Title: Isn't That Always The Story?
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: River usually did have something like a reason for every wild hair she took. But this time, she better have her a reason that even her busted-up old Captain could comprehend. 3000 words.
Spoilers: Firefly post-Serenity; Mummy Returns (2011)
Notes: 24 Days of Ficmas 2011, Day 7: for ViaLethe. Prompt: "River is trying to reorganize Mal's ship, in various ways, and that's making Mal's life more difficult than he'd like it. Super extra bonus points if you can manage a crossover with The Mummy."
Mal stared down into the storage bin that used to house some of Jayne's stockpiled weaponry, and crossed his arms over his chest. "Huh," he said. "Those sure don't look to be grenades."
Jayne made an exasperated noise and bent down to pluck up one of the fist-sized bits of mechanical workings packed into the unsecured space. "That's what I done told you," he said. "Tell me something I don't know. Like where my grenades've gone, since they obviously ain't here."
Mal tilted his head, examining the doohickey, then lifted his chin toward the hatch between the lounge space and the cargo bay. "I ain't moved 'em, and I don't 'spect Kaylee has, though those look an awful lot like the bits and bobs she keeps out there. You checked the spare parts hold yet?"
Jayne scowled, dropping the part back into the bin. "No. Who in the hell would stow grenades where nobody could get to 'em iffin' the ship was bein' attacked? Wouldn't make no kind of sense."
Mal rolled his eyes at that. "Still got the ones in your quarters, don't we? Ah!" He raised a cautioning finger. "Don't lie to me, Jayne; I know how many weapons you keep over that bed of your'n, and I'd bet you my stake in the next job you don't pay any more attention to my rule says 'don't keep anything in crew quarters goes boom', as Kaylee and the Doc do to my rule says 'no fraternizing with crew'."
Jayne opened his mouth to object, then clearly thought better of it and shrugged ruefully. "Okay, you got me there. Still. The spare parts hold? There's way more widgets out there than would fit in just this here bin." He stared down into it a moment longer, then frowned.
"Dĕng yī miăo," he said, and bent to pull out the next bin in the line, normally full of ammo for the guns racked above. It held spare parts too- as did the next one he yanked out, and the next, and the next. All of 'em, in fact, that used to hold the surplus crew-shared arsenal. His face grew more and more disgruntled with each one. "Zhè shì shénme làn dōngxi? It's all of it, Mal. All of it. What ruttin' idiot would do somethin' like this?"
He sounded almost hurt. Mal speculated a moment on how his merc might react if he told him what he was starting to suspect was going on, then packed that amusing image away and shook his head mournfully. "Got to've had a reason for it, whoever done the deed. Go check the hold; see if it was a straight swap, tally up what's missing if it ain't all there."
Jayne kicked the last bin closed again with a snarl of disgust, then stalked out into the cargo bay, making a beeline for the small side hold where Kaylee kept her spare parts store.
Mal sighed, then glanced up in the direction of the bridge. Things were getting to the point he was going to have to say something, and soon. He'd let it slide when all the liquor in the kitchen cabinets had miraculously vanished into the locked pantry; and Kaylee had rather appreciated the waist-height magnetized rack someone had welded up on a spare space of wall to hold the tools she usually left loose when they weren't entering or exiting atmo. This was taking things a mite far, though, if there weren't a platinum-plated reason for it.
Well. River usually did have something like a reason for every wild hair she took. But this time, she better have her a reason that even her busted-up old Captain could comprehend.
It would have to wait 'til they'd unloaded their latest cargo, though. Load of old Earth shinies like they had, broke out of an Alliance museum during the war, would bring a heap of trouble down on their heads if the least little thing went awry before delivery. Any of it disappeared from the tally, any seals broke, or someone lost track of the cargo receipt papers proving as how Serenity was just the innocent transpo hired for shipping and not the original thieves, and events would get a whole lot less predictable than he'd like.
He'd have turned the job down on that count alone, if it weren't for how much it paid, and the fact it would take 'em within shuttle distance of a Companion House right around the time for Inara's next scheduled appointment. Wouldn't quite put 'em as flush as the Lassiter, but near enough and for less hassle, even after half the fee went back to the old war buddy who'd offered the contract. Trafficking in rarities was a very, very limited market, but it sure could set a body up for life if he could manage it.
He shook his head, then went out into the cargo bay his ownself, drifting over toward the netted-down collection of locked crates, sensor-taped boxes, and wrap-sealed coffin-shaped things what would probably violate that body-shipping rule Alliance had if it weren't for the fact they were old enough to call 'antiquities'. Mummies, or somesuch. He'd done a fair bit of reading back before the War, but those old tales of Emperors what had their brains yanked out through their noses after they died and had their material wealth buried with 'em always seemed more fanciful than even stories of aliens. Bunch of fèihuà; what brain fever could ever give a man cause to do such things?
Didn't change the fact he had several of them on board his ship, though. He shuddered a little, then jumped half out of his skin at the sudden shfff of bare foot on metal, right next to him. Fair brought to mind the accompanying tales of linen-wrapped dead men walking; though of course it was only his pilot, being her usual unsettling self.
"One of these days, I'm goin' to have Inara sew bells on all your dresses, little one," he said.
A second later, Jayne swore again across the cargo bay, then slammed the hatch of the parts hold shut and went back into the body of the ship.
River watched him go, a tiny satisfied smile curving her mouth in confirmation of Mal's suspicions. Then she turned to stare at the nearest of the coffin-y boxes, tilting her head so's her long, dark hair swept over her shoulder like a curtain. "They thought they'd get to take it with them," she mused, thoughtfully.
The hair on his arms stood on end at her little proclamation; it reminded him more than he'd like of the time she'd cried over the silent folk on Miranda. Didn't sit right with him she could read perished folk as well as the living. "Their burial goods? Take 'em where? They're dead."
"To the afterlife," she said, matter-of-factly, shooting him another amused look. "All they leave behind are echoes; what is only representation in this world has substance in the other."
That almost made him feel a mite better- but only almost, because the very next thing she did was furrow her brow and take a long step closer to the box, reaching between the strands of the net to flatten her palm against the wrapping. "Except for these two. They're noisier than the others."
Mal swallowed, uneasiness squirming in his stomach, and reached for the most logical explanation he could think up. "Noiser, as how? Mean to say we got us another pair of Traceys in that coffin?"
She thought on that a moment more, concentrating, then shook her head slowly. "They didn't mean to. Brothers mean well, but what they think is best isn't always so. Chaos intervened." Then she focused again, crouching as she traced her fingers further down the wrapping to peer through it at the symbols carved into the gilded surface beneath. "Let them sleep until the silent world speaks with the stolen girl's voice," she murmured, rapt. "When the people once more need protectors of man, let them rise again."
"That what all that picture-writing says?" Mal frowned at her, disturbed at the echo of recent events. "Or's that some kind of play act you're doin'?"
River didn't answer; instead, she started attacking the wrappings with her fingernails, tentatively at first and then more furiously. Neatly trimmed crescents, still covered in lavender shellac from girl-time with Inara and Kaylee the day before, slid over the tough plastic without making an imprint; Mal leapt forward to wrap wide hands around her waist and pull her away.
"River!" he said, firmly. "Explanation first, băobèi." Playing dumb but teachable, he'd learned, worked a sight better with the girl than trying to downright forbid. They'd had a time of it on the bridge before he'd figured that out, when she'd see things coming and fair make his heart stop by reacting before his mark one eyeball caught up.
She shook her head wildly, though she did go still in his grip rather than stomp his instep or elbow his groin. He knew very well she could have broke free, if she'd wanted. "They'll suffocate; I have to let them out!"
Mal swallowed. She sounded too upset to be inventing it; how many days had those drugs kept Tracey down, again? "That gonna happen this instant, or we got time to drag your brother down here first?"
River calmed a little, considering; he left his hands where they were, but resting-like, not digging in to restrain anymore. For such a slight thing, she put out heat like a furnace; he always felt warmer, standing close to her. "It won't happen 'til I read the words right. I thought I had; but I didn't. That which was set out down in the ancient tongue must be lifted the same way. They're going to be all right."
She smiled up at him in relief, and Mal swallowed as his heart jumped in his chest. He let go, taking a careful step back as the situation caught up with him, and nodded. "I'll just pretend like that made some kind of sense and go get your gēge, shall I?"
Her smile tugged down a little at the corner, but didn't fade entirely. "You do understand," she chided him. "But you don't yet comprehend."
Somehow, he had a feeling she wasn't talking about the hieroglyphs anymore. Nor the redecorating she'd been doing, neither. He gave her an awkward nod, then turned and headed for the dining area; last he'd seen, the doc was having lunch with Kaylee. Far safer to interrupt them than dwell any longer on thoughts he wasn't having.
Ten minutes later, composure back in place and surrounded by the entire and very curious crew, Mal unstrapped the netting at two of the tie-down points, enough for the box in question to slide free.
"I don't like this," Zoe said. "If they're smuggling folk in there, could be that was the entire point of this contract. Could be opening it up will void the whole thing; papers or not, if the buyer takes a notion to report the rest of this very shiny trap to the Alliance..." She pursed her lips.
"Ain't like it would be the first time we've had the law on our tail," Mal shrugged. "I hear you, Zoe; but the notion of shipping people like so much cargo puts my back up, and no mistake." He was thinking more of the day River'd come aboard by that point, than Tracey; the cry she'd gave as she sat up out of her crate, terrified and shivering and no wise responsible for putting herself in there. Being shipped sight unseen had worked out for her benefit- but mightn't be for the folk resting in that sarcophagus.
River met his glance, solemn now, the faintest of smiles crinkling the lines around her eyes. Then she glanced over at Zoe, slowly, deliberately dropping her gaze to the level of his second's waist- and the answer to the day's first knotty problem burst over him like a sunrise.
Zoe's...? He let the thought trail off, astonished, hoping she'd hear him.
She raised her eyes to his again, mischief and joy dancing in them, and drew her fingers across her lips like a zipseam.
Right. He cleared his throat, trying to suppress an inappropriate smile of his own. He wouldn't say a word 'til Zoe spoke up, but his day had just brightened considerably. It was hard to drag his mind back to the potential danger in front of them. "Anyone else got an objection?"
"Would it matter if we did?" Jayne shrugged. "Just open her the hell up." He had a pistol in hand, aimed in the vague direction of the thing's lid; probably overkill, but better safe than sorry.
Inara and Kaylee exchanged glances, then nodded to him; Zoe sighed, then stepped aside to let Simon at it. "Ready, then?"
Mal nodded to the doc, then to River. "Do it."
The plastic coating snapped along the line of heat lain down by Simon's unsealer, then fell away like drying leaves, exposing the hieroglyphs on the gilded surface much more clearly. He pushed tentatively at the lid when he finished, but the thing didn't budge; Zoe braced herself to help him try again, but it didn't move that time, neither.
"Simon, Zoe? Hold off a second," he said, before they could strain themselves too much. "River?"
She nodded and stepped closer to trace her fingers over the strange symbols, reading them off in a sonorous voice that sent shivers up his spine again.
When she finished, the thing snapped open with a loud clank, and everyone took an involuntary step back, save Mal and River. She'd known what to expect, of course, and he remembered what she'd said earlier about the ancient language; could easily have been some kind of voice-activated lock on the thing, and all the pushing in the world wouldn't have opened it aforetime.
He set his palms against the lid where Simon's had been and shoved; this time, it slid easily over and hit the floor of the cargo bay with a resounding clang. Unlike River's shipping container, though, it weren't fogged over inside; the occupants were easily visible. A smallish dark-haired woman was clasped in the shielding arms of a much larger man; she wore dark-colored clothes somewhere between Zoe's style and Inara's, and he had sandy brown hair, trousers, boots, and a blue shirt held in place by suspenders.
"Huh," Mal said for the second time that day, glancing down at his own choice of attire.
River giggled, and the strange woman stirred at the sound, burying a yawn against her companion's shoulder. "Go back to bed, Alex," she murmured, an unfamiliar accent underlying the words.
"Sorry, lady," Jayne snorted. "Ain't none of us named Alex. Mind tellin' us what the hell you're doin' in that box?"
"Jayne!" Inara frowned at him. "Give them a moment to wake. I'm sure they're quite disoriented."
Mal had about half a second to register the man's relaxed form stiffening with awareness before the arm draped over the woman shot up out of the box, clutching a pistol pointed unerringly at the sound of Jayne's voice. A pair of very intent blue eyes peered out from behind a sleep-mussed fringe of brown hair, then blinked as River stepped into his line of sight, laying a hand on the barrel of his weapon.
"She's blockin' my shot, Mal," Jayne growled; but Mal shook his head, holding up a hand to shush him as he glanced back and forth between River and their guests. Didn't seem like she'd be putting herself in harm's way if she actually thought she'd get shot.
After a moment, the man eased his finger off the trigger with a frown, though he didn't lower it yet, and cleared his throat. "Who the hell are you?" he said, his accent closer to Mal's than to the woman's but still not familiar. "And where the hell are we?"
"You've been lost a long, long time," River told him, sadly. "No more travelers from the East. You're the last one left."
That seemed to make more sense to the man than to Mal, because he paled, then dropped his weapon entirely and sat up, clutching his woman more tightly against him as she blinked awake. He glanced around, taking in each member of the crew, the size of the cargo bay, and the stack of antiquities still shrouded beside them, and frowned. "Why do I get the feeling we're not in Kansas anymore?" he said, warily.
"'Cause wherever the hell that is, you surely ain't," Mal said, shrugging. "This here's Serenity, and my name's Malcolm Reynolds. These're my crew. Mind giving us your names?"
He looked Mal up and down for a long suspicious moment, then around at the others again, gaze lingering briefly on each of them. "I'm Rick O'Connell," he said, finally. "And this is my wife, Evie. Which you should know, since her brother Jonathan's got to be behind this. Where is he? Where's our son?"
"Ain't here," Mal told him. "You're on a ship; we took you aboard as part of that there cargo. Maybe, if you told us what world you last remember bein' on..."
"World?" Rick blurted, blue eyes widening dramatically.
"World? You can't mean this isn't Earth?" his wife echoed him in horror, turning dark eyes on them as she straightened in her husband's embrace.
"Gāoyáng zhōng de gūyáng," Mal muttered. He'd jinxed 'em all earlier, hadn't he? 'Cause this was about the last thing he'd ever have thought to predict.
At least River had seemed to think they'd be the protecting sort, he told himself fatalistically, then reached out a hand. "How about we discuss it upstairs where it's a mite more comfortable. And Jayne? Break out the whiskey. I have a feelin' we're going to need it, for this."
Dĕng yī miăo - Hold on a second
Zhè shì shénme làn dōngxi - What is this garbage?
fèihuà - nonsense
băobèi - sweetheart
gēge - older brother
Gāoyáng zhōng de gūyáng - Motherless goats of all motherless goats