Disclaimer: Firefly, the characters, a lot of the dialogue - all Joss'. The strange interpretation? Mine.
WARNING - Spoilers for "Trash".
RATING- R. For thoughts rather than deeds.
Chapter 15: The real me.
All the colour has drained from Wash's face. He stares at his wife, wondering if he knows this woman at all. "Okay - skating right past the part where you got into his bed - he did what?"
Zoe squeezes both his hands in hers. "He hit me," she says quietly, surprised at the mixture of sorrow and shame the admission causes her. "But it wa'n't all his fault, Wash. I shou'n't've ... We'd been drinkin' ... We were ..."
Wash stands up, his body more tense than she's ever seen it. "I don't give a good gorram about all that, Zoe! That tamade hundan hit you!" The tendons in his neck stand out as he clenches his jaw and fists. "And you never told me! Does Mal know that? Or is he going around thinking I know what he did but I'm too much of a ji bai to do anything about it?" He's shaking now.
"We ain't never discussed it, baobei," Zoe says softly.
"What? Never? You mean he never even apologized?" The disbelief takes Wash's voice up an octave.
"You know Mal - not much of a talker," Zoe shrugs, rememberin'. Even after all these years, she can still see him, tryin' to sneak out of that bar next mornin', reluctantly draggin' his gaze up from his boots to meet hers when she blocked his way. Still see the pain an' loss and total ruttin' hopelessness in his eyes. She remembers too that, mad as she was at him, her arms ached to pull him close an' comfort him.
"So - you just forgave him!" Wash sounds angrier with her than he is with Mal. "Like it was just another of his screw-ups!"
"Not exactly." She gives her husband a wicked little grin. "I hit him back."
"You did?" A slow smile begins to creep over his face - because that sounds more like the Zoe he knows.
"Well, not right then. A few days later." Her smiles turns guilty. "An' I don't exactly keep him out of situations where he's like to get smacked in the mouth. You ain't ever wondered why I don't try to stop him from goin' to Alliance friendly bars on U-day? Every time it happens - well, I think we both know it's his due. We ain't never talked about that neither."
Wash sits back down beside her. "So, you di'n't take it personally?"
Zoe laughs, and leans her head so that it rests against his. "Maybe a little. But then he did it again ... 'bout a year later-"
Wash is back up on his feet an instant, cheeks flushed and shoulders squared. "Right! That's it! I'm gonna ..."
"Not to me!" Zoe tells him hurriedly.
Wash stares at her, confounded. "Not you? Then who?"
"There was this girl. We were doin' some casual work on her daddy's ranch an' she an' Mal got pretty close." She gives a short, sad laugh. "Think he was plannin' on settlin' down with her. Then one night ... Don't rightly know what happened, but she ended up with a black eye an' a split lip an' tian a knows what else and me an' Mal got run out of town."
Wash grimaces. "He's psychotic!" he says at last with a told-you-so waggle of his eyebrows. "I always said he was psychotic." He frowns. "You sure he's safe with a boatload of women? Here was me thinking he was all chivalry and do-the-right-thing old-fashioned. Remember how Saffron had him all tied up in knots, like he was some kinda blushin' virgin? And now you're telling me ... This doesn't make any kinda sense." He scratches his head, trying to work it out. "He trusts you with his life. He treats Kaylee like a favourite sister and he's taking all manner of risk keeping River onboard. And as for Inara ..."
Inara. Zoe bites the inside of her lip. Someone else who maybe oughta know ...
"'Course," Wash continues, mostly to himself. "Far as we know, he's never kissed any of them. Well, not like that. Think that's it? That it's the kissing that sets him off?"
Zoe shakes her head. "He kissed Saffron. Remember?"
"Oh yeah, he did, didn't he." Wash has a sudden flashback to Saffron coming onto him on the bridge and how hard she was to resist. "Fancy him falling for that jianhuo's tricks! Anyway - guess that means it isn't the kissing per se."
"Most like not."
Wash sighs. "Shame Simon's a surgeon. Sounds like what Mal needs is a psychiatrist."
Simon is finding it hard to process the last twenty-four hours. The sound of gunfire is still ringing in his ears and the sickly sweet aroma of burning human flesh lingers in his nostrils, yet none of it seems real. He's a trauma surgeon not a soldier. He has a sister who depends on him for everything. And he's not the kind of man to throw himself into a fight. Except - apparently - he is. The discovery is unsettling. He wonders if he knows himself at all. Because the diffident, self-contained, law-abiding man he thought he was would never have been prepared to risk everything for love. And then he remembers that's exactly the kind of man he is. It's how he ended up on Serenity in the first place.
River is sitting quietly on her bed, staring into the distance. "They get inside your head. Make you see things you don't want to see. Make you listen to things you don't want to hear. Do things. Bad things." A single tear rolls down her cheek and Simon wraps an arm around her.
She places an ice-cold hand over his and grips it tight. "Had to do it, Simon."
He misunderstands. "Yes, mei-mei, I did."
"Scared her," River whispers sadly.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to," Simon replies, misunderstanding again. He strokes her hair. "But I'm back now. Mal's back. Everything will be okay."
River lets her head fall against his chest and he takes it as a sign she's forgiven his desertion.
He understands so little. Reason and logic fog up his mind so that he sees only the outline, not the substance of things. Doesn't notice the layers, the reflections and echoes.
She looks up at him, suddenly lucid and bossy. "You ought to read more poetry."
Mal's been tryin' real hard not to think about it ever since Zoe told him. Cos every time he imagines Simon takin' the decision to join the others in stormin' Niska's skyplex, his determination to stay away from the boy begins to erode. Cos Mal knows how deep Simon's devotion to his sister runs. Knows he di'n't decide to risk gettin' killed an' leavin' her all alone in the 'verse lightly. But he did it - and for Mal. Part of him wants to grab the boy by his expensive lapels an' demand what the hell he thought he was doin'. But most of him jus' wants to grab the boy and push him down onto a bed. Or over a table.
Which is why Mal waits until he's sure the Doc's safely occupied elsewhere before headin' down to the infirmary. Only needs some painkillers after all. What he don't need is Simon fussin' over him. Touchin' him. Runnin' those cool fingers of his over the wounds on his chest.
The infirmary is empty. He steps inside and that's when he sees it. Simon's grey vest. Velvet front and satin back. Neatly folded and lyin' on the counter. The Doc was wearin' that very one when he reattached Mal's ear. It kept brushin' his skin as Simon went about his work. Took Mal's mind off the pain some.
He doesn't mean to steal it. All he wants is to touch it. Feel the soft fabric under his fingers, against his cheek. But when he lifts it to his face, the scent he breathes in makes his heart race an' the blood pool in his groin. Zao cao! - the smell of Simon Tam's like a promise. One he gotta fight against callin' in.
"Ah - Captain."
The Shepherd's voice behind him makes Mal jump an' for some fool reason, he stuffs the vest inside his shirt. He takes a deep breath and schools his features into a slightly pissed expression before turnin' round. "Shepherd."
The light in Book's eyes makes the sweat prickle at Mal's armpits. It's like the Preacher knows what Mal's jus' done an' why. But all he says is, "Wash is asking for you up on the bridge. Seems he's just received a wave about a job you were bidding for." He scrutinizes Mal's face more closely. "Are you feeling all right, Captain? Should I get the young doctor down here?"
Mal's eyes widen a touch. "No," he says quickly - perhaps a fraction too quickly. "Jus' needed somethin' to dull the pain. Niska did a pretty thorough job on me, ain't no denyin' it." He folds his arms over his chest. The movement conceals the stolen vest but makes one of its buttons graze a nipple. Mal swallows. "Tell Wash ..." The button is smooth, hard - like a fingernail. "Tell him I'm comin'."
It's Simon's turn to cook, Mal realizes as he pauses unseen at the mess door. It's all manner of funny watchin' the boy's feeble efforts at the stove. The Captain often finds an excuse for workin' at the table when Simon's makin' dinner jus' for the entertainment value of seein' Mr Top Three Per Cent make a total hash of it.
Simon steels himself. Cooking is possibly his least favourite job on Serenity. He doesn't mind it quite so much when all they have in the cupboards is dried protein and flavourings because then all he has to do then is follow the instructions helpfully provided by the Blue Sun Corporation on the packaging. The resulting meal doesn't taste, look or smell good but at least he knows it's nutritionally balanced and unlikely to make anyone physically sick. No - the days he really dreads kitchen duty are when they have fresh produce and he's expected to create something appetizing. Because Simon has eaten at some of the best restaurants on the Core and he knows what good food should taste like. Sadly his own efforts invariably fall short of that ideal.
He must be frowning because Kaylee abandons her game of patience and comes over to nudge him playfully. "Ain't no need to look so glum, Simon! Wanna hand?"
He smiles gratefully. "Yes. Thanks. Thank you."
She takes a large onion from a box of fresh-ish vegetables and places it on a chopping board. "You make a few incisions in that Doctor Tam, an' I'll see about skinnin' these tomatoes." She takes a handful over to the sink. "Can you imagine how folk used to manage when their food was all natural? 'Fore transgenics, must've been awful hard to ever eat fresh."
"Well, actually ..." Simon begins, but has to stop because there's something wrong with his eyes. He blinks a couple of times, but the stinging only gets worse. Then he rubs his eyelids and now he's in actual pain. "Ouch! I ... I - um - I seem to be having a medical emergency here!"
Mal stifles a chuckle and moves back further out of sight.
Kaylee turns to see Simon red-eyed an' with tears streamin' down his face. She laughs, then clamps a hand down over her mouth and tries to look sympathetic. "Ain't you never chopped an onion before? They got a way of makin' you cry! Oh com'on sweetie," she takes his hand and leads him over to the table. The burning begins to subside. Kaylee pats at his eyes with a grease-smeared cloth pulled from her overall pocket. "There you go! All better now?"
Simon sneezes loudly and Kaylee laughs again. This time he does too. "Do onions always have that effect?" he asks, amazed.
"Not always," she replies, then smiles and punches his shoulder gently. He's so wet behind them kissable ears. "You sure don't know much 'bout normal things, do ya? Ooh Doctor Tam - there's so much I'm gonna have to teach you," she tells him with her very best sultry look and husky tone.
Simon blushes, not sure what to say to that. But suddenly her grin turns innocent and infectious. "There probably is," he admits.
Two of 'em're so gorram cute together. Li'l Kaylee deserves some fun an' she'd be good for the Doc. A night or two in her bed an' Mal's certain Simon'd come to his senses about all manner of things. It'd sure help Mal too. Don't wanna hurt Kaylee any more than he wants to hurt Simon. He backs quietly out of the doorway and leaves her teasin' the medic into shy laughter.
When dinner is finally served, amid much tauntin' of Simon by Jayne and passionate defence of the Doc by Kaylee, Mal has some good news.
"Ladies an' gentleman, we have ourselves a job. Ain't exactly gonna mean we can all retire any time soon - but the take's reasonable enough an' it oughta go smooth seein' as how we're pickin' up the run from Monty."
"Monty?" Kaylee asks.
"Served with us in the war," Zoe informs her. "Nearest thing Mal an' I got to a brother."
"I suppose it would be too much to hope that this job is somewhere I might have clients?" Inara asks.
Mal flashes her a bright smile. Work always lifts his spirits. "Well, if you wa'n't so picky, I'm sure there's folks on Garnet Crossin' as'd appreciate what you got to offer. 'Course - they'd be needin' special rates. Reckon most've 'em don't earn in a month what you make in a coupla minutes."
Inara answers the sarcastic smile that follows with a superior lift of her chin. "A couple of minutes, Captain? Really? Some of us have more stamina than that."
Jayne guffaws and Wash hides a grin behind his hand. Mal flushes. "Oh, I got stamina ..." he promises her in the same quiet tone he normally uses for threatenin' people. "Reckon I could give you a run for your money any day!"
Wash shoots a look at Zoe, who presses her lips tightly together. Like she knows there's somethin' needs sayin' but would much rather not be the one to say it.
Inara lowers her lashes and smiles sweetly. "Why, Captain," she murmurs softly. "I do believe you're flirting with me!"
Mal flushes again but can't look away when her eyes lock on his. She is so, so beautiful it's almost painful. But that ain't the reason Mal dreams about her. It's the way she's got of bein' so near an' yet so far away. Jus' when he thinks he could reach out an' touch her, she's gone. Like some mythical creature that's forever free. That quality in her appeals to somethin' that runs real deep in Mal.
"Call that flirtin'?" Jayne scoffs. "Now I could show you flirtin'..." He leers across the table.
"I'd rather you didn't," Inara says coldly.
"We'd all rather you didn't!" Wash amends and the tension breaks. Jayne grunts and mutters something under his breath and the others go back to eating.
Except for Simon. Flirting of any kind between Mal and Inara - even inept, poorly executed flirting - always ruins his appetite.
River touches his arm. "Let is pass," she whispers. "It's not your moment."
The Chief Programmer looks like a rat in a trap. His mouth is stretched tight over his teeth in a nervous smile and he's blinking rapidly. The Director walks around his chair a couple of times, the soles of his polished shoes squeaking on the marble flooring. Finally he comes to a halt behind the terrified employee and places a hand on each of the man's shoulders.
"Explain it to me again," he says in a deceptively reasonable tone. "Explain to me why you deviated from the clearly defined spec you were given."
The Chief Programmer swallows hard. "It was a refinement, Sir." His voice trembles. "Designed to extend her usefulness. Times of violence call for certain skills ... Times of peace for other, more subtle skills."
The Director spins the chair round so that they're facing one another. "We are not in a time of peace," he snarls. "In fact, we may be about to enter the most violent period of our history since the war to unify the planets under one rule!"
"B-but, Sir!" The Chief Programmer has nothing to lose by speaking out. "After the elections when the High Consul assumes complete control, we can surely expect an end to the uprisings and rebellions. At that stage, his requirements will change." He takes a deep breath. "That is why I made her more ... flexible."
For a moment, it looks as if the Director is persuaded by his argument. Then his face hardens and he summons the guards nearer with a wave of his hand. "Take him away."
Of all the gorram balls of mud spinnin' round the 'verse she had to pitch up on the same one as Mal. An' so-say married to Monty. Mal'd been stunned at the notion of his old friend havin' got hisself hitched. Always thought the man too fiercely independent for that. But when Saffron showed her schemin' face, it all became clear. Mal watches her pick up one of the bags Monty flung out of his ship an' asks hisself why he di'n't finish the si san ba off last time they met. Well, he ain't takin' any chances this time. He advances on her an' draws his pistol. "You're gonna wanna pull your claw out of that bag nice an' slow."
She looks up at him through her lashes and gives him a seductive smile. "Relax. I'm not going for a gun or anything." Her voice is a purr, soft an' sweet an' designed to lure a man in closer. "Just freshening up."
Mal's answerin' smile is unconvinced. He snatches the lipstick she's openin' and tosses it away. "You an' lipstick is a dangerous combination, as I recall. Now get up an' turn around." He gestures with his weapon, so she knows he means business. She sighs theatrically.
Now he only gotta check her quickly, see if she's carryin'. He skims his hands over her, tryin' not to notice the warmth of her body nor the way she leans into his touch. "Oh yeah..." she teases, "Just like old times."
"We don't have any old times," he reminds her bluntly. "Jus' don't want you pullin' a gun out of ... " His hand is between her legs and she writhes against it. "...of anywhere." Has it got warm all of a sudden?
"Mmm," she sighs and wriggles against his body, "You missed a spot ..."
Despite his contempt for her, his body starts showin' an interest. He pushes the feelin' an' her roughly away. "Can't miss a place you've never been."
Quick as a flash, her mood changes. She holds her arms out, appealin' for understandin'. "Marriage is hard work, Mal, I know it ... But that doesn't mean we have to give up ... " She's walkin' - no prowlin' - towards him, like some beautiful but deadly feline. "Sure, we've had our spats. Maybe I made some bad decisions along the way ..."
The woman is crazy! Even crazier than Mal. There's a kinda comfort in that. "Oh, you're a tweaked one, you are," he tells her and the comment earns him another inviting smile.
"But face it, hubby - I'm really hot."
She ain't wrong ... Mal pulls hisself together. "Start walkin'."
"Walking?" she simpers. "Walking where?"
He don't care. Wants her gone is all. Only trouble is, she ain't goin'. Keeps arguin' about it.
Mal dabs at his nose with a handkerchief an' it comes away stained with blood. How come he's bleedin' an' she ain't? He sure hit her hard enough. Don't feel bad about it neither. Monty spoke the truth back there when he called her a devil woman. Mal doubts even his Momma woulda objected to him treatin' a female like Saffron rough. Hell - mayhaps he oughta bed her instead of yearnin' after 'Nara an' Simon. Least that way he'd get some play an' not need to be crucifyin' hisself for the things he's like to do - if the gorram nightmares are anythin' to go by - come mornin'. Only drawback with that plan - an' it's a creepifyin' notion - is that Saffron may well be far enough off her axle to get off on that kinda thing. She'd sure like seein' him outa control.
"Seriously, Mal," she pleads, "You gotta give me a ride."
"Woman, you are completely off your nut!"
"I won't make trouble," she wheedles. "You can stick me in one of those crates if you like. Just don't leave me here -"
A bullet hittin' the ground in front of her puts a swift end to her appeal. An' jus' as swiftly she changes tack again. Mal's head spins with the effort of tryin' to keep up with her.
" ... I had the perfect crime lined up you know ... A million square job ... I got the layout, the entrance codes ... I'm handing you a fortune on a silver platter, sweetheart ..."
Gorramit! He's tempted. In oh so many ways. An' - ta shi suoyou diyu de baozi de ma - it ain't no use pretendin' he could abandon her an' sleep easy at night. Always had trouble ignorin' pleas for help - even from folks as feng le as Saffron.
So Mal does what he does with all his problems. Closes the lid down firmly an' makes like everythin's fine.
Wash comes hurrying down the stairs to find his wife just as Mal makes it back with the cargo. Jayne, Zoe, Kaylee and Simon - Simon? - are on standby to help stow it. The Captain seems pre-occupied with something and keen to get gone. Ignoring a sudden desire to punch the man, Wash speaks as they pass on the stairs. "Inara was asking for you. Wanted to ..." He breaks off, staring. Cos it looks like someone else got there first. Mal's nostrils are plugged with two bloody twists of cloth and he storms past with barely an acknowledgement.
Wash looks down at the others and raises his eyebrows. Zoe very nearly smiles. Guess Mal's getting punched in the nose isn't too different from his getting smacked in the mouth.
Mal's glad to have made it to his bunk without Simon insistin' on tryin' to staunch the bleedin' from his nose. The blood's runnin' a mite too hot through his veins jus' now. He's sure to've said or done somethin' stupid.
He splashes some water over his face and pats it dry. Then decides he'd better go see what Inara wants.
"Yesu tamade!" Simon exclaims, hopping around and screwing up his face in pain. "That ruttin' crate landed on my toes!"
"Simon Tam!" Kaylee exclaims in mock disapproval. "You sure that kinda language is appropriate?"
Jayne casts a quick glance at the little mechanic who's lookin' at the Doc all coy and fluttery. So - she ain't over her crush yet. Best if Jayne don't exploit this plum opportunity for pointin' out the medic's obvious short-comin's. "Well, they is heavy Doc," he says instead, slapping Simon on the back. "Maybe you should sit this one out? Ship's medic di'n't oughta be doin' this kinda work anyhow."
"Yes. Yes - I think I will. And it's time for me to go check on River," Simon answers gratefully and limps away, thinking how very wrong his first impression of the mercenary was.
Kaylee turns a full-beam smile on Jayne. "That was real nice of you." And she stretches up on tip-toe to plant a kiss on his cheek, making him grunt with embarrassed pleasure.
Sometimes Mal imagines he can hear music when he looks at Inara. Somethin' undulatin' and mellow an' serene.
This ain't one of those times. Kinda music he's hearin' right now's more like a kid scrapin' at a violin in a manner as has everyone in earshot wishin' its strings was back in the cat.
An' it'd been goin' so well - if a mite unnervingly. She'd invited him in, offered him tea an' for all of thirty seconds he was in a beautiful fantasy where he was an upright citizen on the right side of the law comin' home to his beautiful an' adorin' wife. But somehow it all went to hell an' here they are practically spittin' at one another. Again.
"They were dolls!" he yells, angry at havin' to admit it.
"They were little geisha dolls with big heads that wobbled!" Inara elaborates though Mal'd much rather she di'n't. Makes the whole job sound kinda dumb.
"People love those!"
"And what exactly was our net profit from the famous wobbly-headed doll caper?" Inara demands, hands on hips.
He glares at her an' spots a chink in her armour. "Our cut? You're in the gang now?"
That stings. "Well, since I can't find work as a Companion, I might as well become a petty thief like you!"
He flinches and she hurts for him. How in the name of renci Fozu is she ever going to service him dispassionately when he evokes such intense emotion in her?
"Petty?" He stares at the floor.
Her tone softens and her eyes are full of apology. "I didn't mean petty."
Yeah, she did. Cos he is. In her opinion, at least. Let's hear her try to convince him otherwise. "What did you mean?"
"Suoxi?" She's sorry. She never meant to hurt him. She only wanted to maintain a degree of emotional distance between them so that when the time comes she'll be able to do the thing Zoe's asked of her.
"That's Chinese for petty."
"No, that's a narrow. There are nuances of meaning."
She's fumblin' an' now it's his turn to feel sorry. He'd like to stop this but he don't know how. "Maybe you shoulda stuck with your wiles."
He won't meet her gaze and now she feels terrible for belittling him. For all his faults, Mal is an extraordinary man. "Don't put all this on me, Mal," she pleads. "You know you haven't been after serious work in a ..."
"Serious work? You wanna know what I ..." He stops mid-sentence and flashes her an enigmatic I-win smile.
"What?" Inara asks hopefully.
Many a time Mal thinks it ain't him that's crazy, it's the rest of the gorram 'verse. All he ever wanted was to live free, live right, but history an' politics conspired against even that modest dream. Mal still lives free an' tries to live right, but some days the oceans of grey ain't easy to navigate. Days like today.
He eyes the crate warily, opens the padlock and throws back the lid. Saffron blinks against the sudden light and he gets the ominous feelin' he's just opened a can of worms.
"All right. Tell me more about this job o' yours."
Now he ain't labourin' under the illusion she's some poor waif in need of his protection, Mal keeps a close eye on Saffron as he ushers her up from the cargo bay to the mess. Which means he makes note of the way her eyes flicker about, how she takes in every last gorram detail - no doubt storin' it all away for future use.
Behind them he hears one of the passenger dorm doors open an' close an' he damn near prays it's the Shepherd on the move. Cos what Mal don't want is Saffron findin' out the Tams're still on board. If she works out who they are ... well, it ain't gonna be good for any of 'em. Aiya, huaile! She snared him good with her promise of easy money! Lettin' her out of that crate wa'n't jus' stupid - it was kuangzhe.
Meanwhile up in the mess, Jayne is reluctantly joinin' Zoe, Wash an' Kaylee at the dining table. Still ain't sure he's off Mal's hook an' this meetin's got him sweatin'. "What d'ya reckon this is about?" he asks.
"Captain wants to discuss our next job," Zoe informs him an' Jayne feels the muscles in his neck unwind a little.
"Sounded pretty excited ..." Wash starts saying but forgets to go on. Because Mal's just come in. Followed by Saffron. O, zhe zhen shi ge kuaile de jinzhan ... or rather, it's not. Wash turns to Zoe but she's fixing Mal with a look so acid it's a wonder his skin doesn't peel.
"Tell 'em," Mal orders Saffron. And so she does. Explains how she's got this mark called Durran Haymer - some high-rankin' Alliance fella with an eye for valuable antiquities. Tells how he gets his hands on 'em too. None of it's good - lootin', black-marketeerin', smugglin'. By the time she's finished, Mal's pretty sure his crew're gonna be as anxious as he is to liberate Haymer's prize possession - the Lassiter. Specially when she tells 'em she's got the security codes to the hundan's fancy estate on Bellerephon along with his schedule for the next eighteen months.
Wash raises a hand. "I'm confused ..." An' he ain't confused about why Saffron wants or needs their help. It's more the fact that she's on Serenity in the first place. Or the fact that she's on Serenity. "Didn't she try to kill us?" Mal's clearly crazier than even Wash suspected - or else why would he be trusting Saffron?
She laughs. "Oh please - no-one died last time!" It's the 'last time' part of that sentence Wash finds particularly unsettling.
"This isn't a one-woman operation," Saffron explains when Jayne finally gives her an excuse to start offering reassurances as to her bona fides. "To do this right, I need ..."
"Idiots," Inara enters the room with the mot juste on the tip of her tongue. There's something about even the sight of Saffron that makes her want to scream. Her hand itches with the desire to slap that simpering face. "Dupes - that's what you'll be if you trust her."
Mal squares his shoulders, reacting as if she'd attacked him. "Could be that's so ... Lord knows, we ain't none of us 'criminal masterminds'." His tone is bitter and Inara knows he's still smarting from their earlier row. "So if you got somethin' better, Inara - somethin' not petty - we'd sure be willin' to hear it."
What does he want her to say? Sorry? Would he even listen in the pig-headed mood he's in right now. "Nimen dou shi shagua," she repeats and leaves.
There's a brief pause before Mal goes back to outlinin' the plan. Saffron smiles to herself. Kaylee offers to try to find a way of gettin' a tagged an' coded bit of pretty past the sensors, an offer which Mal happily accepts. He turns to Zoe, amazed she's kept her peace this long. "You ain't said a word. Time to weigh in."
Saffron fields Zoe's concerns about how they'd find a buyer for somethin' so valuable by claimin' to have a fence on Persephone but Zoe's still chary. "Inara's not wrong," she warns Mal. "She can't be trusted."
"I ain't askin' you to trust her," he replies. "I'll be with her on the inside the whole time."
Saffron smiles a nasty superior kinda smile. "See there? Only one thing you gotta do if you want to be a rich woman, hon ... and that's get over it!"
It's all the justification Zoe needs to land a solid punch on her smug face. Shame she can't knock some sense into Mal at the same time. She stalks off with Wash in tow.
"Kaylee - you go over the estate plans with Saffron," Mal says as their new partner in crime scrabbles to her feet and gestures to Jayne to follow him out into the hallway.
"Want you to go take care of the Doc an' his sis. Make sure they stay outa sight till the job's done, dong ma? Tell Simon they're to stay confined to their quarters till I say otherwise."
Jayne looks dubious. "Doc'll stay put, like as not. But that moonbrain got a habit of wanderin' about when you least want her too ... Want me to tie her up for ya?" He laughs at a sudden thought. "Could do the Doc too!"
Mal takes a step in too close to be comfortable, forcin' both Jayne an' a mighty disturbin' visual to back off. "That won't be necessary. Tell him Saffron's on board. Boy's smart enough to know what that means."
Jayne's job is made easier by River an' Simon already bein' in the Doc's room. Girl don't look too crazy but you can't never be sure with her. Sweet as candy one minute - ravin' knife maniac the next.
"I didn't!" she's saying firmly to her brother. "Why would I hide your vest?"
"For a game?" Simon suggests uncertainly.
She rolls her eyes. "For a game I'd hide your pants!"
Jayne decides he don't wanna listen to any more of this conversation. Pair of 'em's plain weird. He sits down and starts emptying a canvas bag, placing the packaged food and water it contains onto a shelf. "Captain says you're to stay put," he tells Simon, examining each pack in case it's somethin' as would suit him better. "Doesn't want you runnin' afoul of his blushin' psychotic bride. She figures out who you are, she'll turn you in 'fore you can ... say ... 'don't turn me in, lady'."
Simon sighs. "This bounty on us just keeps getting more exciting."
Gorramit! This is why Mal made Jayne do this. Wanted to rub it in. "Well, I wou'n't know."
Jayne is a girl's name. "She's a liar," River states matter-of-factly.
The mercenary shrugs. "Well that don't exactly set her apart from the rest of us. And the plunder sounds fun enough."
Names are important. Saffron's not her name. "She's a liar," River repeats, "and no good will come of her."
"Well, I say as a rule that girlfolk ain't to be trusted," Jayne tells her.
"Jayne is a girl's name."
"Well, Jayne ain't a girl," the big man snaps. He glares a warning at Simon. "She starts on that 'girl's name' thing, I'm gonna show her good 'n all I got man parts."
Simon stares at him, appalled as Jayne fumbles with the front of his pants.. He reminds himself that whilst the man may be a hero he's also boorish and coarse. Simon doesn't like people behaving that way in front of his little sister. "I'm trying to think of a way for you to be crude. I just ... it's not coming."
Jayne stops fumbling, having found what he was looking for. "I was gonna leave you a deck of cards ..." he sneers, closing the door behind him.
Resignedly Simon takes a seat beside his sister. "Great. Another exciting adventure in sitting."
"Afraid," River says.
"We'll be okay," Simon smiles. Then he remembers what Saffron did last time. He puffs. "Why the Captain is trusting that bu huihen de po fu is beyond ..."
"Not her. Jayne."
Simon laughs. "Jayne? Since when?"
"Since Ariel. Afraid we'll know."
A flash of anger burns through Simon, leaving him icy cold. Jayne called the Feds. He wanted the bounty. Why, Simon could ... he could ...
"No need," River says softly with a small smile. "Taught him a lesson. Got it through his thick skull. Nearly killed him. Afraid."
Simon's eyes are hard. "Good."
A sense of exhilaration comes over Mal as the shuttle takes off. Saffron's plan - now it's been polished up by Kaylee and Wash - is a good one. 'Course no plan's one hundred percent foolproof - but tha's what makes 'em excitin'. Sometimes Mal thinks without the buzz he gets from pullin' off a really good heist every now an' again, he'd be as good as dead inside.
"So - where's your boyfriend hiding?" Saffron asks innocently as soon as they hit atmo and the engine roar quietens.
Something leaden hits Mal's stomach linin' but he manages to look blank. "Huh? What you talkin' 'bout now, woman?"
Saffron laughs her tinkling little laugh. "No need to be coy, Mal. You know, that pretty boy with the dark hair you had on board last time. Did you get bored with him? He did look a little straight-laced ..." She darts him a heavy-lidded, sultry look which Mal ignores. "Or have you got him locked up in your bunk?"
"We ain't all as tweaked as you," Mal says, staring out of the viewports at the moneyed expanse of the Bellepheron Estates. His gut tells him to lie to her. "Boy left a coupla months back."
Saffron nods. "With his sister?"
Looks like his gut wa'n't wrong.
Inara and Zoe run into each other on the stairs. "We should be on Bellerophon by oh-six," Zoe tells the Companion. "I figure the job should be -"
"Please," Inara interrupts. "I really don't wanna know."
Zoe smiles. "At least it's your kind of world. You got appointments made?"
Inara nods. "The minute we hit atmo, I'm gone. I've booked a few choice clients, should help me get my mind off Mal's descent into lunacy .."
A thought occurs to Zoe. Sex by the clock must be a joyless affair. "What happens if you got an appointment comin' an' you ain't finished the one you're at?"
"Overbooking is a cardinal sin. Clients must feel the experience is timeless," Inara explains. "The only thing worse is a badly faked fall."
Zoe shakes her head and wonders if Inara ever gets any pleasure from what she does. "See, that's where me and Companionship part ways," she says firmly. "I never could work the notion of pretendin' a man was gettin' it done when he wa'n't."
Inara raises her eyebrows. "So - you've never pretended to fall?"
One corner of Zoe's mouth twitches. "Well - 'never' is a strong word ... sometimes it's easier."
"What about with Wash?" Inara presses, equally curious.
Zoe shakes her head ruefully. "One time," she confesses. "Poor boy was bone-tired "
"He knew!" Zoe laughs. "Sonofabitch called me on it!"
Inara can't imagine what that's like - to have someone know you that well. Know you and love you for who you really are. She touches Zoe's arm. "That's the one you marry."
Zoe fancies she hears a touch of envy in the Companion's voice. "Damn right."
Much to Mal's astonishment, Saffron's sources seem to be good. Gettin' admitted to Haymer's estate, by-passin' security - all a piece of gorram cake. A man could get used to this. Gotta love a plan that goes smooth. Nothin' better than in-an'-out an' easy money. Mal even finds hisself warmin' towards towards Saffron on the strength of it.
They make it inside Haymer's Alliance fat-cat mansion without so much as havin' their IDs checked. An' all of a sudden they're walkin' into his personal museum of priceless Earth-that-Was artefacts.
"Shensheng de gao wan!" Mal exclaims when he realizes that crappy, clunky piece of fei hua in the case before him is it: The Lassiter. He sets to work claimin' it back for the downtrodden masses. Well, for a small section of 'em anyhow. An' that's when Saffron hears footsteps in the hallway.
"Someone's coming," she hisses an' before Mal has time to think he's lookin' into the unsmilin' face of the weapon's proper owner. He braces hisself for a fight an' a little gunplay but it don't go that way.
"You!" Haymer gasps. "You found her! Oh God ... you've brought back my wife."
Knowin' Saffron like he does, Mal di'n't oughta be surprised an' yet somehow he is. Surprised, embarrassed an' even a mite touched by the display of genuine love - at least on Haymer's part - that follows. Chewin' the skin around a fingernail, Mal wishes he wa'n't there. This reunion makes him feel like an intruder. It also stirs some murkier feelin's like resentment an' envy as he watches this supposed killer-of-men gaze at Saffron with out-and-out adoration. Feels sorry for Haymer too - knowin' he's doomed to nothin' but pain an' disillusionment when he finds out who his 'wife' really is.
Don't take long for that to happen neither cos he comes back sooner than expected from fetchin' the reward Saffron encouraged him to insist on payin' Mal for her safe return an' catches them tryin' to make off with the Lassiter. Strange thing about it is, he don't seem all that surprised. Even when Saffron points a gun at him. Mal'd ponder it some more if he had the time. Instead he takes advantage of the distraction to slip the Lassiter into the garbage chute an' then Saffron goes into full-on crazy mode. The Feds are on their way, Haymer's unconscious on the floor an' Mal's minutes away from a long stay in an Alliance jail. So he does the only thing he can do. He fights his way out of it an' drags Saffron along behind.
The hatch opens and Jayne's unconscious body is dropped through it into Shepherd Book's waiting arms. "Lord! This boy weighs ... a solid ton!"
Zoe addresses Simon. "Doctor, you got yourself a patient to see to."
Simon looks down at the crumpled mound at his feet. "Yes. I'll take care of it." And he will. Because he's a doctor and he doesn't treat a patient according to his merits as a human being. And because Jayne is part of Mal's crew. And because Simon finally understands Jayne. Knows he's a self-serving, lying, scheming low-life who's not to be trusted. Oddly enough that enables Simon to trust him in a way. Because at least now he knows what to expect.
Back in the shuttle, Saffron is mighty subdued. Mal engages the autopilot and goes to join her. Zao cao - there're tears in her eyes. "That must've been tough," he offers by way of sympathy.
"Yeah," she pouts. "Have yourself a great guffaw."
"I mean it," Mal replies. "Six years, you knew he was holding such treasure an' you di'n't move on him. I gotta figure that's a job you told yourself you'd never take. Till times got hard enough, and the one line you hadn't crossed ..."
"My name's not Yolanda." She says it like it's her trump card. Like it proves Mal don't have the measure of her.
"Never entered my mind that it was."
His reply establishes an uneasy peace between them an' for a coupla minutes their conversation's polite enough. Then the talk turns to killin'.
"I should've killed Durran," Saffron declares angrily.
"Right. The one guy that don't have it comin'. The man who knows you an' still loves you - treachery an' all. Can't have him walkin' about," Mal agrees bitterly. He's lost in his own thoughts for a while, strugglin' with envy an' sadness an' what-might've-beens. Knows you an' still loves you. Too much to hope for now. Only love Mal can hope for is from someone who don't know him.
"You must be loving this," Saffron accuses through her tears.
He looks at her. Payback is kinda cheerin'. "Little bit. I seen you without your clothes on before. Never thought I'd see you naked."
Funny - when those words came out his mouth, he di'n't have the slightest inklin' he was temptin' fate ...
"I can fix it," Kaylee tells Zoe. "But she must've put a timer on the motivator and wet-wired the dampener with -"
"What does that mean, Kaylee," Zoe interrupts.
"We ain't gonna make the rendez-vous," the mechanic explains. "We have to land. Now."
Zoe's brows knit together and her eyes darken. Gorram Saffron. Gorram ruttin' stupid Mal. Oh tian a - where the diyu is Mal? She races up to the bridge and opens a link to Inara's shuttle. "'Nara?"
There's a low moan and a rustling sound. "Yes?" Inara's voice sounds sharp, anxious.
"Sorry to trouble you. Need a favour. Afraid that jianhuo tampered with our engine an' we ain't gonna make it to the drop point on time. Wou'n't be surprised if she ha'n't pulled a stunt on Mal too. Wanna go save the Captain's zhandou de yi kuai rou?"
"It'll be a pleasure!"
Simon is not a vindictive man, nor a vengeful one. He doesn't think that's changed. Which is why he doesn't want to twist the knife in Jayne. But he's not a coward either and some things have to dealt with. There's no use in sweeping them under the carpet and pretending they're not there.
"How much did they offer you to sell me and River on Ariel?" he asks his temporarily paralyzed patient calmly.
Jayne's expression can't seem to choose between shock and fear. "Das crazy talk," he slurs.
"Then let's talk crazy," Simon suggests. "How much?"
Who'da thought the boy could be so steely - so unwaveringly relentless? Jayne might be in need of a bit of help here. "Is there anybody there?" A pale tranquil face appears at the doorway. Not who he'd been hopin' for. "Anybody else?"
Simon moves closer to the exam table. "You're in a dangerous line of work, Jayne," he points out. "Odds are, you'll be under my knife again. Often. So I want you to understand on thing very clearly .." He pauses and Jayne would shudder if he could. "No matter what you do, or say, or plot ... no matter how you come down on us, I will never harm you. You're on this table - you're safe. I'm your medic, and however little we make like or trust each other, we're on the same crew. Got the same troubles, same enemies and more than enough of both. Now, we could circle each other and growl, both sleep with one eye open but that thought wearies me. I don't care what you've done. I don't know what you're planning on doing, but I'm trusting you. I think you should do the same, cause I don't see this working any other way."
Hunh? D'he really jus' say he's gonna trust Jayne? Well, that's all manner of creepifyin'. Jayne never was one for that turn-the-other cheek crap hisself. He tends to subscribe to the fill-the-cheek-full-of-lead school of thought. If'n the Doc means what he said - an' it's a big if - well, it makes Jayne uncomfortable. Kinda leaves it up to him to act honourably. Which is a whole lot of pressure a man don't need.
"Also," River says quietly in a small act of mercy. "I can kill you with my brain."
Simon decides to fill the anxious time between the crew picking up Mal's location and actually finding the Captain by going back down to the infirmary. As he enters, Jayne is beginning to stir.
"Here, let me ..." Simon helps the mercenary into a sitting position. "Don't rush it. It'll take a while for the propofol to clear your system. Give your body time to adjust."
Jayne's eyes are little more than slits when he looks at the Doc. Can't work out why he's bein' all forgivin' when it was his ass Jayne put on the line? How come he ain't as mad about it as Mal was?
"Feeling sore?" Simon asks, without a trace of hostility.
Jayne grunts, not likin' this one little bit. Simon seems to understand his unease and turns his attention to his notes. He checks off a few boxes and then moves on to remove some instruments from the autoclave. After some minutes he approaches the exam table again. "Want to try standing?"
Jayne nods and lets his weight slide from the table so that his feet are planted on the floor. Not so difficult. He takes a step, sways a little, regains his balance and clenches a fist in triumph. More confident now, he crosses the room and stops dead in his tracks. "Wo de ruttin' ma!" he exclaims in a low voice. "There's a sight you don't see every day!"
Simon follows the direction of his gaze and his stomach turns over. Because there, silhouetted against the planetscape on the cargo bay ramp is Mal. And he's naked. Simon blinks. And Mal is still naked. Simon just has time to take in the line of his shoulders, the strong muscles on his back and the curve of his ass before he turns around. The doctor's mouth goes dry and all he can hear is the pulse pounding in his ears.
Jayne grins at the expression on the medic's face. Looks like all his Christmases've come at once! He slaps him heartily between the shoulder blades. "You okay there, Doc?"
"Um. Yes. Um. I - I ...." Simon stutters. He has to get out of here - and quickly. "I ... There's something I must ... I'll be in my bunk."
Zoe hurries to catch up with Inara. "We need to talk," she says in an undertone. "Now."
Inara gives her a querying glance and when no answer is forthcoming replies, "Come to my shuttle."
The Companion closes the door behind them, sits and waits.
Zoe clears her throat. Gorramit - confessional ain't her style. She folds her arms defensively. Cos this gotta be done. Inara's proved herself as much a member of this crew as any of 'em over an' over again. She got their asses sprung from jail in Paradiso, offered herself to that wangba dan Wing in exchange for the Captain's life, all but prostrated herself in front of the Councillor in an attempt to get Mal away from Niska an' today she managed to get both him an' the Lassiter away from Saffron. An' probably left a client not entirely satisfied in order to do it. Woman's earned the truth.
"I ain't been entirely honest with you," Zoe says at last. "Never did tell you why I needed you ... why I asked you ..."
"Why you asked me to service the Captain?" Inara supplies helpfully.
"Mmm. You see ... he's got this ... well, when he ..."
Inara thinks Zoe's difficulty in getting the words out has to be more troubling than anything she could actually say. "Why don't you start at the beginning?" she suggests.
"Okay." And then it all comes pouring out, so fast, so painfully that Inara isn't sure she's following. Mal hit Zoe? He beat up another girl so badly he broke bones? It doesn't sound like the Mal she knows. The Mal she's in love with. As Zoe goes on, Inara starts to feel cold. Goosebumps spread across her shoulders, down her back and arms and she shivers.
Finally Zoe stops. She raises her eyes, and to Inara's amazement, there's still a spark of hope in them. "I figured you'd've dealt with this kinda thing before. That you'd know how ..."
It's true enough. Inara does have other clients with similar ... conditions ... but she doesn't care for any of them. Not like she cares for Mal. She thinks it would destroy her if he ever ... She stands, raising herself to her full height and takes a deep breath. "I appreciate your honesty," she says in a tone that says otherwise. "However I must point out that you engaged my services under false pretences ..." She holds up a hand as the other woman starts to protest. "I therefore have to inform you that our arrangement is invalid and any contract between us null and void."
Zoe seems in need of clarification.
"I will not be servicing the Captain, Zoe. Not ever." Inara says slowly, enunciating each word clearly, as much for her own benefit as Zoe's. She's not sure whether the declaration makes her relieved or not. Yes, she had been dreading it - dreading losing herself to him completely and utterly. But she'd also been hungering for it. She closes her eyes. "I'd like you to leave now."
Zoe is only too glad to oblige.
"You mean it, Cap'n?!" Kaylee squeals with delight. "Really?"
"Yep," Mal grins and kisses the top of her head. It's been a good day. Got the loot, outwitted the 'verse's most schemin', evil, double-crossin' po fu an' made it safe back to Serenity. Yep, a real good day. The kind that puts even mean old men like Mal in the mood for a little celebratin'. "An' I tell you what, li'l Kaylee - you bring down some of that inter-engine wine of yours an' I might even dance!"
The mechanic doesn't need tellin' twice. She scampers off to her bunk to fetch her player and hooks it up to the ship's comms. Then, takin' the Cap'n at his word, she hauls a couple of demi-johns of wine down from the engine room. She scans the mess quickly an' decides to switch out the main lights an' rely on carefully placed candles an' wall lights. Give the place a cozy, intimate feel. And finally she rounds up the crew for a Got-a-Priceless-Earth-that-Was-Artefact party. Shepherd Book takes a bit of persuadin'. Seems more interested in gettin' back to them papers he quickly scooped up when she slid open his door, but even he can't resist Kaylee's entreaties for long.
Mal pours everyone a glass of wine although River turns her nose up at it. "Alcohol causes dehydration, inebriation and the lowering of inhibitions," she warns solemnly. "And anyway I want to dance." She walks up to a somewhat bemused Book and takes his hand. "I danced in the morning when the world was begun," she whispers confidentially, but loudly, into his ear. The Preacher shrugs and allows himself to be pulled over to the dancing area Kaylee cleared by moving the dining table.
"And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun," Wash sings, remembering some long-forgotten tune and encircling his wife's waist with his arm to spin her round. "Right baobei - let's show these people how it's done."
Kaylee can't wait any longer. "Come on Doctor Tam," she twinkles, holding out both hands to him. "Let's see if I can remember that dance you taught me an' the Cap'n."
Simon accepts the invitation with a flustered smile. He knows Kaylee wants more from him than he can ever give her, but that doesn't mean he doesn't like her. Nor that he isn't flattered by her attention.
Mal throws back a second glass of wine and then bows formally to Inara, although his request for her to partner him is typically ungracious. "Well, looks like it's you an' me. 'Less you wanna dance with Jayne?"
She raises an eyebrow. "Are you sure you don't?" This she can do. The box in her bedside cabinet is significantly less full that it was before and pretending is second nature to her. Just so long as she doesn't have to feel.
He grins. "Maybe later."
Jayne snorts loudly and pours himself another drink. He scowls as Simon and Kaylee go waltzin' past, his eyes never leavin' Kaylee's smilin' face. She doesn't notice. She's too focused on Simon and how close he is. In his turn, Simon is trying very hard not to look at Mal. Their eyes meet briefly and he has the distinct impression that they're saying good-bye. Mal laughs at something Inara says and all his attention is back on her. If Simon didn't immediately force himself to look away, he'd notice her whole body stiffen when Mal accidentally gets too close. He might also notice the way she's looking at the doctor with a mixture of empathy and concern.
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Title: Ch. 15. The real me.
Series Name: Trauma Medicine
Author: Kispexi2 [email]
Details: Series | R | het *slash* | 50k | 03/04/05
Characters: Malcolm, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Simon, River, Book, Other - Saffron
Pairings: All unrequited. But not unreciprocated.
Summary: Mal gets a little light-fingered, Simon realizes a few things about Jayne and Zoe gets some stuff off her chest.
Notes: A slashy reworking of "Trash" - so lots of spoilers for that episode.
Sequel to: Ch. 14. Check the barricades.
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