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Back Stories III: Chapter 8
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jayne remembers, Inara vents, and a long lost OC returns to deliver a big ole heap of exposition.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2335    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Back Stories Book 3 Chapter 8.

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.

Many thanks to my beta readers:
fireflyfans dot net members desertgirl and nosadseven.

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Jayne Cobb cunningly executed the casual lean of the watchman, a stance that boldly told the world that he had no business to do here, thank you very much, except to hold up this wall and be thoroughly invisibly bored.

Every hired gun had this pose down; it was a basic part of the job. When you’re not the one in charge, not the one arranging or finalizing the deal, you tended to do a lot of standing about watching, being ready without looking ready, being aware without seeming aware, being interested without appearing at all interested. Though, Jayne had to admit that what was happening at the moment certainly was interesting, enough to draw his eyes away from the station’s concourse to fix on the table Mal shared with the contact. The captain had an envelope in his hands, an ugly stained square of paper just like the one he’d gotten from Ricky Lu on New Melbourne a few days ago. The second half of the pay for this delivery job was richer than the first, richer by far judging by the low whistle the captain gave when he finished counting.

Not that Jayne was close enough to the table to hear such a sound directly. Neither was Zoë; she sat at the bar across the way so that the two of them had all angles covered. But they both could pick up Mal’s side of the conversation through the mic the captain wore.

An electronic voice crackled through the receiver in Jayne’s ear. “That’s very reasonable of you,” Mal said, then he stared at the contact with his mouth hanging half open, like the good pay had caught him so completely by surprise that he’d forgot himself. He must have realized what he looked like, because he snapped his mouth shut, frowned, folded a booted foot over the opposite knee, and returned to his usual tough-captain act. “And why don’t you let Ricky know I’ll need a little more information in advance if we’re to do business together in the future.”

The contact was a slight man wearing a loose robe and a small but confident smile. Kamath was his name, and he was calmer and more at ease than the average Border world job contact. The mic didn’t pick up his reply, but whatever he said caught the captain’s interest.

“I’m listenin’,” Mal said with a nod as he tucked the envelope of cash into his coat.

It was some kind of job offer, Jayne worked as much out from the questions Mal asked involving cargo and pay. Jayne couldn’t tell the answer to the first question, but the a second brought another low whistle: the money was good then.

But, of course, Mal didn’t take the job. Jayne had to bite his lip to keep from swearing as he listened to the captain’s refusal. Sometimes it seemed the man had no head for business at all.

“It sounds like a good thing,” Mal told Kamath, “but I don’t like jumping on it without knowin’ some details. I’ve tried that before, didn’t like how it went.”

Jayne thought he knew what the captain meant: an unfinished job had once ended with an insane crime lord on their tails. “Wouldn’t have gone so bad if you’d just delivered the gorramn booty,” Jayne muttered quietly.

If Mal heard Jayne over the mic he wore in his own ear, he gave no sign. He just glared at Kamath, then tensed up and asked for the second time, “What’s the cargo?”

Kamath shook his head, and just like that the job was lost for good. With only a few more short exchanges, he and his big payoff were gone. Jayne’s bitter eyes followed the small man out of the bar and into the concourse, and that got him looking in the right direction to see Trouble coming.

It wasn’t fifteen seconds after Kamath left that the shit hit the fan.

* * *

Jayne wasn’t normally interested in figuring out life’s subtleties, but still he dredged up his memory of the captain’s first meeting with Kamath, turning it over and over in his mind. It didn’t take a genius to put a few things together: Mal had turned down the man’s job offer, and seconds later the heat showed up. They took the captain, and the way they’d questioned him in the following days had broken his mind. If there wasn’t a connection between the two, then Jayne may as well give up his trade and take up pastry decorating.

Now Kamath was back, and Zoë’d taken it in her head to bring the man onto the ship. He wasn’t armed—Jayne himself had checked carefully—and was as cool and calm as if this was nothing but a social call.

“You need not guard me,” Kamath said as he climbed the last few stairs to the upper deck. “I am not an unwilling guest.”

Jayne didn’t buy it, and neither did Zoë. She was following behind Kamath, and she gave him a jab in the shoulder with her carbine to push him toward the galley. “Mayhap you don’t understand the situation,” she said. “We don’t like bein’ ambushed. It’s happened twice now when you were in the neighborhood, and I mean to find out why.”

Kamath stepped down into the dining room, then looked over his shoulder to reply. “And you will find out. I was waiting for you to return to your ship, hoping that I could speak to you.”

“Well then, ain’t you lucky. Not everyone gets their heart’s desire so easy. Have a seat.”

Kamath obliged, taking a spot near the end of the long table. Jayne stood behind the chair, just enough to the side so the man would know he was there, and leaned over him in his most threatening way. Zoë approved; she gave Jayne a nod, then reached for the comm.

“Wash, everybody still here?”

If the three of you are back, came a quick reply through the comm.

“We are, with an addition. I’ll explain later. Let’s get off this rock.”

“I would not recommend that,” Kamath said quickly. “You will not be in the air a minute before you are taken.”

Zoë turned back to him. “ ‘Taken?’ Is that a threat?”

“You have ruffled feathers in your short time on this world.”

Zoë blinked once while she sorted that out. “You’re saying we got followed from the market?”

“I’m saying that they did not need to follow you.”

“These are public docks,” Jayne said. “Anyone wanted us, they’d’a had us easy by now.”

Kamath’s smile took on a crafty edge. “Unless you are currently protected, and that protection is in danger of being lost.”

* * *

Kaylee sat back on the cot that she herself had set out for Inara’s use. The shuttle was otherwise bare, the once warm, rich space now colorless and dark. It wasn’t at all right, Kaylee decided, and she made up her mind that the first chance she got she’d make this place what it used to be. Inara needed pretty things around her. Even when the Companion was in her current mood, working herself into an ugly tantrum, she ought to have a pretty setting.

“That bù jì huàidàn,” Inara muttered as she paced in the uneven light of the shuttle’s few lamps. “That yú bèn de, năo huŏ, bùkĕ yīshì, quē xīn yă, làiháma-faced….”

Kaylee covered her ears to block the ongoing string of insults that the Companion couldn’t really mean, especially that last one. Inara had evidently recovered her strength. The conversation with Malcolm, the one Kaylee had shamelessly listened in on, had left Inara so overwhelmed that she’d needed Kaylee’s help leaving the galley. But once in the privacy of the shuttle, her mood had quickly changed.

“I can’t believe he said that! I can’t believe he had the nerve. Even if I did invite him to speak his mind, he should know that he can’t just go and insinuate that… that I…” Her mouth worked, but she stopped short of repeating Malcolm’s opinions. Instead, she halted her pacing and turned on Kaylee to declare, “I am a Registered Companion. Not only that, I am a good one. I am one of the best!”

“Oh,” Kaylee said, taken aback by Inara’s uncharacteristic boast. “Well, I bet you are. But I don’t think he meant to say—”

“I have changed people’s lives,” Inara went on. “I have saved marriages. Yes, a Companion can do that, just by having the right kind of calming words to say at the right time. I’ve helped boys become men, and not just because they’ve bedded me. I help them grow up. Do you know what I mean? Grow up!

Kaylee nodded mutely and Inara returned to pacing, her face darkening further.

“I have helped planetary leaders shoulder the burden of their jobs. When I first joined Serenity, I had a warden of a prison as a client.” She stopped to face Kaylee again. “He found himself in a crisis, the inmates about to riot, and I got him to agree to their demands. Really, I did! Me! He was just hung up over his father being a crook. Once he talked to me about it—fine!

“And that time we were in Canton—did you know we would never have left without me? I helped that boy realize he had a shuāng and he reversed the landlock. Did you know that?”

Kaylee had by now shrunk back against the bulkhead and folded her hands in her lap, cowed by Inara’s anger. The woman could work up a storm when she wanted to, and Kaylee thought it best to just shake or nod her head meekly, whichever seemed to fit the moment.

Inara took in a deep breath and shook her head in disbelief. “Ha! ‘They think it’s enough to give me money,’ he said. Kaylee, I get more than money. My clients are grateful. They appreciate me. They revere me. They send me waves telling me how important I am to them. All the time.” She waved a hand at the dormant Cortex terminal. “I could show you. I could show you the gorramn letters. And you see how people react to me. Not just those out on the Rim, who see nothing but a ‘fancy Companion’,”—Her fingers framed the words in quotes—“but those in the Core, those who know me. They know me. They know the person I am, and they honor me. When I went back to the training house, I had callers, requests for appointments… They’d missed me. Me!”

“Inara…” Kaylee said softly, and she reached out a hand. She saw what was happening. The Companion’s words were strong, but her voice was weakening. Inara was trying to fight off the emotion that had nearly overcome her in the galley, but her fire was running out.

“Does he even know how hard I worked to earn that kind of respect? Does he know how difficult it is to look and to act and to be so perfectly adaptably desirable that clients can bond with me on a deep level? It’s far more than a big title and fancy dress. How dare he talk like what I do, what I’ve dedicated my life to, means nothing? How dare he? As if he knows anything about it! As if …”

Inara turned in a circle, fighting to the last end, but she couldn’t win this battle against herself. She lifted a hand to her face, then with a sob that rent Kaylee’s heart she fell to her knees.

Kaylee slid off the cot to wrap her arms around the woman.

“Oh, gods, Kaylee.” Inara buried her head against Kaylee’s shoulder

Kaylee petted Inara’s black hair softly. “Shhh, honey,” she whispered. “It’ll be okay.” She kept on murmuring every nice, soothing thing she could think of while Inara finally got her crying done. Probably, Kaylee thought to herself, fear and worry had been hounding this poor woman during all her trip out from the Core, a trip Kaylee still hadn’t heard about in any detail. And then Inara had found Mal in the state he was in, the crew tense and unfriendly, the ship in peril and on the run. No wonder the talk with Malcolm had pushed Inara over the edge.

It was a few long minutes before the Companion found her voice again, though she spoke unevenly, her breath still catching in her chest. “Half the men in the ‘verse would pay dearly to be with me. But Mal thinks I’m empty. He called me barren.” Her tears started up again. “He thinks I’m worthless. He made me feel absolutely worthless.”

“Shhh.” Kaylee tightened her hug and rocked Inara gently. “He don’t think you’re worthless.”

Inara’s voice cracked against Kaylee’s shoulder as she replied, “Yes, he does. He thinks it’s all meaningless. He thinks I’ve wasted my life.”

“I heard every word he said.” Inara sat up to look her question at Kaylee. “Yes, I did some eavesdroppin’, and I’m glad I did, `cause I can tell you without any doubt that what you’re thinking ain’t at all what he meant. Anyhow, that wasn’t even the captain talking.”

Inara shook her head. “But that’s the worst of it, Kaylee. It wasn’t just some green teenager from Shadow. There was Mal in that. I saw him. He doesn’t know that he remembers himself, that he remembers me, but he does.” Her face started to break again. “That was Mal talking, and he thinks I’m worthless.”

“Inara, you listen to me: he thinks you’re worth more than any of those clients could ever say. Maybe he don’t understand everything you do, but he don’t mean to put you down. He thinks you’re wonderful, and he thinks you deserve wonderful things.”

“I have wonderful things.”

“Inara, honey, I love you lots, but I gotta say somethin’ you might not wanna hear, okay?”

Inara leaned away from Kaylee. Her face was a mess, her eyes and nose red. “Okay,” she said with a snuffle.

“How many people you let do what I’m doing right now? See you like this?”

“Like… ?”

Kaylee reached out to wipe a thumb gently across Inara’s wet cheek. Inara looked away and didn’t answer.

“That’s all he meant. You should have someone to take care a’ you. Not Companion you, but broken up, lonely, red-faced, messy-haired Inara.”

Inara smiled at the description, then wiped at her eyes and took to tidying her hair. “A Companion is who I am,” she said softly.

“A Companion is what you do.”

“Kaylee, it isn’t like being a mechanic, or a pilot, or a doctor. Everything I am is designed for a purpose.”

“I dunno ‘bout that. I seen someone else in there. She ain’t always perfect, or invitin’. She’s even kind’a biè niu sometimes.”

Inara smiled. “Sometimes?”

Kaylee nodded. “Just sometimes. And I like her, `cause she’s real. I can be myself around that Inara, `cause she’s a normal person like me. You think I’d be good friends with some prissy, perfect, plastic, only for sale to the highest bidder kind’a woman?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Of course you’re not.”

“I mean, being a Companion isn’t. It’s the cornerstone of what we do, the reason we aren’t whores. What we practice is genuine, heartfelt. Real. A Companion chooses her clients, so that the connection never needs to be forced.”

Inara’s voice smoothed out as she spoke, and her face relaxed into a something neutral and almost serene. It startled Kaylee; it was as if the crying women had been taken over by a poltergeist, and was channeling a recruitment advertisement from a Guild Training House. The bruised heart that had been showing so plainly was suddenly hidden beyond Kaylee’s reach.

Inara noticed Kaylee studying her, and her face lit with a warm smile. “I’m sorry to be such a mess. He just caught me by surprise. And I’m so tired.”

“Yeah, I bet you need rest. You had any lunch? Or breakfast even?”

“I… come to think of it, no, I haven’t.”

Kaylee put her hand over Inara’s. “You stay put. I’ll bring you some eats, then you get yourself a nap and you’ll be all put together again.”

* * *

Zoë left Kamath under Jayne’s watchful eye for a few moments and went to the bridge where she found Wash entertaining Malcolm. She made some hasty arrangements; she didn’t want their visitor to lay eyes on Simon or River, nor did she want Mal’s state known. She talked her husband into setting aside his curiosity about Kamath for a moment so he could lead Malcolm belowdecks and check in with the scattered crew, then she returned to the dining room.

Kaylee had come in to gather a tray of food from the galley. In typical fashion, the mechanic took the visitor’s presence in stride. She didn’t even show any concern over Jayne’s threatening stance. “Hey Zoë!” she called out, then she gave the table a wave on her way out. “Enjoy your visit, hēng rén.”

“I’ll see to it that he does,” Jayne said in a low, menacing growl.

Zoë took a seat across from Kamath and leaned forward, her hands folded on the table in front of her. “Okay, explain this again. We only landed because you let us?”

Kamath still appeared unruffled by his situation; he merely shrugged. “It was not a matter of letting. I have not that power, and would not have refused you in any case. My people are always watching for potential allies, and when one appears in our skies, we do all we can for them.”

“Your people?” Zoë asked.

“The Swatantrata Senani. Those who fight a great beast.”

“Beast?” Jayne asked.

“Yes. One you and your crew know well, I think.” Kamath fixed his eyes on Zoë. “Which brings to mind: where is your captain? I met him so briefly all those months ago.”

“Busy,” Zoë said shortly. “Ain’t got time to barter with fools.”

“It was foolish, then, for the Senani to extend to you our protection?”

“It was foolish to assume we’re your allies, after all the problems you’ve brung on us.”

Kamath’s expression was blankly noncommittal.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” she pressed. “It was right after we met with you that the captain was taken, and what was done to him… “ She shook her head, then focused a hard stare on Kamath. “You care to explain that?”

“I asked your captain for help, and he refused.” Zoë tensed and Kamath held up a placating hand. “Don’t mistake me—what followed his refusal was not of my doing. I regret any difficulties he experienced. It was not my intention that you become involved with the experiments of the Alliance. I only bring up the offer that was refused because I now have another offer, and I hope this time for a different answer.”

“If you’re supposin’ that we’re gonna work with you,” Jayne muttered, “you really ain’t right in the head.”

Kamath glanced over his shoulder. “I suppose exactly that, but not out of insanity.” He fixed his cool stare on Zoë again. “I offer payment for your cooperation, but not the usual pecuniary type. What I have to give is something I think you will be very much interested in.”

Zoë didn’t respond.

“I will hazard to guess that your errand on this world does not involve cargo delivery?”

“If you been watching us, you know we ain’t dropped anything.”

“And so something else interests you, something besides the usual business dealings of smugglers such as yourselves. And this interest leads you back to where your captain and I first met: Oeneus. Correct?”

He did guess the truth, and Zoë didn’t like it. She tried to hide her annoyance by leaning back and folding her arms. “Now why would you think us eager to get back to that hellhole?”

Her husband cut into the conversation before Kamath could reply. “Hellhole?” Wash asked as he trotted down the stairs, obviously eager to get in on the conversation. “Which hellhole exactly? We’ve been to so many.”

“Have a seat, dear,” Zoë said, then she added wryly, “Kamath here thinks he knows our business, inside and out.”

“Thinks he’s about to give us an offer we can’t refuse,” Jayne added. His pale blue eyes drilled into Kamath, lit by a cold eagerness to show the man exactly how wrong he was.

Wash sat down next to Zoë and gave Kamath his own brand of keen look. “An offer we can’t refuse? How very tempting. Except… pardon me, but didn’t you completely screw the captain over once already?”

Kamath sighed. “As I explained, that was not of my doing.”

“And how was that exactly?” Zoë asked.

Kamath finally betrayed some emotion; his jaw clenched and he raised a hand to his face, absent-mindedly pinching his lower lip. He didn’t like the admission he was about to make, but he took a deep breath and forced the words out. “I have since learned that, on the day I met with your captain, I was being tracked.”

Zoë leaned toward him again. “Tracked?”

He lowered his hand and met her eye. “Yes. My connection to the Swatantrata Senani was known. The spies of the Alliance were using me to find our allies even as I recruited them to join our cause.”

“But we weren’t recruited!” Wash protested. “No recruits here! We never worked for you. All we ever carried was some extremely harmless seafood.”

Jayne backed the pilot up. “Whatever job you offered, Mal turned it down cold. He never even got a bit of detail out of you.”

“It didn’t matter,” Zoë said, half to herself. She’d fought the Alliance long enough that she understood how they worked. “Mal spoke to Kamath, and that was enough to make the captain suspect in their eyes.”

Kamath nodded. “Such is the thoroughness of the Alliance.”

Zoë fixed him with a dark look. “And yet, here you are, still running about on the loose. They ain’t ever arrested you.”

Kamath had the grace to lower his eyes, as if in heartfelt shame. “Through me, many brave men and women were captured. That is a weight I must bear, a regret that will never fade. It was nearly two weeks before I saw the pattern and knew I had been marked. I escaped then, barely. I left all I ever owned behind on Oeneus.”

He shook his head, then set his elbows on the table and leaned toward Zoë with his hands pressed together, looking earnest and direct. “But we lose our way,” he said. “Speaking of the past does no good for the present. You have need of haste. Tán Hé knows that someone has come looking for Ricky Lu.”

“Tán Hé?” Zoë asked before she remembered that she’d heard that name before. She’d heard it recently: ‘Tán Hé business! Stay clear of the market!’

She answered her own question. “The security guards that came after us. Folks on the street sure did back off when they heard that name.”

Jayne snorted dismissively. “Suits with sonics don’t scare us none.”

Kamath’s laugh was sharp and condescending, as if he found them both amusingly ignorant. “Tán Hé are a great deal more than security guards. They are the Alliance’s right arm. You may feel you have escaped them by slipping away from the market, but you have not. You drew their attention, and it will remain firmly focused. ‘Is this a Senani smuggler looking for Ricky Lu?’ they are even now asking themselves. ‘We must do all we can to find out.’ They will be particularly interested in any ship leaving for Oeneus in the next few hours.”

“There you go makin’ assumptions again,” Zoë said. “Why is it that you think you know our plans?”

He shrugged. “Let’s just play for a moment that I do. Let’s suppose that you wish very badly to return to Oeneus. If that were the case, you would need to know that the Alliance has become a very heavy weight on the back of that world. When you delivered Ricky Lu’s cargo, the Alliance had only just arrived on Oeneus. You found that the search of your ship wasn’t a demanding process. ‘Pretty shoddy’ were your captain’s words, if I recall correctly. But things have changed, and the servants of the Alliance are now well settled. No carrier of cargo may land without—how would one say it?—without having every crevice thoroughly sniffed. It is not so easy to slip onto the world as it once was.”

“Why?” Zoë asked. “What is the Alliance so interested in?”

“That is something we still do not understand,” Kamath said with an impatient huff, “though we do all we can to learn. We do know how they’ve brought about their position of power: Blue Sun. You must know them? Yes, they are here as everywhere, selling their goods. Food, beverage, medicines, furniture, hovercraft, electronics, clothing. Everything. Every item a body could want, they provide. Of course, not everyone is happy with this convenience. Some would rather provide for themselves, and for their neighbors, without help from the corporations of the Core. This was the case for our common acquaintance, Ricky Lu.”

He smiled sadly and shook his head. “Ricky is a fine man, if simple. He had no desire to be involved in political battles. He just wanted to do his business, sell his food. Perhaps he was guilty of hoping to see bigger profits than the average man should expect. Perhaps he wanted to move his wife and children into a better home, one further up the slopes from the seaside marshes of New Melbourne, where he would have the ocean view but not the salt spray and ruinous surf of summer storms.

“Blue Sun does not like such an enterprising spirit, not from someone outside their own ranks. Blue Sun does not like giving up even a small part of their market.” He nodded to Zoë. “I think you are one who knows how Alliance law works. Denizens of Border worlds have no voice in the trade agreements that rule their lives. Blue Sun may bring in mercenary forces like Tán Hé merely because the market share is in danger, and we can do nothing about it. Nothing within the law, anyway.”

“Tán Hé are hired guns then?” Zoë asked.

“Not ‘hired guns’ in the sense that your man is.” He tipped his head back toward Jayne. “They are neither so coarse nor so obvious. They are as well funded and highly trained as any of the Alliance’s military. In terms of power, one could argue that they have more. Parliament contracts with them, but they are not officially part of the Alliance government, and so they are not subject to its limits.

”Their price is high, but their might on a remote border world like Oeneus…” He help his hands out helplessly. “Swatantrata Senani is our only recourse. It is the only way we can fight, the only hope of regaining our freedom. But we need help. Against the resources Blue Sun and Tán Hé have at their fingertips, we need a great deal of help.”

Zoë shook her head. “Got news for you, Kamath: I ain’t gonna get caught up in your fight, no matter how woeful you think your situation.”

“And yet, here you are, and here you will remain for the few short hours my people can keep you hidden from the eyes you drew in the market. Unless you are more willing to deal this time.”

“Deal?”

“You will carry my cargo to Oeneus, and I will provide your ship with the means to land safely.”

Zoë pushed herself to her feet, her face hard as stone. “I don’t take to strangers giving me orders. How `bout this: you tell your people that you ain’t getting off this ship in one healthy, breathing piece until we’re safely away from the prying eyes of these Tán Hé. How’s that work for you?”

He was unruffled by the threat. “Your captain’s problems,” he said, and he tapped his forehead lightly, “you think you can solve them on your own?”

Wash gasped in disbelief at Kamath’s words, but Zoë’s reaction was more extreme. She reached across the table to grab the man by his neat cotton collar and jerk him out of his chair. “What do you know about his problems?” she demanded harshly. “What do you know?”

“Strange behavior, yes?” Kamath said, forcing the words out despite the cloth pulling tight around his throat. “Paranoia, grief, sudden anger, memory loss. Familiar?”

Zoë pursed her lips; the man’s calm know-it-all-ness made her want to do him violence. She gave him a hard shake.

“Tell me!” she ordered. “What do you know about it?”

“Please.” He lifted his chin and raised his hands to his collar, gently trying to extricate his shirt from her grasp. “This is unnecessary.” “Maybe, but it sure feels good.” She gave him one more shake, then a hard push back into his chair. “You got one chance to come clean before I let him take over.” She nodded to Jayne, who was now holding a very large knife.

Kamath glanced over his shoulder and Zoë felt some satisfaction that a look of alarm cracked his cool shell. He took to straightening his shirt and collecting himself, and his calm mask soon returned.

“I tell you in all honesty,” he finally said, “I do not know the full reason for your captain’s condition, nor the cure, but I know the cause. Ricky Lu was showing these symptoms, as were other Senani who were questioned as your captain was.”

“And what’s happened to them?” Zoë demanded.

Kamath shrugged.

She leaned over the table again. “Don’t think I’m asking this mildly. What happened to them?”

“I don’t know. People who have lost contact with their own minds are a danger to an organization like the Senani. Those who were showing the symptoms were isolated, and I have not been in contact with them for some time. The solution to their problem is not my task. I leave it to others. I leave it to you.

“I tell you only this: the answers you seek must lie on Oeneus. That is where Tán Hé did their work on your captain, and that is where they hide their secrets. Well, perhaps their leaders in the Core know all, but you wouldn’t have much chance of infiltrating Parliament. Better that you go to Oeneus.”

Zoë stood back and folded her arms. She understood the game now. “And if we do your bidding, carry your goods, you’ll get us there right under their noses.”

It wasn’t a question, but Kamath responded with a nod.

Wash’s fidgeting caught Zoë’s eye; her husband was red-faced, and looked to be biting back some very strong words. She shook her head at him, hoping he’d keep quiet. She wanted to learn more about Kamath and his ‘freedom fighters’.

“You really think your people can do it?” she asked.

“The process has already begun,” Kamath explained with more than a little smugness. “You were fortunate, you see, that on approach to this world you appeared on the scanner run by one of ours, a woman who has held a trusted position in New Melbourne traffic control for many years. As I told you already, the Firefly Serenity is of interest to us: a crew that once fell victim to the Alliance establishment on Oeneus may be willing to lend us aid. So we extended our protection. You spoke only to our woman on your approach, and she registered your ship as the Firefly Argus.

“There is indeed a Firefly Argus, a ship of similar type and markings as yours, which is known to carry out business on these worlds but is now operating in a far quadrant. With a few alterations to your exterior and a new pulse beacon that we will provide, you can continue to wear this disguise on Oeneus.”

“You got people on the inside there, too?”

“Only a few, but they are extremely helpful.”

Wash was almost jumping out of his chair with impatience, but Zoë went on with her questioning.

“And they’ll make it so we can just fly right in?”

Kamath nodded. “Establishing your identity here on new Melbourne gives you a first step. Of course, your ship will be thoroughly searched when you land. That shouldn’t be a difficulty; the cargo I have for you is designed to be easily concealed.”

“What is the cargo?”

Unlike the first meeting Kamath had had with the captain, Kamath answered Zoë’s question directly. “Weapons, of course.”

This was more than Wash could take; he sprung to his feet. “Why are you even talking to him about this?” he demanded of Zoë. Without giving her a chance to speak, he gave his own reply to Kamath. “There’s no way we’re doing it! We’re not smuggling things that kill, and we won’t be pressured into it. It wouldn’t even work anyway. I mean,” he turned back to Zoë, “what about Mal? These Tán Hé must have records of him escaping from Oeneus. He’ll be seen when our ship is getting her ‘crevices sniffed,’ as this shǎzi puts it, and that’ll be the end of it. This is all completely ridiculous!”

Zoë wasn’t about to disagree with her husband. “He speaks the truth, Kamath. The captain ain’t the only one of our crew who’s best to lay low. Even if I had any interest in working with you—which I don’t—it’d be no good. This crew ain’t in any kind of shape to be sliding by the law.”

Jayne was also in full agreement. “I say we light out of here `fore these Tán Hé people figure out who we are. We can drop this one out the hatch when we’re halfway up.”

Zoë was inclined to agree, except for the killing part. If Kamath was speaking the truth, he was battling an enemy she’d spent much of her own life fighting. His methods may tend toward the underhanded and unscrupulous, but sometimes that was just necessary. She knew very well that war wasn’t pretty. It never had been, and it never would.

She wasn’t going to take part in this man’s battle, but she wasn’t going to get in his way either.

“No, Jayne,” she said, and she nodded toward the fore hatch. “He can walk out, and he can do it right now. We’re done here.”

She thought she was being mighty gracious, more so than Kamath had any right to expect, but evidently he didn’t appreciate her offer. He didn’t budge from his chair.

“That wasn’t a request,” she clarified pointedly. “I do have some understanding of your cause, but I don’t like your methods, and there’s no way I’m getting me and mine involved. Now, I suggest you get off this ship before I decide to let my hired man do things his way.”

“Yeah, my ‘obvious, coarse’ way,” Jayne added resentfully.

Kamath sighed. “You force me to become unpleasant,” he said softly. “You see, this cargo is needed, quickly. Your arrival here on New Melbourne is a opportunity I cannot let pass. I must make use of you.”

“Are you deaf?” Zoë said. “Or just stupid? We can’t do what you want done. Once the people we got on board are seen, this precious gunnery of yours’ll get snatched, without a doubt.”

“There are ways of dealing with that complication,” Kamath said. “Your ‘wanted’ can be kept safe.”

Zoë dropped a hand to the carbine on her hip. “I ain’t leaving any of my crew behind, not with your people, not anywhere. No way.”

“You will not need to. Come, this arguing is pointless. The cargo is already being prepared, and will be delivered to this ship in the early morning hours. You must be ready to leave shortly after dawn.”

Wash huffed. “I think we’re ready to leave right now, without the added complication of you and your brewing war.” He stood up and took a step toward the bridge. “I suggest you get moving, if you don’t want to find yourself a stowaway, because this ship is sailing right now.”

Kamath sighed, then spoke up with the sharp clarity of a man finally laying down his ultimatum. “If you lift off without Senani’s cargo on board, without setting a course for Oeneus, or with me still on board, you will find an unpleasant welcome waiting for you in the skies above. I sincerely hope you do not try this, because I will be arrested along with you. It would be a victorious day for our oppressors.”

“You’ll turn yourself in, just to turn us in?” Jayne asked, incredulous. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Kamath folded his arms.

“Ain’t much of a choice you’re giving me,” Zoë said. “Either you turn us in here on New Melbourne, or we get caught smuggling on Oeneus. We’re done either way.”

Kamath shook his head. “You are only half right. If you refuse my offer, your fate is assured. But if you work with the Senani, if you make every effort to complete this delivery, you will win the chance to help your captain.” He held a hand toward the chair Zoë had vacated, as if this were his own private office and he was inviting her to take a seat. “Please, while we wait for the cargo, we may as well plan for the safe transport of Captain Reynolds and any other of your crew you are concerned about.” Zoë stood and stared down at him for a long minute, then sighed. She settled into the chair, letting her shoulders slump. “You can’t be serious!” Wash said. “You’re really going to do this?”

“I got a choice?” Zoë asked in a flat, resigned voice, but she caught her husband’s eye just long enough for him to see that her will was unbroken. She was fine with letting Kamath think he’d beat her. He wasn’t the only one who knew how to play hardball, and she didn’t mean to let him celebrate his victory for long.

* * *

Translations bù jì huàidàn: useless scoundrel yú bèn de: stupid năo huŏ: annoying bùkĕ yīshì: insufferably arrogant quē xīn yăn: inconsiderate làiháma: toad shuāng: pair hēng rén: stranger biè niu: difficult; stubborn; contrary shǎzi idiot; fool tán: dark; unclear; private hé: river

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COMMENTS

Thursday, May 21, 2009 3:43 PM

BYTEMITE


I am right there with Zoe, Wash, and Jayne. There is no way this Kamath guy and his plan can be good... Nor anyway to be sure, if HE was being followed on Oeneus, that he hasn't been compromised like others.

Thursday, May 21, 2009 3:59 PM

KATESFRIEND


Well, there are some answers, and then even more questions. Poor Inara - her defense mechanisms kicked in sooner than the lessons could - more pain coming up for all. Glad Zoe let Wash know she was playing the game. Jayne was great in this - loved his view on the original meeting with Klamath. Not looking forward to more waiting, got spoiled with regular posting, ya know!

Friday, May 22, 2009 5:47 AM

AGENTROUKA


Oh! I really enjoyed Inara's reaction and her conversation with Kaylee. It's such a MESS! :D

Kaylee was ALMOST going to be usefully comforting and then.. blows it by essentially parroting Inara's fears at her again. Calling "Companion!Inara" perfect plastic when Inara had just insisted that she sees no distinction between herself and her job and that her job doesn't make her an empty, shallow shell. And then she's all startled that Inara would pull away again, slips further onto that safe ground of detachment. Oh, Kaylee. I love your misguided belief in your people skills... *pets*

And oh, Inara. I understand why she has that reaction, because as heartfelt and theoretically beautiful as Mal's sentiments in the earlier chapter were.. doesn't mean that he has a real understanding of what it is like for her and there IS a strong sense of dismissal in there. *sigh* Of course, it hits Inara on a much more intense level because of all their history, because of her guilt, because of how beautiful they were together. She went to such lengths to protect her profession, then risked it all, huge sacrifice - and now it seems like everyone dismisses what it means to her as shallow and "not her". Of course she'd go into a angry, defensive frenzy and ultimately detach emotionally to protect herself. She's on the brink of complete chaos.


Daaaang, you can do complex messes well! :D

Friday, May 22, 2009 5:59 AM

PLATONIST


Love this portrayal of Inara; she really needs to get over herself because she's courting Illusions of Grandeur, here. No ones that important or effective in their trade. And didn't she recently run away from a client? Glad Zoe and the others are finding some answers while Inara wastes time not understanding her feelings, one more time.
Looking for more, once your school year is over.

Saturday, May 23, 2009 5:26 AM

AMDOBELL


I am so hoping that Zoe has a plan to outwit the the sneaky blackmailing Kamath and his people. They really don't get it, do they? Also, I really loved Kaylee's take on Inara and her situation and how Inara really doesn't get it either. Kaylee pretty much hit the nail on the head about Inara even though she stubbornly refused to see it. There are none so blind as those who will not see. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Saturday, May 23, 2009 9:36 AM

BYTEMITE


I do like what you're doing with Kaylee, her little "I'm comforting you! *oblivious*" slip up will likely pose ramifications to Inara's self-image, or to her efforts to change her image in the eyes of the rest of the crew.

I have to say, I do have a hard time imagining Kaylee not wanting to be friends with Inara under any circumstances, even IF Inara were nothing more than a shallow materialistic clothes-pretties-wine-boys obsessed ditz.

But Kaylee is a bit of a romantic herself, isn't she? So maybe she did accidentally mean what she said.

Sunday, December 13, 2009 12:53 PM

TAG


Is this it?

{insert :verysad: emoticon here }


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