BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

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Back Stories III: Chapter 7
Saturday, May 16, 2009

A few strange, dangerous interactions on New Melbourne.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2247    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Back Stories Book 3

Chapter 7.


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.

I have been horribly, horribly remiss about something: I have forgotten to thank my Book III beta readers. Especially with this chapter, which was not at all easy to put together. Fireflyfans.net members desertgirl and nosadseven are meticulous and extremely helpful. Kudos ladies! Leiasky has also been super helpful with earlier chapters; her blooming career as a screenwriter has kept her busy of late so she missed out on the joy of digging through this monster. :)

And it is a monster. Hence two days behind my intended posting day – I had so much fixing to do. I’m still not satisfied. This is just a hard one to get right. Hopefully, it’s close enough.

(Sorry about the added …’s desertgirl. I’m weak LOL!)

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Simon looked over his shoulder, trying to make out a pair of dark gray uniformed figures about thirty meters down the aisle, but the fish market had erupted in chaos and his view was blocked.

“Who are they?” he shouted at Zoë.

“If they shoot us, I’ll be sure and ask,” she replied bluntly. “Now get down!” She shoved Simon flat to the floor as another burst of sonic pulses flew along the market aisle, taking out a pair of shoppers who hadn’t had the sense to disappear when the ruckus started.

“Back in there!” Jayne hollered, pointing at the stall that used to belong to Ricky Lu. Zoë nodded in response and Simon set off in a low crouch.

* * *

Inara waited until River left the dining room, then took a seat in the alcove, choosing a chair that didn’t directly face the long table. She was inescapably aware of how she was being stared at: as if Mal was studying for some kind of exam and her face held all the answers.

No, she reminded herself, this was Malcolm, not Mal. This wasn’t the man she’d known just weeks ago, not the pest who annoyed her with ease, but still managed to shock her with a kind word or heroic action when she least expected it. And certainly this wasn’t the man who’d comforted her in a dark moment, and shared the soft, silken bed of her well-furnished shuttle…

Malcolm cleared his throat roughly. “She ain’t so bad, huh?” he said. “River, I mean. I think she might be all right, if a little rough `round the edges. That’s what I hear, anyway. That she’s okay.”

Inara smiled at his rambling; this certainly wasn’t the Mal she knew. “River is indeed… well, maybe ‘okay’ isn’t the proper word, but there’s certainly not an evil bone in her body. Although, I’m afraid that since I last saw her she’s taken something of a dislike to me.”

Malcolm snorted. “She ain’t the only one.” Evidently, conversing at a distance didn’t satisfy him. With a casual saunter he left the table, bringing his mug with him to lean against the corner between the galley and the alcove. Inara found herself facing him full on. Heat flooded her cheeks and she had to fight a strong urge to look away.

Stubbornly, she lifted her chin and met his eye. “What do you mean?”

“Folks around here don’t exactly cotton to you. I don’t suppose you got any idea as to why?” He tilted his head and his eyes traveled over her, but not in the slow, sexually assessing way she was accustomed to from young men. This was no simple appreciation of her “feminine wiles”, but an effort to see past her veneer to some truth hidden beneath. Inara sighed; it appeared that this kind of appraisal—keen, penetrating, unapologetic—was one thing she should expect of Malcolm Reynolds, even in his younger state.

“I have no idea,” she said weakly.

“Don’t you?” He settled into the large chair across the alcove’s entrance from her. “I get the impression you two got a history, you and River. She seems to know things about you.”

“As in?”

“As in…” He shifted uncomfortably and stared down at his mug. “As in, she knows what you are, what you do. I’d a’ never guessed it myself, given what I seen of you hereabouts.”

Inara sighed again. River had indeed taken a dislike to her, if the girl had informed Malcolm of the one thing most likely to earn his censure. “Ah yes—my profession. Often a source of contention with certain members of this crew.”

The real Mal was too deeply buried in this young man to pick up on the jab, and he simply ignored it. “You know, I ain’t ever met a Companion before. I heard things about `em, but I never thought…”

She smiled. “You never thought you’d meet one? Live and in person?”

He nodded, but was unable to look her in the eye. Inara couldn’t help but tease him for his bashfulness. “And are you feeling overcome by the great event?” she asked, but she quickly saw that she’d misread him. He glanced at her once, quickly, before responding, and what she saw in his eyes was nothing like awe. It was more like the disapproval she was used to seeing in the face of Serenity’s captain.

Young Malcolm, however, was too much a gentleman to put voice to his full opinion. “Well,” he said awkwardly, “overcome ain’t the right word. You’re very pretty and all, ain’t no denying that. But I guess I just…”

When he stopped there, Inara folded her arms. “Go on. I rarely have a chance to meet someone who’s completely new to the ways of the Guild. I really would like to know what you think.”

He studied a rough fingernail. “I think that, um, I think that it really don’t signify much what I think.”

“Come now, don’t be shy,” she urged. “Tell me your impression of Companions in general, and of me in particular if you wish. I’m all curiousity.” She realized her tone had taken on a slight edge, so she made herself relax and smile again. “Don’t worry, I’m very much aware of who I am, and I’m at peace with my path in life. Nothing you say can offend me.”

His jaw worked into an odd angle as he gave her a long look. She held her smile, refusing to show that he had any power to perturb her.

Finally, he shrugged.

“All right.”

* * *

Simon pulled up abruptly when a hand grabbed his elbow. In the past minute he’d hurried through Ricky Lu’s ex-kitchen, out the office’s back door, down a flight of stairs to a shadowed delivery bay, around a few cargo trucks, then up a ramp leading up to the street outside. He’d been about to rush into the fading daylight when Zoë pulled him to a hard stop.

He’d learned enough about life as a wanted criminal, and about Zoë’s ability to read a situation, to take a look around before he asked any obvious questions. He quickly saw the problem: a half dozen uniformed men and women were rushing along the far side of the street, hurrying toward wide glass doors: the market’s main entrance. Simon’s eyes caught on another duo just emerging;their uniforms matched those of the soldiers on the street. The group came together as if the meeting had been artfully choreographed.

“Sonics,” Zoë whispered. Simon studied the weapons in their hands more carefully, and realized that she was right. The two men who’d come out of the building had to be the ones who’d carried out the ambush in the marketplace.

Onlookers had begun to gather, but one of the uniformed men stepped out of the huddle to yell, “Tán Hé business! Stay clear of the market! Tán Hé business! Market will reopen in one hour!” Passersby huddled into each other and stared for a few moments before obeying, and the street gradually cleared.

“Pì huà!” Zoë swore, and she pulled the ship’s comm out of her pocket. While she explained the situation to Wash, Simon watched the group across the street. The gray uniforms confabbed in the gathering dusk, one of the two who’d come out of the market motioning to the building behind them, as if describing the action that had just taken place inside.

Simon nearly jumped out of his skin at an unexpected voice right by his ear. “No one’s comin’ behind,” Jayne reported, a little breathless.

“Where have you been?” Simon demanded in a hissing whisper.

“Doing my job, buyin’ us time,” Jayne replied. “I blocked up that hall good. No one’ll be wadin’ through that anytime soon.” His face lit up; if his grin was anything to go by, the blockage involved the worst available refuse a fish market could offer.

“That’s good,” Zoë replied as she tucked the comm into her vest. She fixed her eyes on the meeting taking place on the street outside. Just then, one of the gray uniforms stepped away from the group to look down the street and make a hand signal. Zoë stuck her head out of the shadows just long enough to see who’d received it, then glanced the other way before pulling back.

“More of `em in each direction,” she said. “They got this spot surrounded.”

“That ain’t good,” Jayne replied. “Make a break?”

Zoë nodded. “’Less you boys wanna sit here till they find us.”

Jayne backed down the ramp to keep quiet while he reloaded his pistol, looking at ease and all business. Simon, on the other hand, felt his control slipping. “But, if they’re everywhere, we have no chance! We can’t just run past them!”

Zoë checked her own carbine. “Hush, Simon. They’re on foot and all they got is sonics—likely ain’t nothing but local peacekeepers. We ought’a be able to scare `em into backing off long enough so we can disappear. Let’s just wait till this group clears.”

Simon bit back his protests and managed to stay quiet until the conference broke up. Four of the uniforms headed back into the market and four split into pairs, each duo headed a different direction along the street. Zoë’s eyes flicked from group to group as she spoke low.

“I’ll go first. Simon, you stay between me and Jayne. We’ll head to the right. There’s a corner not thirty meters down. Make the turn and see what we see. And if we get—”

She was interrupted by a revving motor behind her. A light blue boxy groundcar roared up the ramp, stopping under an orange ceiling light that illuminated the illustration on its high, flat side. A smiling fish was painted on the wagon, somehow standing on its tail to give a big wink and a bigger thumb’s up. The words Aunt Nellie’s Fresh Catch were printed in an arc over the cartoon.

The passenger door of the wagon opened, revealing a tiny driver’s box already more than half filled by Jayne Cobb’s large body. “Get in!” the merc ordered.

* * *

A ringing chirp pulled Kaylee out of a heavy doze. She wasn’t surprised to find herself alone in the small dorm room; she vaguely recalled Jayne’s loud knock and Simon’s clumsy leave-taking. She had hoped for a long stretch of quiet for enjoying the sleep of the well-satisfied, but duty appeared to be calling.

At the third chirp she slid out of the warm sheets and stumbled across Simon’s bunk to the comm. It was Wash, and what he told her made her senses return quickly.

“That means we’re in the fire?” she asked.

Might be soon. The pilot’s voice over the comm was cheerful despite his message, and Kaylee’s budding worries for Simon subsided.

“We know what exactly the fryin’ pan was?”

Something about a ruckus in the fish market. Locals with sonics.

Kaylee shrugged to herself. Zoë’d faced much worse. “So you want me in the engine room?”

Awake and ready, at least.

“Shia.”

After a minute to gather her clothes and dress, she stopped by the dormitory head to splash her face. When she came out, she saw Book and River descending the stairs.

“Ahh, Kaylee!” Book called out. “We’re going to busy ourselves with checkers. Care to join us?”

“Can’t. Got to be ready to help with the getaway if need calls.”

She could see why Book was eager for her company; River appeared to be in a mood. The exact nature of the mood Kaylee couldn’t guess. The girl’s eyes were big and wet, but as soon as she reached the deck she turned to glare back up the stairs, her jaw tight with something like rebellion.

“Keep children busy with games,” she mumbled darkly. “Keep us out of the way.”

“What’s wrong, honey?” Kaylee asked, reaching out a comforting hand. River shook her head and moved away,. Dramatically, she fell into a big, soft chair in the common area. Book gave Kaylee a helpless shrug, then went to a cabinet to find his “River distraction” of the day. Kaylee wished him luck, then went on her way up the stairs.

She headed for the galley, hoping to find a strong cup of tea. A familiar voice caught her ear just at the end of the hall; it held a mix of concern and eagerness that made her pull up short before she could step into the dining room and interrupt.

“You sure are quite a lady,” Malcolm was saying. “Ain’t a question about that.”

* * *

Simon’s mouth fell open, but before he could say a word he was pushed through the door of the fishwagon, then shoved up against Jayne as Zoë climbed in behind him.

“They’re lookin’ for three,” Jayne said. Zoë reacted to that remark before Simon could work out its meaning and the effect it would be having on his physical comfort in the near future, and he suddenly found himself pushed to the vehicle’s gritty, damp floor.

“Why do I have to be down here?” he demanded.

“Cause those of us with guns need the view,” Zoë replied gruffly. She was struggling to get herself below the level of the windows in the small amount of seat Jayne didn’t take up, while still holding her carbine ready. The elbow of her free arm repeatedly drove into Simon’s ribs as she rolled down the passenger window.

Simon also felt something heavy and blunt dig into his calf: Jayne’s heel. “Stay clear of them pedals. I need to drive!” the merc ordered. A hint of glee laced the man’s voice as he kicked at Simon a few more times than was necessary. “We’ll surely be caught, if you make us wreck!”

Simon grunted as he tried to comply, but with Zoë doubled over above him, still caught up in her own efforts at positioning, he didn’t have much success.

“Just go, Jayne!” Zoë ordered. “We’ll draw eyes, sittin’ here like this!”

“All right, but you be ready with the cover fire, soon as I say.”

“Ow!” Simon couldn’t help but exclaim as the dark, grimy box he was packed into shifted suddenly. In a matter of seconds he was thrown against the seat, driven into Jayne’s working feet, then flung the opposite way so suddenly that he cracked his head into the lower half of the passenger door.

Simon wasn’t one to get motion sickness in a ground vehicle, but the ensuing ride put him to the test. He tried to shout a few questions as to how it was going, but the rough roar of the motor and Zoë’s occasional orders drowned him out. Not that she was effective either; Jayne only reply was to tell them both to shut it.

“But are they following?” Zoë demanded.

“I’ll tell you if they’re followin’. Now, gorramnit, let me drive!”

Simon eventually managed to get himself wedged in somewhat securely, and even to keep out of the way of Jayne’s shifting feet, but he couldn’t make his stomach stop moving inside him. The thought of losing his lunch in this already smelly, dank space was a horrifying enough idea to guarantee that it was about to happen. Thankfully, Zoë spoke up before it came to pass.

“Jayne, relax. If no one’s behind us now, we got to be clear.”

Simon sighed gratefully as the ride smoothed out. The calm gave him a minute to consider more important things: Zoë had never opened fire. “They didn’t identify us?” he asked.

Zoë took the risk of sitting up, giving Simon room to shift to a position where he could see more than the wet stains on the floor. He caught the grin that lit the merc’s face. “Guess I look like a regular fish man,” Jayne said. He gave a wink and a thumb’s up, a reasonable facsimile of the side of the wagon.

“You didn’t make that face at the people with guns, I hope,” Simon muttered. He took in a breath of the relatively clean air coming in the open window with some relief, but was becoming aware of moisture soaking through the back of his shirt, his left sleeve, and now the seat of his pants. “Can I get up?”

“Best you stay put,” Zoë said. “Ain’t room anyhow. Jayne, you got any idea where the docks are?”

Jayne replied with a pointed finger.

“Good. Dump this jalopy a few blocks away. We’ll hoof it to the ship.”

* * *

“I don’t mean to suggest anything different,” Malcolm went on, “but I guess I just don’t get why you do what you do.”

Kaylee peeked into the dining room to find Malcolm sitting in the alcove. He’d have been looking right at her if he hadn’t had his head down, his eyes on the floor. She could see just enough of his face to make out a redness creeping into his cheeks as he spoke.

“It don’t make sense, spending all your time with one fellow after another. No matter that it might make for a fat bank account, it don’t seem right.”

A muted velvet voice answered him. The words were impossible for Kaylee to understand, but the shoulder of a rust red shirt and a bit of curly black hair showing around the near corner of the alcove made the identity of the speaker clear. Kaylee’s eyes widened as she realized the conversation she’d stumbled across, and she silently backed into the shadows of the hatchway.

“No, I guess it ain’t a thing I know about,” Malcolm admitted. “It’s not something I seen ‘round home. Except, sometimes I go into the city to do business, and there’s these ladies… But they’re nothing like you.”

Kaylee crossed her feet and silently lowered herself to the deck, settling comfortably onto her back side, and leaned forward in hopes of hearing better. But all she made out was a question in Inara’s tone. It made Malcolm smile. “Well, they talk loud and… smell funny. It makes me sneeze when a crowd of `em walks by.” He laughed in a way Kaylee thought cute: the slightly embarrassed guffaw of a young man talking to a beautiful woman. “Yeah,” he went on, “perfume I guess. There’s just so much of it.”

Another question.

“Hell no! I mean… pardon my language. No. Some of the hands, but not me. A few of those ladies were pretty enough, I guess, but I don’t like how they talk, and how they look at the men that pass by. I can tell they don’t think much of them as do business with ‘em.”

Inara’s reply made Mal pause thoughtfully to stare into his mug.

“But it don’t matter if I like them or not. They’ll do what they do in any case.”

Inara’s comment was short and firm.

“Nah. Those ladies, and you too, can earn your fair keep however you like. I don’t mean to suggest different.”

A sharp statement was followed by a pause, then a question. Malcolm’s reply was edged with discomfort.

“It ain’t so much about approvin’. I don’t know, I just can’t help thinkin’ that a lady like you… Look, I know I got no right to keep sayin’ this, but I guess: No. I don’t think it’s the proper thing for you to be doing.”

Inara’s reply came with a wry laugh.

“That ain’t what I mean. Not even a preacher can make such a judgment. I mean, hell—oh, pardon me again. You’d think I was raised in a barn, huh?” His laugh floated across the room again, though this time it sounded forced. “I mean that you ought’a… a woman like you ought’a have better for yourself.”

A quick question.

“No, it’s not. Woman like you shouldn’t have men thinking they own you. Takin’ their pleasure out’a you like you’re naught but some useful tool, like a wagon or the mule that pulls it. Something they can barter for, keep as long as they please, then trade away again when they’re done.”

Inara made no reply, since Malcolm clearly intended to say more. He stared toward the back of the alcove for a long moment, his mind busy gathering words, before he went on.

“Look,” he finally ventured, “I ain’t much for poetry, but I don’t know how else to say it. You ought’a have a man giving reverence to you. Not with his money or his fancy ways, but with his own self. Not `cause you’re beautiful and you got a special title, but `cause he knows you, inside and out, all that’s real and true to you alone, and you fit him like no one else could.”

A short silence was followed by a soft question that made him smile self-consciously.

“No. Not really. I had girls I got close to, but it wasn’t love. I know that now, knew it then, too. Because I know what it’ll be like someday, when I get it right. I’ll find a woman to take care of me the same way I take care of her, and I’ll give myself to her. Everything I got. My heart, my trust, my respect.” His cheeks reddened; he was entering an embarrassing topic that wasn’t easy for him, but he carried with faltering words. “My body, too. Not as some kind’a… some kind’a plaything, made to order. It’ll be me. I won’t need special training to tell me how to, how to, you know… ”

Inara filled in the words and he nodded.

“Exactly what I mean. I won’t need training, because the giving and the taking will go right with one another. Won’t be able to separate the two. Can’t touch without being touched, can’t please without being pleased. If the woman I love comes to me looking for… for that, I won’t be holding any part of myself separate.” He shook his head, now lost in his own ideas. “Won’t be able to. Cause the doing, knowing I can, knowing that I’m what she needs…” He blew out a heavy breath and shook his head. “Gorramn if that won’t be just the thing to make the earth shake and tremble.”

“Oh… gee,” Kaylee whispered to herself.

When Malcolm looked at Inara again, his eyes widened with a kind of surprise, as if he hadn’t quite seen her before. Whatever he recognized made his temper flare and and his words gain more than a little force.

“And, I tell you, I don’t ever want a woman playin’ at doing any of that for me just `cause I paid her, nor because she expects to take anything from me that ain’t the exact equal of what she gave. Trading caring for money? That’d be taking a beautiful thing and squeezing all the good right out of it. That’d be a damned shame, and I want nothing to do with it.”

He sat frozen when he finished, his eyes fixed on Inara, his jaw stubbornly set and hands gripping his forgotten mug tightly. Kaylee shifted silently across the hatchway, hoping to get close enough to hear Inara’s reply. She couldn’t imagine how even a highly trained Companion could handle this bristling man who was, after all, not entirely sane. Who exactly should Inara reply to? Kaylee wasn’t sure who was staring his challenge across the alcove: the boy from Shadow, or Serenity’s captain.

When Inara’s reply came, her voice was gentle and soft. All Kaylee could make out was a question that ended with the word ‘romantic’.

Malcolm finally dropped his eyes. “I guess I am,” he replied. He sat thoughtfully for a moment, then a toothy, boyish grin spread across his face. He let out a small laugh and relaxed into his seat, his tension gone as suddenly as it’d come.

Kaylee blew out a breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding. She had no doubt as to who he was now, and though it was hardly proper to be relieved that he wasn’t in his right mind, she was glad to see his intensity let up. She’d almost forgotten the depth of full-grown Captain Reynolds’s bad moods.

She especially hated to see him direct anything less than amiable at Inara. The Companion appeared to have weathered his storm gracefully, but Kaylee meant to make sure later. The first chance she got, she’d have her own palaver with Inara. She’d admit to her eavesdropping so she could hear the woman’s side of this conversation, as well as her reaction to it.

Kaylee gathered her legs under her and started to slink quietly down the corridor, but then more words reached her ears.

“You think I deceive… you would find it insulting…”

Kaylee immediately settled back down onto the deck. It seemed that Inara wasn’t doing the wise thing and calling it quits. The woman was having a say of her own, her voice now strong enough for Kaylee to catch a few illuminating bits and pieces.

“…not about you. It’s my career…”

“Good point,” Kaylee whispered to herself.

“…are no false promises… clients have needs, I fulfill them… It’s enjoyable… quite fulfilling.” Inara’s monologue ended with a clear statement: “It’s that simple.”

Malcolm wasn’t at all convinced. He immediately replied, “May seem simple, but it ain’t.”

Inara asked a question. Kaylee knew it was the request for clarification that she herself wanted, because Malcolm leaned forward and settled into a detailed explanation. He seemed fully back to his earnest and innocent young non-self, except that he’d completely lost his shyness.

“You see, it’s like this: you got all these men, and they—pardon?” His face showed surprise at what Inara interrupted to explain. “Really? Oh.” He set down his long-forgotten mug so he could scratch his jaw thoughtfully before continuing. “Well, as I was sayin’, you got all these… people—hunh? Okay, clients. You got all these clients takin’ from you. And I don’t mean just taking your body. From what I hear of Companions and how they work, these folks take your, your gǎn qíng, you know? Your caring. And they think it’s enough to give you money for it and send you on your way.”

He gave Inara a keen look and his words, though kind, were delivered in a grave tone. “You got tons of caring in you, Inara Serra. I see it, when you talk to Kaylee and the Shepherd, how you deal with River being so rude to you. Even the way you stand up to Zoë without ever getting mean. You’ve got a lot of caring in you.

“But ain’t no person a bottomless well. Ain’t no one got so much that they can give and give without a fair return. Those clients will take from you, they’ll take all that loving and never put any back. They’ll take all the meaning out of what you do, till it don’t mean a thing.” His words came slower as his gaze settled on his empty hands. “They’ll take what you give until they leave you dried up and empty, till you got nothing left, and you ain’t but a hard shell. I’d hate to see that happen to you, Miss Serra. I’d hate to see you come to that.”

He paused and glanced up, as if expecting a reply, but Inara had nothing to say.

“If there’s one thing I know,” he went on, “it’s that no matter how much you got to show, no matter how much coin and fancy stuff, no matter how you can make folks marvel at what you seem to be, there’s no real worth in playing pretend.” He shook his head slowly, and seemed to be speaking to himself. “That ain’t a way to live life: alone in the world, beyond all reach. Hollowed out. Empty. Barren.”

Dead silence filled the galley as Malcolm sat, lost in his thoughts, until some small motion by Inara made him lift his eyes. His brows drew together in concern.

“Are… are you okay? You gone all pale.”

Kaylee saw Inara’s hair move, her head shaking in denial.

“I can get you some tea.” Malcolm half stood up. “You want tea?”

Inara must have refused because he settled back down, but his eyes stayed fixed on her and his worried expression didn’t change.

“I hope I didn’t offend you. I ain’t even been off Shadow before, so it’s not like I really know a thing. You been all over, met all kinds of people with different ways. I don’t know why I didn’t just keep my mouth shut. I don’t know what the hell I was talking about. You just ignore everything I said. Are you sure you’re all right? You gonna be sick or something?”

Kaylee decided that it was time to stop this—past time. She slid back into the hall to stand and made sure her steps were loud as she clattered into the dining room.

“Hello!” she called out. She gave the table a searching look before turning to the alcove and “discovering” the pair. Inara was indeed pale, and looked breathless. Her face flashed relief to see Kaylee, but her eyes carried a plea for help.

“Malcolm,” Kaylee improvised awkwardly. “You ought to go on up to the bridge. Wash said he’d show you around the… um, the ship’s controls.”

“He did?”

Kaylee hoped her smile was all innocence and candor. “Surely!”

Malcolm stood up, then threw a regretful look at Inara. “I really didn’t mean—”

“Please.” Inara managed to recover herself enough to stretch her face into a smile. “I’m fine. Go. Play with the ship.”

“Well,” Mal managed, “I really am sorry if I….” He shook his head, at a loss for words, then gave up and headed to the bridge.

Kaylee immediately went to Inara’s side. She knew her ruse wouldn’t work for long, and Malcolm’d be back.

“You all right, Inara?”

Inara had a hand pressed into her chest. The act she’d managed for Malcolm was completely falling apart, and her breath was coming in hard gasps. “I can’t breathe. Kaylee, I can’t…”

Kaylee laid an arm across the woman’s back. “Don’t try n’ talk, Inara.”

“Buddha help me… I don’t know… what’s wrong…”

Kaylee thought she knew; tears were beginning to streak Inara’s cheeks. “You’re upset, Inara. You’re upset is all. I think maybe you need to have yourself a good cry.”

“My shuttle… help me…” Inara held her arms out to Kaylee, like a babe wanting to be lifted and held. “Before he comes back…. Please…”

* * *

Zoë, Simon, and Jayne huddled behind a building, looking across a sparsely populated town square that might have been a decent park if it’d hadn’t been mostly mud. The dreary evening had discouraged most people of the town from venturing out, but a few hardy souls were doing trade with vendors that lined the street bordering the entrance to the landing docks. Zoë turned back to Simon after finishing her survey of the territory they had to cross. “Those market guards’ll still be looking for three, so we’ll take it one at a time. Simon, you first.”

The doctor swallowed hard before he set out, as if to clear his heart from his throat. But he did well, walking calmly across the damp gray park, even managing to return a casual hello nod to a woman he passed. He entered the docks and took a turn to the left; Zoë could see him through gaps in the fence as he approached Serenity’s entrance and spoke into the comm panel. A few seconds later, the ship’s door opened to admit him.

“Jayne,” Zoë said.

The merc nodded and made his own way to the ship, overdoing the casual thing so much that he nearly zigzagged the whole square. Zoë had half a mind to yell at him to hurry it up.

But it turned out to be an illuminating path he took. Zoë’s eye was caught by a tall thin man in a loose-fitting dull brown suit who stood in front of a vending wagon. While Zoë watched, a child exchanged a few coins for a steaming loaf of bread, but even during the transaction the man’s eyes continually returned to Jayne. Zoë could also see how he tried to backtrack, to find the place Jayne had come from.

Zoë wasn’t about to let herself get found out like that. She circled around a clump of dripping evergreens that bordered the square, then waited until an old man came to buy bread, distracting the watcher for just long enough for her to cover the distance to the wagon. She came in behind a parked hovercraft, and was only meters away when the shopper took his purchase and left.

“My turn,” Zoë said, and she smiled grimly as she pressed her carbine into the man’s side.

His reaction was cool; he held his hands out to his sides while he slowly turned to face her. Zoë’s smile disappeared as recognition set in—she’d seen this man for only a few minutes, at a distance, and that’d been some months ago, but she knew this face.

“Kamath,” she said in shock.

He responded with a slow nod that was almost a bow. It gave her time to recover herself.

“You’ve gone to some trouble to set up a lookout,” she said. “See anything you like?”

“My likes and dislikes are inconsequential,” he replied placidly.

“Then I guess you won’t object to doin’ what I say.” She took a firm hold on his arm. “You’re comin’ with me.”

* * *

(Never fear, the next chapter starts with a big Kamath reminder)

Translations Pì huà: Shit gǎn qíng: feeling; emotion; affection; sensation

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COMMENTS

Saturday, May 16, 2009 10:10 AM

BYTEMITE


An honest conversation with Inara about her career? Things really HAVE changed! I'm with Kaylee, I'd love to hear Inara's side.

And poor Simon, I enjoy how he's stuck in the middle of all the violence and getaway,and the emotional (and physical elbows and kicking) discomfort he experiences.

One thing I was a little confused by, Jaynes comes back to Zoe and Simon to report in, checks his guns for a fight... And then I can only assume he spotted the van nearby and left to get it without Simon and Zoe noticing.

Saturday, May 16, 2009 11:30 AM

KATESFRIEND


The one conversation that Inara needed to hear from Mal so badly, that could only come from Malcolm's heart. Priceless. Now maybe Inara has an idea of the depths of what Mal tried to give her earlier, and how much damage was done. Poor Mal - wonderful explanation of why he loved Inara and worried about her but hated what it did to her. He was the expert of being used up by others for their own gain. He learned that in Serenity Valley.

Loved how Jayne got to feel like the hero, Zoe got the drop on Kamath finally (yeah answers!) and Book and River and Wash all had cameos of a telling nature. You communicated so much of the ship's routine and the characters' backstories in very few words - very professional! Nobody got left out. But the best part was not including Inara's questions. It let Malcolm have his own monologue without the distraction of keeping up with Inara's side of the conversation, and let his ideas flow much more smoothly and succinctly. No wonder Inara was destroyed by it. I was - honest, there were tears...

Eagerly waiting for more, and hoping for healing for all these relationships.

Saturday, May 16, 2009 11:35 AM

ALIASSE


The ugliness that always accompanied Mal's opinions about Inara's career made it impossible for what he really thought and felt to get through. But now here it is from the same person but in a form that she can't ignore. And so, so beautifully put by Malcolm. Now Inara must understand far more herself why she loves Mal. 'You ought’a have a man giving reverence to you.' So, so true that that is what Inara deserves. No wonder she is devastated.

Saturday, May 16, 2009 11:51 AM

NUTLUCK


Very nice, curious where you are going to take things in the next few chapters.

Sunday, May 17, 2009 3:01 PM

GILLIANROSE


Whoa. That was some intense chapter, I can't help but feel for Inara, the state she must be in, finding out everything she did. From young Malcolm's beautifully stated belief in sacramental sexual love (brought to mind the line from the old English marriage vows, "with my body I thee worship"), does she have a different understanding of what happened between them before she left? And his comments about the tragedy of living with a barren and empty soul, it's heartbreaking to see just how much the war took from him.

Monday, May 18, 2009 5:21 AM

PLATONIST


Oh my, spot on reaction for Inara, to Mal's truthsome talk...I often wonder what he would have said at the end of HoG if she hadn't stopped him:)


And the others in search of answers, going back to the beginning, a nice circular arc.


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