Chapter 13: Storm's Getting Worse
Mal woke bleary and irritable the morning Serenity reached Osiris, irrationally convinced from the moment he pried up his eyelids that the day would end in disaster. Nothing more specific than that: just a vague botheration, a burr stuck somewhere under his metaphorical saddle. Like to drive him crazy before he even so much as left his cabin.
Part of that, he was fair sure could be blamed on the late night and Inara's fancy soup, however soothing he'd found it at the time. A good deal more could be laid at the feet of the one as sent him those books, for adding genuine demons to his stable of nightmare fodder. He couldn't discount the effect of that youmei weapon, neither; the silver and crimson blade was the first thing he laid his eyes on, just what a man wanted to think on before he'd had any coffee of a morning.
All that aside, though- rational or no- he just had a bad feeling. A warning tingle centered on that displaced nerve cluster to the right of his spine, the like of which had always correlated with disaster. Not that it had ever stopped Mal from acting; but it often made him a damn sight more cautious- or reckless, whichever the situation at hand might call for.
He dressed quickly, then set his jaw and went to roust up his second.
By the time the auto-pilot began to chime for human intervention, he and Zoë and Kaylee had finally come up with a plan for their electronic stowaway. The nimble-fingered mechanic would wedge herself into the wiring as River started their descent; made Mal a bit nervous not to have her in the engine room, but Zoë could keep an eye on the workings in case of buffer panel type emergency. Then, in the howling minutes while their communications were blinded by interference, she'd pry the rogue whatsit loose and run it down to 'Nara's shuttle. A temporary slice and power source would be set up receive it there; by the time it could transmit again, wouldn't notice any kind of a difference. First time their Companion lifted off to fulfill a short-term contract, she'd take Kaylee with her, hid safe in the cockpit; then, while the client was occupied, Miss Frye could transfer it to the rich man's transpo. Could be months before their trackers realized it had gone walkabout.
The work had the intentional side effect of keeping his mind off anything he might not have wanted River to worry on before meeting with her family; it also had the not-so-intentional problem of keeping him from his breakfast, so as soon as he had her settled with a promise to comm him in case of trouble he went back to the kitchen for a plate of protein. Her mood had calmed down more'n a little since her brother had settled his nerves; Simon didn't make all that effective a barometer on her calmer days, but it was a fair bet that whenever he was upset River-storms would follow.
Fair bet that whenever anyone was upset in her vicinity River-storms would follow, of course. Simon just affected his gifted sister more swiftly, and at greater distances, than any other. Which only made every kind of sense. Still, Mal dearly hoped that day would not be a day they had to witness her distress by proxy act again.
Didn't seem like to be any way to avoid it, though. Mal raised his eyebrows as he was met in the passageway by a gussied-up doctor wearing the same pianzhe de expression he'd stuck in Mal's face before the landing on Lilac.
"I'm not taking her," he blurted, staring at Mal as though he expected some kind of argument.
Mal blinked at him. "Ain't fear this time," he said, mouth running off without asking its leave of him. "Eyes ain't wide enough for that. Nor anger, neither; the lack of clenched fists gives it away. So what's eatin' at you this time, Doc?"
Simon snorted, but the corner of his mouth turned up in reluctant amusement. "No, I'm not angry this time. Rather the opposite. I meant to ask you- would it be possible to borrow the spare shuttle before we land? I'd like to pay a visit to my parents alone before I let them meet with River."
Mal's eyebrows lifted a little. "I'm impressed," he said. "I'd thought you'd sneak away after we landed; had Jayne all set to track you through the city with a passel of grenades."
It was Simon's turn to blink in surprise. "You knew-? Well, yes, I suppose it was an obvious move," he replied, grimacing. "However, given the distance from the port to my family's estate, and the size of their property, I thought a shuttle might prove a safer and more economical means of travel. I've filed a flight plan to a neighboring home where one of my fellow surgical residents lives, under a cover name he'll recognize; he was the one who put me in touch with the group who helped me rescue River. I'll do a flyover to make sure there won't be any unexpected guests, then land for a quick meeting. I don't expect to be more than a few hours, at least not on this first visit."
Mal glanced back up toward the cockpit; it was obvious why Simon hadn't cornered him up there, and why he hadn't waited 'til Mal was done with breakfast. "You're still takin' Jayne with you," he decided.
Simon's eyebrows drew together. "Surely that won't be necessary," he said.
Mal cut him off with a negating wave of a hand. "Why you still arguin' what's been decided?" he replied, mildly. "Go tell him; and set up quick. Won't be long before we hit atmo, and Kaylee'll be runnin' through here hell bent for leather. I'd prefer if y'all are already out of the way and ready to go when that happens." He contemplated, briefly, asking Simon to take the transmitter in place of Inara; but kept that question back between his teeth, reasoning that the doctor might prefer not to give the Alliance any extra reason to keep tabs on his family.
Simon frowned, wrestling with himself, then nodded. "Provided he doesn't attempt to hinder me from going; and provided he doesn't expect me to introduce him to my family. I dare say my father would take it poorly if I showed up with a- a bodyguard."
Privately, Mal didn't give a rat's fart what Gabriel Tam thought; and the likelihood that Jayne would care was somewhere between zero and a whole lot of nothing. That would be for the boys to argue amongst themselves on the flight out, though. Mal crossed his arms, and nodded. "Deal. Now get out of my way; you're between me and my breakfast."
Simon scurried off, fancy clothes and fancier aftershave leaving a headache behind him, and Mal entered the common area feeling just as unsettled as he had before their conversation. "There's somethin' about this day that I just do not like," he muttered. Despite the precautions they were all taking, there was something else bound to go wrong. He was sure of it.
Nothing to be done, though, but fuel his body and keep moving.
River was waiting several minutes later when he returned to the pilot's chair, dark eyes glittering as she glanced over from the co-pilot's console. The willful set to her chin fair reminded him of her brother; Mal let his thoughts drift back to the confrontation before Lilac and gave her a questioning look.
Her scowl deepened. "I know what you're doing," she told him, settling her hands on the yoke.
"Shenme?" He raised his eyebrows at her, innocent-like, as he toggled the switches to give her control of the ship.
Her eyes narrowed, not buying the act for one second. "Filling the corners with cotton wool so I can't see what you're planning," she explained, accusation in her tone. "Doesn't mean I can't tell the plans are there."
She didn't elaborate any further; but then, Mal hardly needed her to. The quaver in her voice and the wariness in her body language said it all for her. Been tried on her before, he expected; cruel men with blue-gloved hands testing the limits of her abilities. Wasn't something he'd thought to account for, though he should've. He kept his whirling thoughts on that rather than letting them drift naturally to the subject of just what he was planning, though. He'd faced that particular interrogatory trick before, just never from an actual Reader.
Not that he wanted to think much about why she might have learned that behavior, neither.
"You think meditation might could help with that?" he asked, mildly. "Not to block you from hearing; just to stop your ears up when you want it. Or when you think someone might have a reason to be keeping himself to himself awhile."
Frustration crinkled her features briefly; then she turned away with a sigh. "I don't know. I never tried it; not even before. It seemed like time wasted when I could be dancing."
"Maybe Inara could help you explore the particulars?" he suggested.
She snorted, running fingers idly over the switches, then clicking a few in specific as turbulence began to knock the ship about. Picking up on his own mood, he guessed, though she was plenty tetchy in her own right. About time she did find a way to learn some kind of control. If she liked dancing- well, maybe there was such a thing as meditative dance?
"Can't afford to pay her," she said, sullenly. "Not her responsibility."
"Could be she'd want to help you," Mal pointed out. "Could be she'd be glad to give up a few hours of her time now and again. I aim to do this thing, River; I aim to try and be your Watcher, crazy as that still sounds. But it ain't my only job; I'm still the Captain of this boat, and you're still its pilot. Someone else has the tools and time to help you, it's only polite to accept it."
She bit her lip, then turned back to him, defiance crumbling around the edges. "You're not going to leave us here?" she asked. "This isn't my home; the girl that left here is gone."
He gave her a reassuring smile, picturing his crew standing together, or sitting to a meal, or playing hoop ball in the bay. "You're welcome howsomever long you want to stay, River. You're crew now, remember? You want to leave, I'll hold to that; but if'n you don't, I aim to keep you."
She swallowed, still looking a little lost; then she nodded her head firmly and turned her attention back to her console. The turbulence was picking up; something banged down under Mal's feet, and Kaylee swore from where she lay half under the floor between the consoles and the windows.
"You okay down there, Kaylee?" Mal called to her.
"Aiya! " she hissed, then wrenched herself free of with a clatter of metal. She patted at one temple with a grease-smeared hand, squinting up at him, but the other was wrapped around the offending piece of Alliance flotsam. "Sorry, Cap. Like to've knocked myself out, but I got it." She waved the thing at him, then climbed shakily to her feet.
"Careful on the stairs, then," he admonished as she went by. "Crippled mechanic's no good to me!"
She muttered something else indelicate, but didn't look back, clattering down the fore stairwell as she headed for the shuttles. Mal smirked after her, then sighed and circled the console himself, resecuring the grates and fastenings she'd left undone in her hurry. No sense letting them rattle around in the landing.
Another jolt moved the ship, then; pressed up against the floor panels as he was, Mal felt Serenity's balance shift and knew the doctor had made his departure. He'd have known it anyway, though, by the affronted cry River let out; he finished up with the bolts and hurriedly took his seat again to make sure she hadn't let her attention drift from the piloting.
She hadn't; pale but intent, she hunched over the yoke, staring at the radar screen. "You let him go without me," she said, long hair drifting like a veil to cover her wounded expression. "I didn't mean I wouldn't go! I just didn't want to stay! How can I protect him if I'm on the ship and he isn't?"
"I expect he means to be protecting you," Mal assured her. "He wanted to meet with your parents first, make sure they knew what was what before he brought you there. Let him be the big brother this one last time. Don't worry; I sent Jayne with him. They're going to be just fine."
His back twitched again, where the Operative had dug his hand in; Mal pressed his fingers there, kneading the bruised muscle and studiously ignoring it. If something were going to go wrong, the Tam's place was an obvious target; but nothing was going to go wrong, now was it?
River shivered, lip trembling a little as she focused all her concentration on the controls. "That doesn't actually help, you know," she said, irritably. "I can tell you're still afraid."
"Ain't afraid," he insisted, glancing over his own screens; they were vectoring toward the port, a little faster than he'd like but right on course. "Or if I am, got good reason to be; this ain't like the last planet. Got to be precise, or the cradle won't catch us. Sure you're up to it?"
She shot him a disdainful look, though the force of her displeasure was softened a little by the liquid shimmer in her dark eyes. "Have to feel it," she said. "Can't ignore it. But I can do more than one thing at the same time."
"Like that trick where you walk, chew gum, pat your head and rub circles on your belly all at once?" Mal replied, vividly recalling the ranch hand who'd teased him with it when he'd been about her age.
The image wrung an amused snort out of her, and she turned back to her screens. He left one hand on the console-slaving switch and the other on the yoke, but they hovered over the designated landing zone with hardly an unexpected quiver, and the cradle caught them with no further fanfare.
Mal let out a long breath of relief. "Excellent work, little albatross," he said. "You really got a knack for this. Don't know what I'd do if'n you did decide to leave us."
She accepted the praise with a smug smile, a faint flush warming her cheeks as she began running through the shut-down sequence. She made it about halfway through before she froze again, all the color draining back out of her.
"Simon," she whispered, turning stricken eyes to him.
Mal shot to his feet. Whatever'd been stalking them, this looked to be it. "What's happened?"
She raised a shaky hand to cover her mouth. "Our house. Simon- he thinks they-" She swallowed, her voice rising into a wail as she continued. "I'm not their daughter any more, but they were still my parents..."
It took Mal a moment to register what that might could mean; then cold horror washed through him. When the Alliance had struck Haven they'd looked up the Sanchez brothers, Li Shen, anyone ever sheltered them after a raid, but they hadn't thought about the families. They'd never have drug 'em into it; not Jayne's, nor Kaylee's, and certainly not the disapproving Tams. But would the Operative have been that thorough?
If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to.
Mal closed his eyes, remembering the knitted scarf Jayne had received from his Ma the day Book's legacy arrived on Persephone. How long had that frippery taken to make its way to her son?
"Wo de tian, a," he murmured, as the radio from the shuttle activated.
"Mal?" Jayne's voice carried, grim and firm. "We got a problem."
youmei - "elegant"
pianzhe de - "stubborn"
Shenme? - "What?"
Aiya! - "Damn!"
Wo de tian, a - "Dear God in heaven"