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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
The conclusion of the Blue Sun Job.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 6249 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Blue Sun Job, Part 39: Into the Black
“Go away, crazy girl.”
“You’re not Jayne,” River informed him, sounding a mite irked.
More than a mite irked, Mal glanced up. “Glad you know the difference.” She stood over him, too close and pointedly blocking the sun.
“Jayne’s the only one who calls me ‘crazy girl’,” she insisted.
Scowling at her, Mal said, “Yeah, well… I think it.”
River smiled and it was like a gorram beam of sunshine itsownself. “I know,” she said smugly.
Blast that girl! Mal rolled his eyes. “Go away River,” Mal tried again. He pointedly thought Go away moonpie, nutjob, whacko. River didn’t go away. She just grinned more broadly.
“You find me pleasant enough,” she informed him as if sharing a profound secret, then suddenly found a strand of her hair utterly fascinating. Mal groaned. “Could be useful on jobs,” she commented distantly. She speakin’ for him? Or for herself? Hard to gorram tell. “Knows things in advance. Can see trouble before it happens,” River said, still engrossed in her hair strand. “Like on the Blue Sun job… she knew to send just the right size battery with you. ‘Course it could be coincidence, but she could be handy.”
Crazy, crazy girl… Mal thought as loudly as he could. Go! Away!
She did have a point, though.
Ah, hell. Not like to be any more jobs after this point, not with this crew. Without Zoe and Wash, Inara, Book… This getting attached to folk… never a good thing. Made a man weak. Best they all leave. Still, without Zoe… Zoe wasn’t crew. She was something else entirely. She was… Hell, he didn’t know no more. He just knew he didn’t want to feel nothing for none of them.
“Want to be a stone,” River said hollowly. Mal glanced up at her. She stared blankly off into space. Why in the gorram hell could she read something like that buried down deep yet couldn’t get a plain GO AWAY!? “Can’t leave Serenity,” River said, then cocked her head as though she’d said it wrong. “Can’t leave Serenity,” she repeated but with different emphasis. Mal couldn’t suss out which Serenity she meant and didn’t have the ambition to try.
Suddenly lucid, River stared down at him. “Won’t leave Serenity,” she said quietly, in a sympathetic tone. “They won’t leave.” She smiled at him. “They’re waiting for you. Best you go now,” she added firmly.
Fine, Mal thought, struggling to his feet. I’ll go away.
As he strode away across the lawn, Mal thought he heard River softly behind him. “Won’t leave, Daddy. No one will. Not alive.”
Sometimes he didn’t find River pleasant at all.
He’d more’n half expected to find the whole gorram lot of them waiting for him at the ship, full of questions and ‘helpful’ commentary. Instead, only Book and Zoe waited by Serenity’s ramp, lookin’ like they’d been having some powerfully meaningful talk of their own. Zoe even gave the preacher a sound hug. How ‘bout that?
No Wash in evidence. So… the holdin’ and comfortin’ ‘tween Wash and Zoe degenerated into a squabble after Mal left. Wonder how long it took? Minutes? Or seconds? And where did matters stand? Did he still have a pilot? A first officer? Any gorram crew? What did that expression Zoe aimed at him mean? Did it mean anything?
Zoe straightened as Mal neared, clasping her hands behind her back. “Sorry, sir,” she said tersely, “that I lost control in such a way.”
Mal gave her a dirty look. “Stow that crap, Zoe. Well enough all that’s finally out in the open—” Exactly whose bright idea was this in the first place? Oh, yeah… his. “—though the ways and means of it weren’t exactly the best. Ain’t that so, Preacher?”
Tilting his head, Shepherd Book gave a small shrug. “‘Not exactly the best’ is exactly right.”
With a scowl, Mal said, “There’s them deep and meaningful insights I’ve come to rely on.”
Book gave a faint chuckle. “Then try this one: Wash is inside. You need to go in and make things right with him.”
“Me?!” Mal exclaimed. “Why the hell should I? I ain’t the one married to the ruttin’ fool.”
“Sir…” Zoe stretched out the single syllable in a way that made Mal feel he’d just been more thoroughly chastised than any other time in his whole miserable life.
“Why me?” Mal persisted, half way to an outright whine. “I ain’t the one bunking with him, and don’t much want to be.”
“Much?” Book raised his eyebrows with that cat-in-the-cream look of his.
Gorram Preacher had way the hell too much sense of humor for Mal’s own good. Perverse, it was. Mal gave him a right solid glare.
Cussing with vigor but not much in the way of creativity, Mal finally wound down and studied the toes of his boots for a good long while, but neither Zoe nor Book had the courtesy to say nothing more. They just waited on him. Waited him out. Sure. Fine. They’d got their minds all made up how this oughta play out and weren’t like to let his petty little ‘hell no’s get in their gorram way.
“What the hell you think I can do?” Mal demanded. “I ain’t no marriage counselor. And I ain’t a part of Wash and Zoe’s marriage.” He jabbed a finger at the preacher. “That there problem is pre-jactly what you was supposed to fix when we started these little talk-talk sessions with you. So you fix it.”
Book’s face went serious and thoughtful on him. “This is the ‘fix’, Mal,” he said quietly. “The problem isn’t you. And it isn’t Zoe. And it isn’t Wash. Nor is it you and Zoe, nor Zoe and Wash—”
“This is getting’ to be like a gorram math problem,” Mal grumbled.
“And you have to do the math,” Book insisted. He let out a small sound of exasperation. “Zoe—” he nodded toward her “—is perfectly able to balance between the two of you, between the two men in her life. It’s remarkable, but she manages complete loyalty to both of you without internal conflict. It may seem odd to outsiders…”
“And husbands,” Mal muttered.
“…yet she’s found the balance and maintains it. For herself,” Book added.
“But.” Seemed to Mal like he’d been doing a lot of that sort of punctuating for other folk lately.
“It’s you two, you and Wash, who keeping trying to topple things for her.”
“I ain’t trying to do no such thing,” Mal protested. “I just wanted a pilot. It was her dumbass notion to marry the… Ow!” He cut off with a yelp as Zoe smacked him. Hard.
Book ignored the interruption. “You and Wash are the ones who have to achieve a balance, an understanding, between the two of you. So you, Captain, have to go work out the situation with Wash.”
“Just exactly what the 他妈的 am I supposed to say?!”
“Tell him what was,” Book said. “What happened and why, and what has been since. Be honest. Be sincere. And for once in your life, don’t hold back.”
Mal groaned extravagantly. He could get another damned pilot. Then he made the mistake of glancing at Zoe. Her face was completely blank, completely bland… or so any other person in the ‘verse would have thought to look upon her. Any other person but Mal. On some occasions he imagined he could see right clear down into her soul. Gorramit, this was one of those times. “Fine,” Mal said. Total, complete, abject surrender on behalf of the one he couldn’t bear to disappoint, but did. Repeatedly and often. Sometimes in catastrophic ways. Also with the repeatedly and often. Yet the one who never left him. Never wavered. Ah, hell… He reckoned he liked Wash well enough hisownself. He sure as 狗屎 couldn’t get a better pilot. “Fine. But you come with.” Mal jabbed a finger at Zoe.
She shook her head. “No, sir. This is something you gotta do for yourself.”
“Fine,” Mal repeated, giving up. “But I gorram well want a copy of that damned do ‘n don’t gotta do for myself list of yours,” he snapped at Zoe. He straightened and stared up the ramp into Serenity’s cargo bay. Rather 他妈的ing face a gorram Alliance gallows. With all the enthusiasm of that thought to sustain him, Mal trudged up toward Serenity’s cargo bay.
“Captain,” Book’s quiet voice made him pause. Reaching up, Book handed him a bottle. Mal gave it a glance, then gave it a sharper look. This weren’t no cheap Blue Sun liquor here. This was damnably fine aged whiskey. “Found it with Shepherd Sand’s belongings. Our Alliance spy had good taste,” Shepherd Book said ruefully. “At least some good’s come of it.”
Mal gave a nod and an overly dramatic sigh and headed on in to the impending battle.
Wash stared into the wood grain of Serenity’s dining room table without really seeing it. He didn’t look up as he heard the approaching footsteps on the stairs and in the aft corridor, even though he recognized them perfectly well. No, wretchedly well.
As Mal walked in, Wash glanced up. “Short straw?” he asked.
“Pretty much,” Mal said. He thumped the whiskey bottle down on the table, snatched two more-or-less clean glasses from the counter, pulled out a chair opposite Wash, and sprawled out on it.
“Figure getting me drunk will make everything all better?” Wash asked. How calm he sounded! Not at all like he’d just been kicked in the gut which was exactly how he felt.
“Might could be,” Mal said, “Ain’t figurin’ anything I’d care to say is like to penetrate that thick skull of yours.” He poured out two full glasses, shoving one gracelessly toward Wash. It sloshed over onto the table and onto Wash’s hand. Almost like Mal was trying to annoy him even more. No, there was really no ‘almost’ about it. Bastard.
“Okay,” Wash said after a few gulps of whiskey—good stuff! He twisted the bottle around, studying the label, amazed Mal would waste such fine liquor on him. “Okay,” Wash repeated, taking another gulp. “So get on with telling me how it isn’t what I think and how you and Zoe were thinking of me the whole time.”
“Hardly,” Mal snorted. He held his glass to his lips a moment, pondering. “In point of interest, thinkin’ weren’t never exactly on the agenda.”
Wash stared at the captain. “Wow,” Wash said incredulously. “You really suck at this.”
“Don’t recall a whole lotta that on the agenda neither,” Mal commented. He added thoughtfully, “More’s the pity. Bet she’s good at it. All powerful, and focused. You know?”
It doesn’t matter how fine the grade of whiskey, it gorram well stings when you snort it out your nostrils. “Yes,” Wash sputtered. “I do know.”
Leaning forward, elbows on the table, Mal asked intensely, “So, tell me about it. How is she at the, you know, the sucking?”
Wash gaped at him. “Are you insane?”
Mal shrugged. “That there is a whole ‘nother area of contention. Come on… it’s been a helluva long time since Zoe and me had with the…” He made a graphic hand gesture. Wash almost fell off his chair as he stared, open-mouthed. Horrified and, yeah, sure, a little intrigued by Mal’s approach to what Wash believed was a delicate situation. Apparently Wash was alone in that belief.
Stumbling and stuttering, Wash managed to get out, “Captain… Mal… You’re supposed to be comforting me and assuring me that whatever happened in the past—which was only once and you were both drunk so you took advantage!—is far, far past and it never happened again and you’ll both regret it until the day you die. And let me emphasize the only once part again.”
Mal didn’t even blink. “That the kind of pretty colored smoke you want me blowing up your ass?”
“Yes,” Wash blurted. “And when you say it don’t use words like ‘blowing’ or ‘ass’.”
Mal still didn’t blink. It was scary weird how he could do that, Wash thought, fighting to hold the stare.
“You wanna hear about how I went to virgin-pure Zoe, got her drunk, climbed on and took advantage,” Mal said, so very chilly. “That it?”
With a dark chuckle, Mal said, “I’m thinkin’ you got your whole who’s-on-top scenario upside down there, son.”
From the corner of his eye, Mal could see Zoe and Book making their way slowly and silently down the aft corridor toward the dining room. They stopped outside the dining room entry, staying back against the bulkhead. Wash couldn’t see ‘em hidden by the lip of the door, but Mal could tell they knew he’d seen them.
Enough of the dainty and comforting prelims, Mal decided. On to the heart of the matter.
Breaking his stare with Wash—who still stared right back in pure astonishment—Mal took a sip of the preacher’s fine whiskey and let himself think back on those times long past. Weren’t nothin’ smutty about it at the time, he considered. Then reconsidered. Well, okay, there was a whole lot with the smutty, but all of it was so shiny and fine and sticky sweet not even the threat of hellfire and damnation could get in the way. What he believed then… What he believed now… Hmph. Didn’t give a rat’s behind about hellfire and damnation no more but lost the shiny and fine at the same time. Now, was that fair?
“We were kids,” Mal said, his tone thoughtful as he remembered back. He bit down on that; changed his tone. This was a gorram battle report. Make it short, clipped, and to the point. “Weren’t no more’n sixteen. I was a dumb back-world ranch boy who’d never seen beyond the horizon and she was this blaze of pure light set right down outta the Black in front of me…” Mal went on with the tale of meeting Zoe, telling it straight out, like the preacher said he ought. He told it blunt, but not crude. Wash listened carefully, not interrupting until…
“Oh, my God,” Wash whispered. “Zoe was your first, not the other way around.”
Mal just gave him a small, knowing smile and went on with the story. He was keenly aware of Zoe listening from around the corner as he told about the unintended youngun come about from their play. He kept it all to the cold, hard facts. No sentimentality. Even still, Mal saw her head drop down and knew she was again fighting that grief she’d held in so long and so hard.
With a dismissive shrug, Mal concluded, “Buried the little one ‘neath a tree on Shadow, in the family plot. Parted with Zoe on a bad note. Didn’t see nothing more of her ‘til in the war.” Wash had heard him tell that tale from the recording of the interrogation with Harken. No need to go over it again.
Mal said it all coolly, distantly—which it was, which it ought to be—yet somehow when he gathered the gumption to meet Wash’s eyes again, it seemed like the tale of long ago and far away hit far closer and harder than Mal meant it to. Wash looked like to cry hisownself. Mal scowled.
“That’s all there is to it. All gone and done long ago. Lifetimes ago. Ain’t something we’ve revisited and sure as sure-as-shit never wanted to,” Mal said, trying to gauge Wash’s reaction.
“Except today…” Wash let the words trail out in a way that said he wanted Mal to keep talking.
Frowning, Mal let out a slow breath. Very low, hoping his words weren’t reaching the two listening in the corridor, Mal said, “There were things… with this last job. With, um… you know, Harken and the interrogation… Hell, you listened to that recording. There was other stuff. Bein’ back in that place from so long ago with all the bad stuff gone on there. And then your own lost little one… Just a helluva lot smacked down here all at once and I guess it finally got to Zoe.
“Hence the gorram tears,” Mal continued. “That’s all it was. Finally too damned much and she needed to open the pressure relief value a turn. Ain’t like she’s weak. And it don’t mean she was thinkin’ any sort of fondnesses where I’m concerned or nothing. It don’t mean a thing, Wash.”
Wash stared at him so long the uncomfortables started to worry at Mal.
“So stop your dumbass, self-centered, petulant–” Mal liked that word. “–whining and get the 他妈的 over it.” And that’s an order, the Captain silently added.
Wash still stared at him. Mal started to count in his head. …ty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty, sixty-o…
“Like you have?” Wash’s voice was very soft but a trace of fierceness and anger underscored the tone.
Mal favored Wash with his best exasperated look. “Yes, gorramit. Over. Done. Past. Ain’t nothing more to say. Nothing more to tell.”
A hint of a bitter smile pulled at Wash’s lips.
“So…” Wash stretched out the word. “Dumb ranch kid and a girl in trouble.” He leaned forward. “On a border world the preacher tells me leaned toward the proper side of things. Tell me, Mal… Did you marry her?”
Mal jerked a touch. “No.”
Wash’s eyes went darker. “Girl in trouble. And you didn’t step up to do what’s right by her? Did you even ask?”
Oh, gorramit! There was gonna be no winning this one. No damned right answer. Licking his suddenly dry lips, Mal had to break the staring contest. One. Two. Three… “No.”
“You’re lying.” Flat certainty.
Mal shifted uncomfortably. From the corner of his eye he saw Zoe do the same. An intrigued look crossed Book’s face.
Trying for snotty, Mal snapped, “Well, thank you for that insight. You been taking interrogation lessons from Commander Harken? Ain’t no lie detector nor truth drugs here.”
“Diversion,” Wash said sharply. “And, yes. I did learn a bit from Harken and that recording of his sessions with you. You did ask Zoe to marry you.”
Squirming a bit, Mal said, “You’re wrong. I ain’t lying.” He cleared his throat and just gorram well knew one of the two in the corridor was likely to break into the conversation if’n he didn’t say no more. It was that other word Harken was keen on—semantics. “I never asked Zoe to marry me. I… um… It was, uh, more like I told her the way it was gonna be.”
Wash gaped at him again. “You ordered Zoe to marry you?!”
Stuttering a bit, Mal said, “Well, it was just… you see, I was… I was a mite on the religious side back then…”
“You?!” Raised eyebrows from the entire congregation at that one.
Oh, 他妈的ing great! He really hadn’t meant to blurt out that little bit of history. How did his pilot get better at interrogating than a Fed? No way to back out. “Okay, I was really religious back then, and my folk on Shadow had notions of how things ought to be. Propriety. Makin’ right on a sinful… um. It’s like this, I believed a fella and a gal, that had… you know…”
“You ordered Zoe to marry you?!”
Harken hadn’t made Mal squirm this much. “You’re makin’ it sound bad.”
But ‘bad’ weren’t so much matching the look on Wash’s face. It was more like he was struggling with something gorram big trying to burst outta him. Mal tensed for another slug in the face.
Then, unaccountably, Wash burst out laughing. Mal stared, bewildered. Zoe cocked her head, puzzled. Book… well, the preacher musta got the joke ‘cause he appeared to be fighting some serious chortles of his own.
Choking and gasping for air, Wash got out, “My God, Mal. You’re a moron!”
“Uh…” Still bewildered. Insulted, but still bewildered. “Huh?” Grumbling, Mal said, “You always wanted to know if she ever disobeyed my orders. That there was the first. The first of a long line.”
“A complete moron,” Wash said with marvel in his voice. He shook his head, “And to think I was worried about you. Did you even tell her you loved her?”
Huh? “I… I… told her she could rely on me. I’d be true…” Mal stumbled over the words. Zoe seemed to be finding the ceiling of the aft corridor awfully fascinating. Book wore a 狗屎-eating grin.
“Have you ever told Zoe you loved her?” Wash insisted.
“Uh… no. I mean it ain’t…”
“Well, I can tell that is the truth,” Wash said. He leaned forward and peered at Mal. “And do you? Love her?”
他妈的 狗屎. “No!” Gorram 他妈的 狗屎.
Wash’s eyes narrowed. Low and hard, he whispered, “That’s a lie.”
Mal gulped. Wash couldn’t have hit him harder if he’d used Vera to put a slug into his brainpan. The echoes… Harken… the drugs… the craziness… The moment that got him dragged off to be chained in the dark… replaying that moment with Zoe and the anguish that followed… The train job for Niska, Mal saying to Zoe, “Remember I always loved you.” Her shocked “Sir?!” Part of the job, part of their role playing. What had Zoe really thought at that moment? What had he meant when he decided to remind her of their roles is just precisely that way? And further back… Shadow, with Zoe expecting his very own youngun and him unable to tell her the one thing that woulda got her to make the situation right. Couldn’t say it ‘cause it wasn’t true. Then.
Darting a glance toward Zoe, their eyes caught and held.
“Well?” Wash asked softly. “I want the truth, Mal. I won’t settle for anything less.”
A lifetime flooded between Mal and Zoe. Good times—few. Bad times—many. Lives. Loss. Battlefields soaked in blood. Violence. Grief. Absolute trust. Unswerving loyalty.
Without breaking contact with Zoe, Mal nodded. He couldn’t make the words come out. Weren’t needful. She knew. And finally, gorramit, so did he.
So did Wash. Her husband. Oh, right… the husband.
A long sigh came from Wash, a deep, wrenching sound. Mal broke the connection with Zoe and turned back to study him.
“Zoe won’t leave you, will she?” Wash didn’t really ask it as a question; said it as a plain truth.
“Can’t speak for her,” Mal managed to get out, somewhat unsteadily.
“Yes,” Wash said. “You can.”
With a frown, Mal said, with a certainty he spoke the truth, “Yeah. Zoe won’t leave me.” From the corridor came no denial from Zoe.
“So, where does that leave me?” Wash sounded nigh on pathetic at that very moment.
“As her husband,” Mal said. Suddenly he got it clear. This was what Shepherd Book had been trying to get the lot of them to see. “Don’t you get it, Wash? I don’t know what you’d call what it is me and Zoe are. Don’t know that it’s even got a name. But you’re the one she married. Hell’s bells, Wash…” Mal slammed his fist down on table making the whiskey bottle, and Wash, jump. “I been with her half my life. I depend on her. Lean on her. Need her like no other. Trust her with everything I got and am. I’d lay my life down for her in an instant. Shared a lot of living with her, and a lot of grief, including that lost little one.” He flicked a quick glance at Zoe. “But she married you. It’s you she’s looking to have more younguns with. Not me. If anything like that was gonna be between us… Hell, we had us all the time in the ‘verse. And we didn’t. And wouldn’t. And won’t. You’re her husband. You’re the one who’s gonna be father to her children. You.”
“With you in the package.” Wash raked his fingers through his hair. “Welcome to a freaky-ass three-way.”
A perverted grin played over Mal’s lips. “Seems like a good deal. For you. I get all the violence and bloodshed. You get all the sex.”
“There is that,” Wash had to admit.
“Of course, a truly generous man would share…” Mal quirked a suggestive look at Wash.
Wash matched it. “If you and I were to take to bed…”
“That ain’t what I meant!” Mal cut him off. He had to fight a smile. It looked to work out. Maybe, just maybe.
But Wash’s expression darkened again. “Father to her children,” he murmured. He looked up at Mal. “You and Zoe will always have that shared between you.”
With a hard swallow to bring down his own sudden reaction, Mal said, “Me and Zoe will always have that standing between us. It wasn’t meant to be. Don’t know how many well-meaning bastards told us that. Hated hearing it then and hate it now. But it’s the gorram truth. It wasn’t meant to be. It’s you she’s looking to have more babies with, not me.”
“Babies…” Wash peered at him in a way that let Mal see his core fears clean down to his toes. “Zoe wants to. Have a baby. Right here. On Serenity. Having it and raising it right on this ship in the midst of the rough ‘n tumble. Last time we talked on it—at the Heart of Gold—she said she wasn’t so afraid of losing something that she wouldn’t try to have it.”
Mal focused hard on Wash so as not to look over to Zoe. “She said that?”
Wash nodded. “I thought she was talking in general. You know? On account of her having lost so much. Been through so much.”
“No,” Mal said. “She was talkin’ specific.” Zoe had been thinking on their little lost one after all.
“Yeah…” Wash appeared to be letting that sink in. “She knows what it’s like and she still wants to try.” He met Mal’s eyes again. The anger and hostility were gone, replaced by a sense of kinship and understanding. And more than a trace of apprehension. Nope. Outright fear. “What do you think of the notion of Zoe and me having a baby? Here? On Serenity?”
Mal held Wash’s eyes steadily. He blinked once, twice, a third time, until he could speak without twitch or intonation. “Brilliant. I think it’s every bit as good an idea as the two of you getting hitched in the first place.” From the corner of his eye, he could see Zoe roll her eyes and shake her head.
Wash didn’t take the diversionary bait, though. “I mean it, Mal. It’s not just a child who could be lost. We live in a lot of danger. What if something happened to me? Zoe? Both of us? Would you take care of our child?”
Leaning forward, Wash said intently, “I’m dead serious, Mal. I think we’ve come to terms here, terms I can live with. Mainly in that you’re too much of a moron about women to ever be a threat. I do love Zoe and I don’t want to tear her apart—make her choose between us. I can’t stand seeing her all torn up, and I don’t think you’re quite enough of a son of a bitch that you can either. I need to know if I can count on you the same way Zoe does. If something happened to me, would you take care of our baby the same as if it was your own?”
Mal blinked down and away, wondering why his eyes suddenly felt wet. Slapping both hands down on the table, he pushed himself to his feet. As he stepped away, he paused. He didn’t meet Wash’s eyes, nor Zoe’s.
“Better,” Mal said. “Better than my own.”
Without a backward glance, Mal headed toward the forward stairs to get out and away.
The smacking and bellering led to shouting.
“Jayne!” Mal and Shepherd Book hollered in unison.
“What? Gorramit, get outta the way so I can get these walkin’ beefsteaks into the cargo bay,” Jayne yelled back, still driving the confused cattle toward Serenity.
“Jayne, you cannot take the cattle,” Book called, waving his arms ineffectively to try to turn the cattle.
Far more effective at it, Mal did turn them before they got to the ramp. When the herding stopped, the cattle put their tails in the air and galloped off toward the little woods and an unexpected taste of freedom. It was gonna be a chore roundin’ them up again, Mal considered. As long as it weren’t his chore.
“Why-fore didja do that?” Jayne grumbled, stomping up to Mal and Book. “I almost had ‘em in.”
“You can’t steal these preachers’ cows,” Mal said in his most emphatic you-idiot voice.
“I thought they was havin’ a going-out-of-business sale here,” Jayne argued. “Doc’s practically stripped their med clinic and library bare. And that is a helluva arsenal you and Zoe was totin’ back. How come I can’t have the cows? Ain’t had prime steak in a hound’s age.”
“Not everyone is leaving,” Book said. “Most of the Shepherds are staying. Just parts—” Mal and Book exchanged a significant glance. “—are being removed. The Sanctuary is revising the focus of its mission, you might say.”
Jayne eyed ‘em both good. “Yeah. That revising stuff all sudden like. Something weird goin’ on here. All secretive and such. I wanna know what it is.”
“Ain’t none of your nevermind.” Mal ordered, “You keep your notions to yourself, keep your trap shut, and get on and help the Doc. Git!”
Grumbling and muttering, Jayne trudged away.
Mal turned toward Book. “Sure wouldn’t mind doin’ some trade for some produce and beef, though,” Mal said.
“You’d have to use legal money for that,” Book said with a small smile. “Most of the Shepherds here aren’t in on the extra-circular activities.”
“Difficulties, always difficulties,” Mal complained. “What’s the matter with Shepherds who don’t know how to launder money? Reckon I can come up with some not-quite-so-ill-gotten gains. Or near enough to it. Untraceable, at least. We’re right flush now. Don’t suppose it looks to last, though.”
Book started off walking back toward the Sanctuary’s buildings. He gestured for Mal to accompany him. Side-by-side they strode across the peaceful landscape. Peaceful for now, Mal qualified, quickly scanning the sky. The Feds would be showing up here sooner or later huntin’ for the spy and sniffin’ at their trail. How well could they hide any trace they were ever here? And how fast and far could they run afore the Alliance caught up to them again?
“Nothing ever lasts,” Book commented. “Except those things a man carries within himself.”
Mal gave a weary sigh. “Sounds like a sermon in the making, there, Preacher.”
“I’ll spare you the full sermon,” Book said with a chuckle. “Consider it part of the counseling sessions.”
“Mmm…” Mal pondered a moment. “Speakin’ of which, we done with that? We all back to sane and well-adjusted.”
Book toyed with the corner of his moustache as they walked. Mal glanced over at him. “Well, if ‘sane’ and ‘well-adjusted’ are the goals…”
“Never mind,” Mal cut in.
With a smile, Book said, “I do believe you, and Zoe, and Wash are on the path to a sort of harmony.”
Mal let the inevitable ‘but’ go unsaid this time. He and Book settled down on the bench beneath the apple tree. Shepherd Book pulled out a pair of fine cigars and offered Mal one. Mal could tell they were fine on account of they didn’t smell nothing like the floor-sweeping stogies Jayne puffed on. More booty from the Fed spy, no doubt.
“No, thanks, Preacher,” Mal said. “You know I steer clear of wicked habits like that.”
With a deep chuckle, Book said, “Ah, Mal… you always make me laugh.”
“I’m a funny guy,” Mal said intently. “It’s the light-hearted gaiety of my life what makes me so.”
Another rich laugh from the preacher as he lit his cigar. He blew out a puff of smoke thoughtfully skyward. Mal studied him as he did so.
“You got something on your mind, Preacher,” Mal said. “I can tell. Just say it on out.” Book only puffed on his cigar. After a long moment, Mal added, “You’re not coming with us, are you?”
Book carefully snubbed out the cigar before he’d even smoked a quarter of it. “Have to ration these,” he explained. “They’re rare, and to be cherished as such. We can never have all that we want.”
“More sermonizing,” Mal inserted.
“Counseling,” Book corrected him. He gave Mal a soft smile. “My mission on Serenity is done.” With a twinkle in his eye as he looked at Mal, Book added, “One of my missions.”
Mal shook his head, but did twitch a faint smile. “Always knew you had me in your sights, Preacher.”
“What does it say about you that you knew that, yet never dodged away?” Book raised an eyebrow as he asked.
“You’ve done us a fair bit of good, Shepherd. I am truly sorry to see you go,” Mal said. “You’ve done me a fair bit of good.”
“There’s a lot been stirred up, Mal,” Book said seriously. “A lot of history you tried to keep buried. You and Zoe, both. Don’t get mired in it. Don’t dwell on it. Try to build on it, to be more open to those around you. Bring them closer. Don’t push them away.”
Silent a long time, Mal stared out toward Serenity. “Don’t know if that’s the best advise, Preacher. And likely ain’t advise I mean to take.” He sighed tiredly and rubbed his hands over his face. “Things look to get even harder and tighter from here on out. Even though we don’t mean to, we’re leaving a trail for the Feds to follow leading to River and Simon. This little fiasco here just adds to the mix. Gotta stay well clear of so gorram many of our old contacts that jobs are getting fewer and riskier. Can’t say I was ever on the non-hating side of Badger, but he was good for work now and again. ‘Cept now we can’t go near him. He seen River. Seen her up close and personal and some day he’s gonna see one of them flyers on her. He’ll be on that reward faster than a duck on a june bug.
“Then there’s Commander Harken and a whole gorram Alliance cruiser we cannot allow to even catch a glimpse of us…” Mal sighed again, feeling the weight.
“Actually,” Book commented, “Harken may be the one Fed in the ‘verse you can trust not to turn in River and Simon. I dare say he’d even shelter all of you.”
Mal gaped at him. “You are crazy. Completely, certifiably…”
“Think about it.” Book cut him off. “Harken is the one Alliance commander who absolutely does not want River and Simon found on Serenity and would probably go to great lengths to see to it they aren’t. If River and Simon are found on Serenity, he’s finished.”
With a faint chuckle, Mal said, “Yeah. Zoe had the same notion. That he was on our side during this last fiasco. Maybe even covered up evidence of our fugitives found on my boat. Not that I could tell it, the way he was workin’ on me. But, yeah, maybe we could bank on Harken. Be pretty funny going to a Fed cruiser for shelter.” He quirked a ‘hell no’ look at Book. “Way my luck goes, though, he’d more likely shoot us on sight, burn every trace, and scatter our ashes to the wind.”
“You have such a positive attitude, Mal,” Book commented, but lightly.
“May take gettin’ smacked down a few times, but eventually I learn the lesson,” Mal said. “We’re alone, each of us, in a ‘verse that aims to break us and kill us. And that’s just the way of it.”
“You’re not alone, Mal,” Book insisted softly.
Catching and holding Book’s eyes, Mal said, “Don’t go talkin’ God to me, Preacher.”
“I’m not,” Book said. Yes, he was. “I’m talking about the others. Your crew.”
Mal didn’t answer. He still didn’t have the particulars of Book’s past, but like as not he knew a leader who gets who gets too warm and fuzzy close to those whose lives he’s putting on the line will make mistakes. Things aimed to get harder and Mal just could not let sentimentality get in the way. Much as he treasured these moments lately—with Zoe. Hell, even with Wash. Holding and comforting Kaylee. Being soothed by Inara. The little crazy girl who danced and called him ‘Daddy’. Even Jayne. Maybe Doc. Well, not so much Jayne. It would be easy, so easy, to let that continue, let the feeling of family flow. It would.
Then the parade of ghosts who never fully left him—comrades, friends, family—shimmered nearby again. Bloody. Torn. Burned.
“Sure, Preacher,” Mal lied with unblinking sincerity. “You’ve done talked me onto the path of, well, not righteousness, but of warm family kinship.”
Liar, Mal saw flash in Book’s eyes, but he had the grace not to say it aloud. Instead he patted Mal’s leg fondly. “Just remember it, and think on it, Son.”
Sunset on a peaceful world. Mal stood at the bottom of the ramp and watched the sun set all golden and sweet behind the trees. They’d be back into the Black soon. The hard, deadly Black that gave him the most shiny thing of all—freedom.
So peaceful… He scanned a last time across the Sanctuary’s buildings. Chimes from the chapel sounded through the clear air. Soon would come the tromping of Alliance boots and the clatter of their weapons and the peaceful would be ripped away from yet another place Mal had touched.
Mal turned from the world and strode up into Serenity’s cargo bay. All nine aboard. He slapped the airlock and ramp controls, then hit the comm. “All buttoned up,” he called up to Wash. “Take us outta here.”
The scent of incense drifted down into the cargo bay from Inara’s shuttle. Bizarre damned smell on his boat. Rather have the honest stink of cattle in the hold. Wouldn’t be smellin’ that perfumey scent much longer. Droppin’ Inara on one of the more fancified Border worlds. Her face appeared at her shuttle’s door, looking down on him like she was awaitin’ on something. Mal had no notion what she expected him to say. Night spent in her bed didn’t mean a damned thing. Mal felt Serenity lift. He turned away. Eight…
Jayne’s weights clanked. He peered up with a 狗屎-eatin’ grin as Mal strode by. “So, Mal… You and Zoe really did have with the…”
Scary quick, Mal leaned down over him, pushing one of the weights down until Jayne grunted and alarm flashed through his eyes.
“You comprehend I know lots of ways to kill folk quick.” Mal let his eyes flash. “I know even more ways to kill ‘em slow. You contemplate on that.”
“Didn’t mean nothing by it,” Jayne grumbled as Mal released the weight and strode away. “Just wouldn’t mind hearing the groiny details,” he called. Mal chose not to hear.
“Doc…” Mal peered into the door of the infirmary. Simon’s lair was packed with equipment and supplies he’d gotten from the Shepherds lab. Even a shiny new exam chair. Mal supposed he’d be finding out hisownself it was more comfortable than the old one by and by, sad to say. Doc appeared happier than Mal had ever seen him—which was damnably hard to tell from Doc when he was unhappier than Mal had ever seen him.
“Yes, Captain,” Simon said.
“Get them books stowed.” Mal gestured to the piles stacked in the lounge. “We hit a bump they’ll be everywhere.”
“A bump in space?” Simon echoed with a hint of that three percent scorn.
“Just get ‘em stowed,” Mal repeated. He felt the quiver as they shifted from planetary gravity to internal. A book slid to the floor. Mal favored Simon with a ninety-seven percent look.
Shepherd Book waited at the bottom of the stairs. His favorite ambush-Mal spot. Mal gave him a nod as he grabbed hold of the railing. Didn’t look to be running across the preacher here too much longer. A place called ‘Haven’ they’d be dropping him at once they were shut of Inara. Nice enough sounding name—Haven—but as crappy a place as he’d ever heard of.
“Shepherd,” Mal said by way of greeting as he started to climb.
“Captain,” Book said with matching formality.
Two steps toward escape afore Book caught him with, “Mal?”
“ECC thirty, twenty-three,” Book said.
Mal stared at him a moment. Thirty? Twenty-three. He tilted his head as he tried to do the calculation. ECC thirty? Ecclesiastes? Didn’t go up to thirty. “Sorry, Preacher. You got me stumped on that one.”
“It’s from the Apocrypha,” Book said. “Love thine own soul, and comfort thy heart, remove sorrow far from thee: for sorrow hath killed many, and there is no profit therein.”
“I will bear that in mind, Preacher,” Mal said evenly and headed up the stairs. Seven…
At the top River stood, or rather flowed, against the bulkhead. Girl ‘peared clear-on crazy at this very moment, Mal decided, pushing past without stopping.
“What did he mean?” River asked after him. Mind reading the quote from him? Or the preacher? Or just heard their voices carry up the stairs?
Mal paused, glancing back at her. Now the girl looked all intent and not so crazy. Well, crazy in a different way.
“Beats me, sweetheart,” Mal said. “Something about profits and killing. Sounded like a gorram plan to me. Now get on down and help your brother.”
River gave him a long, perplexing look before dancing down the stairs. Mal watched after her until she turned the corner, then continued on with a sigh. Stopping in the engine room, he didn’t dare step into the tangled mess of wiring Kaylee had constructed. A time or two he suspected her webs didn’t have nothing to do with the engine at all. Mayhap made to snare him into buyin’ her parts.
“Kaylee!” he called to the girl.
“Cap’n,” came the answer from below and beside the engine. She wiggled out. Dirty, greasy, sweaty, in a snug little top with that teddy bear jumpsuit tied ‘round her waist. Cute as a bug’s ear, she was, in a little girl way that made Mal give an involuntary inward cringe. Doc was mad, blind, or sly as the day was long not to give this gal notice. Just as well. Just as gorram well. Didn’t much like the notion of no dandy breaking Kaylee’s heart.
Mal stepped back a mite as he took in the melty, mushy look Kaylee aimed at him. Over her own perplexions and movin’ on to his. 他妈的ing great. Have to stomp this in the bud or there’d be gorram group hugs breaking out and nobody’d be getting over nothing.
“Not a word, Kaylee,” Mal ordered sharply. “Not a word about nothing you heard nor saw. Understand me?”
It came out harsher than he’d intended, Mal realized when he saw her cringe back, but he let it slide. They’d all make good later. Much later.
“What is all this mess about?” Mal snapped. “What you done to my ship now?”
My ship, Mal as much as heard Kaylee counter. She could be pretty snappy herownself when she had a mind to. “All that platinum I made look like engine parts and you couldn’t spare one bit for real engine parts?”
Scowling, Mal shoved away from the doorway. “You don’t fix what ain’t broken,” he called back over his shoulder. Parts for a Firefly weren’t all that easy to come by. There’d been none on this world. Maybe next world they stopped at, or the next—if there was money left by then.
Dining room… Wash messed around in the kitchen. His turn for cooking? Mal had lost track. No doubt Zoe kept the assignments straight.
“Wash,” he nodded, barely slowly down. No more gorram scenes or, worse, bonding moments. Please.
“Captain,” Wash answered coolly, but with a twinkle in his eye. He wanted to tweak Mal, he did, he did, he did. For now, at least, he appeared to rise above it. More’n likely that twitch of nobility had more to do with the noises that had been acomin’ outta their bunk than any charitable kindness toward Mal.
“We on course?”
“In a round-about way,” Wash answered. “Taking the long way to Inara’s stop to throw any tracking off.”
“Good,” Mal said, still heading forward. Rather take the short way and be done with it. Seven… which one would bring the count down to six?
Zoe stood on the bridge, arms folded across her chest, staring out at the Black. She glanced over as Mal stepped up into his place beside her. “Sir,” she said by way of greeting. He gave a short nod and stared out at the stars, and the voids between, with her.
“So, uh…” Mal started hesitantly. “Everything secure?”
“Secure,” Zoe reported. She glanced at him. Their eyes held. Volumes were spoken between them. “For now,” she added.
“Still a few tales Wash ain’t heard,” Mal murmured. Oh, the pure chastisement Zoe burned into him on that. “Maybe later,” Mal amended quickly. He shifted and looked back into the Black, then flicked a quick glance back at her. “Maybe tell them to him as a Christmas present.”
Oh, the look! Put Mal to mind on how Zoe knew even more ways to kill slow than he did. And he’d seen her put a few into practice.
They settled into silence. Side by side. Near but not touching. Felt right. Felt as it ought. Mal glanced back at Zoe. She met the look. In perfect sync. So much said without saying…
“Still flyin’?” was all Mal asked.
Her eyes smiled. “Still flyin’.”
Tuesday, October 25, 2005 8:27 AM
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