Back Stories III, Chapter 2
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Zoë and Inara have themselves a little palaver while Simon and River communicate in a very different way.


Back Stories Book 3

Chapter 2.

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

Links: The Fish Job, Easy Tickets, BS Book I, BS Book II, BS Book III, Chapter 1. Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.



Shepherd Book’s deep laughter carried through the thins walls of the small building on the edge of the impoundment lot. He seemed to be enjoying his time with the guard stationed inside, much more than Zoë’d enjoyed her chat with the two louts in town.

She crouched as she passed under the building’s side window, then came to a chain link fence that extended out from the concrete wall to surround the large yard. It wasn’t an especially difficult chore to climb over. Judging by how the barbed wire coils on top were stretched out of shape, Zoë imagined she wasn’t the first to sneak into the yard this way. Interesting – the authorities weren’t too worried about folks getting access to their impounded ships, perhaps because it didn’t do any good to get on board with a landing lock in place.

As far as that went, Book had once again proven himself a fount of information. When they’d gotten close to the impoundment lot, he’d taken a long look at the setup and offered an opinion about the equipment behind the guard’s shack, the boxes of circuitry Zoë now saw up close as she rounded the corner of the building.

“Preacher sure is handy,” she whispered to herself. He’d even had a pocket knife full of the type of gadgets she needed to take off panels, which she proceeded to do.

“And this looks to be it,” she added a few minutes later, though she quickly shushed herself. She no longer heard voices from the building – maybe Book had run out of idle conversation, or maybe the guard had talked him into a game of chess. Whatever, she was ready to give this a try. Book had told her what to look for, how to identify the circuit that powered the shipyard’s landing locks. She picked the biggest knife blade, took off her jacket, balled it around the knife handle as insulation against the current, and got ready to saw. But before she even made a mark in the wire’s thick covering she heard a hiss.

She lifted her head to listen more closely.

“Psst! Zoë!”

Āi yā,” she whispered to herself. She’d almost had it. But she got right up and tiptoed back to the corner of the building and looked around – Book was at the fence, just starting to climb up.

“Did you cut yet?” he asked, still in a whisper.

“Just gettin’ to it.”

“Don’t – I’ve got news.”

* * *

They found Serenity easily; more than a few ships her size were scattered about the lot, but most were so thickly covered with dust and rust that they seemed about to crumble. Next to them, Serenity was a picture of mechanical health and functionality.

Zoë and Book approached from the back of the ship, so they didn’t see the big man sitting on the cargo bay ramp until they walked through the cloud of smoke he’d just blown out.

“`Bout time,” Jayne said, looking over his shoulder at them.

“She’s here?” a more eager masculine voice asked from inside the ship.

“Yes, dear,” Zoë replied. “I’m home.” She circled around to the bottom of the ramp to meet her husband as he hurried down.

“Yay!” he exclaimed as he gave her a brief but tight hug and a smack on the lips. “I can’t wait to get out of here – this world is full of some weird events. Just wait till you see – ”

“And what are you doin’ here?” Zoë interrupted to demand of Jayne.

The merc pulled a half-smoked cigar out of his mouth and scowled at her. “I supposed to be someplace else?”

“Lookin’ after Mal, waitin’ for Simon and River. That’s where.”

“I done watched after the captain, or whatever he is these days. He ain’t hurt none.”

Zoë squinted at Jayne and stepped to the bottom edge of the ramp to get a closer look at him. The slump of his shoulders made her suspicious, but his breath confirmed it – even the smoke from his cigar couldn’t hide the stink of whiskey that surrounded him.

“Them other two ain’t my job,” he added. His eyes slid over to Book but quickly shifted away again. “Truth is, ain’t none of this mess my job, and I wish y’all’d just stay off my back about it!” With that, he spat onto the lot’s cracked pavement then turned and stalked up the ramp.

Book stepped up to where the merc had been. The Shepherd stared after Jayne for a few seconds, then looked back at Zoë and said exactly what she was thinking.

“Seems a mite defensive.”

Zoë looked to Wash. Her husband shrugged. “I haven’t heard the full story, but I get the idea that he wasn’t so—”

Wash was interrupted again, this time by Kaylee, who nearly skipped onto the ramp. Her face was lit with a kind of glee Zoë hadn’t seen in the girl for some time. “Guess who’s here!” she sang out. “You’ll never guess, I was so surprised myself! I could’a peed my pants right on the spot when I saw –”

Zoë held a hand up. “Kaylee, please, can we just…”

A dark, upright figure appeared out of the shadows behind Kaylee, and the shock of the sight made Zoë forget what she’d been saying. In one way, the woman didn’t look much like her old self; her face was smudged by dirt rather than makeup, and her slim body, usually shown to best advantage by fine silks, was hidden behind a dark, heavy cloak. But there was no mistaking her, not with the way she carried herself.

“Hello, Zoë,” Inara said.

Zoë didn’t answer. She didn’t think the first words that came to mind were appropriate to say in mixed company.

Kaylee had no such impediments. She clapped her hands and did a little hop as she ran back to stand beside Inara, taking her hand like she just had to show solid evidence of the Companion’s presence. “Can you believe it? I don’t know how she found us, but here she is! I don’t think I ever been so happy!”

Inara pulled her eyes off Zoë to smile at the mechanic before being engulfed in a hug.

“And there you are!” another voice called from the shadows of the cargo bay behind the two women. Malcolm walked into the sunlight, his coat flapping out behind him, his eyes fixed on Zoë. For a second, he looked so like the captain he ought to be that Zoë let him catch her by the arm and turn her aside.

“I think you ought’a know,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper. He glanced over his shoulder at Inara, then turned back, but held up a hand by his mouth as if he thought the Companion might read his lips. “You got to walk soft with this lady.”

Zoë noted that his breath smelled of beer. She raised an eyebrow at him.

“I think she’s not all there,” he said, whispering the words in carefully distinct way. “You know.” He ticked his head to the side, making a face and a sharp clucking noise at the same time.

When Zoë only stared at him, he did it again. Twice.

“A bit nuts,” he clarified. “Prone to violent behaviors.”

“Okay,” Zoë said loudly, and she pushed Malcolm away from her, “I’m gettin’ sick of asking this kind’a thing, but who is gonna explain this to me, and I mean you’d best do it now!”

Inara walked partway down the ramp. “Let’s just get on the ship. I have a lot to tell you–”

Zoë held up a hand, index finger raised, to silence the woman. “Not you. Not. You. Wash?”

Her husband shrugged. “Bù zhī dào. She just showed up with Jayne and Mal.” The captain gave him a sharp look and he corrected: “I mean, Malcolm.”

“Zoë, we really have to go,” Inara said – as if she had some right to hand out an order. She cast Mal a skittish look as she stepped off the ramp onto the concrete of the lot, but then passed him by and came face to face with Zoë. “I paid the fines. I talked them into releasing the landing lock. The ship is free to go.”

Zoë nodded – Book had figured out nearly as much from the guard, though he’d assumed that the woman described as small, pretty, and dark-haired was Simon’s doctor friend, doing a last friendly favor for Serenity’s crew. Never had he or Zoë guessed that the ship’s liberator could be Inara Serra.

But it didn’t matter to Zoë. This woman had no business here, not after what she’d done to the captain. She’d damned near made him love her, then walked out without giving any reason as to why. And his mental woes had started right after that. No, this woman wouldn’t be getting a chance to hurt Mal again. Zoë was solidly decided about that.

She looked toward Wash. “Simon and River?”

Her husband held out his hands and shook his head.

“All right, we got to find them.” Zoë walked up the ramp, pulling Malcolm with her. “Load up, everyone. Wash, get her warm. Kaylee, make sure the ship ain’t clogged up with dust from sitting out here. Book, escort our guest–” She nodded to Malcolm to make it clear who she meant. “– to some comfortable out-of-the-way spot.”

Wash hurried into the ship at a jog. Kaylee hesitated, her eyes flicking between Zoë, who stood in the shadows of the airlock now, and Inara still at the bottom of the ramp. The girl was finally seeing that she was only one jumping with joy at this unexpected reunion. “I already did a check and changed out a line that was actin’ up – ” she started, but Zoë interrupted.

“Go check again.”

Kaylee frowned for just a second, then hurried down the ramp to squeeze Inara in another quick hug. “Can’t wait till we catch up!” she said. “I got so much to tell you… I’m just glad as can be you’re back!” She turned to cast a frown at Zoë, and her voice picked up a bit of an edge. “We all are, or will be once we get our heads together.” Once done having her say, she passed Book and Malcolm and disappeared into the shadows of the cargo bay.

Inara stepped onto the ramp, but Zoë stopped her with a look.

“You think you’re goin’ someplace?

Inara’s eyes widened. “I… Zoë….”

Zoë glowered down at the woman. She had some height on Inara, and the slope of the ramp only increased it. “You ain’t part of this crew.”

Inara gaped, like she had no words, but another voice spoke for her. “Look,” Malcolm said from behind Zoë, “don’t go kickin’ her off cause what I said. I didn’t mean – ”

“Get on the ship, Malcolm,” Zoë ordered stonily.

“But I don’t think you ought’a just leave here, not when she –”

Zoë turned to face him. “Malcolm, you took a tour a’ this boat, I take it?”

He studied her, clearly suspicious as to her change of subject, before he nodded reluctantly. “I had a gander.”

“You see an automatic dish washin’ machine in the galley?”

Malcolm squinted, clearly not pleased at the question. “Can’t say as I noticed–”

“Well, we ain’t got one, and until the captain of this ship comes back, I am the one in charge and that includes settin’ the chore schedule. Less you wanna be scrubbin’ plates for the next month, I suggest you get your ass on board. Mă. Shàng.”

Malcolm’s face turned bitter, but it wasn’t more than a long second before he did as he was told, slouching away without any more response than a few inaudible mumbles. Book gave Inara a wave and a look of apology, then followed after.

Zoë turned her attention on Inara, finally able to focus on the Companion. Inara was completely flummoxed by what she’d just witnessed. She gaped and raised a hand, motioning to the spot where Mal had just stood.

“Zoë – what just…what… ?”

“The rest didn’t fill you in?”

“No – and I tried to find out! They won’t talk about it, not in front of him. Rén cí de Fózu, what is wrong, Zoë? What is wrong with everyone? They all… even Kaylee, she acted like it was completely normal for him to be… to do… to act like…”

“Normal ain’t what it used to be,” Zoë said coolly. She took a few steps back, enough so she could reach the door controls.

Inara started and stumbled back onto the dusty concrete of the shipyard when the ramp began to close, then stood, frozen with a look of disbelief. For a quick second, doubt clouded Zoë’s mind; the Companion seemed tiny and fragile against the stretch of decrepit pavement and the wide open plains behind her. She must have been on quite a journey, to find them here. And not a glamorous one, judging by how she was dressed.

But Zoë couldn’t have her on board. Not now, when Simon’d just found a way to bring the captain back to himself. It might border on wrong to abandon Inara in this place, but the woman would have to make do. And she surely could – Inara was nothing if not resourceful.

Zoë’s battle with regret turned straight to vexation when Inara put her hands on the edge of the ramp, which had reached the level of her waist. She hopped up and twisted to sit on it, then swung her legs around.

Zoë swore and punched the controls to stop the door from lifting any further. “I ain’t playin’ this game!”

As Inara pushed herself to her feet her words came out in a rush. “Zoë, the Alliance is after Mal. A warship, the Argent, the same one from Niflheim, is on its way. It’ll be here in an hour, maybe less.”

“How do you – ?”

“And it’s worse than that. Agents are already here – there was a man at the bar, talking to Mal. Talking to Mal, Zoë! It was Will. The one who hijacked Serenity, who hurt Mal, who tried to… The same man. He’s an agent of the Alliance, and he was talking to Mal less than an hour ago!”

Zoë froze at that, thinking back to Jayne’s defensiveness. Oh yeah, he’d done something.

“That’s right,” Inara went on. “They came to me on Sihnon because they wanted to use me to find Serenity. I don’t know why, but I know they were lying to me. And we both know what kind of man Will is. If they’re sending him… You can’t be caught, Zoë. I don’t know what they want to do to Mal, but more than anything I don’t want him hurt!”

Zoe folded her arms. The feeling behind Inara’s words was unmistakable, and Zoë couldn’t deny that she felt some pity for the woman’s plight. But she just wasn’t ready to forgive. “Mal’s hurt wasn’t always your top concern,” she said pointedly.

Inara’s shoulders slumped and she stared down at the ramp below her feet. “I know. Don’t you think I know? I want to make amends, Zoë. That’s all I ask.”

“Best way to do that is to get off this ship so I can move on. I got a doctor and his sister to hunt down `fore we can make our leave.”

Inara straightened again and met Zoë’s eye. “I’m coming with you.”

“I think not.” Zoë’s voice was as hard as flint. “You ain’t welcome here, and you never will be. Now, I can throw you off or you can take your leave like you usually do, all lady-like and proper.”

The combination of insult and icy threat had no effect; Inara held her ground. If anything, she stood taller and her jaw set with plainer stubbornness. Zoë wasn’t pleased to see it. Despite her words, she had no desire to get physically violent. She might be angry at Inara, but she couldn’t make herself hate her. The marks of the woman’s journey were making themselves known to Zoë: the Companion’s face was pale except for dark circles that rimmed her eyes with no makeup to hide them. In fact, her face was thinner than Zoë recalled, almost gaunt, as if she’d spend the past few weeks haunted by her own ghosts.

Even so, the woman’s stance wasn’t soft. Inara studied Zoë with all the intensity of a gunhand preparing to draw. Zoë realized that the comparison was fitting – this was indeed a showdown, and Inara was choosing her weapon. It wasn’t likely to go well if the Companion had the chance to define this duel her own way, but before Zoë could take action Inara made her choice. She relaxed her stance and tilted her head, her expression turning inquisitive and almost sweet. Almost – her smile had an edge of something sharp to it.

“So tell me, Zoë. How are the jobs going?”


“The jobs. Are the fuel tanks full? The engine running smoothly? And how’s the galley? Well stocked?”

It was Zoë’s turn to be defensive. She kept her arms folded but couldn’t help shifting her feet slightly. “We got cash a‘plenty on hand,” she said with a raised chin. Well, she added to herself, maybe not a’plenty. But they did have some income from Badger’s selesta, and more of the same to sell off if they ever got a chance.

Inara was in her groove. She arched an elegant eyebrow in a perfect expression of amused skepticism. “Really?”

Zoë frowned; she’d never had reason to hate how this woman could read body language, but she did now. “It ain’t your business whether we got cash or not.” She paused at a loud rumble and a wave of dust that kicked up outside the half-open door behind Inara. Wash was getting the engines warmed and ready. “Enough of this. Just get off the– ”

Inara interrupted, her voice now firm and businesslike. “I have a substantial amount of money, both credits and platinum. I also have two accounts which are not officially tied to ‘Inara Serra the Companion’, and I can access them anonymously from any station or outpost with a postal office.” She took a few cautious steps forward, moving further up the ramp. “Zoë, I can keep this ship fueled and provisioned for some time.”

Zoë started to argue, but Inara cut her off again.

“In addition, I have other skills which you would be foolish to pass by. For example, what exactly where you planning to free the ship today? Shoot-outs? Bribery? Theft?”

Zoë lifted her chin. “I had it handled. I was just about to cut out the landing lock circuits myself.”

Inara took another step away from the dust that thickened in the entryway. “Which might very well have set off an alert and drawn every security guard in the system to this lot.”

Zoë couldn’t help clearing her throat once before she replied, “Might not have.”

Inara’s voice took on a honey-silk warmth. “But now you don’t need to risk it, do you? You are free to take off at your leisure, and I didn’t use my Companion status to make it happen. I used my charm.” She paused for a smile that was full of exactly that. “I know how to work people, Zoë. I know how to open doors. I’m guessing that open doors aren’t things you’ve seen a lot of lately, and given the people who are after Mal, you won’t be seeing many in your future.”

Zoë looked down at the deck; she couldn’t deny it.

Inara continued her slow progress forward, finally coming to a stop right in front of Zoë. “You need me,” she said. Since this duel had started, all of Inara’s words had been strong, but the next few came out as a plea, with a clear note of desperation. “You need me, or they’ll get Mal. Let me help you. Let me help him.”

Zoë held Inara’s eye, knowing that the Companion had just showed her weakness, her own dire need. It gave Zoë the upper hand, the power to refuse and Inara's arguments would be for naught. But Zoë couldn’t do it. If there truly was an Alliance warship an hour from breaking atmo and Agents on the loose in this very settlement, she needed every bit of aid she could get. Even from Inara.

Zoë looked away first, dropping her eyes to the deck.

Inara exhaled audibly, then stepped around Zoë to climb the stairway with soft, unhurried steps.

Zoë sighed and pressed the door controls, then spoke into the comm. “Take us into town, Wash,” she said, her tone resigned. “Let’s find the Tams.”

* * *

Simon kept his eyes tightly closed as he blew a carefully controlled exhale through his nose and waited for River to take her turn with the oxygen mask. Gently he stroked her hair and tried to keep his mind focused on calm, reassuring thoughts.

We will be all right. We will get out of this. I will never, ever let them take you back.

It was a comfort to him to know that his sister wasn’t alone in this endless existence of darkness and measured breaths, that she could hear something from him even though the drugged air didn’t allow him to speak aloud. He didn’t know how it worked, if she actually understood the words or only sensed emotion like clouds of color and mood, but just in case he kept repeating in his mind, as clearly as he could: Stay calm. Don’t move. We will be all right.

Just hold on, just a little longer…

Of course, he had no way of knowing how much longer. It could have been a several hours since Tori had locked them in here, or it could have been twenty minutes. He doubted the latter though; both of his legs’d had the chance to fall asleep now, more than once.

I wish I’d counted breaths, he thought. At least I’d have some idea of where we stand.

River shifted suddenly, moving onto her knees and taking his free hand in both of hers. Simon kept passing the mask between them, but his attention focused on her motions as she began to gently knock her knuckles against his palm. She was tapping out a pattern. Numbers.

Seven, pause.

Five, pause.

Eight, stop.

That many? Each? OK, maybe 5 seconds per breath, so that makes… He started to calculate but she was tapping already.

Two, long pause.

Six, stop.

Twenty six minutes?

She slapped his shoulder, then took his hand and manipulated it into a fist with his index finger jabbing up at the ceiling.

You’re right, it has to be longer. Two hours, six minutes?

Keeping in contact with him so he could feel her motions, she spread her fingers and waggled her hand side to side.

Give or take… some.

She let go of his hand and settled down against his side again, hugging him. They sat like that, reestablishing the timing of inhales and exhales, while Simon considered the situation. Two hours was a long time to be in this position, helplessly trapped in the dark, surrounded by poison air. But it might not be long enough for Zoë to be missing them yet. It all depended on how much trouble the crew was having getting the ship free. The crew wasn’t supposed to meet up again until sunset, and, if River’s count was right, that was still several hours away.

How much longer could he and River stay here? Tori had said the Alliance was coming, but she hadn’t said when. She’d contacted the authorities sometime that morning, perhaps early. It might have been several hours ago, and the Alliance could move quickly when they chose to. They could be close already, in orbit right now, a shuttle on its way down, perhaps landing right outside the clinic…

Impatience and dread swelled in Simon’s chest. He couldn’t just sit here and wait for some armed goon to knock down the door and take River away. No matter the limitations he faced, the desperation of this situation, surely he could find some way to act.

River knocked her knuckles against his chest excitedly. He put a hand over her fist and realized that her thumb was pointed up.

Agreement. Enthusiastic agreement.

OK, he thought, I have to find a way out of here. Only one exit – the door. Locked. Very locked. No method of communication. No comm at all. We can’t talk anyway – the gas is getting to me as it is…

He rubbed his sore eyes and River patted his cheek sympathetically.

So, we have to go through the door. No other way. But how? It has a window. Thick glass, reinforced, but it is glass. If only we had something heavy and strong enough…

A memory flooded into his mind suddenly: special sessions at the beginning of each term at MedAcad, legally required lab safety training….

Of course!

Even as the details of a plan began to coalesce in his mind, River snatched the mask away from him. He heard her take in and blow out three quick breaths, followed by a long, deep inhale, then the mask was pressed back into his hand and she was gone.

* * *

Translations Āi yā: damn Bù zhī dào: Don’t know. Mă. Shàng: Right. Now. Rén cí de Fózu: Merciful Buddha

* * *

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008 4:26 PM


Ack! I've had no time to prepare something to say here! I've been so busy, I just want to get this posted. I'll have to reply to Ch. 1 comments later...

Except to say - nbz, please do predict. Except maybe PM me because knowing you you'll guess exactly right and blow the surprise LOL! I'll give you full props later, I promise. :)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 6:26 PM


Glad to see you back again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 6:43 PM


What? You're still holding out on the Mal/Inara parts? And school has started and posting may get further apart? Thanks for getting this out at least - I know exactly what you're going through at school so I wish you luck and strength and fortitude and hope to see more soon.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 11:53 PM


Brilliant, I am loving this. I am totally understanding everyone's positions but what tension you built between Inara and Zoe, and I winced out how Zoe spoke to Mal even though she was doing it for his own good. And Jayne, delighted he didn't actually leave Mal behind but had got him back to Serenity even if he'd drunk a little too much. It's been a roller coaster for them all and it isn't all over yet. I am worrying about how after a couple breaths of oxygen River is just 'gone'. Thought they were locked in that room with poisonous air or does she now have the ability to teleport? Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, August 29, 2008 9:37 AM


Teleport.... teehee.

Still loving this.


Friday, September 5, 2008 1:40 PM



Gotta say I am hating on Inara for making Zoe back down. She always seems to get her own way and Zoe is too sensible to do anything here.

And Zoe putting Mal down - classic!


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Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.

Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.