BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories II, Chapter 19
Thursday, May 22, 2008

Zoë’s plans for a peaceful day get interrupted.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2464    RATING: 10    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.

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

When waking up on a strange world, it’s nearly impossible to guess the time.

Zoë didn’t like that. She had a few habits dating back to her earliest days as a little girl on a sharply run military vessel, one of which was to know as much as possible about your situation. Too much information isn’t likely to hurt you, but too little surely will.

Still, she couldn’t make herself untangle from Wash’s arms and search the small room for the timepiece she’d thrown aside with her clothes. She could only lay still and study the large daisy-like orange flowers on the walls and ceiling. The paint glowed in diffuse sunlight that thin yellow curtains did little to dim; it was bright enough in here to be midday.

Which it might very well be. The weight of a long, long sleep laid heavily on her body and mind. She could easily give into it and stay here all day, basking in laziness (and bright orange flowers). But this wasn’t the time for a day off; she had to get the ship back.

She could tell by her husband’s breathing that he wasn’t asleep. Not fully, anyway.

“Wash,” she said into the quiet room.

He snorted out of his doze and lifted his head. “Hunh?”

“Think it’s late?”

He plopped his face back into the pillow and tightened his hold on her waist. “Mmmm. Very late. But do not by any means panic and do something silly. Like leave the bed. They’d have come knocking if they needed us. We’ve got privacy for a bit longer, I bet…” He made his interest plain by nuzzling into her neck.

“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully. “Shepherd would’ve told me if the captain was up.”

Wash sighed, perhaps at her choice of topic, then let go of her and rolled onto his back.

“Think that cap thing will work?” she asked.

“I certainly hope so. Having Mal think he’s a six year old is just too creepy to imagine.”

“Not to mention what a pain it is dealin’ with him not knowin’ anything.” She shook her head. She’d meant to speak lightly, but just couldn’t do it. “Every damned day, Wash. Every time he woke up we had to go through it again. Sometimes he didn’t even have to sleep – he’d just sit there all quiet for a spell, and when he looked around again I could see it was all gone, his knowin’ of the present. And his past was lost a little bit, too. All those years, slippin’ away…”

Wash shifted to look at her again, then lifted himself up on one elbow. His free hand snaked under the covers to caress her bare stomach. “It must have been rough. Nothing to do but watch that happen, for three long days. And not knowing where we were, when we were coming for you…”

Zoë stared up the cracked but colorful ceiling. Even Wash’s limited understanding of what it’d been like on that moon made her suddenly want to crack up a bit herself. The pain of those days had been more than watching the Mal she knew slowly disappear; she’d been dragged back into the past with him, forced to recall a shared history that she’d barely survived the first time through.

Wash gave her ribcage a gentle pat. “You want to talk about it?”

“Nope,” she said firmly, but she took his hand in hers and squeezed it – a thanks for asking. “I’ll tell you what I want. This world had themselves a Saturday night last night, meaning that today’s Sunday. Those security offices, the parking police you ran afoul of, might not open for some time. Might not open all day. So there ain’t no point in hurryin’ out right this minute.”

Wash grinned and kissed her cheek. “My smart wife. And might I add that we’ve more than likely slept through the local Sunday services, but we could make up for it. There’s this rule that cleanliness is next to godliness – we should find out if our room and board in this fine establishment includes bathing privileges. And I mean bathing in a tub for two.”

Zoë matched his grin. She needed one more spell of respite before the day’s business began in earnest. Sunday or not, she meant to deal with the situation today. But what could another hour’s delay hurt?

She gave Wash a lingering kiss. “How `bout you look into that. I’ll check in with the rest of our bunch.”

* * *

Will spat in the dust, then took another slow puff on his fat brown cigar. He wasn’t normally one for smoking in the middle of the day. Honestly, he didn’t like the taste much unless there was a strong drink to go with it. But he kept a box of slow burning stogies on hand for situations like this. A man sitting against a building by his lonesome draws attention; the same man blowing smoke is easily ignored. Everybody knows that nothing makes a person loiter in the outdoors like need for smoke.

Or, need to keep a lookout, which was Will’s real purpose. The monstrous green house across the way from him was quiet, but the crew of Serenity was in there. Some of them, anyway. What Ginger had overheard between the doctor and the mechanic last night had it made it clear that the captain hadn’t been with them then, but they were sending for him. Reynolds might be in that House by now. Just a few handfuls of meters away. But it did no good; Will couldn’t go in the House to have a look. Serenity’s crew would recognize him, and they’d put up a fight.

“And the damned she-doctor won’t help us get to him,” Will muttered to himself. “Sāobī.”

Ginger would have the same problem, no matter that she thought different. She’d started spouting ideas last night, plans of how she could get into the whorehouse to look for Reynolds. She’d gotten this grin on her face that wouldn’t go away, no matter how he told her she was an idiot and it’d never work. She didn’t listen. When he got up this morning, he found that she’d run off already, left their transport ship on her own business.

As if she had any such thing. And here he was, stuck with the boring job. Stuck doing the lookout.

Motion caught his eye, and he dropped his head and slouched back into the shade of the building. A gang of men was coming along the dust on the far side of the street. Men in uniform, though they weren’t walking like they were on a job.

Will slid his eyes sidewise to study them close without being obvious. They were company drones, part of the security detail of this settlement. He sneered in disgust; these men were not beholden to the real power of the `verse – the Alliance. Nor were they backed up by it, in any place other than this. They only had authority within their company’s domain, but like bullies ruling a tiny sandbox they clearly thought highly of themselves. Their black and tan uniforms were crisp and relatively free of dust, and each man had a multitude of sleek and shiny weapons hanging from his belt, as if his hardware was an indication of what he hid in his pants.

But wouldn’t be hiding for long, Will surmised. Every one of the five corporate lawmen had a skip in his step and a big smile on his mug, and rugged, eager laughter rang out as they took a sharp turn, following a well worn path to the front entrance of the House of Huāzhù.

* * *

Zoë reclined in a bubbly tub, enjoying a toe massage while her own fingers dug into Wash’s arches. This was surely worth an hour’s delay, especially since no one else was up and moving yet.

While Wash had prepared the hot water and bartered for add-ins to make it foamy and sweet-smelling, she’d checked on the crew. Though it was a good hour past noon local time, none of them were in a hurry to start their day. Well, she couldn’t exactly say that of Jayne, since she hadn’t found him. She assumed he was somewhere in this house, but wasn’t about to go knocking on doors. Might walk in on something she hoped never to see with her own eyes.

But she’d seen to the rest. Mal was still sleeping, the silvery Takara cap tightly covering his head and hopefully doing its healing work. Book had nodded to Zoë when she looked in; the preacher sat against the wall at the foot of Mal’s bed, sipping tea and reading.

Kaylee and Simon were in their own room, just as deeply asleep as the captain. They were twisted around each other in a very messed-up bed, their clothing scattered all over the room as if it’d been thrown off in a frenzy. Zoë’d smiled at the sight and quietly closed the door behind her. Apparently, whatever confusion those two might have had between them last night, they’d found a way to work it out.

She’d found River in the common room by the front door, sleeping on a large, plush sofa. A kindly employee of the House had smiled at Zoë and assured her that River was fine where she was. Seemed that River had stayed up half the night talking, and she’d made a few friends.

“This the one made the fuss at the clinic?” the blonde woman had asked Zoë in a whisper. She’d laughed when Zoë’d only dropped open her mouth then snapped it shut again. “Word travels, honey,” the woman’d said. “Though I gotta say it must’a been blown up a bit. This little girl here wouldn’t hurt a bug. She’s a bit odd, but nice as they come.”

Smiling as she recalled the woman’s words, Zoë let go of Wash’s foot and tipped her head back against the warm porcelain of the tub. “I’m thinkin’ it’s best if we get River off this world soon,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“Girl’s makin’ waves. Befriending the ladies in this House may be fun and all, but it’s like to start gossip. Whole town’ll know where we are before long.”

“Okay, but let’s go back to that Sunday issue. If the whores aren’t doing business this afternoon, do you really think the parking police are?”

Zoë lifted her head up and focused on him. “I’m thinking that maybe it’s best if we don’t bother. Goin’ by the book means goin’ by their book, and that means they’ll want to know all kinds of info. Where we’ve been, where we’re goin’, who we got on board, if we got a petite little thing with long dark hair and a history of beatin’ up security guards. That’s some hoops we don’t wanna be jumpin’ through.”

Wash nodded emphatically. “Amen.”

“So, way I see it, we got two things need doin’. One – we get to the ship and get on it. They may have locked it up against us, but I’m thinkin’ that won’t stop Kaylee for more than the time it takes to sneeze.”

“But we don’t know where it is.”

“Impoundment lot is a klick northwest of town. River’s new friend told me.”

“That was helpful. All right then – job two?”

“The landing lock. We got to find the controls and shut it down long enough to get into orbit and out of this company’s reach.”

“Doesn’t seem complicated.”

“Not at all. So what I’m thinkin’ is that you and Kaylee–”

She was interrupted by the door of the bathroom slamming open. The house madam stepped right into the cloud of steamy air.

“I want you out!” the woman ordered.

Wash modestly sank into the bubbles so that only his head showed, but Zoë glared at the intruder.

“Didn’t our man Jayne pay up for the whole day?”

“You can have your money back. It ain’t worth the trouble. I have costumers at my door – men of the law, and I won’t have them finding you and your girl here!”

* * *

Will took a slow, roundabout path to cross the street. It wouldn’t surprise anyone that a guy out for a casual smoke got curious about a gang of lawmen held up at the door of a whorehouse, but Will didn’t want to be too obvious. It was best that the mens’ attention stayed on the whore blocking the House’s entrance.

“Just be a second,” the blonde woman was saying with an uncomfortable laugh when Will got within earshot. “We weren’t expectin’ no business yet today.”

One of the men – the apparent leader – frowned like a boy who’d dropped his ice cream cone. “It’s the only chance we got!” he told her earnestly. “It’s a rare day we get called down planetside. But you girls are lucky – there’s been crime hereabouts of late, and you got a chance for some extra coin.”

He made to step forward, but the woman held her spot. She was almost charming as she smiled and blinked at him, but she was clearly stalling. “Crime, you say?”

“Nothing to worry over, just a fuss at that crazy lady’s clinic. Now, I hope you’re not telling us the House is closed on our one free day….”

“Oh no! For you boys, we’re as open as we get.” She laughed again in a forced way, then turned and opened the door just enough to peek inside. Whatever she saw made her turn right back and pull the door shut behind her. “Just… just need to clean up a smidgen. Wild night last night.”

The man reached over her shoulder and pushed at the door. “We don’t care about a mess, honey. We’re not here to inspect for dust bunnies.”

The blonde set her shoulder against the door frame and didn’t budge. “But it’s a matter of our pride.”

Will lost track of the conversation when someone tapped his shoulder. He turned, expecting a curious neighbor asking what was the fuss, but what he saw made him drop his half smoked cigar in the dirt.

The woman’s hair was as bright red as the red swirl of a candy cane, and had been pulled back in a messy way that left tendrils of it curling against her neck. Her eyes, gray eyes normally down turned or hidden in a frown, were heavily outlined in black, and her lips and cheeks were painted to nearly match her hair.

But the real attention-getter was a bit lower down. A brown and purple bodice was pulled so tight over the woman’s ribs that what the good lord had given her was nearly pouring out over the dress’s lace edged top. Will’s eyes traveled lower – her body wasn’t looking so plump as usual, what with the pushing up and pulling in and a flared skirt of some kind of floofy fabric that rode out over her hips. If he didn’t know better, Will might have thought Ginger looked like a regular woman, though a trollopy one. But he’d be damned if he’d let her know he thought so.

“Well, that’s fitting for a Sunday afternoon,” he drawled.

Ginger’s jaw set tight, but then – Gods by his witnesses – she smirked and cut her eyes at him like some teenaged coquette. “Mayhap you ain’t noticed, Will, but folks hereabouts like to walk the streets in their finest on their day off.” She pet a hand over the fat pleats of her skirt, as if to illustrate what exactly she meant by “finest”.

Will’s frown deepened; she was taking this costume way too much to heart. “They walk the streets to say hi to neighbors,” he hissed at her, “not to market their chòu ji bai. Ladies out for that keep themselves in their place of business.” He bent to pick up his half-lit cigar, then looked toward the House – the men were still deep in conversation with the blonde.

“Which is the reason for the disguise,” Ginger said, not backing down. “Now, I’ll just go up and ask for a tour. I can say I got a friend told me–”

Will turned his back to the House and grabbed Ginger’s arm to pull her close. “Mayhap you ain’t noticed, but this is not the time to be knocking.” He tipped his head aside a bit so she could see the men in uniform. She frowned, and behind the heavy makeup her eyes turned calculating.

“That does change things a mite,” she said.

“Come on.” He pulled her toward the side of the House, out of the mens’ view.

“Might make it easy,” she whispered. “They might grab Reynolds for us.”

“They’re not interested in him,” Will replied shortly. He pulled up against the short side wall of the House. “They’re interested in the kind of thing you look like you’re selling. They could be in there all day, right in our way.”

He glanced around the corner – the men were still there, getting impatient by now.

“Hell,” Will went on. “They don’t even know Reynolds is a wanted man. They don’t know a damned thing, but they think they’re hot shit and they’re just looking for a chance to prove it. If we let on who we really are, that we’re here for a fugitive the Alliance put a price on, they’d make things complicated for us. We’d best wait till they clear out, then we’ll see what…”

He stopped at sounds coming from behind the House: an opening door and hushed voices. Grateful that he was on the shady side of the building, he stepped up to the corner and peeked around.

Quickly, he turned back and grabbed Ginger by the arm. He pressed his cigar into her hand and shoved her around the corner toward a low bench set against the back wall of the House.

“Maybe this new look of yours might come in handy after all,” he said in a hurried whisper. “Sit your ass right there. Keep your eyes down and your ears open.”

* * *

“Couldn’t it wait two minutes?” Jayne muttered sourly. “I was just `bout done…”

“Haven’t you had enough of that?” River asked.

“Hush,” Zoë told them both, then she looked around at the disheveled crew gathered in the House’s kitchen. “No one’s left anything behind?”

“Don’t have much to leave,” Wash said. “Oh – except all your camping gear that’s still in the madam’s private limo.”

Zoë pulled open the House’s back door and looked over to the transport ship that was still parked where they’d left it last night. “It’s gonna have to stay,” she said. “The ladies are welcome to it. Everyone get outside, double time. Them guards’ll be comin’ in any minute now…”

She waved everyone out and held the door while the half-awake crew passed. Simon was buttoning his shirt and Kaylee was hopping as she pulled a boot on. Jayne was only partly dressed as well, though in less of a hurry about covering up. River was stumbling along sleepily, rubbing her eyes.

But the captain was the groggiest of them all. He absently scratched at his head, rubbing at little red sleep lines that the wires of the Takara cap had left near his hairline. He only got through the door because Book pulled him along by an elbow.

Wash was the last. He gave Zoë a nod and she lead the group away from the door, out toward the parked transport. She paused there to check on Mal – she needed to know his condition before taking him out amongst strangers. This was a safe spot for a few minutes at least. The door they’d just come through opened out from the house’s large kitchen where the security men were not likely to go, and there was no one in the small backyard except for a plump red-haired whore having herself an afternoon smoke.

Zoë grabbed Mal by a shoulder and gave him a firm shake.

“Malcolm! Wake up. You know who I am?”

His sleepy eyes focused on her, then crinkled in confusion. Her heart sank until he replied, “Course I do. You’re that friend of mom’s, takin’ me to a doctor.” His lips stretched to the side in a mischievous grin. “Just wait till I tell her where you really took me.”

Zoë exhaled in relief – he hadn’t lost his memories of yesterday while he slept.

“What’s the last thing you recall?” Simon asked. The doctor had his shirt tucked in and was beginning to look more like his respectable self – except for some little red bite marks on his neck.

Mal saw it too, and his grin widened. “Mornin’, Doctor. Slept well, I take it?”

“Answer the question, Malcolm,” Zoë ordered.

Mal flashed her an look: Yeah yeah, I’m getting to it. “Last I recall before being on the moon with you and the Shepherd? I was at home. Gettin’ ready to leave though. I’m joinin’ up with the Independent Army, an account of how them Core government folks wanna–”

“Enough,” Zoë interrupted. “That’ll do for now. We got to get some distance.” She checked that her carbine was in place – she’d had to dress quickly, once her bath was interrupted. And now she had to think fast. To gain herself a moment, she went into the House’s transport and dug through one of the boxes she’d had on the moon. It’d been cold and rainy there, so she and Book had brought plenty of extra clothing. She had just the thing…

She came back out and threw a large, hooded parka at River. “Put it on and keep the hood up,” she ordered, then addressed the whole group. “All right, folks, we can’t go walkin’ about as a crowd. That draws eyes in a place that ain’t so used to strangers. First thing – River’s got to be hidden away, fast as possible.”

“No one will know me,” River said cheerfully. The parka couldn’t have been comfortable in the hot sun, but it did hide her shape and hair.

“The men in the House are the ones called down to look for you,” Zoë said. “It appears they don’t take the job too seriously, but there might be more about, them as ain’t into spending their Sunday buyin’ a woman. I ain’t takin’ a risk someone happens on you.”

“I know where we can go,” Simon said. “The clinic. It’s closed today, so no one will be there but Tori – she told me she spends Sunday on record keeping and maintenance. I wanted to go by anyway, if I got the chance.” He caught Kaylee’s eye. “I have a message to deliver, and River does too.”

River stared an accusation at her brother, then folded her arms and huffed. Her face was set in anger, but she didn’t say anything.

“You think that’s safe, Simon?” Kaylee asked.

“It needs to be done,” he replied firmly.

“Well then, you want me to… Can I come along?”

“No, Kaylee,” Zoë interjected. “I need you. Simon, you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Zoë nodded. “Fine. You two go on. But for the good lord’s sake don’t be makin’ another mess for me to handle.” She caught River’s eye and held it until the girl blushed and looked away. “Before we split up,” Zoë went on, “we should have a meeting place. Just in case…”

“The pub,” Kaylee suggested. “The one we first met Tori at.”

Simon nodded. “The Salty Tongue. It’s just a short block east of here.”

“That’ll work,” Zoë said. “Anyone got nowhere else to go, head for the pub. Let’s all be there at sunset tonight in any case. Now, go on, Simon. Get your sister out of sight.”

Simon hesitated and looked toward Kaylee, but seemed to decide that whatever he wanted to say could wait. Or maybe it just shouldn’t be said in company. Either way, he and River departed without a further word.

The Tams dealt with, Zoë turned to Kaylee. “You and Wash need to get on the ship – he’s got an idea of where to find her. Do whatever you need to get on board. Don’t power up the engines, but see if there’s a landin’ lock that needs dealin’ with. And turn on the comm. I might find a way to send a wave.”

“What are you doin’?” Kaylee asked.

“Once I get Mal settled–”

“-colm. Malcolm,” Mal corrected.

“Once I get Malcolm settled, I’ll be goin’ by the security offices, see if they open at all today.”

“But, honey,” Wash interrupted. “I thought you weren’t going to risk–”

“I’ll be careful,” Zoë said. “I’ll just suss the situation, see what’s to be done.”

“What if they decide to arrest you, and we don’t even know? We don’t have comms. If you don’t show up tonight…”

Zoë set her hand on his arm. “Quit worryin’ and move. It might take you and Kaylee an hour to find the impoundment lot. It’s best you get walkin’.”

Wash frowned.

“I’ll be careful,” she repeated emphatically. “I’ll take someone along as a lookout. Anything bad happens, at least you’ll know.”

He nodded and turned to lead Kaylee away, though he didn’t look happy about the situation.

Zoë took in a deep breath – now she was left with only Book, Jayne, and Mal. Malcolm, she amended in her thoughts as she glanced at the captain. He’d wondered aside, completely bored by the conversation, and was humming to himself as he kicked at the foot of the bench where the red-haired whore’d been having her smoke. The lady’d gone on her way by now.

No matter that his face hadn’t changed, this wasn’t the Captain Mal Reynolds Zoë knew. The shortened name didn’t fit him anymore, nor did the title. But at least he wouldn’t be losing more of his day-to-day memories, and maybe once they got back on the ship Simon’d be able to start bringing the real Mal back. The Takara cap had done something right to him, and that was a start.

* * *

Ginger knew what needed to be done as soon as the dark skinned woman set a meeting place.

Well, Ginger’d suspected what needed to be done much before that. As soon as she sat down and took a long look at the group assembled in the small yard, as soon as she saw that one of them was Malcolm Reynolds, she knew the game was up. They had him.

But she stayed a bit longer, puffing at Will’s chewed up cigar while she thought about it. It was only the two of them, herself and Will, against this whole group. They couldn’t just grab Reynolds; a fight would ensue, and they were outnumbered. Nor could they enlist the help of the local lawmen – those vermin didn’t deserve the name. They were inside this very house right now, spending their Sunday afternoon enforcing something that sure as hell wasn’t law.

She and Will needed to be careful about this. They needed to get the captain alone, unguarded, and sneak him away before his crew could do a thing about it.

She was just pondering that when the tall woman set the Salty Tongue as a meeting place, and Ginger knew what needed to be done. She dropped the cigar and ground it beneath the heel of her boot, (her disguise didn’t include uncomfortable footwear – no job was worth that) then rose and slipped around the corner of the building.

She filled Will in as they walked toward the street.

“You have a gun hidden in there?” Will asked with a sweeping look at her.

“`Course.” Ginger patted her thigh. She’d cut a slit in the seam of her full skirt so she easily reach in and grab her handgun.

“Good. You have to get to this Tongue place. Settle in like you’ve been there all day.”

“As if I didn’t already figure that’s the best plan,” she muttered.

Will frowned at her. “I think that dye had an effect on your head. You’re still an agent of the Alliance, Ginger Larkin. See that you act like it: follow orders, and don’t talk sass. Come here.”

He reached out and slid a few fingers under the top edge of her bodice, right in the deep valley where her bosom was pressed together and up. He yanked her toward him, but before she could make a fuss he clipped a small comm mic onto the lace and let her go.

“And here’s the earpiece. You tell me what’s happening in that pub, every minute. Tell me if Reynolds is alone.”

She nodded and fit the receiver into her ear. As she turned to hurry down the street, Will called after her: “And don’t go trying to sell anything. You couldn’t charge the price of a shot of whiskey anyhow!”

* * *

Inara didn’t understand it. The people of the settlement were barely helpful to her, replying to her questions with suspicious looks followed by shrugs and surly I-dunno’s. Unlike the company security guards, the inhabitants of the settlement – miners and their families – seemed to suspect that she wasn’t what she presented herself to be.

Maybe it was her clothing. In order to avoid technical discussions of her pretended trade, she’d changed back into the clothes she’d bought the night she’d fled Sihnon: baggy brown trousers, a dark reddish-brown shirt, and a cape of dark grey worsted wool. Her outfit was dull and colorless, her hair was tied back but not too neatly, she wore no make-up. She hadn’t even washed her face. So why did they all know that she didn’t belong? Was it simply that she was a strange face?

The afternoon was at its hottest when she decided to take a break. The food supply on her transport was running low already, so she stopped at a marketplace for supplies.

There weren’t many options. Besides some mysterious grilled meat which she wasn’t about to go near, all she could find was powdered protein soup. The old woman running the stall gruffly named a price, and Inara held out a few coins without looking up, trying to keep her face hidden in her hood. She found herself standing awkwardly in that pose; instead of taking the payment, the vendor made a clucking noise as if she’d just figured out something important.

Xiăo jie,” the old lady said, her voice suddenly smoothed out in a deferential way. “I can get ya plenty that’s more hăo chī. A lady like you don’t need to be suppin’ on the likes a’ that.”

Inara froze, not sure what had given her away. “No, this is all I want,” she answered shortly, and she held the coins out further.

“Suit ye’self,” the woman said. She took the pay, and Inara saw the problem. Her hand was spotless and silken next to old woman’s gnarled fingers, nails neatly shaped and filed and not a single callous or crack to mar her skin.

Inara hugged the box of soup to her chest, letting her sleeves cover her hands, and turned to flee back to her transport.

She had so little expectation of receiving a wave that she didn’t check the cortex until she had her soup heating on the ship’s small gas burner. But there it was – the screen blinking, a message left not twenty minutes ago. It was from the only person who would know how to find her: Mr. Universe.

“I hope you’re enjoying your scenic tour of Highgate, Miss Serra the serenely scrumptious,” the curly-haired young man said. “I’m afraid it may be a bit dull for someone as used to romance and adventure as you must be. But here’s a bit of news – you’ll have company soon. Big, big company.” His eyes opened wide. “The biggest kind.

“You see, the Warship Argent took a sharp turn a few hours ago, and she’d be making serious waves if the Black had more in it to get wavy. I don’t know what she’s up to, but it’s looking like something serious. The chatter between Londinium and the Argent is as thick as a superhero comic book’s plot.” He snorted at his own joke before he continued.

“This may have nothing to do with you and our friend the captain, but I’m not a big believer in coincidences. Nobody cares about Highgate, except those who like lots of salt in their knaidel soup. The planet’s been off the front page as long as I’ve been around. But now Mal is hiding there, you’re looking for him in a hurry, and the Alliance can’t get their warship to the world fast enough.

“Something is up, Inara. You might want to make nice with Mal and get out of there before that something comes back down. I’m guessing you have about four hours.”

As soon as the message finished, Inara threw her cloak over her shoulders and ran out the hatch, leaving her half-cooked soup behind.

* * *

The door to the clinic was locked, and Simon had to ring the bell and wait. He waited so long that he began to think Tori had taken the day off, like a regular non-work-obsessed person. But the door opened eventually. Tori looked out at him, squinting against the bright sun.

“Well. I didn’t expect to see you here again.”

Simon shrugged. “I won’t be long. I just have a few things I need to say. As does River.”

Tori glanced at the hooded figure next to Simon, then stepped aside and swung open the door. “Come on back to the lab,” she said. “I was just finishing a few things. No matter how expensive a piece of equipment is, it can’t ever manage to recalibrate on its own.”

She went ahead down the hall. River paused in the entryway to push her hood back and wipe sweat from her forehead, and didn’t miss the chance to glare at Simon. He didn’t doubt that she hated him for this, in the way of a recalcitrant teenager toward a strict parent. But what he was making her do was necessary. Absolutely.

River sighed, then dropped her parka in the waiting room and walked down the hall. Perhaps she could sense his determination: he wasn’t going to let her return to Serenity unless she went through with this.

Tori was busy when they reached the lab. “How is Captain Reynolds?” she asked.

“It appears that the cap is working,” Simon replied. “Thank you for that. It means a lot to the crew. He means a lot to them. And I’m… I’m grateful for your help.”

“I’m glad to do it. Is that what you came here to tell me? ”

“Yes. Well, that and a few others things.” He took in a deep breath, then fixed his sister with a hard look. She’d taken a place on a stool and was fussing with the dials on a vacuum hood. “River, you go first.”

She gave Simon a dark look and mumbled something inaudible.

“You’ll have to speak up,” he told her firmly.

River straightened and slid her eyes to Tori. “Sorry,” she said sullenly.

Simon folded his arms. That wasn’t good enough, and River knew it. She sighed and her shoulders slumped, then she tried again.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a truer voice, though her eyes were on the floor. “I had no right to try and steal the cap from you, no matter how bad I wanted it. No matter how bad I needed it. I was wrong to hurt Frank. I was wrong to scare those people. I’m very sorry.”

“And?” Simon prompted.

“And I’ll never do anything like that again. I promise. I swear.”

Tori had given up on her work to study River. Her face showed no reaction, and her response was cool. “I appreciate that, River. I know it’s not easy to admit when you’re wrong.”

River looked toward the door. “Can we go now?”

Simon shook his head. “In just a second. I need to tell Tori one more thing, and I want you to hear. You see, there’s more than one way to do wrong.” He changed his focus to Tori. “There’s more than one way to hurt people. Tori, what you did the past few days, trying to come between Kaylee and I, was manipulative and… horrible. I can’t believe the way you tried to play us.”

He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised when Tori didn’t deny it. She simply shrugged as if it was no big deal.

“What were you after?” he asked. “What did you think you’d gain?”

Tori fixed him with a direct stare. “A damned fine surgeon.”

“Oh – I’m supposed to be flattered?”

“I don’t care if you’re flattered or not, Simon. I’ve found my calling on this world. I’ve found my mission in life, a way to make a difference. You could have done a lot to help me. It’s a shame you can’t see that.”

“That’s not for you to decide. I have my own work to do elsewhere.”

“Ahh yes.” She rolled her eyes dismissively. “Your captain.”

“What, his life doesn’t matter because you don’t approve of how he lives?”

“No, his life doesn’t matter when a hundred others have to be thrown aside for him. You could have done so much more here, Simon. Can’t you see the bigger picture?”

He shook his head in disbelief. “You lied to me, lied to Kaylee, tried to destroy one of the best things I’ve had in my life for… for a very long time. And that’s supposed to be okay because of some ‘bigger picture’ you’ve imagined?”

She stared at him thoughtfully, then rose to her feet. “Well, it doesn’t matter now, does it? You’re not staying. Perhaps it’s for the best. Like you told me, you’re a fugitive, and you’ve spent the past year with criminals who’ve been up to gods know what. I was foolish to think it’d be safe to have you here. I see that now. You’ve let yourself get tied up with this crew of yours, and that can’t be changed.” She held up a hand to stop his protest. “But I understand – you have to make your own choices. So do I.”

She turned to the door of the lab, leaving Simon in a moment’s confusion. He looked toward River; his sister met his gaze, then suddenly her eyes went wide.

“No,” she gasped, and she pushed away from her stool so quickly that it fell over behind her. She ran for the door of the lab, which Tori was pulling shut behind her.

“No!” River repeated when she reached the door, just as it latched shut. “Not again!” She pulled at the latch, but the door wouldn’t open. She looked back at Simon with desperation in her eyes. He hurried over to her – the latch wouldn’t open for him either.

Through the window, he could see Tori standing in the hall.

“I’m sorry, Simon,” she said, her voice barely audible through the thick glass. “But I had no choice. I’d have been implicated eventually, either with you or with whatever crimes your captain has committed. I can’t let that happen.” She took in a deep breath before she went on. “I contacted them this morning.”

Simon felt blood drain from his face. He looked River, who was standing still now, her face ashen. “Lăo tiān yĕ…” she muttered. “No no no…”

Simon turned back to the window. “You called who?” he demanded.

“The reward money is substantial,” Tori told him. “I’ll be able to do a lot with it. I doubt I’ll find anyone as skilled as you, but I can hire several doctors who are good enough.”

“Not good at all,” River said faintly. “They’re not good.”

Simon felt panic tighten his throat. “Tori – you know what those people did to her. You now what they’ll do if they get her back!”

“It’s a good trade, Simon. One girl in exchange for the thousands of people I’ll be able to help over the next few years. How am I supposed to pass that by? Tell me – how can I in good conscience pass that by?”

River had a hand wound in her hair now, pulling, and her voice shook. “They’re coming. Nightmares… nightmares will find me again… ”

Simon slapped his hands against the door. “Don’t do this! I’ll stay. Of course, I’ll stay. Whatever you want!”

There might have been something like regret in Tori’s eyes, but she reached her left hand out toward the keypad next to the door. “It’s too late, Simon. They’re on their way already. It’s inevitable; you just made it easier by coming here.” She looked aside as she pressed a sequence of buttons, then she turned and disappeared down the hall.

River whimpered as a hissing sound started above Simon’s head.

* * *

Translations

huāzhù: style, as in female organ of flower:
sāobī: bitch
chòu ji bai: smelly ‘c’ word I won’t say
xiăo jie:young lady; miss
hăo chī:tasty; delicious
lăo tiān yĕ: god
* * *

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COMMENTS

Thursday, May 22, 2008 6:38 AM

MAL4PREZ


Wow – thanks for the feedback on 18. I should whine more often LOL!

How’s this ending? Did I manage to surprise you? I tried! Actually, a lot of the hell of writing the last 4-5 chapters was sorting out Tori, setting her up for this scene. It was tricky because I’d posted a preview of her interaction with Simon and Kaylee (the one Ginger overheard eons ago) and I had to gel that with Tori’s mentality and S/K’s budding relationship. Oh, the dangers of posting before the writing is done! It was quite a puzzle to plan these interactions, as well to narrate them through the flashbacks in a somewhat sensible way.

nbz – Yes, I’m definitely getting into the funner to write stuff! The next chapter… well, I’ll talk about that after I post it. *rubs hands eagerly*

freeverse – “Billy” is Will. He’s been out of the plot for a while, but coming back into things now…

platonist – “OK, only for you, mal4prez, would I consider reading this much Kaylee/Simon.” And I have no explanation for why I write so much of them! Glutton for punishment, I guess… (Don’t hurt me Leiasky LOL!) No, actually, I like them fine when their scenes are down on paper, it’s just the getting there that’s hard.

As far as Book III – I’m having thoughts of ending Book II at the end of the next chapter. Haven’t put that to a vote with my betas yet, and it might not be such a satisfying ending for readers. A few outstanding issues resolve and it reaches a good milestone for me. I guess I find some emotional resolution, not plot resolution, if that makes any sense. It’s enough for me. Might not be enough for you. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think.

In any case, the events after the next chapter I really look forward to writing, so I think I’ll have the momentum to keep going without a big break. So, shorter answer to your question Platonist: my dance thing (which has been ongoing) ends after this weekend, and I’ll more time to write, plus plot that sucks me in. So things look good for Book III.

Thursday, May 22, 2008 4:57 PM

NBZ


I for one did not see that coming!

A very interesting chapter. The crew escape, a trap is set by Will/Ginger, the Tams are caught in an entirely different trap.

I think there may be something about traps in this chapter. :P

Friday, May 23, 2008 12:33 AM

DESERTGIRL


How could Tori do such a thing?? well I suppose a woman scorned.....But still.

I really want someone to run into Inara Soon!!!

And were they able to take the cap with them? I still have hopes that Mal will get better. It must be so hard for Zoe having to be in charge of him for a change. Role reversal is tough.

Friday, May 23, 2008 1:40 AM

KATESFRIEND


Very interesting about Tori - how she justified her actions against the greater good - kind of like the Operative - and still think she's the hero when she's really the evillest kind of villain. Very interesting.

Emotional resolution vs. plot resolution - not sure what you mean but I hope it means more Mal/Inara. Inara gets her wish, I hope, to meet the kind of man Mal was before the war changed him.

Hope the next part is fun for you to write - because it sure is fun to read!

Friday, May 23, 2008 2:54 AM

AMDOBELL


Holy crap! Enemies on all sides and being fenced in at every turn. Why couldn't River sense they were heading into danger? What a tangle of torment you are creating, just hope our shiny crew find a way to get themselves out of this woeful predicament. Ali D
You can't take the sky from me


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