Disclaimer: These characters are not mine, and believe me, I'm not making any money off of my fanfic.
Thanks: Slavish appreciation due to my trio of betas, shrift, grit kitty, and elynross. When those three people tell you "Er, you're sort of missing an entire scene", you have to listen, and I'm grateful for their wonderful advice.
"Gorram it, Mal, what's in these crates?" Jayne swung another of the metal containers off the mule and plonked it onto the ground with more noise than care, much like Jayne did everything.
"Could I trouble you to not shatter our cargo into a thousand tiny pieces?" Mal said, hoping that if he stalled long enough, Jayne might forget his question. If that didn't work, maybe he'd look for something shiny to dangle in front of him. Not that he was planning on telling Jayne anything, but the constant nagging did wear on a man.
"It is kind of unusual that you won't tell us." Wash hopped off the mule and neatly side-stepped Jayne, who was manhandling another crate with muttered curses. "It's okay if it's illegal, you know. Our illusions about you will be shattered, but at least we'll know the worst."
"Better be illegal," Jayne grunted, swiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. "Legal stuff don't pay well enough."
"It ain't illegal, it does pay well, and I'll tell you about it when I please, and no sooner. Wash, how soon can we get off this backwater?"
Wash shrugged and began mounting the steps up to the bridge. "Everyone's back on board?" he asked over his shoulder.
Simon hurried up the ramp and into the cargo bay, carrying two small packages, and Mal nodded. "Doc was the last."
"Five minutes. Or less, if you tell me where we're actually going and I don't have to just pick a planet and hope."
"We're going to Pan Gu."
Simon's packages hit the deck with a dull thump. "Pan Gu? Are you insane?" He squeezed his eyes shut. "No, wait. I know you're insane. Has the condition gotten appreciably worse since I left an hour ago?"
Wash had stopped halfway up the stairs and was staring down at Mal like he'd sprouted a few tentacles. "You have to ask?"
"You know what I don't recall happening?" Mal snapped. "Turning this boat into a democracy."
Simon started waving his hands around. "Pan Gu isn't just a Core planet, it's...it's..."
"One of the Corest planets out there," Wash offered.
"No trade goes through Pan Gu! How are you possibly going to get us on and off that planet without our being swarmed over by Alliance troops?"
"Jayne? You got any helpful complaining you'd like to do?"
Jayne shrugged and hoisted himself up to sit on one of the crates. "Nope."
"What a pleasant shock." Mal pointed a finger in Simon's face, which was still two feet away and looking distressed. "We will be on the planet for no more than a half hour. You and your sister will not stir from your quarters. She will not do anything either charming or noisy, and I've a mind to suggest that you two don't breathe at all. And that's the last whining I want to hear about this." He cut Simon off mid-protest and swung on Wash. "Get us in the air. Now. Dong ma?"
Wash's face froze over in that way it did when he didn't like an order but wasn't perturbed enough to fight over it. "Yes, sir," he said. "In the air, headed to certain death now, sir."
As the clang of Wash's unhappy feet echoed on the stairs, Simon bent down to retrieve his packages. He'd said he was going offship to fetch some new medicine for River, but the two bundles he was picking up off the floor didn't look much like medicine.
"Find what you were looking for?"
Simon reached back to where his vest had rucked up and tugged it back down. "Mostly."
"You gonna sulk all the way to Pan Gu? Because I don't allow children on my ship. The toys get underfoot, and cleaning up Jayne's mess is bad enough."
"Hey!" Jayne drummed his heels against the crate, but otherwise looked content to sit back and watch the show.
"You always have to push everything," Simon said, but like he was more sad than angry. "I can't risk pushing with River."
It was amazing how young the boy could look, especially with that distress on his face. Mal stretched out a hand and cupped his shoulder, the fine fabric of the vest and shirt slick against his fingers. "Life would be easier if you'd learn to trust me. At least we wouldn't go through this every time I wanted to make a left turn."
"I know," Simon said, running his free hand over his face. "Honestly, I do. It's just difficult. Bad habit. Or maybe a good one, I don't know."
"I understand," he said, patting Simon's shoulder, and then smacking it hard. "Until then, learn to shut the hell up and do as I say. What did you buy? Did you bring me anything?"
Simon pointedly ignored Jayne, who was chuckling nastily on his crate. "I've started running out of the medicines I need to treat River, and they've only been partially effective, anyway. I'm especially low on sedatives, and I don't think anyone's happy when she wakes up screaming every two hours."
Jayne hopped off his crate. "I only threatened to muzzle her the once."
More ignoring. Simon was getting pretty good at that, ruffling through his package instead. "Passion flower, chamomile, even calcium supplements. Anything to help her sleep better."
Mal frowned, peered down at a small bag with green stalks in it. "Isn't that rosemary? That make you sleep too?"
"Oh," Simon said. "No. I mean, yes, it's rosemary, but it's not for River. It's for the stew Shepherd Book is making tonight."
After the crew's initial burst of complaining over Pan Gu, things had calmed down, and Mal, forgetting everything he knew about the workings of the 'verse, thought this run might go smoothly.
Until River got herself involved.
Two days later, they gathered around the table, eating the last of the stew. River had been calmer since Simon's shopping trip, and the look of worried care eased off Simon's face a bit as he laughed at something Wash had said.
"You shouldn't encourage him." Zoe reached over with a smooth movement and stole a slice of bread off her husband's plate. "He's got any number of funny stories involving livestock."
"Can I help it if I've led an interesting life?"
"I love Wash's stories," Kaylee said, her eyes sparkling in the dim light.
Jayne shoved a spoonful of stew into his mouth. "You would."
Zoe's expression didn't change, but Jayne's outraged "Ow!" let Mal know that Zoe had taken it upon herself to administer some chastisement in the form of her boot intersecting Jayne's shin. Jayne, who must have been feeling brave, kept talking. "I'm just saying they ain't true."
"Of course they are!" Kaylee protested. "Right, Wash?"
Wash looked nervously over at Zoe and shifted in his chair, probably rearranging to guard his shins. "Well, 'true' is a word that has so many different levels of meaning..."
"I know they ain't all exactly true. You make 'em funnier. Just like the Shepherd always puts a lesson in his, even though he tries to hide it."
Book laughed that big laugh of his and looked completely unashamed. "Sometimes teaching works best if you don't know you're being taught."
"And Inara always talks up the places she visits, 'cause she knows I want to see 'em too." Inara stayed out of the conversation but smiled at Kaylee, and Mal wondered how it was that two people so different could be such good friends without anything to bind them together.
Kaylee turned to the doctor. "What about you, Simon?"
Simon coughed and chased his food around his plate. "I don't have any good stories, I'm afraid."
Mal couldn't resist and didn't see why he ought to. "How about the daring rescue of your sister?"
Silence fell. He looked up from his plate, and Kaylee was glaring at him. Inara was glaring at him, the Shepherd was flat-out scowling at him, and Mal thought Zoe might be sharpening her boot sole. He glanced over at Simon, who was tearing his bread apart but not actually eating it, and Mal found himself feeling a little guilty for being the one who took the smile off his face. Of course, what happened next pretty much instantly got rid of those feelings.
While no one was watching her, River apparently decided that something truly horrific was happening in the middle of the table. She whimpered, her eyes focused on nothing Mal could see. "They're shining," she said in that ghosty voice of hers. "Shining and bright and shining."
As always, Simon forgot everything happening around him as soon as his sister demanded his attention. "River?"
"I have to dull them. Have to stop them from traveling, break them down to the component particles." She pushed her dishes away; her glass knocked into the preacher's and tipped it over, sending liquid spilling across the table.
River twisted away from Simon's reaching hands and grabbed for the nearest plate, which happened to be Zoe's. It slammed into the far wall with a crash, the pieces tinkling down and breaking more when they hit the ground. Simon went into his pocket and pulled out the syringe that he'd started keeping with him at all times, but River leaped up past him and tried to bolt.
"River!" Simon was preparing to chase after her, but the shepherd, with more quickness than Mal would have credited him, snatched her as she went by, looking like it hurt him to have to hold her. River cried out as the needle went in, high-pitched and weak. The sedative took effect almost immediately, and she slumped down in Simon's arms like a heap of dirty clothes.
Everyone watched him, but he didn't look at anyone as he swung her up, one arm under her shoulders and one under her knees. He just stood there for a second, and Mal wondered if the weight of what Simon had taken on was starting to bear him to the ground. He finally turned to Mal, and maybe he was trying to smile, but Mal wasn't convinced at all.
"I think Kaylee probably prefers her stories to have happy endings," he said, and carried his sister away.
No one could have called it a pleasant evening, exactly, but Mal felt that it was enough excitement for one night, especially since things had gotten broken and people had been poked with needles.
But several hours later, when he heard feet clanging overhead, he rolled out of his bunk and couldn't pretend to be surprised. And when he poked his head out and saw Simon run by in pursuit of what looked like a fluffball on legs, he didn't even spare the time to curse a blue streak. He ran out to the nearest 'com instead. "Everyone up, now! We have a situation!"
Zoe came up with guns aimed and ready, which was slightly alarming, considering Mal was the first thing she saw moving. He flung up his hands and said, "It's possible I should have been a little more forthcoming about the details of said situation."
She just stared at him, didn't have to say a word to let him know what she thought of his brain power at that exact moment, and holstered her gun -- and how the hell had she managed to get her clothes and holster on so quickly? Wash stumbled up behind her, his shirt half-buttoned and most of his brains apparently left down the ladder. "Wha? Is something blowing up? Please don't tell me you need me to pilot anything right now."
Mal opened his mouth to try to explain, although what the hell he could say was anyone's guess, when another furball went dashing by.
Wash stared down the hallway for a second, and then turned back. "Uh, Mal? Did we suddenly develop a severe mutant rat problem?"
Next one up was Kaylee, rubbing her eyes and squeaking in surprise when yet another furry shape ran across her feet.
"Sir?" Zoe began, a dawning look of horror on her face. "Are those..."
"Puppies!" Kaylee squealed, bending down and grabbing one as it careened into her. "Oh, Captain, they're so cute!"
"What the ruttin' hell is this?" Jayne stared down at the deck, looking about as perplexed as he ever got, which was saying something.
Simon returned from his successful hunt, a puppy in each arm and an accusing look on his face. "Is there any chance these are part of our cargo?"
Nothing for it now but to tell the truth, and it wasn't that Mal had any real aversion to the truth, but it was going to complicate the hell out of his life. "They are the cargo."
Kaylee's puppy was enthusiastically licking her face and wiggling in her arms. She'd gotten one that matched her disposition. Book and Inara had shown up by that time, and it didn't seem like the corridor outside of crew quarters could get any more crowded. Except there was a body missing.
"Where's River?" Inara said, just as quick on the uptake as he was. Maybe quicker. And after about two seconds, Mal realized how the dogs had gotten loose.
"I thought you drugged her," he said to Simon.
Simon shrugged, then grabbed for his puppy as it nearly wiggled out of his hands. "Sedatives don't last forever on anyone, and it's impossible to predict how she'll react to anything."
"Cargo bay," Mal said. He turned to head down there and promptly tripped over a dog. The dog yipped in surprise, and he heard Kaylee scoop it up and mutter soothing nonsense at it.
"Sir?" Zoe asked from above his head. "Exactly how many of these creatures are there?"
"Thirty-six," he mumbled into the grate.
"I'm sorry," Book said, "but I got here late, and I'm still halfway asleep. There are thirty-six dogs running around the ship?"
Mal got his arms under him and shoved himself back to a standing position. "Do we really have to work through all the details right now? Could we possibly try to corral the little furballs first and explain later?"
"No, I don't think so, Mal." Inara didn't sound pleased, her normally mild voice strained and sharp. He looked at the rest of the crew for a show of support and trust in their captain, but everyone just stared back at him, except for Jayne, who twitched every time a dog ran by.
"It ain't a complicated story. We -- and by we, I mean the crew of this ship -- run cargo. Among other things. Our client wanted to get these creatures from one place to another and was willing to pay us cash money for the privilege."
"Oh!" Kaylee seemed entirely too horrified for someone whose captain had gotten a paying job, and legal at that. "Captain! Are they gonna..."
Mal waited, but there didn't seem to be any more to that sentence. "Are they gonna what, Kaylee?"
"Are they gonna eat 'em? We can't give 'em the puppies if they're gonna eat 'em!"
"They ain't got nobody to look out for 'em except us!"
"She's got a point, Mal," Wash said. "It doesn't seem quite right."
"We are not --"
"I'm not sure I can countenance bringing these poor creatures to their deaths," said Book.
"Will you just --"
Simon jumped in. "We should probably just take them back to Orion and skip Pan Gu completely."
"I'm trying to --"
Jayne grunted, bent down, and swiped one as it ran by. "Y'all are too soft-hearted. Dogs make good eating. Especially with ketchup."
"Just because you're a barbarian --" Inara began, followed quickly by Kaylee's horrified "Jayne!" and Simon stepping up to Mal and saying, "I'd really rather not go to Pan Gu --" and the excited yapping of the dogs as they chased one another over and around Mal's feet, and Mal had had enough.
"Quiet!" he roared in his best battlefield voice, putting all his breath behind it. Zoe recognized the tone at once and pulled Wash back a few feet. Everyone else mercifully stopped talking, and even the dogs brought the volume down.
"I am going to speak quickly," Mal said, "because we still have a situation here that needs to be cleaned up, and while you idiots are worrying about the defenseless puppies, a crazy girl is wandering around unsupervised. She's already opened the crates, and the next thing she decides to open might well be the airlock, so she can set free all our oxygen."
Simon tensed unhappily, clearly wanting to defend River, but Mal wasn't in the mood to be charitable. "You can all put away your scruples and rest easy. These are prize Shih Tzus. They are very rare, and they are a sight too expensive to eat. Our client is a breeder, and provided we can get the dogs the hell back into the cryo crates, they are headed to a long and happy life of puppy humping."
"Oh," Kaylee said weakly. "Puppy humping. I guess that's okay, then."
Mal looked around and took a quick puppy count. Kaylee and Simon each had two dogs, while Book had picked up one, and Jayne was holding his by the scruff of the neck at arm's length, staring at the dog. The dog was staring right back at him. Six dogs captured, which left thirty loose, assuming River had set them all free. And she probably had.
Mal sighed and felt his jaw working as he ground his teeth. Thirty dogs, running around his ship. Probably pissing on the bulkheads, chewing on the wiring, and getting themselves into tight places. "Let's take what we've got to the cargo bay."
River, of course, wasn't sorry at all, not that you could tell what sorry looked like on her. "They wanted to run," she said. "They didn't like being curled up and confused."
"I guess you would know," Mal said. "But we're putting them back, and if you let them out again, you'll be the one locked up, understand?"
She lifted up her leg and stretched it out behind her, and then, so smoothly that it almost didn't seem like she was moving, bent down and scooped up a dog. She swirled back up, still balanced on one leg, and presented it to him with a little flourish. He took it from her and realized the dog was trembling. The damn thing nearly fit into his palm.
"They just wanted to not be confused," River whispered, slim and wide-eyed.
Simon appeared behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. "Come on, River. Let's go find some more dogs. I bet you know where they'd hide." He met Mal's eyes, and Mal saw any number of things in the boy's gaze -- defiant love for his sister, regret at the situation she'd caused, the weariness that never seemed to leave him, and a few things that made him think about looking somewhere else.
Simon drew River away, and over the clank and hubbub of the search the rest of the crew was making, Mal felt the dog's little heart beating against his hands.
In the end, gathering up the critters wasn't too hard, except for one complicating factor. It wasn't Inara, who kept on glaring at him like he'd engineered this whole confusion for an easy laugh. It wasn't Wash, even though he'd discovered a brand-new allergy to puppy fur. It wasn't even River, usually at the top of the list when there was trouble to be caused.
No, it was none of those -- and Mal felt like he should have seen this coming -- it was Jayne.
"Zoe? What's the final count?"
Zoe straightened up from one of the crates. "I make thirty-five, sir."
"Thirty-five?" Wash sneezed violently and clutched at his nose. "I thought there were thirty-six."
"There are." Mal did a quick sweep of the cargo bay. Kaylee had just returned from pulling a couple of the creatures out of an engineering access shaft -- least she called it a shaft, even though she and the dogs were near about the only bodies that could fit in there. Book had done his part and was watching Mal with an unhelpful look of glee on his face. For a preacher, the man sure did take a delight in the misfortunes of others. Simon, cradling River in his arms; Inara, standing silently near the stairs...
"Where's Jayne?" he asked, already dreading the answer.
"He was with us," Simon said. "Actually, he was near us, but he kept going off on his own when we were searching the bunks."
Mal headed for the stairs, and the whole menagerie followed him like...like puppies, determined not to be left out of any action going on. He buzzed Jayne's quarters and got no answer. The door, of course, was locked.
"Gorramit, Jayne, open this door, you stupid hun dan!"
The speaker crackled. "No!" Jayne said, for all the world like a rugrat with a fancy new holoviewer that he didn't want to share.
Mal turned to Kaylee. "How long to open this door?"
She shrugged. "You can open it from the cockpit, unless he ripped out the wiring or welded it shut."
She scurried off, and about three seconds later, the door popped open.
As he climbed down the ladder, Mal heard Jayne say, "Aw, hell." Jayne never had quite got the knack of planning ahead. Everyone else had to follow him down, of course, and the room got real crowded, real quick. Jayne had his back to the far wall, dog number thirty-six clutched in his hands.
"Jayne," Mal said, proud of how calm he sounded, "what are you doing?"
"C'mon, Mal!" He'd heard Jayne whine before, but it never got any nicer.
"Can't I keep it?" And then Jayne snuggled the damn creature, who snuggled him right back, burrowing its little head under his chin and making puppy snorfling noises. It might have been touching, if Mal hadn't been ready to space one or both of them.
"It's cargo," he said patiently, his voice still nice and quiet. "And I promise you don't have the money to buy it, even if anyone was interested in selling you a puppy."
"They won't miss one! Look how tiny it is!" Jayne held out the puppy, still contentedly curled into his big grubby hands.
"Just because you can't count doesn't mean everyone else has the same problem!" Mal felt his head starting to tighten. Never a good sign. He turned back to the crew, and the amused expressions didn't help his mood any. "Does anyone want to back me up here?"
Zoe cleared her throat. "No, sir, I think you're doing just fine."
"You've convinced me," Wash added.
Right. No help from that quarter. "Look," he said to Jayne. "Space is no place for a dog. Dogs deserve...grass...and nice houses, and other dogs to keep them company..." Making it up as he went along didn't seem to be working. "Cats do much better in space." He realized his mistake as soon as Jayne's face lit up like an overloaded circuit board. "No! No cats either! No pets at all, unless you count your guns, which ought to be enough for any man."
Jayne narrowed his eyes, and Mal cursed silently. He'd seen that mule-headed look before, usually before Jayne shot or smacked something. "I ain't givin' it up, Mal."
"The hell you ain't." Mal started moving. Slowly.
From behind him, he heard Simon, worried as usual, saying, "I'm sure we can figure out some way to resolve this..." but he was focused on the little ball of fur in Jayne's hand. It had raised its smushed-in face, and Mal could swear that the beady little eyes were glaring at him. The eeriness of it almost distracted him from the knife Jayne had pulled.
Book pushed his way in front of Mal. "Son, I think you should put that down." Jayne ignored him and wrapped his fingers tighter around the hilt.
"Get out of the way, preacher." Mal took another step forward, around Book, and the dog growled. It was a pretty threatening sound, considering how high-pitched it was. He knew cornering an animal was a bad idea, and now he had two of 'em pushed against a wall in a tiny crowded room. But Jayne always backed down, and Mal had to bet that he'd do it again.
"Give me the dog, Jayne." He reached out, and he saw the look on Jayne's face change as Jayne realized he wasn't gonna be able to keep the creature.
Inara screamed, "Mal, look out!" and then the pain flared, bright and ugly.
The infirmary was definitely becoming his least favorite place on ship. Or one of his least favorites, maybe, right after anywhere Jayne was.
Simon actually laughed at him, the skin around his eyes crinkling into little lines. "You know, I've treated five-year-olds who complained less than you."
"Were they attacked by an evil mutant dog? Did you test that damn thing for rabies?" He flinched as Simon threaded another stitch through the torn skin on his hand.
"Rabies was eradicated a hundred years ago. I think you'll live."
"But you're sure it's not a mutant?"
"Jayne or the dog?"
"The one that bit me!"
"Same question." Simon bent his head over Mal's hand, but Mal could still see the smile on his lips.
"Are you laughing at my pain?" Mal asked indignantly. "I might remind you that we have your sister to blame for this. Next time, see if I come rushing in to play the hero and save you two from being barbecued."
The smile vanished. "Right. Sorry."
Mal didn't even feel the next stitch go in. He sighed and wondered when Simon would relax enough to be teased. "For the last time, unless you two become a direct threat to this crew, you're part of it. The only way anyone's taking you off this ship is if they put me in a box and take me first."
Simon bent his head even further. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me. Believe me."
"I do," Simon said softly. "By the way, this is going to hurt."
"What? Wait -- ow!"
"Almost done." Mal suspected Simon was smiling again.
"Gorram mutt." And gorram Jayne. Maybe there was a way to lock him in his quarters and only let him out when something needed lifting or shooting. He'd have to ask Kaylee. No, Kaylee was too soft. Wash would do it.
"You said it was a purebred Shih Tzu."
"Yeah. Someone's paying a lot of money for that little monster."
"Last stitch," Simon said, and Mal felt him tugging on the thread as he tied it off. "It didn't want to leave. I can understand that."
"Oh, don't tell me you're getting attached to Jayne."
"Hardly." Simon looked up at him then, finally, before gathering up his instruments and dumping them in the sink. "Keep it clean, don't pick at the stitches, try not to get injured again. I'll check it tomorrow for any signs of infection. I'm sure you're familiar with the routine by now."
"Got it memorized and everything." Mal swung his legs down and stood, eyeing the dark line of stitches and carefully flexing his hand. "Figures it's my gun hand."
Simon grabbed his hand. "Will you stop that? I'd appreciate it if you'd at least make it out of the room before you rip them out." The authority in his tone startled Mal, as it always did when the boy took charge of a situation, playing doctor or big brother.
And the other thing that startled him was the feel of Simon's hand wrapped around his, not letting go.
Mal caught his eye, and Simon actually blushed, but he still didn't let go. He held on a little bit tighter and stepped a little closer, until Mal could make out details in the pattern on his vest and hear his breath speed up. For once, the ship seemed quiet, and it was a miracle that no one had charged in with a new disaster. But Mal wouldn't have minded the interruption, if it meant he didn't have to figure out what the hell was happening, and whether he wanted it to be happening.
The worrying part was how good it felt to have someone holding on to him.
"Thanks," Mal said, and tugged his hand free.
Simon smiled, a tiny twist to his mouth, and tucked his hands into his pockets. "You're welcome."
Mal looked back when he reached the door, but Simon had walked over to the sink and turned away.
The thing about space travel, even with Alliance fugitives on board, was that it was pretty boring.
Most days, Mal found that downright pleasant. Easy enough to find company if you wanted it, but easy to find some privacy if you needed it. Wash and Kaylee had more real work than anyone else, with the occasional piloting and engineering. Zoe took care of most of the other ship's business, keeping inventory of the supplies, listening to Kaylee talk about what engine parts needed to be replaced. Jayne and the preacher lifted weights. Inara tended to stay in her shuttle, although Mal hadn't quite figured out how she practiced whoring. When he wasn't pressing iron, the preacher studied his Bible. Jayne sharpened his knives and cleaned his guns.
And Mal generally made a nuisance of himself, poking his nose into everyone else's business.
He wandered into the engine room and hovered over Kaylee until she offered to toss him headfirst into the engine, and while it was awful cute to see her try to look threatening, she started giggling two seconds later and ruined the whole effect. He knew when to back off, though, so he left her alone, waist-deep in engine parts and humming happily.
He figured it probably couldn't hurt to check on the gorram dogs again, although he'd visited the cargo bay about thirty times since the Great Puppy Disaster. Jayne passed him in the hall and grunted at him, which was generally what passed for an apology from Jayne. A few more days, and he might make it back to actual words.
He paused at the top of the stairs and took a quick look around. Everything was nice and quiet, nothing moving -- until River barreled into him and he yelped in surprise. She had her head down, muttering to herself, and she swerved to the left to get around him. He swerved with her, blocking the catwalk.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi." She sounded distracted, and she tried to dodge around him again. When he moved in front of her, she finally looked up and frowned at him. "You're in my way."
"Fancy that," Mal said. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm calculating the maximum cargo capacity using all available space and assuming you could find a box to fit in that funny shaped corner by the door."
"Sure you are. What you're not doing is bothering my dogs, right?"
She brushed her hand in front of her face. Maybe she was responding to what he'd said. Maybe she was chasing off invisible butterflies. "They're better now."
She nodded and climbed up on the railing, started inching her way past him. He wanted to grab her and pull her down, but with the way his luck had been going lately, he'd knock her over instead and save the Alliance a whole bunch of trouble. He settled for watching her as she went, ready in case she lost her balance.
"And you know this because...you checked with your mind?"
She hopped down on the other side of him and cocked her head like a sparrow. "Because the cryo readings on the crates are stable. Did you try to see how long you could hold your breath and pass out? That can cause brain damage."
"What? No." He took a moment to consider whether he should be offended. "You know, you got no call to be talking trash about anyone else's brain."
"It's just synapses and neurons. Curves and twists and meat."
Luckily, before Mal could figure out what to say to that, Simon came around the corner, calling out. "River? River? Oh, there you are." He didn't seem pleased to find her with Mal, although Mal wasn't sure whose reaction Simon was more worried about.
River immediately turned her back on Mal and fixed on Simon. "They understand now."
"The dogs," Mal said. "Apparently she's been talking to 'em."
"They don't mind sleeping, as long as they can dream when they wake up."
Simon nodded, but Mal was willing to bet he didn't have a clue what she was saying. "That's good. You don't need to worry about them any more. Why don't you come back to our quarters and take a nap?" He reached for her hand, but she backed up two steps and shook her head.
"I'm not sleepy. And you think too loud." She tilted her head back until Mal had a full view of her face, her lips moving upside-down. "He tries to think quiet about you, but you're not a quiet thought."
"River!" That blush on Simon's face was getting pretty familiar. Problem was, Mal was learning that he liked seeing it, the flush of color along his cheekbones. He caught himself wondering if it'd be warm under his fingertips.
River danced past Simon on the tips of her toes. "I'm hungry," she said, as she disappeared into the corridor.
"So," Simon said after a second, head down and staring at Mal's feet. "That was...embarrassing."
"Now, I thought she was downright precious."
Simon chuckled and looked up. The blush had faded a little, leaving just a couple of spots on his cheeks. "You obviously don't have any sisters."
"Nope," Mal said. "Just me."
"I can't imagine what it would have been like to grow up without River. She was infuriating and always such a know-it-all brat, but..." He shook his head and sighed. "I should go after her."
Mal waved a hand. "Oh, it's not like she'll get into any trouble. Nothing pointy or dangerous in the kitchen."
"I said I'd go after her," Simon said, sounding annoyed.
"She's just got that knack for causing problems."
"I can't watch her every second, Mal! I'm doing the best I can." He ran a hand through his hair, then smoothed it back down. Mal watched his hand move and pretended he wasn't doing any such thing.
"No one said you weren't. Sometimes it doesn't matter how hard you try."
Didn't seem like Simon could argue with that. He opened his mouth, closed it again, and leaned against the wall. "I'm sorry I snapped at you," he said. "She just embarrassed me. Sometimes it's harder to deal with than insomnia or irrationality."
"Right," Mal said, definitely not wanting to get into what River had said. "You know, I should go see if Kaylee needs help."
Simon tilted his head and probably didn't realize how much the motion made him resemble his sister. "I checked to see if River was with Kaylee, and Kaylee mentioned that you'd just left. Why are you lying?"
"I'm not lying," Mal backpedaled. "She could need help. Captain's job never done, and all that."
"Right." Simon nodded slowly and pursed his lips. Not that Mal noticed what was going on with his lips. "You couldn't possibly be looking for an excuse to get away from me."
"You know, if you're not gonna go after your sister, I will." He started walking past Simon, heading for the stairs, but Simon reached out and grabbed his arm as he went by. He had a stronger grip than Mal would have expected, strong enough that Mal couldn't get loose without making a spectacle of it. He didn't look at Simon, though. It was hard enough standing this close to him. He didn't need to start looking and get himself in trouble.
"You don't have to go." Simon's voice was low, and Mal didn't have to see him to know what was going on.
"Oh, I think I do." The fingers tightened, digging into his bicep, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Simon lean close.
Simon's hand slid quickly off his arm as Zoe came down the stairs. She didn't hesitate when she saw Simon standing next to him, but he saw her eyes flicker over to the boy. Zoe had the best poker face of anyone he'd ever met, but he'd bet that she hadn't missed any detail of what was going on.
He scrubbed a hand over his face. "Yeah?"
"Thought you might like to know what our food situation's like."
"Come from the kitchen?"
She nodded. "Preacher's keeping an eye on River."
Simon took his cue with good grace. "I'll go make sure she's doing okay." He didn't look at Mal as he went, but Zoe watched him go, and then turned back to Mal.
"Anything going on I should know about?" she asked.
Mal huffed and started making his way down to the lower level. He'd be humped if he'd leave the gorram room without checking on the dogs. "Not a chance."
Zoe leaned over the railing and fixed him with a knowing stare. "Nothing going on, or nothing you'll tell me about?"
"Mind your business, lady." He crouched down by the first crate. Everything stable. Just like River had said.
Four days later they arrived at Pan Gu, with the dogs safely stored in cryo, and without anything else being cut, broken, thrown, or unexpectedly set free.
Mal had barely seen River in those days, which pleased him just fine, but he'd barely seen Simon either, and that made him uneasy. The only comfort was that he could be sure Simon wasn't holed up in his quarters planning a mutiny. At least, he thought he could be sure.
Mal leapt up the stairs to the cockpit. "Are we there yet?"
Wash didn't even turn around. "Asking that never makes it go any faster, you know. I think it might actually make it go slower."
"Wash, give me an ETA before I kill you and learn to pilot this thing myself."
"Are you threatening my husband, sir?" Zoe walked up next to him and settled into that stance that made her look relaxed and alert at the same time.
"Not threatening. Encouraging."
Wash swiveled around in his chair and hooked his leg around Zoe's, tugging her toward him. "Twenty minutes. Plenty of time for you and Jayne to get the cargo ready to unload and for me to molest my wife."
Zoe let herself be pulled forward and on to Wash's lap. "Shiny."
"Any chance you two could act like professionals and not love-crazed teenagers?" he snapped.
"Problem, sir?" Zoe asked, not intimidated at all. Seemed like he'd lost the power to scare her years back, and some days, he almost regretted that. Even worse was the way she could read him. It was a miracle she hadn't said anything about Simon yet.
She tilted her head back just enough to stare up at him. "Is this about Simon?"
"Simon?" Wash chirped. "What about Simon?"
"Nothing. Nothing about Simon. I'm going to prep the cargo." He made sure to stomp extra hard so he didn't have to hear Zoe chuckling at him as he walked away.
He stopped in at the kitchen, grabbed Jayne and Kaylee, and kept stomping, taking pleasure in the way that the metal deck echoed under his feet, knowing that no matter how hard he used Serenity, she'd always be there, solid and constant underneath him.
As soon as Wash set them down on the planet, he sent Kaylee out to sign them into the berth. He managed to rip out a stitch while helping Jayne pull out the crates, and that didn't improve his mood any. The buyer, a lady by the name of Wu Jin, was meeting them at the dock and bringing her own transport. That suited Mal just fine, since anything that got the cursed dogs off the ship and the ship off the planet made his life easier.
Docks tended to be unsavory places no matter what the planet was like, but the docking facilities on Pan Gu were a sight fancier than those on Persephone, and the cleanness of the place almost blinded him. No trash blowing around in the wind. No layer of dirt on the berth's control panel. Not even anyone pulling an ugly cow through the orderly lines of people. The only cow in sight was a glossy black Angus that looked like it ought to have a pedigree tied to its tail, and Mal was pretty sure it had a condescending expression on its cow face. Sorta matched the look of the woman who walked up and stopped about two feet back from the ramp.
She ignored Kaylee scampering back onto the ship, looked once at Mal, once at Jayne, and immediately back at Mal. "Captain Reynolds?"
He stepped forward, pulling the manifest from his back pocket. "Ma'am."
She took the manifest with a long-fingered hand, thumbed a few buttons, and nodded. Without another word, the six guys standing behind her filed into the cargo bay and began loading the crates onto the antigrav sled.
"Kaylee, go get us ready for takeoff." Kaylee nodded, eyes big, and didn't argue.
"I trust you had a good trip?"
He didn't dare look at Jayne, but he made a silent promise to kill him if he spoke up. "Fine, ma'am. Smooth flying all the way."
"You made excellent time."
"Yes, ma'am." His skin itched with all the small talk, but if that was what it took to get them paid and off the ground, he'd play along. He sneaked a look over his shoulder; the hired help was moving the last crate, the status lights on the cryo controls glowing a nice steady green.
"I'll keep you in mind next time we have a shipment." He jerked his attention back to Wu Jin, and the smile on her face let him know that she hadn't missed his impatience.
"Well, I appreciate that." Although it was even odds whether he'd ever come back to Pan Gu. Legal work was hard enough to come by, but sitting on a Core planet made him feel like Serenity had a target painted on her side.
The sled floated down the ramp and off the ship, and Mal dared to let out his breath a little. Almost gone. The head goon briefly checked each of the crates, making sure the indicators were okay and the seals intact, and nodded to Wu Jin. Mal gave thanks for Simon's experience with cryo; the boy had definitely earned his keep on this trip, from stitching up his hand to helping recalibrate the crates.
She took a few delicate steps forward and held out a small pouch. "Cash, as you requested." The smile was still there, but bigger and slyer, and Mal realized that this little old lady hadn't missed a thing about him, his ship, or his circumstances. But she obviously didn't care, so long as the dogs were okay, and they were.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said. "Pleasure doing business."
She tipped her head, her white hair and her black eyes just as bright as everything else around them, and miracle of miracles, it seemed like everything had gone off without a hitch until Jayne lunged forward and grabbed her by the arm. Mal got ready to drag him on the ground and sit on him, maybe while explaining about his unfortunate brain problem, but there wasn't any subtle way to break Jayne's fingers.
Jayne bent his head down to hers. "You take care of those animals, you hear me?"
Wu Jin didn't seem intimidated at all, which was pretty impressive for a small old lady faced with six feet of growling Jayne, and she took him seriously, which impressed Mal even more. "They're under my care. They'll have an excellent life, I promise."
Jayne narrowed his eyes, stared at her for a second, and then hmphed in satisfaction, apparently convinced. Mal took the chance to pull Jayne away and shove him back. "We'll be going now," he said, with a last wave to Wu Jin. "Enjoy your dogs." He hit the switch to shut the doors and slapped the intercom. "Wash, get us into space."
Jayne was already heading up the steps, probably on his way up to the kitchen. "Jayne!" Mal shouted. "We do not threaten the people who pay us, especially not when they actually pay us!"
Jayne paused, his hand on the rail, oblivious as ever. "I was just making sure! But it's okay. She won't be mean to 'em or eat 'em or nothin'."
"And how do you know this?"
Jayne shrugged. "'Cause she said so."
Mal gave up and let him walk away. His mama had always told him there wasn't much sense in arguing with something dumber than you. Course, she'd been talking about livestock, but it worked for Jayne too. You tended to run into a lot of Jayne's sort out in space, and for a second, he wondered if some Core planets weren't as bad as he'd always feared, especially if they were full of people like Wu Jin.
And then Serenity shuddered to life under him, leaving the ground behind, and he laid his hand on a bulkhead and remembered all the reasons he liked keeping himself in the air.
So that job was completed, and the promise of another job ahead had them flying toward Persephone. They'd shut the ship down for a night of nice, easy auto-pilot, and Mal was sincerely hoping not to run into another soul for the next three days. After almost a solid week of stress, his bunk was looking mighty appealing. He put his hands to his gun belt and started considering how late he could sleep without missing breakfast.
Until his door clanged open and feet started their way down.
"What the hell?" Sure, he usually didn't lock his door. Never knew when something might blow up in the middle of the night and require the captain's presence, but that didn't mean he expected his crew to come charging in whenever they pleased. He watched as two feet came down the ladder, followed by the rest of the body, and then an annoyed face belonging to Simon. All things considered, Mal figured he had a better right to annoyance than Simon did.
"Someone better be bleeding. A lot."
"I heard someone was." Simon stared pointedly at a spot around Mal's waist until Mal figured out the boy was looking at his hand. He pulled it up in front of his face. The stitches.
"Oh, yeah, I busted a stitch. Except I'm not sure that calls for you to walk in here without knocking. Or permission. And how did you know, anyway? I thought your sister was the creepy one."
"Jayne said something about it." Before Mal was quite sure what was happening, Simon had stepped over and cradled his hand. He ran a finger along the line of the stitches and gently poked at the flesh surrounding them.
Shit, Mal thought, feeling heat flare inside him. "Jayne? Since when does Jayne notice anything that doesn't involve food or ammunition?"
"I know," Simon said. "It's a minor miracle. Hold still."
Mal wiggled his hand out of Simon's clutch. "I pulled out a stitch. I didn't turn into somebody needs a nanny."
Simon moved closer, and Mal backed himself against a wall, not caring how silly it made him look. Nothing wrong with retreating once in a while. "You have to let me fix that, or it won't heal correctly."
"Let? I don't have to let you do anything."
Simon's mouth thinned out. "Of course," he said. "God forbid you let anyone do anything that disturbs you. For someone who threatens people with weapons on a regular basis, you're quite a coward."
"Hey!" Mal found himself angry enough to take a step forward, even though it put him within touching distance again. "You know what you don't get to do? Call me names on my own ship."
"Don't you ever get tired of using the ship as an excuse?"
"Any time you feel threatened, you hide behind the ship. You remind everyone that you're the captain and it's your ship."
Mal had never really understood the type of arguing that involved stating the obvious. "But it is my ship. And I am the captain."
"Yes, but you're also Malcolm Reynolds. You have a life beyond the ship."
"Not any more, I don't." Mal shook his head and wondered if that was something he was supposed to feel bad about. Seemed like Simon thought it was. "And I'd be careful about going around judging people. You've got nothing left but your sister, and you can't say you'd have it any other way."
"River will always come first in my life. But I can have more." He pressed his hand to the skin exposed by the open vee of Mal's shirt, and Mal felt his throat work under the touch. "I want more." He moved his hand and put his mouth there instead; the dry press of his lips made Mal swallow again.
He couldn't pretend he hadn't seen this coming, but ignoring things had worked for him in the past. Sometimes. Once, maybe. But it was damn difficult to ignore Simon's hands moving around his waist, unbuckling his gun belt, and the feeling of it slipping off was about ten times more arousing than it had any right to be.
Simon didn't let him get another word out, just reached a hand behind Mal's head and pulled him down into a wet kiss. When the boy decided he wanted something, he went for it. Mal gave up about two seconds in and let Simon push his tongue into his mouth. He leaned back against the wall and slumped down a little, bringing his height closer to Simon's, his mouth closer to Simon's, his hips closer to Simon's.
Simon made obscene noises while they kissed, hums and sighs that tore into Mal and ripped his better judgment right out of him. Mal rubbed a hand across the back of Simon's head, ruffling the little hairs there, and slid his other hand down Simon's side and back around the curve of his ass. Simon pulled away and breathed hard against Mal's neck.
"I thought you'd take more convincing," he said. Mal heard the smile in his voice, felt it pressed against his skin, and he gave up on pretending this wasn't gonna happen. The only question left was how fast it was gonna be.
"I'm a man of action." He let go of Simon's head and worked his hand in between their bodies, feeling his way up Simon's chest until he found the top button on his vest. He rubbed the fine fabric between his finger and thumb. It wasn't like the clothes Mal wore. His clothes were soft from years of use and careful tending, not from the best silk threads money could buy.
Wasn't that he was having second thoughts, exactly. He knew himself well enough to know that there was no stopping, and Simon didn't seem to be in a quitting mood either, pushing his hand under the suspender on Mal's right shoulder and slipping it off. But he also wasn't one to hide from the facts, not after they'd chased him down, and this wasn't going to do anything but make their lives harder.
Simon looked up at him and pushed into his touch, trust in his eyes, and Mal decided that soft was soft. It all felt the same under your fingers. He pulled the first button free and rubbed his fingers against the shirt underneath. Simon's skin felt warm under the shirt, so Mal flattened his hand out and slid it through the open neck. Smooth skin, unmarked by any old scars. Mal had a jagged three-inch scar on his upper chest from shrapnel, a bullet-shaped wound on his left leg, and countless other marks that told the story of his years in the war and his life since then. The stitches left thin white lines on Simon as he shoved his hand as far inside the shirt as he could go.
He spun Simon around and pressed him back against the wall, made quick work of the other buttons on his vest, and left it hanging open. Simon just let him do it, hands flat against the wall, hips thrust a little forward, but otherwise still. Always polite, that boy -- panting with need, but content to let Mal do what he was doing. Which, at that moment, was opening Simon's shirt and letting it hang with the vest. Simon was always so put together that it nearly shocked Mal to see him mussed like this, pale chest showing in between the lines of his clothes. He leaned forward and put his mouth above Simon's heart, sucked until he felt the skin grow warm. Simon grabbed at his head and yanked him up into a kiss, cradling Mal's face in his hands.
"You started this," Mal said, rubbing his cock against Simon's, feeling it hard against him. "What do you want?"
Simon kissed him again, sucking on his tongue, then dropped down to his knees. Mal braced his arms against the wall as Simon unbuttoned his pants and pulled out his cock. Simon didn't waste any time, just swallowed Mal down.
"Wuh de ma..." Simon's mouth was wet and somehow cool, although getting hotter with every pull and tug. Mal tried to do him the courtesy of not shoving his cock down his throat, since he had to be pretty uncomfortable, jammed in between Mal and the bulkhead, but Simon didn't seem to mind, 'cause he was urging Mal closer, a finger running teasingly up and down the seam between his legs. A tease, or a hint of things to come, and it made Mal want to move, to somehow get himself to a place where they could make good on that. He shoved into Simon's mouth with a groan, and Simon just took it, took everything.
It felt all too good to a man who'd spent a gorram long time without any comfort except his own hands. He was all set to embarrass himself by coming without much prompting at all, and he figured he could at least save the embarrassment until the next time they did...whatever they were doing.
He peered down at Simon's dark head, moving slowly back and forth. "Bunk," Mal said. "Before I fall down in an undignified manner."
Simon actually laughed at him, and Mal considered the merits of pinning him to the mattress and engaging in some teasing of his own, but he felt it was only right to let Simon finish what he'd started first. They wrestled around on the bunk a bit, getting Simon's vest and shirt off, pulling down Mal's suspenders and shoving his pants down below his knees. Mal's boots proved to be a bit of a problem, but Simon, with a dedication Mal admired, ignored them and wrapped his mouth back around Mal's cock.
No stopping this time, and Simon wouldn't have let him, even if Mal had been able to hang onto his control. Simon used his tongue, his teeth, his hands, even the hot rush of his breath, tormenting Mal right up to the edge of climax. Mal felt it gathering in him, and he opened up to it, let it rush through him, and came into Simon's mouth, groaning and shaking. Simon didn't let up until the last pulse had come and gone. One of the advantages of sleeping with men -- they knew all the little touches without having to be told.
While Mal lay back on the bunk, panting heavily, Simon took advantage and pulled off Mal's boots and pants. And then he swung a leg over Mal, straddling him, and started unbuttoning his own pants. Patient, but not selfless. Mal stretched out a hand to help, tangling his fingers in with Simon's, brushing against his cock through his shorts.
"Mal," Simon whispered, staring down at him with a crooked smile. It'd been a long time since anyone had looked at him like that, like just being in the same room with Mal was enough to put the smile on his face. It set off an alarm in Mal's head - it was the kind of thing that was dangerous to get used to, dangerous to start feeling the same way. He wasn't green enough to ignore the potential for disaster, but at least he was going into it with his eyes open.
And besides, Simon was smiling at him.
"Come on," he said, urging Simon off him and onto the bunk. Together, they got the rest of Simon's clothes off, tossing them on the floor with no regard for the mess. He was pale all over, pale like someone who'd spent his life indoors, sheltered from the sun. His cock hardened even more under Mal's touch, and Mal felt like he was getting drunk on all the stifled noises Simon kept making. He stuck his fingers in his mouth to wet them and started slowly jacking Simon, figuring out what twist made him cry out loud, what place made his fingers and toes curl.
Mal pressed against him, skin to skin, and took another kiss. Simon's lips opened under his, letting Mal move in and suck on his tongue. When Mal tightened his hand and dragged it all the way to the tip of his cock, Simon pulled out of the kiss and gasped against Mal's mouth, a little wet gasp that Mal thought might be the sexiest thing he'd heard in ages. He took it as a sign that Simon was getting close and pulled his hand away.
Simon blinked blearily up at him. "What? I...oh, God," as Mal moved down and licked his way up Simon's cock. Simon cried out again, losing all his words, as Mal took him in as far as he could go, then tightened his lips and dragged them back up. A few more seconds of that, and a hand pressing against his balls, and Simon came, arching his back and digging his fingers into Mal's bicep.
Mal let a few moments go by, and then laid his hands on either side of Simon's twitching body and levered himself up and over, settling in between Simon and the bulkhead. He always had liked kissing after a good tumble, and he figured Simon would understand. The boy came to him easily, not flinching at all from the taste of himself still on Mal's tongue. The number of ways Mal had underestimated him didn't really bear counting. His kisses were nice and easy, not a challenge or a fight found in them. Almost made Mal forget that he was supposed to be conflicted.
"You are an unspeakable complication," he murmured, pressing a kiss to Simon's cheek. "My life is supposed to be simple."
Simon nestled up against him without any shame. "Mal, you're terrible at the simple life."
"Yeah," Mal said. "I reckon. But things were crazy enough with you two being on the run, and your sister being a mite unstable. This means --"
"I know what it means," Simon interrupted. "It is what it is. I'm not going to insist that we stop off at the next planet and find a preacher to marry us."
"We have a preacher on board, if it comes to that."
Simon courted death by poking him in the ribs. "It won't. I know it's complicated, but you don't have to make it worse." He kissed Mal again, his lips so soft. "Just...go to sleep. Don't worry."
"I worry all the time. It's my job."
"Then worry in the morning." Simon turned on his side, pushed his back against Mal's chest, and closed his eyes, as if that settled everything. Easy for him to say. The worst thing that could happen to him was...federal custody. Okay, maybe it wasn't easy for him to say. Maybe Simon had a point. They had enough trouble of their own; no need to borrow any more. And at least the stars were still outside, and the ship was still under him, and there was a warm body in his bed. And no more live cargo on board.
He'd try to keep everything that way, and if it worked, he'd call himself lucky.
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Title: Dangerous Cargo
Author: Nestra [email] [website]
Details: Standalone | NC-17 | *slash* | 55k | 06/28/04
Characters: Malcolm, Simon
Summary: Mal takes on some new cargo that proves to be almost as troublesome as Simon and River.
Notes: Vague spoilers, specifically for Serenity and Safe.
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