Mal woke up with a start, expecting to see the lights of battle, the blazing explosions of flashers flying low, of grenades and mortars hitting sand and rock. But his eyes fastened on the cool, comforting metal of the infirmary. He was on his ship. He was safe--Serenity had him.
"Ah, you're awake. How do you feel?" Simon walked over, pulling out some medicine from a drawer on his way.
"Don't be shooting me up with that before you even figure out what's wrong," Mal said, trying to pull away.
"Way ahead of you, captain. We're long past the diagnosis phase. Aren't we, Zoe?"
Mal turned his head, saw Zoe perched on the counter, legs dangling. She never did that unless she was bored to death.
"Been out a while, I guess?" He was hoping she'd hop on down and leave. Unconcerned Zoe was the way to go when wounds were the issue.
She didn't look unconcerned. "Sure were, Captain." Her smile was gentle, sharing a joke with him, then a different joke with Simon.
Mal must have been out for quite some time for these two to have forged a secret funny between them. "I don't know as I hold with this new closeness between you two. Wash approve?"
Zoe just laughed. "If it's helping you, Wash is fine with it."
"How long have I been out?"
"About ten hours." Simon put the monitor on Mal's finger, closing it so gently he barely felt the pinch. "I had to operate."
Mal started to sit up, but Simon's hand on his shoulder held him down. "The operation wasn't easy, Captain. I'd rather you didn't go and destroy all my good work."
"Man's not lying, sir. He worked a long time over you." Zoe finally hopped off the counter, looking as if she was ready to assist with the "keeping Mal still" operation. "And I helped, so I'm not real eager to see you tear yourself up trying to get out of that bed."
"Conspiracy of two. Someone else here who can weigh in?"
"I'm not supposed to be here." River's voice sounded from the doorway, but he couldn't see her. Then he realized she was down low, crouching on the floor.
"What are you doing, girl?"
"Flashers coming in, take your head off if you're not careful. If you don't stay down." It was what Mal had said to Zoe during the battle of Kuan Lo--and what he'd been dreaming of just before he'd started awake. Girl was downright creepy when she wanted to be. Although maybe wanting wasn't really part of it?
"No offense, Doctor. But your sister isn't really the third person I was looking for."
"Three can keep a secret if two are dead." River stood slowly, looking around as if flashers really were going to come flipping into the ship.
Simon didn't appear to be paying much mind to her. His "Mei Mei, not now," didn't sound any different than it ever did.
"Girl's getting better at the psychic stuff," Zoe murmured to him. "There were low-flying flashers at Kuan Lo."
"There certainly were."
Ignoring her brother, River walked into the infirmary, staring down at Mal as if she could see past the sheet. "Insides on the outside. All jumbled up, pink and stinking."
He'd seen enough on the battlefield to know that belly wounds did tend to stink if enough innards found their way out. "I'm all better now."
"Not all. Part way. Most of the way. Can't get up. Can't go out. Can't order us around."
"Oh, he can still do that," Zoe said with a grin.
"Not without yelling. Yelling's bad." River smiled--that distant, slightly superior, very creepifying smile. "If we hide, you can't find us. If a captain gives an order in an empty room and no one hears him, does he make a noise?"
"Bit philosophical for me, girl. What do you think?"
River blinked, as if surprised he'd asked her. "Depends on whether reception is required for noise to exist."
"If Wash sends a distress call and no one receives it, he still sent it." Zoe smiled at Mal, as if she knew he must have wondered if they'd pick up his distress call.
"River, there you are child." Shepherd Book came into the infirmary, walking to her slowly, his calm manner soothing even for Mal, who didn't hold with the man's God. "Come on, then. Let's go finish fixing the Bible, shall we?"
"She's fixing the bible?" Mal wondered what that entailed. Maybe scratching out the parts that said God actually cared what happened to folk?
"Oh, yes." Book sighed. "The frightening thing is, the parts she's edited do read better now." He took her gently by the shoulders and turned her, urging her out of the infirmary.
"Man's got the patience of a saint," Simon murmured.
"And the hair of a crazy locust-and-grubs hermit." Zoe saw them look at her. "Long story."
"Wash know you've been peeking at the shepherd when his hair's down?" Mal laughed and was immediately sorry. Pain seemed to erupt inside him.
"Okay, that's enough of that." Simon injected him with the medicine. "Sleepy time, Captain."
Mal could feel the drug starting to work. "Same stuff you used to give your sister?"
"You gonna stroke my hair back and talk to me as I fall asleep?" Not that he wanted Simon to do that, although it had struck him as one of the sweeter things he'd seen the doc do for his sister. But if Simon wanted to get Inara in here...
"He'll be out for hours. I want someone with him at all times," Mal heard the doc say.
"We'll take turns."
Maybe Inara would take a double shift?
"Don't let me fall."
He felt her take his hand, her grip strong. "Not gonna be any falling happening here, sir."
"You never call me Mal. How come you never call me Mal?"
"Go to sleep, Mal." His name sounded powerful odd coming from her.
Mal woke to the sound of a rhythmic swooshing sound. Opening his eyes slowly, he turned his head and saw Jayne cleaning Vera the way most men made love to their women. He had the gun open, was taking out parts and wiping them down. Swoosh-swoosh, swoosh-swoosh, the soft cloth not missing a spot.
"Well, ain't you a sight for sore eyes?" Mal tried to move.
Jayne glanced up. "I don't need Vera here to lay you back down, Cap'n."
"I'm feeling much better."
"Doc said you were to stay put. More important, Doc's scary sister who can kill me with her brain said you were to stay put. Way I see it, you're staying put."
Mal started to push up.
Jayne's hand was on his shoulder, very large and very clear with the message of "Stay put."
Mal quit trying to get up. "I'm staying put."
There was silence for a bit as Jayne went back to cleaning his gun and Mal tried to think of a way to get him to let him sit up a spell.
Finally, Mal said, "She can't. Not really." Looking up, he counted the tiles that covered the ceiling longways.
"Who can't what really?"
"River. She can't kill you with her brain."
Jayne stopped cleaning the gun. He seemed to think a spell. "You sure about that?"
"Pretty sure, yeah."
Jayne put Vera down, got up and walked to the door of the infirmary. "Hey, girl. Mal says you can't kill me with your brain."
"Which of us you think is smarter, him or me?" River sounded almost like she was teasing Jayne.
"Not sure." There was a long silence, then Jayne started muttering in Chinese as he walked back to the chair someone had drug in from the lounge and set up next to the sickbed. "Sorry, Cap'n. Man's gotta be gorram sure someone can't kill him with her brain before he sets out to upset her by letting you up and about."
"It's my ship."
"Yep, that it is."
"I give the orders here."
"Normally, I'd not argue with you. But seeing as you're flat on your backside and creepgirl's wandering loose, I'm gonna have to see things her way." He seemed to be having trouble sliding one of Vera's inner parts back in. "Tzao gao!"
"You're losing your touch." Mal sighed. Why'd it have to be Jayne and Vera keeping him company? Here he was on his sick bed and this was the concern showed him. "Where's the rest of the crew?"
"Simon's trying to make a drug deal."
"On account of why?"
"Oh, you know. Business and all." Jayne didn't quite meet his eyes.
"On account of you're bleeding and you don't seem inclined to stop."
Mal glanced down; the sheet looked as white as it ever did.
"Inside. You're bleeding inside. Doc's got some kind of drain in you to get it out. But a man can't live that way. Not and strike fear into the hearts of those he runs up against."
Mal felt gingerly along the sheet. Sure enough, there was a big old tube coming out of his insides. "So the drugs are gonna make it stop bleeding?"
"Doc says so. Says Warther must have put something in his bullets. Exploded good and mean inside you when you got hit."
Mal nodded. Explained why his belly had felt more on fire than he remembered a gut wound feeling. "Well, that covers where the doc is. What about Zoe?"
"She's providing muscle for him. Wash went along, too. For comic relief, I guess." Jayne grinned meanly. "Kaylee's been down here bout a hunnerd times. She's doing engine repairs when she ain't checkin' on you." Jayne finally got Vera back together. "Shepherd's trying to make sure River doesn't bug us too much. He's just outside if you want him to say a prayer over you?"
"I thought so." Jayne got up. "Fact, 'bout time he relieved me."
"You left someone out."
"Oh, she's just back. Cleaning up, I expect, from the extra work she took on."
Mal felt as if someone had shot him in the gut all over again. "I'm lying here bleeding to death, and she took on a few extra clients? Taking advantage of the downtime with a little whoring, I guess?"
Jayne looked taken aback. "The special medicine is expensive, Mal. And we were all tapped out. She took the extra work so Simon could get what you needed."
Mal's stomach took another hit. "Oh."
"You know, Mal, not that it's any of my concern or nothing, but sex is her business. You sure get tetchy about it." Jayne met his eyes, and Mal saw something he never expected--understanding. "Wouldn't kill you to tell the girl you like her, would it?"
"Who said I liked her?"
Jayne turned to the door. "River, come here a minute, will ya?"
A moment later River popped her head in.
"Mal like Inara?"
She nodded, then lifted her hand and pretended to kiss it, making lots of slurpy noises.
"I rest my case. Even the ship's crazy person knows you're sweet on Inara."
"I thought Book was relieving you?"
"You're right. He was." Jayne looked down at River. "You ready to learn the parts of this gun?"
"Jayne, we are not teaching the girl about guns."
"We're not. I am. Someday we might want her to know this stuff."
"No touching," she said helpfully. Then she turned her laser-beam stare on Mal. "Hard to learn without touching."
"Okay, then, touch but no shooting," Mal said. "Not in here. Guns are outside stuff."
"You fire in here."
"Yeah...well, I'm stupid."
She giggled. And, for one moment, she sounded like the girl she was. Then she looked up at Jayne and the look she gave him was far from young.
"Jayne," Mal said, "I want you to have Shepherd Book tell you about the special hell."
Jayne's look was utter incomprehension. Mal looked over at River. She stared blandly back.
Mal tried again. "River, I want you to have Shepherd Book tell you about the special hell."
By her smile, he got the feeling she knew exactly what he meant, and the thought made him kind of nauseous.
Book walked in as she led Jayne out. "Something troubling you? I heard you asking for me to give a lecture?"
"You think they're safe together?"
Book smiled. "River and Jayne? Oh, I think she has nothing to worry about from him."
"Not her I'm worried about, preacher." Mal yawned. "How can I be tired again? I just woke up."
Book sat down in the chair Jayne had vacated. "You're hurt bad."
"I know." He met Book's eyes. "I don't need no last rites."
"Good. I don't give them. That would be the Catholics." He smiled, the look warm and open. The look that always calmed everyone down.
"Book your first name or your last?" Mal yawned again.
"Yes." Book picked up his bible, read something that seemed to go around the margins--he had to keep turning the book to read it. Then he laughed and shook his head.
"Girl's a pistol, is all. I never thought about 'God is light' in quite these terms." He closed the book. "She's gifted."
"Yeah, that's one way of looking at it."
"You think she's not?"
"I think she's a whole lot of trouble all wrapped up in a disarmingly endearing package." Mal could feel his eyes closing. "She's dangerous, shepherd."
"Well, who here isn't?"
He felt Book pat his shoulder.
"You rest up now, Captain. Simon should be back soon."
"With my medicine."
"Yes. With your medicine," Book said, giving him another pat.
But Mal thought he sounded a little worried.
Mal woke, his gut burning, and he could tell he was sweating like a pig.
"Shhh. It's all right." Kaylee laid something cool and wet on his forehead. She didn't look like it was all right.
"Where are the others?"
"Don't you worry about them." Kaylee kept looking outside the infirmary.
"Somewhere else you need to be?"
"I got the forward thrust coupler near stripped. But Book and Jayne had to go, so I came down. But we can't fly till I put it back together."
"They had to go?"
Kaylee nodded, her face all scrunched up. She wasn't lying to him any better than she ever did.
"There's been some trouble?" Another wave of fire spread through his belly, and he closed his eyes and rode it out.
"Nothing Jayne and Book can't handle, Captain." Again Kaylee looked out, and Mal could tell the engine was calling to her.
"Go on, Kaylee. I'll be fine."
"I'll watch him," River said.
Mal hadn't noticed her come into the room.
"Oh, I'm not so sure." Kaylee looked from River to him to her engines.
"Get the ship running," Mal managed to say between waves of pain. "That's an order."
With a guilty look, she got up, handing River a bowl she must have had sitting in her lap. "Change the cloth when it's not cool anymore."
"I know." River didn't sit, and when Kaylee finally left, she put the bowl down. "You're real sick."
It occurred to him that she didn't sound the least bit crazy, and her look seemed full of concern. Then again he was feverish and prone to imagining crazy stuff his own self. He almost wanted to ask her to fill him up with one of those painkillers the doc used all the time. But he was afraid she'd grab the wrong one and that'd be the end for him.
"You hurt," she said softly.
He was going to lie but something about her expression told him not to. "Yeah. I sure do."
She moved up near his head and leaned in, touching behind his ears, pressing hard on both sides of his head with the bony part of her thumbs. It hurt, for a minute, and then the pain went away some--on his head and down low in his gut. She moved back where he could see her. "Give me your hand."
He didn't question her, just lifted his hand and let her work, pressing with her thumb again. The pain receded even more, although he still felt hot and sweaty. "What are you doing?"
"Pressure points. Control the body, control the pain." She moved the low chair away, pulling the higher stool over. "I made you feel better."
"That you did." He realized he'd been breathing shallowly and tried taking a deeper breath, the movement becoming less gingerly as the pulling in of oxygen didn't hurt his stomach. "Thanks."
She nodded, her eyes not looking even the least bit loony as she studied him.
"Things went south on the job, huh?" he asked.
"Simon isn't good at being bad." Smiling, she reached over for the bowl, took the cloth off his forehead and dipped it into the water. She wrung it out before laying it back over his forehead. "They'll be all right. Inara went too. She talks pretty and people like to do what she wants. They'll come home soon."
"I know." By the look in her eyes, he believed her.
"What are you, girl?"
"I don't know. They unmade me." Her lip quivered and for a second, he thought she might cry. "It's why they want me back. I know things I shouldn't, and I hear things that haven't been said yet, and see things for what they are. And I'm a wea--" She looked away.
"You're a weapon." Good to get it out in the open--even if only between the two of them. It was no doubt why Jayne wanted to hang around the girl. Man couldn't resist a shiny new toy of the lethal variety.
River just nodded. "Might as well be a good weapon, then." She met his eyes, then closed hers. Her hands moved, as if she was stripping a gun. She counted off the parts.
"Jayne teach you that?"
"He teach you anything else?"
Her eyes opened. "No," she said, but then she smiled, and it was so far from a girl's smile that Mal had to suppress a shudder.
"River. He's an old man."
"No, he's not."
"All right then, he's a dumb one."
She just smiled, and Mal got the horrible feeling she liked her men that way.
"You're seventeen, girl. I won't have that sort of thing on my ship."
"Be eighteen in weeks." She worked at the spot on his hand, and his pain was pushed down again.
He'd barely known it was starting back up--how had she?
"Don't care how old you're going to be." Then he frowned. "What day?"
She leaned down, whispered it. "Shhh, it's a secret. No one can know the day I was born except you and Simon." She suddenly sounded a little crazy. Then he heard the hatch door slam open.
"We're back," Zoe called. "And we got the goods."
River turned and he reached out for her, stopping her.
"Is it all an act?"
She stared down at him, smiling that enigmatic smile of hers. "I like vanilla frosting."
He'd been thinking of asking Kaylee to make her a cake, special for her birthday--with chocolate icing. "Vanilla, it is."
She smiled brilliantly, again looking her age. Then, as he watched, she seemed to slump a little, her head cocked just enough to give her that crazy edge. "Everyone's back. See, I told you. All okay now." She leaned down, her lips resting near his ear. "Thank you for keeping me safe. I'm glad I could look out for you." Then she ran out, leaving him alone for the few moments it took Simon and Zoe to get to him.
Simon looked a little worried. "River was with you?"
Mal nodded. "Kaylee needed to fix the engine. There was no one else, and you ordered it."
Simon still looked a bit worried.
"Your sister was fine, doctor." Mal saw Wash peek into the room. "Kaylee may need a hand."
"Mine's free," the pilot said, dashing out, then Mal heard him clanging up the stairs.
Simon was loading up an injector. "I'm going to have to operate again. Once this starts to work. Just to make sure it's building up your cells so everything's good and tight in there again."
Mal nodded, trying not to flinch as Simon poked the needle into his arm. He looked over at Zoe. "You ran into trouble?"
"Nothing we couldn't handle."
Simon shot her a look.
"Well, maybe it was more like nothing Inara couldn't handle."
Mal smiled. "No one hurt?"
"No one but you, sir." She sat down in the stool, her hand resting on his upper arm. "How are you feeling?"
"I'll live." He watched her face carefully. "I will live, Zoe."
"Course you will. Little thing like this isn't going to end you." She leaned down, kissing his cheek gently.
"Oh, god. I'm going to die, ain't I?"
She smiled. "I'm just glad you didn't die while we were messing up on the job." Pulling the cloth off his forehead, she used it to wipe the sweat from the rest of his face and around his throat. "You're a stubborn man, sir. Both of us know that."
"Stubborn's not a bad thing."
"No, it's not." She smiled again, the tender smile she usually reserved for Wash. "You just stick around. I don't fancy giving orders in your stead."
"You'd do fine."
"That may be, but let's not put it to the test."
There was a low rumbling, then a more rhythmic vibration. He smiled. "Kaylee's got her running."
"Well, I helped," Wash said as he walked in. "How you doing, Mal?"
"I've been prettier."
"Looks aren't everything," Simon said from where he was entering something into his computer.
"Spoken like a pretty-pretty man."
Simon turned, his smile gentle. "You think I'm pretty? Why, sir, I didn't think I was your type."
"Mal doesn't have a type, didn't you know that?" Inara's voice sounded like honey and smoke.
Zoe got up. "Why don't you sit with him a spell?" She pushed Wash out. "We'll be piloting us out of the world."
"Well, I will be. She'll just be bossing me around." Wash whapped Zoe on the butt--Mal was constantly astounded that she let him do that.
Inara looked at Simon. "Is it okay if I'm here?"
He nodded. "We just wait, now. Let the medicine do its magic." Dumping out the bowl of water, he handed it back to her. At her rising eyebrows, he grimaced a little. "There may be vomiting."
"And on your fine clothes too," Mal said, his voice taking that dip into mean that he always regretted but couldn't seem to stop using with her. Girl set him on fire and all he could do was mock her. It was a puzzlement.
"My clothes will survive. Or I'll get new ones." She sat gracefully.
"Don't let him pull the tube out. I'm going to go change." Mal realized Simon's clothes smelled like urine and cigarettes. "Call me if his temperature goes any higher." He put the clamp on Mal's finger and they all watched his temperature climb to one hundred and four.
"Damn," Mal said. "No wonder I feel like gos se." He looked at Inara, as the doctor walked out. "Do I look like gos se?"
"You're still pretty." She looked like she might cry, and that scared him. She seemed to realize it, and sniffed, rubbing her eyes roughly. "It was dusty on that planet."
"Something in your eye?"
She nodded, then she looked over at the monitor, and at the door, then over at the shelves of medicine. She was, in fact, looking at everything but him.
"I ain't gonna die, Inara."
She nodded, finally meeting his eyes. "You'll be well in no time. You're strong."
"And I've got this fine medicine. Paid for by you, I'm given to understand." He sounded judgmental. Why'd he have to go and sound that way for?
"Just glad I could help. Even if it was on my back." Her eyes were stormy. As if she'd finally had enough of him.
"I always imagined you on top."
The storm subsided, and she seemed surprised. "Did you?"
He looked away. Now why the hell had he gone and said that?
He opened his mouth to say something mean, then caught a look at her face. Damn but this woman was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Before he could think better of it, his mouth started moving. "Inara there's probably not a way of lovin' I haven't imagined you and I doing." There, it was said.
Her eyes widened.
"Never mind your policy on not doing the crew." He saw that she was staring down at him, not in shock, or irritation, or disgust. But softly. Tenderly. "Then again, you said the crew, not the captain."
"I wasn't very clear, was I?"
She suddenly started to cry.
"But if the thought is tear provokin', maybe you best forget I said anything."
He was about to say more, but couldn't, on account of her having leaned down and laid her lips against his. She was gentle, as if she was afraid she'd hurt him, and he could taste her tears as they fell between their joined lips.
She finally pulled away and whispered, "Don't die, Mal."
"I don't expect I will. Not if you promise to kiss me like that again."
"Even once I'm well?" He took her hand--it was so damned soft, and she smelled so gorram good. "Promise me this isn't just your bedside--sick-bedside--manner."
She laughed. "I promise. I'm not known for my compassion."
"That really is gos se. You're my benchmark for that particular attribute."
Looking down, she said softly, "I'm your benchmark for other, not-so-nice, things, too."
"Yeah, we're going to have to talk about your line of work. You seemed to take to crime all right."
She laughed, then leaned down and kissed him again. "I can't promise you I won't whore," she said when she pulled back.
"You're not a whore. And as far as being a companion, I'm sure if we put our heads together, we can come up with a workable solution." But he could tell by her face that it might not be a solution he was overly in love with.
"Can you share me?" she asked very matter of factly.
"No." He hated that he'd just blurted it out like some rutting teenager, but there it was. He wasn't of a mind to share her.
To his surprise, her smile was brilliant. "Then you'll just have to earn enough money to afford to book me exclusively."
"See. There's a solution already." He pulled her down for another kiss, but had to let go as he felt his gorge rising. "Bowl. Bowl."
She grabbed it, got it to him just in time. There was a little blood mixed in--but only a little. Maybe that meant the drug was working? Mal didn't think any of the vomit had spattered on her dress. He hoped not--it was the peach satin, his favorite dress of hers. She'd worn it when they'd had the picnic over the hold, after he'd dueled for her. After he'd won her back from that hwoon dahn who had tried to buy her exclusive services.
She made a face. "You'll understand if I don't kiss you."
"Oh, sure, say you love me, but let a little vomit get in the way and you're gone."
"I didn't say I love you." Her eyes were very soft. She had such lovely eyes.
He'd be a happy man if he could just drown in them for a month or so. "You were just getting to that part." He looked up at her, waiting.
She began to open her mouth, and he smiled. But then he felt nausea come over him again.
"I love you enough to do this," she said as she held the bowl under him, keeping him steady with her other hand so he wouldn't move too much as he threw up.
She stood, walking to the counter and bringing back the damp washcloth. She began to wipe his mouth, but he took it from her, doing it himself.
"That's why you like me."
She sat back down. "No, that's why I love you. I like you for some of your more admirable traits."
"So you do love me?"
"I just said it, didn't I?" Her smile was the old one. The teasing one, and he felt something inside relax.
Had he been afraid he'd lose the woman he loved to spar with if he gained the woman he wanted to cleave to so damn badly? "Just how much money are we talking to book you all the time?"
"On when you're going to get around to telling me you love me, too."
"Oh!" He laughed nervously. "Well, you know I do."
Her eyebrows went up; she was clearly not amused. "You want to hold your own bowl?"
"I love you." It wasn't as hard to say as he'd thought it would be. Maybe it was the drugs?
"You're feverish." She obviously thought he wasn't in his right mind, either.
"I'll tell you I love you when I get all better." He suddenly felt tired. Tired and little less hot. "I'll tell you every gorram day until you get sick of hearing it from me."
She leaned down, her lips resting on his forehead. "Go to sleep, Mal. I'll be here when you wake up. We all will."
He could feel sleep coming for him. "My family."
"Yes. Your family."
"Doc's going to operate again. Make sure he leaves me pretty. Don't want you hiding your face in disgust."
She laughed softly. "You're assuming I'll keep the lights on when I finally let you into my bed."
He grinned. Nope, his sparring partner was going nowhere any time soon. "I surely am, aren't I?"
"Get some rest, dearest." Her kiss was so sweet on his cheek.
He closed his eyes. Felt Inara pull away, but then her hand settled on his, the connection warm and soothing.
He could feel the pulse of Serenity all around him. Everything was all right, now. He was with the people who mattered most. And they cared for him, too. They'd gone out and gotten him this fine medicine that, when it wasn't making him upchuck, would cure him. Because this was home, and that's what family did. They made you well and kept you safe.
He let go and surrendered to sleep. And when he dreamed, it wasn't of Kuan Lo.