SUMMARY: 'Serenity' is damaged crash-landing on an Alliance mining planet -- landing Mal in a sea of compromise that threatens to split the crew.
NOTES: Set 4-6 weeks post-Objects in Space. Many thanks to Rheanna, TaraLJC and Nepenthene for beta reading.
DISCLAIMER: Firefly characters and concepts owned by Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy and Fox. Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
All in all, it reminded Mal of a pretty piece of frippery Kaylee once picked up some market stall at some docks. It had been years ago and she wasn't long with them, then. He told her to put it right back down, but she hadn't. Instead parted herself from too much coin for it and she'd carried it everywhere with her for all of two weeks, until a kid ran off with it at the refuelling station out by Nimue and the girl had been inconsolable for days. Money down the waste compressor, but he still remembered the thing. Shifting pieces of coloured light sunk into a tube you set your eye to. Only illusion, all mirrors and geometry and he reckoned Kaylee could've figured it out to make herself another if anyone could, but she never had even tried. Just mourned the original 'til all the rest of them were downright depressed in the bargain.
Kaleidoscope, the fellow on the stall had said it was called; the word as pretty as the thing it stood for, Kaylee said. You put your eye to the hole in the top, and...
That was what it felt like, coming down. Shards of coloured light. Kind of a visual and sensory poetry.
There wasn't much poetic about what followed. He'd been shot, stabbed, starved, tortured, beaten, and here there was another fine addition to the Malcolm Reynolds resume, hitting the ground at a speed of... well, he'd have to ask Wash what speed they'd hit at. The choked engines hadn't cut completely 'til damn near the last minute, else he had his doubts he'd be alive to be lying there thinking over things of no consequence to no-one while he ought to be hauling his ass up off the floor and checking the rest of his crew, like good captains did.
His mouth was all blood and the chalky texture of broken enamel on the side of his tongue where he might've lost the best part of a tooth. He hauled up a few inches with his hands to spit the blood, and ended up coughing fit to burst as sharp shards caught in the back of his throat alongside the smoke of his indrawn breath. He coughed into his wrists as he levered his knees under him, managed to raise his head long enough to make the troublesome journey to kneeling, and hooked an elbow over the edge of Serenity's pilot console at the summit in order to keep himself there.
Smoke... The smoke was rising from the broken casing of the control deck to the right of Wash's chair. No fire any more, that at least he could be thankful for; only the petulant aftermath of an electrical explosion where something'd given inside the circuitry. Most of the smoke was headed out of the holes where glass panels out front of the ship had broken, so he could safely scratch suffocation from his tally of worries. He tried to stand, blinking in the sunlight that flooded in with the fresh air, and veered off balance when the wholly unhelpful angle of the floor conspired with his lingering dizziness against him. In the end he crawled to Wash's side as the easier option.
Clumsy fumble of fingers felt Wash's neck after a pulse - not helped by the discovery he might well have a broken a finger or two, but damned if he could tell which and where with his head still a mass of bitty coloured light and the ache pretty evenly shared out. Wash gave a groan, which was just as good and a whole lot less effort far as Mal was concerned, and his head lolled forward. Mal winced at the sight of the burns on his face and neck.
"Sir!" He heard the voice calling from the depths of the ship, prelude to the thud of boots incautiously mounting stairs that had to be as precariously tipped as the rest of the boat. "Sir!"
"Zoe." Came out a croak after all the coughing, but then she wasn't sounding much better. "He's all right," he said, as she all but dived to Wash's side from the doorway. "Burned. Reckon it ain't too serious. We both got a bit of shaking around in here, though. How 'bout everyone else?"
"Kaylee and the preacher are just fine. She's gone to check on Simon. Book's with Jayne - seems to have broken his leg, sir."
"Gorramit." He didn't need to have Jayne out of action for the length of time broken bones took healing. Thoughts weren't easy to come by, but Mal pushed them. "We need to get everyone clear of the ship 'case anything else blows." Plan for the immediate future out of the way, he contemplated the task of standing up; and it was looking a right mean one, at that.
"Yes, sir. Kaylee suggested as much. They're already under way."
"Good." Always was when his half-cocked know-how and his hired handy experts were in agreement.
"Sir?" Zoe had her hands under Wash's shoulders and was looking at him expectantly. Then she was looking at him with concern. "Are you going to be--?"
"I'm good," he said hastily. "Just let me..." He tottered to his feet and almost lost his balance on the tilt of the floor. Did land his head a knock on the edge of something that shouldn't ought to be in a position to be a head-bashing hazard. "Ow." Hell, but this was gonna take some time to get cleaned up. His bright girl was a mess.
"Sir." This time the title was harder edged. Folks oftimes didn't understand that the word could be a weapon easy as a force of habit of respect on Zoe's tongue. "Maybe you should concentrate on getting yourself out. I can fetch the preacher up here to lend an extra pair of hands."
"No cause." If Kaylee was advocating a hasty exit, they might not have the time to waste. "You get... his shoulders..."
Force of will alone couldn't still his vision, but he made his way by touch and got a good grip on Wash's legs. Focus on the task even steadied him in some part, though it couldn't make the long slog down all those steps any less than the most tedious of chores. Around halfway down he became aware their burden, aside from how he could afford to lose a few pounds, had half-open eyes and was approaching some state of semi-consciousness. When he fetched himself a bash on the shoulder and almost brought them all down in a heap, Zoe gave her husband a couple slaps around the jaw to bring him 'round and supported him standing for the last stretch, Mal sent stumbling ahead by a rebuke from her eyes.
It was a sorry little collection of bodies gathered a short way distant on near-white sand in the blazing sun. Kaylee - looking up from the downed and groaning form of Jayne, who was still disengaging from the preacher's support - raised a sorrowful hand, not quite a wave, beckoning them over as they emerged. She was pale, he saw, as he lurched over sand trying to speed up, and he didn't much like seeing that scrape down her cheek or blood in her hair.
"Cap'n, you're okay--" Wasn't often, either, you saw Kaylee that subdued. Yet she was clambering shakily to her feet as he approached, taking a step and then another toward him before he'd reached the group.
He wanted nothing better than to sit down in the dirt, but not being too sure he'd be able to negotiate his way back up when called upon to, kept his sorry carcass standing. "After a ragged sort of fashion--" he began, scanning his eyes over the others because something felt very wrong here and he just needed to push through the haze in his head to find it.
Inara. His heart jumped. She wasn't...
No. He swore, rocked by the mistake. Of course she wasn't there.
"Where're Simon and River?" he asked.
Okay, so the thing was that it wasn't so bad as it might seem that he could overlook two members of his own crew in a crisis. For one thing, the doctor and his sister were still new enough that his subconscious wasn't quite accustomed to including them in his inventory on the same kind of instinctive level as the rest. For another, them being by far the most insular of his very assorted crew, half the time they'd be off doing their own thing, which by and large figured as tests and needles and crazy-talk, 'stead of joining in with the crew as a unit. For all that they'd been improving in that respect of late, the brain could be slow in playing catch-up, and Mal's wasn't in too hot a working condition right then to begin with.
"He's with River," Kaylee said, strain all but rising off her in waves. "She's hurt, cap'n - I think they're both hurt - but he wouldn't leave and I had to help Book here in gettin' Jayne out..." Her eyes slid past him as she spoke, and her feet started to move, ready to go right back in.
"Whoa." Mal reached for her shoulders and planted her back to standing still. "Not you." Looking around the others, he saw Zoe leaning over Wash, and Jayne on the floor looking more in the way of sour than pained. His eyes went to Book. "Shepherd--" Fellow was nodding before he'd even asked. "You're with me. Kaylee, see to Jayne." He pointed her firmly at him.
"Hell, thanks, captain," Jayne said, like he'd been handed a present. Mal gave him a look that froze the innuendo and, split second after, Kaylee smacked him in the shoulder. Couldn't have been hard enough to hurt much, 'cept for the fact Jayne fair jumped a foot in the air even from sitting, and collapsed down again. "Ai ya! Ow, ow, ow!" Hands reaching for his injured leg were halted midway for the simple reason he couldn't reach far enough forward without hurting himself again.
Kaylee pressed her lips close against a threat of amusement and mixed sympathy that didn't last too long against the overwhelming theme of worry.
"You take it easy on that leg, Jayne," Mal said seriously. A gesture to Book and the shepherd trailed him as he headed back into the boat, steadier now than on his way out. He had a clear mission, and he was annoyed, and neither of those were things that did any harm as to centring a man's mind with a sense of purpose.
They had to duck under a dislodged section of his damn ceiling in the corridor to get into the main body of Serenity and the infirmary. The steadily racking up estimation of the damage wasn't much improving his mood.
"Simon," he barked. Lights were down in the infirmary just as everywhere, but two of the auxiliaries were still in working order, shedding enough illumination to see by. Doctor's back was to him, hunched over something small lying twisted and broken on the floor. Well, crook of floor and wall, matter of accuracy. Nothing was going to stay put unsupported on a tilt of that angle.
Simon plain didn't react at all. He was muttering under his breath, a frantic, focused tirade as crazy-sounding as ever his sister had produced. Mal said his name again, then turned to Book, a shadow at his back, and gestured with silent, hard intent. For all that the motions were those he'd once have used to a subordinate in the thick of action and might still use to Zoe in a spot now, the shepherd gave him a slow nod by way of return.
Mal planted a hand on Simon's shoulder and tugged him back, near overbalancing the boy. His head shot up, shock-hazed eyes meeting Mal's upside-down. "Kaylee says it ain't safe in here. We need to get you and your sister out."
"No," the doctor said with quick intensity. "She can't be moved. I don't know how bad the internal injuries are. Moving her could kill her, and she needs help now. I can't--"
"Wasn't a request." He hadn't meant to follow Simon's gaze back down to the limp little form; had as a point of fact particularly meant not to. Looking at it close and giving the twisted sprawl of cloth full credit and recognition as River didn't help in easing the making of objective command decisions.
"Kaylee says there's danger," Mal said flatly. "And weighing the risk to two lives against one says you're both leaving this boat." As Simon started to protest again, he hauled on the boy's shoulder. He didn't have the strength for much, but he had all the leverage and Simon none. The doctor tipped over in a sprawl, Mal planted a boot on his shoulder, and from there it was easy, 'cause if anything he didn't have energy spare to hold back on the weight he placed on that foot.
He nodded to the preacher as Book swept in to gather the girl in his arms - real gentle-like. Book exchanged it for a nod of his own and carried River out of the infirmary while Mal returned his attention to the struggling man under his boot.
"We take what you need," he said, moving away and staggering as Simon shoved on his ankle in haste to get up and nearly sent him over. "Hey!" Bending down to grasp the doctor's collar was more reflex than calculation. He didn't know he was able to do it until he already had. "What's done is done, now. Doesn't matter any more whether I'm right or you are. Your sister's outside with the others. Now I need you to gather up what you'll be requiring to mend her. And the rest of us. Wash had some burns; Jayne has a broken leg; near everyone's scraped and bruised. You hear me?"
"Yes." Simon'd stopped breathing through that little speech. As he released the word, his breath started again and he nodded slowly. Mal loosed his hold and let him use that movement to pull away. "Yes, I understand."
He scrambled to his feet and began a frantic rifling through the medical stocks and equipment, notably favouring the shoulder Mal had recently abused.
"Come on. Everything we need as is quick and the two of us can carry," he said, slapping his hand hard against the wall to hurry the fellow up. He added philosophically, "Ain't like you could work properly in here anyway with the power down and nothing but nothing horizontal."
When Simon first came on board Serenity, Mal hadn't liked him very much. Truth to tell, there were times he still wasn't a hundred percent sold. The boy had too much schooling for his own good and it'd crowded out the parts of a brain that were made for just plain dealing with folks and knowing when to shut the hell up before someone did it for you with a fist or a bullet. And he was from the kind of privilege that wouldn't care one jot -- not up until the moment the Alliance dared to infringe upon its own. The kind that thought Unification was a grand idea because it didn't hurt them, and who slept easy in their beds while folks who only wanted freedom got shot and blown to hell trying to snatch sleep in minutes in the quiet spaces and the freezing cold.
Of course, when Mal was ensconced with the dying in Serenity Valley, Simon had been a child, albeit in one hell of a fancy school. And he was some doctor, and not too bad for a patch of scheming when he twisted that over-exercised brain of his around to it, and what he'd accomplished for the sake of his sister showed a rare kind of stubborn Mal couldn't but respect. Kid was okay... even with the crazy sibling thrown in. Even the crazy sibling had pulled her weight once or twice.
Right now, Simon bent over River with a concentrated intensity like his ministrations were the only things holding her to life, and they were. And it was Mal who felt all kinds of useless, hanging a decent distance back from where the doc worked with Book and Zoe, folks who didn't have concussions, at his bidding; aware all the time out the corner of his eye of the ship emphatically not exploding.
He felt a feather-light touch on his arm.
"You did the right thing, cap'n." Looking down into Kaylee's face wrenched something inside him. She had her arms held around her chest like trying to physically hold herself together, but she was still shaking.
"Sure I did." Realised then how he'd wasted minutes in just standing, and cast his eye at Jayne, hunched over with pain on his face back where Kaylee'd left him. Mal clapped the girl on the shoulder in a comfort he felt miles away from able to give and it turned into something near a brief hug. Then he disengaged, closed in on Simon and squatted down to raid the medical supplies they'd fetched out. Found what he was after just about instantly, and headed over to Jayne with Kaylee trailing in his wake like some lost baby duck.
"Hell, what's it take for a man in some pain to get noticed around here?" Jayne griped, as Mal handed over the pain-block and let him administer it himself. Though he made his complaint with a certain gruffness, his attention drifted in an uneasy kind of manner to River as he did.
Leaning down to hand over the dope set him off-balance, and Mal salvaged his dignity by turning the fall into a slide onto his knees, finally letting his body give in, telling himself it'd just be a moment or two while he gathered his strength. The sand was hotter'n hell under him and its heat against the bare skin of his fingers returned to his attention the minor but annoying damage there. He swore and pulled his hand back up to find the blood gloving it gummed with sand. He more carefully eased down again 'til he was resting with his weight supported on the heels of his hands and sat back.
Kaylee dropped beside him with a huff of air that rolled up a whole bundle of separate despairs into one fair eloquent exhalation. "Serenity--" she began, but on the last syllable her eyes caught his, and the sound was left hanging orphaned in the air.
Mal caught her gaze. "You know what happened?"
"Gorram lousy landing is what happened," Jayne said sourly, not that either of them paid him any heed.
"That bad regulator blew, setting down," Kaylee said.
Mal swore in Chinese. "Seems this just ain't our gorram week--"
"I been tellin' you, cap'n, she needed work--" He watched Kaylee's eyes drift to Serenity then bounce away. She tried again: "You know if we hadn't already been settin' down to look over that wiring--"
"We could've been a smear on the side of some rutting high-rise on Persephone, next call," Jayne finished.
Mal swore again, cast a glance across to where Simon was working with focus, and shook his head, dismissing the subject for the moment as he turned back to Kaylee and Jayne. "Doctor's seein' to his sister," he said in muted tones, keeping it quiet from the group by the injured girl, from Wash's slumped and unconscious form stowed safe next to his busy wife. "We're gonna wait while we get patched up 'fore we start looking up local aid. What local aid there is, anyhow. Anyone happen to recall the name of this planet, again?"
"Icarus," Jayne said, looking up from the dope fun with a mighty amused sneer.
"Great. That's just great." Caught Kaylee's mournful expression and swallowed. "Guess it's good to go someplace you ain't never been, least."
"I been to this dungheap before," Jayne said. "Gorram stretch of nothing of a nothing planet. Miners. You ask me, whole lot of 'em are tweaked."
"Mining?" Mal pressed.
"Hell, yeah. This here place being one treasure trove of mineral resources, you feel like digging deep enough long enough for 'em. Did a job here a while back - some fellow wanted a mess of durium for his very own. Not the processed lese the Alliance sells - raw and pure. Best job I ever pulled, though you prob'ly couldn't be saying that for the other boys all got grabbed. Only two of us out of the whole team did get away. Hence the cut going up considerable. Yup. Had me some good times out of that job." His hand strayed to adjust his crotch as if in remembrance and Kaylee sniffed and rolled her eyes.
"Before we get too deep into the fond and... very touching reminiscing," Mal said, "Would this situation turning out so fortuitous to your fortunes there have arisen from this hunk of rock having itself an infestation of Alliance carcasses all wound up to protect that mineral wealth?"
The thought sobered Jayne up, if nothing else. "You might not be wrong there, captain." Worry in his face as he cast a slow, measuring look over to where Simon was doctoring River, which was no end of surprising.
"Ain't it awfully far away from the Core for there to be all that many Purplebellies?" Kaylee offered.
"Protecting their resources." Mal found himself unable to take up the lifeline of hopefulness she'd tossed out. "Makes sense. Durium builds spacecraft components and its liquid and gas byproducts process up nice for fuelling 'em, and neither of those things are too easy to come by since the mining on Arrarat and Boros dried up. Nope, I reckon it's a fair bet we got ourselves a rock full of Feds to contend with. Seems our troubles ain't multiple enough already for the 'verse's satisfaction."
"Maybe they won't know or care too much for fugitive reports and the like way out here," Kaylee said. "Not as if we've got anything else illegal on board right now. We'll be okay. Least if there's Alliance, there should be no problem getting ahold of parts for the repairs we'll need, and refuelling should be a cinch."
"They's civilised here," Jayne reassured - which wasn't generally a thing to inspire hope. "Mighty pleasant people. Hell, I almost felt bad stealin' from 'em." He hawked out a raucous laugh.
"But you still did it." Kaylee leaned in and jabbed him with an elbow and an air of conspiratorial mischief. And a certain over-enthusiasm that some folks might look on as suspicious. If they was mean and suspicious folks, anyway.
"Ow. What you gotta go and do--"
Standing real slow, staring into the distance, Mal waved him to silence. He could see the haze of dust tracks rising from the horizon. Could make out, a couple minutes later, the black shapes of figures cresting the vanishing point and beginning to grow nearer. Horses, he thought, narrowing his eyes against the sun. Horses, and a ground vehicle of some kind.
He reached for his gun in long-suffering expectation, then restrained the gesture, just keeping his hand hovering near.
"Looks like the welcome wagon's here."
"What'd I tell you?" Jayne asked, standing in his undershorts and stained t-shirt at the rough-hewn kitchen counter and hacking cold pork off a joint into slabs. He piled the slabs on his plate, negotiating his balance real carefully on the crutch that compensated for his splinted leg. "Good people, good food." He laughed. "Hell, maybe this wasn't such a bad idea for a stopover after all."
There was something markedly hollow about that cheer, though, and Mal let it past with a grunt. He was himself seated at the big table, tearing off pieces of the food in front of him mostly left-handed to chew it mostly with the side of his mouth that didn't hurt, in the kind of mechanical fashion tended to be the only option when you'd taken a knock on the head and didn't much feel like eating but had a duty to stay in health nonetheless. Couldn't barely taste it anyway.
The place was a boarding house for new settlers and the sort of casual off-planet labour that would ship in now and again when times were especially lean, and since it didn't have much in the way of residents at present the woman who ran it had been all too happy to put them up as an act of charity. It wasn't a generosity Mal was accustomed to seeing, even accounting how Simon had smoothed the way with the townsfolk by some trade of the more hard-to-get medical supplies they'd still had in the infirmary left over from Ariel.
At least Jayne's broken leg didn't seem to be bringing him down any. The two of them were the early birds, woken by the passage of the dawn convoy taking the local workers up to the mines. Soft sunlight of a new morning streamed through the windows and caused him to angle his head so as to shield his eyes while he ate. Kaylee and the preacher were still in their bunks, a couple of paper-thin walls distant. Zoe had stayed in the settlement's small hospital with Wash, and Simon with River, ten minutes away down the dirt track main street at the other side of town.
Jayne lurched to the table with his plate balanced in his free hand and swearing every step; slumped down into a chair with apparent contentedness and started shovelling food into his mouth like he was feared it might be taken away from him if he delayed. "'S good," he said - and not without sharing a goodly amount of it in so doing.
Nearest the crew had ever come to a gorram mutiny had been over food. Picked up an infestation on some xi niao rock at the ass-end of the system, bugs the size of his thumb and they'd gotten into the food and pretty damn much wrecked everything 'fore all being found and exterminated. Serenity had been six days out from any planet it was safe to land on account of Mal not having pissed off any of the major players in the local power structure at some point in his past. Nearest his crew had ever come to an honest-to-God mutiny, when he took to starvation rationing in favour of setting down over-early to resupply. He'd been more careful than ever, since then, over the food, even to the point of favouring keeping up their stocks over the replacing of the worn down engine parts Kaylee would badger him about.
Not that that hadn't bitten him a few times itself, but when you couldn't stretch to everything it was necessary to make choices in what you did stretch to, and keeping morale was more important than keeping up with accidents that might never happen. Even after the last time - hell, there was no helping fate. Plain bad luck for it to have gone and happened again so soon.
He reckoned after this occasion he'd be listening to Kaylee a bit more for a while. There was definitely something downright rotten about his luck.
"You're awful quiet this mornin'," Jayne observed. "Wouldn't be you've got any kind of issue with our hosts now, would it?"
Mal looked up. "Oh, no. They're just shiny. Couldn't have picked finer folk to crash land on, cross my heart." The pork on his plate was almost gone and his stomach was informing him as to its doubts about the wisdom in finishing what remained. He sat back and watched Jayne upend the scraps onto his own plate without a by-your-leave or a break in the flow of his eating.
Just about figured that Jayne'd be so gorram defensive about the people here. Robbed them blind five years back, but wouldn't hear a thing said against them.
"Haven't seen no sign of any Feds yet," Jayne commented.
"It's only a matter of time. We fell into town late last night. Serenity sitting out there'll make 'em nice and curious, and then they'll be along and all their questions with them." He stood slowly and eased his chair back under the table tidily after him. Jayne was right about one thing - didn't do to take liberties with a rare hospitality such as this.
"Leastways nobody's gonna be able to recognise the crazy girl at the moment. That'd be one of those blessings in disguise, right? Doctor keeps his head down, don't show off his fine breeding and smart mouth too much, we might just get this past the gorram Alliance."
Mal nodded, and Jayne's mouth settled into a satisfied line. His knife clinked down onto his empty plate, and he started gathering up the other stray empties from the table, some of them leftover from the night before.
Mal took up his gunbelt from the back of the chair where he'd left it, and set to awkwardly turning it all about so it could hang against his left hip 'stead of his right.
"Might be you oughta give up on that thing and take to running real fast if you land yourself in trouble," Jayne said with a feral grin. "Troublesome kind of injury you got there. I wouldn't trade." He smacked his palm against his splinted leg and winced as the nerve messages informed his brain that as good ideas went, that wasn't one. Mal looked down at his splinted middle finger, taped secure to the third finger of his right hand, and frowned at Jayne's lopsided gait.
"No big deal." He secured the gunbelt. "I can shoot wrong-handed for a while. Don't let Kaylee sleep much longer, okay? I'll be back, and I'll be needing her. And for cryin' out loud, get some pants on, 'fore you scare the natives into changing their minds 'bout putting us up."
Mal turned away from the table and hauled open the creaky front door that stood about three feet from where he'd been sitting eating. He left Jayne behind standing on one leg at the sink, looking more than a mite ridiculous in his undershorts and whistling out of tune while busily engaging himself washing up the dirtied pots and plates for the old lady who ran the boarding house.
First thing the doctor had done when Mal offered him a permanent - or as permanent as these things ever got in an unwholesome and uncertain world - berth on Serenity was to take the infirmary apart and sterilize everything in sight at least twice. Mal had felt vaguely affronted about the business. Wasn't like they hadn't looked after the place - he and Zoe had both done a share of field doctoring in their time, and sad to say the infirmary saw more than its share of use. As the boy may or may not have noticed, the captain did avail himself of its facilities on no infrequent basis.
Simon had stammered and apologised, and gone right back to his sterilizing. Mal had contemplated getting angry and finally put it down to some kind of doctorly marking out of territory, while the thought of his crewmembers engaging in such similar practices brought to mind a brief horror as to the potential source of the smell he'd noticed seemed to hang around Jayne's room even when the air filters were going at it full pelt.
He wondered if the doc had spent half the night cleaning his little corner of this place, as he walked into the dingy hospital building where shadows seemed to linger that were unnaturally dark for all that the day outside was bright and full of unfamiliar townsfolk who nonetheless greeted him by name on the street. Mind, if Simon had engaged his mother hen routine here, it wasn't showing it, and Mal had altogether more faith in the doc's ability to be anal than to believe it. Last night had likely been spent watching over River with a single-minded focus. He wasted a moment on a vague twinge of regret he hadn't hauled the boy away and made him rest.
He walked past beds mostly empty in the large outer ward. The town wasn't so bad off; unlike too many of the terraformed worlds, this one didn't have any nasty locale-specific surprises waiting to crawl into a person's body and take root. The people were reasonably prosperous and hence healthy, for all that they lived a way out from any real kind of civilisation. Behind the first ward, there were a series of private rooms for the more severe cases. Last night, River had been in the operating theatre still, last he saw her, but likely today she was in one of those.
Assuming she'd lived to leave the operating table, filled in the voice at the back of his brain that generally insisted upon a focus on the things he'd prefer not to contemplate. Though Mal wasn't sure if his conscience, mighty crowded already, ought to be still noticing these extra corpses so much as it did. All the same, Nandi was the first death in a long time that had settled in as an acute ache rather than a numbness over which his thoughts played a complicated avoidance game. But then she'd reminded him that he could feel in all sorts of ways.
He didn't want to barge in on any of the closed doors, and hunted first around the back of the hospital, where there seemed to be no-one on duty. Truth to tell, he was relieved when he heard a door quietly open and turned around to see Simon's head poked out into the corridor, hair tousled and face pale and blotched from lack of sleep.
"Captain," the boy said, in that way he had that was just light and innocent and without any inflection at all, though you gorram knew there were things going on in that overeducated skull didn't match the look remotely.
"Everything all right here, doctor?" He asked it, already not needing to. If his sister was dead, Simon would've come out of that room with blood on his mind when Mal put in an appearance.
Simon sighed, quiet like the edge of a whole chasm of exhaustion was gaping under his heels. "We're waiting. That's all that we can do, now. Things seem hopeful... but that's no guarantee. The good news is that her chances are excellent." He spoke like he'd achieved a degree of impartiality, like the patient wasn't the one person in his world that mattered to him above all else. He stepped back a little and waved a hand, indicating the room. "Come on inside, captain."
Mal shuffled through. The door clicked to as Simon closed it after him, and stood silent thereafter. Mal wasn't oblivious to the veiled emotional blackmail taking place, but it was being sorely misplaced. He sat down in the chair by River, though, and frowned down at her face near-hidden as it was by white dressings dotted haphazard red, and he slowly reached for the pale hand lying atop the sheets; folded it in his own. Trailed the good index finger and thumb of his right hand very gently over the girl's hair.
Girl'd had the most ornery messed-up luck a body possibly could, he figured... Born with hell of a mind, until the government took it to their heads to steal it from her, put back something else in return. And now, just as she was beginning to grow into it - whatever it might be - here she lay, cold and still as death, brought down by forces with no place in her fight or story. Had an irony to it he wasn't much for appreciating.
"World never does run to plan," he told her, patting her hand. Withdrew then, leaning back in the chair, hooking a heel over a wooden strut around the base of the hospital bed, and stared down Simon, square into the eyes that'd never left him. "You had any sleep?"
He shook his head, stubbornness coming to the fore in fighting form. "Not until she stabilizes... until I know." He swallowed hard. "The medical staff here - I don't--"
"All right. Just don't go talking like that to them. 'Sides your skill at charming folks, you're a doctor - fine, and we can't afford to hide it. But a fancy surgeon from the core? A bit more of a giveaway out here if anyone's checked their fugitive reports right."
"You said that last night," Simon said carefully.
"I did?" Mal didn't remember. The night had been something of a blur. About all he remembered was Zoe setting his broken fingers and Kaylee slapping him in the face because she couldn't carry him to the board house on her lonesome if he was passed out. "--And I had the right idea. I tell you not to let on that she's your sister?"
Simon nodded, a twinge of embarrassment there. "They think she's my sweetheart. And yes, you told me. Three times. Almost in front of them, the last, which was when Zoe hauled you off... which reminds me, perhaps I should examine that head wound?"
Mal waved him off. "Zoe's tender loving care's been good enough these past six years or more, ain't gonna kill me now. Old news. Fang xin." He ran his eyes over Simon, noting the doctor wasn't without his own scuffs and scrapes, chief among them hidden beneath a bandage stretching over his upper left arm; his shirt sleeve had been cut off at the shoulder to make way for it. Wondered briefly who'd doctored the doctor, and when, and how bad it was under there. Knew already that asking wouldn't do him any good at all.
He stood up, ceding the chair back to Simon. "Take care of her," he said, pointing to the girl, phrasing it like an order. Might as well give himself the illusion of exercising some control over what passed here. He paused in the doorway, turning back only to see that Simon had already slumped into the chair like he physically couldn't have stood an instant more. "Zoe and Wash?" he asked.
"Next door, on the left." The doctor pointed at a wall.
"Thanks." Mal closed the door and left him to his waiting.
Zoe and Wash, he looked in on, and stared a little helpless at the tableau that greeted him. Wash curled up under the sheets with the burned side of his face uppermost to spare it from pressure, tucked into the edge of the narrow bed because Zoe was curled fully dressed on top of the sheets, the contours of her form matched to his though the bedclothes were between them. Her hand drifted even in sleep toward the gun strapped to her uppermost thigh, unconsciously aware of the intrusion.
Mal closed the door silently once again, consigning to a mental graveyard where languished the corpses of a thousand plans and schemes the half-formed intent of dragging Wash up and out to help look over Serenity's repairs.
Icarus' landscape was the kind of dry, dusty expansive not ordinarily associated too closely with civilisation's best and brightest - though mining buildings in the distant hills glittered pretty like Nandi's foil-packed whorehouse, and the town left at his back had its own eclectic mix of fancy core-planet spit-and-shine tech and frontier settlement make-do all suggestive of this being a young colony yet, a world half-formed with no more than a few decades under its belt.
Though there had to be arable land someplace none-too-distant because these folks surely had access to vegetable crops and grazing animals, far as Mal's admitted limited experience of the rock extended, he didn't think he'd seen a tree nor so much as a weed since they'd set down. Settlers might've been better advised to ship over a herd of camels in lieu of horses.
Turned out fortunate they hadn't put down too far from the settlement - called Hill Nicholas in some sort of exercise of settler irony and reportedly a smaller scrap of city than many on the planet - as Mal hadn't the merest notion of the route they'd taken the evening before, let alone how to travel it in reverse. He worked on vague directions from the benefactor whose horses carried them, hooves discarding a trail of dust in their wake so light it hung on the air overlong like mist. Landscape fell away before them until cresting a rise they looked down on Serenity hunched like a wounded beast in the dirt.
Wasn't much nearer 'fore it became plain to see there was someone waiting there ahead of them.
Mal slid from the horse's back, leading the animal the last few dozen feet to the small group of men and hearing Kaylee do the same with a mite more caution behind him. "Morning, people," he hedged. "What can I do for you?"
"Captain Reynolds." He didn't recognise the man who stepped forward, but his clothes marked him out a deputy. Fellow next to him was a full-blown sheriff. Looked like the local law had found them.
"Hiya, deputy Bexil," Kaylee said sunnily, and probably you had to know her to catch that the cheer weren't quite so genuine as usual. "We just came to look over Serenity and see what we'll be needing for the fixin'. Cap'n, this here's deputy Bexil - you remember, he helped us out yesterday."
Mal forced a smile and pointed the direction of his head injury, cleaned but left undressed. "Of course. Mind you, courtesy of this souvenir here, yesterday's still kind of blurry." He frowned 'round the faces of the group, grim and serious as they were. "Sure you fellows wouldn't object if Kaylee scurries off to make a start on our damage assessment." He pushed her gently toward the boat. "Note of everything we need, mei mei, and see if you can't dig out the mule and get it in working order if it ain't already. Sure would come in handy not to be beholden for Mr Camworth for his horses the length of our stay here, fine beasts as they are."
She hesitated, clearly nervous leaving him with the lawmen, but went.
"You're captain of this vessel?" asked the third fellow, owner of a suit whose fineness wasn't tailored to the heat of the sun and was suffering for it in widening patches at armpits and neck. "You the owner, too?"
"I am. Is there a problem?"
"None yet." But the man sure did look a kind of contemplative on that score. Mal didn't trust his answer one bit, and he glanced around thinking to garner clues from the faces of the other strangers, but it was the landscape that caught his eye and made the answer click.
"You'd be the owner of this land," he said, reaching out to pat the fellow on the shoulder - 'cept the man didn't much seem to appreciate the camaraderie. "Not to worry, mister. Daresay I'm as eager as you are to get Serenity flying again quick. She won't be in your way long."
Landowner nodded tight-lipped and seemed satisfied after a fashion. Mal turned to the sheriff as the man made his excuses and peeled off to a sleek, bred piece of horseflesh about as out of place in the locale as the suit. "Not breaking any laws here am I, sheriff?" he asked, more easy as the landowner faded into a dust trail and then the dust trail faded too.
"Not that I know of." Sheriff was a fortyish fellow built on a scale somewhat larger than most, but a round belly and face and the kind of complexion some folks might describe as 'jolly' softened the threat of his size. "Your boat here, though, it gave us quite the light show coming down yesterday afternoon. Got a lot of folks curious. Folks get curious, it's my job to look in. 'Sides, Neet there's all riled up about this patch of dirt the piece of paper says is his, and humouring that boy - well, that's my job too." He held out his hand. "Jack Onanby."
An assessing look told the man apparently all he needed to know and gave plenty indication to Mal that there was some lie to the cheery harmlessness of his appearance. "Ship's called Serenity, huh? Am I to take from that and your coat there you fought in the war?"
"For the Independents," Mal finished. "I surely did." Looking past Onanby's shoulder to the hatch where Kaylee had crawled in. "War's been over a while, sheriff."
"War's never set foot on this planet, Captain Reynolds. You'll find people here are very big on keeping it that way. You don't give no trouble, you won't find no trouble. Not on account of your past record. I believe in being fair to a man. War's over, like you say. We got Alliance here, we ain't never had a problem with that. Got no problem with you neither."
Mal swallowed, trying to remove the sour taste he couldn't spit. "I'll take that as a kindness," he said slowly. "Not many people you'll find are willing to forget."
Two months in a living Hell, piling up the dead, giving in trying to count and catalogue the corpses; men left to rot without identity buried now in anonymous mass graves, and a four-figure number of them dead under his command. Some things couldn't be forgotten. Some things were meant to be remembered.
"Well, we're live and let live kinda people here," the sheriff said amiably, and Mal was saved having to come up with a response to that by Kaylee dropping down from the cargo hold and calling herself to all their attentions with a shout and a wave.
The hint of urgency in her manner had him shoved past the two lawmen in an instant, covering the ground to her side. "What is it?"
"Crash itself didn't do too much, way of damage - not like nearly so bad as it looks, anyways. All that stuff's mostly superficial... heck, we can prob'ly wait on fixing most of it while we're back out in the black. But the regulator going... it took out a bunch of other stuff when it did. And tryin' to land without it shorted a lot of circuits on the bridge - that stuff's gonna cost to fix. Shuttles, too - reckon it was the shaking about did that." She hesitated, real anger bubbling just past the surface of her eyes. "That ain't all, cap'n," she finally said. "There's things missing."
"Yeah." Wounded anguish in her face, and hell, it was like looking at her as a girl again, her daddy lecturing over her shoulder as to what he'd do if Malcolm didn't take care of her good enough, and her pulling faces out of her daddy's sight made it real hard to keep his own straight and convince the man he wasn't some freak really oughtn't be trusted to a man's daughter. 'Course, by that time he was down an engineer since Bester'd picked up and left in a snit and a tirade of aspersions on Mal's own character, so he couldn't afford to crack. Niska didn't have the first idea. "Parts as could be removed easy - the stuff near the exits, the stuff you could get at quick. Nothing real important, but someone's been scavenging her, cap'n!"
Mal swung round on the lawmen coming up on his back. "Zhe shi shenmo lan dongxi? I thought this place had law!" Half-aware of Kaylee adopting an innocently crumpled smile and glancing away like he'd said something wasn't quite funny.
"We're not without our brigands, Captain," Bexil said.
Onanby took a step forward, patting down on the air front of him with both hands, pacifying. "Scavengers'll steal anything as stays still long enough. Nobody thought to set a guard on your vessel here." He coughed a mite awkwardly, carried on in more muted tones, "Truth to tell, we didn't see as you'd be coming back to do repairs. Old ship like this, the kind of battering she's taken - be cheaper 'n easier to find a new boat, start again from scratch."
"What?" And clearly Kaylee knew him to well, 'cause her thin fingers had curled 'round his wrist just the second 'fore he'd have started to swing.
"Please don't start hittin' on anyone, cap'n," she stammered, all but whispering. "I mean, it mostly is true. More or less... 'cept this is Serenity, so we know we ain't doing what he says... We're not, are we?"
"Like hell we are." Mal glowered at the sheriff and deputy, feeling his mouth bunch up ugly. "My ship won't be getting junked, and she won't be getting left for the vultures to pick over. We're fixing her up. Dong ma?"
Onanby nodded, loosing a sigh, regret plain. "I see that you are, Captain Reynolds. I see that." But a world of complications seemed to be lurking beneath the surface of his words.
Back in the old days - and didn't that make him feel old, to be framing that thought - it used to be that Zoe'd have a harmonica. Before Red Canyons, before Serenity Valley, before the worst of what the war threw at them. Midst of all the gear in her pack, she'd have this clunky great chunk of tin made a sound like cats in distress. Brought it all the way with her from home, knew a few tunes - not well, but hell, sometimes they were desperate and could afford a bit of noise, and she'd play. Never made any real sense to him, that she had it, because the thing was heavy for what it was when every pound weighed you down and Zoe had always been so gorram practical. But sometimes he heard Zoe's harmonica, badly played in the trenches, in his dreams. Shrill, small voice of waiting and exhaustion, of mud and blood and not being able to tell in the dark which was which even when they weren't so mixed in as to have created some hybrid gunk was neither.
It was funny really, how he'd never out and asked her what happened to it. Whether it had been lost somewhere, like so many other things of indefinable worth in the varied perils of the front lines, and if not then why it was she'd stopped playing it. He hadn't even realised at the time - it must have happened gradual. All he knew was that years after, he'd wake up in his bunk on Serenity with Zoe's harmonica playing in his head, screaming its raucous dirge for the past, and couldn't be figuring the moment between then and now when it'd gotten itself lost in the gaps between words on the pages of history.
Funny, too, the way it just didn't seem to fit with his image of her, the same way Wash didn't fit with his image of her. Made him wonder all kinds of things, about what he never got to see: whether she played it still when with her husband in their quarters alone, keeping the noise dialled down, turning it to something private - if the damn harmonica wasn't under the grassed-over mud on Du Kang, but the grassed-over parts of his and her relationship, fixed too hard into ritualised channels to let anything like music through.
Or maybe it just reminded her of things she'd rather forget.
Mal crouched, back to Serenity's hull and buttocks to the sand, shifting grip on the rifle his bended knee supported. Stole a breath there as he sat before levelling the rifle's sight again to his eye, pushing off from the ground and half-turning out of cover; aimed and released another shot into the dark as bullets pinged off Serenity and kicked up dust on the ground close by, then collapsed back down into cover.
"Damn it! Ni ta ma de. Tian xia suo you de ren dou gai si!" Fingers worked more clumsily than usual to reload, hampered by chill and the splint and the persistent ache meant he ought to have paid another visit to the doctor before leaving town that evening. Long time, too, since he'd used a piece of this exact type. One of Jayne's, equipped with a telescopic sight that had night vision extra, and the last he'd used one had been Serenity Valley, though not for long. Gun like this had been scarce commodity toward the end of the war, and a few days in they'd ran out of ammo for the things or some bastard lieutenant further down the line had snatched the lot claiming better use elsewhere - Mal forgot precisely which.
Hadn't set up here looking to kill folk, neither. Wasn't his fault the scavengers were dumb as mud and couldn't take a gorram warning shot for a hint.
To think, just a few days before he'd been anxious for anything to distract himself from Inara's absence...
Rifle reloaded; instinct had kept a lock on the shadows meanwhile, the little enough could be seen with the naked eye. Icarus had a night darker than the grave and cold to match. He braced his legs and came up again - quick aim and fire and back down, a cry of pain echoing itself on the air to tell him he'd shot true, winged the man.
Mal breathed, clutched the rifle to his chest with one arm, and dragged his coat closer 'round him with the other. Raised his head and breathed in deeper and hollered, "Could we maybe talk reason here?" The twang of a bullet pock-marking Serenity's shell gave answer. "Hey. Hey! Hey!" he roared, and cast the rifle aside to draw his pistol left handed and loose several shots at the huddle of shadows before hunching back down, holstering the pistol and snatching up the rifle again. "People! Question you got to ask yourselves is whether a handful of old parts is really and truly worth your lives. I got cover you don't, and I'm better armed to boot, so the common sense any village moron's born with says it ain't, and if you folks don't start seeing reason soon, I will start shooting to kill."
Couldn't be sure, but he thought he heard a faint "screw you" tossed and mangled by the wind. Another hail of bullets confirmed it. Well, hell.
Another breath, pushing off with his bended knee, sliding his back along the smooth cold rock of Serenity's presence. Aim and fire. A head shot, no more games, no cry as the man fell; scraping a bullet past the shoulder of the man next in line that could've as easy been in his neck or his heart, couple of inches either way. Hunching back down again, heartbeat loud in his ears, hand smarting, head protesting with all the din. Maybe this hadn't been such a hot idea. Should've picked the bastards off soon as they entered range, what with Zoe stayed behind with Wash and all; complication of split loyalties on a small crew, indeed...
He raised his head. "You fellows perhaps beginning to grasp the point now, 'bout how I ain't making no insincere threats or bluster here?"
All as floated back to him was swearing, running feet and a dragging sound, and after a moment voices spoke too far from earshot for him to be guessing the precise words, and then the dragging quit to leave just the running and interspersed pants of breath. Mal raised himself up and levelled the rifle, watching them run through its sight. Four, one man down, two of those still up injured enough to be slowed. Watched their backs sore tempted 'til they were out of view, then let the rifle slide from his hands and sank down, his sigh misting on the air.
Likelihood was, they wouldn't be back tonight, and maybe not any other night either. Times would have to be hard for anyone risking death for the stealing of Serenity's parts - she wasn't worth much of nothing stripped down to component pieces - but, no, they probably wouldn't be back tonight. The night after, perhaps, with more people. He'd have Zoe with him then.
He could probably close the hatch to, dig out his old army blanket and sleep some. Kipped out across the threshold, he'd be in a fighting position if they did come back, and it wasn't like there wouldn't be work aplenty for him to be doing the next day that a little rest wouldn't exactly hurt.
The idea didn't sit easy with him, though. Instead, he made a circuit of the ship, training the rifle sight on the land around to cover a full three-hundred-sixty degrees. He paid particular attention those areas were the direction of settlements close enough to ride from, as he'd asked about that afternoon, even had someone dig out a map. Those, and the northern edge of the mountains, the foothills Onanby had said outlaws might hail from - men who'd been expelled from the communities altogether, a practice next best thing to a death sentence on a colony like this.
Nothing. Hours yet 'til the dawn.
Solitude once established turned into an unanticipated unease. Wasn't often he'd been truly alone. Though he was not so alone as he'd been that time in Serenity after they'd launched the shuttles, if you were making a reckoning on purely spatial distances. He slung Jayne's rifle around his shoulder and made a foray inside the boat, shining a borrowed flashlight before him to illuminate the debris. Ended up in the bridge, with its jagged hole where glass ought be and array of unresponsive machinery; his own blood on the floor and the scent of Wash's burned skin still seemingly lingering, though any man thinking sane would know there was no way, thirty hours later and with that there fancy piece of ventilation gaped overhead.
Hesitated as the locker clicked back to, with the rough blanket in his hand, and leaned forward slow to touch the dead console. Fancied he could almost feel Serenity's pulse, her energies at a low, wounded ebb, beneath his fingertips.
"You and me both," he said. "Hang on in there, girl."
Consciousness had been filtering through in stages a while before something brought him full awake and wary. His initial sharp movement brought the smooth barrel edge of the Fed-issue gun that'd been about to prod his shoulder up against his chin. He froze. Slowly, carefully removed his fingers from his own gun and raised both hands.
Daylight streamed through the hatch, blinding him to anything more than the outline of a figure and two more outlines a way beyond it.
"So you are alive," a voice observed dryly, crisp lines of words lacking the burr of the regular townsfolks' accent. No local man, this. "I don't suppose you'd care to shed any light upon why Billy Hackett's lying dead out there with a bullet in his skull?"
Mal stared hard to front, careful to be damping down his reactions, and spoke slow and clear, "I'm Captain Malcolm Reynolds. This here's my ship, and I'd be sitting camped out with her because local law enforcement couldn't stretch to stopping her being raided for parts in the night. I didn't kill anybody wasn't trying their hardest to kill me."
A moment crawled past before the weapon removed itself from his face and Mal slowly relaxed his hands. The figure doing the looming shifted in the light, enough to reduce the glare a fraction. He saw an Alliance uniform with lieutenant's markings on a skinny frame; the catch of sun through yellowish hair grown a fraction overlong and whipped ragged by the wind. "I'd imagine that's probably true," the lieutenant said with a certain wryness. "We tend to frown on killing here as a general rule, though I gather from your record you're not a man for civilisation."
"My record," Mal repeated, no inflection at all, and a beat later, "Depends whose civilisation." Shielding his eyes with one hand, he caught his weight against the interior wall of Serenity with the other and tried to get his feet under him. Succeeded mostly in tangling them in the old blanket instead.
"Injured?" The Alliance man slid his fancy pistol into a hip holster and, when Mal shook his head, reached down impatiently to help haul him up. Eyes freed from the glare of the sun, Mal could see humour in the fellow's face would seem to indicate he wasn't entirely the typical Alliance stiff, though Mal was more concerned with the heroic task of kicking the tangle of blanket from his feet. "Sheriff Onanby contacted me from Hill Nicholas with the news they'd been having a patch of excitement."
"You've been looking into my records?" Mal scraped back the hand shielding his eyes to scratch at his head distractedly, wondering if something hadn't set about making itself a home there during the couple of hours he must've been asleep. "Am I suspected of having committed some kind of a felony?"
"Nothing we could prove, but then you know that." The lieutenant smiled. "Relax. It was a routine check. Wanted to know who it was I had stranded on my scrap of jurisdiction. Found out a bit more than I was expecting, too... Still, you're clean for what you are. Maybe you don't like the rules, but you don't flaunt them openly, and I imagine that's as good as can be expected."
"You want to quit with the psychoanalysis and tell me what you're doing here, and what business my ship is to you?" Got in the man's face with his hands down to his sides and his glare dour, and though he'd made no overtly threatening move, the lieutenant stepped back over the threshold, technically leaving the ship. Made no move to answer the question, though. Mal stepped out after him, dragging the hatch shut, kicking the blanket out the way again as it caught, and was aware of being followed down the ramp. Followed, too, as he walked a quick perimeter of Serenity, checking her on all sides. The Alliance fellow caught up as he was back where he'd started again and looking out across the sand at the body - Billy Hackett.
"The whores will miss him," the lieutenant observed, a moment later, standing over the body.
"Tried warning shots. Told them I'd shoot to kill if they didn't rabbit. Stupid sumbitch." He toed the corpse's shoulder.
"We'll take him back to town. We were on our way over there. I have some business with the sheriff and his men - not all of it related to you. Still, I'd be obliged if you'd accompany us. There are a few things we need to discuss." The tone set it quite a way from the request the words claimed it to be. Mal ducked his head, shooting an invisible glare at the man, and nodded grudging as he turned to trudge back to Serenity. He ignored the Feds while he retrieved the mule from the hold and sealed her up secure again after him.
"Jesson!" the lieutenant barked, and one of the subordinates who'd been hauling the corpse into the back of the jeep parked a goodly distance away across the sand came running over. To Mal, he said, "Jesson here will ride that buggy back into town. You'll be travelling in style, with me and Billy."
"Right," Mal said slowly. "I'll do that." Cast a glance back to the ship before letting himself be led over; climbing in back sandwiched between the lieutenant and the corpse he'd made, the latter at least decently covered with a scrap of metallic tarpaulin. Both of them waited while the remaining fellow climbed in front. Engine started up with a fine-tuned purr marred a couple seconds in by a sound close resembling a cough because evidently the machine was a mite oversensitive with regard to the prairie-dust. But it moved smooth enough once underway, and he watched out the corner of his eye as Serenity faded into distance.
The mule was falling far behind when the lieutenant sharply waved their driver to slow up. Not because of the mule, mind, Mal'd wager - their time for a private spot of interrogating was limited by how quick those wheels ate up the dirt. He sat and felt his body start to thaw as the warmth of the sunlight and the heat off the engine by his feet kicked in.
"You got a name?" Mal asked, as he saw the lieutenant's jaw shift preparatory to speaking again.
The fellow loosed a snort of laughter. "I'm amiss in my manners. It's Elner. Lieutenant Harry Elner." He didn't offer to shake hands. Probably afraid he'd catch something. "That ship must be important to you, for you to sit all night watching over her. A man could freeze to death out here. Plenty have."
"Serenity's my home," Mal said with no small amount of uncompromising. He'd risk more for her than a bit of cold. "Got people counting on me to get her flying again. Responsibilities. Can't stay sitting on this rock. No offence."
Elner laughed again and shook his head; man had a laugh sounded like something cracking, but it might just be that for an Alliance type he was almost tolerable. "There were a lot of your sort who set out for the skies after the war to dodge the repercussions. I guess a ship must start to feel like home, once the ground you fought over's been taken from under you."
"My kind?" Mal forced his face into a smile. "Afraid I'm not quite understanding you there."
Elner waved a hand, dismissive. Wasn't as though they didn't both know he'd understood exactly what was meant. "I have a problem," he began.
"I ain't your doctor or your preacher."
"You're a funny man, Captain Reynolds." And Elner could do as neat a turn in deadpan as sarcasm. "No, my problem would most definitely be located with that firefly of yours that's planted itself slap-bang directly over shaft S-419."
"Huh?" Blank look likely did nothing for his credibility, but he had no clue what this abrupt change of gear was about.
"Mining." Elner patted the side of the jeep. "Strange as it might seem, people didn't chose to settle out here in all this nothing because they liked the air. This is mining land. The tunnels stretch for miles underneath all this dust. It's a veritable warren down there. Your ship, it seems, has planted itself on top of one of the richest tunnels. It hit the ground the other night with some force, as well. Do you know what happens where the ground above mine workings gets compressed?"
"I get me three Feds on my tail badgering me about removing my ship," Mal hazarded, eying the man without trust.
Won himself a congratulatory smile, though, for all that it didn't last more than a few seconds. "And I get Rennit Grey on the line in my barracks at past midnight, having apoplexy, for all that the man has other tunnels aplenty. We need that ship gone. It's costing money every day that shaft stays closed. It's going to cost enough already to stabilize it. Blue Sun owns these mines, and their interests are Alliance interests, so it's good - very good - that we're of one mind on this issue." Elner grimaced. "It isn't that you don't have my sympathies, but - get your ship fixed and get her off that land, sergeant. Soon. I don't need this to be turning into trouble."
"Good to see you again, sir," Zoe said as he leaned himself against the kitchen counter and propped one foot on the seat of a nearby chair, bending his knee to rock it slowly. "Seem to have spent most of the last forty-eight hours missing each other." Her hand was on her husband's arm; his fingers rested atop hers, and her smile curled fondly as her eyes strayed down to him, softening the implicit apology that her loyalties should hold her to Wash's side foremost.
"Yeah," Wash said, glancing between them, like he often did, in the knowledge something had passed through that space and he hadn't quite understood. And as always, and less grudging now since Niska's skyplex, letting it slide. "Did you have a good stakeout? Is stakeout the right word? Did I see a body-bag lifted off that Alliance jeep that brought you in? By the way, if you find I'm babbling, the doc says that's just the pain meds, it's okay."
"Hadn't noticed any difference," Mal said soberly.
Wash glared at him and back around to his wife. At Kaylee, too, hiding her mouth behind her hand across the table. "You people are so hilarious." Jayne snorted, slouched across two chairs with his splinted leg rested up, carving his name into the table with his favourite knife in an artistic endeavour spoiling to make a swift end of his favour with the old lady.
First time Mal had seen his pilot up and around since the crappy landing, though he'd spoken to Wash, sat up in a hospital bed with Zoe still in need of surgical removal from his arm the evening before. Wash had dressings over a large portion of the left side of his face and neck, and the red soreness of more minor burns in a corona around their edges, including a slice over his left eyelid setting all his expression askew. Man had been damned lucky not to lose an eye. Mal had been lucky. Not that he liked to see anyone harmed in his employ, but there was something clawed at his insides so much more when it was Wash or Kaylee, what you might call his civilian contingent. Hell, he didn't hire them to take the knocks. He had himself and Zoe and Jayne for that - they were the ones supposed to get hurt. But Wash and Kaylee had been with him a long time now, and damned if he knew why they still were when things like this just kept happening. Wash had been tortured, gorram it. Kaylee almost died.
He still remembered the first time crisp and clear. Wash, it had been - Kaylee wasn't with them yet, and her lazy braggart of a predecessor might've been improved by a bullet or two. But it had been Wash, leaning out the hatch to shout after them some forgotten something, who'd caught a bullet in the opening exchange of the ambush. Caught it in the arm and in an artery too, and it sure had bled. Finishing off the ambushers had been the easy part. After, they'd rushed Wash to the attention of the local hospital, where Mal had been afraid the unsterile conditions would finish the job. Spent themselves an unholy long time waiting to find out they still had a pilot.
Truth to tell, he'd been plain afraid. He wasn't at war anymore and it wasn't done for people to lose body parts and bleed out for the privilege of taking orders from him. And he was pretty sure that should make him liable for something or other in the Alliance's new regs, that he'd end up losing his ship over it. His ship, and the new-minted freedom she brought with her.
'Course, Wash had been just fine. That bullet in the arm even proved itself to be the start of he and Zoe, her helping him with all the controls it wasn't so easy to reach flyin' one-handed, the two of them spending time together up front on the bridge getting all contortionate... One day pretty soon Mal had walked in to find her in Wash's lap, leading to a stretch of weeks he'd felt something like the most hard-done-by critter in the 'verse, what with the two of them and Bester's string of bedazzled harpies at every planetfall.
"Serenity's safe," Mal said. "For the moment. How you doing?"
"Oh, it only hurts when the pain meds wear off, sir, when it hurts with a fiery blazing agony the like of which shouldn't be visited upon the hordes of the damned. I'm kind of scared to ask just what it is the doc has me dosed up on. But I'm good." He gave a lopsided smile and played with Zoe's fingers.
"The doc says that with the correct treatment, it won't scar," Zoe provided. "He should be okay. We seem to have missed all the fun, though."
"Shi ma? Well, no cause to worry - your turn tonight." Mal shifted his back against the counter, eased one ache a fraction and waked a whole bunch of new ones. He smiled tightly at Zoe, who raised her eyebrows in demure question by way of return.
Door chose then to crash back, followed by Simon staggering bleary-eyed with a preacher attached to his elbow. Doc didn't look like he'd had any more sleep than Mal had, which felt like a certain bond of kinship then and there. "Ah. The good doctor graces us with his presence at last."
Zoe shot him a look; switched to a wholly more sympathetic one for Simon and asked, "How is she?"
"She's..." Simon looked around at them all and blanched a little, apparently divining quick enough the very true fact he'd been keeping them waiting. He sank into the chair next to Kaylee, and Book waited 'til he was rested secure before taking himself away to pose as a shadow leaned up in a corner of the room. "She's doing better," Simon allowed, enunciating as if to convince himself. "We're not yet completely out of the woods, but... if she regains consciousness soon, that will be a good sign." He visibly took in a breath. "There was some head trauma. It may have aggravated her condition."
And now that part, the doctor had kept very close to his chest. Simon's cast-down eyes travelled nervously, full aware, and Mal let a 'hunh' of air through his nose, only sound to break the immediate silence that followed the admission. River cogent as she was capable of being was still all sorts of potential incendiary for a situation - River with more crazy heaped on top wasn't something Mal wanted much to contemplate. Few other faces openly echoed his sentiment, and Kaylee set her hand on Simon's arm and ambushed him with a bumper portion of doe-eyed comfort as he turned.
"She'll be okay," Kaylee said.
Simon's gaze dragged away from her, returned to flitting about like there wasn't anything wasn't too hot to alight on. "I don't have access to the kind of equipment here that would tell me for sure. Until she wakes, there's nothing I can do to assess that."
"That ain't what I mean." Her hand lingered a moment, but his attention wasn't within a hundred miles of her. She clasped her hands together in front of her on the table, lips drifting apart in the shape of a sigh not audible at all.
"Be that as it may," Mal said, looking hard at Simon, "River has a place with us. If we have to reassess the situation, well, we'll deal with what comes. But she won't be abandoned. Nobody is gonna be left behind."
"With respect, sir, that isn't the only danger to her right now." Resentment in Simon's eyes as his head lifted. "You rode back into town with three Alliance men, and as far as I could discern from the local gossip, they're not planning on leaving anytime soon. River's been linked with a firefly-class ship in the fugitive reports. If they put two and two together, she's helpless. We're helpless."
"Well, there's nothing we can do about that we ain't already doing--" Mal began.
"You're wrong." Simon's tongue flickered out and trailed across his lower lip 'fore he continued. "There's a man. I've spoken to him - he was grateful for the drugs... the drugs that we brought. He said he knows another man, in a town called Burgone a few settlements over from this one, who has a ship he could probably be persuaded to sell to us upon recommendation. It's old, and it hasn't been flying in a few years, but it checks out, or so he swears, everything in working order. The price would be very reasonable - less than Kaylee's estimate for the repairs to Serenity. It's risky, but River could be moved, if we're careful. We could be away from here within a day."
Mal gave him a flat glare that had been building the whole speech. "No."
"Simon..." Seemed Kaylee had no more of a liking for the suggestion, even so far as to edge her chair away from his.
"I realise it's... I know that you... We're all very attached to Serenity, captain. But this is our lives. And our freedom. I'm not saying we should do this lightly, or right away - it would be better for River to regain consciousness before we tried to move her - but I think we need to consider it as a serious option if things heat up."
Mal narrowed his eyes and swept them around the faces as were watching him, waiting for the explosion. Told himself firmly that if he hit Simon, he'd feel bad about it later. It was Book, to his startlement, who broke the hostile silence.
"Son, things aren't anywhere near that kind of bad yet," the Shepherd said from his all-but-forgotten corner. Heads turned, but it was Mal's eyes he caught and held across the room, expression grave.
"I'm sorry." Simon ducked his head contritely, but his penitence still held a note of rebellion.
"Hey, uh..." Jayne shifted; flinched and grunted as his leg jarred. "Kid's got a point, you know? Ain't only the girl in danger if she's caught. Whole lot of us could end up on a penal moon rest of our lives." He hunched down in his chair more with expectation than the reaction. "I'm just saying, kid's got a point."
"Now I'm truly terrified," Simon said slowly, his forehead concertinaed in perfect horror.
"I don't care," Mal said, kicking back the chair he'd been resting his foot on. It smashed against the edge of the table and rebounded, tipping over onto the floor cascading splinters. "You know why? Because you don't get a say in what I do with my ship. I say. Me. And I say she's getting fixed up and I don't want to be listening to any more of this gou shi. Serenity may be down right now, but I'm still in charge here... you all might want to take note of that." He glared around the set of faces; Zoe at her most neutral, Wash with furrowed brow, little Kaylee looking tearful and every bit sold, Book almost approving, Jayne with blank surliness, Simon with his lips pressed tight. "Now, 'bout our plan of action for that whole 'fixing up' part. Do we have anything constructive to bring to this discussion?"
"Money," River said. Somewhere under all the bandaging there lurked a tiny smile and hint of a giggle. "Fair-weather-loyalties. Bought and sold." Girl's voice was raspy and strained after too much injury and nil-by mouth. Her left hand was raised to play at the dressings on her face, movements slow from weakness, fingers stroking the synthetic fibre in a perfect rhythmic motion; up-down, up-down. Her chin made a play of rotating to match the rhythm, but she didn't have near enough the mobility in her neck; it came out instead a pained shudder.
Mal stepped closer, caught the hand. "We don't want to be disturbing those." Wrapped his hands around her fingers, feeling them small and cold in his grasp. Watched as her littlest finger worked its way free and trailed itself independently over his splint. "Now, what's on your mind?" He felt awkward looming over her; hooked the chair with his foot and dragged it, blind, up close enough to sink down into.
"Everything." And he'd learned to recognise Little Miss Matter-of-Fact by now, too. If this had been what River was like, cogent, as a kid, he couldn't imagine wanting to break laws nor turn himself outcast to rescue her. "Everything that's always on my mind, captain. You. Simon. The man in the next room - his heart's failing and he won't live through tonight. The lady across the hall, so scared, but she's going to have healthy babies, twins..." Teeth flashed while. A grin; he hoped a grin. She prodded him, hard. "Bad man."
"Ow. I'm figuring that grip for a signifier you'd be on the mend. Though I hate to break it to you, but you don't need any psychic powers for that there observation."
"I cheated with the others, too. I heard Simon talk."
"Guess that means the both of us must be bad apples, then." He rubbed his thumb in circles over her cold palm, trying to will it less cold. "I sure as hell am glad you're going to make it in one piece, girl."
Her hand clenched no-warning into a fist, though she didn't try pull it back, just held it up there, arm stuck out like in some weird salute. He circled thumb and forefinger around her wrist and turned her hand, playfully made examination of it from varied angles. "Not out of the woods." She spoke real quiet, at first anyway, so that he barely realised she was speaking at all. "At least I can still be hurt like a girl. But Simon wasn't pleased. Simon knows... I didn't before. So much fear and knowledge, and I couldn't see... But I'm not going to die, captain." She shook her hand until he loosed it. Then patted him on the arm 'fore retreating her hand to her side, slipping it under the blankets as though to save his warmth on it, seeing as how she had so little right now of her own. "And I'm no more crazy than I was before. You can stop worrying."
Mal, making a review of what she'd said, swallowed hard and wondered how he was going to tell Simon he had better stay clear of his way-too-fine-attuned sister for the duration when - if... if, damn it - she was injured again.
"I hear you when you don't think I do," she told him solemnly. "You're quieter than Simon. But then, you've worried for more people, more times, more years. And most of those are dead now. It's a more seasoned worry. It feels like camomile. And a hint of lemon... I'd like some tea..."
"Probably could have some, at that. I don't see how anybody would complain. I'll--"
"No." Her fingers around his wrist this time, holding him back as he started to get up, though they didn't stretch close to far enough for a circuit. "Simon will bring it. He's on his way already. Kaylee has a smudge of engine oil on her nose, and he doesn't know what he said to upset her. He doesn't like the boy at the parts shop who talked to her a whole hour in the street after she got back from the bigger parts shop in Burgone yesterday . Thinks he knows what that one wants, oh yes. Thinks Kaylee doesn't... he's such a twerp." She rolled into a whole different season of River with nary a pause. The sister, the girl, not the genius. Far the rarest of her colours. "But it's not real tea, anyway. Out here we drink flavoured powder from packets."
Mal often forgot, because she had endured so much, that the sister was as accustomed to the finer things as the brother was.
She said intently, as Mal let himself relax back in the chair, "I only come from a world where we had apples all year 'round. We didn't eat them with knives."
"I guess you wouldn't, at that." He looked down at her hands, her fingers still making their dance against his wrist, catching the edge of and then trailing deliberate over a small nick of scar tissue left over from the war.
"When we were children, they were peeled for us. An apple without peel has no defence against the world."
"It's just a thing," Mal said uneasily, disturbed by the intent note of anguish in her voice. "Doesn't feel. Not like you and me."
"I wasn't talking about the apple." Disapproval in her voice as she berated him his lack of understanding. What he could see of her face was sincere and a mite cross. She drew back her hand to hug tight over her belly instead, posture defensive all a sudden. "Flew too close to the sun. Wings all gone now. Melted. Melted away."
"Cai bu shi. Engine cut out 'cause that dummy of a captain was scrimping on maintenance again. Ain't none of us particularly mythological in status here."
Her lips pressed thinly at him. "You always bring us back down to Earth."
The door crashed back over-eagerly, Simon lurching in after it with a host of packets and jars in his arms. His expression sharpened, seeing Mal there, then came over confused. The packets he dumped at the foot of the bed where River's feet didn't reach. "Captain...? What are you doing here?"
"Just a-checking on the littlest member of my wayward and misbegotten crew. Not like everyone else haven't been in here six times already since she woke up."
"Well, yes, but..." Simon's resolve on the issue was near audible in its collapse. He grimaced down at the packets. "River wanted tea... the duty nurse said she'd keep looking in." To her, he said, "Has he been behaving, mei mei? If he's been trying to drag you out of bed to help with fixing up the ship..."
Mal rolled his eyes. Could've guessed he wasn't going to be forgiven for Wash anytime soon, either.
"No, Simon. That isn't it at all. He wants me to be better. But mostly he thinks I can be a sanctuary. That I don't judge him, but it isn't true. It's only that he doesn't understand."
Briefest taken-aback pause from Simon before: "Now, River, that's not polite..."
Mal released mixed laughter and disbelief as an uneasy cough, and felt his brows climb into his hairline. He stood, slapped his hands against his thighs, wiped them reflexively since River's touch had a habit of lingering. "Well, I guess I'll leave you two geniuses to it."
"She didn't mean that," Simon insisted.
"She always means it. Which would be just fine with me, it being true and me not precisely alone in that respect. I'll see you two later. Got to get back to Serenity."
Closed the door quiet at his back and grimaced into the darkened corridor. Far too much knowledge in that girl and far too frail and young a form to hold it. Couldn't help but remember her after the business with Niska, when he'd... after, he'd been sat in the lounge area of the kitchen. Nobody else around and himself just concentrating on breathing, filling his world with each and every next breath because fortitude wasn't something stayed with a man every minute and sometimes you just had to ride time out 'til the wheel turned back around to favour.
Somehow, between one breath and the next he had her curled on the floor at his feet, head rested against the side of his knee, hair tangling his fingers. Ran the gauntlet of vestigial pain to lean right over 'til he could see her face, the focus and concentration held there; see her eyes flicker up to him as he asked what the hell she was doing.
Learning, she'd said. Learning. Of all the crazy...
Had made no sense to him at the time - couldn't have, hadn't known then what he knew now, what they all did. And he wasn't sure he weren't creeped any less by it now that he knew. Because she knew. Bits and pieces of all of them rattling around in that half-broken mind of hers by now, and his own input mostly pain. But then, she'd been tortured too, after a fashion. Maybe it was only kinship she'd been looking for.
Hell, and maybe he should start a club.
It was a pleasant day outside - pleasant as any day could be on some rock, to a man for whom having his feet on the ground had long since become anathema. Feeling sunlight on his face mostly served to remind how it was sunlight the Alliance owned, just like everything else downside, and on this planet, more so than on many.
He'd been there long enough now there were a few folks he recognised on the street - and of course, all of them recognising him, seeing as how he was new on this rock and made somewhat infamous by the nature of his arrival. Saw the boy from the parts yard who Kaylee seemed to have managed to charm spite of her being all downhearted and having her sumbitch of a captain work her into the ground every hour of light these past days. Even got himself thrown a wave from the kid, which he mostly put down to ingratiation and fear. Not that he had any plans for interfering with Kaylee's affairs, mind, 'less she happened to ask of him the busting of a fellow's nose, in which case he was always happy to oblige. Kaylee knew her own mind. Probably it was a pity that Simon didn't - not, of course, that Mal was wanting any more complications thrown into the workings of his crew, exactly, but watching Kaylee mope didn't please him. And maybe once she'd had her roll in the hay she'd get him out of her system and find out he wasn't made up any different to her less fancy boys and things would settle down.
Yeah. And hadn't he been thinking thoughts not so very far removed with Zoe and Wash, too? Right up until the moment he was talked into giving Zoe away at the altar. He was beginning to feel like he was running a gorram dating ship. Serenity as the love boat and it made him smile an instant before he remembered he wasn't running anything at the moment and had a ways to go before he'd know for certain ever he would be again.
Whole gorram thing was falling apart. Started with Inara, and...
Head to the ground and sunk in thought, it was the shadows he saw first, approaching fast from behind upon either side, slanting long across the sand in the stretching afternoon. Found his arms caught even as he started to whirl 'round. Alliance uniforms, Lieutenant Elner's men. Elner marched up after them. "A word, Captain Reynolds," he said, sounding mighty sore about something, and led the way for his two lackeys to hustle Mal down a side street until they reached a quiet spot where the end of someone's fenced-off yard backed onto desert.
Elner perched on a handy rock. His goons tossed Mal back against the fence, impact shaking its length fit to bust and sending chickens into a panic on the other side. The two of them held their position, flanking him.
Whole scenario held an unmistakeable alignment of power and persuasion he well understood. But it wasn't the Alliance's - not so much. Elner was a boy going native.
Mal eyed the Alliance man carefully. "Problem, lieutenant?"
"You haven't been playing entirely honest with us." He felt his insides roil, but Elner hauled a sheath of worse-the-wear electronic paper from his shirt - Alliance never would seem to grasp that the stuff didn't take to an environment of heat and dust and the handling of the kind of folk tended to do business there - and it slapped onto the ground between them. Mal didn't make any move to pick it up. "That's your credit record, captain. Far as the Alliance is given to know, unless you've been holding out on us significantly, you don't have the funds to complete the repairs on that firefly anytime soon. You don't even come close."
The bellyache that'd settled some at the thought this wasn't about the two fugitives numbered among his crew returned. Brought reinforcements with it and all. "I wasn't lying to you. I'll get her up and flying out of this place. That there's just paper. I'll find a way."
"Just paper is the grind and toil of my job, Captain Reynolds. I have to go by the numbers."
"Speaking of which, I didn't know it was legal to download a man's credit files when he ain't directly under investigation."
"No, it's not. And you can comfort yourself with the fact Rennit Grey will be experiencing the fruits of that spot of creative manipulation for some time to come once I find proof it was him that helped it make its way to my desk. But Neet being a shifty hun dan doesn't change the facts. It's his money and Alliance resources you're wasting, every second that rustbucket of yours stays planted where it is. I gave you the time to get her moved because you claimed you could and it was the fair thing to do. Now I find out you have no way of knowing for sure if you really can do this." He stood up - an angry, fluid motion. "Gorram it, I stuck my neck out for you! That's a fact you don't seem to be understanding here. Piece of crap sergeant that fought for the Independents, and here I am trying to prove we're not so caught up in the past we can't do the decent thing and give a man chance to salvage his livelihood. Prove the 'verse has moved on."
"Maybe the 'verse hasn't moved on," Mal said. "But I still wasn't lying to you, lieutenant."
Elner fixed him a long, cold look. "So you say." His eyes swept Mal up and down. "Called your ship Serenity, didn't you? You were there in that valley. So was I - so I have an inkling what this all means. But I'm not a fool, sergeant. Maybe some of those that work for you look too honest for your kind of outfit, but I know what people use these firefly class ships for. Circumstantial, still, nothing I can prove. It doesn't matter. Your luck's just run out, and if that ship's not moving, we have no choice but to--"
"Wait--" Mal pushed off from the fence, moved to grab the Alliance man's collar and thought better of it, so he stood not knowing what to do with his upheld hands while he finished speaking his piece. "There has to be something I can do. Just let me buy some time. That's all I need. You got to have some job in this kind of place nobody wants to be doing, and we ain't fussy. I got some good people, won't let you down."
Elner scowled. "Are you serious? Your merc's laid up with a broken leg. I'm guessing you won't be so useful with a piece yourself, with those fingers taped up. Maybe your first mate's in good shape, but none of the rest of your bunch look like fighters right now to me."
"But you are talking about fighting." Mal took a breath, waited out a short silence to watch for reaction in the lieutenant's face. "And I don't recall specifying. So you do have a job in mind."
"And you'd work for us? Take Alliance work?" Elner said sceptically.
"Like I said." Mal didn't flinch. "We ain't fussy."
"I hate to say it, but the fact is this all boils down to the cold, hard cash that we don't got." Mal leaned against the back of his chair at the head of the table, splintery rough-hewn wood under his palms cutting in as he failed miserably the task of not giving any quarter to his tension. "Local business politics are at our throats. We're running out of choices. This here job I've been handed doesn't get done, Serenity will be junked. They got the power to do that easy, and they're mighty tired of waiting. That's the deal."
In the corner of the boarding house kitchen, old Mrs Onaka pottered about scraping together another of her culinary masterpieces, and that moment fetched a pan a bash against the side of the sink, reminding him she was there. Something of a discomfort, he had to admit, council of wars supposedly a private thing and all. She apologised as a few heads turned, and it was a long stretch of silence 'fore anybody mustered up words.
It was Wash. "I thought you'd never work for the Feds."
Zoe set her hand on her husband's arm, nothing veiled about what that gesture meant; support and approval all over it. Next moment, she leaned in closer to Mal across the table. "Sir," she said soberly. "Are you certain you want to do this? It isn't only working for the Alliance, it will make you beholden to them. Doesn't that compromise everything--?"
"Do we get paid our cut?" Jayne broke in, impatient.
Several hostile looks bounced off him. "Jayne," Kaylee protested. "The money's for Serenity." Her eyes lowering, she offered, "I don't want to see her junked, cap'n."
"I don't think doing jobs for the Alliance puts my sister in any less danger, sir," Simon, hunched nervously, kept his voice good and low 'spite his agitation, as wary of the old lady as Mal.
Who raked his eyes over them all, as the splinters of the chair bit his hands and pressure woke a fierce ache in the broken finger. "I told you, this is what we have. We don't do this, we got nothing. The money's all gone in parts, there's nothing left. Now, I'm willing to deal with the Alliance to save Serenity. Rest of you now, I would've expected to be having the easier time of coming to terms with that particular dilemma."
"I hate to bring it up," Simon said slowly, "But there is still that other ship..."
"Doesn't matter," Mal told him flat. "Couldn't afford to buy that boat now if I wanted to." He kept his eyes on Simon and the boy didn't raise suggestion of what they'd get stripping Serenity for saleable parts. It'd be sure to fall short anyway.
Wash beat a brief rhythm against the table top with his palm, a habit pretty much ensured he'd good and gained everyone's attention by the time he said, "What I don't understand is how exactly this comes to be the first time we're hearing of this very large heap of niu shi we seem to be buried in, sir."
Kaylee made a small noise, shifting less-than-comfortable in her seat. One hand over her mouth, she cautiously half-raised the other, waved it awkwardly. "I knew..." She looked 'round with no small amount of surprise as the faces let her in on the fact she was the only one, then shamefacedly back to Mal. "When you handed me the money, I saw it then... couldn't help but, you know? And it... it weren't enough for those parts we went away to get yesterday, neither. Not on its own. But I didn't ask 'cause I knew there wasn't any more, and heck, we were already there, and it's Serenity..."
"You been spotting me?" Mal asked, intaking breath.
"Well, I did talk the price down some, too. It weren't much, cap'n, in the end."
Wasn't much. No... it wouldn't be. 'Cause he knew for a fact she didn't have much. Spent it free and easy at every port, never stayed in her pocket for long. Now she'd spent it on him. He could see the gears clicking in the other heads present, himself coming out wanting. In the silence, the old lady chopping away with a vegetable knife was loud as gunshot. Jayne's chair scraped the floor.
Wash threw up his hands. "Ta ma duh! So Kaylee knew, and... Kaylee knew! When were you planning to share with the rest of us?"
"Ai ya! Am I even hearing this right? Are we totally sure the crash didn't effect my ears in some freaky hallucinatory way? Damn it, Mal, it's times like this I really wish Inara was still here to--"
"Not unless there was call," Mal finished, hearing his voice turn hard, barely restraining his anger at the mention of her name and only that because Zoe would take him apart if he slugged her husband. "Serenity's mine to worry about. 'Sides, I got this-- Jayne!"
The merc looked up guilty from his foray to the counter, a whole raw carrot in his outstretched hand. Sank his teeth into the trophy quick, prob'ly working on the theory that by that token nobody would demand he put it back. "Sorry," he said, spraying the floor with carrot pieces a good three feet front of him, and part of Zoe's shoulder with it. Her face screwed up in disgust, and she leaned around and smacked him on the shoulder.
Mrs Onaka made some long, rattling noise of disapproval at the back of her throat and slapped his other arm with her skeletally bony hand. There was a certain fondness in the gesture Mal just couldn't fathom.
"Jayne, if you don't get back in that chair and stay in that chair, I will staple you to it," Mal said, pointing. Jayne shrugged and started shuffling back to his seat, carrot still clutched in his hand. "Now..." And the crash as Jayne's splint tangled in the host of chair legs, dropping the man to the floor, reverberated through the room. Mal closed his eyes, tried to breathe deep through the sheer despair, and tried to relax his grip before he ended up breaking every finger he had. This whole thing was starting to take on a more surreal edge than it had any right to. Hell, it was turning into a farce. "Jayne!"
Those 'captain's-gonna-kill-someone' looks got exchanged between his crew as, half under the table, Jayne groaned, tried to get up, then settled back with a muted, pained apology. Mal left him there, ignored steadfastly the sounds of munching that shortly emerged, and let his glower make it abundantly known that everyone else was to follow the example.
Book cleared his throat as Mal opened his mouth again. "If you don't mind, captain, I do have some words I'd like to get off my chest." The Shepherd regarded gravely the circle of faces, chin rested on interlaced fingers and somehow seeming to dig down inside himself and drag out a kind of serenity that could pull them all in. "I know a bit about the value of symbols to a man - no, captain, don't say anything. I think we all know your feelings on that score." He let his gaze drift around them all one-by-one. "There's only one of us here has final word to the making of this decision. If this doesn't work, none of us will be any the worse off than if we hadn't ever joined up with Captain Reynold's crew. Even you, Simon, and your sister - especially you and your sister. Man took you in; didn't have to. And the rest of us... he's not going to put any one of us in any immediate danger above and beyond. It's his decision, and putting it simply, I don't think we should begrudge him making it."
The calm lasted all of ten seconds. Then Zoe's mouth bunched angrily. "Most of what you said might be so, but you know it's not that simple, preacher. Since we're talking the language of symbols already... they only mean as much as you put into them. You haven't been where I have - where we both have. Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't do this, but I know we shouldn't do this lightly. And like it or not, we're all of us part of this ship."
"Zoe," Mal started warningly.
"She's right," Kaylee said, throwing Mal an apologetic look. "I'd do anything to save Serenity - her and you both, cap'n. That ain't nothing. That's gotta be worth something. And if the rest ain't enough, I got a little bit of the engine coil is all mine, and that part you can't change none in arguing."
Book smiled and inclined his head, conceding, though his eyes met Mal's over the table between them, and that wasn't all that lurked there.
Letting go a sigh, Mal reached a hand out to ruffle through Kaylee's hair; snagged her own and held onto it when she reflexively ducked and smiled and tried to bat him away. "I'm trying to do what's best," he said. "Keep us free. Keep us flying."
"We're not drifting in space, this time," Zoe said. "This isn't about life and death, trying to survive. Whatever happens here is something we have to survive with. I reckon you could understand us being a bit ticked for not getting all the facts shared out sooner, sir. And what we need to know... if we hold this ground, if we make this compromise, we have to know it has a purpose. That this Alliance man won't go back on his deal. That there's some way we can pull this off with the time that's bought."
Mal held her stare, and nodded square into it. "We're not through yet. We have the Alliance job. That's something. And I do believe that Lieutenant Elner is a man of his word. I'm not asking anybody to follow me down a dead-end road, Zoe. Wash."
He waited while the two people he had above all to convince slowly nodded their blessing.
"Now, I tried to buy us some time, but he wasn't biting, so Zoe - you and me need to head off this evening if we're to get there 'fore dark, which I'm told we will want to do, to check out the lay of the land. That leaves Wash and Jayne to look out for Serenity tonight." Again, he looked at them askance, Jayne now leaned up against the kitchen counter having hauled himself out from the table.
Wash perked up quizzically. "You want me for gunfights?"
"Reckon so." Man had proved himself once when it mattered, and that was good enough for him.
"I'd like to help," Book offered.
"You can help me by staying here in town keeping an eye on these young'uns," Mal told him, indicating Kaylee and Simon, and by association River. He eyed Mrs Onaka and lowered his voice. "Folks here may have been friendly enough so far, but that don't mean I'd trust 'em. These nice folks didn't give a good gorram what went on in the war. They sat on the fence and waited 'til they saw the colours of the winner's flag to cheer and give the open-arms treatment. Fair-weather-loyalties can turn on you fast. You'll do that for me, preacher?"
Book nodded slowly.
"Good." Mal slapped both his sore palms hard upon the surface of the table; cloaked his grimace. "Then we have ourselves a plan."
"Two sentries posted each entrance this side of the hill," Zoe said in his ear, and he turned, caught off-guard. Behind her was the gully she'd slid down to land silently in position at his side in the almost-dark. The shifting of the horses, tied at the base of the rock face that hid them all from sight above, made more noise than she had made coming down. "Terrain matches up to the early survey maps the lieutenant gave us, but those potholes and crawlspaces are a no-go, sir. Any I could find were laced with glass and nails - be cut to pieces before we'd gone more than three feet. If they're keeping any clear for an escape route, they're too well concealed to be any use to us. But personally, I doubt it. It's a secure stronghold. I'd imagine the major plan would be not to lose it."
"Nowhere much to escape to out here anyway," Mal agreed. "Front door it is, then. I got no problem with the direct approach." He flashed her a grin and didn't miss the faint roll of eyes preceding her nod.
Her expression turned grim again quick, though. "I don't like it. It feels bigger than we set out to tackle. If they have that many men to spare for sentry rotation..."
"Agreed. But like I said, I don't see as we have much choice."
"Not fond of the thought of dying for the great and glorious Alliance, sir." Something partway to a smile softened the words some, and Mal laughed himself at the irony, though he sobered quick enough when she added, grimly, "I'm not fond of the thought of killing for them, either, even if these people are brigands and cut-throats. We're not mercs, and sure as hell not assassins. I notice how you didn't mention too many particulars of this job around the table."
"Nobody has to die. Far from it - Alliance ain't got much liking for casualty reports, these days. 'Specially not their own, which I'm guessin' would be why we're doin' this job 'stead of their lazy and overfed garrison. But far as Elner said, what they want is these here rogues holed up in these hills brought to justice. Bag 'em, radio in. Simple." He grimaced. "'Course, we were talking 'bout half to maybe a full dozen - if unlucky - near-starved men at that point. Numbers would look to be calling for a re-think of tactics."
"We could turn around and leave, sir," Zoe suggested, though it seemed she voiced the possibility more by rote than from serious belief it was like to happen.
"No... no." Which wasn't to say he hadn't already given it thought himself. "We do this one job, we're clear and flying free. Ain't no start of any slippery slope, just plain practicality." He drew a gun and set his good fingers 'round it best they'd go, then dug the tape he'd stole from Simon out his pocket and awkwardly wrapped a layer to keep his grasp on the handle.
Zoe watched with a neutral expression as he tore the tape with his teeth and returned the roll to his pocket. "And when you need to reload?"
"Not planning on having to. Carries more rounds than most anything else Jayne had about the boat." He tested the flexibility of the tape; established he could twist aside thumb and forefinger at the cost of a wince and still get some grappling use from the hand should he happen to need to reload anything else. "'Sides, for the way up, gorram hand's no good for climbing and I ain't so hot on a left-handed draw. And on the not-so-far remote chance we might run into trouble..." He held up pistol and taped hand, slipping his trigger finger back into place.
She nodded. "I see, sir." Scepticism still present in her voice. Her own sawn-off was still in her hand, held so's to best function as a bludgeon. Otherwise, the both of them were only carrying what amounted to a small armoury. "Ready."
He jerked his chin and she led the way clawing back up the gully; fingers, elbows, feet and knees, silence and leverage.
Ground here was all scrub and dust, sheer rock outcrops dropped in to no immediate rhyme or reason. Though the far side of the mountain, sheltered from the prevailing winds of the plain, had itself a scatter of straggling trees on the lower slopes, twisted dead-looking things struggling to cling on. In the last of the daylight he'd caught the view of more fertile lands stretching away from them. Just about figured, way his luck was tweaked, that Serenity should've crashed down on the most gorram barren stretch of land on the rock.
He and Zoe had themselves a cover of dust like a second skin from the hunkering down as they approached what Zoe had deemed the most agreeable of the two entrances - agreeable, that'd be, from the perspective of a two-man sneak attack, any rate, which granted wasn't everybody's idea of agreeable. 'Cause from any other perspective or twist of semantics, place didn't look anything resembling agreeable at all.
Mal hadn't himself been a fan of caves since getting lost down one a three-day stretch back on Shadow as a dumb kid... and getting stuck holed into a network half the size of a continent after the Alliance took Carroll for two months 'fore their side found the means to lift their people out hadn't changed his mind significantly on the issue neither. Two months in the dark on the harshest starvation diet he'd seen in the war 'til right at the end... When they took them out they'd been pale as corpses and all but blind in daylight days after. Independents got themselves over three thousand men out of that cave system - three thousand soldiers all washed out insubstantial like ghosts. He was pretty glad Zoe hadn't been around at that point. Too early on for her to share that memory.
The entrance seemed barely more'n a crack in a vertical wall of rock, first view of it he had. It was only in close that it became apparent just how large a scale it was composed on. Hidden belly-down to the scrub twenty feet away, with Zoe closing in somewhere from the other side, that crack was eight foot wide where it met the ground, and tapering up so slow it didn't narrow to insignificance while thirty feet or more.
Mal would've set least two men to guard that hole, too.
The first sentry, he could discern fairly easy in the dark of the entrance. As he drew a fraction closer, the shadow of the second could be made out sitting on his haunches further back, the harder line of a rifle draped nothing like held-ready diagonal against his shoulder while his hands busied with something in his lap.
Zoe ghosted out of cover just feet from the standing fellow, cliff wall still firm between them; signalled ready. Mal stood and strode out into the open, calm as could muster, raising a cheerful hand in greeting and tucking the one with the gun taped into it out of sight against his thigh. "Hi there. I was looking for the... poetry recital, but it seems I've gotten myself a bit turned about here, and I wondered if you could help--"
Zoe was three motions blurred into one as the sentry took an involuntary extra step forward - a punch of her sawn-off into his face, a grab that hauled the rifle from his grasp, a kick that sent him staggering towards Mal as Zoe moved on to the fellow still sitting gaping. Mal punched the offering out dutifully and tied him with his own belt. Dumped him out of sight while Zoe dealt with the other the same way.
He headed over to see what she was pointed to. Next to a half-formed wood carving of some rodent creature, apparently what the fellow sitting down occupied himself with the long stretches of sentrying, some form of pull cord led off deeper down the tunnel. "He pull it?"
Zoe shook her head. Attached to the string, a construction of cans and bashed and bent scrap metal not much of any kind of shapes were arranged to sound a fair cacophony when disturbed. Stretched way down the cavern, tied at intervals, and it took some doing just to walk down the tunnel without catching against them. Looked an efficient enough warning system, not accounting the scores of false alarms.
The tunnel kept on down, and the light from the minute crack that followed them overhead was forced to nothing by the narrowing, lowering rock ceiling, but there was something of a glow from up ahead kept there enough light to just about navigate by, and those two men on the entrance hadn't carried any light source on them. Even if they hadn't been doing this extra-covert, Mal wouldn't have seen any call to start using the flashlight he'd brought along. As they walked a shallow bend, the light grew again in an odd greenish hue, 'til they saw not twenty feet in front the cave open out to a cavern far bigger than anything they'd anticipated. The sight stopped both of them dead as if yanked back by strings.
Before them, a chamber large enough to hold a village laid itself out. Small lamps provided illumination, powered by some source burned with a flame didn't resemble anything he'd ever seen, were strung out on wires running wall-to-wall at head-height, giving off that odd pale green light he'd been noticing up the tunnel. And a village... looked to be what the chamber housed. Shacks and tents and wall partitions formed of stretched canvas. Looked like the gorram rogues' den area of any trade planet's market. On one stretch of reddened cloth a stone's throw distant, bloody knives were laid out and another wire sank in the wall close by held rows of stripped animal carcasses, a wire next to it holding their furs. The trickling of water echoed from somewhere. Looked like these folks had dug themselves in fast with everything they'd need to survive.
"Wo de ma," Mal said.
Even quiet as he spoke, it seemed to carry, and they pressed back against the wall until they could be sure there'd be no cries of discovery or welcome party bearing a solid ton of firearms forthcoming.
"You're seeing that too, right?" he asked, turning to Zoe. "I ain't finally gone space-crazy and started hallucinating?"
"I see it," she said, breathless, nodding. "Sir. This is too big. It's suicide. There must be dozens living down here, if not more."
Mal screwed his eyes shut a moment. "Yeah, but... we're here already. Plus, less like shooting fish in a barrel 'gainst odds like this, you gotta admit."
"Impossible odds make you feel better about doing the Alliance's dirty work for them?" Zoe asked archly. "Can I remind you about that whole part where I don't want to die for the great and glorious gorram Alliance?" She watched his face and her own darkened. "Sir, you have gone space-crazy. I think we need to turn around now."
"No, wait... ai ya! I am not turning back, Zoe! You know these folks ain't cuddly rogues like us! Gorram it, we prob'ly been taking potshots at half of them while squatting out on Serenity this part week. Turn back now and we lose her, Zoe. We lose her."
"You really want to go for this, sir?" Her voice was pitched even quieter than it needed be.
"You should probably shoot me in the head right now as a time-save. Yes. Yes, I do. I ain't losing Serenity 'cause I backed down from a fight. Got no shortage of deaths to my name already. Room for a few more nobody'll be missing. We do this hard, we do this quick. No second thoughts."
"You're insane, sir."
"Still with me?"
Zoe drew in a sharp breath - and two pistols from under her arms. "Let's do it."
There was this one firefight stuck in his mind. Guess you could go ahead and call it his favourite firefight - hell, he'd been in enough of them to start picking favourites. He'd been off-ship with Jayne at some fuel station and stopover out by Persephone - wasn't there anymore now, since a RPX-6-10 had ruptured its drive in one hell of a docking screw-up and blown the whole place to smithereens. Station management had this major pylon up its collective ass about weapons; supposed to stay confined to ships, absolutely no firearms allowed downstation, but the regs were a joke. Everyone'd deck themselves out in the gorram things plain for the point of it.
Anyway, there was him and Jayne and a bar that had girls in translucent leotards dancing on glass platforms way up in the ceiling meant you could see everything but everything, and some bunch of haulers out from Boros. To this day he had no clue why it'd started. He just remembered as to how they were in hell of a fix because Jayne was dead drunk and he wasn't himself in much of an improvement on that aforementioned state, though the both of them were armed to the teeth. What followed might well qualify as the most dumb-assed shooting match ever, the two of them barely able to see and not all that vertical either. They'd been damn lucky drunks that night, though the bullet clipped his forearm midway through sobered him some.
Best drunk-out ever... both of them lurching back to the boat giggling like schoolgirls and bleeding all over the place. Collected a whole industrial-size slice of hell in the morning from Zoe, by the time they could string one thought after the next again and sore wishing they couldn't, Wash and Kaylee looking on with a kind of bemused fascination...
Had been one of those times - and they did happen on occasion, though since Ariel he wasn't too sure if they'd happen again - it had felt a damn fine thing to have Jayne on board. Kind of companionship understood in some measure where he was at, and that he hadn't had so much since Zoe paired off with Wash. Besides, hell, Zoe was subordinate. Force of habit. There were walls. Jayne's being an insurrectionist dick had to have its benefits somewhere.
Had been in any number of firefights in his time. Many of them like that one brought their own kind of stratospheric high, action and adrenaline combined with some brand of insanity wholly his own.
He wasn't having fun now.
Reeling, staggering, trying to keep up the motions of setting one foot front of the next, and it wasn't drink losing him his balance, and that wasn't sweat trickling down his back. He near overbalanced as his foot caught a loose stone, and Zoe tried to spare a hand for support but a second later was back shooting at the gou cao de son of a bitch trying his damnedest to fill them full of holes.
"Not far now, sir." Her voice full of grit, terse. He planted his hand on rock and used that leverage to help guide his feet down into the gully, only to find them tricked from under him by the connivings of the loose dust that made up its base.
Landing on his back wasn't something currently qualified among the smartest of ideas. He rolled onto his side reflexively as the pain struck and lost a minute or so with his head in fog and his lungs coughing up dust. Awareness caught Zoe's hand tugging on his left shoulder from behind. He scrabbled at the side of the gully, discovering his right hand still all taped up to the gun and aching with the lingering sting of its recoil, the shoulder not appreciating any weight put on that arm either. But with Zoe's help he managed to half reclaim footing to the point he could slide the rest of the distance down the gully.
The horses still waited at the bottom, and whickered and shifted as the two of them landed in their midst. Mal caught his weight against the tall shoulders of the big bay mare as he drunkenly unroped her, while in the background Zoe set about discouraging some more the handful of ornery fellows kept on following them.
"Tell me again why we didn't shoot them all while we had the advantage of surprise," he grunted, untying the second horse and walking both animals over to Zoe. Managed to mount up all on his own and not slide straight off the other side, though it was a close thing. "Zoe--"
Her hair shed dust as her head whipped around. Moment later she was up on the back of her animal and they were leaving the sounds of gunshots behind them in the night. Hooves skidded precarious with the unwise speed down the slope, and staying on the damn horse didn't make itself the easiest task Mal ever had undertaken. His breath was harsh and loud in the air and they'd been riding on the flat a while when Zoe reined in and he, behind her, didn't notice in time to follow suit 'fore his horse skittishly danced several paces aside to avoid collision.
"Why're we stopping?"
"Need to radio your Alliance friend." Zoe's feet hit the dust and she stepped over to Mal's horse; caught its head and held it quiet while rummaging in the bag hung down by his leg.
"He's not my friend. Wasn't before, sure as guay isn't after this."
"You reckon he meant to set you up?" She found the comm, but it hung loose in her hand as she waited for his reply.
Mal thought about it. Finally shook his head. "No... no. I reckon none of them know what's rightly up there."
Zoe nodded once, expression distant, and fiddled with the dials a while 'fore raising the comm. All he heard was static, but she said, "Captain Reynolds and I are on our way back. We'll need some medical attention standing by." A brief silence. Static. "No." Her eyes never leaving his. "No, we didn't. Complications. Report in full when we see you. Don't forget the medic." She cut the static off with a stab of her thumb and dumped the comm back in the saddlebag again. Her hand went from there to his shoulders. "Come on, sir. I should take a look at that bug bite you picked up."
His legs gave as they touched the ground, but it was more comfortable on his knees anyways, and the world stopped reeling quite so much at that vantage. Zoe eased his coat from his shoulders and he felt keenly the tug as she tried to pull away the thick fabric of his shirt. There was a spot gummed fast, low down on the back of his left shoulder, wasn't taking too kindly to the treatment. Zoe gave in. "Best I can do seems to be leaving it for now. Bleeding's stopped, though likely that won't last, distance we have to ride yet. Looks like the bullet deflected along your shoulder-blade, sir. Small calibre." Coat settled back around his shoulders. "Let's get you back on the horse."
Somehow, she did, and he greyed out of the world a while to come back to it as she was fumbling with a constriction at his wrists. "Sorry about this, sir."
"Zoe, I don't need--" Talking useless at her retreating back.
Icarus' moon was a small egg-shaped bit of a thing didn't give off much light, and the chill of the night was starting to sink deep - not that he'd be able to differentiate it from shock in any case, though his back felt hot, his right arm numb. Zoe's ropes started to chafe after a while, earning their keep 'spite of his objection. And him, he had a whole lot of not-thinking going on.
Odd enough, it was Jayne he remembered as saying it best, or leastways the way that stuck in his mind. Out on that job on New Dover, with the merc swearing about 'rutting jobs you take that you'd never take' after some other bastard saw to it they got screwed over. Again. 'Course, they hadn't known the compromising side of that job, going in, and right now he wasn't sure if he was sore over taking this job in the first place or over turning back. Serenity...
His thoughts skipped track, and he'd been drifting a while half-embroiled in a dream of Inara's eyes and of the way her hair felt curled 'round his fingers, when he woke with his roped hands among the horse's scraggy mane as figures loomed out of the dark. Forced his head up to see their truck stopped several feet ahead, and it must've made some noise approaching, but he hadn't heard nothing at all.
"Captain Reynolds?" Lieutenant Elner's voice, faint tang of concern to it amid an understandable confusion. He remembered Zoe hadn't exactly been forthcoming over the comm.
"Lieutenant--" Mal's gaze finally tracked him down. "Sorry. We can't take your job..." Tried to slide off the horse and couldn't; ended up half hanging off in one heck of a tangle.
Heard Zoe curse. "He's tied on--"
"...Captain?" Hands trying to support his weight, their owner exclaiming where they encountered the crust of blood on his back and muttering a string of Chinese as the disturbed horse agitatedly tried to shed the weight unbalancing it.
"Hush." Elner had the horse's head and sliced the rope through with a knife that definitely wasn't Alliance reg. Simon caught him and somehow at the end of it all Mal was on his feet, half-leaning on Simon as the doctor tried to get to his wound.
"What happened?" the Alliance man asked.
"Can't take your job," Mal repeated. "Whole gorram town up there. Women. Kids... Take more'n we got to dig 'em out without a bloodbath."
River, on the way to recovery, had a different room now with a window, Simon trading off his skills in other areas of the small hospital to ensure his sister nothing but the best. Meant that the dawning day bathed the room in a growing wash of light... It felt mostly like an ultimatum.
One that Mal could scarce hope to match. The mines would be getting the go-ahead to junk Serenity later that day. Elner had strode off purposeful-like leaving some line about compensation in his wake.
Mal sat listening to the sleeping girl breathe. She would survive, and that was some comfort. Meanwhile, he had himself a gouge out of his back, some torn muscles and a chipped shoulder blade; Simon'd garnered an hour or so's entertainment fishing out the loose pieces of bone. He'd heal well enough. Serenity was the only one wouldn't be coming out of this intact at the end of the day.
The door opened at his back, but he didn't look up from River, on account of not being in the mood either for care or interest who it might be.
"Can't sleep?" Book's voice asked.
"Don't reckon I'll be doing much in the way of sleeping for a time." Mal hunched lower in the chair, body skewed left to avoid setting weight on the gunshot wound, bent his elbows on the rickety wooden arms and interlaced his fingers best he could front of his chin. He looked up, pointedly. "How about you, preacher? They drag you out of your bunk 'cause they reckoned I'd be needing your services, too?"
The Shepherd laughed. "We're not writing you off this mortal coil just yet, captain." The door drifted to behind him as he stepped full inside; continued to the base of River's bed and frowned down at the sleeping girl, resting his hand on the near bedpost. "No, I heard Zoe come back. From what I caught of the conversation with her husband, I thought you might be in need of some company."
"Spying on folks not generally considered the most Godly of pastimes. They not teach you that at preacher school?"
The older man shrugged. "The walls are thin, captain. I merely overheard."
On the bed, River shifted and sighed. Covers skewed with her motion, folds settling in new alignments, scattering light and shadow as fell on them from the window in new ways. The two men were quiet some minutes, 'til Mal said, "No offence, but might be best if you took yourself back off to sleep - least back to the boarding house. I reckon Kaylee's gonna need some comforting herself when she wakes up, hears the news. Poor kid's gonna be heartbroken."
"I'm not worried about Kaylee," Book said softly. "Broken hearts mend. My bailiwick lies in a somewhat different area."
Mal's head snapped up; he pinned the preacher with his fiercest glare. "Said I reckon it best you take yourself off, Shepherd."
"You know I'm not one of your crew." Book didn't move.
"Don't got a crew. Crew calls for having a ship."
"They'll still follow."
"I ain't given them no reason to. Got nowhere to be leading." Shifted uncomfortable in his seat. "Know why I got shot in the back, preacher?" He waited, but Book could wait too; did so solemnly for the answer he surely knew would be forthcoming. "Because I was walking away."
Book's expression shifted. He nodded slowly, and sank down onto the floor 'til he rested easily with his knees bent up, one arm nestled casual, a horizontal bar held the level of his throat. Looked like a man settling in for a long stay. Didn't look too much like a preacher. But the words stayed attuned to the garb, more the pity. "There's nothing bad in having lines you're not prepared to cross. Compromises you aren't prepared to make."
"No, there isn't." Mal sighed, feeling his exhaustion all of a sudden. "But right now, I'm not much liking those lines. Should'a thought I'd have learned me my lesson after Niska, but just goes to show some people are the kind of stupid don't ever learn. So you'll understand if I'm not feeling in the mood for any lectures on morality and the like."
"You're a good man." Line could have got him a face full of knuckles, only... way he said it, made it more like a suggestion than a statement of fact or comfort.
They were both of them quiet again for a time; so deliberately quiet the only sound was of River's incautious sleeping breathing, light and wispy and loud as any raging storm. But time moved itself on, and Book finally said, "It's my experience... a man loses his faith has to find other things to believe in." His fingers interlaced atop his raised knee, echoing Mal's, albeit more tidily without the splint and purpling bruising. "Even if it's not something he'd ever think of being any kind of faith at all. If it's just his own two hands, or... something quite different again. That potential for... investment of belief, I think, is a need we have... a part of what we are as human beings... And it seems to me that even a man who's lost faith can still go on looking and hoping for faith to prove him wrong."
"Don't you--" Mal cut short his words. "Fact you don't seem to be grasping here, preacher - Serenity's not like your words. Burn those and they'll still be there. Million of your Bibles in the 'verse, each and every the same, and if that weren't enough, plenty of fools keeping a good hold of those words inside themselves. Serenity - she don't stand for anything but herself." He untangled painfully from the chair and made for leaving, aware of Book's eyes upon him, turning his way that indefinable sadness the preacher took on when one of his would-be flock disappointed.
"Best not follow me, Shepherd," he said. "Our boy Simon's only getting himself some sleep right now 'cause I told him I'd keep an eye on little sister here. Don't figure he'd be too pleased if the girl were left on her lonesome."
He closed the door and made his escape, leaving the crazy girl and the preacher to each other.
Inara kissed him once. It had been at some fancy reception - one of her friends, not clients, and nothing much like the ball on Persephone. He'd still been dragging himself around with a bullet hole in his gut at the time, so it wasn't so much a friendly invite as Inara drawing the short straw planetside for captain-sitting the invalid. Though it was true enough she'd acted different toward him a while after that particular near-death experience, 'til the shiny had worn off or it'd dawned upon her he didn't make for the most romantic of wounded knights, what with the tendency to grumpiness and cussing.
Still, they'd both been a little drunk - albeit in his case on pain meds as a gut shot and alcohol weren't ever the most advisable mix - and for a small, snatched moment the world clicked into alignment and everything was right, music and so-called ambience and the quiet corner they seemed to have gotten to themselves. Barely he knew it was happening 'fore her lips were on his and her fingers curling for leverage 'neath the suspender strap on his shoulder on account of him being a bit taller than she was; her tasting of all those fine wines in which he couldn't partake. And then... well, some interruption or other, when the hell hadn't there been? So the event had just... hung there, like a moment pulled out of time, one isolated, perfect glass bubble working its way further, further back in his memory.
Mostly he figured she'd forgotten, and if she hadn't she probably only chalked it up to a moment of professional embarrassment she'd try to forget anyway. Sometimes he wondered if he'd dreamed it, all a hallucinatory concoction of the pain meds.
He hadn't fought to keep her. Helped her ship her gear from Serenity sealed up in boxes, the dressings torn down from shuttle 1 and all the overpriced romance turned to bare walls and mechanics. Packed her off to the friend kept by some rich fellow owned a quarter of a private moon, prob'ly to off and find some rich fellow of her own to be kept by. He sure as hell couldn't keep her, and trying would only lose him the shine off the memories, spoil whatever indefinable cord still stretched between them. Couldn't be called love... just some ugly stillborn bastard emotion parented on two people didn't much know the meaning of a real human connection, never allowed room to really grow. He'd turned and walked back inside the ship, leaving Kaylee and the others still waving. She wasn't his. She'd only been renting space.
Mal crouched, back to Serenity's hull and buttocks to the sand, shifting grip on the rifle his bended knee supported. Levelled the weapon's sight to his eye and watched the indistinct black dot on the horizon transform to recognisable shapes. He set the rifle down and watched with his naked eye as they drew closer, until the mule's engine coughed to a standstill and four people piled off while one didn't.
"Sir." Zoe's boots filled his line of vision and her form blocked out the light. "Just exactly what the guay do you think you're doing?"
"Well, now." He clasped the rifle from the ground in his good hand; it shed dust as he lifted it, held it ready with both. "Thought that part was fairly self-evident, my own self. I'm not letting them take Serenity without a fight."
"I think whatever stimulant you pumped into your system in that hospital disagrees with your brain functions, sir," she said. "This isn't a fight, this is suicide."
"Yeah," Jayne put in, from the trailer of the mule, broken leg laid up in front of him. "Fa kuang, captain. And what's more, that's my gorram gun. You may be all set on killing yourself, but you sure as hell ain't taking Audrey down with you."
Zoe silenced him with a look.
"You can't stay, Mal. They'll kill you." Speaking emphatically, Wash hunched down under the belly of the boat so they were on a level. "This isn't like last time. Nobody has to die." The pilot held out a hand and waited to help him to his feet. "How about we check out on the whole insanity issue here and get back to town. Look..." He gave up on the hand, scrabbled inside his shirt and dug out a roll of paper. "Lieutenant Elner brought this over this morning. It's a compensation claim form - no, seriously, Mal. Swear on my life. Alliance'll pay out. They'll be paying you money. Some wacky deal, huh? Enough for that ship the doc's been rattling on about all week."
"It looks to check out, sir," Zoe said.
Jayne added, "This here's horseshit, Mal. Ain't no way you can do anything here 'cept die. Alliance, Blue Sun... can't fight these people with a pop-gun. Sure as hell can't fight a town - place made up of folk done right by us, and what do you do? Stealin' horses." He eyed the beast stood sedately a way distant under the neck of the ship. "Seen this other boat myself already, when we drove out to that parts yard. Ain't as nice as Serenity, but she's ready to go and she'll do well enough - keep us flying."
The paper fluttered in the light breeze 'til Wash curled his hand back, his face falling. Stuffed it unseeing again into his shirt, crinkling it. "Mal..."
Mal's eyes drifted from Simon, who hadn't said anything yet, just standing making of himself an intense, uptight statue, over to Kaylee, whose expression fair shouted anguish. "And what're you thinking, Kaywinnet Lee Frye? What do you reckon I should do, xiao mei mei, since I got a section of the engine coil here has your name on it and all?"
"She ain't as important as you are." Kaylee's voice was raw. She had tear tracks on her face and a nose red and swollen from crying, but it seemed she was determination itself. "You've no cause to be gettin' yourself killed for no good reason and leavin' us all to Jayne, cap'n."
"Hey!" Jayne protested.
Simon's brows crinkled slightly in swiftly quashed amusement. "You know she's right, captain." He frowned. "River was worrying about you. And Book is convinced it was something he said that brought this about. Come back into town and set those people's minds to rest." He took a breath, swallowed, and generally didn't seem like a man was comfortable with what was about to leave his lips. "You made a decision for me before, with River. I..."
"So you're reckoning now that was the right thing to do?" Mal asked. "You're wrong, boy. Wasn't the right thing. Only the thing I did. Sometimes you just got to make a decision. Serenity didn't blow. Maybe it was the wrong decision."
"If she had blown, you'd have saved two lives," Simon insisted, always happier on a fact when someone disagreed with him. "I wasn't thinking clearly..."
"And now it's me not thinking clearly," Mal finished, flat. Angry. "And maybe you're wrong and I know my mind - and on that reckoning, you all should be turning 'round and leaving 'bout now. I haven't asked any one of you to stay. Serenity, she's mine." He pressed his lips; thought twisted and skewed; muttered, barely giving the words sound, "I ain't letting her die alone."
Zoe, close enough apparently to hear after all, intook a sharp breath. Beside her, Wash swore lengthily in Chinese. "Sir, you need to come with us, now," she said, hard. There must have been a signal, but he was shamed to say, he missed it. Zoe's fist rocked back his jaw same moment Wash got his hands on the rifle and showed more adept fighting dirty than Mal had ever suspected him capable by twisting hard on splinted fingers - succeeded too, the rifle dropping to the ground in the scuffle as husband and wife, his longest familiar crew, hauled him up one arm each.
"Simon--" Zoe cut off with a grunt as he got his foot twisted 'round hers and dropped her to the sand. Himself, too, but he was too angry even to take much note of landing on his back. Least it took Wash down as well, though right on top of him, which was less good - man could definitely afford to lose a few pounds. But he had more immediate concern of Zoe and, behind her, Simon with a dope gun ready in his hand that would make a more final end of all this.
He kicked out at Zoe, connected with her chin and sent her flying. Wash made a sound of outrage and prompt forgot this was supposed to be some form of mercy deal, planting his weight on Mal's injured shoulder to bash it back against the ground. Mal let out a yell, saw the doctor getting close, saw Zoe getting up, and decked Wash hard as he might with his injured right hand. Howled as it impacted - not the most pleasant sensation ever, and felt like the third finger had gone alongside its fellow it'd spent the last week tied to - but was still reaching for the rifle and dragging himself to his feet the instant after.
"Back!" he snapped. "All of you! Said I was staying and, gorram it, I meant it. I don't want to hurt any one of you, but I'm not leaving Serenity. My decision; ain't nobody else's life hostage to it - Simon, you can stop looking for an opening to use that thing 'less you want some more experience being shot in the leg."
"You're bleeding," Simon said, his hand falling slowly to his side.
Mal ignored him, raking his gaze over the rest. "I guess all of you know I won't be doing any killing, but how many would I have to wound? Reckon we can see it wouldn't get you anywhere."
"Wouldn't it?" Heard the click of the automatic in Jayne's hand bounce loud off all the emptiness around, saw the weapon pointed direct at him, and for a moment, nobody said anything. Then:
"Jayne," Zoe said firmly.
"I could wound him some," Jayne offered, something of eagerness to his tone, perhaps the memory of airlocks.
"No," Simon said. "He's already lost blood. With Serenity still powered down, it's too far to any facility. You'd most likely kill him."
"Thought he was pretty set on that outcome himself. Seems to me things're a mite more malleable this way."
"No! Ca bu shi! Don't anybody shoot anybody!" Kaylee stepped on trembling legs to block the line of fire between Mal and Jayne.
"She's right," Zoe said, bending down to help Wash up. "We're not doing this." She looked hard at Mal. "Sir, I beg you reconsider--"
He caught her eye and shook his head slow, and whatever she saw in that contact made her shoulders sink and the steel drain from her frame. Supporting Wash, she turned and took them both back to the mule with nary another word.
"I can't believe this is happening," Kaylee said, all but speaking to herself. "Captain, you gotta come back with us. Who you gonna shoot? Elner? You can't say he ain't tried to do everything he reasonably could. Deputy Bexil? That nice sheriff? Be fighting the wrong people. The right ones won't come out here to do nothing themselves." She made as if to approach him and he raised the gun, trying not to let on just how unsure he was. Of all of them, she was the one could make him break that promise to pull the trigger.
Simon grabbed her hand, turned her 'round and placed his body between hers and Mal's rifle in a quick motion. "Kaylee, no." She stared at him a moment, then let him pull her away, eyes downcast, to the mule and the trailer.
Zoe seemed to trudge heavy on her feet as she returned for the stolen horse. Gave him a long, wistful look didn't betray much in the way of upset as she led it back with her.
He didn't watch as they drove away. Didn't try to see how long they kept looking back before the vehicle and its human cargo was out of sight over the horizon.
"General Ji Arnelian won his war, and because his war was over and won, he set down arms on the bloodied ground of the battlefield and folded his hands instead. Embraced with his heart the quiet and he found salvation in God and a book, though he never did stop hearing the voices. Dwells in dreams of crying and blood and all the mercy that wasn't, and he's long since stopped peeling his apples, too..." The small, high voice seemed to echo around the air, seemed to come from everywhere. "It's a funny story, don't you agree? It's one of my favourites."
"What--?" Mal's head whipped around; realisation the voice was there for damn sure, and not some feng le construct of an addled mind. Nobody there - looked again, squinting his eyes in the midday sun, and there she was, curled up against Serenity's belly like she was inside the womb, her head to the ship like she listened in for a heartbeat, hospital gown barely decent around her. Sure as hell she hadn't been there a second ago. "No." Mal shook his head, trying to clear it. "No, you can't be here." He half rose using Serenity for support, but froze with a wince as his shoulder twinged, and rocked back to leave his left side leaned upon the hull.
Her eyes followed him, set of her lips petulant. With the unnecessary bandages gone from her face, the bruising showed clear against her pallor. "Hitched a lift." Way her head rolled, she hadn't energy left for a thing else; no matter what else the Alliance scientists had made of her, she was still housed in the body of a girl. Her fingers' trail up and down the battered underside panel was weak. "Nobody saw. Nobody knew. Jayne was a fine pillow all the way." She grinned, then it faded in a flash. "Simon will probably be very angry."
"You can do that?" Sure as hell hadn't known she could do that. Typical, girl just smiled again. "Hell, yes, Simon will be angry. And your brother will have the right of it for once." Unsteady on his feet, he swept a hand through his hair, thinking. "Now what am I going to do with you?" He swore long and hard, remembering Zoe had taken the horse and he didn't have any damn way to get in touch with anybody.
She curled into the boat, her palm flattening to run in a caress over Serenity's skin. "Came to say goodbye." Voice emerged muffled from a curtain of greasy hair hadn't seen a wash in all a week of bed-rest. "Goodbyes are important, mother always told me. Or maybe it was somebody else's mother. Goodbyes are what you remember."
Mal, mostly still hung up on a truckload of practicalities, swore at length in Chinese for variation. River made a noise might've been a giggle. Mal sighed angrily and slung the rifle over his shoulder. "You can't be here," he told River, bending down.
"Fire," she said indistinctly, curling up tighter. "It hurts--" Her hands clutched at the sides of the ship. "Serenity." He thought it was Serenity, that she said. It could have been 'sanity'. She said it twice, so, hell, for all he knew it could have been both. Couldn't come close to figuring what she started muttering under her breath after that.
"Okay." Gorram it all to hell. "River..." He leaned close and gathered her up 'spite of her struggles. Stood up and felt the last of the stitches finally give way in his back, not that they'd done badly, considering all the knocks of the day. "Come along." Her head tucked under his chin, her hands stopped clawing at him. She weighed remarkably little. "You have to say goodbye to Serenity now, River. I'll take you to say goodbye to her, and then you have to leave."
"Serenity's going away."
"Yes she is," he heavily agreed.
"You'd go with her."
"But you can't. What would that damn fool brother of yours do without you to look out for him?"
He had to set her down to force open the main doors, and it wasn't so easy to pick her up again after. The hold was empty and gaping, and a bundle of ends of torn-out pipes Kaylee hadn't got to replacing sprouted from one wall like some kind of crazy mutant shrub. He let River trail her fingers along the wall, himself more concerned with setting his feet secure and not landing them both on the skewed floor, especially as he traversed the wildly keeling walkways, where River's fingers trailed the railing and her lips murmured words had shape but no voice into the side of his neck, her head craned around to miss nothing.
The bridge; Wash's chair, a toy dinosaur still lurked underneath it, and Mal knelt so she could collect it up to take back. Her fingers scraped over dried blood on the floor, came back up with it under her nails as she held them for him to examine. "That'd be mine," and she touched the fingers to the healed cut on his head, then scrubbed the blood off on his coat. "Thanks," he grunted.
Past the hatches of the crew quarters, Kaylee's name on her door hardly discernable in the dim light, not pausing as he walked past his own, seeing how River shouldn't never have been in there anyway so far as he was concerned, though given the girl's propensity for exploratory forays he had no faith in that fact actually being true. The kitchen; the bright vines painted on the wall lit up by the sun flooding in the windows above, and River ran her hands over the dark wood grain of the table and smiled into his neck at some memory or other. Down past the infirmary and the passenger quarters she'd made her home this past year, but there she was mostly pensive and quiet. Come to think, mostly she'd ever been there was when confined, by her sickness or by their necessity.
He couldn't begin to take her 'round the crawlspaces and nooks she probably counted her favourites.
The engine room; Kaylee's bright-coloured frippery lost in the dark, almost indistinguishable from the grey morass of wires and parts and half-finished tasks. Girl had spent the most of the last week working full-on frantic - work never to see completion now. River reached out and touched the engine, both hands; Serenity's unbeating mechanical heart, and Mal looked at it and reflected on how it was it could be nothing but parts. He stood quiet and let her commune, 'til she turned back and settled in against his chest, tucking the dinosaur under the strap of his suspender by its tail, and he knew they were done.
She seemed asleep, or least docile, as he carried her back out into the sunlight, and set off toward town without a glance back or pause to close Serenity up.
The hours stretched over the miles, and River's breathing turned laboured and her small sounds of pain he took to mean whatever medications Simon had been keeping her doped up on were wearing off.
He'd long since ditched Audrey as extra weight he could sore afford to carry by the time he saw the black dot advancing up ahead, over its own earlier tracks, and stopped and held onto River, swaying with exhaustion and heat, until the mule halted just feet from him, Kaylee in the driving seat, Simon jumping off 'fore it had ever slowed and near doing himself an injury. "Captain! You've--" The boy trailed into relieved Chinese as he tried to reach for his sister even while she was still in Mal's arms.
"Reckon she's all right, doctor, 'cept for needing some more shots." He set River down against Jayne on the flat bed of the trailer.
"Thank God you found her," Book said, relief intense in his face and... almost could've been the glitter of moisture in his eyes, as they met Mal's. Mal turned away to cast his eye instead over Simon fussing to examine River.
"By the time we got back, Shepherd Book had turned over half the town in searching," Kaylee said, touching his arm with some hesitance, as he leaned back heavy on the side of the mule, none too sure he could stay upright much longer otherwise. "We didn't think we'd ever find her, if she'd come way out here. But Simon thought she might've... somehow... when we were..." And Kaylee shuddered, inclining her head every which way but failing to voice the suspicion. Fact was that what little River might and might not be capable of doing still freaked his engineer good and proper.
"She did." Mal looked around, dredged from somewhere enough rational thought to do a head-count. "Zoe and Wash?"
"Someone had to stay in town, and they didn't figure on you being too happy to see them again if we had to come back out here... Captain?" Her eyes were very big as she interrupted herself. "Since you ain't threatening to shoot us all now... tell me you ain't mad at them for what they did. I mean, they only did it and all because they love you - heck, all of us--" She rode on over Jayne's hurried protest. "I don't want to leave things like that. They're hurtin' right now, and... you gotta give me something I can tell them."
Mal frowned at her, taken aback. "I ain't mad," he said. "And I'm not--" Broke off and cast his eyes overhead, as a shadow passed over them. "Wo de tian a!"
"Christ on a crutch," Jayne said, impressed.
Kaylee gasped, and Simon and Book swore, though the preacher did it rather more purposeful in the fashion of a man understood the full meaning of what he was seeing.
"No..." Mal said, pushing off from the side of the mule and taking a few steps led precisely nowhere. Wavered on his feet.
He might've made his decision, but he still wasn't sure he could stand this, and he sure as hell hadn't been anticipating--
"What am I seeing?" Simon asked, perplexed.
"Fire," River mumbled, under his hand.
"Shh. Don't talk, mei mei."
"Alliance planetside bombardment vessel," Book said, grim. "Short range deployment. Clumsy fuel-guzzler. It's primary weapons--"
"It's a ship razes things to ash," Mal said forcefully. "Haven't seen one since the war."
"Things?" Kaylee stammered. "W-what kinds of things?"
"All kinds of things," Book murmured, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.
Mal grabbed her as she lunged forward and hugged her close. "Nothin' you can do, mei mei. Nothing any of us can do." And if he wasn't getting more'n his fair share of girls burying their tears in his shoulder today... "Don't look." He stared over her shoulder at the black shape sharp in the sky and gliding against the brightness back toward where he'd left Serenity, its shadow trailing it along the ground almost sinister 'til it intersected with the dark lump of his boat, still just about visible on the horizon.
"Fire," River said again, with a certain self-satisfied air.
Mal set his hand upon the back of Kaylee's head, pressed her to him. Said again, "Don't look." Don't think. Keep the crew together. Get another boat. Start anew.... somehow.
It didn't make any sound. That much, he remembered too, from the war. No great noise or drama, just a strip of land had fine silt ash and the occasional toughened lump of something indistinguishable in place of where there'd been men or vehicles or undergrowth or structures. Fire all across the skyline. Those things were costly to power, but their beams programmed to distance as he remembered too wouldn't strip off the topsoil if they gauged the range right; keep their gorram mines safe and sound. Must've been costing them more'n he'd thought if they brought in one of these for a quick disposal - could get some satisfaction from that much, at least, he told himself. Wanting to believe.
"Oh, no..." Kaylee had raised her head to look, now that there was just the haze on the horizon came from the cloud of dust the things kicked up. "Serenity..."
Mal sagged back against the mule, legs collapsing underneath him, ending on his backside in the dirt. His shoulder wound oozed lazy down his back. As the dust cleared, he started to laugh, and couldn't seem to rein it in even hearing the strain clear in the sound. Sons of bitches never had been any good at accurate gorram targeting in the war, neither.
"They missed," Jayne grunted, unimpressed. "Sa gua gorram Feds."
"Doesn't matter." Mal stopped laughing for choking and had to fight to catch his breath even to get the weary words out. "Just be 'round for another pass 'til they get it right. What they do." The preacher was nodding gloomily.
And it did seem it began to do just that. But then its circle, half-completed, aborted, and the six of them watched while the ship came around and headed home, shadow falling this time a good mile to the west.
A long time passed before Mal said, "What the hell just happened?" to a host of confused faces couldn't answer.
"She's here!" It was Kaylee ran into the hold to deliver the news in a breathy cry, girl practically hopping about in excitement. Mal looked up sharply from the cargo he was securing - funny turn of their luck that they'd actually got themselves a job out of this, and one as was legal, too. Jayne perked up as well, to the extent he almost fell of his crutch. Kaylee ran on up the steps to tell Simon, Wash and Book, and Zoe looked up briefly from her own crate to send a knowing smile Mal's way. River, perched on one of the crates already secured, kicked her heels and looked for all the world like the news hadn't registered at all.
Mal shaded his eyes at the edge of the ramp and watched the larger passenger craft finish putting down in Icarus' Skylark Docks in the brilliant sun, light glittering off her frame to dazzle enough that, even shaded, he had to close his eyes a second against the glare.
Heard the clamour behind him as the steps absorbed more abuse and Kaylee dashed out again, practically shoving him over in the process; laughed and threw an apology behind her as he bit back an exclamation, rubbed at his shoulder and ruefully smiled. Simon followed Kaylee with somewhat more decorum, and Wash and Zoe (hand in hand) and Book with a little less. Jayne only moved enough that he could perch on a crate by the ramp, next to River, who wordlessly passed him a long splinter she'd been turning in her hands with a dedicated seriousness made almost an initiation of the small act. Jayne gave her an odd look, but took it, and Mal saw her lean across and whisper something in his ear that, from his expression, made about as much sense.
Mal turned his eyes back to the passenger craft out across the way. Its ramp was lowering, to allow exit first to a couple of crewmen and then to a scatter of assorted passengers hauling baggage. The crewmen stepped back up to form a helpful retinue behind the single tall, bright-clad figure Mal's eyes fixed to as she turned her head and changed direction decisively, picking her way across the dust to be met by a running Kaylee in a hug so fierce the red bag from her hand ended up tipped on its side on the ground.
The two women laughed, and it was so far across the way that the noise only faintly echoed back to him, almost a silent play. He watched as Zoe, Wash and Book welcomed her back, and Simon gave a very formal nod, lips moving in some polite inconsequence. He saw her gaze catch and shift toward him - behind him, where Jayne had raised his hand in a wave and, as Mal turned, prodded River and tried to get her to do the same, to the point of grabbing hold her wrist and making a puppet of her, when the girl jabbed him in the ribs and slid off the crate. She made her way slowly down the ramp into the sun, and moved to sit in the dust of planetside at its end.
Mal turned back to Inara with a smile ready, but she was already looking away. Simon, Wash and Zoe took the baggage from the crewmen, who hurried with their trolleys for more - Inara's belongings tended to call for a lot of running back and forth - and saw her exclaim about Wash's healing burns, touching her fingers to his face. The group started to move across the docks to where Serenity waited.
"We were just waiting for you, then we're all ready to leave," Kaylee was saying as they came into easy earshot. "Your shuttle picked up a few more dents in all the shaking about, but we smoothed 'em and fixed 'em nice, and fixed up another few things been waiting their turn a while. We're sure glad to have you back." She hung onto the companion's arm in another impulsive hug.
"Yeah. You really came through for us," Wash said warmly. "Above and beyond."
"We all missed you," Book added.
They'd reached the end of the ramp, and Inara said, "Hello, River." Girl looked up and moved her lips wordlessly, and snatched a hand for something invisible about the hem of Inara's dress before she regarded her empty fingers intently and returned the greeting, sounding confused.
"She's on drugs," Wash pointed out helpfully. "More so than usual."
"We'll take these straight up to your shuttle," Zoe said.
She and Wash and Simon peeled off up the stairs, and Kaylee and Book set to talking distantly at the back of the hold, and who knew where Jayne had suddenly gone but he wasn't on his crate anymore, and somehow Mal and Inara were left standing alone on Serenity's ramp, save for River's silent presence ten feet away, which though the girl might take in everything like a sponge, for practical purposes barely counted at all.
"Captain Reynolds," Inara said, setting her red bag down at her feet.
"Well, if it isn't Inara." He pronounced her name with a long, drawled 'i'. Leaned against the side of the hatch 'cause his legs had got themselves feeling unaccountably weak - and maybe that could be some leftover weakness from the bullet wound - and swallowed hard. It was difficult to look at her. Always had been. She was something of an overload on the senses even when a man had some familiarity under his hat to get inured to her, and he hadn't seen her in weeks, which he reasoned left his defences well and truly scattered.
She smiled brilliantly. "I hear you've been in the wars."
He folded his arms. "I hear you've been making yourself an angel of mercy."
"Not for just anyone, Mal."
"Oh? You plannin' to start charging for that, t--" He snapped his jaw closed as he saw her face fall. He raised a hand, two broken fingers on it taped up and sticking out like points. "Wait. I'm stupid. Hell, you know that. What I'm meaning here..." He shook his head. "There ain't no way I'm ever gonna be able to pay back what I owe you. Ain't just money I mean, Inara, don't look at me like that. There's... there's no way." He found he was blinking something fierce as he tried to focus on her through the sun.
Her expression softened a fraction. "I never asked you to. This isn't something I did on credit, Mal. I could hardly come back to Serenity if she was ashes on the wind."
"You were coming... you changed your mind?"
"I did." She picked up her red bag to take a few steps closer; briefly acknowledged the passenger ship's crewmen dropping off more crates behind her before they hurried off the collect the next.
"Why?" And the only reasonable description matched that inelegant question was 'blurted'. He winced in the short silence after.
"This ship is my home."
He folded his arms again and didn't know what to do with his face and felt full-body-awkward, in that way usually meant he was gonna end up insulting her just to get out with any kind of manly dignity intact. "You know you bought yourself that shuttle and about a century's berth rental about six times over?" he asked with a bit of a nervous laugh.
Her eyes sparkled, and the message in them said clear, 'oh, so that's how we're going to play this?' "I only pulled some strings and soothed a few... string-pullers. It's fortunate Vennin happened to be a shareholder in the mines here."
"--And setting aside the point for the moment that I don't even want to know who Vennin is... which would, indeed, be the point of the setting aside..." Mal paused before it happened he swallowed his tongue, and made himself smile at her. Civil-like. Was it so hard to thank the woman? "You are always pulling my fat out of the fryer, Inara. Grand Master of the Eleventh Hour Save. You fixing to make that habit of bein' my own personal miracle full-time now?"
And that came out... so very wrong. But she only smiled at him with a certain edge of ironic amusement and she said, "We'll see."