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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Divergent paths finally meet. Kind of like smelly stuff hitting a fan.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2002 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.
Ginger slunk quietly into the Salty Tongue Saloon and took a spot at the emptiest end of the long bar. Her high and mighty attitude (she knew very well she’d had such a thing going this afternoon, on account of her new outfit) was tumbling.
It’d started with what she’d seen in the dress shop’s looking glass that morning: the boning and stays in her new gown pushed her excess bits of body into a shape that wasn’t half bad. Might have been more than the dress, too. Might just be that her time in that work-out center on the Alliance warship and the push-ups she did to pass the time while hiding from Will in her tiny cabin had put a little firm on top of her bones. Surely the bad mood that had her hardly eating in the past months had made those bones show in her face, and a little rouge and kohl, applied for free by the sweetheart of a lady who’d done Ginger’s hair, had heightened the effect.
Her look might very well border on cheap whore, but that was a good five steps nearer to eye-catcher than she’d been in the past decade or two. And there was something about not being invisible that had gone straight to her head. When she’d first met Will at the House of Huāzhù, she’d been feeling somewhere between playful and invincible, and her mood had made her preen in front of him. She hadn’t been flirting. Far from it – it’d been her way of giving him the finger. He’d known it too, judging from the way his eyes had moved hungrily over her new dress while his lip curled in an ugly sneer.
She should have known it would get her nothing but harsh words from the bastard. Not worth the price of a shot of whiskey… She’d taken that with her chin high, but the walk over from the House of Huāzhù had gotten her feeling self-conscious in a less pleasant way. The catcalls and leering looks she’d drawn from strangers hadn’t felt like compliments. Not at all.
The truth was, dressing up like this went against everything she’d ever stood for. She’d always stubbornly held to making her way on her skills, not her womanly attributes – which she’d once had some share of, whether Will’d believe it or not. Decades ago, back when she was barely of age and leaving the swamps of her homeworld to join the Alliance military, she’d been something of a looker. But that kind of attention hadn’t ever done a thing for her. She’d made her choice not to lean on it, a choice she hadn’t ever regretted.
And it was a choice she couldn’t take back now. She wasn’t young anymore, wasn’t smooth-skinned and slender. Could be, she was nothing more than a fat, foolish old soldier playing pretend. More than anything, she didn’t want to be seen as that.
To her relief, a medley of women were already set up in the middle of the Salty Tongue’s bar, and they made her look as Plane Jane as she could wish. They were younger and finer and more colorfully dressed, and they talked loud and laughed louder as they fluttered around men like butterflies sniffing at a scattering of fat turds. Oddly, the ladies were the only ones who took obvious notice of Ginger, and that was only to eye her in a way meant to make her wilt. Ginger thought that over and figured it was fair; they were working their trade, after all, and wouldn’t want to share.
She hunched over the bar and ordered up a drink like the ones those women had, something fruity in a curvy glass with plastic flowers sticking out the top, hoping she’d blend with the small crowd. It worked all right; once the dressed-up ladies saw that she kept to herself, sipping her drink through a straw and watching the door, they ignored her completely.
She was nearly through her frilly but strong beverage before the mark ambled in: Malcolm Reynolds, surrounded by three of his crew. Ginger dropped her eyes; the captain and the preacher knew her, and might recognize her face even with the makeup. But the tall woman and the big guy hadn’t ever met her face to face. That was good – only two of the four had any chance of seeing through her disguise.
* * *
Jayne followed last as Zoë lead the way into the Salty Tongue. He liked the look of the place; it was windowless, dark and hazy, and a handful of colorful women provided all the decoration he needed.
Zoë paused to scan the room for the best seat and Jayne took the time to ogle; just about any of the lively whores at the bar would do him fine. No matter that his days had been full of that kind of entertainment lately, it only got his motor revved up and made it tougher to handle getting interrupted like he just had. He’d been nearly the end of a heated moment when those idiot lawmen showed up at the House. Now, Jayne was a professional, and he’d given up his sport immediately when he heard Zoë calling for him. But he had to admit, he was feeling bitter over it.
He started and got moving when he noticed Zoë leading Mal and Book across the shadowed room. She went to the furthest booth and shoved Mal into the side facing away from the door, then looked back at Jayne and pointed to the other seat.
“You keep an eye out from here,” she told him in a low voice. “Y’all are just two more men wasting your Sunday afternoon away in quiet talk, got it?”
Jayne sputtered as he figured out her meaning, then he couldn’t help but whine, “I gotta stay here? With him? Why can’t Book do it?”
Zoë didn’t budge. “I need someone with me who won’t draw eyes, and if it does come to barterin’ for Serenity’s release, I might be needin’ the Shepherd to play diplomat.”
Jayne glanced down at Malcolm with a look of disgust. “But I can barter. I’m better at that than babysittin’!”
“I wouldn’t argue that,” Book muttered, but his comment was lost behind Mal’s.
“I don’t need no damned watcher,” the captain piped up stubbornly. “I can handle myself.” He looked around the bar and puffed up his chest in such an overdone way that Jayne scoffed at him, earning a glare in return.
“I’m sure you can,” Zoë told Mal. “And you better.” She turned back to Jayne. “Simon and River might be comin’ in before long, but it’s like to be a few hours till the rest of us get back, hopefully with the ship ready to get us off this world. Meantime, you’re gonna stay right here, bein’ real friendly and real quiet. Got it?”
Jayne huffed, but didn’t protest since Zoë was all tensed up and using her I’m the captain now voice. He knew better than to argue when she was like that. He could only slide into the booth and glare darkly at her back as she led Book out the door.
Then Jayne shifted the full weight of his stare on Mal. Or, Malcolm as he supposed he ought to call him. The captain’s brain troubles had left him thinking he was a kid, or not a whole lot more than one. And this kid wasn’t much like the man he’d once been. Malcolm tried to hold Jayne’s eye, but gave up quickly.
Jayne continued to glare. He wanted his opinion of this situation known.
“So… tense times, huh?” Malcolm eventually said.
Jayne narrowed his eyes. “How d’you mean?”
“Gettin’ chased out’a that House, and everyone runnin’ off their way. Does make me wonder…”
Malcolm met Jayne’s eye again. “What kind’a work you folks do.”
Jayne deepened his scowl. “Ain’t none a’ your business.”
Malcolm nodded and looked away, and Jayne grinned. He hadn’t ever able been to bully Malcolm Reynolds into silence before.
He held his glare through another uncomfortable spell of quiet, until Malcolm started fidgeting. The captain began to shift in his seat and pat himself over, like he was doing a search. He even opened up his coat to look closely at the inside of the front flaps.
“Oh, uh… hey,” Malcolm eventually said. He patted the pockets of his coat again with an embarrassed smile. “Get this – I ain’t got a dime on me.”
“Can’t be sittin’ here for hours without a drink. Ain’t we supposed to blend?”
Jayne considered that. The man sitting across the booth from him looked just like Serenity’s captain in terms of his face and his clothes – he even had that same old coat on – but he was about as different as he could be. Jayne wouldn’t say he’d ever exactly liked the old Mal, but he knew for sure he didn’t like this one. Not enough to drink with him.
Besides, hassling him was more fun.
“Your momma wouldn’t mind you drinkin’ in a place like this?”
Malcolm looked around the room, and his jaw bent thoughtfully. “Well, ain’t like she has to know.”
Jayne made his words real slow, like a dare. “I think you’re too young to drink.”
“The hell I am!”
Jayne leaned over the table menacingly. “I think you’re too young to drink with me.”
Malcolm didn’t argue that; he huffed, but shrank back in his seat and studied the table top with a frown.
Jayne sneered. He’d figured out what he wanted to know, and he’d be damned if he’d spend all day sitting in this booth with some wimpy-ass kid. He’d given up a fine finish on his afternoon tumble – one he’d paid for fair and square – and he deserved better than to spend hours playing at being the captain’s best friend.
“Not when I can just as well keep a watch from afar,” Jayne muttered to himself.
“Hunh?” Malcolm grunted.
“I’m gonna pass my time with the a-dults,” Jayne said as he slid out of his seat. He paused to lean his full height and bulk over Malcolm. “You set foot outside this here booth, I will return you to it however I see fit. Dŏng ma?”
Malcolm’s face set rebelliously for a second, then he took a look at Jayne’s large fist. He sighed and rolled his eyes the littlest bit, but nodded.
Ginger was happy to see the tall woman and the preacher leave right away, and even happier when the big guy moved to the bar a few minutes later. He was immediately surrounded by the painted ladies, as if it was lunchtime in a fish tank.
That left Reynolds all alone.
She tapped at the mic pinned in the valley of her cleavage. The receiver in her ear came to life as Will answered her signal, and she quietly relayed the situation to him.
Stay close to the merc, Will ordered. I want Reynolds to myself.
Ginger checked in on the captain; he was sitting with his back to the room with nothing to look at but the far wall. He didn’t seem to like it; he cranked his chin over his shoulder and frowned at the mercenary, then he did the damnedest thing. He climbed up to stand in his seat, then stepped right up on the table and back down on the other side of the booth. He settled against the back wall of the bar, now comfortably able to watch the goings on.
For some reason, this made the big guy at the bar tense up and glare. Reynolds just folded his hands behind his head and grinned.
Just then, the place lit up with the clear white light of day. Ginger checked the door; Will stood there, silhouetted by the bright sun. He stayed just long enough to draw a few eyes. The idiot has to make an entrance, Ginger thought. But Reynolds and his cohort didn’t notice; they were still engaged in some kind of cross-the-room battle of wills, scowl versus bright smile.
Ginger sucked up the remains of her drink and slid off her barstool – she had to get close to the mercenary. But as soon as her feet hit the floor she realized how much the booze had gone to her head. She’d never been much of a drinker, and finishing this one off without a bite of food all day maybe hadn’t been the smartest thing. She gritted her teeth and nodded at Will, trying to look sober as a monk.
He didn’t return the gesture. His eyes passed over her on their way across the room, and then his stare fixed on Reynolds.
Once Will realized that Reynolds hadn’t seen him yet, he removed the transmitter from his collar and took the receiver out of his ear; he didn’t want his attention interrupted by Ginger’s chatter. He slid the comm equipment into the left pocket of his long black coat. His right pocket had something in it already: his trusty sidearm, resting comfortably against the palm of his hand.
Reynolds was right-handed, that much Will remembered for sure. A bullet through the right arm would be just the thing, though Will’d have to do it before the man could draw. The captain was fast – he’d once taken down Will’s quick-handed cohort Hank.
But even Reynolds couldn’t beat a man who had his finger on the trigger already.
Ginger balanced herself with one hand on the bar as she made her way toward the merc. She hesitated when she came up against a solid wall of tall, willowy creatures making their sales pitches to him, but then she saw that Will was walking toward Reynolds. She had no time.
Hell, best make use of this outfit I wasted my coin on, she thought, and in a somewhat less than smooth move she elbowed her way between two of the ladies and fastened herself to the big man’s side.
“Hey, darlin’,” she said with a forced grin. “I’m all out of a drink. Care to get me a refill?”
He looked down at her, and only the alcohol in her veins and the need to not fail the mission kept her from slouching back. The revulsion on his face was clear.
“`Scuse me,” he said, “but I was kind’a busy with the fine-lookin’ ladies.”
Ginger glanced to her side. Will was stepping up to the booth where Reynolds sat – the shit was taking flight now.
She moved quickly. With a sudden confidence she didn’t know she had, she smirked at the mercenary and laid her left hand on the muscle of his forearm. At the same time, she reached her right hand down through a slit in her skirt and grabbed the gun strapped to her thigh. She deftly moved it across her body, turning slightly so no one else would see her jab the barrel into his ribs.
Time for your worst nightmare to come back, Captain Reynolds, Will thought with relish. He aimed his concealed gun at the captain’s right arm and stepped up to the booth.
When Reynolds’ eyes met his, Will’s trigger finger twitched hard, but he just managed not to fire. Oddly, Reynolds didn’t even move. His eyes narrowed for a second, like seeing Will made him think hard about something, but then his face relaxed.
“You lookin’ for someone?” he asked. Not friendly, but not particularly unfriendly either.
Will stayed where he was, the gun still aimed from the shelter of his pocket. He didn’t answer, didn’t hardly breath, just waited for Reynolds to make his move.
“If you’re looking for a lady, those seem to be over there.” The captain pointed toward the bar.
Will grinned, understanding the game, but it was a weak one. No way was he going to turn his eyes away. “Nah,” he said. “I don’t need one of them. But… I was hopin’ to find a certain fella.” He narrowed his eyes suggestively.
Reynolds leaned back, his arms resting on the low back of the booth, no where near his holster. Will finally took his eyes off the captain’s face to check his hip – no holster. No weapon there at all. Unless he was, like Will himself, hiding a surprise in his pocket, the idiot was sitting in this kind of place without a gun.
Reynolds must have noticed where Will was looking, but his reaction was nothing like what Will expected. He shifted uncomfortably.
“Look,” he said, “that’s flattering and all, but I ain’t that flavor.”
Then he looked away, like he was hoping Will would move on and that’d be the end of the conversation. Will continued to study him – the man looked awful uncomfortable, but he didn’t look scared. He should be terrified. After what Will had done to him? After the way he’d made Malcolm Reynolds crumble to little bits? The man should be hiding under the table now, either that or trying some foolhardy attack. This completely cool calm was far from right.
Reynolds looked at him again, and even in the darkness of the bar Will’d swear the man was blushing. “Sorry, mister, but you’re really wastin’ your time here.”
And then it came to Will – this stupid wáng bā dàn doesn’t even recognize me.
Will smiled. He wasn’t ready to take his hand off his gun, but he slid into the booth across from Reynolds, his friendliest (and least sly) smile lighting his face.
“You got me all wrong, buddy,” he said. “I ain’t interested in that myself. It’s just that you look a helluva lot like a guy I knew once.” He grinned. “And I do mean a non-Biblical kind of knowing.”
“That so?” Reynolds asked, still eyeing Will doubtfully.
“That’s right. And since I don’t know another soul in this shithole, and those ladies over there ain’t up to wasting coin on, how ‘bout we have a drink?”
Will didn’t wait for a response, just waved a few fingers at the bartender. He noticed that Ginger had gotten herself close to the merc – good, she’d keep him busy and out of the way.
The big man blinked a few times in surprise, looking down at the gun in Ginger’s hand then back at her face. He didn’t look scared, just befuddled.
“You tryin’ to waylay me?” he asked.
Ginger glanced over toward Will again, and blinked her own surprise when she saw the captain was still sitting on his ass, reclining with his elbows up on the low booth back.
“I just need to make sure you… uh…” She stammered as she watched Will exchange a few quiet words with their mark, and she nearly fell over when her partner slid into the booth and waved at the bartender.
“Make sure I what?” the mercenary demanded.
Ginger looked back at him, then snapped her mouth shut. This was a fine mess. Her head started telling her to get out of there, that this was some new game of Will’s that she was about to get caught up in. Of late, those had a tendency to not go so well. But the booze in her blood was saying that other things ought to be paid some mind. Might have to do with the handful of meaty forearm she’d laid her left palm against.
She tilted her head and looked at the merc a bit sideways. “Just makin’ sure you know how much I want that drink,” she said in a smooth, flirty drawl that she didn’t think could possibly be her own voice. “I’m real thirsty.”
The big man’s face crinkled up in confusion for a second, then he broke into a grin.
“Hell,” he said. “I like you. Barkeep!”
The captain offered up his first name with a handshake, which Will accepted only because both of Reynold’s hands were on the table, not caressing a gun hidden in a pocket. This was some kind of truce then – a parley.
Or perhaps something more; though the glances Reynolds cast at Will were doubtful, it was the kind of distrust one stranger would feel for another in a place like this. It wasn’t the bitter hatred that he should have been showing.
Will cautiously gave his name as William, watching close for a reaction. He got nothing but a nod.
“So what brings you out this way, Malcolm?” he asked.
“Hell if I know,” Reynolds replied. “Guess I’m on some kind’a vacation tour. Good for my health, if you believe that.”
Will laughed and looked around the place. “You got a funny idea of R and R.”
“Ain’t really my choice. My tour guide’s got some business of her own, and wants me out of the way.”
The drinks arrived. Will lifted his heavy glass mug for a wordless toast, which Reynolds accepted, though without much enthusiasm. “What brings you?” the man asked after he took a swig of his beer.
“I’m trying to find an old buddy. Guy I fought with in the war, you might say.”
That made Reynolds’ face light up eagerly. Unlike the Malcolm Reynolds Will had encountered some weeks ago, this man’s feelings showed as plain as could be. “You fought with the Independents? I was on my way to sign up. Where you garrisoned? You seen action?”
Will covered his hesitation by taking a long drink. Either Reynolds had learned how to act, or he’d had some kind of brain twist.
“I misspeak. It wasn’t a war so much as a little skirmish. You know how these border worlds are. You said you were out to improve your health. You sick?”
Reynolds drank again and looked away, like he was embarrassed. “Long story,” he muttered.
“Ain’t nothing contagious, I hope?” Will leaned back and put on a worried look, like he was trying to distance himself.
Like some green kid without the good sense to keep his business to himself, Reynolds fell for it. “No! Nothin’ like that. There’s just something with my head. I been forgettin’ stuff.”
Will turned to look at the bar, trying to pass it off as a little eyeing of the women. Really, he was out to hide his smile. This was too good to be true.
Ginger still held her gun uncertainly, keeping it poked into the mercenary’s side even after he ordered her a drink. If she’d had any expectations as to what would come of this game she was caught in, they sure didn’t include free booze when she’d already had too much.
But her gun didn’t seem to bother the man; without trying to defend himself or move out of the line of her aim, he stared down at the weapon that was a trigger pull away from ending him.
“Hey – that there is one nice piece,” he said, and he gave her a sharp look. “Not somethin’ I expect to see `round here. How’s a thing like you get a weapon like that?”
She blinked and stammered. No, this gun certainly wasn’t what a two-penny old whore would carry around on an Sunday afternoon. This could be a bit hard to explain….
But the merc grinned at her. “Bet it’s a helluva story,” he said. “Here.” He lifted the drinks that the bartender had just set on the bar – no flowery girl cocktail, but a few fingers of something brown sloshing in the bottom of a plain glass. He held one out to her. “Drink up and tell me `bout it.”
She glanced toward Will again. He was still sitting with Reynolds, and now they had a few glasses of a frothy brew that they tapped together – Will energetically, Reynolds less so. A cold, hard lecturing voice in the back of her head told her that the real mission was now accomplished; she ought to do what she needed to grab Reynolds and get out of here. They could have the man locked up tight and this deal over by nightfall, and Will’s game could be put to rest.
But what could she do, with Will acting like he was? With this large and apparently fearless (or maybe just stupid) mercenary on the watch?
“Hey – so you gonna shoot me, or you gonna relax and have a drink?” the merc growled at her. She looked back at him and took in the size of his arm one more time – not as a potential combatant, but as a man. A man who was looking at her with a sparkle in his eye, not paying any mind to the glares of the whores around them.
With a practiced hand, Ginger safetied her gun and slid it through the slit in her skirt to her thigh holster, a move that the man’s cool gray eyes watched with interest. She took the drink from him and threw it back; the booze burned its way through her chest and settled into her stomach with a warm glow.
“So where you from?” Will asked as they settled into their second round.
“Shadow?” That explained why Reynolds – the old Reynolds, not this one here – was such a glum guy. Shadow’d been a dead world since the war, burnt crisp because the idiots who’d lived there hadn’t known to shut their mouths and accept the change that was coming. That’s how Will saw it, anyway.
“How long you been gone?”
“Oh, `bout a month, I guess.” Reynolds took another swig of his beer and looked toward the bar. His eyes caught on something, and Will glanced over his shoulder to see what. He almost ducked away again – Ginger was drinking from a small dirty glass while Reynolds’ mercenary stared hard at the booth, like he was thinking of coming over. But then Will realized that the scowl wasn’t aimed at him, it was all for Reynolds.
The captain wasn’t cowed; he raised his beer toward the bar with a chuckle, then took a long drink. The merc glowered, but when Ginger spoke to him he settled down and returned his attention to her.
“Friend of yours?” Will asked.
“Him? No way! I don’t know a single one of these people.” Reynolds’ eyes roamed over the shady figures in the bar. Despite his bravado, he didn’t look real comfortable. He looked out of place.
Will smirked as he guessed the cause of that. “Malcolm, you ever been off Shadow before? That you can recall?”
Reynolds looked back at him and smiled. “No, not a once.”
“Quite a place to pick for your first bit a’ off-world travel.”
“That’s what I thought. But I ain’t got much choice with these folks I’m travelin’ with.”
The drink was doing its work, and Reynolds was getting looser with his talk. “The lady in charge,” he said. “She’s as hard-ass as they come. Giving orders all the time and won’t hear a word of argument. I’m wondering why anyone’d want to sign on with her.”
“You didn’t sign on? Oh right – long story. Your health.”
Reynolds shrugged and took another drink. “Guess it ain’t that much to tell. I got sick. These folks are tryin’ to help me, `cause they’re friends of my ma’s.”
The merc tensed up when he noticed that Reynolds had gotten himself a drinking partner. It made Ginger fret for a moment, but Reynolds flashed a big smile and raised his glass, a sure sign that all was well. She wondered at that – Will had to be doing a number on the captain.
But heck, it left her free to do a number on her own man.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He turned his attention back to her. “Jayne.”
“I’m Ginny.” She slapped the empty glass back on to the bar. “And Jayne – I could tell you how I got my gun, but then I’d for sure have to shoot you.” She smiled at him sweetly; the hard liquor had moved from her stomach to her head in a hurry.
The merc drained his own glass. “You do that, you won’t be gettin’ another drink.”
“You think I can’t buy my own?”
“What – and drink it alone?”
He put an arm around her, which was a good thing because the bar had started spinning. Actually – it was more than a good thing to be pressed up against him, somehow fitting just right into his bulky form. With his free arm, the one toward the bar, he motioned the barkeep for another round, then reached under his jacket to pull out his own handgun.
“You got a fine weapon,” he said. “But ain’t nothin’ can touch this.”
It took Ginger a few seconds to focus on the piece, given the dark unsteady state of the pub, but once she did she felt something sharp and cold cut into her. She knew this gun. Last time she’d seen it, it’d been in the dead hand of a wild-eyed half-crazed gunhand. Hank had been shot down by the same captain who was now sharing a drink with Will in this very bar.
She reached out to touch the gun – the mercenary ejected the clip and handed it over, and she turned it in her hands. He started to protest when she thumbed a hidden catch and pulled the firing mech out, but he shut his mouth when she broke the whole piece down and reassembled it in under half a minute, years of expertise winning over a mere half hour’s drinking. She’d always wanted to give this thing a look, but Hank wouldn’t let anyone so much as breathe on it.
“Sure ain’t a weapon you see a lot of,” she said as she weighed the reassembled gun in her hand. She looked up and realized that the merc was watching her close, his eyes shadowed and face tight with what might very well be suspicion.
Ginger mentally cursed herself for forgetting the role she was supposed to be playing, but then she always had been a fool for a pretty gun. She held the thing out and cleared her throat awkwardly. She’d have moved away, but he still had his left arm wrapped around her waist.
“Um… you, uh, must have your own story of how you got this bit of niceness,” she said, trying to get back to flirting. It sounded weak to her own ears.
“Now, now,” Jayne said as he studied Ginger, his eyes somehow gleaming in the dim light of the bar. “Play fair. You gotta tell a story to get one.”
Will looked over his shoulder to check on Ginger again; what he saw didn’t sit well with him. The damned woman was pressed up against the merc but had her back turned; both of them faced the bar as if they were busy with something they didn’t want anyone else to see. Will wished he’d kept his mic on, cause he didn’t like the idea of her having a secret.
“That non-friend of yours has some bad taste,” he muttered to Malcolm.
The captain looked toward the bar. “He looks happy enough.”
“With that pàng, bēi cow?”
Malcolm frowned and gave Will a sharp look, as if he was sizing him up and seeing something he hadn’t before, something he didn’t like. “That ain’t a gracious thing to be sayin’ about a lady. Nothing wrong with a curvy shape.”
Will took a swig of his drink, finishing it off, and waved to the bartender for more. Really, he just needed a minute to push down his annoyance with Ginger – and with himself for letting her get to him. He’d just been gaining Malcolm’s trust.
And now her real voice, the voice of Ginger Larkin, agent for a service so important that she never got a rank or title, came screaming back and told her to hightail it out of here. She’d blown her cover by breaking down that gun, a gun that not many common folk would know of. Hell, she wasn’t even doing her job. She was half drunk, dressed like a whore, and pressed up tight against a man she probably ought to be arresting. Skip the arresting – this one should be put down in a dark corner, leaving the `verse a safer place.
But she stayed quiet as she handed Hank’s gun back to the merc, and then stood mesmerized. Jayne let go of her so his big hands could check the piece over with a tender care that didn’t fit the rest of him. He didn’t break the thing down completely, just popped the barrel open to blow at it, like she might have let dust get in. He loaded it again before sliding it back in his belt, then settled himself half on the barstool and looked at her thoughtfully.
She starting backing up, but one of those beefy arms reached out, wrapped around her tightly bustled waist and pulled her close again. She couldn’t push away without making a scene, or that’s what she told herself. It had nothing to do with how he felt against her.
He put his face close to hers and a chill went through her nethers; she hadn’t kissed a man in a long, long time. That wasn’t something Will had ever cared for. So she couldn’t deny that she was disappointed when Jayne’s mouth went right past hers to nestle up to her ear.
“I gotta tell you, Ginny,” he said. “Somethin’ about a lady handlin’ firearms the way you do puts me in a kind’a state. Know what I mean?”
He shifted a little to face her, and she got his meaning right against her hip. He had a hand on her backside now too. A big, coarse hand, none too gentle and not at all subtle.
A better tactic was needed, Will figured. He liked the idea of getting on Malcolm’s good side, of playing the friend while he lead the brain-wiped man to his fall. But it was hard to be good-humored when he watched his partner throw herself at the enemy. Ginger was plastered up against the merc now; the man was whispering in her ear, and one of her hands gripped here and there on his back, sliding around like he was a giant piece of fruit she was checking for ripeness.
Will noticed that Malcolm was frowning at the couple himself. The captain didn’t like harsh talk about women, but he might not be so defensive of the merc.
“What do you suppose he’s sayin’ to her?” Will asked. “Guy like that’s gotta have a line. Something like: ‘So… you’re a girl, huh?’”
Malcolm snorted. “Doubt he knows so many words. Probably somethin’ more like: ‘Hi. You’ll do.’”
Will grinned. “Or: ‘If you was a booger I'd pick you!’”
Reynolds chuckled and finished off his beer. He looked thoughtful for a minute, then he rhymed out: “‘Roses are red, violets are blue, I got these funny warts, and so can you…’”
That pulled a real laugh out of Will. “‘Now, don't worry about the missin’ teeth. It just means there’s more room for your tongue.’”
Malcolm leaned over the table as he broke into full-out laughter. “Or maybe… maybe Jayne’ll turn on his charm. ‘Howdy, ma’am. You know how to use a whip?’”
The bartender passed by and left a fresh round; they tapped their drinks together and had a pull before Will went on. “How `bout he screws up a classic: ‘Your daddy must’a been a baker, because you got a nice ass.’”
“Or he could go for bein’ truthful. ‘I ain’t cleaned my drawers in damned near a month. Can I get into yours?’“
“‘Hey honey, I’ve got a condom with your name on it!’”
“‘Wanna see a trick I learned in prison?’”
“‘If you won’t fuck me, can I fuck you?’”
“How much?” Jayne asked, his breath tickling Ginger’s ear.
“How much?” she repeated dumbly.
“It’ll have to be quick, if’n you don’t mind. And I can’t go far. This place got a back room?”
He pulled away enough to look toward the back of the bar, and Ginger finally got his meaning. “Wait… you wanna pay me – for sex?”
His lip curled up in a sneer. “Ain’t that usually how it works?”
Will kept it going: humor always was the best way to bond with a drunk. Three beers in now, Malcolm was tipsy enough, and the one liners worked wonders. After just a few minutes, William Cantone and Malcolm Reynolds were damned near brothers.
Will sobered his face and set an elbow on the table, his left hand raised high. “Hey,” he dead-panned as he wiggled his fingers, “why can’t you jack off with this hand?”
Malcolm got serious too; his eyes crinkled up as he stared at Will’s hand and tried to guess the punch line. After a few seconds, he gave up with a shake of his head. “Why?”
“Cause it’s mine, you pervert!” Will delivered, and they both broke into cackles again.
While Jayne took a second to grab the latest round from the bar, Ginger felt her cheeks heat up. God’s own truth, she wasn’t a bit angry. She should have been, maybe, but she looked around and saw all the other painted ladies – the real whores – glaring at her for stepping in on their business, and she couldn’t help but feel tickled. He’d picked her, over all those young leggy things with big eyes and long hair. He’d picked her.
She didn’t know how it could have happened. “But I… I’m a…” Dried up old lady she wanted to say, but her head was spinning and her mouth wasn’t working so good. She looked down at her body, like the sight of her might explain what she couldn’t put in words. All she could see was an eyeful of bosom piled on a cinched waist and flared skirt. She had a moment of wanting to poke her belly to be sure that was really her body.
“A handful’s what you are,” Jayne said. He passed her a drink, took care of his own, then set down the glasses so one of his large hands could show her exactly what he meant. “Gorramn handful of dangerous woman,” he added.
“Oh, hell…” she muttered. She glanced toward Will; he and Reynolds were doubled over, making a fair amount of noise as they shook with laughter and slapped at the tabletop. That’s all she could take in before Jayne pulled at her again, setting her up against him, and right then she knew what she wanted. The rest of the day’s business could take care of itself; she had no idea of the going rate, but she was ready to do this big, coarse, smelly man for free.
Of course, she wasn’t about to tell him that – couldn’t be blowing her cover. She fixed Jayne with what she hoped was a wicked smile.
“How `bout this,” she said. “You tell me what you think I’m worth, and we’ll go from there.”
Will was having the best time he could recall in the past few years. If he played this right, he could keep it going for some time. The back of his mind was busy: if he could win Reynolds’ trust for real, he might be able to lead him away. Imagine that, being best pals, right up until Will delivered him into the hands of the feds….
“Knock-knock,” he said, grinning eagerly.
But Malcolm didn’t take it up. Suddenly, he wasn’t paying a bit of attention to Will. He was staring toward the door, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide like he was seeing a ghost.
Will glanced over his shoulder – then quickly turned back. Cào wŏ, he muttered under his breath. Suddenly, the game had changed.
The woman looked different from how he remembered; her clothes weren’t fine and a hood hid most of her face, but as soon as he laid eyes on her he knew who she was. That bitch had made him look a fool. She’d played him and won, something nobody did. He’d let himself get taken out by a petite, well-heeled female who sells her body for a living. And now she was going to screw up his good time. Might even ruin his chance to take the captain in, given that Ginger had moved past being any kind of useful backup.
Will checked that Reynolds wasn’t watching him – a good thing, since his face had to be showing something ugly. But the man had gone to a different place entirely.
“My lord, ain’t she somethin’?” he muttered.
“You know her?” Will asked.
Reynolds shook his head slowly, his eyes not moving a bit.
And isn’t that interesting, Will thought to himself. It’d been his understanding that these two were something of a pair, and now Reynolds didn’t even know her. What a chance for fun this could be…
“Well, don’t bother,” he said. “No offense, but a lady like that is too high up for any commoner like you and me.”
Malcolm’s eyes flicked to Will for just a second before they went back to the woman. “How d’ya mean that?”
Will glanced toward the door again, careful to keep his face shadowed. She was still standing there, pivoting slightly as she searched the dark room, seeming unaware of how her presence drew sidelong looks, made men sit up straighter in their chairs and slick their hair back with whatever was handy – spit or beer, mostly. Her eyes settled on the bar, on the mercenary, and she took a few slow steps his way.
“Just look at her,” Will said. “She ain’t prettied up like the rest of them ‘cause she don’t need to be.” He turned back and watched Reynolds watch the whore, taking in the man’s reaction to his words. “Look at how she stands, Malcolm, how she walks. She’s been trained for better things. That woman don’t belong here. She’s above men like us. Men like you.”
“I wonder what brought her,” Malcolm said softly. “Down on her luck, maybe. Could be she needs help. She looks… lost.”
Will heard the concern in Reynolds’ voice. The man was still studying the bitch like he wouldn’t ever look away.
Sheer disgust drove Will to speak his mind. “You never know. Could be it’s all an act. Could be she’s the type of woman spends a whole lotta time learning how to look high class, just so she can take more money out of a man’s pocket before she spreads her legs.”
Reynold’s eyes snapped to Will’s face and stayed there. It gave Will an uncomfortableness, like he was suddenly standing in a very bright and hotly burning light.
“Now, that’s certainly not a kind way to talk about a lady,” Reynolds said, his voice low and much less friendly then it had been.
“Easy there,” Will said. “No call to get your back up. I’m just talking.”
Reynold’s eyes didn’t move and for a long moment his face looked older than it had this whole time. He suddenly looked closer to the man Will had crossed paths with a month ago, and it made him want to check that his gun was still in his pocket and ready to use. It made him regret that he hadn’t closed the deal sooner, just hit the confused captain over the head and been done with this. Made him think he ought to find a way to do just that, right now.
“Ain’t nothing but harmless talk…” Will mumbled distantly; his mind was busy. He needed to act before the whore recognized him. She’d alert the merc, and Will wasn’t about to count on Ginger to do her part. His right hand tightened around his glass mug – it was heavy enough to do the job. But the booth was wide; he couldn’t be sure to reach Reynolds with a hard enough blow….
The captain was still looking just as tense as Will felt. “Mayhap you ought’a learn to talk nice,” the man said. “Or mayhap you should go on over there and ask the lady’s pardon.”
Will leaned over the table, trying to move closer, but he had to smile at the idea of how the woman’d react to an overture of apology. “Maybe I will,” he said. “Maybe I’ll do just that, show her exactly how much I –”
A warm, velvety voice interrupted, speaking from beside and above him.
“Mal! Thank the gods I found you!”
Inara pulled her hood over her head before she entered the saloon. It wasn’t much different from the others she’d been to since she received Mr. Universe’s wave; maybe it was more crowded as the late afternoon drinkers began to gather, and a small flock of colorful whores kept things livelier at the bar than the other places she’d tried.
Her breath caught at the sight of a large man standing in the middle of the group of women. No mistaking it – that was Jayne. He had several empty glasses at his elbow, but his attention was currently focused on a whore with badly dyed red hair who was pressed against him. The two were clearly at the point where getting a room would be a service to the other patrons.
Inara’s eyes didn’t linger long – she saw none of the crew near Jayne. It was quite possible that he’d slipped away in search of his own entertainment, but if the mercenary was all she had, she’d make do. She moved toward him, stepping slowly and keeping her head lowered so she wouldn’t attract attention.
As she walked, she checked the darkened tables along the wall to her right. She froze when she saw a man in the far booth – his posture was wrong; he didn’t have Mal’s cockiness and his awareness of the room. Mal would have noticed by now that she was looking at him, while this man was fully focused on his drinking partner.
But the shadowed face was so like his. She moved closer, and by the time she’d crossed half the distance she was certain. It was Mal.
She sighed in relief but then her stomach tightened with a sudden attack of nerves. How would Mal react to seeing her, after the way she’d left him? It wouldn’t help that she was interrupting a tense negotiation – Mal was glaring at the man across from him in a dangerous way. Probably another of his jobs going sour.
But it didn’t matter. She had to warn him before the Alliance and their agents got to him. She pushed the hood back from her head and stepped up to the table.
“Mal! Thank the gods I found you!” She tried to keep her voice cool, but the words came out noticeably breathless. “We have to talk.”
Mal looked up, obviously surprised but, to her relief, she didn’t see any hostility in his face. His eyes widened, then he glanced at the other man in the booth, his hostility apparently set aside by her interruption.
When Mal looked up again, his mouth curled in a warm smile. “Miss,” he said politely, and he raised a hand to tip an imaginary cap. “Can I help you?”
Inara felt her mouth fall open in amazement. She had never been successful at reading Mal, but this casual greeting flummoxed her to no end.
“You can help by listening. I have to tell you…” She glanced at the other man in the booth; he had his face down, intently studying the heavy glass mug that he clenched in his hands. “…important things.”
“You can start with a name,” Mal said, then he held out a hand. “Mine’s Malcolm.”
Inara stood where she was and stared at him, unsure of what to do. He was smiling still, but his eyes were completely empty of recognition. It was a cruel trick for him to play. But then, she didn’t exactly deserve a friendlier greeting.
The cheerful smile on his face slowly faded into something like doubt, even nervousness, when she didn’t respond, but he didn’t move.
“This isn’t funny,” she finally said.
Mal dropped his hand, looking somewhat dejected. “Wasn’t meanin’ it to be. Just tryin’ to say hi.” He looked across the table at his drinking companion and shrugged.
“Look, I know you have every right to be angry–”
He looked up at her again, his eyes full of innocent ignorance. “Angry? Do I seem angry?”
She sighed impatiently. “Fine, be that way. We still have to talk.”
A second’s confusion filled Mal’s face, but then he smiled – another brilliant smile, lit with eagerness. “A pretty lady asks me to talk, who m’I to say to say no? Pull up a seat, I’ll buy you a drink. Or, um… I guess I’ll barter you a drink. Bit low on coin at the moment.”
He started to stand up, then cast a nervous look toward the bar. (Inara glanced as well, and noted that Jayne was still busy with his redhead.) Mal kept to his seat, but stretched out to grab a chair and pull it over. He kept talking the whole time. “William here’s a generous fella. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind extendin’ a friendly hand and buyin’ a beer for a fine, respectable lady such as yourself–”
“Mal, why are you acting like this?” Inara interrupted
He stopped with his one-handed arranging of the chair and stared up at her. “It’s ‘Malcolm’, and like what?”
“You’re… you’re not you.”
“And, uh…” His forehead creased up. “You know me?”
She raised her hands in exasperation. “Clearly I don’t!”
“Have a seat then, I’ll tell you all about myself. I’ll only lie when it makes me sound sexier.” He patted the chair and put on another wide, friendly smile.
Realization dawned on her.
“Are you trying to flirt with me?” she asked, incredulous. “Are you seriously trying to flirt with me? Dear Buddha, I must be losing my mind…”
Mal glanced at his drinking partner, then frowned and hunched over his beer. “My mistake,” he said with a discernable note of sullenness. “I didn’t think it was so far-fetched. I mean – I dunno your story lady, but just `cause I’m some rancher from Shadow don’t mean you can’t be friendly to me.”
She took in a deep breath against the sting of his words. How in the world had she forgotten what it was like to carry on a conversation with this man? “Mal, this is important. Could you save the grudge for later so we can talk?” She glanced again at the second man in the booth, who hadn’t moved at all. If anything, he seemed to be laughing quietly to himself. “Talk in private,” she added pointedly.
The black-haired man raised his head slightly; she barely made out the words he muttered to Mal: “Be sure and barter the price of her private services up front.”
Mal’s frown turned darker, but this time his displeasure wasn’t aimed at Inara. She found herself studying the man as well; thick black hair hid his features, but his voice and the way he held himself were familiar….
Suddenly, rage rose in Inara, faster than should have been possible. Before she even realized what she was doing, she put a hand on the man’s shoulder and pushed him back against the seat, forcing him to raise his head so she could be sure of who it was.
Suddenly things made more sense. Slightly more.
“What did you do to Mal?” she demanded sharply. She was hardly aware of the silence that fell in the bar, of the heads that turned toward her, but she saw the cocky grin spread on Will’s face as his left arm lifted, and he swung the beer mug at her head. It was a weak blow and she managed to take it in the back of her shoulder – he’d have done much better to strike with his other hand. She saw why he hadn’t: his right hand was busy was at his side, reaching into his coat pocket. She saw a flash of black metal; he was pulling out a gun.
Inara grabbed a handful of his hair, then yanked his head sideways so hard that he spilled onto the floor. One kick of her heavy boot knocked the gun from his hand and a second kick was aimed for his face, but strong arms wrapped around her from behind and she was lifted off her feet, her elbows pinned. She struggled against her captor with all the strength she had.
“Yesu, lady!” she heard a familiar voice in her ear. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Damnit, Mal! Let me go!” she screamed. Thankfully, Will's gun had slid out of reach under a crowded booth and he was up, on his feet and scrambling toward the door. He ran straight into Jayne, who merely shoved the man aside without hardly a look. The merc strode toward Inara and Mal.
“Jayne – stop him!” she yelled.
“Inara?” Jayne asked, ignoring her words as he stared at her open-mouthed. “That you?”
Inara tried to kick at Mal’s shins with her heels, but he somehow eluded her, dancing side to side without relaxing his grip. “That man – that was Will! He’s Alliance! He’s an undercover Alliance agent!”
At this point, most of the patrons of the bar decided to take their leave. Jayne stood in the middle of the chaos and squinted at Inara in confusion.
She finally got an arm free enough to jab her elbow into Mal’s ribs, just hard enough to wind him. He let her go, but it was no use. Will was out the door. Inara couldn’t even see which way he’d gone; the entrance was now stuffed with people rushing to get out. She raised a hand to her forehead, trying to calm her breathing and focus her thoughts.
Silence gradually fell over the now nearly empty bar, and she turned back to Mal. He was leaning over a table, one hand on his ribs as he sucked in air. He looked at Jayne and shook his head, as if to say, it ain’t my fault!
Jayne folded his arms and looked Inara up and down.
“I’ll be gorramned,” he said. “So you gone nuts, too?”
Ginger ran down the street, trying to catch up to Will. She made no progress – the drinks she’d had made her legs wobble all the hell over. If she’d taken the shop lady up and bought the pointy heeled boots that went with this girly outfit, she’d have broke an ankle or two on the ruts in the dried dirt of the street.
“Hold up, Will!” she called. “The lady ain’t comin’ after you. You’re all safe now! Safe and sound!”
She had to laugh as she said that, then laugh even more when she pictured Will as a big black dog, the kind with bottom teeth that stuck out and a tough rolling gait, but now he’s got his tail down between his legs and he’s whimpering and whining as he gallops wildly, fleeing in terror from a neatly groomed little white poodle that nips at his heels…
She had to grab hold of a railing and sink to her butt on the dirt, laughing too hard to see where she was going. She didn’t have long to rest – a hard hand grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to her feet.
“You are fucking pathetic,” Will snapped as he gave her a hard shake.
“The li’l lady bite you in the ass again, Will?” she asked, her words slurred with drink and hilarity.
He didn’t answer directly, just pulled her along behind him while he muttered all kinds of things. Not nice things. Things about the worth of her womanhood and the female gender in general.
“Mr. Jayne liked me just fine,” she said with a smile, then she waved at an old man who was watching them with a dour expression. “Hi sweetie!” she called with a wave. When he smiled back, she surprised herself all the more by blowing the old goat a kiss.
“Would you cut that out!” Will yelled back at her, then he lowered his voice. “You’re supposed to be an officer of the gorramn government.”
“Never stopped you, you hypocritical, sleazy, bullying worm! Bùyàoliăn de dōngxī!”
A sharp slap to her cheek knocked the laughter out of her, but didn’t quite bring her to her senses. She wasn’t sure how it happened, but Ginger found herself standing in the middle of the dusty street in her whore’s outfit and red hair, pointed her handgun straight into Will’s face. If that wasn’t a surreal situation, she didn’t know what was, but it sure did make her want to smile.
“Get this straight, Will,” she said. “I’m done with you. We got a mission to complete, and we’re nearly there. We’ll get back to the ship, make a wave to Marone, and turn this manhunt over to them who’ll do it proper. Meantime, you won’t be touchin’ me, and you won’t be talkin’ mean. I ain’t dumb enough to kill a fellow officer `cause I know how you got all them higher-ups wrapped around your little digits, and I know how they’d come after me. But I will hurt you. Don’t you doubt that I can outshoot you. I can do it sober, and I’ll do it twice when I’m drunk. You got that?”
Ginger’s vision was spinning, and all she could see of Will was three or four of him that kept going by and by and by... Those many Wills cast nervous looks around the street, at the townsfolk who were watching, and though all those Wills finished by fixing her with a glower angry enough to turn good milk sour, they also nodded.
“Go on ahead of me,” she said, motioning with her gun. “I don’t trust you one tiny bit.”
If she hadn’t been feeling so bizarre already, seeing Will comply like a meek little lamb would have done it. She followed him back to their ship; once aboard, she hurried to lock herself into her tiny bunk. She worked a thick wire into the lock on the hatch to be sure the sneaky bastard would stay out, then somehow wiggled out of her tight dress and fell into her bunk with a satisfyingly deep breath.
He’d call it in, she told herself. Will’d let Marone know that they’d found Reynolds. After what she’d just pulled, he had to be eager to end this and part ways. She may be drunk off her tail, but she’d meant every word she’d said to him, and he had to have seen as much in her face. She wasn’t his partner any more, not in any sense of the word. This job was over.
And when they got back to the Core, she was going to retire. She’d go ahead and buy a shack on a Border world, then she’d sit on her porch and shoot at squirrels all damned day. Maybe she’d get lucky and find herself a simple, rough local fella to scratch the itch from time to time. Someone like that Jayne, who didn’t pretend to be anything fancy and wouldn’t bother to hide what he’s really thinking.
Ginger smiled into her rouge stained pillow and slid into dreams about a big burly mercenary with blue-grey eyes and strong, coarse hands.
Friday, May 30, 2008 7:25 AM
Friday, May 30, 2008 7:28 AM
Friday, May 30, 2008 12:45 PM
Friday, May 30, 2008 11:11 PM
Saturday, May 31, 2008 3:22 AM
Saturday, May 31, 2008 5:48 AM
Saturday, May 31, 2008 6:10 AM
Saturday, May 31, 2008 9:39 AM
Saturday, May 31, 2008 6:35 PM
Monday, June 2, 2008 9:16 AM
Saturday, June 14, 2008 3:24 PM
Saturday, August 9, 2008 4:41 PM
Friday, August 22, 2008 7:31 PM
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