Author's Notes: Yes, it's been a long time. My apologies. If you're still reading, thank you, thank you, thank you. Enjoy! Only 112 days until the movie FINALLY comes out!
by Kristen Elizabeth
Osiris. Kaylee sighed with complete happiness as she caught her first glimpse of the Core planet from Serenity's ramp. Even the docks were upscale, she was amazed to note. Warehouses spread out from the docking areas in neat rows; there was no dust clogging up the air. In the distance, she could see Capital City with its high rises, buildings that threatened to touch the very clouds themselves. Beyond that there were mountains in shades of dark green that she'd only dreamt of.
"It's so shiny," she whispered.
"Everything that glitters isn't gold."
Kaylee's skin went all gooseflesh at the sound of Simon's voice. She hadn't even heard him coming up behind him. She turned her head to look at him…and had to choke back an eruption of giggles. "What in the 'verse are you wearin'?"
The doctor glanced down at his outfit, a mismatched effort compiled from the mending basket that only he, as the steadiest hand with a needle, ever seemed to attend to. One of Jayne's T-shirts shirts hung on his lesser-built frame. He'd covered it up with a hideous printed shirt that had to belong to Wash. A pair of Book's loose-legged pants finished up the ensemble.
"I'm in disguise," he explained, withdrawing his small-framed sunglasses from his pocket. He slipped them on and attempted a smile. "Jing zi, don't you think?"
Kaylee nodded as somberly as she could. "I guess no one's gonna look at those clothes and think that Dr. Simon Tam'd ever be caught dead in 'em."
"Precisely!" Her amused expression fell and instantly he corrected himself "Not that there's anything wrong with dressing like this. It's just not…my style." Simon stopped. "Well…it's probably not necessary. I have no intention of stepping foot off this ship for the duration of our stay."
"Prob'ly a good idea."
He glanced over his shoulder, into the cargo bay where Book and Inara were fussing with the children. "What do you think is going to happen to them?"
"No idea," Kaylee replied with much regret. "I just…I gotta trust the Capt'n. He'll do the right thing."
A moment of pregnant silence followed. "You really care for him. Don't you?"
The resignation in his words startled her. "'Course I do."
Simon nodded. "I understand."
Kaylee frowned. "He's the Capt'n."
"'Fore him, I ain't never met any menfolk who'd give me a chance at fixin' things…'cept my Pa. Sure, most of 'em liked me on my back, but not under an engine."
Simon cleared his throat. "Ah. I…um…I see."
She studied his handsomely cut profile for a second before continuing. "He ain't never let me down, Simon. So I can't let him down by thinkin' the worst of him. Shumma?"
He pulled off his sunglasses in order to look into her eyes. "I pray that he never disappoints you, Kaylee."
Something in his tone bothered her, but she shrugged it off as best she could. As horrible as the job might have been, they still had a job to do. And if the pained look on Inara's face that was clear all the way across the cargo bay was any indication, Book could use a hand rounding up the excited children.
"I gotta…" She pointed to them.
"Of course." Simon fumbled about putting his sunglasses back on. "I should check on River. I'm going to try to give her a mild sedative."
Kaylee's eyes grew wide, but she refrained from voicing her objection to his chosen course of action regarding his sister. If he thought it was best, who was she to argue? He was the one with the fancy schoolin'.
"I know," he continued, frowning. "I hate the very idea of doing it. But River doesn't know…because I haven't been able to tell her…that our parents want nothing to do with me. With us." Simon looked out over the docks, towards the sprawling city. "If she were to run off while we're here to try to see them…I'm afraid of her finding out. She has so little anchoring her to this world as it is."
She couldn't stop herself from reaching out and touching his cheek. He'd neglected to shave that morning, likely another part of his disguise, and the stubble felt surprisingly pleasant against her fingers. "She has you. I'm thinkin' that's what's most important to her."
Simon made no movement to back away from the innocent, yet significant contact. And to his credit, he sensed that it was a moment to keep quiet rather than try to fill the pause with babbled attempts at conversation.
Kaylee would have been quite content to stay right there for the rest of her life, but Mal interrupted right then with a crisp, "Kaylee. Front and center," shouted across the bay.
With an apologetic smile, she left Simon standing on the ramp, unaware of his eyes watching her every movement.
"What's up, sir?" she asked the Captain way too cheerfully.
"Me and Zoë and Jayne are goin' to check out the drop site," Mal informed her. "I'm puttin' you in charge of keepin' order while we're gone."
Confused, she looked up at him. "Sure thing. But…" She trailed off as she realized something. "Wait…you're not takin' the kids with you." Kaylee's eyes lit up. "You're not gonna sell 'em, are you!"
Mal clamped one finger against her lips, bringing a crashing halt to her temporary joy. "Standard doin', Kaylee. Gotta check it all out 'fore we bring along the cargo."
When his hand fell away, she took a step back, swallowing heavily. There was nothing she could say back to him. He stood in front of her as a man who'd made up his mind.
A fallen hero.
"Be careful, Capt'n," she murmured before fleeing.
Across the cargo bay, Inara watched their exchange. Her eyes narrowed when Kaylee ran away from Mal on the verge of tears.
"Even the slums are fancy in the Core," Zoë marveled.
Mal barely gave a passing glance to the warehouses surrounding them as they headed for their designated rendezvous point an hour later. "Same slums. Just better coverin'," he muttered.
Jayne whistled at a pair of hookers as they passed by in a cloud of cheap perfume. "Not much coverin' that I'm seein'," he leered at the scantily dressed girls.
Zoë shot him a look. "Roll your tongue back up. They're fourteen if they're a day."
As if to verify this, Jayne glanced back at them. Mal reached over and forcibly grabbed his chin, directing his face straight ahead.
Pissed off, Jayne whacked his hand away. "For someone's who's fixin' to sell off a bunch of kids, you're downright techy 'bout 'em." Despite, or perhaps because of, Mal's deadly expression, he continued, "I figure those sweet gals been sold a few times over the…"
Before Mal could rip Jayne a new one, Zoë stepped in. "Boys, let's not be creating a scene. Unless you want to see if the jail cells on the Core are just as fancy as their docks."
"He started it," Jayne protested.
"And I'm ending it."
Her tone left no room for further protest. There wouldn't have been time for it anyway. Just a few moments later, Mal stopped in front of one particular warehouse. Although it looked no different than the ones flanking it on either side, he announced, "This is the place."
"How you figure?"
As if to answer Jayne personally, the warehouse's double doors opened, revealing a man and a woman who had both seen better days. They were flanked on either side by men with guns. Instinct compelled Mal, Jayne and Zoë to lift their hands into the air.
"You Malcolm Reynolds?" the man asked.
"Captain Reynolds," Mal corrected him. "We're here 'bout the cargo we took on in Athens."
The man's beady eyes narrowed even further. "Don't see it with you."
"They…it's back on my ship. Didn't seem right to be makin' such a transaction in broad daylight."
After exchanging a look with the woman at his side, the man nodded at his guards; the guns were instantly lowered. "You come to negotiate a better price?"
Mal's face was a mask without a hint of emotion. "Maybe. First I'd like to be seein' where the cargo's goin'. Point of courtesy…you understand."
"Ain't a lot courtesy runnin' 'round these circles no more, Captain," the woman pointed out.
"Call me old fashioned." Only someone who'd been unfortunate enough to have seen it knew the inherent danger in the smile Mal gave her.
Another second passed before the man nodded. "I'm Skip. This here's Judy."
"Skip?" Jayne coughed back a laugh. Mal silenced him with a look.
"Right this way," Skip directed.
With Skip leading, the trio entered the dark warehouse. None of them, not even the two who'd survived a bloody, degrading war, were prepared for what lay within.
"Zai jian. And again, my most sincere apologies."
Inara signed off the Cortex with a sigh. That was the third client whose appointment she'd been forced to cancel due to her sudden change in plans. This one had at least been a regular, one of the few she'd retained from her days on Sihnon. He'd been understanding, knowing she would do her best to make up the inconvenience to him at a later date. Still, it wasn't good to gain a reputation as being an unreliable Companion. Men didn't like to wait, especially men who were used to getting their way.
The peace she'd sought out by secluding herself in her shuttle no longer comforted her. After spending the past couple of days in the company of so many little voices, it was hard to go back to the reverent silence of a Companion's boudoir. If only Mal was there to intrude, as she could once have relied upon him to do. But he was out on a job. Most likely haggling for the best price for the children.
There was a metallic rap on her door. "Cheeng jeen," she called out. Perhaps it was Mal coming to tell her that she'd been right all along. That he really couldn't go through with it.
But it was Book. "Am I disturbing you?" he asked as he entered.
"Not at all. I was just…rescheduling." Inara gestured to the tea set perched on one of her trunks. "Would you like a cup?"
"No, thank you." The older man folded his arms across his chest. "Kaylee was worried about you. The way you took off before. You've been so invested in the children…she thought it odd that you'd stay away from them now."
"Perhaps I overstepped the limits of my own abilities," Inara replied, straining to keep her voice from wavering. "I just couldn't…look at them anymore."
"Out of sight, out of mind?"
She smiled down at the floor. "Something like that."
"Child." Book unfolded his arms and reached for her hand, taking it between his warm, calloused ones. "Is that the way of it with the Captain?"
Her head snapped up. "No. No, I'm leaving purely for business reasons. Mal has nothing to do with my decision to…" Inara stopped. "Why can't I lie to you?"
"It's the collar." He let a few seconds pass. "You know, I was quite shocked when you made your announcement that you were leaving."
"Because I'd like to think that this collar is more than just a decoration, and that I might have some insight into the people around me," Book replied. "I felt an attachment between you and the Captain from the moment I came aboard."
"When he introduced me as the ship's whore?" she half-laughed.
"It was the way he said it."
Genuinely curious, Inara looked up at his weathered face. "How was that?"
"Like…if I had any less than pious thoughts about you, he'd have me blown out an airlock."
The suggestion warmed her, but she didn't let the feeling last long before she shook her head. "I'm sorry to say you were imagining things."
"I'm not sure about that at all." He gently squeezed her fingers. "When this latest misadventure comes to its inevitable conclusion, will you be able to walk away? Return to your old life?"
"I almost did before, didn't I?"
"Yes," he agreed. "But look how quickly you made the choice to stay just a little bit longer."
Inara slipped her hands out of his fatherly grasp. "I'll have to find the strength to do it…and to stand by my convictions this time. Because that old life…it's all I have left." She swallowed. "It's all I am."
"No, child." Book touched her cheek for a brief moment. "You've very wrong about that. I just hope you can bring yourself to believe it before it's too late."
Inara had no time to ponder his words, or any possible response to them. A commotion from the cargo bay interrupted the moment, and they both rushed out of the shuttle to see to it. From the metal balcony, Inara could see Mal re-board Serenity, with a very somber-looking Jayne and Zoë behind him. He glanced up just in time to catch her eye.
Wu de tyen ah…the man had the power to make her stomach flip.
Mal strode over to the comm panel and pushed a button. "All hands report to the cockpit in five minutes." His gaze wandered back over to Inara. "You too."
She followed Book up and down the maize of rusty steps, past Simon's infirmary, through the honeysuckle galley, beyond the crew quarters and up another set of stairs into the cramped cockpit. Inara slipped in place just behind Kaylee.
"What's happened?" she whispered to the younger girl.
Kaylee shrugged. "No idea. But Jayne looks kinda…" She paused. "Sad."
They didn't have to wait long for the answers to their questions. Mal was the last to stride into the cockpit; he looked around, counting heads, then turned to Zoë. "Where's River?"
"Watching the kids," she replied. Mal blinked. "I know," Zoë went on. "Not the smartest of ideas. But would you rather leave 'em unsupervised?"
"Crazy leadin' the kiddies," Jayne mumbled.
"She's not crazy," Simon came to his sister's defense. "She's amazing with the children, if you've bothered to notice."
"Well, long as she don't let 'em poke holes in the hull." Mal shook off any concern about River, the babysitter. "I know you're all wonderin' what's goin' on." As he spoke, he moved his eyes from one person to the next, fixing each of them with a patented Reynolds stare. "There's been a lot bein' said 'bout me an' my morals of late. And I gotta say…I ain't been comin' out too shiny."
Wash cleared his throat. "I wouldn't say that…"
"You've been one step above septic sludge," Inara finished for him as she returned Mal's stare.
"Yeah, well…" Mal crossed his arms over his suspender straps. "Can't say I blame the thought." He paused. "We took a little walk today. Ended up at the drop site."
Book looked back and forth between Mal, Zoë and Jayne. "And I gather our suspicions were correct? We're not dealing with a legitimate orphanage? Or even an illegitimate one?"
"They're slavers," Zoë stated flatly. "No way 'round it. More than that…" She looked down at her hands, suddenly overcome. "I can't, sir." Wash reached for her hand, and for the first time in days she let him entwine his fingers with hers.
Kaylee nibbled on her lower lip. "Capt'n? Was it bad?"
"Weren't fit for pigs," Jayne declared, tersely. "I been in my share of shu ma nyaow jail cells, but they ain't never been bad as…that place. Kids chained to the floor that weren't nothin' but dirt. Lookin' like gorram skeletons." He kicked Wash's chair, the closest thing to him. Wash barely noticed.
"Huh choo-shang tza-jiao duh tzang-huo," Book cursed under his breath.
Inara put a hand to her mouth. "My god…Mal…we have to do something. We can't…you can't…"
He cut her off. "Here's the deal. Me an' Zoë go to make the drop." When several mouths dropped open in protest, Mal continued, "Book, Jayne…you two are back-up. They got guards with guns. No lasers, but plenty of ammo. Figure the four of us can make a good dent in 'em."
Mal turned to Kaylee. "You and Wash'll stay here with Serenity, and keep her ready to go at the drop of my hat. We're gonna be makin' a fuss that might get some Alliance attention. Somethin' goes wrong, you get our siblings outta sight, got it?"
"Dang ran," she nodded, her eyes wide.
"And you." He looked at Inara. "You use those fancy connections of yours and get our kids to a real orphanage. Figure there's gotta be one 'round here somewhere."
"Our kids?" she repeated. Mal seemed momentarily at a loss for words. Inara let him off the hook by smiling and nodding. "I'm sure I can make appropriate arrangements for them."
"All goes well, we'll join up with you, with the kids they got stored away right now." Having recovered from his slip of the tongue, Mal looked around at his crew one more time. "Questions?"
Wash raised the hand that wasn't clasping his wife's. "One. Who was the asshole Mal who's been goin' 'round here lately, and what's the likelihood of him ever comin' back?"
His question was answered with a glare. "Everybody got their jobs; let's get goin'. Ain't long 'til sundown." No one moved for a long moment. "Don't mistake that for a request, people."
Leading through example, Mal was the first out the cockpit door. Gathering up her skirt, Inara ran after him. Despite calling his name several times, she didn't get him to stop and acknowledge her until they were halfway to the cargo bay.
"That was it…all along?" she asked, after catching her breath from the chase. "Your grand plan? You had one…and that's it?"
Mal hooked his thumbs in his pants pockets. "See, here's what bothers me. Everyone on this boat assumin' that I didn't have one."
"What were we supposed to think?" Inara snapped. "You didn't bother sharing anything with us."
"My plan; my choice to share or not."
She shook her head, dark curls bouncing every which way. "You put us in a position to judge you and we did. Harshly, I admit. But you're so against slavery…"
"Exactly!" He advanced on her. She counted by backing up until she reached a wall and could go no further. Mal stopped only inches away from her. "You shoulda figured…you all shoulda figured."
"Do you want me to apologize?" Inara did her best to keep from squirming at his close proximity. "I won't. You left us far too much room for interpreting your actions."
Mal planted one hand against the wall just beside her head, and leaned in. "I had to check out the situation 'fore I came up with a plan."
"You still should have told us," Inara whispered. "We deserved to know. After everything we've been through, right alongside you, I might add. We're more than just your crew." A blush spread across her cheeks. "I mean…they are. They're more to you than just…"
He stopped her with a finger to her lips. "When you're here, on my boat, and part of my plan…you're still my crew, Inara."
"For now." She grabbed his hand and guided it back down to his side. "As soon as this is over, I'll be taking an apartment in Capital City. And you'll be rid of me for good this time."
Mal's eyes turned a shade darker. "Whatever you want. Ambassador." He pushed away from the wall. "Start makin' those arrangements. I got work to do."
She touched her lips after he was gone, not surprised to find them still warm from his touch.
To Be Continued