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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
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)...
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1825 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
CHAPTER 4 - THEY TAKE SUCH LOOKING AFTER
River sat, swinging her legs against the cold metal of the catwalk platform edge. She loved to sit there, watching form a vantage point high above the action in the cargo bay below. Not part of the proceedings but, like a spectator in the Royal Box, with the best possible view. But for once she didn't feel quite as comfortable as she normally did nor as serene. Her unease was mostly due to the smell.
Serenity was grounded at New Dodge City on Endymion II and the Captain, Zoë and Jayne were loading cargo. Large crates were filling up the bay and there was considerable grunting and laughing going on below. River wasn't entirely sure what was in the crates, but the part of her she called her craft-brain was telling her it wasn't organic. So just what was that sharp, overtly animal, rancid smell with just a hint of richer, warmer, butteryness that seemed to be enveloping her? A snort some small way below her and to her left made her sigh and wonder why she hadn't placed it before.
There, hanging from the bottom of the lower catwalk, just to the left of Jayne's exercise grips, swayed a bag like contraption on rubber leashes and strapped tightly therein swung Little M, the baby of Serenity. He seemed just as content as River to waft above the action, watching the events with the beady eye of a connoisseur. Like her, River knew that Little M appreciated a good bit of space theatre, provided there wasn't too much danger involved. Although he did seem to welcome the appearance of a gun or two rather more than she herself did. The rotten smell was obviously the sign of a full diaper, whilst the half of rusk he was gently consuming provided the overlying perfume. Although, to be fair, he didn't seem to be so much eating the rusk as chewing it to mush and then allowing the resultant mess to drop to the floor far below with a satisfying plop, like some strange, biscuit-coloured, pigeon guano.
Zoë, walking below with a smallish box in her hands and consequently not looking at the floor, stepped unwarily on one of Little M's droppings and skidded, box precariously balanced in her outstretched hands, towards the Captain. He turned and caught her just as the box would have fallen.
"Easy, Zo. That ain't no pig iron you got there. That's one carefully calibrated machine. Thought the Doc might like ta take a look at it in truth and he won't be doin' that if you've introduced it to the deck up close and personal like."
Zoë glared, "*Tzao gao*! Its your gorram nipper, Sir!" She glared up at the swinging babe, "He's doin' his trick with his rusks again! I slipped on one a his ruttin' droppin's, the little varmint!"
Jayne lumbered up, another box in his hands, "yeah an' is it me or does the bay have a fairly ripe atmo? Reckon you should take ya critter in hand, Mal, before I pass out from the stink!"
"He don't smell half so bad as you, Jayne!" retorted Mal, "but mayhap yer right. River, ya couldn't pull that there babe up could ya, see about gettin' him a new diaper and sommat less splashy ta chew on?"
River sighed resignedly. It seemed to her that more often than not she trailed round Serenity with Little M in tow. She could see the logic. She was the only one without a real job on the ship and everyone seemed to accept that, a little bit nuts as they might all think she was, she wasn't likely to hurt Little M. She didn't really mind either. Little M was the only person on Serenity that looked at her without the slightest trace of fear. He didn't have hang-ups about her proficiency with weapons or her mind reading capabilities. He just tracked about with her, mostly in a sling or set free to crawl around wherever she pitched up, not saying much and looking for things to put in his mouth.
She yanked on the leashes securing him to the catwalk and pulled up the smelly parcel. Little M grinned and held out hands covered in biscuit goo, wavering in front of her face as if he couldn't quite reconcile where his eyes thought she should be and where his hands placed her.
She undid his straps, keeping well clear of the messy fingers and then, holding him out at arms length, as much for the sake of her nose as her dress, she marched him up the stairs towards the galley.
Wash glanced up from the galley table as River marched in, a kicking baby in her outstretched hands. He blanched.
"*Wuh de ma*! Not again. Hat, what the hell are you feedin' that thing?"
Hat turned from the stove, wiping her hands on her apron. "I dunno, but I'm fair certain we should stop. Better still, how's about we exchange him for something less ookey next time we stop for supplies?"
"Sounds like a plan," agreed Wash. "I believe I once mentioned something about beagles?"
River didn't speak. She simply held the baby out, standing on one leg in the doorway.
Hat reached out and plucked the child from River's hands. "Aw! I didn't mean it, little pickle, come to mummy." She crooned, "let's get you tidied up." She smiled at the partially toothless grin of her son and rolled him onto the table. "Wash, pass us a diaper."
"Uh-uh!" Wash had kicked back his chair and was starting to back away slowly, "if yer gonna do that now, I'm outta here! That baby is its very own fluctuation in the space time continuum - there's always a ways more inside than can possibly fit in anything with that outside! Its freaky." He turned and legged it through the doorway. River watched him go. She shrugged, smiled at Hat and headed towards the passenger dorms.
River moved on through the ship. She peeked in through the window of the infirmary where the Captain and Simon were bent over a large box propped on the examination table. As she watched, Simon, a look of sudden sparking enthusiasm on his face, reached in and pulled out the gadget inside.
"Don't rightly know 'xactly what it does," Mal was saying slightly uncertainly, almost as though he was giving a present and was apprehensive of its reception, "but thought you might like to take a look."
"Oh absolutely!" Simon looked up at Mal and grinned. Mal's look of anxiety dissipated. "It's a portable brain wave scanner. I'm sure I can get some pretty good information about River with this. 'Course it's not as finely calibrated as a fixed model would be, but it should be quite useful."
Mal was gruff and depreciating. "Well, just thought you could get some use of it, Doc, before we pass it on, is all."
Simon nodded enthusiastically, already engrossed in the mechanics of the machine, "oh definitely. I'll start right away, just as soon as I find River." He glanced round the infirmary vaguely, as though he expected her to have suddenly materialised in one of its corners.
River ducked swiftly below the window of the infirmary through which she was observing, lest she be spotted and experimented on and, still keeping low, inched her way to the stairs and freedom. Once there, she turned for a quick backward glance, only to see the Captain, a grin on his face, watching her from the doorway of the infirmary. She grinned back and put a finger to her lips. He nodded, rolling his eyes as though he could completely understand her reluctance to allow her brother to begin another of his emotionally invasive procedures, and turned towards the cargo bay, saying nothing and allowing her to continue on her way.
There just seemed to be so much green mush hitting the table, the walls and her baby, yet hardly anything seemed to be going in the wide mouth of the wriggling infant. Hat glanced around the galley and wondered whether it was easier to redecorate in strained pea green or to try and get the food off the walls.
She and Little M seemed to be currently in dispute over control of his meals. His insistence on holding his own spoon coupled with his inability to coordinate the food to mouth action resulted in a somewhat messy feeding time. She carefully set down the bowl beyond the arms' reach of her son, who squealed and wriggled, reaching out vainly with his spoon to try and connect with his lunch. She wiped a tired hand across her face, only to discover that she had ground mashed pea into her hair. She glared at Little M and swore gently.
Am arm snaked around her shoulders from behind and her husband, pulling her lightly to him, kissed the top of her head. "Mmm, peas?"
"Yeah, knowing your predilections for head kissin', I though I'd spice up our love life with some shiny new flavours."
"Or, alternatively, my gorram son can't find his own mouth with both hands?"
Hat sighed, "Yup, that's about the size of it."
"You sure Jayne ain't his father? I'm reckonin' his behaviour puts his paternity in some doubt."
"I'm pretty ruttin' sure, thanks. You wanna give it a go?"
"Nu-uh! I'm a strictly hands off kinda father, as you know. But Zoë and I're goin' into town, see Monty about this cargo we've got. I can take the critter along if ya like?"
Hat grinned. "I like it a lot!" She swivelled round in her chair and kissed Mal deeply. He smiled against her lips.
"Reckon as I'll take Junior out more often."
Hat sniggered, "the Captain Malcolm Reynolds father extraordinaire is indeed a very fine figure of a man."
"And the strained peas give you an indefinable allure. Shall we see if someone will baby-sit this afternoon and I'll show you some of my more specialised parenting skills?"
Harriet looked deep in to Mal's dark eyes, almost all pupil. "Sounds like a seriously shiny plan to me. I'm sure River'll oblige!"
River realised that she was running out of options. She was avoiding Harriet and the Captain because she didn't much feel like being saddled with Little M and she was avoiding Simon and his intrusive research. Normally she'd head for Inara's shuttle, always a place of refuge and retreat, but Inara had taken the opportunity of their few days stay at New Dodge to go and visit one of her favourite clients and her shuttle bay was empty. She headed therefore for the engine room and Kaylee.
Kaylee was using the down time at New Dodge to overhaul the gravity drive and the engine room was a carefully laid out maze of thousands of tiny parts. Intent on her task, she did however look up and smile as River peered round the door.
"Hey, what's up?"
"Need to hide. Too many people wanting too many things."
Kaylee smiled her wide, warm smile, "sure, come on in. You can help me reassemble the grav. drive. It's sorta like a big ol' jigsaw puzzle. 'Kay, I'm lookin' for a piece, looks kinda like a bit a flattened metal with a tiny wheel on the tip."
River squatted down next to her. Occasionally River thought of her brain as a camera. The image of the tiny pieces scattered about the engine room had imprinted itself in negative on her retina and would, she knew, hover in her mind's eye for the rest of the day. Consulting her internal picture like a map, she reached over to the far side of the engine and withdrew the piece from its fellows, handing it to Kaylee.
Kaylee beamed at her, "shiny! This is gonna go so much faster with you here!" Her tousled head bent over the mechanics as she worked the piece into place. River watched her with envy. So relaxed, so positive. Kaylee was possessed of that most excellent of natures that could never be held down for long. She knew Kaylee worried about Simon, but not the same way River did. Kaylee was content to let the future roll in, unexpected and unsought. 'Till then, she'd just take every day as it came.
River loved to sit in the comfortable and tranquil atmosphere Kaylee created around her, but recently she felt she could never really be alone with her. She couldn't escape the hint of Simon that lurked about her. She was sure Kaylee didn't notice it, but it was almost as if Simon's ghostly hand was superimposed over her own, incorporeal and insubstantial, but irrefutably there. She could feel his breath, his very heartbeat moving like waves on the shore through Kaylee as she worked. She wondered how the two of them could not have noticed. Like two apple trees grafted together and set to grow for several seasons, their whole beings wound and coiled around each other until they had become truly inseparable and intertwined. They had seeped into each other and melted together like grains of sand joining to become a lump of glass, smooth and shining.
River could never be like Kaylee, never let the future go hang and wait and see, more in expectation than trepidation. She was cursed to see it whether she wanted to or not, she couldn't hide her face and turn away. And right now, she felt the future rushing up to meet them all. Her skull felt light, almost as though it were about to float away. She knew something was coming and from the reverberation of its footfalls in her brain, she knew it was going to be big. As she felt the weight of the future both pressing her down and yet making her feel light enough to fly away, her craft-brain was still methodically picking out the pieces of the gravity drive as Kaylee called for them, untroubled by such prescience of disaster.
River felt nauseous at the thought of splitting these two now. How a grafted tree is split and shows its white and wounded heart, torn along the grain of its wood, sap bubbling form the injury like tears. Or how glass is smashed so easily, smooth one minute and split into a thousand biting, stinging shards the next. Amid the turbulence that was her normal state of mind, River had a single moment of total clarity and stillness. She must not; she would not, let that happen. She could not allow something so strong and beautiful, just recently beginning to show its leaves and with a capacity, yet untried, to bear fruit, to be destroyed. River would protect them, just as she'd tried to protect her lovely brother when the bounty hunter came. But this time, she would be successful.
But she needed, as Wash would say, to plan and plot and possibly to scheme. She needed quiet. Although she was currently successfully drowning out Kaylee's joyful chatter, she felt it was unfair, even mean, not to listen. She was, therefore, almost relieved when her brother's head came into view round the corner of the corridor, followed, of course, by the rest of him.
"Hey," he looked exasperated. "River, I've been looking for you everywhere! I should have known you were here." Then, with the special half smile full of secrets he kept for Kaylee, he turned to her. "Hey, you look busy."
"Oh, you know, just doin' my job!" Kaylee returned his smile more openly and he blushed slightly, turning a light pink in contrast to the livid white of his usual complexion. "I'm overhaulin' the gravity drive, with River's help." She winked at River, "it's a little awkerd to do normally, seein' as we're pretty much always usin' it."
"Well, if you don't mind, I might have to borrow River. The Captain's given me the use of one of the gadgets we're "transporting", but only until he's arranged for delivery. It's a brain wave scanner. It might be able to tell me quite a lot about River, always supposing she'll let me try it out." He smiled with slight condescension at his sister and she wondered whether either of them was aware of their tendency, rife throughout the ship, of speaking about her in her presence as though she were a baby or an idiot.
"Oh, for sure!" Kaylee, nodded, "You should definitely go do that. I can survive without my excellent helper if needs be."
"Ok, see you later, *bao bay*." He added the endearment softly. "Come on River!" Simon didn't even turn to see if she was following him. River sighed, quickly grabbed up the next half dozen pieces Kaylee would need, thrust them in to her hand and followed her brother out the door.
"Malcolm Reynolds, as I live and breathe!" Monty lunged forward to enfold Mal in a hug, but then paused, glancing at him. "Hey, what you got there, Mal? You playin' nursemaid? Who's papoose is that? Ain't yourn, is it?"
Mal grinned as only a pound father can, "certainly is, Monty, old man. Yer lookin' at the next generation of Reynolds men. Allow me to introduce Malcolm Reynolds Junior!"
"Aw!" Monty's huge face melted into a soppy grin, "come ta uncle Monty, small fry, let's be havin' ya!" He clapped his hands around Little M, who seemed not the slightest bit bothered. He had been sleeping on his father's shoulder and now, relaxed as only a sleeping child can be, he continued to snore, rocked in the warm, fur and leather embrace of the big man.
"So, come on Mal, Zoë, How ya been? I seen you been busy, Mal an' no mistake." He dug Mal in the ribs heftily and chuckled. "Come on, the two a youse, have a seat, gorramit! Have a drink." He eagerly led them to a table, conveniently placed towards the back of the bar in which they had rendezvoused and glanced round for a waitress. A bored looking woman with dull greying hair and too much lipstick came to take their order.
"What'll it be, folks?" she asked without bothering to look up and, taking the pencil from behind her ear, she licked the end.
"Oh, we'll have three o' ya finest whiskeys." Monty ordered magnanimously, "I'm guessing as the sprout here ain't drinkin'?" Mal shook his head and smiled.
Zoë smiled reflectively, "my husband and Little M, only folks I know prefer milk to liquor!" The waitress stoically ignored them and went to fulfil the order.
"*Tyen shiao-duh* but he's got the look of you, Mal." Monty gazed in rapt fascination at the sleeping child in his arms. "I ain't never seen yer woman, but I'll bet she wonders sometimes whether she had a hand in this moppet at all!"
"That she does," laughed Mal. "But, if you'd a seen her, you'd vouch for his lookin' a mite in her way o things too. Got her hair for a start."
"And the way he has of looking at you sometimes," put in Zoë, fondly, "you'd swear as it was Hat her own self a glarin' at you!"
"Hat? Mighty strange name for a lady!"
"And so it is." Agreed Mal, "in truth stands for Harriet, but you know how you all gets to shortening on a boat."
"Well, I hope some day to say how do to the woman as domesticated you, Malcolm Reynolds. I thought for sure as how you'd remain a bachelor forever. 'Specially after that Bridget caper. 'S far turned me off the females, I can tell ya. I'm a might warier now than ever I was."
"Then you probably don't want us tellin' ya what happened the very last time we met that she-devil!" grinned Mal with some embarrassment.
Zoë punched him on the arm. "Weren't in no way funny, Sir. Least ways, not at the time, as I recall."
Monty raised an enquiring eyebrow, "sounds like there's a tale there and no mistake."
Mal shrugged, "lets just say she got the drop on us fair and square and leave it at that. Now to business."
But attempting to head Monty off at the pass was clearly not going to work. He sniffed a ripe story and there was an end to it. "Ah now Mal, that don't seem reasonable," objected Monty, "I'm fair sure there's more to the story than that!"
"Yeah, but the truth is somewhat mortifying," admitted Mal.
"She saw through our merc like a belly dancer's skirt, shot the Cap and left him for dead." Explained Zoë with more honesty than tact.
"Hey, Zo!" exclaimed Mal, "was more to it than that. I had her on the run in no time. Sure, there were a few wrinkles at the start, but let me tell you, Monty, you should a seen her."
"After she'd shot you and left you for dead, Sir." Insisted Zoë. Mal closed his mouth and glared. "Was the women of Serenity got the Cap out of his predicament," explained Zoë to Monty, "that's why he don't like to dwell."
"Hey, again!" protested Mal, "no it ain't. Is just that I reckon I had a mite bad press on our last Saffron encounter, is all. So Monty, anyhow, the deal is solid. You in?"
Monty had been watching Zoë and Mal's exchange with amusement. "Seems to me, Mal, you've been fair hobbled like a prize bull as is put to stud, but it comes to us all eventual like I guess." He knocked back his whisky and beckoned for the waitress, who ambled slowly over. "Its certain that I like the look a ya cargo. Got a contact on Persephone who'd dance a jig ta see it. I'll set it up. If you can get the goods to Persephone in a week, I'll arrange a pick up."
"Easy peasy!" smiled Mal. They sat back to finish their drinks and reminisce. In time Little M woke up and Monty jiggled and swung him, much to the baby's delight. None of them were walking too straight or too warily by the time the three adults and one nipper left the bar. Just outside they paused, Monty clapping Mal in a hearty embrace and fair squeezing the life out of Zoë. Engrossed in their ardent goodbyes, none of them noticed the bored waitress. She was leaning against the outside wall of the bar, facing into the alley that ran down it to its small back yard.
"'Parently, they'll be on Persephone in a week, droppin' off some cargo or other." She was saying quietly to a figure, who, standing in the shadows, could not be seen. The chink of coins changing hands followed, but the three friends had gone their several ways by then, heading towards their ships and the exchange went unheard.
Supper that evening was an odd affair. River practically growled across the table at her brother, who had insisted on attaching coloured wires to her head for the entire afternoon and passing low-grade electric currents through her system. Frankly she would have rather babysat little M. Little M himself had been fed and bathed and was now sleeping peacefully in his Moses basket down by the oven in the warm. The Captain and Zoë had returned very late from their tryst with Monty and were, at least to River's eye, twisted drunk, yet clearly making every attempt to appear sober.
Jayne appeared to be sulking, probably because Mal and Zoë had met Monty without him. Hat looked beady eyed and cranky and was all but monosyllabic. The only happy people appeared to be Kaylee, Book and Wash, who was lapping up his wife's inebriated chatter and quietly laughing at the tensions around the table.
Kaylee glowed. She'd finished reassembling the gravity drive and was talking of starting on the oxygen generator tomorrow. Mal shook his head.
"Sorry to bring you up short, Little Kaylee, but we've got to get goin' tomorrow. Soon as 'Nara joins us, we're off out. Got a drop in Persephone in a week or so."
At that moment, as if on cue, Inara swanned gracefully into the galley and smiled at everyone. "Hello, all! I see I'm just in time to join supper."
Kaylee smiled at her, "good session, 'Nara?"
Inara smiled mysteriously, "very good, thank you, Kaylee. Its such a blessing to see old friends!" She reached for a plate and slipped in beside the Captain. "Did I just hear right, we're heading back to Persephone?" She raised a curious eyebrow at Mal, who nodded, his mouth full of food.
"We're goin' back to Persephone?" Jayne butted in, curious and finally cottoning on, "thought as how you'd piss yer panties at the though a goin' back there, Mal. Weren't there sommat about bein' powerful afraid a Badger and them folks?"
Mal glared, "right enough, Jayne, I am fair uneasy. If you'll recall we almost lost Kaylee and Zo last time. But, Jayne," he emphasised the mercenary's name and glared some more, "we go where the work is, *dong ma*. And if, Jayne," this time his voice was icy, "you don't like my style of leadership, you can find yerself another situation, get me? Preferably somewhere cold, without atmo and the sooner the better."
Jayne grumbled, "okay, Mal, no need to get tetchy! Was just sayin' as how seemed to me we wouldn't be headin' back to that moon any time soon, is all!"
Mal sighed, "Don't get me wrong, ain't through choice as we're goin'. But its gotta be done, gotta get this cargo shifted. Don't mean we ain't gonna take precautions. Serious, not trivial, precautions, mind!" He glanced round the table significantly.
Simon looked visibly defeated, "or to put it another way, 'River, Simon, say hello to Mr Bunk, you and he are gonna be fast friends by the time we leave Persephone'!"
Jayne sniggered, "oh yeah! Knew there had ta be an up side!"
Mal looked slightly smug, "actually no, Doc. We need you to help shift the cargo an' make sure all those doodads are still in workin' order when we've shifted them. But, yeah, you ain't wrong about one thing: River ain't puttin' either one a those dainty little feet on shore this trip." River narrowed her eyes at him petulantly, "and it ain't no good lookin' at me like you've got the gift of the voodoo curse, little miss," said Mal sternly, "won't do no good. We all know you can read the future, but I ain't heard nothing about no hoodoo practices, so give it up!" River shrugged indifferently, stuck out her tongue and returned to glaring viscously, dividing the force of her stares equally now between her brother and the Captain.
"So, now we got the immediate future," Mal went on, a swift smile and a nod to River as he mentioned the future, "all mapped out, would anyone mind if I finish this very fine meal my good woman has made me in some kinda peace?" He smiled down the table towards Hat, who looked implacably back. He sighed, "but I see as that ain't like to happen, so, Wash, once yer done, think you could set us on course sooner rather than later?"
"Consider it done." Wash smiled, kissing his lightly smiling wife gently and heading off from the table.
Mal gathered the rest of those seated at the table to him in a wide and slightly mischievous grin, "righty-ho then, there's some crime to be done and it won't wait forever! I say we head for Persephone and do a little sinnin'."
"I suggest you take some care there, Captain," Book returned his smile with just a hint of irony, "I'm tempted to point out that there's a good book I know that says "the wages of sin is death". You might have call to remember that!"
"Well, yeah, Preacher," Mal said lightly, "the pay ain't great, but it rates mighty high on job satisfaction." He flashed a swift beam, "and I wouldn't go quoting yer Bible verses at me again, Shepherd, unless you want me to hand yer book over to River and ask her to critique it for ya."
"So, you gonna tell me what's got ya all crotchety?" asked Mal as he climbed down the steps to their bunk, "or is it the sorta crotchety where I don't get to sleep in my own bunk, let alone speak to my wife?"
Hate turned round and glared. "Well, now let me see. I vaguely recall a certain Captain, one with whom I am sure you're fair familiar, a decent sort, but tends to forget his loved ones, who promised he'd spend the afternoon makin' sweet love to his wife, but who chose instead to go get hideously drunk with his first mate and an old war buddy. What could possibly be upsettin' me 'bout that?"
Mal rubbed a tired hand over his eyes, "*Gou shi*. Sorry, I forgot the ruttin' thing. But it was Monty, Hat. Hell, Zoë and I ain't had a good tongue wag with Monty in years!!"
Suddenly Hat laughed, which frankly shocked and terrified Mal more than her resentment had. Little M stirred in his basked and mewled gently at the sound. Hat moved over and laid a gentle hand on his head, tucking the blankets round the sleeping child more securely.
Then she turned to Mal still laughing, "sorry, lover, I just realised that that sounded not unlike a sordid domestic argument. I am not and gorram it, despite all scary evidence to the contrary, I will not become, anyone's housewife! Not even yours! *Wuh de tyen, ah*! I don't give a good gorram that you spent the afternoon getting hammered with Monty. I'm frankly glad you had a good time and I ain't got no notion why the hell I was aggrieved. We got all the time in the 'Verse to make out!"
Mal grinned rakishly at her, "We can call it a rain check if ya like an' I can make up for it right this instant."
"Hmm!" Hat smiled sweetly at him, "Lets see. baby's asleep, that won't last so we better make the most of the opportunities given us, the rest a the boat is quiet, my husband's hopefully sobered up a tad. yup, can't see any reason why the good gorram not!" She reached out and pulled the Captain down on to the bed.
Simon was exasperated. The Captain had looked in a while ago to let them know that they would be landing at those dingy docks on Persephone in under an hour and he only had a few minutes left to gather what final bits of precious data he could from his sister's head. But she was being way more recalcitrant even than usual. Dear lord! She was almost unmanageable. Refractory was one thing, but saying such things to Simon, let alone the foulness she'd directed at Mal, was down right insubordination. Plus, where in the 'Verse had she picked up that kind of language? She'd had a retired childhood and then been secluded in a military academy. Where did she hear people who swore like that? Or, worse, did she make these things up herself? Well, if she did, all the more reason to get a good look at the workings of her brain. If only she'd sit still.
River in her turn was angry. Angry with Simon her beloved brother and angry at the 'Verse in general. She loved Simon so much, but, more, she was happy with him just as he was. She couldn't see why he couldn't extend her the same courtesy. Of course he had his imperfections, little things that she would change in him if she could, but she didn't demand it of him. She was big enough to appreciate that those deficiencies were as much her problem as his. She accepted his flaws as the blemishes of an individual and didn't try to perfect him. But wasn't that exactly what he was trying to do to her?
OK, so she could see his argument that it was different with her, that the Alliance had made her this way, not nature. But, she wished she could articulate her feeling that this person, this thing that she had ended up becoming, was just another individual that her brother and the rest of Serenity would have to accept, metaphorical warts and all. No amount of probing and pushing, imaging and studying would change her. Whatever the government suits had done to her, she knew, somewhere deep within her psyche, it was irreversible. Why couldn't he just let it alone?
"Come on, *shiao mei mei*!" he was saying, "We haven't got much time! Just let me run a couple more sweeps? Please!"
"No, get off! *Bun tyen-shung duh ee-dway-ro*!" River batted at him with her hands frantically. Then suddenly she paused, absolutely still and looked at him, glassy eyed as a snake. Simon was so shocked by the sudden cessation of hostilities that he didn't avail himself of the opportunity to get her wired up. He just looked back at her, almost hypnotised.
"Simon." River's voice was cold and inexpressive. She spoke slowly as though the thought was only now beginning to dawn on her. "When did this stop being about my brain and start being about you?"
Simon stuttered, "about me? River, I don't know what."
River laughed a high, queer laugh, "You're more like him than you could ever imagine!"
"Like who, *mei mei*?" Simon was thoroughly confused.
"Like the Captain, dumb-ass! Always trying to fix what you can. Trying to hide from what you can't. It's a big world out there, little brother, you know? You can't mend it. But she's broken and you can fix her if you try hard enough. You can control and mend and fix and glue and stick and sew and order and neaten and restore."
"That's not. I don't." Simon's flailing attempts at explanation stopped and he sighed, pulling out one of the stools and sitting down wearily. "You may be right, River." He looked up earnestly, "but does that mean I shouldn't try?"
The Captain's voice crackled over the comm. "All hands to the cargo bay to unload *ma-shong* and, Doc, you better've packed up that gorram piece a highly expensive *luh-suh* by now!"
Simon groaned, "Well, its too late now, anyhow, isn't it?"
River looked at him seriously and broke into a loving smile. She felt guilty for reading his mind too easily. It was a nasty habit and likely to get her into all kinds of trouble. "Its never too late," she said comfortingly and hugged him.
The minute Serenity hit Persephone's atmo, Inara sped off, heading for another rendezvous. The rest of the crew were assembled in the cargo bay, loading up the mule and its trailer with cargo. River sat on the stairs, feeding Little M his milk and watching the familiar scene. It seemed everyone was going to make the drop. The more hands the merrier to unload and the quicker they'd be back. Plus the night would hide them a bit for suspicious glances. Not that anything short of rutting with a horse would be remarked upon on the streets of Eavesdown Docks and probably not even that.
Zoë ran up to Mal. "We're good to go, Sir. Whenever you are."
Mal nodded and turned to Hat. "'Kay. We'll be off then. Once we've gone keep the gorram door locked. No going out on little forays, no nothing, *dong ma*?"
Harriet smiled at Mal's worried face, "easy there, tiger. River, Little M and me've got a very pleasant evening planned. Ain't no ruttin' way I'm opening that door, not for all the gold in Londinium. You go do your thrillin' heroics and we'll see you in a few hours. Oh, and Mal, for gorram's sake stop mothering, will ya! Last time I looked that was my job."
Mal leant down and kissed her and the crew moved out. The cargo bay door swung shut behind them. The silence was suddenly very heavy. The soft sucking of the baby on his bottle could be heard very clearly. Hat turned to River. Despite her cheery words to the Captain, River could see some nerves beneath the surface.
"Come on, River," she said, wandering over and taking her son into her arms, "let's you and me and the critter go upstairs. I'll show you how to make *bao*."
River nodded, "just got to." She looked towards the passenger dorms.
Hat nodded, "Ok, I'll meet you upstairs." She headed up towards the galley, Little M still sucking away madly at his bottle.
River watched her go and then, silent as a ghost, glided over to the cargo bay door control pad and keyed in the sequence to unlock it. The door light glowed green for a moment and she heard the faint clicks as it unlocked. She'd promised herself she would protect Kaylee and her brother. Sometimes you had to help the future along a bit, give it a tweak in the right direction. Then she headed on up to the kitchen.
Hat and River stood facing each other. In front of each of them was a round ball of dough, laying on the floured surface of the big galley table. Harriet grinned impishly at River.
"Now comes the really good bit," she said. River looked at her blankly. "We have to knead the dough," Hat explained. "Remember how annoyed you were with that gorram stuffed shirt of a brother a yours, earlier?" River continued to look vacant. "Hey, don't think I don't see when yer miffed with Simon. I've got eyes!" smiled Hat. "Well, just think back to how irritated you were and take out all that there tension on this here dough. Don't worry," she added to River's wary face, "It'll bounce right back!"
River reached out delicately and pushed one finger slowly into her ball of dough. Then she withdrew it, the dough sticking slightly to her finger and extending with her as she withdrew. "Don't fight back." She whispered to the dough.
Hat looked at River with concern. Please don't have an episode while there ain't no one here but me and the babe, she thought. She glanced involuntary at her son, who, seated on the floor in the sofa area, surrounded by cushions, was playing contentedly with some small bits of shiny. "Well, no." she said cheerfully to River in an attempt to jolly her along, "it don't rightly fight back, but that's what makes it so much ruttin' fun." To demonstrate she gave her dough a flying punch, leaving the deep impression of her fist right at its centre.
River's deep brown eyes gazed at her serious and implacable over the table. "Don't fight back!" River hissed, this time directly at Hat.
Hat said "Well, OK then, I won't," which seemed to be the response River wanted. All of a sudden she brightened, the cloud lifted and she began to mould her dough into weird shapes whilst Hat kneaded her own. Her artwork seemed to please River and she smiled. Glancing up at Harriet she said, "Be back before you know it."
Harriet nodded agreement, "indeed they will. Shouldn't take them long to drop the stuff."
Rivers' forehead creased, and she shook her head, "not them" she stated. Hat sighed; there was clearly no getting sense out of River this evening. Frankly she was giving a box of frogs a run for their money in the mad stakes. She rolled her dough back into a ball. "Come on River, lets get this *bao* in the oven. Then we can play cards if ya like."
River nodded, "have to play the hand you get dealt," she said, as if in explanation. Hat breathed a sigh of relief. At least River's comments had turned the corner into the just vaguely creepifying.
Then just as suddenly as the silence had fallen earlier in the evening, the whole ship seemed to be full of noise. Hat turned from the table to see three downright unsightly men, a vast array of firepower strapped to their bodies, standing in the doorway of the galley that led up from the cargo bay. A glance at River and she saw some weird form of recognition pass slowly over the young woman's face. Hat had never had to try so hard not to look at a thing as she now, with every fibre of her being, tried not to look towards the comfortable area of the galley, where her son was sitting.
"*Ai ya*! What the *guay*." she began.
"'Scuse us, miss." One of the men said with mock gallantry, "we've just come for the girl there. If'n you let us take her, you and yer little one," he nodded towards the soft area and something fragile within Hat shivered with fear and threatened to break, "won't come to any harm. Come along, River. Lets not make this ugly," he said to the girl who was still staring from the other side of the table.
"*Ee-chee shung-hoo-shee*. You ain't takin' no one nowhere!" said Hat firmly.
The tallest of the three men, standing a little behind the others coughed delicately and muttered, "so we'll be taking someone somewhere then?"
His scabby looking colleague who had been the first to speak, turned to him, "huh, Walt?"
The tall man paused to polish his glasses on his sleeve and pointed out, "well, double negative, Bongo."
The smaller man sighed, "Oh, gorramit, just give the verbiage a rest will ya, Walt?" He turned back to Hat, clearly almost as annoyed by his own compatriot as by Hat.
Hat saw his slight distraction and decided to take advantage. As quickly as she could she reached for a knife, lying on the table. Her hand never even closed over it. Everything seemed to happen very fast and very slowly at the same time. River screamed and yelled almost incomprehensibly, "don't fight back!" and Hat found herself flying through the air of the kitchen, having been picked up and flung by third of the three men. She hit the far wall and units awkwardly and fell to the floor with a sickening smack.
She must have lost consciousness for a few moments because when she pulled herself together and looked around, River and the men were gone and her baby was crying for her from across the room.
Hat picked herself up painfully from the floor where she'd been thrown by the River-stealers and limped over to her son. She felt like she'd been run over by a gorram spaceship. She could feel blood running down her face from where she'd hit the wall and her left leg was too painful to put any kind of weight on. As soon as she picked him up, Little M stopped screaming and began straining and wriggling dramatically, gazing pathetically towards the empty doorway through which River had presumably left. Hat appreciated that he'd bonded closely with River, after all she looked after him a lot of the time, but Hat was so not in the mood.
"Oh, stop being a drama queen, Malcolm!" she snapped irritably, and firmly moved her son to her hip, containing his mad squirming, "we'll get her back. I'll tell you not for nothing though, but yer pappy's gonna be mighty aggrieved at this turn of events." She sighed heavily and headed for the cockpit, dragging herself weakly up the steps. "Yer see," she went on to her son, who to be frank, clearly didn't, he was no longer really following the conversation, but rather gazing in rapture at the array of tiny lights on the control panel, "time has become somewhat of an issue." Hat felt like trying to talk her worries out and in the absence of an adult, Little M would have to do. She tried to catch her baby's eye and failed dismally. How could she compete with shiny things? "We gotta find River fast. Before she gets moved too far away. So lets you and me see if we can't contact daddy, shall we?"
She flicked several switches, hoping that Mal had taken a communicator with him. From the static she got in reply, she guessed he hadn't. She tried to calm herself; it was really no use getting hysterical. Logical thought and planning were required, but it was hard when you were trying to contend with no small amount of pain at the same ruttin' time. At least Little M, mesmerised by the lights, had settled. She would have gone to put him down, it was time for his bed anyhow and then have headed to the cargo bay to await the returnees, but her body was telling her that she'd been thrown at a wall pretty gorram hard and she seemed to have seized up somehow. So she stayed seated in the pilot's chair, her baby snuggled against her and waited for the sound of the returning crew.
The first prescience of trouble came when Zoë and Wash found the cargo-bay door ajar. The troop was strung out in their return journey, Zoë and Wash in the lead, followed by Book and Jayne arguing over some joke told awry, Kaylee and Simon walking hand in hand in companionable silence and Mal, bringing up the rear. Wash was going back for the mule tomorrow, since, having stopped at a bar on the way back, he was adjudged incapable of driving with sufficient accuracy to protect both the mule and other innocent road users. One of the others could certainly have driven it back, but Wash was in that difficult stage of drunkenness where he was offering to fight anyone who took his place at the wheel of his shiny toy. The crew had decided not to make an issue of it. Zoë called back to Mal in the darkness.
"Cap, there's something ain't right here."
"Hunh?" Mal strolled up. It had been a very pleasant night, all things considered. Monty's pal had been a reasonable chap, the bar had been clean and the alcohol tasty, no fights had been instigated by any member of his crew, indeed, there'd been no hitches of any kind. Mal ground his teeth in the darkness. Just once, just this one time, he'd thought everything had gone smooth.
"This is how we found it, Sir." Zoë stated, gesturing to the partially open door. Mal nodded grimly. He drew his gun and the others, those that had them, followed suit.
"Lets take this real careful." With that he pushed open the door to its full extent with one fluid movement and ducked back behind the shelter of the wall. The volley of gunfire he'd been expecting was not forthcoming. In fact nothing at all happened.
"Well that's what I call an anticlimax," growled Jayne dryly from the rear.
Mal threw him a look of resigned acknowledgement coupled with annoyance and they all stepped, still wary, into the cargo bay. Still nothing at all happened. The silence was total, but now it had, to Mal's mind, an eerie, empty quality to it.
"River, RIVER!" Simon was running towards the passenger rooms with Kaylee following behind him, saying nervously, "Simon, wait."
Mal meanwhile was taking the steps towards the galley two at a time, mutely, too terrified to speak, with Zoë and Wash, Jayne and Book fast on his heels.
The galley too was silent. Too cold and congealing lumps of dough sat like toads on the table surrounded by lily pads of flour. Anxious as he was, Mal still couldn't resist smile and the thought that his wife had been teaching River to make *bao*; not really the first of the life skills River would need to learn. On closer inspection several pots and pans had been knocked off the units and there was a disturbing smudge of something which had dried, brown and flaky, on the far wall.
Simon came through the far door, mute and white, Kaylee followed him shaking her hands, "nothing downstairs," she said in an aside to Zoë who nodded. Mal scanned the room wordlessly. Simon touched the stain on the wall and looked up with newfound terror in his eyes as he gazed aghast at Mal. He said one word, "blood" in to the stillness.
Zoë looked at Wash, who said in response, "I'll check the bridge," and headed in that direction, followed by the others, who, in subdued and forlorn fashion, were checking the crew's bunks. It was clear what everyone thought they'd find. Hope was giving way to despair.
"Mal!" Wash's urgent tone brought Mal running frantically up the stairs to the cockpit, followed by Simon. Wash was standing at the head of the stairs looking in confusion at the scene within. Hat was curled in the pilot's chair, her contentedly sleeping baby in her arms. She would have appeared peacefully asleep too had it not been for the fact that one eye was swollen shut and purple and that same side of her face was one livid, blood encrusted graze.
Hat was having vivid, very scary dreams in which she saw strange men holding Little M just out of her reach. Then she felt something shaking her gently.
"Hey," she came to to find herself surrounded by a sea of worried faces, all staring intently at her. Feeling slightly dizzy and sick, she made out the face of her husband.
"They took River." She knew this was the most important piece of information to convey, but she was surprised at the whispery quality of her voice. She coughed and tired again. "They took River." This time her voice was stronger. She swallowed painfully and tired to pull herself up.
"Here," Zoë reached out and took the sleeping child from her arms. Part of Hat wanted to snatch him right back and let no one else hold him, ever again probably, but the rest of her knew she was being stupid. Her eyes kept returning to Mal although she knew she should be more concerned with Simon. He looked relieved and upset at the same time, an odd look, she thought in passing. He reached down to gently touch her cheek, a look of sympathy and pain passing across his face. Hat felt still queasier and closed her eyes against the pain.
Wash, from behind Zoë said, "there's no one else on Serenity, Mal." They all understood his full meaning. River was gone.
It was then that Simon showed his true colours, that noble nature that could really be called a calling. He knelt down next to Harriet and felt her pulse, examined her bruises and looked at Mal. He swallowed down his fear and said, as calmly and professionally as he could, "we can't do anything about River right now, our priority is Harriet. I need her in the infirmary now. Can you carry her?"
Through a haze Hat heard Simon speak, but, when her husband bent to cradle her in his arms, she blacked out.
The crew were gathered in the infirmary. Hat lay silent on the bed as Simon fussed around her connecting wires and joining in the conversation as he worked.
"So we know River was taken by someone," began Mal.
"Which ain't a whole heap ta go on, to my mind" put in Jayne, with more honesty than tact.
"Yes, but it means she didn't just run off of her own accord." Explained Zoë looking patient, but sounding exasperated.
Simon looked seriously at Mal, "if they've got her, they'll come back for me. I can't really see why they didn't just kill Hat either. Its not their MO - we saw that on Ariel, they kill everyone, hell, they seem to enjoy it."
Mal nodded, and smiled wryly, tight lipped, "Hat's still alive 'cos it ain't "them" that's got River. Its some *hwoon dahn* as has seen the warrant for yer arrest and thinks to make a profit of'f you."
Zoë looked ruthless, "then we just gotta figure out who it is and make 'em re-think the idea, violently."
Simon looked up, "good idea. I think I'm just about ready for a little violence."
The Captain met his eyes, "I think we'd all agree with that right now." He said with quiet resolve, glancing down at his wife.
Hat stirred and groaned softly. Kaylee stepped up to her to stroke her arm. She had Little M on her hip. "She's gonna be ok ain't she?" She looked pleadingly at Simon who nodded.
"She's going to be fine. She's got a few cracked ribs, a fractured leg and more than a little bruising. She shouldn't be going anywhere for a while, but she's ok."
Mal looked on, unemotional and businesslike. Looking at him now no one, he thought, would know how terrified he'd been. "Good. Well, there ain't a lot we can do about River till Hat gives us more details. When's she like to come round, Doc?"
"Oh, a few hours yet."
"Right then. Meantime, Zoë, you and me'll take a pass around the docks, see if we can't dig up some info as to our missing babe. Jayne, Wash, you two go yersleves have a poke around. Preacher, Kaylee stay here, see if you can't help the doc out and for gorram's sake someone look after my son."
The crew headed out to their appointed tasks, but the Captain seemed loath to take his own advice. He lingered by Hat's bedside following her injuries with his eyes. Simon laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Mal," his gentle touch was belied by the coldness in his voice, "I'll look after her. She'll be fine. Now, for pities sake go find my sister."
Mal nodded and sighed heavily. Hat's eyelids fluttered and, without opening them she muttered, "get goin' already, Malcolm." Mal bent and kissed her tenderly on the side of her face that was unbruised and headed out.
River felt the blindfold, which had been around her eyes since they left Serenity, being pulled roughly off. The blindfold hadn't mattered much. She was still pretty sure she knew exactly where she was in relation to Eavesdown Docks and Serenity. It took way more than a flimsy bit of fabric to confound her sense of direction. They were somewhere a ways to the east of the docks. If her olfactory senses were anything to go by, they'd left the general trading area of the docks and come to an area that specialised in one trade alone.
She was thrown roughly forward so that, with her hands still tied behind her, she couldn't stop herself from falling painfully onto her knees. After the dark of the blindfold and the streets, the light was very bright and she needed a few moments to adjust.
"Easy," a voice said behind her, she thought it was Bongo, "the chief said as not to spoil 'er."
A door banged behind her and River sensed she was alone. She scrambled to her feet. She was in a totally blank room, with just a window high up on one side, a cot and a chair. A few seconds more and the same door opened.
Hands reached out and swivelled her round to face the entrant. River looked at him steadily. She said nothing. In truth, not because she was surprised, she'd already guessed who was behind the kidnap, but because she couldn't think of anything useful to say and her natural state was silence.
"Well, well, if it ain't the little lassie as don't come from Dyton, but can call a good accent when she needs ta."
Zoë and Mal rounded yet another dark and ugly corner of the Docks. A sharp breeze was blowing and various pungent smells were attacking their nostrils with the ferocity of war. Zoë grimaced.
"Is it me or we got ourselves a bit of a mare's nest, Sir. Walkin' round in the dark, lookin' for we ain't rightly sure what, we ain't rightly sure where. Didn't like to say in front of the Doc, but it's like lookin' for a cry-baby in a meteor shower. How the hell we supposed to find her?"
"I ain't too sure my own self, Zoë." Mal conceded, "but we sure as *guay* gotta find her and sooner rather than later. We don't find her soon, whoever's got her 'll move her and we'll have a coreman's chance in reaver country a findin' her. Gorram it!" Something wet, whipped up by the wind, smacked Mal in the face, "what the *tyen shiao duh* was that? Looks to be gettin' a mite blowy, dontcha think?"
Zoë wrinkled her nose at the sky. The stars were nowhere to be seen, covered by thick boiling clouds. "There's a storm comin' in. Don't much like the look of it." Rain began to spatter around them.
"*Ta ma duh*." Mal hunched over, trying to make himself less of a target for the thick drops and failing miserably. "Well, we ain't got much choice. Looked to me like that kid in there is near as gorramit to blowin' a gasket. We'd better see if we can find his sister fore he does."
Wash and Jayne were getting wet. Very wet. And that squelchy feeling all over wasn't exactly helping their tempers.
"Don't see as how the Cap has call to make us sling around lookin' for that moon brain of a fugie. I say we take one more turn about the garment quarter and head back. Say we couldn't find nothin'. It'd only be the truth." Jayne grumbled.
"OK," Wash agreed, "but you go first, I'll be right behind ya, several miles to be exact. Seems to me, tellin' the Captain we searched hard as you like an' couldn't find nothin'- well, that I'm all up for. Tellin' him we just couldn't be so much as arsed, not so much."
"How's about you don't go at all," Jayne growled. "Hell, I could put ya out a this misery right now if yer willin'. Wanna go, little man?"
Wash grinned, shaking his wet head, "only if it's some place nice with, you know, say a roof and possibly drinks with umbrellas in 'em, not for show, you understand, but real umbrellas? - keep the rain off. what was that?" He said nervously, as they rounded a corner in the gloom.
Jayne's hand was a blur as one of his many hidden knives swept out. A vaguely mammalian squeal sounded in the black. Jayne searched the ground and lifted up his knife, something furry impaled on its end, "rat." Jayne brandished the dead animal-on-a-stick in Wash's direction. "There's good meat on one a these, you stew it right. Shame Hat's laid up."
Wash made an appalled face, "ugh! Just when I think you can't get more disgusting, you surprise me all over again!"
"Hey!" Jayne was indignant, "my mammy always said, 'waste not want not'. Not all of us had a privledged upbringing same as some I could mention, on a factory planet and all. Ain't no call to go give yerself airs!"
"I'm beginning to wonder whether you were brought up by humans at all. Sure you weren't left in a jungle as a baby, raised by apes or some such?"
"*Wei*! You better not be callin' my mammy a monkey, little man, or this rat won't be the only thin' sayin' a cheery hello to my blade and a fond farewell to its livin'."
Wash began to back away, but then, seeing he had a good lead, said cheekily, "your ma, particularly hairy, is she?"
"Gorram it, *Meh, tah mah duh hwoon dahn*!" Jayne lunged at Wash who dodged neatly and began to hare round the corner, where he ran slap bang into his wife who, looking at him questioningly and seeing Jayne barrel round the corner after him, took him firmly by the collar and held him out of Jayne's reach. Mal, coming swiftly up behind her, tackled Jayne.
"Gorram it, Mal. Let me get at 'im. I gotta teach him a thing or two about disprespectin' my family."
"Hey, it was just a joke!" Wash said plaintively.
"*Bee-jway* the two of you!" Mal was in no mood for this. "Now I ain't in no mood for the two a you to be goin' at each other tonight. We find River, hell, I'll happily put you in a locked room myself, let ya fight it out once and fer all, but right now, I see either of you say or do one thing as winds the other up - just one thing - I'm gonna do the other's work for him, *dong ma*?"
Wash appealed to his wife, "Zoë, I was just messin' with the monkey-man."
Zoë looked angry, "Caps right, Wash, this here's no time for play. Now act like a grown up for a minute or two, would ya?"
Wash looked hurt and opened his mouth to disagree some more. Mal felt it was high time to close the matter and take things in hand. "Well," he sighed, "ain't lookin' like we can do a whole heap more tonight, 'specially not with this storm gettin' up. Let's head back to the ship see if Hat can give us a lead."
As he spoke, a piece of corrugated iron detached itself from a near by lean-to and bowled down the street towards them. The whole group reacted at once. Wash gave a yelp and leapt to one side, but not fast enough. The iron sheet gave him a glancing blow to his forearm, drawing blood, before careering on down the street. Mal glared at him, "and I'd take it as a kindness if the rest a my crew could refrain from gettin' injured, at least for what remains of the gorram night."
"Here." Zoë pulled out a handkerchief and, having mopped up the blood, tied it round the cut in a makeshift, but efficient, tourniquet. Her face was serious, but her gentle hands gave Wash the distinct impression that he'd been, at least in part, forgiven. Their eyes met and he grinned sheepishly. Zoë returned his grin with the slightest of smiles.
As they retraced their steps back towards the ship, Jayne chuckled to himself. Mal raised an enquiring eyebrow and Jayne sniggered. "Now that's what I call instant karma," he said. Mal looked at him steadily for a moment, stony faced and then strode on into the lead, only allowing himself a smile once his back was turned.
Hat came to. She felt warm and fairly comfy. Without opening her eyes she knew she was in the infirmary. She could smell disinfectant and the slightest hint of Simon's tangy aftershave and Kaylee's delicate and feminine scent. She took a mental inventory of her injuries. She couldn't feel her left leg at all and her chest hurt.
She opened her eyes and tried to shift herself up on the infirmary couch. Her ribs protested the effort.
"*Tee wuh duh pee-goo*!" Her effective swearing brought Simon to her side. She grimaced at him, "do we think there's some reason why it's always me as gets my ribs stove in?" Hat asked, "at least I'm guessing that's the way of it?" She raised her eyes to Simon questioningly. He nodded.
"Seems that way. If your self-diagnosis gets much better I'm going to find myself out of a job." He smiled and then seemed to regret his levity. His smile faded to sad contrition, which Hat shared.
"I'm so sorry, Simon," she whispered. "I tried to stop them, but I just couldn't. I was pretty pathetic really .I let them see my weak side, let them see I was worried for Little M .worst mistake I could have made." she trailed off.
Simon looked at her seriously, "I don't' see how you could have done better."
"I'm sorry, this ain't yer problem either, you don't need me soul searchin', but I shoulda been able to do something."
"Something like getting' yerself killed 'stead of just immobilised, ya mean?" said an irritated voice from the doorway. Mal strode in and came up to the bedside. "We'll get River back, I swear it, one way or another. But, next time, think you could give some thought to the rest of us fore you go doin' yer big damn hero act? What gorram itty bit a good would it a done River, if they'd shot you stone dead? They'd a still taken her . and I thought I told you to lock that door." Now he could see his wife was looking a bit better, the remembered fear of losing her made him crotchety.
Hat glared, "you would a done much the same, Malcolm Reynolds, let me tell you, and I did lock that ruttin' door!"
"I'd a done a darn sight better 'cos I'm a large muscular man as can shoot straight. Yer nothin' but a slip of a girl and I'll thank you to remember that."
"*Hoe-tze duh pee-goo*!" Hat's eyes flashed dangerously and she pulled herself up to sitting, holding her rebellious ribs. As she did so, her face changed, "*Gao yang jong duh goo yang*!!" She doubled over in pain, swearing with consistent dreadfulness. "What the ruttin' hell have I done to my leg?"
"Smashed it in about 3 different places," Mal said unrepentantly. Hat looked at Simon for confirmation, who nodded. "So you ain't goin' anywhere for a bit. Might give you time to consider what would've happened if they'd a killed you. Now I'm goin' to check on our son."
He stormed from the room, a vengeful Hat glaring at his back. She turned in appeal to Simon who, backing away, reached a carton of pills from the counter and fair lobbed them at her.
"Hey, don't get me involved, I've got a lost sister to worry over. Take a couple of these and try and get some more sleep." So saying he headed for the door.
Hat, unable to move and therefore unable to continue to fight with anyone, ground her teeth. Yes, Mal had been unreasonable and well nigh unforgivable, but she could see why. She had behaved pretty gorram stupidly. She wondered how her baby was. Perhaps someone would bring him to see her? Next person across the threshold was so gonna get it. But seemed everyone had heard the row with Mal, because no one came near the infirmary. After 10 minutes her leg began to ache. She took the pills and fell into a deep sleep.
River knew she needed to humour him, play along just long enough to make him think he didn't need Simon. Make him think he'd got enough by just having her. Make him think she alone was valuable. She had to protect them. She smiled in a way, which, she felt, echoed Inara at her loveliest. It felt odd. Feeling the muscles of her mouth contract and the corners move up. It was hard, with all those emotions bombarding her, to ape an emotion she didn't herself feel, but she had to do it for Simon and for Kaylee.
"I remember you too." She said into the stillness. Her words sounded like notes in some complicated piece she felt ill equipped to play. But she knew, the more notes she sounded, the more confident of her instrument she would become. "And thanks."
"Thanks?" Badger was incredulous, "I kidnapped you, little miss. Ain't no gorram reason to thank me."
"I was looking for a reason to leave, you helped out," River said airily, almost off hand. She had to play this just right.
"Well I sure as hell didn't do it fer you. There's a pretty packet to be made sellin' you to the right bidder. A fair tidy sum and no mistake."
"Money is there? Well, how about I help you out and you give me a cut of the cash."
"Now why in the 'Verse should I bother with that?" Badger asked, raising his eyes to the heavens in an I-ask-you gesture. "When I got you all trussied up nice as a gorram Christmas turkey."
River smiled to herself. Now for the piece de resistance. "A very good question." She replied calmly. As she spoke she brought her hands, which a moment ago had been bound behind her, around in front and waived them delicately in the air. In one hand she held a gun, which Walt could have sworn was in his belt but a moment ago. She cocked it at Badger almost playfully.
"Son of a bitch!" Badger was impressed. "How much cash 'r we talkin'?"
Things had been going so well, but now all of a sudden River felt something. Small at first like the earliest signs of spring. A cracking and breaking like a huge polar iceberg breaking off from its fellows in a great melt, leaving a ghastly and hollow gap full if emptiness where it had been and toppling forward into the snow flood. A snapping like a tree struck by lighting, a ripping across its grain and a fire flaming in the darkness. She swallowed, trying to gather herself, get her bearings. Everything swum around her; Badger, Bongo and Walt. She gasped, fighting for breath as though submerged in icy waters, "Simon" she gasped through her pain.
On leaving Hat to stew and hopefully regain her equilibrium, Simon intended to go regroup himself somewhat in his quarters. The strain of River's loss seemed to be affecting them all. The Captain was like a bear with a sore head, looking for someone to rip apart, though Simon figured that was more to do with something or someone, over whom Mal had no control, threatening his cubs. It hadn't taken Simon awfully long to realise that the one thing the Captain never handled well was impotence, metaphorical, of course. Any question Simon might have about the actual was one of those conversations he made a vivid mental note never to have with either the Captain or his wife.
He'd spoken to Zoë when they returned. At least she was fairly normal, though she looked strained and tired. Wash and Jayne were both spitting. Obviously their pairing had come, if not to blows, to angry words. Simon had figured Mal wasn't entirely concentrating on the job when he'd suggested that twosome.
One look at Wash told Simon his job in the infirmary was in no way over. He'd cleaned the wound on Wash's arm, given the grouchy and somewhat pathetic pilot a tetanus shot and sent him for a lie down with the ol' "you lost a lot of blood" routine. Not so much for Wash's sake, who Simon's practised emergency medicine eye had quickly assessed as more hypocondrial than really hurt, but so Simon could get some blessed peace. He needed to gather his thoughts, to try and suppress the immense swell of terror he felt virtually bubbling in his throat like so much bile.
Simon, in his many years in medicine, had heard often of mother-love and the desperate acts it could lead a woman to. Is this what it feels like? He thought. A boiling and pulsing in your head, making your senses swim and your eyes see stars. If this was what Hat felt for Little M, it was no wonder she had tried so desperately to protect him at the expense even of his own sister. In fact, he now wondered how she ever managed to get anything done, to think clearly above the resounding din, the rushing of horrified blood in one's ears. He found it so hard to concentrate when all at once his mind was screaming for his sister, a keening dirge for his loss, when it should be planning on how to get her back.
He was supposed to be a genius, top 3%, but now he could think of nothing but River's face when she had first jumped screaming and distressed from the cryo-chamber. Why, he wondered, was he fixating on something that had happened so many years ago? Perhaps because it was then that deep down, somewhere warm and fuzzy that he dared to call his heart, he had thought for the first time that she might be free, that he might be able to protect her, that they might just be safe. It had all been an illusion, sure, but it had been nice all the same. Now she was gone and he was going to get her back or die trying, if only his head would stop singing in grief and fright.
He exited the infirmary hurriedly; only just managing to refrain from grasping his hair in both hands like a madman, and headed for his room. And he ran, quite literally, slap-bang in to Kaylee who had been hovering outside the infirmary, quietly, waiting to comfort him.
"Simon," Kaylee's voice was slightly twittery, like a timid bird. He imagined that she didn't quite know what to say or how to treat him in his time of crisis and that thought irritated him. For the first time a prescience that he was about to be mean himself, as he had just seen the Captain be, sprang into his mind and he was powerless to stop it. "Are you OK? I can't imagine what you're going through."
Simon sighed heavily, "I fine Kaylee. Just superb. 'Course my sister's been kidnapped, is probably dead or worse, but me? I happy as can possibly be." His bitterness was palpable.
"Simon," Kaylee lay a comforting hand on his arm, "I'm so sorry, but you've got to remember, River 'll be OK. They won't want to hurt her, she's valuable."
He shook off her hand almost viscously and a look of hurt sprang across Kaylee's dear features. "Good point. Thanks. 'Cos they didn't hurt her last time. They didn't twist her brain and experiment on her, make her almost unrecognisable as the sunny sister I once had. You think maybe this time they'll turn her back? Make her less of a mind-reading freak, more of a stay-at-home sort?"
"Simon, don't you ever call her that. It's River. Your sister!"
"Yes, MY sister! So don't you dare to presume to tell me what I can or can't call her. You're right. You are unutterably clueless as to how I feel. There is simply no way you can understand. And, frankly, that's a bonus for you. I have no mother, no father. They left me to bear this burden, and believe me it is a burden - you think I like playing nursemaid on the run? - All on my own. And now they've taken my sister too. The only thing I had left and they've taken it away!"
"The only thing?" Kaylee's voice was querulous.
Simon really felt like hurting someone right now, and who better than Kaylee. "The only thing." He repeated doggedly.
"I'm sorry, Simon. I may not have lost my family, but I can understand how it feels, I really can. I love River too." She clutched his arm in an effort to make him see. "I can understand because it's hurting the person I love and I feel like I'm losing him."
"Maybe you never had him," Simon said cruelly. Kaylee's face all but dissolved, but, though her bottom lip wobbled, she held herself defiantly together.
"I know you love me, Simon Tam, I know it and I know why you're doing this."
"Perhaps I'm just too damaged, too tired from being on the run, from trying to help River, to care about anyone," he said. His voice was filled suddenly with exhaustion and remorse. "I'm just so tired. I don't think I have it in me to love anyone anymore. I'm sorry." His voice was flat and expressionless. Kaylee burst into tears and turning swiftly, ran up the stairs towards the engine room.
Simon sighed once more and headed for his own room. He didn't cry until he'd shut the door and locked it.
River felt the bond holding Kaylee and Simon together snap like a dead twig. It was just too easy. She thought they'd been stronger than that, like a sapling that bends in high winds, not a dry and withered branch, one puff and it sheers of, splits in two and dies. But so it was and all her efforts to protect them had gone for nothing. She had no one to protect now but herself. To think, she had allowed herself to be taken, allowed Hat to be hurt, allowed it all, only to protect those two people she loved and the love that bound them together. Yet, somehow, without her even being there, they had managed to demolish themselves, knock down the carefully erected walls of their kingdom and rape and pillage each other with abandon. She would have been quite angry, if she hadn't had bigger things to worry on.
The feeling of desolation as Simon and Kaylee split apart had felled her, given her such an overwhelming nausea that for a few minutes she felt she couldn't breathe and she felt that she might die. Badger and his minions had fluttered around her, worried that in an instant their big pay day might dissolve and they'd be left with the dead body of a young woman to dispose of. But now she was better. She swallowed down her sorrow for her brother and she pulled herself tight. At least this made her path clearer, straighter. She had no one to worry about now but her, no divided loyalties. For a moment she felt almost sorry for Badger, but her resolve hardened and she felt no further remorse.
Kaylee, her head in Inara's lap, sobbed distractedly. Inara gently soothed her back and murmured words of comfort, though she knew she had none to give.
"Give him time, honey. He's going through so much . I'm sure he didn't mean it."
Kaylee looked up, wiping streaks of mascara and engine oil across her face. She looked at Inara, a fierce look. "He did mean it, 'Nara, he meant every word. Oh, you should have seen his face. It was like someone I ain't never seen before. It was the real Simon."
"No, dearest, it wasn't. Please don't upset yourself so much. Try to look at it from his perspective. He's lost everyone he has ever cared about. Why open himself up to it all over again? He doesn't trust himself to hang on to you, so it's better if he gets rid of you now, gives himself time to get over it."
Kaylee smiled wanly. "They teach you psycholo-thingy at the academy?"
Inara smiled, "Something like that." She stroked Kaylee's cheek softly. "Oh my poor, sweet, in-love Kaylee. How about we fix your hair and wash your face a little?"
Kaylee nodded, "'s like bein' a baby for a bit. 'S nice." She sighed, "all the same, don't really matter why he's done it, do it, 'Nara? When all's said and done, he's succeeded ain't he? He's gorram lost me."
Mal sat at the galley table, a large bottle of Kaylee's inter-engine fermented wine in front of him. He seemed to have downed a good three-quarters of the jar but still couldn't feel it.
Book wandered in. With Hat laid up, he'd figured on preparing the evening's meal, but most of the crew seemed to have gone to ground. Wash and Zoë's bunk door was firmly closed; Jayne was nowhere to be seen; he'd seen Kaylee knocking tearfully on Inara's door; and now, here was the Captain, clearly on a mission and taking on prisoners.
"Is this a private wake or a can anyone join in?" he asked.
"Pull up a chair, Preacher." Mal waived expansively round the table. "Don't see no one else takin' up space. Seems I ain't everyone's favourite person this evening."
"I was thinking of making supper, but I get the feeling there's not many as are in the mood. Maybe it's advisable to stick to liquid refreshment. Just a little, mind. I hope you're not planning on getting me drunk, Captain."
"Nah, just myself thanks, Shepherd. But no preachin' any one o your sermons at me. I ain't rightly in the mood fer religiosity."
"I couldn't help but hear," said Book, pulling up a chair and pouring himself a smallish glass of wine, "my room, as you know, being very near the infirmary, that you and Hat seemed to be having a little disagreement."
Mal glared at him, but then relaxed visibly and sighed. "Just ain't that keen on her enthusiasm for puttin' herself in the way of danger, is all. She's got to learn a little protective fear."
"Is that what you really want? A wife that runs and hides at the first sign of danger?" Mal studied his glass hard. "Seems to me," Book went on, "though I'm not that experienced in relationships, that you liked that about her. I remember the awful rows you two used to have, 'fore you got together. Most always caused by Hat standing up for herself and refusing to back down. But you seemed to thrive on it."
Mal smiled wryly to himself, remembering Hat, "that may be so, Preacher, but she's got responsibilities now, her family, Little M."
"So have you, don't recall seein' that stop you get into all manner of scrapes."
"True enough," Mal nodded.
"Seems to me," carried on Book and Mal sighed audibly, recognising the sting in the Shepherd's peroration was just around the corner, "this is about you, not Harriet. Time and again you come up against something you can't control, something that makes you feel powerless, you catch sight of the things you love being taken away and you throw your toys from the pram. And you take out your fear and your impotence on the your loved ones."
"Hey, who said anything about impotence? You got no call to go usin' that word." Mal's voice had risen and he pushed back from the table.
"Metaphorical, I believe, Captain. That's what you meant right?" Book nodded at the interloper. A haggard looking Simon had wandered into the mess and now headed for the table and the wine. "Is that alcohol? You don't mind if I join you, do you?" the others waived him on. "Because I'm in serious need of a great deal of alcohol."
Mal looked at him sympathetically as he drew up a chair, "thank god for Kaylee's inter-engine fermentation system, is all I gotta say."
Simon, in the process of pouring himself a glass of the young, full-bodied little number, groaned heavily, his hand shook and the wine flooded over the table. He murmured, "Kaylee!"
"Am I let to guess that like all the other doomed parings on this ship at the moment, your love life is undergoin' some rockiness?" asked Mal.
Simon nodded, "I didn't realise how fragile we were, but I honest to god think I broke us."
Book looked at him understandingly and passed over his own glass, "here son, I think you need this more than me."
Wash and Zoë's room was suffused by a soft pinkish light. Wash lay, if anything whiter than normal, face down on their bed, propping himself up on his elbows and dabbing with his one useful hand at a cooing Little M. Zoë busied herself with wiping the day's grime off her face and preparing for bed.
"We like to watch Aunt Zoë gettin' ready for bed, don't we kiddo?" Wash smiled down at the baby. "You should be very jealous. You get older, yer aunt isn't gonna let you watch no more, but me, I 'm gonna get this floor show every night till I'm old and grey and probably can't stand it anymore."
"Most nights," Zoë corrected, "depending on whether I like you or not. Plus I'm thinking, you get older, I might see about findin' me a younger model." She grinned. "Maybe Little M 'll have some nice friends."
Wash stuck out his tongue and Little M giggled and tried to pull on it. "That's disgusting! Thought you liked something with a few miles on it anyhow. Means I've got more driving history, more quirks and, dare I say, road experience. Though if you continue to get ready for bed like that," he gestured at her as she slowly peeled her clothing off item by item, "I'm like to have a heart attack at seventy and you can choose yerslef any other man yer like, after I'm gone. I give you my leave." He waived expansively, impressed by his own generosity.
"You can laugh all you want, honey," Zoë said mockingly. "Don't make it any the less true. Here, put the critter's baby-grow on him fore he dies a cold." She threw a pale blue baby-grow at them. It landed across Wash's head and Little M sniggered. Zoë smiled fondly at them both as Wash struggled to insert arm "a" into armhole "b".
"Hey mite, this'd go a lot quicker if you stopped with the squirming for an bit. Hey no bose grapping.." Wash said indistinctly as Little M latched on with one determined hand. "Zo, a libble help, a libble love?"
Zoë leaned in and unfastened the child's hand. Then she kissed one rosy cheek of each baby on the bed. Wash looked up at her. "This is nice, isn't it?" he said softly. She looked back at him inquiringly, "you, me, the babe," he went on, "gettin' ready for bed in our own cosy little nest."
"Yes, it is." She said quietly, looking lingeringly and lovingly at the twosome, "yes it is."
No one slept well on Serenity that night, save possibly for her youngest inhabitant. Zoë and Wash may not have slept soundly, mostly because Wash kept waking up to check that Little M was still breathing and in the process was forced to nudge Zoë awake for her input, but they were probably the happiest sleepers.
Kaylee finally slept miserably curled up on Inara's bed; Inara stretched patiently beside her, used to sharing her bed with another. Simon, miserable on every front, worried to death over River and convinced of his damnation for irredeemably ruining the only real relationship he'd ever had other than with his family, slept fitfully at best; waking up with that sick feeling in the pit of his stomach before forcing himself back into a light sleep.
The Preacher was more worried than he'd like to admit about River's loss. He realised that, if she remained unfound, the moods of the crew were only likely to sour and their relationships fracture the more. His concern was that they not break down completely. He stayed up late to read and pray for her safe return.
Jayne was more affected than he'd like to admit by the bad feeling on the ship and took himself off early to his bunk, to clean Vera and look at porn. But the "readers' prairie harpies" didn't fill him with his usual enthusiasm, though their bodies were as pleasing as always. He couldn't pull his mind from the image of a tearful Kaylee he'd seen running along the catwalk. He'd a good mind to go see that *hwoon dahn* doctor and teach him a thing or two about disrespectin' women, but he reckoned the doc was on his last thread of sanity and distrusted what would happen were he to snap. Most like Mal would find some way to blame it all on Jayne. So he holed himself up in his bunk and vainly tired to keep his mind on the job in hand.
And the Captain? Mal had drunk enough to fell an ox and yet all he felt was restless and unsettled. He wandered the ship alone as he did most nights, checking the doors were locked and listening to the storm, now at its height, as it screamed around the metal hull of Serenity. He was used to the night and to silence; used to being alone to think; keeping watch on his charges through the long hours of darkness as he had always done both in the army and as Captain. But he no longer felt happy in his isolation. He wondered whether he should go wake Wash and Zoë, ask to check on Little M, but they'd think he was *fong luh* and not a little overly protective. This, he realised, was the first night in many a long while that he hadn't slept with Harriet. The thought did not comfort him. But for a quirk of fate, a choice of violent force over violent weapon, he might never be sharing a bed with Harriet again. He felt so suddenly trapped and so afraid. How had it come to this so quickly?
He had always cared for his crew, looked out for them, would have been devastated if anything had happened to any one of them, but he'd never been so gorram terrified in all his life up to this minute, when he knew he'd betrayed himself. He'd allowed himself to fall in love and now there was no going back. The loss of either one of them now; his wife and his child, would tear him apart, turn him into something utterly different, the monster that Kaylee had once accused him of being. Somewhere along the line he'd got his faith back and he cursed himself for not guessing it could happen.
He headed for the infirmary and the only thing that could calm him. He stood over Hat, watching her sleep. She had fallen asleep with a sour look on her face, gone to sleep angry with him. He understood the Preacher's words of earlier all too well, but he'd been so scared. Been a long, long time since he'd been that petrified and it brought out anger in him.
Looking at her now, so still like the dead, didn't bring him the peace he'd hoped. Instead he saw each vein in her cheek, each line on her temple, the vivid bruises on her arms and it was as though he saw her lifeless. Each pulse of blood, clearly visible through the near transparent, pale skin of her forehead, aged her. It was as though she were decaying before his very eyes. He had opened himself up to life and it brought with it, hand in hand, the stink of putrefaction and of death.
During the war there had been day after day, each one more dreadful than that before and each of them he thought might be his last. But the thought had held no dread. He had gone to meet death fearless every minute and it had eluded him. In Serenity Valley he had never felt more alive. But now his life was so much the more precious, so dear to him and all he could do was apprehend the ending of it.
He ground his teeth in mute impotence. Yes, the Doc and the Preacher had been right about that. It was the powerlessness he couldn't stand. He couldn't protect them and one day death would close in and they would both be lost to him. There was nothing he could do.
He headed back to the galley for some coffee. It was the alcohol making him melancholy, he reasoned. A good dose of coffee, maybe some food and things wouldn't seem so truly alarming. He needed to be able to look into the future, whatever it might hold and not blench. He needed to find River, first and foremost and then do something about gluing Kaylee and that *jing-chang mei yong duh* doctor back together, though maybe he wasn't the man for the job. He made a mental note to talk to 'Nara in the morning.
A weak dawn was filtering through the galley window as he headed for the stove. Pulling himself together seemed like the thing to do, since some time soon the room would be filled with a whole heap of ruttin' people all relying on him to be strong and resolute. Pouring himself a thick cup of coffee, he threw himself into a chair and began to plan the day ahead.
It seemed a shame to wake her, but they had all agreed, they had to know everything she could remember about the men that had taken River. The crew were gathered in the infirmary, looking at Hat whose bruises looked all the more livid for a night's healing.
Mal sighed and looked across her at Simon. "Wake her up," he said.
Simon lent down and injected something into Hat's neck. She woke with a start, caught sight of Mal and glared. "I hope you ain't come to make up, Mal, 'cos I ain't in the way of acceptin' no ruttin' apology just yet."
Mal rubbed a tired hand across his eyes, but didn't speak.
Hat glanced around the room. "Well, judging by the looks of you, you ain't found River yet?" Her question was met with sighs and shakes of the head from all. "Where's Little M? Is he OK? Can I see him?"
"He's a fast asleep at the minute, tucked up in his cot," Wash explained. "I'll bring him to ya, soon as he wakes, OK?" Hat smiled.
Book stepped forward. "Harriet, we need you to tell us everything you can remember about the men that took River," he said gently.
Hat nodded and swallowed. "Well, there were three of them and they were packing a lot - and I mean a lot - of firepower."
"Well, so far we're talkin' just about anyone in the whole a Persephone," Jayne growled.
Hat stopped glaring at Mal long enough to glare at Jayne. "To continue . one was mighty hideous, sorta small and scabby, ya know? Like he ain't been fed properly as a babe, all teeth and hair patches, I think he was the one called Bingo, Bungo, sommat like that . no wait, Bongo, that was it! . And then there was another, the one as threw me against the wall, didn't have a name and I ain't rightly sure as I could pick him outa a line up. But the third! Well, he was kinda unusual, if you get my meanin'. Not yer typical hired goon. He was pretty darn tall and had thick specs. He was more yer educated type. Picked me up on my manner of speaking . Sandy hair . I think the gnome one called him Walt." As she spoke Hat's face had become serious and introspective as she tried to remember what had happened. Now it was if she was talking to herself, "was almost as if she recognised them."
"Who? River?" Simon's urgent voice cut through her reverie and Hat looked at him keenly.
"Yes," she replied. "We had a very strange conversation just before they . I think she was expecting it."
"Hat, think hard, what did she say?" Zoë interrupted.
"She said something about having to play the hand you're dealt," she shook her head as if trying to worry meaning out of it. "But we were talking about cards at that point. Oh! She also said, "don't fight back". I thought she was talking about the dough, but then, when them lunkheads came in, she yelled it again."
"You mighta given some thought to listenin' to her," Mal muttered. Hat flashed him an aggravated look.
"You tryin' to annoy me, Mal?. That's it, I think," she said to the others. "About all I can recall. I'll keep thinking on it though, I might remember something else. I know it ain't much to go on." She looked pleadingly at Simon.
"It's a start." Said Zoë comfortingly and lay a soft hand on hers.
Hat reflected and as she spoke her voice got nervous, a shake she tried to mask with humour. "They just came outta no where. Why the gorram hell do people keep doin' that? In my galley, the safest gorram place on the ship and if it ain't Saffron it's strange gun-totin' bushwhackers. how do they keep doin' that?" she added shakily. "It's my ruttin' kitchen!"
No one seemed to know what to say in response. "Well," Mal seemed unbelievably keen to get going, Hat thought. "We need to follow up the leads we got. Let's get gone folks. We'll have a council a war in the galley, decide what we gonna do."
"Hey, what about me?" Hat was suddenly sounding even more vulnerable. "I don't wanna stay here, can't I go back to my bunk?"
Simon shook his head. "We'd never get that leg down the ladder, I'm afraid."
"Couldn't we move her to one of the passenger rooms? At least it'd be a little more private," asked Book.
Mal nodded. "Good thinkin', Preacher. Doc, you two sort it out, then come on up to the galley."
"We hit the bars," Mal said, as soon as they were all assembled in the galley, "and we hit them hard." He glanced at Jayne whose eyes had lit up, despite trying to maintain a serious front. "And that don't give any of you licence to drink, game or whore, so stop thinkin' it, Jayne!"
"I weren't," protested Jayne weakly, "but we gotta blend in..."
Mal sighed heavily. "Ok, Jayne, some light drinkin', and I mean light, but no whoring - take Simon with you, he'll make sure you stay the course. Zoë you're with me ."
"Great, not only is my sister missing, but now I get the booby prize." Simon muttered.
"Who're you callin' a booby?"
"Jayne, yer mouth is talkin'." Mal glared. "Preacher, Wash, you two're together."
"What about me?" Kaylee whined. "I wanna find River too."
"Someone's gotta look after the babe. It ain't as if Hat can get around."
"I'll look after Little M," Inara offered pleasantly. "I don't have any clients today and I can keep Hat company."
"Fine. Kaylee, go with the Doc and Jayne and try, for the love of God, ta keep 'em out of trouble."
"But Cap, I don't wanna. can't I go with Wash?"
"*Gao yang jong duh goo yang*! For God's sake Kaylee," Mal looked and sounded exhausted from just organising the expedition. "Can you please just get gone?"
"Fine!" Kaylee humphed, following the others out the door.
Inara smiled across at Mal. "Good going, Mal, we'll make a matchmaker of you yet," she grinned. Mal gave her a twisted smile and headed for the door.
River relaxed like a cat in the cosiest chair Badger had to offer, not that it was really that comfortable, but to be fair to the man, he was trying. It was unclear exactly when the dynamic had changed, but somewhere along the line the hunter had become the hunted. Badger and his men watched her warily, but she showed no signs of wishing to leave. As calm as she appeared on the surface, the cogs of River's brain were whirring frantically.
Her little cat smile didn't reach her eyes as she looked over at Badger. "Tell them you're ready for a hand over, but you will want to see the money first." She instructed him evenly.
Badger grinned. He was doing his best to appear unruffled, even off hand, but River could see tiny beads of sweat on his forehead and he seemed to be finding his loosely knotted tie rather constricting.
"Yer a smart Jane and no mistake. Shame you goin' back really, you an' me could've sewn the "business" in this town up proper. Still 'spect you won't be around here much once them as wants yer takes yer back." He said almost wistfully.
"You'd better hope I'm not," said River matter-of-factly. "Seems people I befriend have a short life expectancy, can't think why! They've trained me well up to now."
"Yes, but what in, that's what I'd like to know."
"Flower arranging," River smirked. "It's a precise art and surprisingly violent."
Mal and Zoë scanned the room, using little glances that would hopefully not attract too much attention. The bar was full of the usual rim scum, but none that matched Hat's description. Zoë glanced at the Captain over the edge of her drink.
"Not that I'm criticising what I'm sure is an excellent plan, Sir, but we'd have to be gorram lucky, given the number of bars in Persephone, to pick the one as is frequented by them kidnappers."
"Well, Zoë, I ain't got no clue how we're gonna find River elsewise, so luck it'll have to be .and at least we can have a drink while we wait for our particular brand a luck to appear."
"That we can, Sir," said Zoë, reaching for the bottle of unidentified alcohol standing between them on the table. "And in the spirit of openness that a bottle of liquor between friends in a low down bar normally encourages, you OK, sir?"
"Well, like as not I'm speakin' out of school, but you've seemed a little windy these last coupla days. Like the responsibility was getting' to ya."
"Well," Mal grimaced. "I can't say as bein' the Captain of a ship where one a its younger members has been rustled, fills me with all kinds a fuzzy feelin's, and this argument with Hat is gettin' me down more than a little.Don't get me wrong, when she's up to the mark, ain't nothing better than a good ol' fashioned exchange of feelin', but when she's sick, I'd just as soon not bicker."
"Feelin' kinda guilty, Sir?"
"Guilty? Hey, I ain't got nothin' to be guilty 'bout! Weren't my fault River were snatched and Hat got hurt ."
"Oh, I weren't sayin' it was rational, Sir. Just thinkin' as you might feel more than a little responsible, knowin' yer normal way of thinkin'.you know, the whole 'if I'd a bin there' kick?"
"Why's everyone gotta be readin' my psyche all of a sudden?" whined Mal. "I've had enough Mal interpretation from the Preacher to last me a life time without you addin' to it. Can we just stick to the matter in hand and drink in peace?"
"Very good, Sir."
"And you can stop lookin' at me like I ain't got nothin' on!" growled Mal.
"Sorry, Cap, I was just thinkin' and my eyes rested on you, is all."
"Well, gorram rest 'em somewhere else, would ya!" said Mal, highly irritated.
Their fractious exchange was interrupted by Zoë laying a warning hand softly on Mal's arm and raising her eyebrows significantly towards a tall and gangly figure who had just stumbled into the bar.
"What were you sayin' about our luck, Sir? 'Cos I gotta figure it's better than we're wont to give it credit for. Ain't that one of them?"
Mal nodded slowly. "It sure looks like the odd one Hat was talkin' on alright. Follow my lead."
A few streets away, in a remarkably similar, dark and dank bar, a remarkably similar scene was taking place.
Jayne, oblivious to all but the beer and the ladies, sat hulking between a sulking Simon and an equally morose Kaylee. He leaned over to whisper in the ear of a pretty, if slightly mature, blond who was propping up the bar. Simon glared at him.
"It may have escaped your notice, Jayne, but my sister is missing presumed kidnapped. Think you could wrench your mind, or," he gave a disgusted and pointed look at Jayne's lap, "whatever it is that you think with, away from the whores for just one night?"
"Hey!" Jayne was indignant. "Mal said to blend in and that's what I'm gonna do. Ok, Doc?"
"Well, d'you think you could blend in a little less conspicuously?" Simon asked with a pointed glance around the bar for emphasis. It was true. Most of the activity in the bar had paused on their entrance and now the denizens thereof were watching Jayne warily. There was an indefinable air about the man that smacked of danger and entertainment and most felt they could use a bit of both to brighten an otherwise dull evening.
"It ain't me they're lookin' on." Sniffed Jayne. "They just ain't used to seein' such a nattily dressed mommy's boy in a place like this, is all." Jayne also had a point. Whilst the men were eyeing Jayne, pretty much every working woman in the joint was watching Simon hungrily. Dressed in his crisp white shirt and waistcoat, he certainly didn't look the usual type to be drinking in this particular bar.
"Yeah, no offence, Simon," said Kaylee in a tone that, despite her words' import, suggested that the doctor would do well to take any offence coming to him, "but you do look plenty eye-catching in yer fine Core threads. You shoulda dressed more border worldly like us everyday folks."
Simon glared at her viciously. He had hoped that their split could be amicable and grown up. He had hoped to rise above the bickering and inevitable disintegration of their relationship. But that was clearly not to be. Kaylee was determined to niggle. The fact that neither of them were far beyond their teens, that neither had experienced a relationship of such intensity before and that they both still loved each other didn't seem to occur to him. He ground his teeth and chose not to respond for the good of their continuing relations as work colleagues.
To Kaylee, all she saw was a haughty toss of the head. Yet another indication that she was too far below him to warrant any response other than a shrug of annoyance. She wanted very much to run from the bar in tears, but she determined not to give him the satisfaction. Instead, aware that they all had a job to do, she decided to do hers and turning to the rather down-at-heal and grubby fellow propping up the bar next to her, she began to engage him merrily in light-hearted conversation, with a view to pumping him for any information he might have. He was chewing on some tobacco, which he chose to spit onto the sawdust floor of the bar before answering her.
"I comes here most days, for sure. Likes to see the ladies, they always put on a good show here. but I gotta say, they've excelled themselves tonight." He cast an admiring leer at Kaylee.
"They have?" asked Kaylee somewhat confused. But then, comprehension finally dawning, she said, "oh, I ain't . I mean I'm not ." She cast a sideways glance at the other women in the bar, all very clearly, by their look and dress, ladies of the night.
The man, whom Kaylee noticed stank, with a somewhat unattractive strength, of sweat and, oddly, onions, laid a possessive hand on her arm. "Hey, there ain't but two types of women in here, the ones as are mercenaries and the ones as are whores. Now you don't look much like a fightin' woman to me." He grinned again and the other grubby, cracked hand, desperately in need of a manicure, felt around her and goosed her sharply. Kaylee flinched.
"*Meh, tah mah duh hwoon dahn*!" Jayne had just noticed where Kaylee's cheerful conversational style had led her. "Get yer," he paused and gazed almost transfixed at the man's very dirty hands, "mighty filthy hands off a her. Gorramit, I may be a bit grubby my own self, but do you ever wash?"
The man looked Jayne up and down. "Washin's fer none but gussied-up, pantywaist eejits like yer boyfriend there." He growled. It was Simon's turn to look scandalised, but the man went on, "if a girl comes into this bar, she's gotta expect some solid handlin'. Now back off, friend, this girl and me's got business."
Kaylee squealed and shied away as the man's hand continued its roving over her body. Jayne muttered "*chur ni-duh*" and reached for the nearest stool preparatory to cracking it over the stranger's head. But when he tried to swing it forward, he found his movement arrested by a sharp tug on the stool. Simon, his face white and blotched with anger, stayed Jayne's hand.
"Thank you, Jayne," he said, "but I think I'll handle this one, if you don't mind."
Jayne stepped back to give him room with an exaggeratedly formal bow. Before the grimy man had time to react, Simon, his eyes ablaze and his jaw set, socked him on the chin so forcefully that the man shot over backwards and sailed a little distance through the air, coming to land with a back-breaking smash on top of what had once been a small round table, but was now kindling. Simon calmly stepped over to the prostrate man and kicked him determinedly several times around the kidney area with a clinical precision that suggested he was putting his medical training to an uncharacteristic use.
As he landed each blow, he said with a cold fury, "you insolent boor! Don't you ever touch my Kaylee like that again! Or any other woman, I suppose," he added as an after thought. "Are you OK?" He turned to Kaylee a look of solicitous concern on his very white face. Kaylee nodded, but her eyes were shining. The doctor had stepped up to defend her honour and he was officially her prince again.
Jayne broke the tender moment the two were sharing, saying, "er, Doc, Kaylee, I think we best find another bar." His eyes darted round warily as the unwashed man's friends seemed to be gathering a posse in response. As they headed swiftly for the door, Jayne muttering, "show's over folks. We don't want no trouble. Go back to yer drinking. We'll pay fer the table." and scattering some few coins in their wake, Simon took a short detour, which, as if by accident led him to crunch casually over his fallen enemy's hand. The man cried out sharply in pain.
As they headed up the stairs to the street, Simon sighed, clutching Kaylee to him for her own protection. "Hipppocrates'll be turning in his grave!" he said.
"This way," said Jayne, darting swiftly round the next corner to avoid pursuit. Not looking where he was going he ran heavily into a man coming in the other direction and they both fell, tangled together, to the ground.
"*Ta mah duh*! Jayne, I mighta known you'd floor me eventually!" moaned Wash as he sat up, rubbing a dented shin.
Book strolled up from behind. "Where were you going to so fast, Jayne? You running from trouble already?" he asked in an amused voice.
"T'aint me as is trouble," growled Jayne, glaring accusingly at Simon. "It's that ruttin' doctor, as gorram usual! Not but what the boy didn't show some pluck fer once," he conceded grudgingly
Badger looked across at River warily. "They say as they're sendin' a transport fer ya. Be here any minute. Money all be delivered the moment you gets on. They say they'll know when you do."
"Well then," smiled River softly. "The moment you get the money, that's the moment you make yourself more than scarce, *dong ma*?"
Badger nodded. "I shan't be more an a ghost fer a good long while, just like yer said."
"And you'll send half the pay to Captain Reynolds as we agreed?" River continued. "Remember Badger, I'll know if you don't." Badger swallowed and nodded, looking spooked.
River sighed softly, but then nodded crisply once and her face became all business. "Contact them then and tell them it's time please Badger and they'll want to see me restrained, so tie my wrists, please, tight!"
"Oh hey, I ain't one fer bondage little girl," Badger began. River gave him a quick glare and he moved to comply nervously.
The whine of an Alliance transport sounded overhead. River steeled herself. Her plan was risky, at least for her, but she had thought it through meticulously. If she was going to do this she needed to do it right. She had an opportunity to stop them looking once and for all, to give her brother a chance at a normal life, no longer on the run. The kind of life River wanted for her brother and for Kaylee. That was surely worth a little personal peril?
Jayne, Book, Wash, Simon and Kaylee agreed that it was time to head back to the ship. None of them had turned up any leads and it had become quite late. The five of them, mostly still bickering slightly turned towards the ship. Simon and Kaylee bought up the rear, her arm resolutely through his.
"Simon, I just wanted to say." Kaylee began rather timidly, "thanks for rescuing me back there."
Simon looked at her softly for a second and then his jaw and his resolve hardened once more. "Anyone would have done the same." He said slowly. "Kaylee ." He paused searching or the right words, "this doesn't change anything you know, doesn't change what I said the other night .I've got River to worry about and that's just about all I can handle." He sounded exhausted and defeated. "Any concern for anyone else is, believe me, merely ancillary."
Kaylee withdrew her hand as if she'd been singed. Her eyes brimmed for one moment and gentle enthusiasm that had marked her face a few moments ago vanished. She gave Simon one long, searching and rather scathing look and then her eyes suddenly reflected a telling mixture of pity and sorrow. She, however, said nothing, merely turning towards the others.
"Hey Wash," she yelled and ran to catch him up, "I've been thinking, couldn't we convert the particle stabiliser into some kinda locatin' device?"
Simon was left to follow on remorsefully, fully aware that he had, once again, broken Kaylee's trusting heart.
Zoë and Mal inched their way along the counter as subtly as they could towards the odd fellow in the thick glasses who was propping up the bar.
"Dunno why we're takin' so much trouble," whispered Mal to Zoë, "seems to me we could like as not tap dance on the bar here and he wouldn't be none the wiser. He's way too far gone!"
"Whist I agree with the sentiment, sir," Zoë hissed back, "I'm thinking we might have problems with the actual performance, what with neither of us being in the, you know, entertainment business, sir."
Mal flashed her a quick grin. "Hey, dunno about you, Zo, but my momma was keen for me to experience all types of education. Yer looking at 7 years of modern dance. You didn't think I got this light on my feet by nature alone, did ya?"
Zoë grinned back. "Right now, sir, I ain't thinking anything other than you've a very suprisin' man, sir, and I gotta say, right now, more than a little effeminate!"
"I'll have you know modern dance requires great stamina, dedication, hard work and . and . oh *wuh de ma*! Now you know why I don't tend to talk about my past. Makes me all manner of vulnerable!"
"That it does, sir." Agreed Zoë.
As they carried on the muttered conversation, they inched along the bar as though they were just moving along to gain a more comfortable leaning perch from which to drink.
The barman paused opposite their quarry to once more fill up the glass in front of him with a rusty coloured liquid.
"There ya go, Walt, that'll see ya right. Put it on yer tab?"
His rather morose customer nodded sombrely and continued to stare rather wretchedly into space.
"You ok, Walt? Ya look a bit down," the barman enquired.
Walt sighed. "Just need a little peace is all, thanks, Ben. Been a bit of a palaver back at the 'stead. Boss picked himself up a nice little piece a cargo that's turned out to be more than a mite tricky. So I'm hopin' that I might get a night away from it, if ya don't mind."
The barman nodded understandingly. Zoë and Mal exchanged harassed glances unsure how they'd ever get the taciturn fellow to open up and tell them who his boss was.
"Ain't the daemon drink supposed to make ya WANNA talk?" Mal whispered in annoyance.
"That may be just you and my husband, Sir." Zoë hissed back.
They needn't have worried. Luck was still for once and most unusually on their side. A skinny, splotched individual, with hair growing in an oddly clumpy way over his bumpy head, burst through the bar doors and looked around wildly. He was followed by a couple of other equally unattractive companions. His lunatic glance fell on Walt. Mal and Zoë exchanged significant looks. Could this be anyone other than the underfed individual Hat had claimed was named Bongo?
As he hurried over to his friend, other regulars of the place or so it seemed came bursting into the bar, full of news. To Mal and Zoë, who were trying to overhear the hushed and urgent conversation between Walt and Bongo, these others were, a first an annoyance, but as the import of their words became evident they both turned to listen. An alliance transport of unknown and mysterious, some reckoned highly secretive origin, had exploded in mid air over the slaughterhouse district of the port. It had lit up the night sky and people's evenings with its vivid and sudden report. No one knew why the tiny transport had been flying over an area which, at night, tended to desertion and solitude or why it had exploded, showering the warehouses below it with debris, but the general lack of knowledge was not going to stop one single person from some serious speculating.
Zoë looked at Mal. "Sir, the slaughterhouses ain't not but a couple a streets away from Serenity. They could a taken her there easy." she began.
Mal nodded. "Like as not, but we don't know anything yet, Zo. We need to get over there, take a look at that wreckage, only way we're gonna find out if this has anything to do with River. But we can't do that till it's light. Let's us get back to Serenity, get what shut eye we can and start again tomorrow." He turned and threw a few coins on the counter to pay for their drinks.
Zoë was halfway to the door when Mal lay and warning hand on her arm. They had passed close to their original target as they forced their way through the throng of enthusiastically debating punters to the door.
It seemed Bongo had raised his voice to Walt somewhat, in an effort to make himself believed. "I'm tellin' you," he was saying, "he's just disappeared in ta thin air. There ain't nothing left. His office is bare and his safe's empty. Go look fer yerself if ya don't believe me, but I'm tellin' you straight, Badger's gone and I ain't got no clue what we're supposed ta do now!"
Inara's shuttle was very quiet. Candles flickered on the surfaces and the main light was dimmed. A solitary cone of incense smouldered on her dressing table. Inara sat, legs tucked neatly beneath her, in the middle of her elegantly made bed, her back against the head board. The only noise was the gently slurping of Little M as, held firmly in her supple limbs, he sucked sleepily on his last bottle of the day.
The child's eyes flicked open every so often, his spaced-out gaze fixing on Inara's face as she bent over him and then his eyelids would begin to droop once more and his sucking would become more erratic. Inara watched his struggle with sleep with quiet amusement, listening closely to his contented sounds as he slurped his supper.
Unbidden, the thought came to her, that this child in her arms represented everything that was so utterly unobtainable for her. What man would want a Companion as his broodmare, the mother of his children? Most men she knew, though they claimed well enough that it would never bother them, could not quite get past the knowledge that she had slept with countless others. Even when she told them that this was different, that this coupling wasn't a job to her, they still had the tendency to get jealous. And even if she ever found the sort of extraordinary man who could rise above man's competitive nature, a Companion's tool is her body. It is her art form. She would never command the same high price or the same prestige once she had given birth. A baby would alter the structures of her life exponentially; all her carefully constructed modes of living would come tumbling down. A child, her child, would go off like an atom bomb, radiating out from a central point and infecting everything else she held dear and was accustomed to.
But it wasn't just motherhood that the dozing baby represented. It was the idea of a family. A tight unit of two people and the life they had created together, living as a single entity. Sure, over the years, several of her clients had offered her the security of becoming their "mistress", of having a single client and being cared for and kept by them alone; a sort of marriage bond in a way. But it was such a limited security, such a guarded attachment, such a formal contract. In many ways such an arrangement was a macabre spectre of a real marriage; a sham. Everyone would treat them as a couple, but in the back of each person's mind, Inara knew, would be the knowledge that, when you stripped away the clothing, the house and the trappings, she was no better than a whore.
Any partner Inara had would be perforce to be dressed up for. He would never see Inara truly naked, stripped of her make-up and her pretences. She envied Mal and Hat, Zoë and Wash, their comfortable ease together. She envied moreover their ability to argue, dispute, disagree and make-up. Such relationships had a charm all their own, especially when one was required to be constantly acquiescent to one's own clients.
Lost in thoughts of regret and longing, Inara didn't immediately notice that Little M had finished his milk. His eyes had flicked open and he was looking at her with a slightly wild and nervous _expression. Recognising the signs, Inara lifted him into a sitting position and began to gently pat his back. Suddenly the child gave an almighty belch followed by a stream of projectile vomit, which rose up in a great arc and flopped across the delicate covering of her bed. Inara groaned resignedly and made a mental note to put the coverlet in to soak before the stain dried.
Lifting up little M on to her shoulder, she uncoiled herself and pulled the sheet from the bed in one fluid movement. Tucking it away, she bent to smooth the remaining bedclothes. She straightened up and began to wander slowly about her room, neatening a make-up jar here and straightening a trinket there. Suddenly the beauty of this little room in which she spent her days overcame her, the soft light covering the luxurious wall hangings and the exquisitely fragile china. She considered the disruption and disharmony that a baby would bring to this room, to her life. The thought of the muddle and the clutter made her shiver. Suddenly she found herself quietly thankful that her life precluded the motherhood road. Let others subjugate their personalities, their very selves to the whim of a helpless infant; she would have none of it. She would go on, enjoying her very pleasant little life, full of luxuries and little triumphs and not strive for the deeper, more profound joys (so she was told) of motherhood. Frankly, she could do without.
Grinning to herself, she transferred the now peacefully snoring baby to his cot, which Mal had earlier hauled into her shuttle and began to prepare a perfect cup of tea.
Hat's head throbbed. She was propped up in a sitting position against the soft pillows of a passenger bunk bed, but she was downright miserable. She was fed up with being confined to quarters, seeing only Inara and Little M. She hated not knowing what was going on and whether they'd found River. She figured they hadn't found her or they'd have been back on Serenity and she'd heard no one since Inara took the baby to put him down.
But then, that's how it worked, wasn't it? You didn't hear anyone and then suddenly there they were, waiving a knife or a gun at you and threatening to hurt people. It made her so gorram angry and more than a little scared. She was fed up with people menacing her family. She might be a grown up with a child of her own, but there were two things she desperately wanted right now. One was her mother, a woman she hadn't seen in years and a good thing too since she was currently pushing up the daisies back on Zephyr and, she reckoned, she was probably mighty hideous by now, what was left of her, anyhow. And the other was to have a good cry.
There was nothing stopping her doing the second part, she surmised. It weren't as if there was anyone around to see her, but it was such a weak thing to do. She was just feeling sorry for herself because her leg hurt and she'd been cooped up all day. She'd get over it once the others returned and life got back to normality.
The door to the passenger room slid open quietly and her husband put his big tousled head round the door slowly, clearly uneasy about the reaction he might provoke. Hat, much to her own disgust, took one look at his apprehensive _expression and burst into tears.
"Hey!" Mal headed for the edge of the bed and sat down gingerly. "What's up? You cryin' for a reason or just cos?"
Hat sniffed rather pathetically. "Just 'cos? Just 'cos?? I think I earned it, Mal! My leg hurts, we ain't found River . Do I really need a reason?"
"No how, I guess .On the River front, though, thought you might like to know. Nope, we ain't found her as yet," he said hurriedly to her anxious exclamation, "but, there've been rumours of a hullabaloo of some not small distinction. Something about a Fed ship crashin' in suspicious circumstances, reckon it has something to do with River. Plus there are some as sayin' Badger's disappeared, which I am choosin' to see as a good thing."
"Like as not," said Hat, thinking carefully, "those three bushwhackers were Badger's men, would explain how they knew how to get on to Serenity and where to look for us, give 'em the element of surprise."
Mal nodded. Hat's descent into femininity did not seem to have abated and tears were welling up in her eyes as she considered the attack. He looked at her shrewdly. "They really got to you, didn't they?"
"Well, wouldn't you be scared, Mal? It ain't like I have a gun strapped to my hip to defend my family."
Mal smiled smugly. "Scared is good, the more terrified the better, you ask me, may keep you outta harms way, so you just go on bein' scared."
Hat sighed and rubbed at a tear. "So no, 'there there, it'll be all right, your man'll protect you' then?" Suddenly she laughed. "Are we ever gonna act like normal people?"
Mal didn't join in her laughter. He looked at her seriously. "I'll always do my best to protect you, you know that, but you gotta know that there may be occasions when I ain't able to or I plain ain't there. You gotta be prepared for them."
Hat looked restless and tired. "And I will be, Mal, I promise! But could this be one a those times where we just pretend there ain't any dangers, where you hold me and kiss me and tell me everything's gonna be alright, even though it ain't?"
Mal smiled softly and took her in his arms, stroking her back. "Everything is gonna be ok, I promise." He said softly.
From a position snuggled against his chest, Hat shook her head. "Now I know yer lying." They sat for a while, hugging each other tight. Hat looked up at him. "I missed you, you know," she whispered.
He smiled down at her, gazing at her with intensity. "Hey, I've been roamin' Serenity most nights, just can't seem to get comfy without you in my bed. I'm so gorram tired it ain't funny."
They kissed, at first softly then more deeply and Mal shifted so that he was stretched out on the bed, his wife curled up to his chest as best she could with one leg sticking out straight. Hat kissed Mal softly once more and then settled upon him. Within minutes they were both asleep.
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!"
Thursday, February 02, 2006 1:38 AM
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