A/N: Okay, firstly, I'm not dead. Secondly, I have not given up on this story. It just takes a bit longer to write and post due to my oh-so-busy Real Life. But I guess you're not really interested in my excuses, so... here's part eight!
It suddenly dawned on Mal just how much time he'd spent in space these last eight years.
Not much swimming in space…
He made an effort to stay in shape. He'd even started working out with Jayne occasionally. His mercenary had lost his spotter in Book, and Mal had thought it wouldn't hurt to try and bond a little with his crewman after all they'd been through, but the snarky comments coming from the bigger and obviously stronger man, had put emphasis on occasionally.
And so by now his limbs were burning with exhaustion and he was panting more than a little. He kept going though. Not that he had much of a choice; the only alternative was drowning, and Kaylee was relying on him to get them both safely to their destination.
He kept pushing on, and his mind wandered back to sunny summer days by a pond on a dusty prairie world
– and he sent a silent thank you to the ranch hands who'd taught him how to swim.
God – if he existed – rest their souls.
The little rock out there in the water seemed to get ever closer somehow. "Nearly there," he kept saying, as much as a mantra to himself as to Kaylee. He glanced up at one point to see River already climbing up on it, and he gritted his teeth, annoyed.
Gorram girl! Of course she would swim as good as she danced, and read minds, and spoke nonsense – and killed Reavers for that matter. Sometimes one had to wonder why they spent so much time and energy looking after her.
She ain't exactly helpless.
Jayne had said that, hadn't he?
One of these days he would have to start listening to Jayne.
"We're nearly there," he muttered again.
And then – finally – they actually were. He hauled Kaylee along and pushed her up in front of him, scraping his knee against the sharp rock in the process, and she crawled ashore – if one could imagine the tiny island actually having a shore to speak of – sputtering and coughing and weeping, and shaking with exhaustion. He followed suit and glanced up to find River perched on top of the Tooth, studying something by her feet with that glassy, far-off, yet frantic fascination.
She didn't even look tired.
He opened his mouth to give her a piece of his mind, but he didn't have the energy and so he just closed it again, and slumped down next to Kaylee to catch his breath. Her body shivered where she lay on the ground beside him, and he reached out a hand to touch her shoulder to try and calm her a little. "You did it," he mumbled.
She sat up, pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms tightly around her legs. She looked out across the water and blinked hard. Mal wanted to say something else but couldn't think of anything, and instead threw a glance over his shoulder. River was moving around now, balancing elegantly on her bare feet, scanning the ground beneath her for something. And then she apparently found it and stopped.
She was nearly naked.
"Wo de ma, cover yourself!" he said and somehow found the strength to scramble to his feet to join her. He pulled off his shirt and – trying very hard not to look at her breasts – wrapped it around her.
And then he saw what her attention was so intently directed at. The cliff they were standing on was covered with engraved letters and Chinese symbols; mostly girls' names, criss-crossed all over the place.
And still the one name stood out.
Carved neatly in the shape of a heart.
Almost unconsciously Mal's hand moved to touch River's back, and he looked back over his shoulder to call for his mechanic, only to find her already standing there, looking at her name.
"He got here," she whispered.
"Yeah," Mal muttered, because he still couldn't think of anything smarter to say, "Yeah, he did."
Kaylee knelt down and carefully stroked her fingers across the letters. "And so did I," she added. A small smile tugged at her lips, and she glanced up at River. "This is what you wanted to show me?" Then her eyes widened ever so little and the smile fell off her face. "Er, Cap?"
Mal looked up too and noticed that River's attention now had shifted elsewhere, to a spot a little further up the rock. He followed her eyes.
The word innocentia was carved into the stone, followed by the numbers 1025 – 11 – 3.
Mal drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly, closing his eyes for a moment. "Gorram preacher," he muttered.
Rudy turned out to be very susceptible to her feminine wiles. It took less than a minute to make him sweaty and/or compliant, as Mal would have put it. Before long he was sitting on his chair, nervously stroking his hands against his pant leg and stuttering, "Wh-why d'you want me to talk 'bout Carlos?"
"Did you know him well?" She smiled, but just sternly enough so that he would know she meant business and wasn't fooling around.
"You guess?" She kept smiling and slowly sat down on a chair of her own, elegantly draping one leg over the other, smoothing her silk dress. "I believe you were his best friend."
"You seem close to his father."
"Well, I work for him, he's a great boss. But okay, yeah, Carlos was my best friend, what about it?"
"Kaylee told me what happened to him."
"Kaylee?" he asked, and then nodded and answered his own question, "Yeah, you're ridin' on that Firefly with her. Didn't think I'd ever see her back here again…" He muttered that last sentence, but then he suddenly looked up and asked, "What she tell you?"
Inara relayed the whole story the way Kaylee had told it, and as she did a frown appeared and grew ever bigger on the young man's face.
"Hm," was all he said once she'd finished.
"What is it?" she pressed.
"You're makin' it sound like she was this mean person."
"This is only what she told me," Inara insisted.
"Well, she wasn't mean," he clarified, with unconcealed determination in his voice. "You know her, right? Unless she's changed, like, a lot you know she couldn't ever be mean."
"She didn't tease Carlos?"
"Well, yeah, but we all did. It was all in good fun, you know. We didn't think he'd… We were just kids! Stupid, silly kids doin' stupid, silly stuff."
"But she got the blame?"
"Yeah." Rudy shifted in his seat. "Lorenzo… er, the mayor was heartbroken. All of us were. And…"
His words trailed off. She smiled sympathetically and finished for him, "And sometimes when there are no explanations you conjure one up."
"I guess," he shrugged. "Look, I ain't proud of it. It was horrible. And it wasn't just Kaylee, it was all of the Fryes really, her folks, her brothers… This is a small town, ma'am. This is what happens in small towns."
Inara was about to reply when the light coming from outside was blocked by a man suddenly appearing in the open door. "Rudy, they stole your boat!" he announced.
Rudy abruptly stood. "What? Who?"
"The big one. He just took it."
Jayne. Inara cursed inwardly, but kept her appearances calm and collected. She rose from her chair and nodded smilingly to Rudy when he threw her an apologetic look, and then followed the men from the office and down towards the lake.
They found Jo standing on the bank, surrounded by a bunch of upset and angry locals. There was no direct confrontation, but she seemed a little annoyed with them, as if they were flies buzzing just a little too close. "Look, he'll be back with it, no worries, okay?" Inara heard her say as she and Rudy came up to them.
"My boat!" the clerk exclaimed when he saw the mooring chain thrown across the sand and the broken lock attached to it.
Inara looked from him and out across the water and spotted the missing vessel almost immediately. Jayne was in the process of rowing it towards the rocky island in the middle of the lake, and from what she could see he wasn't particularly good at it.
She turned to look at Jo. "What's going on?" she asked.
Jo shrugged. "The girls went for a swim, the cap'n went after 'em and then Jayne borrowed," she bore her eyes into Rudy emphasizing the word, "a boat to go pick 'em up."
"For a swim?" Inara repeated, but Jo just shrugged again and Inara shook her head, wondering if there was any way Mal and the crew could ever visit a place without drawing undesired attention to themselves.
She didn't think so.
Zoë noticed how people started to flock towards the lake, and she instinctively knew it had something to do with her fellow travelers. Pulling Simon along she went to investigate, and they reached the shore just as a rowboat pulled in, carrying Mal, Jayne and the girls.
"Where you been?" she asked her captain as he waded ashore, shirtless and bootless and soaking wet.
"Followed River to the Tooth," he muttered and threw a glance at Simon, who was standing next to Zoë, staring wide-eyed and shocked at his sister as she effortlessly climbed from the boat.
"River!" he exclaimed, as he finally seemed to realize what had happened. "River, you could've drowned!"
"She wasn't even close," Mal grunted, and then added, sounding just a little accusing, "Kaylee and me on the other hand…"
River was only smiling innocently and absent-minded at her brother, as if none of this meant anything to her. She was wearing Mal's shirt; it was open in the front, and judging by the goofy grin on Jayne's face he'd seen plenty on the way across the water. Simon noticed this too, and threw the mercenary a warning look as he pulled the shirt tighter around his sister.
Kaylee was the last one out of the boat. She didn't look up to meet anyone's eyes, but Zoë still noticed the shade of relief that had fallen across her face. Simon, who seemed to have concluded his little sister was in no harm, came to her aid. He took off the jacket that he for some reason insisted on wearing in spite of the hot weather, and draped it across her shoulders. Kaylee glanced up at him when she felt his touch. "Don't be mad at River," she said. "She just knew what was waiting for us out there."
"And what would that be?" Zoë asked before Simon could.
"This," Mal replied and handed her a piece of wood with letters and numbers carved into it.
"Shepherd's clue?" she asked, and this earned her reaction from both Inara and Jo.
"It was carved into the rock," the captain explained. "Just made a copy for myself."
Zoë just kept looking at him, frowning, "But who put it there?" She glanced back down at the wood piece. "Innocentia… innocence?"
"Oh, that was me." The red haired boy who worked for the mayor suddenly spoke up. There was a broad grin on his face that quickly disappeared at the sight of the look Mal threw him. "Sorry," he muttered, stepping back a little, "didn't mean to listen in on your conversation."
"You carved this?" Mal asked.
"Yeah," the boy said, both sounding and looking a little more relaxed. "It was the weirdest thing. This man waved me and said if I carved that word and those numbers into the Tooth, he'd pay me for it. Didn't think he'd actually do it of course, but I thought there was no harm in tryin', so I went out there and did it, took a picture of it to prove it to 'im, and he really did wire me the money. Heck if I know why. Sure is a lot of crazy folks out there."
"Yeah," Mal nodded, throwing him a smile Zoë could clearly see was forced, "sure is."
The clerk went to inspect his boat, receiving a punch in the shoulder by Jayne as he walked past him, probably meant as an apology though it completely put him off balance and made him look up at the bigger man with terror. Simon had started walking back towards the docks, his arms wrapped around River and Kaylee, steering them along. Inara was following right behind them.
Zoë waited until everyone else was out of earshot, before she turned back towards Mal. "I suppose Book wanted Kaylee to face her past."
"Looks like," Mal agreed. "Even from beyond the grave he's gotta play the therapist."
"You think he's got sumethin' like this in store for all of us?"
"Wouldn't be surprised." He gestured with a nod of his head. "Let's go find out who's next."
They caught up with Simon and the girls as they approached Serenity. The captain hurried on ahead to lower the ramp, but was distracted from this task when the mayor suddenly came jogging towards them. Yes, he actually jogged, and huffed and puffed like you'd expect a man of his size to do.
"Captain Reynolds," he gasped as he reached them, and then spotted Kaylee. She immediately cast her eyes down and shied away from him, only Simon's arm prevented her from stepping further back. "Miss Kaylee," Ryan greeted her.
Zoë couldn't read much from his voice, and when he took another step forward, Mal sort of seamlessly placed himself between him and the mechanic. "Can I help you?"
"I need to speak with you," Ryan said, but he wasn't talking to the captain. He kept his eyes on Kaylee. "Carlos was a teenage boy who did a really stupid thing. I knew that, of course, I just… I shouldn't have… I was wrong to blame you, Miss Kaylee. I'm sorry."
The look on Kaylee's face was one of disbelief, and she pressed her body closer to Simon's, still refusing to look at the man. The mayor waited in vain for her to say something, before he instead turned to look at Mal again. "Mister Broadwell has a shipment of canned fruit he needs shipped to Athens. Due for departure tomorrow. That somethin' you and your crew can handle?"
Mal's professional smile spread across his face. "Absolutely."
"Very well. I'll bring Broadwell and come by with the paperwork later."
The mayor nodded his goodbyes and was about to turn around when Kaylee eventually spoke up. "Mayor Ryan?"
He stopped and glanced back at her and this time their eyes met. Kaylee swallowed. "I'm sorry about Carlos. He was a good boy."
"Yes," the mayor agreed, his voice laden with the sadness his face mirrored, "he was." He glanced at Simon. "And so is he, I believe. You might wanna treat 'im better."
Kaylee frowned, but Zoë had to bite her lip not to snicker.
They watched Ryan quietly for a few moments as he headed back to town. Then Mal clapped his hands together, obviously very happy with landing a new job. "Alright, let's make room for a shipment of canned fruit, ladies and menfolk."
"Can we eat first?" Jayne grunted. "All that rowin'…" He threw a sideways glare at River.
Mal thought on it for a second. "Well I s'pose that's fine. 'Sides, we've got some Bible studyin' to do."
He did the Bible studying himself when they'd all gathered in the galley a few minutes later, flipping through the pages, muttering to himself as he did so, "Page one thousand and twenty five, eleventh verse on that page, word number three." He looked up, his index finger still resting on the word. "Angel."
Inara was usually good at hiding her feelings, but this time Zoë effortlessly noticed her reaction, as a shadow of confusion fell across the Companion's pretty face. Nobody else seemed to have noticed though.
"Angel?" Jayne said. "We just came from the Kalidasa system, gorramit! We need to go back?"
Mal seemed to be thinking the same thing, but all he did was sweeping his eyes across the room to look at each and every one of them. "Question is, who's got ties to Angel?"
"Inara?" Zoë probed, making everybody shift their gaze to the dark-haired beauty.
"But it doesn't make any sense," Inara insisted.
"What doesn't?" Mal asked.
"That Shepherd Book should have included me in this," Inara said, looking a little uncomfortable under their scrutinizing. "I wasn't even on the ship when he wrote these clues."
"He must have known you'd come back," Kaylee naively suggested.
Inara only looked at the captain, meeting his gaze, but said nothing.
"So," Mal said, not taking his eyes off her, "what's on Angel?"