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Back Stories Book III, Chapter 5
Friday, May 1, 2009

Fresh off their latest escape, the crew stops for fuel and starts planning to get back into trouble as soon as possible.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2144    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Back Stories Book 3

Chapter 5.

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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.


 

 

 


Report to Codename:irishson
CLASSIFICATION: EYES ONLY
Page 78 of 80

Conclusions (cont’d): In sum, unrest in the local sphere of operations has increased by approximately 60% in the past two weeks, based on number and intensity of insurgent events. Local leadership is becoming more tractable, in particular Codename:gardenslug. Hence, Operation:flintandsteel has made significant progress toward Objective 1. Objective 2 is progressing as described in Section 5 of this report. Objective 3 is beyond the current state of affairs, but projected to come into play within the next six months.

Recommendations: The current course of action should be continued and, if possible, accelerated, for two to three weeks. Enough Tán Hé forces are present to maintain order for this time; however, reinforcements should be prepared for transportation as soon as requested by Codename:gardenslug.

The need for increased intensity and expanded operations requires that funding for Operation:flintandsteel be adjusted upward accordingly.

 

 

Richard Westfield snickered sharply and slapped the neatly bound report shut. Of course the funding must increase. He had yet to read a report that didn’t come to such a logical and absolutely necessary conclusion.

He rose from his desk, taking the document with him. Wood-faced cabinets so tall that he could barely reach their top shelves lined his office; those on the east wall held information from budding projects on Rim worlds. This particular venture would need to expand to its own cabinet soon. Tán Hé’s operation on Oeneus took up the third and fourth shelfs already, and the amount of paperwork was likely to increase exponentially in the next few months.

Westfield placed Codename:deadbranch’s report carefully into its proper place, then closed the surprisingly heavy door—solid steel lay under the tasteful wood vaneer—and spun the lock. This information was for no eyes but his own, and perhaps those few members of Parliament who took part in this particular project.

He returned to his desk and checked the cortex for new messages. Several were waiting, but not the one he was most interested in. What he really wanted to hear about were the fugitives on Highgate, the doctor and his sister. Lieutenant Brady should be sending news, any time now.

* * *

“Put this on, sir,” a soldier said, taking a standard-issue gas mask off a clip on his belt. Despite the hot sun and the expectation that no combat would be involved in this mission, the young man was wearing full armor, including a helmet with a breathing mask to match the one he was holding out. Lieutenant Brady took the offered mask and held it with the tips of two fingers while he studied it doubtfully; the thing made the soldier look like some kind of exotic upright crustacean.

“Sir,” the young man said, “if the targets were neutralized by an airborne toxin as reported, traces of the drug may remain in the air.”

Brady sighed in resignation and slipped the mask on, almost shuddering at how it made the hot air of Highgate close in against the skin of his face.

“No one else has gone into the lab?” he asked as he waited for the soldier to fit the mask’s straps for him. His voice, suddenly trapped, was loud in his ears, and sweat immediately began tickling the back of his neck.

“No, sir. We’ve secured the front rooms. A few patients were removed. Just locals. No one else is present as far as we’ve seen. But we did not enter the lab, as you ordered.”

Brady nodded and took a few deep breaths, letting himself get used to the hiss of air passing through the mask’s filters, before he turned to the open door of the clinic. The masks’s limited field of vision made him step through clumsily, one arm held out in front of him, then he had to stand for a few seconds to let his eyes grow accustomed to the dark. With some squinting, he made out three soldiers standing in the shadows of the innocuously empty waiting room. They seemed quite comfortable and natural in their own armor and gas masks. He nodded to them and moved on to a short hall.

“You’ve checked these rooms?” he asked the soldier who was following just slightly behind him.

“Yes, sir. The only place we didn’t enter was the lab.” The young man motioned ahead; two more masked soldiers were at the end of the hall by a door, one crouched by the latch with power tools scattered about her.

“The panel’s been destroyed, sir,” the woman said. “Should I cut it?”

Brady nodded.

One zip of the metal saw severed the lock, making the heavy metal door start to swing open. Brady stepped forward quickly to pull it closed again, then waved the soldiers back. This task wasn’t for them. He felt no gratitude toward Chancellor Westfield for putting him in the position of entering unknown territory on his own, but he had orders. No one else must talk to the fugitives.

On opening the door, he found a woman laying face down on the floor. He stepped around her and attempted to close the door behind him, but with the latch severed it wouldn't stay. A fire ax lay on the floor next to the woman; Brady propped the heavy head of it against the door.

The lab was dark but neat. Even with the cumbersome mask, it took only seconds for him to check the rest of the room. For another long minute, he checked again, even opening cabinets to ensure that there no one else was hiding.

He finally gave up and crouched next to the woman to check for a pulse. She was alive. She was small in stature, fitting the description of one of Westfield’s targets, though the picture had shown her dark hair to be long. It was now cropped short. Brady wasn’t surprised—of course a fugitive would try to disguise her appearance. The more pressing question on his mind was the whereabouts of her brother.

Brady returned to the hall. “No one else is in the building?” he demanded of the lead soldier.

“No sir. We’ve done a sweep of the area outside as well.”

Brady chewed his lip inside the mask; this was not good news.

“Fine. There’s an unconscious woman in the lab; move her out to the transport. Have the medic look at her, but she’s to remain unconscious. You and your men will stay here. We’re missing one of the targets.” Brady handed the guard a photo. No name or explanation was on it, just a picture of a dark-haired young man.

“If you see this person, sedate him immediately. You have dart guns?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Use them.”

“Of course, sir.”

Brady waited for a stretcher to arrive, then followed the unconscious woman out of the clinic and back to the transport. He had to admit that he was curious, tempted to let her wake up so he could talk to her himself and find out what had made her so very important to the likes of Chancellor Westfield. But Brady was far too sensible to give in to that temptation. It was better to leave her to the pair of officials that Westfield had sent and keep himself out of this mess, whatever it was.

* * *

Ginger Larkin emerged from her bunk after an absurdly long time spent in preparation. Part of the delay was her hangover, a slightly larger part was adjusting her appearance, but the lion’s share was spent building up her inner steel. Everything had changed, and she had nothing but battles in front of her. It took all the courage she could muster to face it head on.

As she expected, Will was waiting. He sat at the pilot’s seat, settled in like he’d been there for some time. Scraps of food wrappers littered the deck around him, and a not-quite-empty bottle tilted at an angle against the back of the piloting console, one good tap away from a disastrous spill over the circuits of the control board. To build up such a mess, he must have been parked there for several hours, but Ginger didn’t mention it. She waited quietly while his red eyes took her in.

After a long moment, his face broke into a sloppy grin. “Silly Ginger,” he said in a teasing tone. “Black is my thing.”

She raised a hand to her head self-consciously. An undercover Alliance agent couldn’t walk about with candy cane red hair and a cheap whore’s gown, so she’d planned her change in costume in advance, buying all she needed from the same lady who’d done her hair on Highgate. Black dye was the best choice for making sure the red was completely covered, and tight black pants hadn’t seemed so unreasonable, given a longish black coat to cover the parts of her that she never had been comfortable showing off. And Ginger’d put the eye make-up on because… well, because it just seemed right. If she was going to be the kind of spy that seduced her target in a Rimworld bar, she might as well look the part.

It hadn’t occurred to her until now that she was borrowing heavily from Will’s look. Black, head to toe.

“Mission’s on,” Will said, skipping past further comment on her appearance. “But the timeline’s moved up. We’ve got to get to Reynolds, as fast as possible. We can’t risk letting him scuttle. We’ve got to be sure we’ve got him, no doubt, before we pounce.”

She glanced toward the windows; nothing but Black could be seen. Will glanced over his shoulder, following her gaze.

“We’re on their tail now,” he explained, nodding into the void. “Staying a safe ways behind. They’re making a line to the Midway station off the back side of Muir. Likely just for fuel, like most of the useless bastards who ran off from Highgate. The station’s small, and it’ll be packed full of escapees. We won’t get a chance at him there.”

“So we keep following?”

“That’s the plan.”

Ginger narrowed her eyes. “That’s Marone’s plan?”

“Of course.”

“All right. When we get to the station, I’ll go look about. I might be able to figure where they’re planning to go from there.” And if she was hoping to catch sight of that big, coarse merc again, Will didn’t need to know.

“I'm not sure about that,” Will said.

“About what?”

He fixed her with a dark look. “About whether I trust you to go fraternizing with the enemy.”

Ginger chewed her tongue. It had always been her way to be cautious, but where had that gotten her? It was time—way past time—for candor. She folded down a small bench on the back bulkhead of the cockpit and sat down on it. Fixing her legs solidly on the deck and folding her arms, she leveled her eyes at Will. She liked that; she liked the idea of “leveling” her gaze, like it was a weapon as keen as those she was more familiar with.

“Let’s be plain, Will. I don’t like you, and you don’t like me.”

He didn’t have to nod agreement, just stared at her and waited to hear the rest.

“But the situation ain’t changed. We’re partners, and we’re under orders to get this Reynolds fellow. I’d be happy to have it done. You?”

He shrugged indifferently at first, but then gave in with a nod. “Yes. Yes, I’d like to be done with Reynolds.” The way he stressed that one word was an invitation, but she didn’t take him up. She didn’t want to know about his personal plans.

“All right, then. I got us an in.”

Will leveled his own stare at her. “The mercenary?”

She nodded.

His eyes narrowed. “And again: I don’t trust you.”

His power over her was so weak that she actually smiled at that. “I ain’t trusted you in some time. Welcome to the party.”

He considered a bit, then suddenly smiled back at her. “I do believe I like you better now than I used to. Even though—I suppose a shag isn’t an option anymore?”

Her smile disappeared. “Will, if you bring that thing anywhere near me, I will tear it off.”

His grin only widened. “We have an understanding then?”

“We do.”

* * *

Zoë folded her hands around a small plastic cup, hoping the warmth of her grip would make the bitter space station brew—it couldn’t be real tea—more palatable, then raised her eyes to the doctor.

“All right, Simon. Where do we go from here?”

Simon blew out an unsure breath and didn’t answer immediately. Zoë slid her eyes to the side to check the room, reassuring herself that no one in the midway station’s darkest saloon would overhear her words. No one besides the brooding mercenary sitting with his back half turned on the young doctor, that is.

“Mal ain’t forgettin’ more, right?”

Simon shook his head. “No, thank goodness. He wore the cap again last night and woke up unchanged this morning.”

“Any chance he’ll start getting better?”

“It’s possible. It’s as if… it’s like he’s been walking on a broken leg for weeks, and I finally got him a cast and crutches. He’ll stop getting worse for sure. He might start healing, as long as he’s not too damaged or… too far out of alignment, I guess you could say. But it’ll take time.”

“How long?”

Simon shook his head, unable to manage even a shrug. “Medicine isn’t an exact science.”

Zoë frowned, and they sat and pondered until Jayne broke the silence.

“Does make you wonder though.”

Simon gave the mercenary a questioning look. “Makes who wonder what?”

“Why the Alliance sent that guy after Mal.”

Zoë and Simon shared a frown, then focused on Jayne for more explanation.

“I mean, can’t have been easy to track us down. I sure as hell wasn’t expecting it.” Zoë read something like guilt in how Jayne’s eyes fell and he turned his face away. “More n’ that,” he went on, “they went through Inara, took the risk a’ making trouble with the whole gorramned Guild. All that work to track Mal down out here. They must want him bad. But what I can’t figure is why the idgets didn’t just take him back on Niflheim.”

Zoë sat up straighter, shocked at the thought. Shocked that hadn’t come to her before. She’d been so burdened in the past day that this issue hadn’t even occurred to her. “Lord help me for being schooled by Jayne Cobb,” she said, “but the man has a point.” She looked to Simon. “Will is working for the Alliance—fine. But why didn’t they take Mal when they had the ship in custody on Niflheim? Wasn’t hardly a month ago, and they let us walk.”

“Didn’t he give a fake name?” Simon asked.

The answer came from a new source. “He did, but they knew who he was.” Inara slid into the booth next to Simon and handed a small leather purse over to Zoë. Zoë took it, felt the satisfyingly heavy coins inside, and tucked it into her vest.

“They knew?” Simon asked.

Inara settled her elbows on the table and leaned toward Simon. “Mal gave that ào dà shă guā Lieutenant Brady on the Argent a fake name, but when they were holding me, trying to convince me to be their star witness, they told me they knew Mal’s name and history. They even said he was wanted for ‘terrorist activities’ on Oeneus, but they seemed to know that those charges were groundless.”

“You believe that?” Zoë asked.

“I do. If they’d thought him guilty, they would have pressed the fact that he’d disappeared from a cell on Oeneus.”

“They didn’t?”

“No. I called their charges ridiculous and they didn’t disagree. Instead, they threatened to search Serenity. They knew Mal was a smuggler, and clearly thought they’d find plenty to charge all of us with. Of course, I couldn’t allow a search of the ship because of…” She stopped, not wanting to put another burden on Simon’s shoulders. Still, she couldn’t help glancing at the doctor.

He understood. “Thank you,” he said softly.

Inara smiled at him softly. “It was my pleasure, Simon.”

“So you cut a deal with them,” Zoë said. “And that deal made everyone on Serenity free and clear.”

“The agreement won us amnesty for our doings over those few days on Niflheim. They were adamant about that, believe me. Those OPR people—”

“O. P. What?” Jayne asked.

“Office of Professional Responsibility,” Inara explained. “It’s one of the Alliance’s internal police. They make sure that corporate contractors behave ethically, as much as that’s possible in such a large organization.”

Jayne shrugged and looked away again, suddenly more interested in the doorway to the bar than what Inara had to say.

“And so those OPR people…?” Zoë prompted.

“They were quite clear that we had amnesty for the days we were Niflheim, but not for any time before. Technically, if Mal had been wanted for some prior infraction, they could have taken him after they had the testimony they wanted from me.”

“But they didn’t,” Simon finished.

Inara shook her head. “Maybe something new came up since? Or something that took time to put together?”

Simon gave Zoë something of a nervous glance, then sat back in his chair as if he wanted some distance from her before he spoke. “Something to do with the war?” he asked cautiously.

Zoë immediately shook her head. “No. They got no beef with Mal from that, he served his time.”

Simon put his elbows back on the table. “Then it has to be Oeneus. All of this started there. It can’t be a coincidence.”

“But… how?” Inara asked.

Zoë leaned over the table herself. “Let’s look at what we know: They thought Mal was part of some uprising on the up-and-coming world of Oeneus, smuggling guns to rebels, so they took him and questioned him. Only that kě pà de questioning process didn’t work on him like it had on others.”

“Because of River,” Simon went on. “Mal got out of that dream state before they completely broke his mind, because River somehow… contacted him or whatever you want to call it. Then Jayne walked in and took him out of the cell.”

Hearing his name, Jayne looked back at them and nodded emphatically, as if he hoped to convince them that he’d been following the conversation all along.

Zoë studied the merc. “Jayne, you were there when Mal first took the job on New Melbourne. You recall anything strange?”

“`Sides all the fish?”

“Besides all the fish.”

Jayne shrugged and looked toward the saloon’s doorway again.

“The answer’s there somewhere,” Simon said. “Somewhere on New Melbourne, or on Oeneus.”

Zoë studied the doctor. “You think we ought to go back?”

“If nothing else, I can check with people who were questioned like Mal was. If this condition of his did start with that interrogation, maybe I can get more information. Maybe I can learn enough to really help him. And perhaps some of them have seen doctors of their own, and have—”

“I’m so chí dùn!” Inara interrupted, and she pressed a hand against her forehead. This got Jayne’s attention; the merc turned to her with his face screwed up in confusion.

“We all are,” Inara went on. “It’s Ricky Lu! Mal took the job carrying the seafood meals from Ricky Lu, who got caught by the same people who took Mal. Ricky went through the same questioning process, and then—”

“—we left him workin’ with the Prefect,” Zoë finished, then she shook her head bitterly. “Gorramned Prefect. He looked to be good man, helping us get Mal out like he did. I could’a sworn he was on our side.”

Inara nodded. “I did too, until I saw him working with Will and Ginger, helping the Alliance track Mal down. I still don’t understand, but the best way to find out what he’s really up to is to go through Ricky Lu.”

“Won’t be safe,” Zoë said. “Marone’ll be expectin’ us to try to back track for answers. Might be looking for us to stop in and see Ricky.”

“It’s not like we have other options.”

Zoë saw the truth in Inara’s words, but didn’t like the feeling that the woman was trying to direct the ship’s actions. Inara should have one role in all this, and one only. To remind her of it, Zoë patted the coin purse in her pocket. “At least cash flow ain’t a problem,” she said pointedly.

Inara lifted her chin to nod at Zoë’s pocket. “Is that enough?”

“For now,” Zoë replied dismissively. “Jayne, you hearin’ all this?”

“Back to New Melbourne,” the mercenary said without turning back to the table.

“And I’ll need you along when we get there, to walk me through what happened the first time.”

Jayne nodded. “Sure thing,” he said in an off-handed way, then he suddenly stood up. “Gotta hit the john,” he said. “Might do a little personal shoppin’ too, if there’s time.”

The others rose as well. “Filling the tanks will take a good hour,” Zoë told Jayne. “Be back before then.”

“Sure thing,” he said again, and he wandered off toward the back of the bar.

* * *

“Zoë’s in charge,” Kaylee told Malcolm, replying to his question without looking at him. Their positions, leaning back against the lower half of dining room’s pale yellow bulkhead, made it awkward to meet eyes. “She’s in charge, but she ain’t really the captain.”

“Why’s that?”

“We got a captain. He just ain’t here right now.”

Malcolm lifted a Tall Card and spun it through the fingers of one hand. “Where’s he at?”

“Busy.”

He snorted. “Some captain.”

Kaylee flitted her hand out to slap the side of his leg. “Easy there, don’t be talking dirt! The captain’s the best. Even when he’s… not. I can’t wait till we get him back. Not that I don’t like you just fine. In some ways, you’re nicer, but…” She stopped herself, realizing that this line of talk could make no sense to him. “Anyway, Zoë ain’t used to having everything to do. I think it grates on her some, but she’s doing a fine job. I expect cap’n’ll be real proud a’ her when he gets back.”

Malcolm shrugged; the ship’s politics apparently weren’t of interest to him, because his mind seemed to have gone off someplace else. He turned the card in his hand sideways, balancing it between two fingers and squinting as he took aim.

“So, you got a thing goin’ with the doctor?” he asked.

“That I do.”

“Ain’t he…”

“What?”

“Well… never mind.”

He made his throw, sending the Tall Card cutting through the air toward a stewpot he’d set in the middle of the room. It hit the inside wall of the pot with a sharp ting. Kaylee watched his face closely, but his attention was fixed on his throw and his expression told her nothing.

“Go on,” she urged. “Say what you’re thinkin’.”

He picked another card off the deck in his left hand. “I was just just thinking that he’s a bit… I mean, you seem like a nice regular type of girl, and he’s…”

Kaylee tipped her head back against the dining room bulkhead, not liking what meaning she could glean from his words. She might have to reconsider the issue of the young Malcolm’s niceness. Seems he could be just as bad with making small talk as the grown up Mal.

“I’m a regular type of girl, then?”

“Yeah, you know.”

She couldn’t help pushing him. “No, I think I don’t.”

Malcolm took another shot, but this time the card spun out of control, sliding under the table and almost reaching the galley island on the far side of the room. “I mean… I just mean you’re a regular gal. Ain’t into being all fancy.”

Kaylee narrowed her eyes and pursed her mouth, biting back both a smile as well as a few sharp words. Oh, you just better be glad that you’re sick Malcolm Reynolds, or I’d be havin’ to lay into you for bein’ cheeky…

“So you think Simon’s puttin’ on airs?” she asked.

Malcolm tipped his head and huffed in a way that said: ain’t it obvious?

Kaylee was more than ready to come to Simon’s defense. “Sure, he’s from the Core. He can’t help it any more than you and I can help where we’re from. It don’t mean he ain’t a good man inside. He might put on clean clothes, don’t mean he’s out to fool anyone by it.”

An unexpected voice floated out from the galley. “Unlike some people.”

Kaylee and Malcolm both leaned sideways to look around the table, and found a pair of brown eyes peeking around the galley island. The forehead belonging to the eyes rested in a pool of brown hair on the floor.

“Some people work hard to deceive,” River went on, sliding out a bit so they could see her whole face. “And not just with pretty clothes. Some people act sweet and nice so they grab a man by his heart, then they run away and leave ruin behind.”

Kaylee could guess where River was going, so she cut the girl off, scolding as gently as she could. “River, you seem to have some odd ideas in your head lately. You might wanna try straightenin’ em out before you go and say something you might be be sorry for later.”

“I’m not sorry!”

Kaylee let her words get a bit sharper, hoping they’d carry the message that River wasn’t seeming to want to hear. “But you ought’a take care that you won’t be sorry later, is all I’m sayin’.”

Malcolm’s head swiveled as he looked from one to the other of them. “What are y’all talking about?”

Kaylee pressed her lips together while she watched River stretch across the floor on her side, now out of the galley enough that her whole upper body could be seen. Her face screwed up; she seemed to be gathering her thoughts to say something fierce, but Kaylee spoke up first.

“I’m talking about how someone who’s all worried about how somebody hurt somebody else’s feelings should be more careful that she don’t do hurting of her own. That would get to be like the ole pot and kettle, don’t you think?”

River huffed and turned onto her elbows, but her face softened as she folded her hands together and stared down at her thumbs. “There’s logic in that,” she said quietly. She raised her eyes to Malcolm. “I’m not a mean person.”

He shrugged. “If you say so.”

“I’m really very nice,” River went on. “You should get to know me.”

“Well, I’ll make sure I spend some time with you. Soon as I get a chance.”

The confused irony in Malcolm’s voice was obvious to Kaylee, but the teenaged mind-reader appeared to miss it entirely. She gradually broke into a smile, aiming it entirely at Malcolm, before she pushed herself up to her feet.

“Good,” she said. “That’s very good.” She continued smiling to herself as she slipped out the aft hatch, her steps light and easy.

Malcolm resumed his game of throwing cards at the stew pot. “So… what’s with her?” he asked.

“Can’t ever tell,” Kaylee replied, “except to say… don’t judge too quick. I like her. No matter that she gets a bit odd, and has some weird ideas, I like her a lot.”

He looked at Kaylee sidelong. “There anyone you don’t like?”

She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, squinting as she thought about it. As first she felt a pleasant warmth as nothing came to mind, but then she had to frown and drop her eyes.

“Actually, there’s a few, but only them as worked hard to earn it.”

“How’s that?”

“They hurt folks I care about. Hurt `em bad.” She went on before Malcolm could ask for details—she didn’t want to explain that the one of the people who’d gotten hurt the worst was him. “But River ain’t one of the bad ones. She’s got a heart of pure gold, even if it gets confused at times. Ain’t something to hold against her, when it happens. She can’t help it.” Kaylee smiled at her own good memories of River, of the times they’d played together and the talks they’d had, saying anything, like they were sisters who’d grown up together.

Kaylee was so lost in her thoughts that it surprised her when Malcolm twisted his head toward her and smiled in his own warm way. “I like you,” he said bluntly. “As my Ma would say, you’re good people.”

Kaylee felt her spine stiffen and she replied quickly: “I’m with Simon. You know. With Simon.”

Malcolm’s smile broadened. “Wasn’t suggesting that should change.”

She relaxed again, letting herself lean back against the pale yellow bulkhead. “Well, in that case, I like you too.”

They sat back and let that settle for a minute, and there was no sound but the distant murmur of fuel flowing into the tanks below them, punctuated by the plunks of cards landing in or near the pot. After a minute, Kaylee reached a hand toward Malcolm.

“Let me try.”

He handed over the scant remains of the Tall Card deck, then got up to gather the scattered cards.

* * *

Wash kept a hand on the fuel line connected to the ship just above his shoulder, leaning on it in a thoughtful pose. “I just worry about her,” he finally said. “She’s not one to be so tense.” He qualified his statement quickly, holding up a hand to cut off Book’s response. “A lot of people don’t know that about my wife. A lot of people think she’s all… shieldmaiden, battlewoman, Amazon tough. Okay, she is, but she’s not really, not when you get to know her.”

Book smiled reassuringly. “You don’t need to convince me of that.”

“But here’s the thing: she’s not herself now. She’s not the relaxed, warm, squishy, cuddly Zoë I know. And so I have to wonder: what happened?”

Book glanced toward the pilot briefly to confirm that this question wasn’t rhetorical. Indeed it wasn’t; Wash’s eyes took on an earnest, almost pleading expression.

“On that moon. Was it really… was it that awful, about Mal?”

Book found himself at a loss. It wasn’t his place to pass on a confession if the confessor didn’t choose to do so herself, even if, as in this case, there were no sins involved. Zoë’s tale of her past held no wrong-doings on her part, not as far as Book could judge. What the woman did carry was a set of scars, and if she chose to hold those close, secret from her own husband, that was her choice. But Book didn’t like to see a splinter cutting between two people who had no reason to be divided. He wanted to sooth what he could.

“Well,” he began hesitantly, “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that—”

“How we doin’ here?”

The ill-timed interruption came from behind Book as Zoë strode around the leg of the ship.

“We’ll need a bit longer,” Wash replied, his earlier vulnerability hidden in a neutral pilot-business-voice. He gave the fuel line a firm pat. “Just got her hooked up, and we were running nearly dry.”

“All right. Book, can you finish?” Book nodded and Zoë went on with hardly a pause, addressing Wash. “I’m not liking the swarm of ships `round this place. I’m thinking they just about all came along with us from Highgate.”

“Well, it is the obvious pit stop,” Wash said. “If one was in a hurry to get out of there. Which everyone was.”

“And which would make it easy for us to get followed. I’m thinking we need something creative to make sure we’re good and clear when we move on.”

“Got it,” Wash said with a serious nod, and he started off toward the ramp. “I’ve got ideas. No one will follow us out of here if we just—”

Zoë held up a finger, putting Wash on pause, and looked to Book. “Soon as you finish up and Jayne gets back, let me know.”

“Jayne gets back?” Book asked.

“On errands,” Zoë explained. “Shopping.”

“Shopping?” Wash asked. “Oh right. I bet he’s out of reading material. I heard the new ‘Manly Merc’ magazine has an article: ‘How to ID a Bad Guy When the Person You’re Supposed to be Guarding is Having a Beer with Him.’”

Zoë fixed her husband with a flat look.

“What?” Wash asked, looking from her to Book. “Not funny?”

Zoë sighed, and not even a bit of smile showed. “Very funny. Long as you can guarantee we’ll get away from this station with none of them bad guys behind us.”

“That’s why I’m here, dear,” Wash said. He shot Book an I-told-you-so frown before he followed his wife onto the ship.

* * *

Jayne had known the woman right away. His eyes had found her while he was still listening in on Zoë, Simon, and Inara’s planning. Listening in, but clearly not welcome to speak up. He had to admit, it burned him. He figured that Inara’d come closer to directly betraying the captain than he ever had, yet here she was, welcome in the planning.

So Jayne’d turned aside and let his bitter eyes roam while the others talked, and then he saw her. Her hair color had changed to a hard black and the clothes were different than they’d been on Highgate, somber and dark now, showing her female form in a much more subtle way than the whore’s gown she’d worn in the Thirsty Tongue Saloon. But there was no mistaking her face.

The others were busy with their talk, so Jayne kept this little issue to himself. He knew that he’d get to the root of it eventually, and he did, as soon as the others went on their way.

Ginny saw him coming, but didn’t try to run. She held her spot, standing against a wall near the door of the bar. He walked right up and stood towering over her, arms folded, and scowled his doubts down on her. Her eyes, rimmed in black but not nearly so painted as the first time he’d met her, scowled right back up at him.

“Fancy seein’ you here, Jayne,” she said darkly, like she was accusing him of something.

He frowned deeper. “Hmm, yeah. `Cept maybe it ain’t.”

“What d’you mean by that?”

“You ain’t a whore, are you Ginny? That even your name?”

“Oh come on, Jayne. You know how it is out here: a body takes any job it can get.”

“You was on a job then?” he asked, though he had to kick himself for not seeing it before. Of course a woman who handled a gun like Ginny could be no simple whore.

“I was playin’ cover for a partner, one I don’t care for much. Didn’t matter though, the job went south when the Alliance showed.”

“And you just happened to come here?”

She met his eye. “Yeah, and so did you. You following me, Jayne?”

“What? No! You’re following me!”

She snorted. “Hardly.”

“But—”

She reached up to jab a hard finger into his chest. “You were just sitting over there with the same woman made the ruckus in the Thirsty Tongue on Highgate. I figure I better find the reason why. You and yours brought any of that trouble along that I ought’a know about?”

Jayne reared back and tucked a thumb into his belt. “We ain’t brought any trouble except the kind you’re looking at.”

She eyed him up and down, then gave a little nod, as if she wasn’t about to argue over that point. Jayne found her reaction pleasing.

Still, she didn’t give in. She tilted her head and squinted up at him. “I don’t think I ought to trust you.”

“I know I don’t trust you,” he replied. “You’re up to no good, I’ll wager my month’s pay on it.” Of course, his month’s pay didn’t amount to much, but she didn’t need to know that. “I just bet you’re one of them shady, no-good types,” he accused.

“Whereas you’re a regular missionary,” she said with some scorn.

He shrugged. “Sure, I like missionary. Can get dull though.”

She eyed him a long minute, then asked: “You want a drink?”

Jayne wasn’t about to refuse that. He knew how things stood on Serenity now. After Highgate, Zoë wouldn’t be trusting him, not an inch. And surely she’d talked to Wash about the situation so the pilot would be mad at him too. And Mal was as crazy as River, and Kaylee was busy with Simon, and the Shepherd was a different kind of busy looking after the captain, and Inara was all caught up with trying to win back her spot on a sinking ship.

It didn’t leave Jayne much to go on. He couldn’t expect kind words from the crew of Serenity anytime soon, but here was a chance to have a few minutes to himself, with his own kind of company. He wasn’t going to pass it by.

“You work with a crew, huh?” Ginny asked once they got stools and something to sip on.

He nodded. “You?”

She shook her head at first, then rolled her eyes and gave half a nod, passing on a message of; good lord do I, and I don’t want to talk about it.

“Don’t like `em?” he asked

She scowled in response. “You?”

He shook his head. “Think I used to. Ain’t that a wán xiào? I think I used to, but didn’t know it. Not `till now, when it don’t matter.”

“What’s different about now?”

He didn’t answer, only rolled his plastic cup between his palms. This place wasn’t classy at all, but he liked that. It felt honest. He liked an honest place, where what you saw was what you got and no one tried to play it different.

“So… what would you do?” he asked, leaving her question unanswered. “If you could have your own time, your own place, beholden to nobody?”

Ginny’s plain face took on a deeply thoughtful look as she sipped her drink. She gave him a few sideways glances, like wondering if she ought to trust him with such information, then sighed.

“I got it all planned,” she said, real quiet like she was admitting something shameful. “This job I’m on is it. I’ll have enough to get my own place after. Nowhere fancy, but something that’s mine. Someplace… you know, someplace I can do for myself. Hunt for my meals, not be bothered by neighbors telling me what to do. Maybe a town not too far off so I can stock up when I want, but not so as I have to see anybody if I don’t want to. It’d be my place, all mine.”

“Sounds nice,” Jayne said.

“But I got to see things out with my crew first.” She wasn’t looking at him, but he could see enough to tell that her eyes were sad. “Bide some time until I can get free. I don’t feel good about it, but it has to be done. I don’t see no other way.”

Jayne knew how she felt. He wasn’t looking forward to going back himself. He looked over his shoulder at the time display in the station’s corridor outside the bar, then fixed his eyes on Ginny again. Without the whore’s outfit and the thick make-up to gussy her up, she wasn’t at all a pretty woman. Still, she had a toughness, and there was a certain kind of honesty about her plainness that he couldn’t help but like. She didn’t look to be trying to sell him anything. She just was what she was.

“Your crew’s fuelin’ up now?” he asked. “Then heading out?”

“Yeah.”

“So you got time to kill?”

She finally met his eye, but didn’t nod. She didn’t need to—her eyes said it all.

A coin passed to the bartender got them directions to the storeroom and a guarantee of some time left alone. Jayne didn’t waste time, but lifted Ginny onto a pile of boxes and pressed her down, leaning over her to do his thing while she did hers beneath him. It was quick and hard, a powerful release even after he’d had plenty of the same during his work on Highgate. Guess he hadn’t had enough. Maybe he just never could get enough.

After, he stayed where he was for a minute, held up on his elbows. Ginny’s hands clenched around as much of his biceps as she could hold, squeezing hard at first, then weakening as she caugth her breath again.

They didn’t talk while they fastened up clothes, and Jayne was prepared to go his way. The Lord knew, he’d done plenty of this kind of thing in his life as a mercenary, and no good would come of dwelling on it. Still, something had him stopping with his hand on the door, turning halfway back, and asking:

“Your crew got a plan?”

Her reply was quick. “Not one I know of.” She looked thoughtful, then added, “We’re hoping for new work, since the last job bombed out.”

“Well… well, you happen to be in the neighborhood of New Melbourne, town of Sydney, stop in. Round `bout the fish markets. They’re always looking for cargo haulers there.” He lifted his eyes to her. “My crew’s got business on that world, the next few days. Wouldn’t be half bad to see you again.”

She didn’t reply aloud, only nodded.

* * *

Translations

kě pà de: awful ào dà shă guā: arrogant jerk chí dùn: slow-witted; stupid wán xiào: joke

* * *

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COMMENTS

Friday, May 1, 2009 9:48 AM

BYTEMITE


Ooh, fancy report font.

Poor Jayne! He's just getting everyone mad at him and digging himself in worse, isn't he?

Friday, May 1, 2009 9:51 AM

ALIASSE


Oh Jayne.

Is Tori going to get her scum-uppance? Ouch.

Somehow you always give the right amount of weight to each character. I always really enjoy your Wash.

Friday, May 1, 2009 2:38 PM

KATESFRIEND


Awesome Wash voice - even the lame mercenary joke sounded so much like him. Would love to hear what was actually going through Malcolm's head right now. He must be so confused at this point. The plot with the Alliance is getting a lot more interesting. Still wondering which side some of these characters are really on!

Saturday, May 2, 2009 10:01 AM

PLATONIST


Two chapters in two weeks, you're spoiling us.

Your Mal pre war characterization continues to be amazing.

Poor Zoe, though, leadership has its drawbacks, and I like how you are creating subtle tension in her marriage because of it, very realistic and believable.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 7:21 PM

AGENTROUKA


I really don't know who to be most fascinated by. Zoe, fraying at the edges to keep it all together and becoming seriously scary in the process.. (Cold!) Or perhaps River, with her heartbreaking petulance and still that core of kindness and reason underneat that she's rather ignore.. Or Kaylee, torn between everyone, and still the one person who can put Mal at ease.. Or Inara, painfully sorry but also way too determined to let it keep her down completely.. And that's not even covering Simon and Wash and.. Mal. And the thickening plot!

Whee! Loving this series, still and forver. Thank you for posting a new part! Do it again! *g*


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OTHER FANFICS BY AUTHOR

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.


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