncomfortable, and brought a few questions out of the back of her mind, doubts that had been chasing each other around all morning though she’d tried her best to leave them be. Truth was, her first night with Simon, the night before they got to Highgate, had been something special. That had been a flashbomb to burn right down to her core. But the second night…

Even after she’d taken Simon to her bunk for full privacy, he’d been a whole different man than he was the night before. He’d been quiet and controlled and… and minimal. Boring. Just enough to get the job done, with none of the wild fire that she craved.

But that hadn’t been him, Kaylee assured herself. Not really. Something had got to him, and it wasn’t hard to guess what. It had to be the way she’d jumped on him in the dining room. She’d shocked him, set him off his game. Maybe the same thing had happened with Tori. The doctor was a forward kind of woman; maybe she’d also been too pushy with Simon.

Kaylee’d just have to be more careful in the future, figure out what it was she’d done right the first time. She’d be smart about it, and she’d find the wild and passionate man who’d taken her body and let her take his like he needed it so bad he didn’t care about anything else.

She suddenly realized that Tori was watching her closely, and resolved to not let any of her doubts show. She sat up straight on her stool. “Well, then,” she said with as smug a look as she could manage, “I guess you weren’t makin’ use of him the right way, `cause I got no complaints.”

Tori wasn’t offended, but she did look doubtful. “Really?”

Kaylee shoved the end of her last sandwich in her mouth, ready to finish the conversation. “Mm-mmm.”

“Then I guess leaving the Core did him good. Loosened him up a bit.”

Tori's tone was questioning, like she was hoping for more information, and Kaylee took the time to swallow down her lunch before replying. Whatever game this lady was playing, whatever was in her head as regards to Simon, Kaylee was going to stay out of it. In the end, Tori was doing them a favor, one that might save the captain’s life, and Kaylee didn’t want to complicate the situation.

Like she’d told Simon: this wasn’t going to get messy.

“I think there’s lots a’ things done Simon good lately,” Kaylee finally said. “Gettin’ out of the Core was just step one. How’s about we get back to workin’?”

* * *

House of Huāzhù, Highgate

Zoë got only a shrug in reply to her question. “Me and Doctor Zhou spent all day on the cap thingy,” Kaylee said. “It needed plenty of care-taking to put it right. Kept us busy, near as busy as Simon with all those patients, I’d say.”

Zoë wanted to hear more; her sense that this doctor friend of Simon’s had played a larger part in the tale than any of them were letting on was growing.

“And what’d you think of Dr. Zhou?” she asked.

Kaylee shrugged again; her tense body wasn’t looking so settled on the pillows anymore. “Seems smart enough. Real good at explainin’ things, just like Simon.”

Zoë glanced quickly at Simon; Kaylee didn’t like this Tori woman, and it had to have something to do with him. Zoë would need to know more about that, but it could wait a minute while she caught up with everyone else.

She looked to Jayne – he was sitting on the floor next to the Shepherd, both men barely fitting into the space behind with the closed door. “What where you up to all this time? Bring in any money?”

“Nearly fifty platinum,” the merc replied with obvious pride. “And that weren’t all of it.” He smiled and his eyes took on a glazed look.

* * *

32 Hours ago, Murtha’s Maiden House, colony E2

For the fifth time in two days, Jayne blessed the powers that be, thanking them that he’d kept his place on Serenity long enough to be given the task he had now.

He’d started it the day before, Serenity’s first day on Highgate, with a visit to the House of Huāzhù, because it was just down the street from where the ship had landed. He had wares to sell, a product supplied by Badger on a day not long ago. Little bits of meat meant to be served to those who frequented whorehouses, kept fresh and ready for consumption in a refrigeration box that Jayne could just fit under his arm and carry off the ship and down the street.

The House of Huāzhù was quite a bit different from the whorehouse he and Wash had gone to on Londinium. No fancy lights here, no stage with a catwalk and a dancing pole for the woman of the moment to strut her goods. No, this place was like the Heart of Gold with more colorful décor; it was low on class but high on character and packed full of homely, welcoming comforts. Jayne’d offered a tidbit of the product, raising the price a bit from what he needed to make a profit for Mal, because who’s to know? The women didn’t have much in the way of spare coin to throw around, but they scrapped together almost enough, then offered something else to make up the gap.

That’d been the first time Jayne said his thanks, in an upstairs room of the House of Huāzhù with a black-haired vixen astride him.

The second time was a few hours later, after he’d taken his show on the road, flying one of Serenity’s shuttles a half-hour west to another colony big enough to boast of its own cathouse. The woman who’d taken care of him there had been as agile and fearless as an acrobat.

The third time had come later that afternoon when he’d been treated to a show by two of another house’s ladies. He was getting on in the years, after all, and his personal hardware needed time to regroup. But a sight like this, put away in his head for later reviewing, was nothing to turn down.

Later that night in yet another place, he’d had several whiskeys (on the house) and a tiny sample of his own wares (the drink was to blame) and he’d said his fourth thanks while he took his third lady of the day for a ride. Well, maybe he’d been the one doing the riding that time.

On his second day as a salesmen of seal scrotum, he’d started slow. He’d been a bit hungover and the worse for wear, and tired out downstairs. So his first two sells included as bonuses nothing wilder than breakfast and lunch. But the third house, the one here in colony E2, specialized in bathing. He’d gotten himself a full soak and rubdown before a few ladies had laid him down on his back and swarmed all over him, and now he was saying his fifth thanks in two days as his eyes rolled back in his head –

* * *

House of Huāzhù, Highgate

“That’ll be plenty enough, Jayne,” Zoë said, cutting that telling off before it could really get started. What she saw in Jayne’s grin was all she wanted to know. “All I need to hear `bout is the income, not the bonuses. The money?” She held out a hand.

Jayne didn’t seem too upset at having to hand over the cash and keep his stories to himself. In fact, he seemed fine to settle back against the rose garden mural on the wall behind him, close his eyes, and relive his experiences in his own private thoughts.

“How ‘bout you, Wash?” Zoë asked her husband, turning in his arms so she could look him in the eye. “What was happenin’ on the ship?”

* * *

27 Hours ago , Firefly Serenity

Wash set up the checkerboard again; it seemed he did that a lot. Games with River didn’t last long, and the loser was the one who had to reset.

“What do you suppose Jayne is up to?” he asked. This question was a sign of his desperation. River seemed content to stare at the board, focusing on whatever new stategy was about to once again crush him to bits, but he couldn’t take the quietly cutthroat competition any more. He’d use the merc to start conversation if that’s all he had.

They’d already spent a full day like this. Even though Simon had been on the ship yesterday while Kaylee first visited the clinic, the doctor had spent the hours napping in the dining room alcove – the poor doc must not have gotten any sleep the few days before. So Wash had been roped into gaming with River. They’d started with Tall Card, moved through the game of Goand a finger-guessing game, and even tried a short stint of two-person charades. The latter hadn’t been a success; River guessed Wash’s answers before he half got started, and she chose difficult and esoteric things to act out herself. Why anyone would want to mime semi-quantitative histidine scale was beyond him.

So now, in the middle of their second day together, he was desperate for any subject that got her talking. Anything besides how easily she beat him at games.

“Not interested in Jayne,” she replied flatly.

“But he didn’t even bring the shuttle back last night. Sure, he waved to tell us how much money he was making, but I’m not sure I believe him. And it’s pretty important that we make some decent profit off that stuff of Badger’s. Things are kind of… up in the air right now.”

“Soooo not interested in Jayne,” she repeated firmly. With that, she reached out and slid a checkerpiece across the board with an air of satisfaction, as if this move robbed Wash of all hope of victory. As if there’d been any doubt.

“OK, I guess I’m with you on that,” Wash said. Eighty-six that topic.

“I was wrong,” she said. She was still studying the board, although it was Wash’s move. He looked over the pieces but didn’t see many options.

“You were wrong about… what?”

“Jayne.”

He shifted a little. Maybe he gave up too soon – this could be interesting. “How so?”

For the first time, she moved her eyes off the board, and her tone changed; she sounded sad. “He’s not right for me. I was bored. Bored makes for bad decisions.” She sighed, a sound heavy with remorse.

“You thought… you liked Jayne?” Wash started to laugh, but her expression went from intense embarrassed to threat of horrible violence, so he closed his mouth and sobered his face. He reached out and moved a checker piece at random.

“Could at least try,” she said, with a nod at the board.

“Not much point. You’re beating me at everything! Now, about Jayne –”

“There must be something you’re good at.”

He couldn’t resist this change of subject. “Something? I think so. Let me gently remind you, little precocious one, that you and you brother would likely be in one of several possible unpleasant places right now if it weren’t for these hands–” He held up the hands in question. “–on the controls of this ship.”

River didn’t appear to be listening. She stared thoughtfully into the galley while he spoke, but then she brightened suddenly and smiled at him. “There is something you’re good at!”

“As I was saying – ”

“You got Zoë. How did you get Zoë?”

“Get? Zoë?”

“You liked her first, right?”

“How did you know that?”

“Obvious. And she didn’t like you. How did you get her?”

“Well… that’s hardly… how do you… why are you asking me this?”

River sighed again and looked away from him. “It must be hard is all,” she said, her voice thick with heartbreak. “Must be hard to make someone love you back.”

“River, you can’t make anyone… Wait, you’re asking this for a reason, aren’t you? There’s someone you like, isn’t there? But not Jayne…”

She turned sideways in her chair and folded up, hugging her knees to her chest and burying her face against them. But then, barely noticably, she nodded.

Wash brightened – he hadn’t expected to tap into something this entertaining. “Who? Who is it? Has to be someone on the ship… Can’t be Simon or… is it a boy? A male?”

She nodded again, which he found a little disturbing. Kaylee was the only person on the ship anywhere near River’s age and of a suitable temperament. Wash didn’t like the male options at all.

“Not Jayne. I doubt it’s Book… Oh God. It’s not me, is it?”

To his relief, she shook her head.

“Mal?”

She turned just enough so one eye peeked through the mess of her hair.

“You like Mal?”

She raised her head suddenly, flipping her hair back and leaning over the table to glare at him. “I love Mal, and if you tell anyone, I’ll… I’ll… space all your dinosaurs!”

He leaned back away from her, not doubting that she’d do that if properly provoked. “Easy! I won’t tell. And I’m not judging… I’m just… I guess… it’s not… unreasonable. Mal is… quite… lovable…”

Her glare darkened.

“OK, fine! I don’t like it. Listen River – there are lots and lots of men in the `verse. I know you don’t get to see them real often, but don’t start thinking that the specimens of manliness on this ship are all you have to choose from. If you think like that, then maybe Mal will start looking… like a good option. But there’s better, River. There’s younger. And more sane.”

She shook her head. “Younger doesn’t matter. More sane wouldn’t like me.”

“What? Plenty of sane people like you. That boy Jase liked you.”

He scored a point with that; a smile lit her face and and she looked away with a blush.

“I’m just saying – don’t pin all your hopes on what you have now, all right? And especially – don’t start thinking you can make Mal, or anyone else, feel a certain way about you.”

“Didn’t you make Zoë like you?”

“No! That’s not possible. She chose on her own.” He smiled proudly. “Because I’m irresistible.”

“But you tried, didn’t you?”

“Of course not! Well… ” Truthfully, he had to admit to himself that he had tried. He certainly hadn’t set out to make a wife of Zoë, but he’d put plenty of effort into getting her to think well of him. And it hadn’t been easy. She’d been no soft nut. That woman’d had a shell on her…

“You tried, and it worked,” River said firmly.

He shrugged. “It was… special.”

“And I’m not special?”

“That’s not what I mean.” He exhaled, not sure how to explain without digging himself a deeper hole. “I’m not going to win this one, am I?”

“Never do,” she said with a suggestive nod at the checkerboard.

He huffed at that, but couldn’t think of how to argue. Despite her confidence and her obvious upper hand as far as gaming (and, he had to admit, conversation), she was only a teenager, one who hadn’t seen much of life and regular day-to-day human interaction. As smart as she was, she might be incapable of understanding the disappointment she was setting herself up for by fixing her romantic hopes on Mal.

“It could work,” River said, but now her certainty sounded forced. “It really could.”

Wash only shrugged noncommittally, and she dropped her eyes to look down at her hands. Her forehead crinkled up with either defensiveness or self-doubt; he couldn’t tell which. He couldn’t read her thoughts, but he did wonder how much of his own she could sense, or if it made any difference. He could easily recall his state of mind when he was her age; he might have had an easier time if he’d listened to advice a little more often than he had, but then again, if he’d given into the naysayers on his homeworld he might still be sweating over a wok under a starless polluted sky. There was something to be said for youthful stubbornness.

He had to admit that, in the end, the only way he’d learned about life was by living it, hard knocks and all. He couldn’t expect things to be any different for River, no matter her abilities and talents.

“Won’t tell, right?” she asked, and her eyes raised to his again. “Fodder for taunting. Taunting can be developmentally detrimental. I’m delicate.”

Her directness and sincerity made him smile, but he understood her meaning. Jayne could do much with this information, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

“No. No, I won’t tell. Just don’t do anything stupid, all right?”

A slow smile spread across her face, and she nodded. “Agreed. Nothing stupid.”

* * *

House of Huāzhù, Highgate

Zoë was a bit surprised when Wash hesitated, looking to River before he answered his wife’s simple question. Whatever he was thinking, Zoë couldn’t read it, and River gave nothing away. The girl was still lying on her side next to Kaylee, staring at her toes. She had stretched out a leg so that her foot was right in front of her nose.

“We played checkers,” Wash finally said. “She beat me.”

River smiled at her ankle.

For some reason, Wash’s words made Jayne turn from dreamy to belligerent. “Maybe if you’d a’opened your eyes, paid attention to a few things with our little headcase here, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”

“Wait – it’s my fault now?” Wash replied. “OK, so she seemed bothered by… things. River’s always bothered by things. How was I supposed to know what she was planning?”

Zoë turned to the girl, who folded her leg back under her and huddled up in a ball, as if she hoped to disappear into the bedding.

“River,” Zoë said. “What’d you do?”

* * *

25 Hours ago , Firefly Serenity

Talking with Wash wasn’t comforting, not as much as River’d hoped.

She’d been wanting to share this with someone, anyone, forever. Well, since the day she’d realized who she loved, and that had been forever ago. It felt like forever ago, anyway. Time passed slow and heavy to a soul who pined as River did. Her soul was in danger of pining away to nothing, destroyed by an aching heart, alone with no one to talk to.

Kaylee had been River’s first choice as confidant, but the mechanic had been busy with her own thoughts. And now she was busy with Simon. River couldn’t be bitter about that, and wouldn’t let herself interfere – it was something to bring her hope. If Kaylee could win Simon, and Wash could win Zoë, River could win Mal.

A chime sounded from the cockpit, pulling her attention away from yet another one-sided game: she and Wash had returned to cards. A pattern of beeps identified the source of the call, and a wave of eagerness rolled through Wash, a mix and joy and worry and love that focused on an image of Zoë in his mind. River was fine to let him go have his talk in private; she was done with him. The games had grown old. He went to the bridge, and she went to the cargo bay.

Someone younger? Someone saner?

She didn’t need either of those. Mal was a perfect match for her, if only he’d realize. If only he was able to see her, all of her, from the skin outside to the pure heart inside. Lithe muscle and strong sinew in between.

“I am no little girl,” she firmly told the empty bay. From where she stood, a bit to the starboard side facing the main doors, faint shreads of a memory came to her. It wasn’t clear, very little from the past four years of her life was clear. Her first few months on this ship had been especially cloudy, as Simon put different medicines in her veins. It wasn’t until he studied the scans taken on Ariel, until he had time to settle on a proper course of medication and she had time to adjust, that her memories began to write themselves in their proper order and with some semblance of clarity.

This particular memory was from the time before things began making sense. It was strange, more of a dream than real, but she knew it’d happened. She recalled it now, and let herself relive it, this time with some awareness of what she was doing. She crouched against the bulkhead, imagining Kaylee beside her, then took a single glance at the Bad Men before spinning out from behind the beam.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

The recoil of the gun traveled up her arm and three invaders were down. Kaylee was safe. The internal `verse of this ship was safe. Simon would be able to bring the captain back and fix him.

“If only Mal’d seen that,” she said to herself. “If only he knew…”

And she could do more. What if it was the Alliance next time, members of the same army who’d defeated Mal and Zoë, driven by another misguided plan to save some by trodding on others, deciding that they must take away his ship? River would beat them back too. She imagined the soldiers of the Alliance creeping down the walls like black spiders, tip-toeing through the bay doors, with herself as the only line of defense. She turned and kicked and punched; it was like dancing, but somehow more pure. It wasn’t about looking pretty, it wasn’t about making an audience like her. It was about winning. It was a game. It was a game she had learned without knowing it; they had programmed it into her brain and imprinted it onto her body.

River suddenly froze mid-spin: people were coming. Three people.

She moved quickly and silently, running to the fore end of the bay and pressing herself against the slanted bulkhead next to the entry. They were coming from outside, returning from their long day of work: Simon with his mind full of every patient he’d seen, medications given, tests ordered, future treatments recommended. The different levels of his thought were galloping wildly, checking again, over and over, that he hadn’t missed something. It was his way of doing his job as close to perfect as possible. It consumed him, replacing other worries that simmered underneath. Simmered too deep for River to see.

Kaylee was full of thoughts too. She was excited over new tech and progress made and fresh understanding of how the Takara cap worked, but the events of her day didn’t consume her like it did Simon. Kaylee’s doubts refused to sit back and hide. River could see: underneath the mechanic’s sense of accomplishment was a shyness, a fear of the smart, pretty, educated stranger who walked between her and Simon. Worry about Simon too, of what exactly was in his head.

The stranger was a woman. A very smart and confident and driven woman. She looked up at the Firefly and murmured a few smooth but insincere compliments.

River decided that she didn’t like this woman.

Kaylee opened the hatch, but the three stood outside a minute, discussing the day and plans for tomorrow.

“Tori, how long do you think it’ll take to finish?” Simon asked.

“We need at least the morning to complete the diagnostics –” Tori started, but Kaylee interrupted.

“But… I thought we got through that. I mean, we ran that one thing, and…” Her voice trailed off uncertainly.

“No,” the woman replied shortly. “It’s not enough to have the connections in place, we have to make sure we have fine enough control over the settings, and then test the auto-positioning and feedback. Simon, bring the scanner data for your captain. We can spend the afternoon tomorrow tailoring the system for his skull geometry. I have software which can set up the initiation sequence...”

“But I thought…I thought we could do that here, in the infirmary…” Kaylee started, but doubt clouded her again and she stopped.

River’s eyes narrowed – how could Kaylee think that anyone knew more than her? Just because she didn’t use all the big words, didn’t mean she couldn’t understand what was happening.

“You’re not seeing the full complexity of it,” Tori said, her condescension partly masked by a friendly tone. River heard right through it, and couldn’t believe her brother didn’t.

“But we’ll finish tomorrow, right?” he asked.

“There’s a small chance,” Tori replied, “but it’s more likely to take another day.”

“You have to try to finish tomorrow,” Simon said. “There must be some way. We’ve been here two days already…”

“We’ll do our best. Won’t we, Kaylee?”

Kaylee’s answer was faint and a bit petulant. “`Course.”

“Well, then. Sleep well.”

Simon and Kaylee said goodnight and stepped into the ship. River shrank back into the shadows, not wanting to be seen as the two of them closed the hatch and passed by. She needed time to think. She needed to make a decision.

Here was the thing: River knew that she was special. She could see things no one else could see. What she saw now was that Tori was lying. The cap could be made ready in a few hours, just as Kaylee suspected. It could even be fixed up right on this ship, though that would take longer than using the facilities in the clinic. The lady doctor knew all that, and she’d come right out and lied, because she didn’t want Simon to leave.

This made River very, very angry.

Here was a second thing: River knew that she could do things no one else could do. She had power. She wasn’t helpless. She wasn’t a helpless little girl anymore, locked up in a prison with no understanding of what was happening and no chance to make things right. She was grown-up, in charge of herself, and she knew what needed to be done. She’d read it all clear and easy and simple from the mind of the woman doctor.

And River could do it; she knew she could. It would take no time at all. She could take care of things, and then they could leave, go to help the captain tonight before the lying doctor caused more delays.

But explaining to everyone else, convincing them, would take time. They wouldn’t believe River. Even if they did, they wouldn’t let her go. Simon would never let her do this. Really, she had no choice but to take the decision in her own hands like any grown-up would. Make it choice and follow through.

She had power; that meant she had responsibility. It couldn’t be shirked.

She waited until Simon and Kaylee disappeared in the crew quarters, then quietly pushed open the hatch in the bay doors and slipped out into the night.

* * *

Translations

wéi qí: the game of Go
cāi quán: a finger-guessing game
huāzhù:style, as in female organ of flower
* * *

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COMMENTS

Friday, February 29, 2008 10:56 AM

MAL4PREZ


So much for keeping up with the posting! Life’s been wicked busy. On top of the dance thing, which has been 5 full nights of rehearsal a week lately – oh yeah, I’m getting in shape! – I’ve also been job hunting. Which is all kinds of stressful, but necessary. Exciting and scary at the same time, actually. It’s going well, and I need to be making some big decisions in the next week. No pressure. It’s just my whole LIFE I’m changing.

Anyhow, this chapter’s been very close to done for some time, but it took the right moment for me to drag it out and deal with some insightful issues raised by my beta readers. One thing in particular I can’t address without some pretty fundamental rearranging of the chapter, so I’m letting it slide. I won’t get it into it now, it involves a lot of explaining. Involves POV and narrative. Maybe I’ll blog about it, cause I’d rather share a fun little detail that I wasn’t able to write into the chapter.

So, regarding the phrase “semi-quantitative histidine scale” which River plays out in charades… I have a pretty specific picture in my head of what she’d do for this, because you know she’d think it was something obvious and act-out-able. Wash would try at first, then end up looking at her like *wtf are you doing?* and then River, in a duh voice and while repeating her charade briskly with each word, would say:

“Semi. Quantitative. Histidine. Scale. (Idiot.)” (looking at him and slapping her forehead for “idiot”, of course)

Which might very well be a subconscious borrowing of the rhythm of “Out. For. A. Walk. (Bitch.)” One of the best Joss lines ever LOL!

OK, enough. I’ll go blog about my narrative issue now. I hope life is treating you all well! And I hope Homespun has her next Rabbit Hole chapter ready to post…. :)

Friday, February 29, 2008 2:43 PM

NUTLUCK


nice look forward to the next part.

Friday, February 29, 2008 3:22 PM

YINYANG


And the plot thickens further...

Friday, February 29, 2008 3:50 PM

KATESFRIEND


The crew did certainly talk to you a lot to get this much action into the fic. Loved Wash trying to entertain River and trying to be sensitive to her problem with Mal. Wondering what's up with Tori and why she's being so evil. Kaylee needs to get her confidence back - she had it a little while ago. Still wondering how they lost the ship!

Friday, February 29, 2008 4:21 PM

HOMESPUN


Jumped up and down as always to see you post. Nice to see what the rest of the crew has been up to. The Jayne section was delighful, in a Jayneish way, as was the interplay between Wash and River. Poor Wash, he is so sweet. I love the little detail line of Zoe shifting in his arms - so nicely slipped in there, so comfortable. And the image of Book and Jayne squashed together behind the door. Meanwhile I sense Kaylee getting ready to kick some major ass somewhere along the line.

But what did River do?? And how did they lose the ship??

And - Hey! I just noticed that last line. Uh, yeah, sure, I have my next chapter ready. I was just taking February off. And now that you've posted a new chapter, I'll wait another few days because everyone will be busy reading this. :)

Friday, February 29, 2008 4:36 PM

DESERTGIRL


Oh man it at my comment. I hate that.

This was yet another great chapter. I can't wait to find what tori is up to. Is she really evil, is she using Simon or does she just want him back? And I want to know just what River does to attempt to save the day. I think it is awesome that we already know she screwed up and lost the ship. So often its River saves the day - the end. I know I've written that. This is a great switch.

Is man going to get better soon, I really hope so. And is Inara going to make it back to Serenity soon?

Great chapter -

Friday, February 29, 2008 6:26 PM

PLATONIST


Wash and River were wonderful together; too bad we didn't get a chance to see more of their interaction in the series.

And River and the ship and now wanting to fix Mal, good developments

Friday, February 29, 2008 7:55 PM

NOSADSEVEN


My favorite section of this is the Wash and River bit. It's funny, but the “semi-quantitative histidine scale” charades thing is just so perfect, that even though you only included a passing reference to it in the narrative, it brought the entire scene (almost exactly as you laid it out in the comments) to my head.

I think the "fodder for taunting" was perfect. And gosh darn it, Mal *is* quite lovable. (!)

Saturday, March 1, 2008 1:16 AM

WYTCHCROFT


always glad of your fics - love the way the different strands ar ebeing woven and i thought tori and kaylee was a finely balanced interplay.

Monday, March 3, 2008 4:18 AM

MDBROWNCOATGIRL26


Very shiny chapter. Especially loved the Wash and River part. I knew there was something I didn't like about Tori.


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