Back Stories III, Chapter 12
Saturday, January 9, 2010

In the quiet hours of the ferry ride, River finally gets to spend some time alone with Malcolm.


Back Stories Book 3 Chapter 12.

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 desertgirl for the beta read.

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Jayne sat up, suddenly awake and unsettled in a way he wasn’t used to. It wasn’t the being in a strange place that got to him—he was an old hand at that type of disorientation. After a moment he realized that it was the view that turned his stomach. He didn’t often have his dreams melt away and leave him in the realm of the Black, a far stranger place than any his sleeping mind brought him to.

“Behind glass,” he told himself in rough whisper as he remembered his lodgings. Actually, the scattering of stars and smeared wisps of dust had to be separated from him by a sheet of something much stronger than glass. It had held the air in and the emptiness out for all the years this ferry had been in service. Surely it could be trusted for a bit longer.

Jayne kicked his legs over the side of the bed—a generous word for the thing he’d been sleeping on, considering it wasn’t anything more than a row of padded seats—and rubbed his face. Then he remembered something more and sat up straight, alarmed. But he needn’t have worried that anyone saw his less than ferocious awakening; none of his bunkmates were here. Malcolm’s shimmery sleeping cap, the ridiculous brain-function machine Simon had come up with as the best way to heal the captain’s broken mind, was left abandoned on the bunk on the other side of the cabin. River’s bed was still folded down from the bulkhead above, her blankets all a’muss.

Jayne’s relief at finding himself alone was short-lived. He quickly realized that the two had taken some care to slip out quietly while he slept.

“Damn them,” he murmured to himself. He’d managed to keep them in his sights for the agonizingly slow day and a half of this journey that had so far passed. Landing was only a small handful of hours away. But he wasn’t going to slack off now; trouble wouldn’t be coming on any of his crew unawares, not while Jayne was on watch. His task was to oversee a couple of damned fools, and he meant to do it. He’d do it right this time.

He flicked on a light and pulled on a shirt, then a worry in his gut had him taking a minute to dig into his bag and rip open a flap he’d sewed over his smuggled contraband. Just a gun. Not a very big one, but she was plenty worthy of admiration and respect.

“Fortune smiled on me for sure, little lady,” he told the sleek silver pistol, “to put you right in my path.” In the hand of a dead man maybe, but the man had been shot down, clean through the forehead, while trying to take Serenity from Mal. The weapon, now christened Sheila, rightly belonged to Mal’s crew. She’d ensure the safety of the captain when he wasn’t capable of taking proper care of himself.

It was as if she’d been made for this job. “Not a single security scanner in the ‘verse would see you, hon,” Jayne added as he loaded the pistol. “Aim like a dream and you’ll break skin and bone easy enough, though your ammo won’t come close to piercing this hull. Not even them fancy windows. Yeah, I’ll make use of you if I have even half a need.” With a final caress he tucked Sheila in his belt, then threw on a jacket to hide her. With that, he went out to find his lost lambs.

* * *

When she awoke, Inara didn’t rise immediately, but lay still, the warm blankets tight about her. She tilted her head to study Simon’s sleeping form for a moment before her eyes settled on the starfield outside their cabin.

As a blessing, her thoughts didn’t dwell on the subjects she’d been having such a difficult time avoiding lately. Perhaps the hours she’d spent talking to Simon, rehashing their good memories of the Core, places they’d visited before both of their lives turned dark, had brought about this peace of mind. She was grateful for it. And perhaps his presence, so quiet and calm, accounted for the many hours of deep sleep she’d just enjoyed.

Relaxed, she let her thoughts drift with the stars outside until she realized that her stomach was as empty as her mind. That wouldn’t do.

Her hunger, as well as her attempt to not wake Simon, made for a quick shower and minimal toilette. She pulled on the same clothes she’d worn while boarding and coiled her wet hair into a bun held in place by short wooden chopsticks, then slipped out of the cabin and climbed the stairs to the ferry’s dining level. Her unsettled feelings returned as soon as she entered the room; according to New Melbourne local time, it was late night, and most passengers were fast asleep. Only one table had its reading lights on, only one pair voices floated across the room with shared laughter, oblivious to the silence around them. Malcolm and River.

Inara lowered her eyes, recalling that she wasn’t supposed to know them. Nor was she supposed to be acquainted with the large man sitting at the dining bar. But, as their trip was nearing its end, she wanted to talk to him about their plans on landing.

She took a seat with one empty place between herself and Jayne. He gave her a long look, so she smiled and reached out a hand.

“Inara,” she said.

Jayne stared at her hand for a second, then grunted, as if to say: all right, I’ll play.

“Jayne.” He shook. “Buy you a drink, ma’am?”

“Thank you, but I just woke. I’m needing something solid.” She waved at a waiter who was hovering by a side door and ordered a bowl of hot cereal grains. This served to get them a few minutes of privacy while the man took her order to the kitchen.

“Any news?” she asked Jayne, her voice low.

He was quick with a reply, delivered in a harsh whisper. “Them two are gonna drive me batty. Next time, I wanna be the one workin’ with the terrorist chems. Zoë can handle this gorramned part.”

Inara looked toward the pair on the far edge of the central dining area; they still seemed unaware that they were the only animated people on this level of the ship. She had to mask her own irritation with a smile.

“But you do such a wonderful job, Jayne,” she replied sweetly. His glare told her that he didn’t buy into that at all. “But what I meant to ask was, do you have any news about our landing?”

“Nah. Had a talk with the ferry captain a few hours after we took off, ain’t seen him since. He’s Kamath’s man all right. Just as uptight and twice as nettlin’. But he says we got off clear, ain’t no sniffs from authorities, no ships following.”

“That’s good to know.”

“As for the landing on Oeneus, we’re getting close to that time. I got to check in with the captain again. Want to be sure there’s no greeting party before we walk off.”

“Do you think that’s a danger?”

“Don’t seem likely, but my job ain’t to decide what’s likely. My job’s to be ready for whatever comes.”

Inara nodded, comforted by how seriously he was taking their situation. She supposed that being surprised by Will in the bar on Highgate had gotten to the mercenary. He seemed determined to make up for his mistake.

“I’m glad you happened by, is my point,” Jayne went on. “I can’t leave these two alone with it all dark and quiet like this. If you wouldn’t mind…” He nodded toward the pair across the room.

“Of course. I’ll keep an eye on them.”

Her breakfast arrived just as Jayne left, and she had nothing to do while she ate but listen to the occasional snippets of Malcolm and River’s conversation that carried across the room. It disturbed her. They were acting exactly like teenagers on a date: either laughing or leaning their heads together to share quiet secrets.

* * *

“I don’t know why we need to be watched,” River complained in a whisper. “We’re only playing dominos.”

They hadn’t intended any activity so slow-paced when they snuck out of the cabin, leaving Jayne snoring into his pillow, but they hadn’t found much else to do. Despite a thorough exploration of the ferry, they’d found only one cost-free option for staving off boredom: a cabinet of battered games in the game room.

The domino game hadn’t lasted long. River found that she wasn’t as interested in competition as she usually was. Winning didn’t carry much satisfaction, and she knew exactly why: she just couldn’t enjoy winning if it meant that Malcolm had to lose. Rather than letting him win, an option she also couldn’t accept, she preferred to use the dominoes as building blocks while they talked. It gave her hands, and that distracting part of her mind that wouldn’t be still, something to do.

She had a good structure going. She’d used most of the blocks from the two domino sets they’d found in the cabinet, so only a few of the little black rectangles were left free for Malcolm to stack. He’d precariously balanced a handful of them, smallest end against smallest end, to make a thin tower. It was well done, but nothing to the intricate pattern she’d constructed. Her creation was only two dimensional, lying flat on the table, but it took nearly all the available space.

“Snowflake?” Malcolm asked.

“Dendrimer,” River replied as she checked over the molecule’s structure. “Every monomer unit is branched. Reduce intermolecular chain entanglement and crystallization.”

He studied her work for a long moment before he grunted out a thoughtful: “Hunh.”

She finished her check—all correct—then eyed Malcolm’s domino column. There weren’t enough blocks in it to complete another full generation of her polymer, but she could extend one corner of the pattern.

He guessed her thoughts and curled a protective arm around his skyscraper. “Mine!”

She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully, then kicked the leg of the table.

“That’s just mean!” Malcolm complained as his little building crumbled.

She was already gathering the scattered blocks. “Can have them back in a minute.”

He bent sideways to reach the dominoes that had ended on the floor, and gamely handed them over.

“So, what is that, exactly?” he asked.

“Nothing in particular. Just an example of polymer architecture.”


“A large molecule consisting of strong covalent bonds. You see them every day. Plastics. Polyethylene. Amber. Rubber. Putty. Sealant. Those windows. Proteins. Cellulose. The backbone of DNA.”

She kept her eyes on her molecule, but her mind was fully focused on Malcolm. In the past year, she’d learned enough about people, about real people outside the Academy, to know that this was when he would be bored. He’d resent that she was being smart, or get confused as to her meaning and be unable to continue the conversation.

“Those windows?” he asked.

“Have to be strong.”

“Yeah. Guess so. And it’s done with molecules like that?” He cocked his head and stared at her work.

“Hmm…” She shuffled things about, carefully shifting the structure. “Maybe more… like… this.”


“I’m only guessing.” Actually, she wasn’t, but she was still worried that she’d scare him by being too smart.

“I doubt that,” he said. His tone was kind. “But if it’s the case, how `bout you stop wasting time and let me have a go?”

She frowned at him until she saw the humor in his eyes, then without planning it she found herself blurting out, “You’re easy to talk to. You’re much friendlier than the captain. I like being with you.”

Malcolm cocked an eyebrow at her in surprise, but her compliment didn’t stop him from stealing back dominoes. He took apart one corner of her molecule and began to stack the blocks into a wall, offset like the structure of an old-fashioned brick building. After he had a few rows complete he grinned and finally replied.

“You people are easy to please. Already I got Kaylee sayin’ we’re pals, now you. If only I could win Zoë over, I’d – ”

“You don’t have to ‘win over’ Zoë. She’s with you. She’s got your back.”

His raised eyebrow now expressed doubt. “Got my back?”

“It’s a military thing.”

“I suppose it would be. With her, I mean.”

“I’m not military.”

“That seems clear.”

“So I don’t have your back. But I’m your friend. We’re friends, aren’t we?”

His face relaxed into a natural smile and his reply was genuine. “Yeah, we’re friends.”

River sighed, suddenly frustrated. This dance was ridiculous. They were so close. No one, not even her brother, could be so accepting of her strange ways of thinking, of talking, of playing. And surely no one had ever made the captain so calm, so at ease, as she had during this trip. This was love. It had to be. If only…

River looked over her shoulder. Inara had taken over watchdog duty, though the woman was more discrete than Jayne. Her eyes were fastened on her bowl as she finished her late night breakfast.

Malcolm noticed River’s shift in attention. “Miss Serra’s an interesting woman,” he said. “The other day I had myself a bit of a talk with her.”

River felt her stomach tighten with dread. She sensed a thick emotion behind his light tone, though she couldn’t see the true nature of it. “What kind of talk?”

“Oh, you know. Just a chat.” His lips curved in what was supposed to be a carefree grin. “Work, love, sex, the meaning of life. Nothing serious.”

He thought his irony would pass as nonchalant and amusing, but River knew better. “Why in the world would you talk to her about all that? You’re not friends with her. You don’t even know her.”

He shrugged. “Maybe not.”

She tilted her head and studied him. “But you wish you were friends.” “I…” He looked across the room. Inara had finished eating and was speaking to the worker behind the bar. Even in this worn, shabby place, dressed in cast off clothes, the woman had a shine to her, something that drew the eye. It made River glower.

“Every man must want her,” Malcolm said wistfully. “Makes me feel common to join a crowd like that.”

Her reply was flat and cold. “It is common. Incredibly common. In fact, that’s just the right word for it.”

Malcolm’s half built wall took a tumble as a sudden passer-by bumped the table.

“Oh, excuse me!” Simon said, and he stooped to pick up the fallen dominoes from the floor.

Malcolm glared at him.

“I’m sorry I, um… ” Simon looked back and forth between the two, then settled his gaze on Malcolm, as if he had no ability to carry out this act opposite his sister. “Have you had a nice journey?”

“Was fine up to now,” River replied through clenched teeth.

“Good. Good. Glad to hear it. And… you’re on vacation?”

Malcolm’s glare turned into a plastic smile. “Off to see the sights. Spend time with family. Take lots of captures to send to folks back home. You?”

“Oh, well. The same.” He paused and looked around the room awkwardly. “I uh, see my wife there. Guess I ought to… Well, enjoy your trip. It was nice to meet you.” He turned away and went to join Inara, who’d been watching the exchange.

River rolled her eyes. “He’s so bad at this.”

“You ain’t joking.”

“Can’t take him out on any crime sprees. Completely useless.”

She was fully intending to devote some time making fun of her brother, but Malcolm didn’t take up the banter. It soon became clear that his ideas were heading in a different direction; he left the scattered dominoes were they fell and stared after Simon. “Funny, them playing husband and wife,” he said.

River’s eyes danced nervously between her brother, Inara, and Malcolm. “Not so funny.”

“They look good together. They fit.”

She didn’t know how to respond to that, so she bit her tongue.

“He’s from the Core, right? Your parents are rich?”

“A little. Not a lot. Not like a Companion.”

“But he ain’t awkward around her. Bet he’s met ladies like her before. Bet he makes conversation without getting all accusation-y and judgmental-y and serious, like some stupid fellas do. Just look at them, talking all natural.”

“Why shouldn’t they?”

He finally turned back to River and leaned in close to ask: “They known each other long?”

“You’re jealous!”

“Ain’t…” He sat back in his chair, looking sheepish, but his denial was firm. “No, I got no reason for that.”

“You like her!”

“I told you, I don’t at all. I’m just thinking out loud. Maybe I’m feeling bad for how it went when I talked to her. I guess I wouldn’t mind being able to clear things up proper. I can’t stand thinking that she’s mad at me, that I hurt her feelings—”

“Cause you like her!”

He glared at River. “I don’t. Not like that.”

She looked closer, trying yet again to read him. He never had been easy to figure out, not even after his mind became very nearly a clean slate, but River was making progress. She'd been focused on him for this entire journey, shutting out all other distractions, and she was learning his patterns. Now she saw something new, something that pleased her.

“You don’t want to, do you?” she asked.

He turned away and sighed. Not a thoughtful sigh, but an I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-this sigh.

River answered her own question. “No, I think you don’t want to like her. You never wanted to.” She glanced toward the cafeteria, saw that Inara and Simon had their backs turned, their attention on their own conversation. It was a perfect chance to make an escape. She held out a hand to Malcolm. “I can help. Come on.”

“What? Where?”

“Just come on!”

She glanced at their guardians again, then grabbed Malcolm’s hand and pulled him away. She had one chance at this; she had to do it right. She hurried him toward the stairway leading to the level above, jogged up a half dozen steps and around the curve to where they wouldn’t be seen, then stopped suddenly and turned back to face him.

She was a step up, almost at eye level with him. He had to know what she was planning, had to be aware of the possibility as she leaned closer to him, and yet he didn’t pull away. There was confusion on his face, but not unwillingness.

Before she could second guess herself she grabbed the front of his shirt, went up on her toes, and pressed her lips to his.

* * *

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Saturday, January 9, 2010 12:49 PM


OK, I still stand by everything I posted on a Mal/River thread. As in: ew! The plot just... went here.

Yes, I'll post the next one soon. Can't leave this one hanging for long!

Saturday, January 9, 2010 1:57 PM


Oh River. There's really only one way planting a surprise wet one on Mal can go.

At least she's on the upstep, because otherwise the startled whoa-what-push would probably end even worse.

Saturday, January 9, 2010 4:58 PM


Loved the characterizations you've given. Mal as the basically well adjusted teenager with a level head and a good attitude before his adult world fell apart . River finally showing normal adolescent behavior after all she's been through. Her petty jealousy was classic. Nobody ever said that superior intelligence breeds superior emotional maturity. Loved the insight shown by Inara on her reality. Was Jayne's new gun the one he picked up in "Easy Tickets" for a reason? Glad to see Jayne finally has his mind on the job. This is going to be fun!

Saturday, January 9, 2010 5:12 PM


“You’re jealous!"

Yeah, I think we've all come to that conclusion now and we’re not even mind readers.

And go figure, only you could get me to ship Mal and River because this is very sweet; the way you've written her finally pursuing her crush on Mal. But something tells me it’s not going to be what she is hoping for.

I'm looking forward to his reaction on that end note.

Sunday, January 10, 2010 1:39 AM


I think River's comment that Mal doesn't *want* to like Inara is so very revealing. He might love her, but it's against his will, which is why the adult Mal never really made his move. Good stuff.

Sunday, January 10, 2010 7:40 AM


Hmm, well, it's complicated. I don't know what exactly Mal4Prez is planning, but my take on this is that even psychic empath geniuses are sometimes able to only see what they WANT to see.

There might be a grain of truth in that assessment, but it is far from the only thing Mal feels. We know he's conflicted, and this is compounded by the fact that he has no idea what is going on. I think River is expanding and embellishing this one tiny grain to make a justification for what she wants and what she does.

I mean, River is trying to tell herself here that after spending a day together and being able to talk and laugh, and that she is "the only person who put him at ease this entire leg of the trip" that this is love. You'll notice that even by her own definition, River makes Mal uncomfortable by pressing him about Inara later.

Remember, this is from the perception of a not quite sane teenage girl who thinks she's in love. She's the very definition of an unreliable narrator.

Sunday, January 10, 2010 7:47 AM


Also, I think it can be argued that adult Mal did make his move, both in the series and in Easy Tickets. This had consequences (Inara's leaving because of her secret) in both the series and Easy Tickets, though I think the secret in question for Mal4Prez is different from the secret that was leaked.

Though it may still be a PART of the series Inara's secret, because the leaked secret doesn't explain why she's never gone back to Sihnon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010 8:46 AM


Oh, um, also, after I thought about that first post, I realized it could be taken multiple ways, and I want to assure everyone that I *only* meant River, as she has been written here, in Mal4Prez's work.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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