BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

ZOOT

They Take Such Looking After - Part IV - The End
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Everyone thinks they’ve got to save River, but she knows she’s got to save them…


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1851    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Without a glance back towards Badger, watching from the shadows, River stepped between the two technicians-come-guards, the only occupants of the space shuttle sent by her pursuers to apprehend her. This was going to be easier than she’d thought. Only two guards! Did they think she’d gone soft? She smiled faintly to herself as her brain whirred into action, assessing the angles and trigonometry of the small craft. Killing people with maths was always fun.

Badger had tied her hands tightly behind her back and one of the two uniformed goons had just checked on Badger’s thoroughness. Satisfied, they closed the doors and made ready to take off.

Neither guard was therefore watching as River adeptly untangled her hands and carefully sized up each of them. Her eyes raked the cabin and located the three cameras positioned to see every angle. Clearly the masterminds of her capture were watching. The cameras would have to be taken care of swiftly, if she could. Two of the three cameras were fairly low down. She didn’t have much time. A shuttle like this was strictly short distance. With precision, grace and artistry, she rose up suddenly from the bench on which she sat, and, using a sideways hand chop to the windpipe and a right-footed kick to the head, she felled both guards nigh on simultaneously and with an exactness which meant that each body was slumped neatly over one of the two lower cameras. Then reaching up using the follow-through of the same fluid movement with which she had felled the first guard, she gently angled the final camera so it had a nice, if restricting, view of the cabin roof.

So far so good. She lent down and divested one of the guards of his gun. Her slim plan was to crash the shuttle, making it look like all on board had perished. Hopefully, if her calculations were correct, this would not be the case. The mathematics was tricky though and the next bit was gonna hurt. She pulled a piece of webbing from a guards belt and tied it in a tourniquet tight round the third finger of her left hand, below the second knuckle. Her face creased in anticipation of pain and slight disgust, but she fearlessly held her hand, together with her tightly bound, already throbbing finger, down and away from her, between her and one of the arbitrarily chosen, unconscious bodies on the floor.

She paused momentarily to reflect on her random choice of finger. She ephemerally wondered whether any choice was capricious or whether her subconscious had picked out her ring finger to make some highly amusing, ironic point. If so, her subconscious wasn’t all that funny. Then, taking the gun in her right hand, she aimed carefully and shot off the tip of her finger between the first and second knuckles. Blood sprayed up despite the tourniquet and she blinked it out of her eyes. The bullet buried itself none too harmlessly in the body of the luckless guard. She looked coldly down at the tip of her finger, lying abandoned on the floor of the shuttle. Feeling slightly sick, she kicked it gently away into a corner where she couldn’t see it and used one of the guard’s bandanas to bind her bloody stump.

Now she had to crash the shuttle hard enough to make it at least remotely believable that only little traces of her DNA and possibly the tip of a finger might be found. She began to fiddle with the controls, plugging numbers and trajectories into the consoles of the shuttle with the assured confidence that comes of having done the math. As she felt the little ship begin its death dive she moved to the door and shoved it open, its hard-wired safety features squealing in resistance. She shut her eyes. Her face was calm, almost serene as, at exactly the correctly judged moment, she soared balletically, a great bounding leap using the body of the shuttle as leverage, down and away from the fuselage. For one moment she felt the freedom of flight, the same feeling of weightlessness, of floating through the sky that she felt in the great dark of space and then she almost heard gravity take effect as her body changed its flight path and began to fall.

As she instinctively felt the ground coming up to meet her, she coiled her body around and rolled. She felt her right ulna snap like a twig, a clean break that Simon would be able to fix without a second’s thought. Behind her she felt through the throbbing of the earth, rather than heard, the huge fireball of an explosion as the shuttle impacted with the less than spongy ground.

Grazed, somewhat battered, but altogether alive, she picked herself up, holding her damaged arm tenderly against her body, as she began to put all the distance she could between herself and the site of the crash.

***

Mal strolled into the kitchen. He’d woken, wrapped around his wife, at about 5 a.m., feeling far more positive and determined than he’d dared to hope. They’d find River today. He knew it somewhere deep in his vitals; probably not his bones, but maybe his liver. It was almost certainly preparing itself in advance for Kaylee’s celebration wine in the event of River’s return.

Book was stirring something in a large pot on the hob. Mal ambled over for a look. “Mornin’ Preacher. Bit early for breakfast ain’t it?” He stuck his nose into the gloopy mess. “*Tyen shiao duh* what the hell is that? Smells like *shiong mao niao*! Nah, wait, I ain’t gonna think what it smells like! I know Hat ain’t well and we gotta fend for ourselves, but that’s just plain mean! ’S adding insult to injury, make us eat *niou-se* like that!”

Book looked up mildly and paused in his stirring. “I’d say it would certainly be quite a trial to eat this concoction, Captain. It’s liniment the Doctor asked me to rustle up. My guess is he’s expectin’ the need to bandage a few a you up in the none too distant future. He’s run out of the standard issue and I had an old recipe used to work pretty well back at the Abbey, so I said I’d get cookin’.”

“Oh!” Mal looked relieved. “That’s ok then… you just carry on with yer …well, whatever it is you’re actually doin’. But, do it quick or I’m like to just pass on out!” He waived a hand in a rather regal gesture indicating the Shepherd should continue. “Gotta say, that’s as powerful incentive not to get shot as any other I’ve come across!”

“*Da-shiong bao tse shr la doo tze*! What died and how long ago?” Asked Wash wandering into the mess and holding his nose in dramatic fashion. He mimed gagging and staggered to the table, pulling out a chair and sitting down weakly. “Tell me that ain’t breakfast!”

Book smiled. “It ain’t.”

Wash, looked anything but reassured. “Well, what is for breakfast then? I’m hungrier than a Reaver in a vegan restaurant. Not but what it won’t be a little tough to keep anything down, that stink lingers much.” He added.

“What stink?” asked Jayne, stepping through the door from the direction of the engine room, “I don’t’ smell nothing. Is that porridge? Shiny!” Taking the wooden spoon from an aghast Book, he poked around in the depths of the pot. Mal, standing nearby a small smile twitching about his mouth, leant into the pot, took a deep sniff and then leant into Jayne and sniffed once more.

“Ah,” he said, “that explains it. It’s a ruttin’ close call which of ‘em stinks the worse. I surely knew I’d smelt that reek before.”

Wash and Book both smiled, but Jayne looked outraged. Book snatched the spoon back from him and shooed him away as he began to complain. “Hey, you better not be ‘sinuatin’ nothin’, Mal. I takes a bath regular.”

“Here’s where we have the little talk about the difference between “regular” and “often”, Jayne,” grinned Wash.

Jayne growled and reached for the pot, presumably intent upon emptying the contents over Wash’s head. Book wrestled it free. “No no, son. Simon needs that urgent. Just you mind next time you get shot and needs some mendin’. You think on that! … And besides, to err is human, to forgive, divine.”

Wash, making a quick dash for the door and finding it occupied by his wife, behind whom he ducked, said, “whoa there, Shepherd, I think you might be goin’ a bit fast for Jayne, let evolution catch up, why dontcha. We ain’t sure he’s entirely human yet, let alone a god!”

“You are very close to the edge, Little Man!” snarled Jayne.

“Jayne, Wash, *bee-jway*!” Mal’s voice was stern, but the effect was somewhat ruined by further twitching at the corner of his mouth. “We got bigger things to think on this mornin’. Zoë, get yer husband in some kinda order and then come on up to the bridge, we got some plottin’ to do.” He stalked out.

Jayne and Wash glowered at each other, but Wash quailed as his wife joined in the glaring contest and turned her beady eye upon him. “Honey, apologise to Jayne, please, now!” she said, schoolmarm written all over her pretty face. “Jayne, I just know you don’t wanna mess with me or the Captain… ‘specially not today. So go find an elsewhere to be or shut the gorram hell up.” She smirked a cold and frankly terrifying smile.

Wash muttered, “sorry, Jayne, you know I was only messin’.”

Jayne responded with a perfunctory, “s’okay,” and they both turned and ran, escaping the ire of a warrior woman so early in the morning.

Zoë’s eye met Book’s and they both collapsed with laughter.

Wiping his eye’s Book grinned. “Thanks for that!” he smiled, “a good laugh was just what I was needin’. It does a body good see a woman beat on her men like that!”

“It surely does, Shepherd,” Zoë agreed with a smile and, leaving him to finish off his potion, she hurried off to find Mal.

***

“Ok, Sir, so what’s the plan?” Asked Zoë, ducking as she stepped into the cockpit. Mal swung round in the pilot’s seat.

“Ta level with ya, Zo, I ain’t got an earthly clue, just thought “come to the bridge for some plottin’” sounded better than “come to the bridge for a whole heap a panic” is all.”

“Right you are, sir. So how’s about we take a deep breath and go over our options like rational, grown up, you know, not entirely crazy, people?” Said Zoë slowly, as though talking to an idiot child.

Mal sighed heavily and rubbed his palms over his face, dragging his fingers through his hair and making it stand up like a bottlebrush.

“’Kay, thanks Zo, you’re right. Lets think ‘bout this rational… the only snifter of a clue we got is that Alliance shuttle as crashed last night. What say you and me go over take a poke around, make a nuisance of our ownselves?”

“Now that sounds more like a plan than panic.” Zoë smiled as she headed for the door, followed by an already far more jaded Mal.

***

Kaylee was trying her darndest to be cheerful and to ignore the lowering form of the Doctor at the other end of the table. He had clearly not had a good night, or what little of it they all had left when they’d returned to Serenity. He sat with his head in his hands, hardly acknowledging the conversation that was going on around him.

“See, the problem is,” she explained for what seemed like the thousandth time, “we just don’t got the pressure. Takes as much as she can cope with ta make the heads all flush and I’ll think you’ll agree there’s some days as Serenity don’t even do that proper… Oh, I ain’t blamin’ her,” she went on hurriedly, “it’s just she weren’t built for the kinda life we all lead in her now. When she were but a new and shiny pup, she were mostly short distance, expect everyone to jump off at each port and get a good wash and brush up someplace nice… Sure, I could rig up some kinda shower system, but no one’d be able to take a crap for at least a couple hours aforehand.”

Wash giggled. “So what yer saying is, we’d all be mighty clean, but none too comfortable. ‘Sides, it ain’t as if it’s all that necessary,” he held up his arm and, with exaggerated caution followed by a more appreciative savouring, sniffed heartily, “I smell fine and you, little Kaylee,” he leaned over and stuck his nose in her arm pit, “smell like a summer meadow. It’s only Jayne as should be hosed down once in a while. Now my Zoë, even when she’s all, you know, lathered up, she still smells good… in fact, now I come to think of it, she smells better that way, sorta womanly and hot, spicy almost...”

“Wash dear, I hope you ain’t revealin’ no secrets of the marriage bed to an innocent girl, a preacher and a doctor as looks like he’s seen better days.” Zoë’s head peered round the mess doorway. “And don’t let Jayne hear you bemoanin’ his stink, I could do with out you two bickerin’ today!”

“No no, honey cakes, I was just saying as how you always smell peachy,” Wash smiled at her, breathing in an enthusiastic draught of the air around his wife. “mmm-mmm! Good enough to eat!”

Zoë looked at him gently for a second or two and then said, all matter of fact, “Mal and I are goin’ out ta look round the area where that shuttle crashed last night, happen we might find sommat. We’ll be back in a coupla hours. ‘Till then the ship’s yours, and don’t go windin’ up Jayne just ‘cos the Cap left you in charge, *dong ma*?”

As Zoë announced her and Mal’s intentions, Simon’s head had lifted and he began to pay attention. Now he stood up. “I’m going with you, I’ll just get my coat.”

“Whoa there, Doc,” Zoë cast a worried glance at the frazzled boy, clearly on his last ounce of sanity, “I ain’t sure that’s such a good idea, happen that River returns, she’ll like as not come lookin’ for you here.”

“And if she does she’ll find Kaylee, the Preacher, hell, Hat’s downstairs.” Simon’s voice took on an exasperated edge. “*Jen mei nai-shing duh fwo-tzoo*! Don’t you understand? I can’t,” he thumped the table heavily with both hands, “just sit here and wait for my sister to turn up dead. It’s killing me. I have to do something! I have to!” The last sentence was whispered as his anger drained away and he sunk back into his chair, his head drooping. “I just have to!” he said in a low, tired voice.

Kaylee, from the other end of the table made a tiny noise of anguish, like a mouse dying, but didn’t move to comfort him. Only the look on her face, as she watched the young man unguardedly, showed how sorrowful and compassionate she felt.

Zoë nodded. “Very well, Simon, if the Cap says it’s all right, you can come. Go get yer coat and be in the hold in 2 minutes.”

Simon raised his head, a faint look of hope barely peeking out between the grim determination and grief evident on his face. He left the room hurriedly without speaking, as Zoë too, kissing her husband swiftly on the cheek, turned and ran towards the cargo bay.

Wash watched her go and then turned and in one stride reached over to Kaylee’s chair putting his arms around her in a consoling hug from behind. “Don’t you ever play poker, Kaylee, you hear me? You’ll lose your shirt, poker face like you’ve got.” Kaylee leant into his embrace and sniffed. Giving up all pretence at cheerfulness she began to sob softly, Wash stroking her back and murmuring Bhudda knew what in sympathy.

***

“Well we sure are learnin’ a lot here, ain’t we Zoë?” Asked Mal sarcastically as they poked around among the charred remains littering a wide area that had, up to a few hours ago, been an old slaughterhouse and was now a blackened and, in some areas, still smouldering shell. “We’re regular ‘tecs. Reckon we should give up the crime game altogether and take up sleuthin’.”

“Oh yeah!” Agreed Zoë, “Cagney and Lacey ain’t got nothin’ on us, alright. Still, reckon it’s done him good to get out.” She nodded over to where Simon was bending over the ash, collecting samples into various little tins he seemed to have secreted about his person. “Think there’s anything to find here really, Sir?”

Mal shook his head. “Don’t reckon so, Zoë. By the look of things someone’s been here before us, collected anything of interest. Look at the landing marks over there. They’re Alliance. Still, if they came in the night, mayhap there’s something they’ve missed in the dark, so let’s make this thorough, ‘kay?”

They moved on, poking among the debris. Mal suddenly glanced up, looking concerned. “Zoë?”

“What is it Sir?” Zoë was swiftly at his side.

Mal looked at her worriedly. “I’m Lacey, right?” He asked. “She was the glamorous one, weren’t she?” Zoë ground her teeth and, to preserve her sanity, moved away from her Captain once more.

***

Hat reclined in the soft seating area of the mess, her splinted leg propped up on some cushions in front of her. Kaylee sat on the floor dabbing at Little M’s hands as he made a grab for her shiny tools and trying to fix a piece of circuitry. Inara aided, or some might suppose hindered by Jayne, was attempting to create a meal to Hat’s dictated recipe. Things did not seem to be going according to plan.

“Jayne, Jayne, JAYNE!” Harriet bellowed across the room.

“Wha’?” asked the big man, tuning round confusedly. He had a wooden spoon grasped like a twig in one hand and was covered in flour.

“You put the flour in after the eggs,” Harriet sighed in exasperation.

“Oh!” Jayne’s big, surprisingly dextrous hands began to scrabble about in the mixing bowl gathering up the flour.

“Jayne, stop! The flour ship has pretty much sailed. Just whisk the eggs in a separate bowl, okay? *Fay-fay duh pee-yen*!” Harriet swore softly under her breath.

“Oh, okay.” Jayne began cracking eggs into a smaller bowl.

“I must say, Harriet, this requires some muscle tone!” Inara panted, blowing a skein of finely curled dark hair out of her eyes. “It really is quite strenuous. I think I’ve acquired a new found respect for you!”

“Why thank you, ‘Nara!” Harriet grinned. “Now just keep beating it ‘till I tell ya to stop.”

“Now that can’t be the first time ‘Nara’s heard that ‘ticular phrase!” muttered Jayne.

Kaylee giggled and Hat looked at Jayne reprovingly. “Jayne!”

“Hey,” Jayne clearly felt the need to justify himself, “you surely can’t be tellin’ me that she don’t use that self same action on a pretty reg’lar basis, line o’ work she’s in!” “I have much more interesting and, believe me, much more efficient ways of satisfying my clients.” Inara smirked.

“Huh!” Jayne’s eyes popped with excitement and intrigue. “Then wha’…?”

“Jayne,” said Harriet sharply, “that’ll do with the eggs. Now start adding the flour to them very slowly just a mite at a time.”

Jayne’s concentration effectively deflected, Kaylee looked up into the silence somewhat wistfully. “I don’t seem right, is all.”

“What don’t, honey?” asked Hat gently.

“Us. Here. Having all manner a fun, when River’s…” she paused, her eyes growing sad as she contemplated what might be happening to her friend, then she hurried on, “well, when River ain’t here, I mean.”

“Oh, sweetie,” said Hat softly, leaning down to rub her arm, “the Verse don’t stop turnin’ for no one. But don’t you worry none, I’m positive the Cap’s gonna find River today.” She allowed a note of pride to creep into her voice. “My man ain’t never let no one down!” Inara quirked an eyebrow, looking over at Hat slyly as she rested her wrist on the edge of the bowl and took a breather. “Now I just know that double negative was deliberate!”

Harriet’s eyes twinkled back. “Okay,” she conceded, “maybe he lets a few people down, occasionally, when he ain’t got no choice about it, but it always turns out all right in the end, don’t it?”

“Yes it does,” said a tiny voice from the doorway, “but then the iguanas think it’s Christmas.”

***

“I’ll need to analyse the samples,” Simon said dully, as they trudged back to the ship, “I’ve got River’s DNA markers, so I should be able to work out if she was there or not.”

Mal laid a kindly hand on the young man’s arm. “If she was there, Doc, you’re gonna have to accept that she ain’t at all likely to have made it.”

Simon nodded sorrowfully. “But at least I’d know one way or another. It’s the not knowing that’s the worst. Reminds me of then she was at the Academy and I had no way of telling what they were doing to her… whether she was alive or dead…” He paused, swallowing.

“Still,” said Mal cheerily, gamely ignoring Simon’s appalled face, “we ain’t found no body as yet and to my mind that’s like to be a good sign. Our little mind-readin’ fruitcake seems to have some ability in lookin’ after herself. She’s got nine lives if ever anyone has, you ask me…”

“And we will find her, one way or another.” Put in Zoë determinedly.

They turned the corner, and before them the cargo bay doors of Serenity stood solidly closed, the ship a huge, reliable, comforting mass that drew the eye. Mal fetched out a mighty sigh.

“Now ain’t that a satisfyin’, some might even say, encouraging sight? We get back, we call everyone together, work out our next move.” The thought of his ship, his home and family as always perked Mal up.

Simon sighed himself, but for altogether different reasons. “If you don’t mind, Captain, I don’t think I can bare the rest of the crew right now. I’m going to make a start on analysing these samples right away.”

Mal exchanged a worried look with Zoë. It wouldn’t do the boy any kind of good to shut himself away, state he was in. But, as a captain, you had to know when to leave well enough alone. He nodded. “Fair enough, Doc. We’ll call ya if we need ya.” He flipped open the cargo bay hatch and stepped inside the welcoming, all engulfing confines of his ship.

***

“River!” Everyone was shouting at once, even Little M, who liked to get in on any action going. River stood calmly in the doorway, bending slightly this way and that like a supple little pine tree caught in a force ten gale. One arm was swathed in a makeshift sling whilst the other ended in a mass of improvised bandages, smeared with blood.

Kaylee was on her in an instant, hugging her neck, but standing off as she noticed she was injured. “Oh River! You’re hurt! Are you OK? What happened? Where have you been?”

“Been playing with the woodland folk.” River said in a singsong voice. She seemed rather vague and wholeheartedly crazy, as she tripped exhaustedly towards the sofa and sat next to Harriet. She laid her dark head softly on Hat’s shoulder and nuzzled. Hat stroked her hair gently.

“It’s good to have you back, *nyen ching duh*,” she said tenderly. River gave a tiny, nostalgic smile, briefly shutting her eyes in pleasure. Then they flicked open again, taking in the others, gathered around and staring, waiting for an explanation.

“The woodland creatures don’t play all that nice.” She remarked calmly.

“Aw! She’s all *kwong-chee duh*,” growled Jayne, “ain’t gonna get any kinda sense from her!”

“I don’t think she’s half as bats as ya give her credit for, Jayne.” Said Mal, a look of profound relief flooding his features as he and Zoë stepped through the mess door. “She’s meaning Badger, aren’tcha, *shiao mei-mei*? He’s a forest dweller, ain’t no mistakin’!” He sat down on the other side of River, catching his wife’s eye in a smile of greeting as he ruffled River’s hair. “You are indeed a sight for seriously sore eyes, screwball.”

River nodded, unspeaking as she allowed Mal to tousle her hair, leaning in to him like a cat. You could almost hear her purr.

Kaylee looked bewildered. “But what happened, River? You been gone days! We thought, well, we thought you’d been kidnapped at best… other things at worst!”

River nodded again. “Kidnapped, yes.” She said simply. Just then footsteps sounded in the doorway and Wash stepped through, coming from the cockpit, his eyes alight with release.

“Is that our very own kook I see nestled between our two favourite love-birds, or am I getting delusions now?” he asked jauntily, a huge smile cracking his face in two. “Probably from hunger…” he added thoughtfully.

River grinned up at him. “I’m back,” she said.

Wash returned her smile. “And I bet that brother o’ yours is all manner of delighted. Where is he, by the way? He layin’ down? Was it all too much?… I mean he does have a delicate look about him…”

Kaylee put her hand to her mouth, looking horror-struck and River uttered a plaintive “Simon!!”

But the tails of Inara’s kimono were already whisking round the corner as she headed for the infirmary. The others all looked at each other, guilty and ashamed that they had forgotten him. All except Wash, who was peering into one of the many bowls strewn about the table, unaware of the dismay he’d occasioned. “Now someone please tell me that’s lunch,” he said. “All this anguish works up a mighty appetite and I don’t remember seein’ breakfast!”

***

Simon sat back on his stool, he had rechecked the sample three times and there could be no mistake, no matter how much he would like there to be one. River’s DNA was at the crash site. She must have been on that shuttle; there was no other explanation. So she was in all likelihood dead. He’d like to hold out a glimmer of hope, but how could he.

A noise in the doorway, made him turn. Book looked at him, pity for his situation written in every groove of his lined face.

“How goes it, son?” He asked softly.

Simon just shook his head as if trying to clear it. “I think she’s dead.” He said in barely a whisper. His eyes met the Shepherd’s for a single moment, full of despair, longing and perhaps, somewhere deep down, relief and then he lay his head upon his arms and began to sob quietly.

At that moment Book’s courage failed him. He could think of no words that would comfort this young man. A boy who’d given up everything he was and could be for a sister who had now joined the conspiracy by deserting him. He pulled himself together and, swiftly crossing the room, gathered the weeping boy into his arms and slowly patted his back.

It was standing just so, silent, a heaving Simon in his arms, that Inara found him. Their eyes met in understanding and she crossed to Simon’s side, lifting his face towards her with one gentle hand.

“Simon, honey…” His eyes barely focused on her. She went on, as kind-heartedly as she could. “It’s all right. River’s all right… in fact she’s upstairs. She looks a little banged up, but she’s alive.”

“God be praised!” whispered Book.

It was almost as if Inara could see her words as they travelled from Simon’s ear, along his auditory canal, through the synapses into the comprehending part of his brain. He stared at her, wiping away tears with one hand. “What…?” he quavered uncertainly.

Inara allowed herself a smile. “River. Is. Back.” She said, spelling it out for him. “She’s in the kitchen right now. You need to go on up and see her.”

Before the words were entirely out of her mouth, Simon was off, racing up the stairs, two at a time.

***

“So now we got our little rustled maverick back,” Mal began, trying and failing to look sternly at River, “you care to enlighten us as to what did actually happen?”

They were all gathered as usual in the infirmary, where Simon, fussing like a mother hen, had set River’s arm and was looking rather defeated at the sight of the remaining stump of finger.

“Just what am I supposed to do with that?” he enquired to the world at large. “Don’t suppose you kept the other half, *mei mei*?” He asked hopefully. “I could try and reattach it, though I guess it might be a little late for that…” he mused.

River shook her head. “Abandonment was necessary.” She explained.

“Care to elaborate?” asked Mal. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the cryptic, figure-this-one-out-and-you’re-a-ruttin’-moon-brain-yerself style of explanation normal, but I ain’t altogether in the mood right now, so I’d take it as a kindness if you just spoke plain.”

Simon looked at him sharply. “Captain,” he said reprovingly, “my sister’s been through an awful ordeal over the last few hours, I’d prefer it if you didn’t traumatise her further or hassle her unduly.”

Mal held up his hands in a gesture of defeat. “Hey, was just askin’! I reckon we’ve all got a right to know.” River looked up impishly from under her ragged hair and smirked. “’Sides,” Mal went on, “you ask me, she ain’t no more traumatised than Jayne here. Your little sis just likes playin’ enigmatic is all.” River giggled.

Jayne looked confused. “Enigmatic? Is that some kinda game?”

Wash put in, “yes Jayne, it’s very like poker, but there are no cards.”

Jayne looked even more bewildered. “Then how’s it anything like poker?”

“Jayne,” Book spoke kindly, “they’re just messing with you. Enigmatic means to be mysterious or puzzling.”

“Well a puzzle’s a game.” Said Jayne defensively.

Book patted Jayne softly on the shoulder. “That it is.” He agreed.

Jayne sensed he was being laughed at by someone, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, so he changed the subject. “What I wanna know is, are we like to have the Alliance come down on us in short order lookin’ for their run away? ‘Cos I for one don’t wanna be around if’n that happens.”

Without speaking, Mal turned to River and raised an eyebrow. The girl was staring at something in her lap and didn’t seem to be quite paying attention, so it was bit of a shock when she looked up, straight into his eyes and said steadily, “no one’s coming.”

“Good then.” Mal nodded. “No need for us to panic. But I reckon we should shift off this rock into the black as soon as is humanly possible. Kaylee, is she space-worthy?”

Kaylee nodded. She had been remarkably quiet over the last few hours just watching Simon and River and breathing in the sense of relief. Suddenly, a loud banging coming from the front of the ship broke the companionable silence of the infirmary.

“*Ai ya! Hwai leh*! What the *diyu* is that?” Jayne swore. “That gorram lunatic’s lied ta us! The Alliance is here already! Gorram *shiong-mung duh kwong-run*!” He pulled a gun out of his belt and coked it.

“Jayne, get a grip!” Mal was heartily annoyed. “Could be anything. Not but what we shouldn’t be a mite careful… Zoë, Jayne, you two come with me. The rest a ya, stay here and keep quiet. You hear anything untoward, you go get guns and you defend yerselves. *Dong ma*?” Everyone nodded fearfully as the three headed out towards the cargo bay doors from where the knocking was continuing.

***

Nodding to Jayne and Zoë to take up defensive positions on either side of the cargo bay door, Mal flung it open in one fluid movement and reaching an arm swiftly outside, dragged their visitor in. He was a scrawny looking fellow of no particular distinction and he was shivering with fright. Mal glared down at him, using his height and build effectively to terrify the man the more. “Well?” He enquired in an awful voice.

The man, hardly managing to breathe, held out a fat packet. “Delivery for Captain Reynolds from a fellow named Badger.” In reaching for the packet, Mal lost his hold on the scraggy man, who bolted for the still open door and was off down the street like a hare. Jayne swore and made to go after him, but Mal stopped him with a calm “S’okay, Jayne.”

He had opened the packet and he and Zoë were gazing in rapt disbelief at a sizeable bundle of notes. “River!” bellowed Mal. “Get out here.” River came stepping delicately out from the infirmary, the others trailing behind her, like the tail of a particularly colourful comet. One arm was now in a proper sling and the stub of her finger was wrapped expertly in a gauze bandage. “You know anything of the why for Badger sending me one heck of a large pay off?” Mal asked belligerently.

River grinned puckishly. She shrugged. “Badger does the job. Then he gets paid.” She explained.

Mal rubbed an exasperated hand over his face and sighed. “So, stop me if I’ve got this wrong, but Badger was paid by the Feds to kidnap you and handsomely too. But somehow, and here we get real hazy, you persuaded him to give me some of his hard earned cash and to let you go.”

River smiled to herself again. “Something like that,” she said.

Mal suddenly stepped forward and drew her to him in a one armed hug. “You ain’t right,” he said, “but you are a wonder… Wash, take us anywhere but here and do it now.”

***

The evening meal was underway and everyone was gathered in the kitchen round the table, except for Harriet, who had retaken her station on the soft chairs and Mal who was lounging comfortably next to her. Little M was sound asleep in the Moses basket at their feet.

“Well,” said Mal, “was a tough assignment no messin’ and there’s no denyin’ you all worked hard and I’d say you pretty much come out of it with yer reputations intact… I mean, it ain’t up to the standards of my wife a’ course,” he shot a complimentary glance at Hat, who bowed her head in acknowledgement, “but that was a mighty fine feed nonetheless.”

Inara smiled graciously. “Why thank you, Captain. There’s nothing like a generous compliment… and that was nothing like it!” Everyone joined in the laughter.

Jayne said seriously, “which bit d’you like the best, Mal, huh?”

Mal took time to consider. “Now let me see,” he said thoughtfully, exaggeratedly pretending to reflect, “there was one part, tasted mighty good, better’n all them other bits…”

“Yeah?” said Jayne with a hopeful breathlessness.

“Uh-huh… The fresh bao were possibly the best I ever did taste!”

“Aw! Inara made that!” said Jayne miserably.

“Ya don’t say?” grinned Mal.

“Aw! But ya knew that didn’t you!” growled Jayne.

“Seriously, Jayne,” said Hat, handing her bowl to Mal to fetch more food, “that was a first-rate meal. Pretty impressive for someone as normal handles a gun an’ not a wooden spoon! You got the makin’s of a fine cook, I’m thinkin’.”

Jayne blushed to the roots of his hair. “Think I’ll stick to the gun totin’ in future, you don’t mind, Hat. All that cookin’ was a mite too strenuous fer me!”

River sat dead plumb centre, in the middle of the table and felt the waves of contentment wash over her; the Shepherd munching with satisfaction; Jayne far more flattered and proud than he would ever admit; Inara relieved to have everything back to normal; the Captain and his wife and child, a comfortable family unit; Zoë and Wash, as usual, combining together into one swelling feeling of wholeness and love. Only Simon and Kaylee were not happy. In fact, they were making her feel a little sick.

Simon sat at one end of the table whilst Kaylee sat as far away as physically possible. Both were picking listlessly at their food. River could feel the waves of unhappiness warring within her. It was like the ocean shore, but not the rhythmic lapping of waves, which were Wash and Zoë. It was a northern, icy sea in turmoil, brutal waves sucking at a stony shore; pulling and wrestling, each element forcing the others hand; a battle of wills; the ocean snatching at the stones, as if trying to tear the coast apart. All of a sudden River wanted to cry, but she was just too angry to give way. She had given so much for them, not just emotionally, but physically too. She felt like waving the still bloody stump of her ring finger in their stubborn, resentful faces.

Everyone else was talking and laughing, but the silence between Kaylee and Simon was like an Atlantic gale.

She looked directly at her brother. “Shifting sands.” She said heavily.

He looked at her, confounded. “What?”

“What is it, River?” Asked Kaylee softly, from her other side, picking up on her unhappiness.

She looked hard at Simon. “Shifting sands!” she insisted. “Put down foundations!” Simon looked thoroughly perplexed, but the scattered emotion breaking through in her voice echoed in Kaylee.

“River, it’s all okay now, honey… River, what’s wrong?” Kaylee sounded almost scared.

River stood up, pushing away form the table, her chair falling behind her with a loud clatter. Everyone paused and looked at her.

“Put down foundations!” She shouted at Simon. “Could happen again!” And she ran from the room.

Though she hadn’t voiced it as such, she knew her brother had felt the threat implicit in her words. “Put down foundations or I may leave again” was what she’d meant. She just hoped it was enough to frighten him into action.

Hovering outside the door, hidden by the wall, she leaned in.

“She okay?” asked Mal worriedly.

“She’s just had a traumatic experience, she needs to settle.” Answered Simon distractedly. He hardly seemed to be listening to the conversation, which ebbed and flowed around him again, but River could feel it. Deep down within him like the gulf stream, a tide of warmth that was slowly, so slowly, filling him, bubbling up form below and ready to gush, geyser like, from his mouth, if he’d just give it voice. She smiled contentedly and skipped off towards her room. She fancied a little drawing and then some sleep, after all, she'd had a busy few days.

***

A very nervous Simon finally stepped hesitantly into the engine room very late that same evening. Kaylee was under the main body of the engine tinkering with a small wrench.

“Kaylee?” His voice came out wavering and he coughed. “Kaylee!” He said in a more determined fashion. Kaylee jumped and grunted, coming up swiftly and hitting her head on the top of the engine.

“Ow!… Oh, Simon.” She acknowledged his presence coldly and came out from under the engine, rubbing her head. She had a smear of grease across her overalls, oil on her hands and some kind of metallic sheen on one cheek. Simon thought she had never looked so beautiful. He swallowed.

“Er, Kaylee, I need to talk to you.”

She crossed her arms across her chest and scowled. “Okay then. Shoot.” Not much of an invitation he surmised, but probably more than he deserved. He crouched on the floor of the engine room, pulling her down beside him.

“Look. I just wanted to say I know I screwed up. I know I hurt you… horribly…” He added off her look. “I was just so worried about River and I went kind of nuts. I know I said I didn’t love you and please believe me when I tell you how big of a lie that was…” He paused, his voice cracking with earnestness. Kaylee hadn’t moved, but he got the impression she was listening. “I know I’m going to say this all wrong,” he swallowed once again, “but I just wanted to say that you’re… you’re so easy to love… I mean,” he went on hurriedly, “I love River, of course I do, she’s my sister, but not the way I love you… You’re like a hot bath after a route march or… or… a glass of smokey whisky after twenty hours in surgery …or,” he searched around for an image she might understand, “a ripe tomato after a week of nothing but protein based products… or a bright green, lush prairie after two months in the black…”

Kaylee’s eyes flicked up to him and then rapidly back down to her lap, where she was twisting a piece of cable in her hands. “Stop, Simon,” she said quietly and sorrowfully. “It’s just not that easy to fix. You said you didn’t love me… When things got real hairy, you spaced me. I wanted to comfort you and ya just…” she searched for words. “That kinda thing takes a whole heap a time to forgive, is all.”

He nodded. “Oh I know all that, Kaylee.” His voice was full of remorse. “I know that you’ll need a Verse of time to forgive me, hell, you may never! But I just wanted you to know… I didn’t want you to carry on thinking I don’t care … I wanted you to know that I can’t live without you… I mean, I’ll survive, ‘course I will. I’ll carry on looking after River and patching up the crew, but it won’t be ‘living’ without you…” He hung his head and silence filled the engine room for some minutes.

“Simon.” Kaylee’s voice dropped into the quiet like a leaf falling from a tree, softly and with hardly any weight. She put a tender hand on his arm and he lifted his head, their eyes locking in mutual sympathy and regret for a moment. Then Kaylee cracked the biggest grin he had ever seen. Simon looked at her, confused.

“Okay,” she smiled impishly, “I’ve taken the time, I’ve worked it through and you’re forgiven.”

“W-what?” stuttered Simon, this was all moving at a confounding pace.

She smirked again, smiling into his eyes. “I said you’re forgiven, dumb-ass. Now kiss me quick ‘fore I change my mind!”

Simon let a slow, curling, wicked smile to match hers cross his lips. “What here?” He asked, “in the engine room?” He looked around slightly apprehensively.

Kaylee wriggled onto his lap and put her arms around his neck. “Why not here? Didn’t ya read the bulletin? Engines make me hot!”

COMMENTS

Thursday, September 1, 2005 7:01 AM

AMDOBELL


Good story but I really did not like River shooting part of her finger off. That was gross, would have been better to make a small cut with a knife and smear the blood about I'm thinkin' but that's just me being squeamish for our resident genius. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, September 1, 2005 10:21 AM

PIFFLE101


The River finger thing was interesting, but I accepted it.
Great story overall, and you really have the river speak down! Kudos!

Thursday, September 1, 2005 11:22 AM

KIZZIECSTARS


that was fab - and the finger thing was ok. at least it must have been because i'm one of the most sqeamish ppl and i was ok wiv it. loved the whole thing!

Thursday, September 1, 2005 10:09 PM

ZOOT


Aw come ON, guys! It was only an itty bit of finger!! Toughen up! no, but seriously, that hurt a bit to write, I've got to say - my hand felt a bit funny!!

Monday, June 19, 2006 12:19 PM

CHAOSCARLOS


I'm thinking you've been watching 'Species' where the alien woman cuts off her finger to make the the alien-hunters think she's dead. Only problem is, her finger grew back.

Some blood would have been good, or some hair...ooh...ohhh or some spit...living out in the black you gotta learn how to spit!

Overall this is a great series and I'm loving Harriet and Little M! Lets hope one day he'll take over the family business but have lots LOTS more sense then Malcom Sr.


POST YOUR COMMENTS

You must log in to post comments.

YOUR OPTIONS

OTHER FANFICS BY AUTHOR

Horse Opera - Part 1 - A cook fanfic
After much prompting, this story carries on the Cook saga. It assumes that the BDM never happened, so, purists, look away now! It includes the characters Harriet and Little M, which you won't be familiar with if you haven't read my other fanfic.

The Cook Saga - 4 of 4
All my fanfics tidied up and gathered together into 4 neat little parcels.

Come! Witness the amazing genesis from the caterpillar of crapness to the cocoon of "hmm! that's OK" culminating in the butterfly of "woa! Similes" ...

Oh, and it's what would have happened if Mal had only hired that cook (Out of Gas)...


The Cook Saga - 3 of 4
All my fanfics tidied up and gathered together into 4 neat little parcels. Come! Witness the amazing genesis from the caterpillar of crapness to the cocoon of "hmm! that's OK" culminating in the butterfly of "woa! Similes" ... Oh, and it's what would have happened if Mal had only hired that cook (Out of Gas)...

The Cook Saga - 2 of 4
All my fanfics tidied up and gathered together into 4 neat little parcels.

Come! Witness the amazing genesis from the caterpillar of crapness to the cocoon of "hmm! that's OK" culminating in the butterfly of "woa! Similes" ...

Oh, and it's what would have happened if Mal had only hired that cook (Out of Gas)...


The Cook Saga - 1 of 4
All my fanfics tidied up and gathered together into 4 neat little parcels.

Come! Witness the amazing genesis from the caterpillar of crapness to the cocoon of "hmm! that's OK" culminating in the butterfly of "woa! Similes" ...

Oh, and it's what would have happened if Mal had only hired that cook (Out of Gas)...


They Take Such Looking After - Part IV - The End
Everyone thinks they’ve got to save River, but she knows she’s got to save them…

They Take Such looking After - Part III
Serenity’s crew prove they couldn’t organise a gunfight in a saloon, while River continues to sort things out her way …

Apologies - this has been a long time coming - you might wanna review the series (They Take Such Looking After) unless you have an exceptional memory!!


They Take Such Looking After - Part II
The future throws River a curve ball ...

Feedback always welcome ...


They Take Such Looking After - Part I
River re-writes the future

Home Fires - A Cook 'Verse Epilogue
A snapshot into life sometime later in the Cook Verse...


OUR SPONSORS