BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories I, Chapter 2/14 - Zoë
Thursday, May 3, 2007

Mal revisits an unpleasant time. Then – the captain’s getting on Zoë’s nerves. A meeting with Badger brings things to a head, and much drunkenness ensues.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3357    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I’m just playing.

Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don’t want to give things away. In general, don’t be getting into any of this if you’re not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.

Many thanks: to several fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and www.chinesetools.com provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally – kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ) and Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

Note: The intro to this chapter refers back to Easy Tickets, Chapter 12 (FFF) (LJ) if you care to refresh yourself.

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Back Stories, Book I

by Mal4Prez

BWzoe

Chapter 2/14: Zoe

Mal revisits an unpleasant time. Then –
the captain’s getting on Zoë’s nerves. A meeting with Badger
brings things to a head, and much drunkenness ensues.


 

 

This might just be the longest ten minutes Mal’s known.

It’s not just a matter of the pain. Mal’s spent quite a bit of time in the company of pain, and they passed the basic introductions long ago. Old acquaintances, one might say. Not friends – he don’t like it, and sure as hell pain don’t like him, but they’ve reached an understanding.

You see, (Mal struggles to remind himself during a pause in the action) pain is just a messenger. It’s a way for the body to say, “Excuse me, could you maybe have a look at what’s happening over here?” It ain’t fun, but it does help out.

For example – there’s this age-old sickness that crops up on remote planets from time to time, name of leprosy. A leper gets to being numb, something about nerves dying off, and a tiny nick on a fingertip might pass notice. It don’t get cleaned out, and in time the whole gorramn hand is rotted away with gangrene. Goes to show that a body without pain is a body that can’t survive. Long as Mal can keep this perspective, he can handle quite a lot of hurting.

Problem is, in certain situations, (like the pickle he’s found himself in here), nothing can be done about the cause of the pain. His body don’t know that, and don’t know to stop talking. Usually, Mal can stop listening. He’s gotten real good at that. He can turn away from the hurt until it kills him, a thing he learned from Adelei Niska. It takes a certain degree of stubbornness, but Mal’s always had plenty of that.

Until now.

The smiling man with tan skin and thick black hair has his own kind of doggedness. He’s got Mal on the run, so to speak. They both know it. Will smiles down at Mal, his even white teeth shining brilliantly in the darkness of Serenity’s bridge.

“You’ve got nothing smart-ass to say now, do you, Browncoat?” Will asks.

Mal grinds his teeth into the sour bandanna that fills his mouth, wishing he could point out the obvious. Thing is, he's not sure he’d be able to speak any sense, even without the gag, even if he could breathe in enough air to fill his starved lungs. That’s part of the problem, too. He can hardly function, body or mind. His normally dependable self-control is flailing about like a dead stalk of grass in a windstorm. The system he’d worked out with his body’s messenger has broken down, and he’s got no defense against it.

Will uses the electrical cord again, pressing the live end into the bare skin of Mal’s neck.

It sure ain’t pleasant, but it’s not as bad as it’d been with Niska. Niska’d had more juice in the line. Knowing that draws a groan out of Mal, a sound of frustration as much as pain, because he should be able to take this. There’s a divider he should be able to put up in his mind, a barrier to keep the core of himself separate from what’s being done to him.

“Too bad I’m so limited here,” Will says ruefully, studying the cord. “Oh, the fun I used to have with you Independent types during the war.” He leans forward and speaks low. “I’m not supposed to tell, but I was Special Ops. Lots of intel gathering. We had to use extreme measures.” He leans back and smiles again, the good-guy smile of a true hero. “It all saved lives in the end. Well, the lives that were important. People like you don’t matter. Never did.”

The pain comes again, and Mal can no longer see. He’s not sure if his eyes are closed, or if they just don’t work anymore.

“Hey – will you look at that?” Will says, his voice distant and fading in the darkness. “Time to go meet your lady-friend!”

Mal can’t quite think. He’s not sure if he’s even in his body anymore; maybe he’s someplace else, dreaming this. (Which reminds him of something – a different dream in a different time…) As the dream/reality dissolves, there’s a fleeting realization that flies by before he can fully grasp it, an almost-understanding:

Something in him is busted. Out of order. Kaput.

* * *

“Cut it out, River!” Zoë yelled into the microphone on her shirt, her voice raised against the roar of air whistling by the speeding mule. “This ain’t the time to be makin’ dates!”

She didn’t need to warn again. There was a short spell of silence, then the girl’s sullen voice came through the receiver, barely loud enough to hear.

Turned me down anyway.

“Good. Get goin’ before someone thinks to start askin’ you questions!”

If River replied, Zoë didn’t hear it – she had to focus on making a sharp turn to head toward the warehouse district. She checked behind her for the two bundles of goods she was towing; each was riding on a couple of strapped-together hoverboards and topped with a man holding on tight. Mal had his head down, but Jayne grinned into the wind and gave her a thumbs up.

Was that supposed to mean go faster? Wasn’t likely to happen. Zoë wound through traffic, already moving as quickly as she dared. There were a fair number of ground cars, but the space above them was clear, and she popped the anti-grav thrusters enough to give a lift and ride over slow or stopped vehicles when she needed to. There had to be traffic cops monitoring this somewhere, going absolutely bugshit crazy at what she was doing. Zoë grinned at the thought.

They entered the warehouse complex nearly half a klick from where Serenity was hidden, Wash at the helm and the engines, according to plan, already humming. Zoë had walked the route a few times in the past week, carrying a stick that let her measure doorways and passages to make sure the mule would fit. The tricky part was hitting the tight spots straight on, so the booty and the men she towed would make it without damage. With the exception of one unexpectedly closed door, she came through clean. As for the closed door, it may have put a few scratches in the front of the mule when she crashed through, but Kaylee’d be able to fix that.

Serenity’s thrusters fired up as soon as Zoë entered the large warehouse where the ship waited, cargo bay door wide open. She saw a flash of Simon standing by the airlock controls as she entered the ship, then she slid the mule sideways to what should have been a perfect stop.

The only mistake Zoë made was not factoring in the momentum of her cargo. Mal and Jayne continued along, just missing the back of the mule, and the weight of the packs swung her around and pulled her backwards. Before she could sort it out and apply some brakes, Jayne’s pack, and Jayne, had ridden halfway up the bottom flight of the port stairway. Mal and his pack of stolen goods flew into the back wall, right where the hatch opened to the infirmary. The pack tipped on impact and threw Mal through the opening.

Zoë was vaguely aware of the bay doors closing as the ship lifted off, but she was more concerned with getting out of her seat quick and running into the back end of the bay. Jayne slid down the stairs and did a neat face plant on the deck when his cart tipped forward, but Zoë wasn’t worried about him.

“Mal!” she called out as she pushed the second batch of goods out of the hatchway. Mal was lying sideways under the window that opened into the infirmary, his hair all fluffed up and his neat civvie clothes amuck.

“Gorramn, woman,” he said, giving himself a shake. “Who the hell taught you to drive?”

* * *

Zoë threw off the ugly blond wig. She was waiting at the fore end of the cargo bay, staying close to the comm, like she might need to talk to Wash at any second. That wasn’t quite the case. Wash would get them clear, and if he had trouble there wasn’t a thing she’d be able to do to help. The true reason she stood where she did was that she needed to get away from the captain.

She didn’t doubt that Mal was sick in his head, but that didn’t stop some little part of herself from wanting to give him a sharp slap and tell him to quit playing pretend. She’d had to do that kind of thing in the war, force soldiers to face up to a bad situation so they could be some help in getting out of it. But this was different. Back when Mal had started with this, Simon had insisted that they all let the captain do what he needed, saying that his memories would return when he was ready.

It wasn’t easy. Sometimes, like now, Zoë saw Mal going about business as usual, seeming upbeat because a job had come off well (other than the hard landing, that was.) It made her feel sick. Not that she wanted him to be miserable, but at least that would have been honest.

That was the problem: she couldn’t stop feeling that the captain was intentionally hiding from his woes. She knew that wasn’t true, but she couldn’t swallow down her frustation over it.

So she got some distance, just to be sure that she wouldn’t snap at him. She left Mal and Jayne at the aft end of the bay, talking out the adrenaline rush of their ride home. The merc didn’t seem at all bothered by Mal’s reality disconnect problem. If anything, he viewed it as a chance for mischief. That was a headache all of its own, and was why Zoë stayed in the bay. Jayne knew enough not to play with Mal’s head with Zoë watching over, even from a distance.

Simon had checked the two men out, making sure that the glass of the wall they’d gone through hadn’t been the cutting kind, and was currently heading up the stairs. Probably on his way to the bridge, to hang over Wash’s shoulder and fret until River and Book got back on board.

Zoë, you there? Wash said over the comm.

“What’s happening?” Zoë replied.

Just got word from Book. He and River made it to the train. They’ll be getting to the shuttle in ten minutes, and should be docking in twenty.

“Anyone takin’ interest in us leaving the warehouse?”

Not that I can see, but I’ll take us in a big circle anyhow. A few squares and triangles too. Maybe even a pentagram.

“Don’t break the ship, dear.”

I’ll do my best.

“If you don’t need Kaylee in the engine room, send her on down to help with the goods.”

Will do.

Zoë paused a bit longer at the comm, trying to absorb Wash’s light-heartedness. Mal may be completely blind to certain things, but he wasn’t so far gone that he hadn’t been picking up on Zoë’s tetchiness from time to time. It was getting to be a challenge to come up with explanations for it; even Mal knew that a women’s courses don’t go on for two weeks.

When Kaylee appeared on the catwalk, Zoë started across the bay. As unsettling as it was for Zoë to tiptoe around the hole in Mal’s memory, it’d been much tougher on Kaylee. The mechanic had been all broken up over losing Inara’s friendship, and hiding that hurt didn’t come natural to her.

Zoë had hoped that Kaylee would find private time to talk to River, Simon, or the Shepherd, but it didn’t seem to have happened. Instead, Kaylee had withdrawn into herself. A big part of that, no doubt, was that she’d killed a man. Killed him in defense of the crew, but also, as Mal had described it, pulled the trigger in anger. It was an ugly thing for a person like Kaylee to find that kind of hate in herself. Zoë’d seen others discover it in the war, but folks in the military expected that burden. Kaylee’d been completely unprepared.

The girl shied back from joining Mal and Jayne’s talk about the job, her face showing clear as glass how uneasy she felt around the captain. Zoë didn’t worry so much about Mal picking that up – he blamed Kaylee’s moodiness on the events of the hijacking, and generally reacted by trying to be nice.

Sure enough, the captain saw the mechanic on the stairs and called out, “Kaylee, you ought’a try this!”

He held out a hoverboard that he’d untied from an upended pack of goods, then dropped it. It righted itself quick as a cat as its two anti-grav thrusters kicked on, and stabilized floating just above the deck. Mal put a foot on it and grinned.

“I ain’t sure we need to have those on board,” Zoë said, stopping a few paces from Mal. “Doc has enough on his mind as it is. He don’t need you breakin’ something trying to ride that up a bulkhead.”

Mal stirred the board with his foot and looked thoughtful. “You think it can do that?” he asked. Before Zoë could answer, he gave a push and scooted all of a meter before he tilted sideways and stumbled off. Zoë moved quickly, ducking down and grabbing the thing before he could try again.

“Like I said, sir – not a good idea.”

Mal frowned at Kaylee. “Gorramn grownups never let us have fun, huh?”

Kaylee smiled awkwardly. “But we got other toys,” she said with a forced cheerfulness that Zoë could see right through. “I’ll check on `em.”

Zoë went along with Kaylee, wanting to focus on business rather than Mal’s mood. She and Kaylee found that the pack Jayne had rode on was fine, but Mal’s stack of boxed up high-tech toys had gotten a few bruises when it crashed into the back of the bay. Zoë helped Kaylee cut the bindings loose and stack the boxes.

“Five damaged,” Kaylee said when they were done. “I can fix `em, but the boxes are squished. Won’t ever look brand new.”

Mal came to look over her shoulder. “Badger wants them all ready to sell – why don’t you keep those to yourself. And hell…” He picked up three pristine boxes and held them out to her. “Why don’t we have one for each of us?”

“Don’t you think Badger’ll wonder?” Zoë asked.

“Eight a’ these less don’t matter. Let’s get ‘em stacked away – Jayne!” Mal called the merc over, and the two men got busy moving the undamaged goods into the hidey hole in the bulkhead near the stairway.

Zoë helped Kaylee gather the eight keepers. Just before she headed upstairs, Kaylee furtively grabbed one more. Zoë gave her a questioning look.

“Eight just don’t seem like the right number,” Kaylee whispered. Zoë glanced at Mal, then shrugged. It was best not to make a fuss.

As Kaylee took her new project upstairs, Zoë turned to Mal. “We goin’ straight to Badger?” she asked.

“Just as soon as we pick up River and Book,” he replied. “Might as well get these off the ship soon as we can.”

* * *

An hour later, Zoë found herself in Badger’s office again, hovering in the back of the room with Jayne and watching Mal handle Badger’s snipes. She never did enjoy visiting Badger’s lair. It smelled bad. Stank of pretense and hypocrisy with a spicy undercurrent of body odor.

Badger was holding the handset of an antique comm device to his face, listening to someone on the other end. Suddenly, he flipped the coiled-up cord aside and gave Mal an accusing look. “How many?” he asked into the mouthpiece. Whatever answer he got deepened his frown, and he hung up the comm heavily.

“My man just got the goods unloaded,” Badger said to Mal. “He tells me it came up short.”

“Collateral damage,” Mal replied, “couldn’t be helped.”

“And neither can this.” Badger picked up a stack of bills on his desk, removed several of them, and waved a henchman over to carry the payment to Mal.

Mal counted it and gave Badger a long look.

“Nine missin’,” the man explained. “And you’ll pay the price on the street. It’s kind’a high, seein’ as the entire stock got lifted from the only store on the planet selling it.”

“Nine?” Mal asked with a confused look, then he shut his mouth.

“Yeah, nine. As I recall, that’s the number of folk you had on that bucket a’ yours, last you came through here.”

Zoë bit her tongue, not wanting to step in on the conversation. Mal wouldn’t like her trying to speak for him, especially since he wouldn’t understand why she was doing it, but she didn’t want him to think too much about that number.

Fortunately, Badger changed the subject.

“Anyhow, you got through well enough, and that makes me feel generous. I may have another spot a’ business for you. It’s a somewhat… delicate operation, but I believe you have some contacts that might come in handy.”

“Let me guess,” Mal said, “You got something all set up, except we’ll have to do all the work, and then something will go wrong and you’ll leave us high and dry. Sound about right?”

Badger gave him a second’s frozen stare. “If you don’t care for how I do business, why you always comin’ back all bright-eyed and tail a’wag?”

Zoë just held back a pained sigh. Badger had a point, and it hurt. She hated to be asking for handouts from men like this, and so did Mal, but the captain wasn’t one to admit to their situation. His face crinkled up thoughtfully.

“If I recall correctly,” he said, “last time you dragged me here at gunpoint, because you needed my help. Ain’t that right, Jayne?”

“Gorramned right,” Jayne said. “Plied us with alcohol and sweetcakes.”

Mal gave Badger a cocky so there grin and got a frustrated glare in return.

“Well, you’ll be thanking me kindly for this this one,” Badger said. “We’ll both turn a nice profit with little trouble, provided you don’t go starting fights. You’ll need to be nice to those waitin’ for this cargo.”

“Who’s that?” Mal asked.

“Ain’t quite settled the details yet, but it’ll be civilized type a’ folk. Real ones, not put-ons like you and yours.”

Mal sighed as if he was gathering the last of his patience. “So… do you have any idea where this cargo is going?”

“The Core. Londinium, most like.”

“Most like?”

“I expect Londinium’s where it’ll fetch the best price.”

“Hunh,” Mal considered it, then asked, “Illegal goods?”

“Not illegal, exactly. Not if it’s done right.”

“And you’ll be explaining that…”

“Later. We got something else that needs dealing with first. I need to be sure you ain’t blown it and got seen in that mall. Can’t have you gettin’ picked up and wrecking this next job. Too much money in it. You see, I need to know if you was pulling my leg when you said you was on the right side of the law.”

“You sent us to rob a mall just to be sure we’re clear?” Zoë asked.

“Told you as much, didn’t I?”

“And I told you we were clear,” Mal said.

“Now we get to find out, don’t we? You want this delivery job – and the money is good, I tell you that – you’d better leave that tub of yours where it’s at. If no one shows up looking for you in the next few days, I’ll know you’re good. I got a few details to arrange in the meantime anyhow.”

“Hang on,” Jayne said. “We’re supposed to play sittin’ duck, waiting to see if we get picked up by the gorramn mall police, for two days?”

“Yeah. You got a problem with that?”

Mal raised his hand. “Um – I do. That is, unless you add a little coin for our idle time. Cost of those missing uTex toys’ll cover it.”

“In your dreams,” Badger replied indignantly.

“Way I see it,” Mal said. “You need us for this. Been saving it so you can make use of our shiny contacts. And that’ll cost extra.”

“Don’t be gettin’ a big head,” Badger said. “Ain’t Malcolm Reynolds I’m after. I figure you’ll be able to run this in, seein’ as you got that Companion a’ yours to open up ways other folks can’t get to.”

Zoë couldn’t let that one go. “We’ll take the job,” she said quickly. “We don’t need the extra cash.”

Mal turned back to her stiffly, a look of annoyed disbelief on his face. It wasn’t a rule they’d ever set, it was just the way things were – Mal did the dealing. He’d consult with Zoë, and she’d pull him aside for quiet words if she had an opinion, but it’d never been her way to speak up like this.

This time, she had no choice, and she couldn’t back down.

“We could use the days here, sir,” she said, “and we got nothin’ else to do anyhow.”

Mal’s eyes hardened when she said that last bit; she’d blown it. He had nothing to bargain with now. He was gonna be mad as hell at her, but at least he wasn’t thinking about what Badger’d been saying.

Badger chuckled. “I like when you bring `er along.”

“I’m sure you do,” Mal replied in a hard voice, still looking at Zoë. “We’ll take the job, but I want that extra platinum.”

Zoë cringed inside at Mal’s tone. He wasn’t talking tough to prove anything to Badger, the message was to her.

Badger picked that up too. He glanced between Mal and Zoë with a small smile, and seemed to find the entertainment worth a little extra cash. “You’ll get `alf that,” he told Mal. “Come back here, day after tomorrow, if you ain’t locked up in a cell, and I’ll give you the details on the delivery.”

“Fine,” Mal said tightly, and he nodded at Badger before he turned toward the door. The captain didn’t look at Zoë, but Jayne gave her a short stare.

“You’re in big trouble,” he whispered gleefully before he followed Mal out.

* * *

Zoë hoped that Mal would let it be, but of course he didn’t. He wasted no time either – he sent Jayne off just as soon as they cleared Badger’s building.

“Get on back to the ship,” he told the merc. “Me and Zoë need to have a few words.”

“Glad it ain’t me,” Jayne muttered, then he went ahead, moving fast like he was eager to get clear of the storm.

Mal watched `till he was out of earshot, then turned back to Zoë. “You got a problem with how I’m handlin’ things?”

Zoë tried to play innocent. “Not sure what you mean, Captain.”

“I mean that I was tryin’ to work the pay out and you came jumping in like you think I’m gonna say the wrong thing. You did it when we first got this job, and just now… ” He stopped, muscles in his jaw tensing.

“I wasn’t trying to – ” she started, but Mal turned and walked away. She was glad of it; there was no easy way to explain this. She followed, hoping he was done, but when she caught up he had another question ready. He didn’t look at her when he asked it. “What’s goin’ on, Zoë?”

“With Badger? Same as always. He’s a cockroach.”

He glanced at her sideways; he knew she was trying to misdirect him. “With the crew,” he replied. “Everyone’s tip-toeing around me, like they gotta be careful what they say. You all know something I don’t?”

Zoë took a deep breath; apparently, Mal’d been noticing more than she thought. His question brought her to a tricky place – Simon had said not to push any truths on Mal, to let his mind do whatever needed doing. But, if Mal was asking her, it could be that he was ready to face up to reality. Could be that whatever hole he had in his noggin was repairing itself. She decided to try him out, but she’d have to go about it carefully.

“Sir, you recall what Badger was sayin’ when I interrupted just now?”

He answered quickly, impatiently. “He admitted that he’d been saving this job for us. Which could have got us more pay –”

“You recall why it was that he wanted us?”

This time he hesitated, and when he replied, his voice was unsure. “He didn’t say.”

“Yes, he did.”

They walked for a bit, but Mal’s pace gradually slowed, and they began to follow traffic instead of winding through it.

“I don’t recall that,” he said finally. “I don’t… I guess… I ain’t sure.”

He suspects, Zoë thought. Somewhere in there…

“Sir, you recall the things that happened to you on Oeneus? When the Alliance had you?”

“Not like to forget that anytime soon,” he replied, seeming unfazed by the change of subject.

“Well, captain, I think all that – and some stuff that’s happened since – has done somethin’ to you.”

Mal came to stop. He looked around at the people passing them by, like he wanted to make sure that they were the usual dock riff-raff and not anyone who’d listen in, then his eyes settled on Zoë.

“You wanna explain that?”

“It’s messed with you. With your memory.”

The crowd on the docks streamed around them as she held his eye, waiting for him to disagree, to tell her she was full of crap, but all she saw in his face was confusion.

“How do you figure that?” he asked softly.

“There’s a few things that you don’t seem to be recallin’, and when anyone tries to talk to you about it… it don’t go so good for you.”

“Like what?”

Better start small, Zoë thought. “Back on Niflheim, when we were hijacked, you were alone on the bridge with that Will guy. I think he messed with your head, Captain. I think it set off whatever they done to you on Oeneus.”

Mal was looking at her doubtfully. “Hijacked?” he asked, like he had no idea what she meant.

Zoë felt a chill, or maybe it was a little shift in the balance of things, like the ground had moved beneath her and up wasn’t up like it used to be.

“Yeah, on Niflheim.”

Mal fidgeted; he looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Zoë, I ain’t ever been to Niflheim.” He said it like a statement, but his eyes were questioning.

Cào wǒ bā bèi zi zŭzōng “Yes, you have,” she said, and watched the realization dawn on his face. She put a hand on his arm, turning him back in the way they’d been heading, and took up a slow walk. It did no good to stare him down; best to let him think it out on his own time. She needed to do a little thinking herself.

But he was quiet for a while, a long while, and she saw Serenity’s nose as they approached the ship’s berth. Zoë slowed down even more – they needed to talk this through before Mal got back on board.

“Sir?” she prompted.

“My ship was hijacked?” Mal finally asked.

“It was,” Zoë answered. “I wasn’t there at the time. I was off with Wash, Kaylee, and Jayne, shoppin’ for parts for the gravity drive. This at all familiar?”

He shook his head. “How’d it go down?”

“You had four of `em that came aboard. Well, there was five, but you shot one dead right off, and injured – ”

Mal pulled up short. “Hang on – you’re tellin’ me I shot a man, and I don’t even recall?”

“Apparently.”

“When?”

“`Bout two weeks ago.”

Mal shook his head again and smiled a little, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “I got nothin’, Zoë. Not a thing. And – I just can’t believe this. If you were tellin’ me that I missing something out of the war, then maybe, but –”

“Sir, it happened.”

“Two weeks ago?”

“That’s right.”

Mal’s look told her his opinion of that. Zoë held a hand up to silence him while she thought. She needed to come up with something, anything like hard proof. Her only corroborators (besides the rest of the crew, which she preferred not to bring into this if she could avoid it) were the Feds who’d let Serenity go after it all was done. But no way did Zoë want to tread that ground. No matter that Mal was supposedly in the Alliance’s good graces…

That thought gave her an idea.

“Captain – you recall getting this mall job from Badger a while back? You recall him asking if we were clear?”

“I do,” he replied, looking at her sharply as he tried to read her meaning.

“You told him that we actually had the Alliance owin’ us. You remember that?”

Mal scoffed. “Of course.”

“Why?”

“Why? That was because… um… because we…”

Zoë felt a second’s regret as she watched Mal cast about, regret that she’d had to push him to this point. He looked away from her, and his face began to go pale as he realized that he had no answer.

“You don’t remember, do you?” she asked.

He didn’t reply, just stepped back to the corrugated steel wall of the dockyard and leaned against it.

“It’s due to the folks that took over the ship,” she told him. “They were out to get in the way of some Alliance business, and when we stopped them the Feds were grateful.” She left out the part about Inara cutting the deal – no need to push that yet.

“I was so sure of it when I said that to Badger,” Mal said faintly. “I knew why then, but now…” He looked up, and there was a hint of a plea in his eyes. “I can’t remember stuff two weeks old?”

“And some things that go further back. And… and now I’m thinkin’ it’s getting worse.”

Mal stood up, raising his voice. “Well – what the hell am I supposed to do? Does the doc know?”

“He does. He’s doin’ all he can to work it out.”

“That’s why he’s been lockin’ himself in the infirmary all the time?”

Zoë nodded.

“But – how do I know that? If I don’t remember where I was two weeks ago, then how do I know what Simon’s been up to? ”

“We don’t know how it works –”

His voice rose in frustration. “Then what the hell good is havin’ a doctor?”

Zoë hung her head; that wasn’t a fair thing to say about Simon, but she wasn’t going to fight over it. Besides, Mal suddenly pushed away from the wall and kept walking, and Zoë had to hurry to follow a step behind. They reached the ship; the outer doors were open, but only the small door was ajar in the inner wall of the airlock. Mal stopped in the shaded space and turned back to her.

“One question before I go in there,” he said. “Am I a danger? To the crew?”

“`Course not. You’re yourself – you pulled off that last job just fine. You just… you got a few gaps is all.”

“Does everyone know?”

She had to look away from the expression on his face, it was too much like anguish. “There’re things we can’t talk about around you, sir. I had to make sure they all knew about it, just to be safe.”

“Safe?”

“Safe to you, not us. You got sick one time we talked about something you’d forgot.”

Mal gave her a hard questioning look, but Zoë didn’t give in; he wouldn’t be getting anything out of her that she didn’t want to say, and she wasn’t going to push the Inara issue right now. She folded her arms and stared back until he swore under his breath and made to step around her and off the ship. Zoë moved to block him, putting a hand on his shoulder to hold him up.

“I’m done talking,” he said shortly.

“Where you off to?”

“To get a drink.” He brushed off her hand, but she moved again to stay in his way.

“No, you ain’t.”

His eyes snapped to her face, and she felt the air between them crackle. She’d just stepped past her bounds, and they both knew it.

“Pardon me?” Mal said, the edge in his voice telling her to reconsider.

Zoë held her ground. “I ain’t lettin’ you go off on your own how you are, sir. You’d do the same for any of your crew.”

“I ain’t part of the crew. I’m the gorramn captain, and I am going out for a drink.”

“Don’t matter if you’re the head of Parliament. I ain’t gonna let you get yourself in trouble.”

Mal glared for a second, then he relaxed – not all the way, just on the outside – and he tried on a grin. “What? You think I’ll forget my way back?”

Zoë would have none of his attempted charm, not now. “Could be. You do have a way of gettin’ lost, even when your mind is workin’ like it should.”

Mal’s grin disappeared, and for a second she thought he was going to take this little confrontation up a notch, but then he sighed and stepped back, looking defeated. If she’d been anyone else, she knew, he’d have just flattened her and gone where he pleased. But she’d earned the right to stand in his way; she’d earned the right to beat him without throwing a punch.

He put a hand against the inner door to balance himself, looking deflated. “So I’m losin’ my mind too?” he asked softly. “All the rest of it ain’t enough?”

Zoë felt herself slump as well. After all they’d seen together, all that’d been taken away from them both, she never imagined it’d come to something like this. Not that he’d ever said as much, but sure as hell it’d been Mal’s goal, after the war, to escape this kind of helplessness.

But now wasn’t the time for pity. Talking nice to Mal did him no service; he needed a hard dose of the truth while he was open to it. Zoe folded her arms and steeled herself against the sight of his bowed head.

“Looks like you might be, sir,” she said bluntly. “That’s how it is, and it’s best that you know. You need to let me take care of some things for you, just until Simon figures this out and sets you to rights.”

Mal looked away from her with an impatient huff, showing his opinion of that.

“Now,” Zoë continued, “I’ll send someone to get you anything you want, but I won’t let you go out there on your own. Don’t fight me on this, captain. It’s your own well-being I’m lookin’ after. You’ve got to trust me.”

Mal gave her an appraising look. “You know I trust you, Zoë,” he said. “It’s just… ” He turned away, rubbing his eyes. “This is a helluva lot to handle.”

“Whiskey?” she suggested.

He nodded and muttered, “Lots of it,” before he turned to walk through the doorway, but then he paused once more.

“And you set about gettin’ us stocked up. Crazy or not, I’m taking that job, and that means a trip to the Core. You’ll need to set it up. I’m like to – ” He stopped, then laughed once, short and dry. “I guess I’m like to forget somethin’.”

Zoë stayed where she was until his footsteps disappeared into the distance, then she entered the ship quietly. She needed to find Wash. No one else on board would go buy booze for the captain, not without asking questions she couldn’t handle right now, and she wasn’t about to leave the ship. The only one who’d be playing guard to Mal was her.

* * *

She waited outside Mal’s bunk until Wash returned. He handed over his purchase and otherwise let her be, for which she was grateful.

She went down the ladder cautiously, the bottle in her hand but her senses prepped for the unexpected. Her worry wasn’t needed; Mal was waiting quietly, sitting on his bed with two small glasses set out beside him.

“Welcome to the asylum,” he said without humor. “You just made medication time.”

“I’ll be gettin’ Kaylee down here to put paddin’ on the walls tomorrow,” Zoë replied.

Mal gave her an uncertain look, then shook his head. “That ain’t funny. You could be serious for all I know.”

She lifted the corner of her mouth in a small grin. “Maybe I am. Think of the fun you could have –”

“Just give me the gorramn bottle,” he snapped impatiently, holding a hand out.

Zoë passed it over and pulled the chair up next to the bed. By the time she’d settled down, Mal was holding a half full glass out to her. She took it and waited till he poured his own, then they tapped the glasses together and drained them. She immediately held hers out for a refill.

“You sure you wanna get drunk with a wacko?” he asked.

“You ain’t wacko, sir,” she replied, then waited while he poured. “You ain’t a bit wacko. You just had some stuff happen to you. Ain’t your fault.”

“Does it matter?” he asked. “Either I was born with it or I picked it up somewhere along the line. But here it is.” He paused to take a healthy sip, then looked down at the glass. “This ain’t bad,” he said. “I take it Jayne didn’t do the shopping?”

“Nope. I told my man to get something good.”

“To celebrate the occasion?”

Zoë shrugged.

Mal sipped again, then looked down into his glass. “I know, Zoë,” he said softly.

She wasn’t sure what he meant, but saw that an explanation was coming. He swirled the amber liquid and spoke slowly, hesitantly, as if the words were hard to string together.

“I knew before you said anything. Sort of. I’ve been havin’ dreams. Really… intense. This morning, I woke up thinkin’… thinkin’ I was broken.” He looked into the distance, his eyes unfocused as he tried to remember. “There was pain, whatever I dreamin’ about, there was pain. More than I could take, and I knew something wasn’t right with me.

“Other times, when I’m awake, there’s stuff I can’t rightly… I try to think on, but I… ” He shrugged, unable to explain, and he focused on Zoë again. “I just know what you say is true. `Cause when I try… when I try to dig into some ideas, I get all tired and… I can’t get there.” He raised a hand to his forehead, as if he wanted to point out the places in his own head that weren’t his to see.

“Maybe you ought’a not try,” Zoë said. “Doc says this must be happening for a reason, and you’re best to let it run its course. For now.”

Mal held her look for a bit, then he tossed back the rest of his drink. “Ain’t like I got a choice.”

Zoë waited until he refilled both of their glasses again. “Sir – ” she started

“Ain’t no need to be callin’ me ‘sir’ now.”

“Sir,” she said more firmly. “There was a time I wasn’t so sure about you, and it took a while for me to learn. But I’m tellin’ you – you can be sure of me. I’m gonna figure this out. I ain’t gonna let you down.”

Mal didn’t respond. He had his eyes on the whiskey bottle, blindly studying the label.

“It might be that you can’t trust your own mind,” Zoë continued, “so trust mine. I won’t lead you astray. If you hold on to anything, you hold on to that.”

Mal set down the bottle and was still for a while. They both sat and sipped until their glasses were empty and it was time to refill. Mal wasn’t so steady pouring this time, and Zoë wasn’t so steady with holding her glass out, but wasn’t that the point?

“You remember,” he asked, “you remember when you caught me drinking with the gang that one time? My first week?”

Zoë had to laugh. “Shit, sir. You were so green. You were like to get yourself blown to bits going into battle stone sober. Now, hungover, you’d a’ had a snowball’s chance – ”

Mal interrupted. “Battle was a whole gorramn week away. You had no call to be breakin’ up a good party.”

“Maybe you hurt my feelings, sayin’ the things you did.”

“Yeah, and maybe you hurt my face. Broke my tooth, to be factual.” Mal curled his lip up and stuck a finger in his mouth, trying to find the old wound. “I had a ragged tooth to deal with. Just on the eve of battle, too.”

“As I hear it, battle was a whole gorramn week away.”

Whatever smartass reply Mal had ready was swallowed up by a belly laugh, the kind she hadn’t heard out of the captain in a long time. And maybe the joke wasn’t funny enough for that, but no way was she gonna get in the way of Mal blowing off steam.

They talked about the war for a while. Talked about after the war a little, but not much. That wasn’t funny no matter how trashed you were. Then they talked about Serenity, about the first time Zoë saw her, and the years after when they collected the crew – except Inara, of course. Zoë didn’t have it in her to try the captain’s memory about that. After a while, the talk started getting caught up to the present, and neither of them wanted to go there.

Mal picked up the bottle for another refill, but got stuck staring at it, like he was wondering how a full bottle got to having only two fingers of juice in the bottom of it. Zoë looked at it too, her mind slowly coming around to what that near empty bottle meant.

It meant that fun time was about over. Sleep was coming on quick, with reality and pain to follow after, when the morning came and life rolled on.

“Get yourself ready f’bed,” she mumbled.

Mal lowered the bottle. “M’ready,” he replied.

“No, you ain’t. And don’t be thinkin’ I’ll do the mom thing and take your boots off once you pass out. I ain’t your gorramn momma.”

Pì huà, Zoë. I know that. Known it since the day we met.” His eyes were barely open slits as he let out a drunken chortle. “Even my momma was never as much a bitch as you."

Zoë wasn’t about to deny it. “Still am, and don’t you forget. Take your damn boots off and put on your PJs. I ain’t lookin’.”

Mal didn’t move from where he was sprawled on the bed. “You’re too shit-faced to see anythin’ anyhow,” he slurred.

Zoë would have thrown something at him, but she was too comfortably settled in the chair to make the effort. And, really, he was right. She hadn’t been this lit in a long while. She let herself spin for a time, hoping she hadn’t drank herself to the point of getting sick. Puking wasn’t a choice way to end the day.

After a while, she heard Mal moving around and swearing, like whatever he was doing was a lot harder than it should have been. But then he got quiet, and Zoë started thinking it was time to head to her own bed. When she finally decided that her stomach and its contents were like to stay where they ought to be, she roused herself and sat up.

Mal was stretched out on his bed, one boot off, the rest of his clothes rumpled but very much in place. As she worked herself up to her feet, he started snoring.

Zoë’d had a lot of experience being drunk, but not so much with taking a man’s boot off. (Situation like this with Wash, it wasn’t his boots she was interested in removing.) So it took some time and she nearly fell over twice, but she got that damn second boot off his foot. She gave up on the rest and threw a blanket over him – he could sleep in his clothes. After moving the near empty bottle and the two used glasses over to his desk where they wouldn’t get stepped on, she stumbled to the ladder and dragged herself up it.

Wash was waiting for her in their bunk. He welcomed her with open arms, and didn’t say a thing about the way her feet tangled over each other as she slid off the ladder, or how she fell heavily into bed with her breath stinking of whiskey.

She lay back and distantly felt her husband pulling her boots off with considerably more skill than she’d used with Mal. Next she knew, Wash was laying next to her, and somehow she’d gotten all naked, and the arms around her provided a solid anchor in a `verse that was spinning out of her control.

* * *

Translations

cào wǒ bā bèi zi zŭzōng:   Fuck eight generations of my ancestors
pì huà:   shit; nonsense

* * *

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COMMENTS

Thursday, May 3, 2007 5:03 AM

MAL4PREZ


Thanks again for the shiny feedback on Chapter 1! squeeeeeee!

Sorry for forgetting you in the credits Leighkohl! I fixed it now. :)

Eloisa - you're so right, much resolution needed after ET. Of course, first I need to complicate things a whole lot more LOL!

Katesfriend - nope, no hints! I'm too evil for that! But the general direction should be clear after another chapter or two...

Hmmmm, product placement. I should be getting those royalty checks any day now... waiting... ok, maybe a free cinnabon? :)

Thursday, May 3, 2007 6:32 AM

SAFEAT2ND


Absolutely LOVE the opening!!!!

The rest is great too, but the opening.... wow.

Well done!

Thursday, May 3, 2007 6:52 AM

SWEDISHMYSTERY


You're back!!! I've read The Fish Job and Easy Tickets and absolutely love them. First chapter of this and I'm totally hooked :)

Thursday, May 3, 2007 7:17 AM

HECKLER


That was great, just like the rest of your stories. I love Mal and Zoe interaction. Can't wait for the next chapter.

Thursday, May 3, 2007 9:05 AM

LEIASKY


The description of the opening was so vivid and clear that I could imagine it being filmed just that way. Brilliant! And asking who taught Zoe how to drive was so perfect for the end of that scene.

The Mal/Zoe interaction was very well done but my favorite was the end when Zoe got into bed and she dimly noted Wash's presense and how much it calmed her.

You're so good with the little things!

Looking forward to the next chapter!

Thursday, May 3, 2007 4:32 PM

KATESFRIEND


Your work is well worth waiting for and this story is a gem. I love how you worked in Mal's awareness of the Problem and the tiny glimpses you're evilly teasing us with of the bigger picture to come. But that's okay - I'm patient (not really) and the anticipation you're building will make it all the sweeter.

Thursday, May 3, 2007 4:49 PM

HEWHOKICKSALOT


Beautiful chapter. I promise I'll get to reading your other stories as soon as I can. I'm very impressed by your writing.

Rob O.

Thursday, May 3, 2007 5:47 PM

DESERTGIRL


I can't wait to find out what is doing this to Mal, was it the electricity, is it just a broken heart. But hmm, memory lapses only concern Inara, who ran off with the Alliance, did she give him something. Sulks off to contemplate evil plots...........

Thursday, May 3, 2007 5:48 PM

TAMSIBLING


Terrific writing on this chapter. Zoe is so hard to get, but I think you've nailed her tone and thought processes. And it's a great insight that she is more than aware how out of control her life is at the moment. Something tells me Mal losing his mind will have far-reaching effects on Zoe's own consciousness ... and ones she may not even be prepared for!

Sunday, May 6, 2007 7:05 AM

PLATONIST


Sorry for the late comment...getting caught up

Your Mal and Zoe interaction is one of the best ones I've read in a long time.

This is how I see them (Captain and his unwavering loyal First)...we don't know what singular event or process that lead them to form such an attachment...but I like how you didn't cross that shady line, other writers walk, and make it about unresolved sexual attraction.

You did a great job showing how burdened Zoe is with keeping Serenity flying and helping Mal from completely losing touch with reality. And how Wash is her anchor.

Sunday, May 6, 2007 8:19 PM

NOSADSEVEN


I really enjoyed this chapter. It was nice that you revisited those infamous ten minutes (though I suppose nice is an odd word to use regarding such events...). If I recall correctly, you went straight to SCIENCE last time around! (For the record, though, I thought it was masterfully handled in EZTix.)

As always, I find we have very similar understandings of how these characters think and feel and behave, which makes it quite enjoyable to read.

I loved Jayne's perspective of not envying Zoe's imminent 'confrontation' with Mal - as though it were going to be with the business end of a wrench as he's more personally accustomed.

I love your Zoe - her strength, her compassion, her wisdom... and, of course, her connection with Mal. But also her struggle, her despair, and her respite with Wash. I love how she challenges Mal and protects him all at once.

I also loved how Mal's not completely helpless or clueless in all of this, and I like where you've left it with Zoe keeping his confidence, save for Wash.

But you missed a promising opportunity. With just a little more description you could be picking up some royalties from the distillery too! Eh, maybe next time...

Monday, May 7, 2007 6:28 AM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oh...the level of sheer brilliance found here is completely astounding, mal4prez! Start to finish, this was something I could imagine Joss and his merry band of scribes slogging over as part of their Big Plan for BDS;D

The opening flashback to Mal being tortured by Will in "Easy Tickets" was both all kinds of enlightening and creepy. Especially when you have Will discuss his background as an Alliance SpecOps commando will all kinds of...interesting...skills. Cuz I get the feeling that the voltage in the exposed power cable? Just the right amount to fry Mal's brain the right way, unlike the massive amount of juice Niska used on him in "War Stories."

And I will be damned to Book's Special Hell if I wasn't busting a gut at the hilarious antics you have Zoe, Mal and Jayne getting up to in their getaway from the mall! Between Zoe's chastisement of River's attempt to get a date with the electronics store clerk to Mal's response to Zoe's driving habits...I struggling to breathe since I was laughing so hard:D

However, I REALLY have to give you props for how you handled the Mal-Zoe conversation about Mal's current affliction. All the voices were spot on and I could totally see Mal being cognisant of how the crew has been tiptoeing around him because of the memory loss. Also have to praise your decision to have Zoe be honest with Mal about everything but the direct source of his amnesia; Mal deserves to know that he's not 100%, though I am glad you had Zoe tell him that even if he can't trust himself...he should trust her.

BEB

Thursday, May 17, 2007 2:35 PM

AMDOBELL


Brilliant, I just love the way Zoe watches out for her Captain and friend, that is real friendship. Made me smile when they were getting smashed together in his bunk and I loved dear Wash getting Zoe undressed and snug in their bunk afterwards. I surely do hope Simon can find a way to help Mal though. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me


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Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.


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Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

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