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TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10) Part (02)
Monday, December 26, 2011

Mal has a good day, and that makes Zoe worried. Meanwhile, Simon looks for zebras.


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TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)

Part (02) Follows BANDIAGARA (09). Precedes WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11).

The series so far: A LION’S MOUTH (01) ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02) SPARKS FLY (03) EXPECTATIONS (04) BREAK OUT (05) THE TRIAL (06) SHADOW (07) ONE MAN’S TRASH (08) BANDIAGARA (09)

Mal has a good day, and that makes Zoe worried. Meanwhile, Simon looks for zebras.

May be NSFW? (Nobody does it in this chapter. But they talk about it.)

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* * *

Simon ran a complete battery of diagnostic tests on Kaylee’s blood sample. Influenza, food poisoning, leukemia, acute radiation poisoning—he didn’t want to think about that possibility, there was no possible treatment for it out here in the Black. She’d need a bone marrow transplant at a well-equipped hospital. More likely were anemia, depression, mononucleosis, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome. Of course, given the kinds of diseases he had seen on Bandiagara, he couldn’t discount the possibility that Kaylee had onchocerciasis, malaria, trypanosomiasis or even yellow fever—no matter that these diseases were considered extinct in the Core. He added those to his diagnostic test list. And if he was considering those dinosaurs—well, he might as well consider a few zebras as well.

“Zebras?” Kaylee asked, curiously.

Simon hadn’t realized he’d been thinking aloud.

“It’s something they used to say in medical school. About keeping your perspective. You study all these crazy, rare diseases, and forget that sneezing probably means a common cold virus, not a diaphragmatic migraine. ‘When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.’ But I’ve eliminated the horses. So maybe it’s time to think zebras.”

Kaylee’s mood had vastly improved—it had swung the other way, in fact. “That’d be funny. I could wave my folks. ‘Mom, Dad, I caught a zebra on Bandiagara.’ They’d say, ‘A big zebra or a little one?’ I’d tell ’em, ‘Oh, it’s just a little one.’ My mom would ask, ‘And Cap’n Reynolds let you keep it?’ ’Cause, you know, I’m always tellin’ her how the Cap’n won’t let me keep a puppy or nothin’, so I’d tell her, ‘Well, it’s small, and he’s kinda gettin’ used to the pitter-patter of little hoofs on Serenity…’”

“That’s it!” Simon exclaimed. “I am an idiot!”

“Whaddya mean, Simon?” Kaylee asked in surprise. “And you ain’t an idiot.”

“I should have thought of this first, only I…” Simon mumbled, as he ran another test on the sample.

“Should have thought of what?” Kaylee asked suspiciously.

“I couldn’t see it, I was so sure it was impossible, but it makes sense, it’s just so…” Simon realized he was babbling, and in front of Kaylee, too. It wasn’t appropriate. He tried to resume his physicianly manner, but—but this was his girlfriend. More than just a girlfriend, she was—

“Simon, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I mean, I think nothing is wrong.”

“You mean ta say, I’m just peachy? That this is all in my head?” Kaylee grew angry. “’Cause it ain’t all in my head! I really am tired. I really am queasy. I ain’t makin’ it up! And you just better—” She stopped. Simon was bent over the diagnostic unit, looking at the test results with an indescribable look on his face. “What?” she said, suddenly concerned. “What is it, Simon?”

He turned to her, and his face broke into a broad smile. “You’re pregnant.”

* * *

Mal entered the bridge, whistling a cheerful tune, and sat down in the co-pilot seat. Zoe looked up from her seat at the flight desk. Mal looked…happy. Contented. This was so unusual that Zoe redoubled her look, searching his face intently. He didn’t look ill, or delirious, or crazy—or no crazier than usual, anyway.

What he did look was thoroughly, completely, happy and contented, and this was so strange that Zoe was concerned.

“Havin’ a good day, sir?” she ventured.

“Yup,” he answered, and took up whistling again.

“You alright, sir?”

“Fine, Zoe. What, is there a problem?”

“You’re whistling.”

“Am I? Guess I’m just feelin’ cheersome, is all.” He started up his tune again, but stopped at her look. “What? Can’t a fella be cheersome?”

“Oh, anytime. It’s just…” This was so strange. Zoe never had to spell things out like this for Mal. “I’ve known you a long time, sir, and you ain’t whistled a cheersome tune since ’07.”

The early days of the war. When there was still hope. Before things really went south. “Guess there hasn’t been much to make me cheersome since ’07.” He turned to the flight desk and, by habit, flipped the three check switches, but even alluding to the war and the dark days that followed hadn’t dampened his mood. A smile graced his features, and he nearly started whistling again, but checked himself when he noticed Zoe lookin’ sideways at him.

Now Zoe was really concerned. “Somethin’ happen to make you all cheersome, sir?”

He didn’t answer, just smiled, content, satisfied and a little bit smug.

“Good sex, sir?” She didn’t expect him to answer.

But he did. “Better than good.” His smile widened. “Great sex.”

He paid no mind to Zoe’s astonished expression—she was not astonished that he and Inara were having great sex, mind; she was astonished that he was willing to say it. He had changed since the start of his relationship with Inara, no doubt about it. He looked directly at Zoe. “Best ever. And that’s sayin’ something, ’cause it started out great. But ever since Bandiagara…” he trailed off, and his smile took on a dreamy quality.

“What happened on Bandiagara, sir?”

He looked around, making sure they were quite alone. “Zoe, I asked her to marry me.”

Zoe looked him in the eye. They would’ve told the whole crew if Inara had said yes outright. What had made him so happy? “She didn’t say yes,” she stated, certain of her correct assessment.

“She didn’t say no,” Mal returned.

So that was it! Zoe knew—it was the return of hope that had Mal so cheerful.

“She didn’t say no,” he repeated. “She said, later.” He paused for a breath. “Zoe, I can live on that for a long time. Knowing that one day, she’ll make me happy.”

“Looks like she already has.”

He nodded, and smiled again. Zoe thought the conversation—already abnormally long for the two of them—was over, but after a thoughtful moment, Mal said, more tentatively, “Zoe, when you…let me know if I’m outta line here, mentioning this…when you and Wash first…got together, did you…” he trailed off.

“Did we what, sir?”

“I guess what I’m wonderin’ is, did I put a dampener on your, uh, joy, you know—? Well, I know I was pretty much an ornery 王八蛋 wángbādàn about the whole thing, especially right in the beginning, you two bein’ together, and all fine and shiny, and me still caught in a dark hole and wantin’ to drag everybody in it with me…”

Zoe was amazed to hear him talk. In all these years, never—

“I guess what I’m sayin’,” Mal continued, “is sorry if I rained on your sunny day. You deserved every bit of shiny you ever had with Wash, and I shouldn’ta been interfering.” He stopped and looked at her, hoping that talking out loud hadn’t spoiled their unspoken communication. Can you forgive me for that? he asked with his look.

Of course, her look said. Ain’t like we paid much attention to your interference. Oops, she hadn’t meant to telegraph that thought—Mal was sensitive about his authority—

“Oh, hell, Zoe, that don’t make no nevermind. I always known where I stood with you—and with Wash, too, for the most part. That all Captain-y thing is for the benefit of the others—well, for Jayne. And Simon. Jayne especially.”

“Actually, sir,” Zoe said, getting back to the subject, “we worried that we were being insensitive, all wrapped up in ourselves, when you had so many sorrows to deal with. We worried about you bein’ all lonesome.”

“Wash worried about me bein’ by my lonesome?” Mal said, with a wicked glint in his eye.

“Well, point of fact, it was me who—”

“That was big of him,” Mal continued, bantering. “Too bad he didn’t share.”

“I wouldn’ta stood for it, sir. Woulda busted your face, if he shared himself with you.”

“That is not what I meant—” Mal sputtered, but he wasn’t really indignant at all. It was like old times, seeing Zoe like this. He smiled again, then asked a serious question. “So it’s really…you’re alright, with me gettin’ together with Inara, and…” getting some, he couldn’t quite say, “while you…” and Wash are parted, and can’t have that no more?

“Mal, I am alright with it. Wash and I had six years together, five of them married. You had those same six years of lonesome. Well, mostly lonesome. I don’t begrudge you your months of shiny. ’Bout time.” She didn’t want to rain on his sunny day. But she had something serious to say. “Cherish it.”

Mal looked intently at her, understanding that she was talking about herself as much as advising him.

“Cherish it,” Zoe repeated, “’cause you never know when it’s gonna get snatched away.”

“I will,” he promised. His pledge to do so was about as much comfort as Zoe would accept from him, he knew, but he added, “I know you did.”

They were silent for a moment as memories of Wash—different memories for each of them—filled their heads. Mal thought their conversation—already wordier than any they’d had in years—was ended. Well-ended, too, with Zoe lifted out of her grief for a spell, and finding a bit of peace. The good mood still pervaded his being, despite the serious interval, and he was hard pressed not to smile again, only it didn’t seem fitting after such a moment of solemnity.

Zoe pulled herself away from the memories of how she cherished Wash, and how he cherished her, surprised to find that the shininess of the recollections overbalanced the ache of loss—at least at present. She gathered her strength and turned the focus back onto her friend. This good mood of his was rare enough, she ought to follow up on it, as far as she could. She gave him a smile. “Does wonders for your mood, gettin’ laid regular.”

She expected Mal to clam up and keep his counsel, but it seemed the good mood was here to stay. He opened up, and gave her a broad smile. “Sure does. Reckon I know why Wash was such a cheerful fellow.”

She mock-punched him on the shoulder. “嘿 Hēi!” he exclaimed, and punched her right back. Then a horrified look crossed his face. “Sorry, Zoe, I shouldn’t oughtta be hittin’ a pregnant lady.”

“What, that little flea-swat?” she replied. “Gonna have ta try harder, you want to call that hittin’ on me.”

“Oh, so you want I should hit on you?”

“Inara wouldn’t like it, she found out you’re hittin’ on me.”

“What she don’t know…” he began, with a suggestive look.

“Look at you flirt!” Zoe exclaimed, swatting at him. “Who’d a thunk it? You shoulda started gettin’ laid regular years ago.”

“I thought of it, but Wash wouldn’t cooperate. Said you’d kill him with your pinky.” Mal chuckled as Zoe snorted with laughter. “And I didn’t want a busted face,” he added quickly.

They both snorted with laughter.

“What?” Mal said, attuned to the look on Zoe’s face.

“Just seems strange, sir, to hear you talkin’ about sex like this.”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with talkin’ about it. Not like it’s unnatural, or sinful, or—”

“You see, that’s just it.”

“What’s just it?”

“You wouldn’t never have said nothin’ like that, just a few years ago.”

“Just a few years ago, I wasn’t gettin’ enough to know was it natural or not. All’s I could say was it was rare.”

“And why was it so gorram rare, huh?” she asked, keeping the mood light. Don’t go wallowing in the sorrows, sir. “Not like there weren’t any women who wanted you. You just wouldn’t have them.”

“I didn’t want no casual flings.”

She arched her eyebrows at him. And what about—?

“Oh, alright, I didn’t want ’em much. ’Cept when I did.” He ducked out of the way as Zoe threw another punch his direction. “Kept lookin’ for the real thing. Not so easy when we’d spend no more ’n a few hours dirtside, half of ’em gettin’ shot at.”

“The real thing. Uh-huh,” Zoe replied. “That’s you, Mr Saving-it-for-marriage.”

“I wasn’t saving it for marriage!”

“—or near as makes no nevermind.”

Mal grinned. Zoe knew him too well to be fooled by any of his horseplay.

“You know, in some ways, you ain’t changed much from when I first met you, all them years ago, at the beginning of the war.”

“Oh, ain’t I?” he challenged. Keep it light. ’Cause in other ways I changed so much it hurts.

“I remember when you first come to the platoon as a raw recruit, straight from Puritan World—I mean, Shadow.”

“‘Puritan World’,” he repeated, in mock indignation.

“Oh yeah, all you Shadow folk were so straight-laced, and you were the straightest arrow of them all.”

“I—” he began to protest.

“No sexin’, no drinkin’, no cussin’—”

“Did too!”

“‘Dawg gone’ ain’t a cuss word, sir.”

“You can’t—”

“Reckon I should tell Jayne, how you used to think half a glass of beer constituted drinkin’—”

“Full glass,” interrupted Mal.

“Full glass,” Zoe allowed. “You thought one beer constituted serious drinkin’. But never no liquor, oh no, not for Mr Lily Pure.”

“Shut up, Zoe, weren’t never no lily pure—”

“‘Oh, I can’t go with y’all to that burlesque place’,” she imitated the young Mal, “‘might be drinkin’, might be naked ladies there, I’m savin’ it for—’”

“Shut. Up. And I weren’t savin’ it for marriage. Just bein’ faithful to my girl back home. Mindy and I done it, lots of—”

“Two virgins pure, never had nobody but each other—”

“Ain’t true! And no, really, Mindy weren’t my first.”

“Really? I been with you all these years, and there’s still something new to learn about you. You’re a close one.”

“Hmm.”

There was a pregnant pause. “Out with it,” she ordered.

什么 Shénme?”

“Come on, spit it out. Tell me the story.”

“What story?”

“Your first time.”

“Oh, hell no. Ain’t much to tell.”

Zoe waited. She could wear him down. And did.

“Alright, alright. I was eighteen. Hormones were raging. Felt like I was the only male virgin in my high school graduating class.” He thought for a moment. “Probably was.”

Zoe prodded him with another look.

“Only good-looking one, anyhow.”

Zoe snorted. “You ain’t gonna side-track me, sir. Get on with it.”

“Well, Lola Adhona figured it out. She come after me, all nice and friendly, started workin’ me over, first with the kissin’, then with the touchin’, and then with the—you know.”

“You mean you seduced her.”

“I—no!—” he sputtered. “She—she seduced—she was a—” he pulled up short.

“Whore?” Zoe offered, brows arched.

“I don’t know that word,” Mal said quickly. “But no, Lola wasn’t that. She was a slut. Turned out she made a habit of chasin’ down the boys, one by one, takin’ ’em like trophies. Near broke my heart when I found out I wasn’t—”

“Her one and only?”

“That’s right. My ma wasn’t so sympathetic. Told me I shoulda known better than to waste my treasure on a girl like that. Ma wasn’t so displeased with the outcome, howsomever.”

“And what outcome was that?”

“Oh, I moped and pined and lamented for the best part of a year. Wouldn’t look at another girl. Not ’til I met Mindy, my second year of correspondence courses at the Ag School.”

“And how did you meet her?”

“We had to go to Edmunds City to sit our exams. She was in the same exam room as me, and afterwards we talked.”

“Just talked?” she asked pointedly.

“Absolutely just talked. What kind of loose 堕落的 duòluòde you think I—” He saw she was tweaking him.

She waited for him to tell the rest of the story.

“She lived in another part of Shadow, farside of Alpin, point of fact. Our paths weren’t like to intersect. But two weeks later, I saw her again.”

She gave him another suggestive look. He bit.

At church,” he said pointedly. “At the Northside United Family Christian Church. She’d come to stay the summer with relatives on the Northside. So we got better acquainted. Not like that,” he scoffed, rolling his eyes at Zoe’s expression. “You have got a smutty mind. Proper-like. A while later, she came to work at a nearby ranch, and after, we started courting.”

“And your ma—?”

“Approved. Mindy was the kind of girl Ma approved of. Not nobody had nothing to say against us courting, as all looked to be headed in the proper direction. And it would’ve, too. War hadn’t come along, like as not, I’d still be livin’ on the ranch, married to Mindy and makin’ grandbabies for my Ma.”

* * *

“I’m pregnant?” Kaylee said, incredulously.

“Yes, you certainly are.” Simon felt nervous. He was smiling like a jackass. He was unsure how Kaylee felt about this development, but he just couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

“Are you…happy?” she said at last.

He was still smiling. “Yeah.” He looked at her, realized she needed more reassurance. “I’m very happy.”

“But you said you weren’t ready yet—that you only wanted two kids, far, far in the future.”

Simon was ready to kick himself for saying that, in front of the whole crew, in front of Kaylee—but she had shocked him that time by her enthusiastic declaration that six kids would not be too many for her. “Well,” he said nervously, “I guess I don’t have a choice now, do I? I’m going to be a father soon, whether I want to or not.” Kaylee’s face fell, and he immediately realized he’d said the wrong thing. He folded her in his arms, kissing her forehead and hair, as her tears fell. “I’m going to be a father,” he whispered to her, “and it’s going to be the best thing that ever happened to me, besides being with you.”

He’d said the right thing, for a change. Kaylee’s sobs subsided, turned into hiccoughs. She was still crying, but these were happy tears. They held each other, swaying slowly together in the middle of the infirmary, for a while.

“Ya know, I’m kinda in shock myself,” she finally said.

“Didn’t you know, somehow, on some level?” he asked, unable to let go of his physicianly side. “You must have noticed that you missed your cycle.”

She thought it over seriously. “No,” she finally answered. “I didn’t notice. Ya know, I had a friend, back home, could set a clock by her cycles, they was so regular. She could tell you three years ahead, to the day and nearly to the minute, when she was going to start her courses. But my cycles ain’t so regular, Simon. They never have been. They been as short as 21 days and as long as 38. Ain’t no predicting ’em.”

“And how long has it been this time?”

She thought for a moment, and a ‘gee whiz’ expression crossed her face. “45 days, Simon. 天啊 Tiān ā, I shoulda known. I just wasn’t payin’ attention. ’Cause I been so tired.” She amended, “’Cause I been so pregnant.” She laughed, and Simon joined in, holding her and swaying in unison. “You know,” Kaylee ventured after a while, “I never stopped using protection. I don’t know how this happened.”

“Contraceptives are never one hundred percent effective,” Simon replied. “And, you know, I’ve been using the contraceptives, too, of course. Right from our very first time. I really don’t see…” He trailed off, as wheels began to turn inside his head. Dates, first dates, conception dates, expiration dates…

“Do you want to tell the others?”

She was thoughtful. “Not yet. Simon, I want to keep this just between us for a while. Get used to the idea. ’Til it feels…real. I don’t think the Cap’n’ll mind—I mean, Zoe’s baby’s gonna be here first, so it’s not like he can say somethin’ about nobody havin’ babies on his boat, but I don’t want—”

“I have to tell Mal,” Simon said abruptly.

“No, you don’t, Simon,” Kaylee replied in a determined voice. “This ain’t none of his business. And he ain’t my daddy. Just ’cause he’s the Captain don’t mean he needs to know this now.”

“He does need to know this. And he needs to know it now.” Simon’s voice was equally determined.

“He don’t need to know it now! Just ’cause he’s the Captain—”

“Not because he’s the Captain. Because he’s my patient.”

* * *

Zoe filled Mal in on Buck Holden’s call. Holden had another cargo for them to pick up on Beaumonde, and had been delighted to learn they were already headed his way. They knew, without Holden stating outright, that it was another perfectly legal cover cargo for another concealed cache of corporate espionage—a highly lucrative and potentially dangerous gig. It was just what they needed. Holden had been intrigued by Zoe’s hints that they carried items of interest to him, and although, in Zoe’s judgment, Holden wouldn’t want to touch the timonium himself, he was likely in a good position to know who might do the deal. Holden, of course, would have nothing to do with their Bandiagaran vegetables. Illegal landing, illegal trade, illegal cargo, and defiance of every agricultural restriction aimed at controlling the spread of plant pests and crop diseases—Holden boys wouldn’t touch it. Mal and Zoe needed to find a black market produce broker—and fast, before their cargo spoiled. If they couldn’t, then the fruits of their labors would be fit for nothing more than the making of Kaylee’s engine hooch.

* * *

Mal knew he had put off this discussion for far too long. He hadn’t forgotten that he’d seen Ip and River kissing by the firelight in Bandiagara. He’d talked to River—not to interfere, mind—she had a brother who was perfectly capable of interfering in his younger sister’s romantic life—just an attempt to warn an innocent girl about men in general and what evil, lecherous humps they were. River had turned the tables on him, and made him feel more uncomfortable than he’d been in a long time. Girl didn’t need no warning about what was in a man’s mind when he looked at a pretty young woman. She knew.

But if River wasn’t worried, Mal still was. It took two to tango, and he hadn’t yet confronted Ip about his intentions toward River. Girl thought she knew all about it—and, in a theoretical way, she did—but Mal was not convinced that she would be her own best counsel in such matters. She didn’t see the danger in playing with fire, because she’d never yet been burned. Had suffered in so many ways, pain beyond even what he could imagine—and he could imagine plenty—but she hadn’t had her heart crushed. Hadn’t been burned that way, at least. And he hoped she never would.

He found Ip in the dining area lounge, working on his scientific papers—it was the man’s favorite leisure-time activity, and he loved to do it in the common areas of the ship, like he enjoyed the constant interruptions from others on the crew. Mal approached him, and Ip looked up and smiled a greeting. Mal could tell the young doc was about to open his mouth, no doubt to begin another nice friendly round of “grill the Captain,” but Mal pre-empted his question with one of his own.

“What are your views on River, Dr Ip?”

Ip looked up, a bit startled. “My ‘views’?”

Mal made it clear that he would brook no nonsense. “That’s what I said.”

The Captain had taken Ip by surprise, so he took a moment to think. What were his views on River? A smart, fascinating, intellectually gifted young woman. A very young woman. Comfortable around people much older than herself, but young nonetheless. Acted sometimes with the maturity of a twenty-five-year-old—perfect for him. But sometimes acted no older than the almost-nineteen that she was. Too young for him. And definitely not normal.

Not-normal he could deal with. In fact, it didn’t even bother him at all. He’d gone to Harcliffe University, a premier Core educational institution. Most of the students there were “not normal” in one way or another—they were gifted, extraordinary, they stuck out. In the lives they’d come from, many of them were unusual, one-of-a-kind—the only kid in their high school who actually finished The Brothers Karamazov cover-to-cover, the only kid who decided to skip the senior prom in favor of going to the Science Fair to give a talk about their research project. There were students who couldn’t read a social situation to save their lives (he was one of them), but whose academic intelligence was unquestionable. At Harcliffe, these outliers fit in, and Ip found nothing disconcerting about not-normal. He was of the opinion that the perfectly normal was, in fact, very rare indeed.

But River’s not-normal was an outlier even on the Harcliffe scale. He recalled the strange hour spent in the park on Persephone, while he fended off curious strangers with a cock-and-bull story about River having been brain-damaged in a hovercraft accident, to explain her fixed stare and frozen attitude, while she, apparently, listened to voices in her head. Then she snapped out of it, ran through the park like an ordinary teenager, and kissed him. (Yeah, kissed him.) Right, and then there was the strange hour spent with the Tam siblings on the way to Bandiagara, with Simon—whom he had thought perfectly sane—rattling on about Blue Sun special operatives and secret experiments on River’s brain, while River drifted strangely in and out of the conversation, talking about herself in the third person. Then she danced with him on Bandiagara, and they kissed again. Nice. He’d noticed, of course, that River’s talk was sometimes cryptic, like she was spinning riddles or reciting poetry, but others on Serenity—the Captain in particular—seemed to make sense of the stream-of-consciousness musings, and took them in stride. Ip found that sometimes, when he applied himself and paid very close attention, what sounded superficially like nonsense was, in fact, deep and meaningful, and often, witty. He just couldn’t always keep up. “I like her,” he said at last, “but she’s an odd bird.”

“She ain’t a bird,” the Captain responded.

“You call her ‘Albatross’,” Ip returned, without missing a beat.

Mal was taken aback. He couldn’t deny it. He did call River ‘Albatross’—which was, as Ip correctly pointed out, a bird. He also couldn’t believe it—did that scientist just have the gumption to call him on that? Mal wasn’t gonna let Ip off so easy. “Sure do. She’s the ship’s good luck. Won’t let nothing bad happen to her,” he said, with a warning look. He gave it a beat, then added, “You were with River after dinner. Alone. And what did you do?”

“We talked,” Ip answered readily. He noticed the Captain’s disbelieving look. “I like her,” Ip repeated, “to talk to.”

To talk to? What kind of man sat in company with a pretty girl—a girl who apparently was perfectly willing to take things a bit farther than talking—and…just talked? Mal wasn’t buying it, so he folded his arms and fixed Ip with a death stare and waited for him to crack.

Ip stared back, cluelessly.

Mal shifted his stance, casually threatening. “You talked,” he interrogated, never breaking eye contact. “And what did you talk about?”

“Particle detectors,” Ip replied easily, “and Shadow’s magnetosphere. You see, we noticed some anomalies in the energetic particle composition of Shadow’s magnetosphere, some inconsistencies, even when you take into consideration the tremendous amount of volcanic activity. There was excess linthicum, naturally, but also increased iridium and neptunium. It was River who pointed out that it was the neptunium that we should be focusing on. She also had some ideas for reconfiguring the detector, if we were ever to have the opportunity to make another fly-by. Captain, if we…” He noticed the Captain seemed lost in thought, and, mentally berating himself for bringing up the painful subject of Shadow, he switched tracks. “River had an idea for analyzing the magnetospheric data. She came up with an equation…”

Good lord, the man is serious, Mal thought, as he let the waves of technobabble wash past him. The man finds himself alone with a pretty girl, an interested pretty girl, and his line is—energetic particle detectors? Sheesh. And Mal thought he’d come up with some pretty lame lines in his time.

“…because she’s really more of a pure math person, even though this is an applied math situation. I told her that,” Ip finished, finally. He looked at the Captain, and realized for the first time that the man hadn’t followed his explanation of the mathematics at all.

‘You’re a pure math person, in an applied math situation,’ Mal thought. Way to turn a girl on. Hafta try that line myself, on Inara, he thought with an internal snort of derision. Now his wonder was more, how had Ip ever managed to get to first base? But that didn’t alter the fact that he had, and Mal wasn’t going to let that slide by. “You and River been kissing. What are your views?” In this context the question became loaded.

Ip smiled a bit, gave a half shrug. “River seems to like kissing me.”

Mal wasn’t gonna believe that it was just the girl instigating this, not for a minute. “Oh, and you’re pretending you didn’t enjoy it?” he challenged.

“Oh, alright,” Ip admitted, smiling still. “Yes, I did enjoy it.”

“So what are your intentions?” Mal demanded.

“Captain, she’s my friend. I like her. I don’t know that either of us has any intentions…”

Mal had heard that line. Life was full of unintended consequences. Didn’t mean a man couldn’t easily anticipate what his actions led to. And in his experience, kissing led to touching, which led to—you know. “Well, maybe you better figure out what your intentions are. What her intentions are.”

“Captain, that seems premature. We’re both just happy being friends, getting to know one another in a friendly way—”

“—Kissing,” Mal inserted pointedly.

“And haven’t you ever kissed a friend?”

Mal swallowed, keeping his face set and hard. He had to admit it—but only to himself, not to Ip—he had kissed a friend. And it didn’t mean nothin’ more than friendship. Friends. A man and a woman could be friends; it didn’t have to go no farther than that. “If your intention is to be her friend, best be sure you really are her friend. Take care of her as a friend should, and watch her back.”

The Captain turned and headed for the bridge. Ip was about to breathe a sigh of relief when he turned back and spoke again. “And if you ever do anything unfriendly to her,” he warned, with an intimidating air, “recognize that River has some true friends on this boat. Ones as will always watch her back.”

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

王八蛋 wángbādàn [son of a bitch]

嘿 Hēi [Hey]

什么 Shénme [Pardon me]

堕落的 duòluòde [reprobate]

天啊 Tiān ā [Oh god]

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COMMENTS

Monday, December 26, 2011 9:49 AM

BYTEMITE


Hah. Zoe hasn't seen anything on puritanical.

But anyway, I can see that about Mal, and how old fashioned most of his soldiers (and Zoe) would have found him. I can even imagine he might have had a sweetheart on Shadow, and being taken advantage of by the town vamp. Clearly he knew his way at least somewhat with Nandi. But at the same time, he is so inexperienced and immature when it comes to a relationship.

By the way, is it Lola the reason why he's been so quick to judge Inara's ways? It almost seems like you're suggesting that here.

I admit to everyone having read Mal's conversation with Ip in advance. I like it just as much now. It really shows just how Ip's... Kind of on a different wavelength than most people. If he were a professor, might could call him "absentminded."

Monday, December 26, 2011 3:04 PM

NUTLUCK


With all the happiness going on, they shoe is growing so large I half expect one of your next chapters will be just...

... and then Serenity exploded and everyone died.

The End.

Monday, December 26, 2011 4:43 PM

M52NICKERSON


Zoe and Kaylee are pregnant, River has a "friend" and Mal was whistling. Someone is about to catch a bullet me thinks!

Good chapter!

Monday, December 26, 2011 4:58 PM

PLATONIST


Oh my, another pregnancy, this "Love Boat" is set to sink.

Anyway, Zoe’s and Mal’s conversation stole the chapter for me

Mindy’s a name you don’t hear often.

Looking forward to more.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011 3:38 AM

ZZETTA13


eb, Glad to see that you have another chapter up!

The pairings I’m seeing as follows:

Zoe, focused on her baby
Simon/Kaylee
Mal/Inara
River/Ip
Jayne/Vera

Several interesting points you’ve brought up here. First up, “Shepherd Mal”, seems the Captain is just about walking in the same footsteps as Preacher Book had with him, when Saffron had appeared on scene. Is Mal winking at a “double standard” when it come to Ip & River?

I’m getting that Mal is not seeing (making a connection to his younger self) that yes, boys and girls can be friends, and talk about all sorts of other things than sex (think he did the same when he was younger) and still let something more than friendship progress naturally.

Malcolm has been the master and commander of Serenity so long, that I think he’s missing what happens when folks are together in space for such long periods of time. I understand that this may be his way of checking on the “human” condition going on, on Serenity. You can’t have a bunch of internal drama going on when you’re in the middle of a bank heist! Still, it will be interesting to see how you handle this in future fic-esodes.

The Captain, may haps an uncle x2.…next port of call they might need to start stocking up on loads of Serenity diapers!

Enjoyed the read….ZBP

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 11:44 AM

EBFIDDLER


Thanks for your comments, everyone.
Bytemite, yes, Mal is still immature when it comes to relationships. He's been growing a bit, but he still has a ways to go. (Inara was right to tell him a couple of chapters ago that he was not ready to take the next step.) Ip: well, I don't think of him as absent-minded, really. He has a very busy intellectual life, and he really likes it that way. At the same time, he's an extravert, likes being with and talking to people, even if he's not very good at reading social cues. So I would go with "on a different wavelength."
Nutluck: "... and then Serenity exploded and everyone died. " Well, THAT would be dramatic! But since this story has 35,000 more words to go, I guess it's going to be more complicated. Or at least longer ;-) How about if I babble aimlessly for 34,993 words and THEN write "and then Serenity exploded and everyone died." ;-)
m52: I particularly enjoyed writing Mal whistling.
Platonist: Do you think someone (and by "someone" I suppose I mean "Jayne") aboard will remark that Serenity's becoming a gorram Love Boat? Glad you liked Mal and Zoe's conversation--it's one of my favorite parts. Mal's sweetheart: I chose "Melinda" for its connotations of "sweet" and "pretty" and used the diminutive form for symbolic reasons.
ZBP (may I still call you BPZ?): Mal may not see it, but I put his backstory and his confrontation with Ip in close proximity so that we could see it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011 1:52 AM

AMDOBELL


I loved the heart to heart talk between Zoe and Mal, and couldn't stop chuckling at the Captain making sure Ip knew to look out for River properly. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"


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