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Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Saturday, August 21, 2010

Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2427    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Back Stories Book 3 Chapter 16.

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

Links: The Fish Job, Easy Tickets, BS Book I, BS Book II, BS Book III, Chapter 1. Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

Many thanks to desertgirl for the beta read.

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Simon slid the door shut on his sister, leaving her asleep in the quiet, peaceful shadows of her dorm room. He didn’t go far; after two steps he stopped to stare into the brightly lit bunk across the hall. Inside, a woman was tightly bound to a narrow chair. Though Simon didn’t trust Ginger, and though he feared what she might do if she knew who he and his sister were, he felt no particular resentment toward her. He felt no need to take vengeance, or to treat her with contempt.

Unlike Jayne. The mercenary’s bile towards the captured Alliance agent had been clear from the moment the man woke up on the ferry. Jayne was carrying a chip big enough to make Simon worry, given the merc’s tendency to act out his resentments through brute force. Simon stepped into the room to find that his fears had not been unfounded; as he’d suspected, Ginger’s hands were already a dark purple-red, circulation nearly cut off by the tight knots Jayne had tied in the cords.

“I can loosen these,” Simon offered cautiously, “but only if you don’t try anything.”

Ginger hadn’t acknowledged his presence with so much as a look, and her face remained as blank as a poker player’s. Her eyes focused on a point behind the wall in front of her, but she took the trouble to reply. “You got nothing to worry on,” she said mildly. “There’s nowhere I wanna go.”

Simon wasn’t convinced. “I’m not the only one watching this room. You wouldn’t get far.”

Her tone continued to be bland, as if she didn’t care either way. “Imagine not.”

He stood still for another moment, then sighed, crouched behind the chair, and began tugging at the knots. “We had a government agent in this room before,” he found himself muttering as he worked. “He nearly killed Kaylee, though she’d done nothing wrong. Then he went after...” He didn’t let himself finish; he shouldn’t have said so much.

“Man must have had a mission,” Ginger mused.

“Just like you.”

“Not anymore.”

The knots finally gave way. “Because Will is dead?”

She didn’t reply. Simon pulled the sleeves of her dark jacket down to cover the raw skin of her wrists, then retied the knots in a more humane way.

He stopped at the door and looked back, trying to read Ginger’s vacant profile. Simon knew what it was to be a stranger in a hostile place, to have to wear a mask in the hope of hiding fear and doubt. Despite her coldness and her less than stellar history with Serenity’s crew, Simon realized that he felt pity, even sympathy for the woman.

“I’m not sure what it is you’re after,” he said softly, “but I know what you must think of us. You’re wrong. We’re not criminals… we don’t intend to be, anyway. We’re not bad. We mean no one harm.”

She didn’t respond, but he thought he saw a tightening around her eyes, a down-turn in the corners of her mouth.

“Believe me or not,” he said, “that’s your choice. Either way, I’ll see to it that you’re not harmed while you’re here, and you’ll get off this ship somewhere that you can get back home, wherever home is.”

She still made no reply, so he turned away.

Simon found Shepherd Book sitting outside the infirmary, keeping watch on the dorms. “How’s our guest?” the preacher asked.

“Settled in,” Simon replied. “She doesn’t have much to say. She puts up a good act, but I don’t quite believe it. She must be frightened to be here, alone, captured by the people who killed her partner.”

* * *

“So he’s dead?” Zoë asked Inara. She glanced at Wash, then leaned forward with her elbows on the dining room table. “Really and completely?”

Inara and Jayne both nodded in reply, though only Inara spoke. “And Mal did it. I mean Mal, not Malcolm. For a second, for just a second it was as if he was there. I saw it in his eyes.” Inara found herself staring into the shadows of the aft hallway, trying to make out movement. She appreciated that she’d moved up in the ship’s pecking order, and now seemed welcome in Zoë’s discussion of the ship’s plans, but her mind was focused on the engine room at the end of the hall, where Kaylee and Malcolm had disappeared.

Zoë was cautious about the news of Malcolm’s progress. “That Takara cap Simon’s had him wearing might have done something good, but it didn’t take for long. He seems the same as he was before you all got on the ferry.”

“I dunno `bout that,” Jayne called out from the galley. “There’s somethin’. He ain’t quite the pretty pansy he’s been.”

Inara pulled her attention back into the dining room; Kaylee could be trusted to take care of Malcolm—or Mal. Whoever the man was today. “But I’m not sure that the change is good,” she told Zoë. “He‘s not reacting well to the shooting. Malcolm, the young man Mal thinks he is, doesn’t believe in killing.”

Zoë nodded. “I recall the first time he shot somebody, back in the war.”

“At least then he had a cause.”

“He had plenty of cause this time,” Wash said. “After all Will’s done.”

“But Malcolm doesn’t know what Will did,” Inara said with a sigh. “That’s the problem.”

* * *

“You all right?” Kaylee asked Malcolm. She’d slung her hammock in the engine room during the trip from New Melbourne, and she sat in it now, her feet braced against the floor so she could rock herself slowly back and forth. Malcolm stood on the far side of the whirling engine with his back to her, poking idly at any convenient protuberance sticking out of the bulkhead.

“Don’t I seem all right?” he asked.

She shrugged. That wasn’t a question she could answer, given that the captain hadn’t seemed all right to her in weeks. But there were many shades of “not right”, and the one that colored him now was new to her. New, and hard to figure. The young Malcolm Reynolds had become just as hard a nut to crack as the older one used to be. She was going to have to go at this sideways to get him to talk.

“So, how was the ferry ride?” she asked innocently.

“Interesting.”

“Eventful?”

“Not for most of it.”

“But then…?”

“Got crazy.”

“Crazy?”

He nodded, then shrugged and went back to poking at engine’s workings, thankfully the currently idle ones.

Kaylee huffed out a quick breath. Apparently, she’d have to set an example. “Well, let me tell you about my past two days on Serenity.” She raised her eyes to the ceiling as she began to piece the events together. “Spent time in the galley, then got to Oeneus orbit. Hung out with Alliance types for a spell, and we lost our precious goods. Got to Oeneus planetside and drank fancy cocktails with ‘freedom fighters’ for another spell.” She pulled her eyebrows together, dropped her eyes, and frowned. “Then they were shootin’ at us and we were runnin’. But we got away and came to pick you up.”

Malcolm turned to give her a nod of appreciation. “Not bad,” he said of her summary. “My curiosity is fully piqued. Details?”

She smiled and shook her head. “Nope. First, it’s your turn.”

He sat down and looked thoughtful for a long moment. His preparation was longer than his reply. “Launched in the ferry and saw a world. Saw the Black. Played games. Ate junk food. Got hit on. Got kidnapped and threatened. Got fed up and killed the bastard who annoyed me. Snuck out an airlock and got back here.”

Kaylee considered his summary for a moment. “I think you win, cause I’m dying to know more. You gotta go back over a few of those again.”

She was encouraged that he didn’t flat out refuse.

* * *

Simon settled on one of the chairs in the common room so he and Book could catch each other up on their separate journeys to Oeneus. Though so much had happened, Simon found himself focusing on the captain’s condition.

“Mal’s in a delicate position right now,” Simon explained. “He’s healing, and I think he’s beginning to recall small things. If we could just protect him, keep him in a safe environment for a few days, his memory might stabilize.”

“He’d be back to his old self?” Book asked.

“I can’t say that he’ll be completely unaffected by what’s happened. I can tell you this much: what happens over the next few days is vital. Regaining all his memories could be incredibly traumatic. We have to minimize the stress as much as possible.”

“Then it’s a shame we can’t be going somewhere safe.”

Simon gave Book a questioning look; the Shepherd’s face was grim as he explained, “We have to go back to Oeneus.”

* * *

“Why?” Inara demanded. “Why in the world would you risk going back?”

Zoë didn’t like the accusation in Inara’s question. “We have no choice,” she replied with a little bristle, but Wash, with a patient tone, took over the explaining.

“We’re out of fuel,” he said. “We filled up on New Melbourne, but I burned through all of it getting here on Kamath’s schedule. We’re barely drifting now, and we’ll be on fumes going down through atmo.”

“Can’t we buy fuel in orbit?” Inara asked.

“Too risky,” Zoë said with a shake of her head. “Orbital platforms ask for ID, got Alliance all about. Wash found some kind of rough resort town on the far side from the main city and the Alliance base. That ought to do well enough.”

Wash nodded with optimistic eagerness. “As far as I could learn from the locals, Kamath’s battle with the Alliance’s hired guns—the Tan He—hasn’t reached the boonies yet. We should be able to set down and fuel up quick, then get out. Might be that no one ever knows we were there.”

“Speaking of Kamath…” Jayne prompted. He set down at the table with a mug in his hand, forging his heavy-handed way into the conversation. “What the hell happened `tween you and his people?” He raised a speculative eye to Wash, then, with a mix of hesitance and blame, turned to Zoë.

Wash sighed and tipped his head toward his wife. “Go ahead,” he said. “You tell it.”

Zoë nodded; it’d go faster that way, and they didn’t have much time before landing. “We got to the world with some idea of what we were carrying,” she said, “and a plan as to how to stop it from doing what it was meant for. We also got here on schedule, just barely, thanks to my man at the helm.” She gave him an appreciative nod. “But we didn’t make the meeting in time.”

“You see,” Wash interjected with an aren’t-we-clever sparkle in his eyes, “we were a bit held up in customs.”

“I thought I was telling it?” Zoë said, not unkindly. Wash held out a hand to her, palm up, acquiescing the honors, and she went on. “Customs called us in to their orbital platform and kept us there for some time. So, through no fault of our own, we were a few hours late at the drop-off rendezvous.”

“So Kamath’s people were angry?” Inara asked.

“Not as angry as I was,” Zoë replied, and she grinned. She couldn’t deny herself a moment of pleasant recollection.

* * *

Zoë barely takes in her surroundings as she strides out the shuttle’s open hatch: she’s left the ship hidden in the countryside and landed the shuttle in a well manicured residential area just north of the main city. She notes a large house of gray brick and smoked glass, a wide green lawn, and flowerbeds before she focuses on the people gathered to give the shuttle an unfriendly welcome. She makes a direct line to the nearest gun-wielding goon and shoves him in the shoulder. Hard.

“What the hell are you people up to?” She glares at him and each of his cohorts before settling on the one with the tidiest outfit as the most likely leader of the gang. “Kamath forces me to carry your goods, tells me I’ll have no problem getting it on-world, then he gives me away to customs? What kind of game are you playing?”

The dapper fellow is indeed in charge. He isn’t visibly armed, but appears quite sure of himself. He motions to one of his men to check the shuttle, then eyes Zoë with suspicion and more than a little confusion. “Pardon me?”

“You won’t find a thing in there!” Zoë calls to the grunt, then she turns back to the leader. “Those customs agents knew exactly what to go for. Rice flour won’t be a problem, huh? Well, they took it. Held up me and mine for hours, asking what the stuff is. Made some unkind threats about our potential loss of personal freedom and worldly goods. Only let us go because they didn’t find anything in those bags but flour. Was there actually anything in there, or was this damned job you forced on me all a setup?”

The guard steps off the shuttle and shakes his head at the leader, who tenses and makes an attempt to snatch up the reins of the confrontation. “Where’s your ship?” he demands. “Where is our cargo?”

Zoë doesn’t give any ground. “Are them bags really what you’re after? I have my doubts.” Ignoring the guns aimed her way, she walks right up to the man and pokes him in the chest. “You want my ship, don’t you? That ‘cargo’ was just the excuse to get it here, right? Well, I think not. She’s tucked away where you won’t be seeing her until I get a damned good explanation.”

The man’s face wrinkles up in disgust. “I don’t give a tinker’s damn about your pathetic freighter. We need that cargo. We need it right now!”

Zoë folds her arms. “If that’s the case, you’d best go talk to customs.”

* * *

“Of course, he eventually convinced me to call the ship over,” Zoë told Inara and Jayne. “You know, since his men were armed and I was on my own and all helpless and all.” She grinned sidelong. “They thought themselves very scary and I let them go ahead and believe it. But I held out long enough for Wash, Book, and Kaylee to finish up their work with the cargo.”

“What work?” Inara asked. “Wasn’t the cargo taken in customs?”

* * *

“I’ll explain that in good time,” the smiling Shepherd told an impatient Simon.

* * *

“Have we told you where this delivery was being made?” Wash asked Inara. “No, of course we haven’t. It was a very shiny little estate. And when I say shiny, I mean it actually shone. Had its own pool and gardens with glowing white statuary. Likely an indoor bocce lawn too, I’m guessing. I tell you, if I ever join an underground militia of rebels, I want it to be this one.”

“As far as hiding from authorities, a pretty house ain’t a bad idea if you can afford it,” Zoë explained, now too caught up in the telling to hurry past all the details. “Tight security in a place like that passes as the paranoia of the obscenely wealthy. Anyhow, after a bit I let them think they’d bullied me properly, and I waved the ship. Wash set Serenity down on their nice landing pad and those folks went aboard. They combed through it, top to toe-hairs.”

“Whoever they are, they know a Firefly,” Wash said. “They searched every nook, found every hidey-hole that the customs agents missed.” He grinned. “Didn’t find a thing.”

Zoë tipped her head and shared a look of amusement with Wash. “Well, they found a few items that on a different day might have led to some interesting discussions. Including some tidbits in your cabin, Jayne.”

The mercenary looked up, his face innocent outrage. “What d’ya mean? They took my stuff?”

Zoë shook her head. “Only mocked it a bit. Lucky for you, they were after one thing only: their cargo. And they didn’t find it.”

* * *

Wash, Kaylee and Book follow the inspectors through the ship; the crew is wanted on hand to unlock cabinets and pry open rusty hinges, including the hatches to the water and sewage tanks. It isn’t a fun search, and it takes a shockingly long time.

Eventually, with more than a little obvious frustration, the searchers give up. Night is falling when they lead the three crew members across the lawn and into the large house where Zoë is waiting for them in a spacious sitting room. Wash catches Zoë’s eye immediately and smiles just enough to let her know that their plan is working. He sits and starts to explain, but a well dressed middle aged man promptly enters the room.

The man, the same who’d greeted Zoë’s arrival, sits down at the long, dark wooden table across from them and folds his hands.

“Refreshments?” he asks.

The four of them exchange looks, then Zoë answers. “We might have a bite, depending on what’s offered.”

“More than a bite, I hope.” The man waves a hand at the hovering guards. One leaves the room, another slings his gun over his shoulder and goes to a small but well-stocked bar.

“I find myself in an awkward situation,” the man says, mainly addressing Zoë, though he allows his gaze to wander over Wash, Kaylee, and Book as well. “I need that cargo. Badly. It’s already overdue and our window of opportunity is passing. It isn’t on your ship, and you did indeed spend a great deal of time in orbital customs. The records we’re able to access indicate that something was taken from your hold.” He looked up as the guard-turned-bartender returns with a tray holding a pitcher of clear liquid and five small V-shaped glasses. “Ah—thank you, Ortiz.”

The man returns to his post and the dapper man continues his explanation as he pours. “I’m not only distressed at losing my cargo. It worries me that you were called in for inspection at all. That shouldn’t have happened. As my colleague Kamath must have explained to you, we have a few connections here. Your ship should have passed with no delays. But I should introduce myself. My name is Stevens. I head operations here in the city.”

“Operations of what?” Zoë asks.

“That’s information you might not want to have.” His voice holds a broad hint of warning, and something almost like a dare. “You’ve been here before. You must be aware of the value of information on this world, and the extreme methods the Tan He will use to get it.” He takes a full glass off the tray and lifts it. “Gān bēi.”

Zoë ignores his toast, as do the other three. “That’s very nice, Stevens, but I prefer to know about the web I’ve found myself tangled in. Ignorance ain’t never been my friend.”

Unperturbed by drinking alone, he sips his beverage, then sets the glass on the table. His lip curls in a small smile. “I expected as much. In one way the fates have been kind to me: you and your crew have skills that I find interesting, and, hopefully, useful. If you are indeed a soldier at heart, Mrs. Washbourn, this encounter may end up benefitting us both.”

Zoë silently holds Stevens’s eye while a guard returns to the room with a tray of small sandwiches and neatly cut vegetables. The “waiter” sets the food in front of Kaylee and Book; the mechanic fidgets but doesn’t reach for it. She raises her eyes and waitg for Zoë’s decision.

As soon as the servant steps back, Zoë takes up a waiting glass. She takes a sip of the clear concoction and rolls the fine alcohol on her tongue before swallowing it down.

“Tell us about your problems, Stevens,” she says evenly. “We’ll see what we can do to help.”

* * *

“Psittacosis,” the Shepherd told Simon.

“Psittacosis? That’s unpleasant.” Simon thought about it. “But difficult to spread. In fact, I’m not sure how it could be effective as a weapon. There are deadlier options, and easier. This would be very difficult to deliver.”

“Not with the proper method. We weren’t carrying the bacteria itself, only the powder it would be combined with before being released.”

“How do you mean?”

“Apparently, the bacteria on its own wouldn’t stay airborne long. What we carried, mixed in the flour, was a sort of molecular delivery system.”

“Ah!” Simon said as understanding dawned. His early education, his chemistry and general biology classes, weren’t so far away as to be forgotten. “Probably a low weight oligomer. It would bond with the bacteria and carry it through the air, keeping it inert until it was ingested. It could stay suspended for days in a still, indoor environment, and a measurable portion of it would pass through air filters. But the process of separating the propellant from the flour we carried, then combining it with the psittacosis, is incredibly sophisticated. And expensive. Very expensive. Who in the `verse paid for this?”

Book shrugged, then sat thoughtfully “It would appear that Kamath has some wealthy backers.”

“Wealthy, and ruthless,” Simon said. “Psittacosis normally has a fatality rate of less than one percent, but that’s with an ordinary infection level. It takes several days, perhaps a week, before symptoms show. Released this way, it would be inhaled for days and the concentration could get incredibly high before anyone knew about it. It could be quite deadly, even in otherwise healthy people.”

Book eyes opened in surprise. “That’s not what Stevens told us. He said no one would die, that the illness would be debilitating for a few days, long enough to disrupt operations, but that’s all.”

“Either he was lying or he was an idiot. Do you know where he planned to release it?”

* * *

Zoë’s face was grim. “The hospital.”

“Hospital?” Inara asked, shocked. “How could they make people sick at a hospital?”

“Well,” Jayne said with a shrug, “there is a certain convenience.”

They all glared at him, but couldn’t disagree.

“Ain’t just any hospital,” Zoë went on. “This is the one built as part of the new Alliance base. It connects right over to the hold for prisoners. It’s the same place where they did their work on Mal.”

“The hospital I went into?’ Jayne asked. “To get him out?”

“Same one.”

Jayne clucked wistfully. “Good cafeteria.”

Zoë ignored him. “These rebels know what the Tan He, under the Alliance’s orders, have been up to out there, and it’s more than what they did to Mal. Oeneus is a good place for certain experiments that need to happen away from the prying eyes of the Core, such as inventive ways to figure out what a person knows. Kamath’s plan with that bacteria of his was to draw eyes out to the Rim, to make the civilized folk in the Core take a long look at this particular Border world.”

Wash spoke up. “Security’s higher in the base, so they planned on releasing the bacteria in the hospital. Ventilation would transfer it over to the military buildings. Air passes through security checkpoints, even if people can’t.”

“It wasn’t a bad plan,” Zoë said, “as far as meeting their goals. They’d have shut down operations on the base, and also would have laid up enough innocents to make headlines in far away worlds that ain’t usually interested.”

Jayne was eyeing Zoë doubtfully. “This Stevens guy really told you all this? Gave away all the details of his plans?”

Zoë nodded. “The man had some worries as to who gave up word of our cargo to customs. Seems that double agents aren’t a new concern for him. He questioned me right and left about everything Kamath had told us, and everything that’d happened in customs. He particularly wanted to know the layout of the orbital platform, the security we’d faced. The crazy bastard was ready to go up in orbit and storm the place to get his goods. And he wanted our help.”

Wash was still in a mood to be pleased with their cleverness. “You should have seen my wife, Inara. She had them going! They were ready to turn over operations to her entirely, sign her up for the gang. And she came up with a plan that would have worked!”

“Nah,” Zoë said. “Thank you kindly, Wash, but the plan was shoddy at best. I talked big, like I believed it, but I was watching the clock. I hoped to win him over enough to let us go fuel up and somehow get you all when the ferry landed, then cut out and hit the Black double-time.”

“We all know that didn’t work,” Jayne said with a scoff. “He found you out, then called the ferry and told the captain to take it out on us. So which of you blew it?”

“Wasn’t any of us,” Wash said defensively. “We almost pulled it off. We finished happy hour and were heading across the lawn to Serenity, talking final details and payment—they were going to pay us—when a wave came through. Stevens took the liberty of intercepting a call that wasn’t meant for him, and he heard details that should have been for our ears only.”

“It was customs,” Zoë said. “They were happy to report that the paperwork on our cargo had cleared, and we could come pick up our goodies.”

Wash dropped his head. “And that got the word out that the ‘goodies’ were not the ones Steven was after.”

“Hunh?” Jayne grunted.

* * *

“Our stop at the orbital customs office had been no accident,” Book told Simon. “We took care to make sure they’d call us in for an inspection before we could enter atmo. You see, an ill-timed joke can quickly draw the attention of custom agents. In my assumed role as captain of the ship, I was talking to the traffic control, arranging our passage to the surface, when Wash spoke up behind me.”

* * *

Wash grinned and yelled out: “Hide the horny-making drugs!”

* * *

“Customs agents don’t have much of a sense of humor,” Book said dryly.

“The Horny. Making. Drugs,” Simon repeated. “They called you in because of that?”

“And they meant to make us pay for taking such a situation lightly.”

* * *

Zoë patted Wash’s arm fondly. “He timed it perfectly. We were held up for some time while the authorities searched the ship.”

“To the best of their abilities,” Wash said, disgust evident in his voice. “Stevens’s crew did a much better job. But the customs officials managed to find something, with our help. You might not be shocked to find that they didn’t like it, and they took it away.”

“Not the flour?” Inara asked, confused.

Zoë shrugged, then grinned. “They didn’t care at all about the flour. What they glommed onto made them mock us more than fear us.” She turned to the mercenary. “I am very sorry about your loss, Jayne. I know you were growing fond of it.”

“You don’t mean…”

She nodded. “Badger’s selesta.”

“But that stuff worked!” Jayne protested.

Zoë arched a brow at him.

“It wasn’t… it wasn’t like I tried it on purpose. Got a sample from one of the buyers is all.” His face lit up with a warm memory. “Wasn’t the only free sample I got that day.”

Zoë shook her head as if clearing it of unwanted imaginings. “Anyhow, I argued about the selesta for some time, and them agents were happy to keep me around until they thought my attitude suitably adjusted, my remorse heartfelt. It made for a believable delay.”

“Of course,” Wash said, “once Stevens figured out that we’d been playing him, he wasn’t happy. Oh, sorry dear.” He bowed his head and let his wife finish.

“It took some fast running and dodging of bullets, but fortunately we were near the ship by the time the truth came out. It also helped that we were at his pretty safe house near the city. They didn’t want a Firefly exploding on that property and calling attention. Likely, that’s a big part of why we got away. Oh, and of course my man at the helm.” She patted Wash’s arm.

“Thank you.” He returned her pat and smiled broadly. “See—my wife appreciates me.”

Zoë leaned back in her seat and folded her hands over her stomach. “Jayne waved from the ferry just as we were lighting out of there. The rest you know.”

“Almost,” Inara said. “You still haven’t explained a few things.”

“What happened to the flour?” Zoë guessed.

“Well, yes. But also…”

* * *

“Who are these people?” Simon asked Book. “This world may be developing quickly, but it is not at all well known. There are no commodities here worth defending. It’s not on any major transportation lines. I’ll bet that most people in the Core have never even heard of Oeneus. So why was so much expense put into this attack? Who is so interested in this new Alliance base, and what exactly are they after?”

Book didn’t take the question lightly; his brow furrowed and he stared down into his folded hands. “Zoë and I chatted about that during the brief time we had coming out to get you from the ferry. It’s not at all clear. But I’ll tell one thing: I had a chance to talk to some of those fighting the fight. While Zoë and Wash did their planning with Stevens, I kept company of my own.”

Simon bent forward, his elbows on his knees. “With who?” he asked.

“No one important. A man holding a gun, apparently one who’d gotten his post because he could shoot as well as mix a decent drink. He was young, this fellow. To my eyes, anyhow. But he had things to say that I listened to.

“He talked of his world, of the things he’d lost since he was young. He talked of the Oeneus he’d seen as a child, of the changes that had come in the decades since. He described the new power moving in, the rules they’d posted. He told me about being helpless to fight a government with dozens of worlds behind it.

“I felt for him, truth be told. I’ve spent much of my life in the Core, and I’ve seen how power can be abused. The larger the organization, the easier it is to lose one’s aim. And the Alliance certainly is big.” Book’s eyes were shadowed. “Things can get blurry, even for those who mean to do nothing but good.”

Simon studied the Shepherd. “You were drawn to this rebel’s cause?” It was an innocent question, not an accusation. With Simon’s history, he couldn’t blame the old man for such a temptation.

But Book only sat back and shook his head. “No. I believe in taking action, but within reason. Attacking a hospital is never right. If we allow the sins of others to excuse our actions… well, that’s a dark road to travel.”

* * *

To Kaylee’s frustration, Malcolm wouldn’t speak of the seduction he’d mentioned in his brief summary of his voyage to Oeneus. However, after some gentle prodding, he did tell of the killing. He seemed almost eager to share the weight of it with her.

“I could draw a picture,” he said softly. He leaned against the end of the engine and blindly focused on the panels over Kaylee’s left shoulder. “I could show you the surprise in that man’s eyes. The shock. Can you imagine dyin’ like that? Not even a minute to think about the life you’re losing. Just a bare split second, staring into the barrel of a gun, to know it’s all over.”

Kaylee didn’t know what to say. Her mouth fell open, but she could think of no comfort to offer him.

“I can’t know,” Malcolm went on, shaking his head. “I can’t ever know who he might of spoken of. I can’t know if he had a family, a wife and children, if there was a mother who might’a wanted one last word of love. I can’t speculate on friends who might be wondering, even now, where he’s got to.”

Kaylee finally found her voice. “You can’t do that,” she said. “You can’t be inventing all that.”

“Inventing?” Malcolm said, and his eyes fixed on her. “What am I making up? Who lives in this `verse without touching someone else? Who can meet their end, all sudden like that, without causing pain?”

“There might be some!” Kaylee said. She surprised herself with the vehemence of her words.

“You know one or two?”

She slumped into the hammock, sinking down between her shoulders. “I might.”

“You’re wrong.”

“No,” she said, her voice now soft. “I can’t explain it, Malcolm, but if you think anything of me I need you to trust me about this. There’s some folks just… some folks are meant to die.” He raised his head and drew in breath, but she went on before he could stop her, her cheeks heating as her words jumbled out in a thick pile. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s how it is. It ain’t fair that God leaves the likes of you and me to make that decision, but like my daddy used to say, life ain’t fair.” The words tasted like bile on her tongue. “There’s some huài wáng bā dàn mean to do nothing but harm, and sometimes they have to die so the rest of us can have peace.”

“No!” he said. “That ain’t true. This one didn’t have to. I could have aimed elsewhere. I was a meter away and I could have got him down without killing him. It wasn’t needed. But I did it anyhow. I don’t know why I did it. All I know is that I hated him. I heard his voice and saw him with his hands all over her and I knew I wanted him dead. I chose to kill him. I did it, straight up. I killed him when I didn’t have to.”

Kaylee felt a blade cut through her heart at his words; the sentiment was too familiar, the argument one she’d been having with herself for months. She pushed up to her feet and stepped forward to grab him by the ears and force his eyes to meet hers. “You listen to me, Malcolm Reynolds. If there’s ever a human being that needed to be sent to his maker, it was that Will. I know your head is mixed up and you might not see it, but I am telling you here and now to stop beating yourself for it. That man hurt people, hurt `em bad. You did what was right!”

And me? she asked herself. Did I make the right choice with Ray?

Malcolm’s eyes, blue surrounded with red, searched hers. “Did he hurt you?”

“Inara. He went after Inara.” Kaylee wasn’t sure which “he” she meant.

Slowly, Malcolm raised his hands to hers, and he pulled his head free of her grasp. To her relief, he didn’t push her away, but let her settle against the rough red twill of his shirt.

“He might have changed,” Malcolm said. “I took the chance away from him.”

“The man was not a child,” Kaylee replied firmly. So much bitterness encased her heart that she couldn’t relax, but remained tense in his arms. “He could’a changed earlier in his life. He chose not to. That ain’t your fault.”

“You sound like you know.”

“I do. I know it well. I’ve fought my own battles, Malcolm.”

“You came through.”

“Workin’ on it.”

She felt a caress above her forehead; he’d tilted his head to set his cheek against her hair. “Just look at you. You live out here, you see these things, and you’re still like a cheery bit of what life’s supposed to be. I can only hope to weather my own journey so well.”

“You think… you think I’m doing well?”

“You take in a wanderer like me, an aimless, grumpy old man, and you believe nothing but good of me. That ain’t nothing Kaylee.”

Her eyes opened wide for a second, his words flooding her with confusion. That couldn’t be just the boy Malcolm talking. The thought that the captain might hold her in such high regard melted the hard knot that had formed inside her. She closed her eyes, exhaled long and slow, and finally relaxed against him. She found herself patting his back.

“You’ll get through it too,” she said.

He sighed. “If you say so.”

“And one other thing—you ain’t never been grumpy. Just… confused.”

He didn’t answer, other than tightening his arms around her, and she let him hold her in the dark. She knew embraces, and she what this one was about. She also knew what it was not about.

She raised her chin, went up on her toes, and kissed his cheek softly. “If you love her,” she said in a whisper, “you ought to tell her.”

He looked away and didn’t reply.

* * *

Translations Gān bēi: Cheers huài wáng bā dàn: evil sons of bitches

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COMMENTS

Saturday, August 21, 2010 4:24 AM

MAL4PREZ


Sorry it's been so long! My beta says I can blame her, but my bathroom remodel has more to do with it. But I will follow with the next two chapters as soon as I can. Not today, but within a few days.

I'm posting in a hurry, so I hope I didn't miss too many details. Also - I know some science types read this. I know I pushed a few things here. Psittacosis is a real bacteria that (I think?) could be weaponized, but not at all like I use it here. Hey, it's all in the interest of getting past this ugly knot of plottiness and moving on, so please be kind!

Saturday, August 21, 2010 6:42 AM

KATESFRIEND


Loved the changing and varied moods of Malcolm. Great job of a brief summary of so many events happening all at once. Your Kaylee and Mal moment was perfect at the end, and Mal's second guessing was exactly what I would have expected from his character.

Saturday, August 21, 2010 7:05 AM

BYTEMITE


Continuing my other review. That Mal and Kaylee moment... Very sweet. But I'm almost sensing a little bit of a mislead. Kaylee's assuming that "mean/grumpy old man" slip is a resurgence of older Mal is just that, an assumption. we don't know for sure that his self-deprecation wasn't a joke he started when he was young and it was blatantly untrue, that stuck around as it started to become ironic.

And if that is still young Malcolm, then Kaylee's advice might only end up throwing yet more confusion into the Mal/River/Inara subplot. I sense that isn't all resolved yet. Sneaky sneaky you!

Saturday, August 21, 2010 7:14 AM

AGENTROUKA


Nice moment of respite. :)

I like the parallel moments of storytelling (and all the Wash snark!), and the apparent truce between Zoe and Inara. Will it last?

But to me this chapter is at its strongest at the end when Kaylee shines. It's amazing how at this stage in Mal's condition she is the one person who knows how best to get through to him, with her youth and her particular brand of strength. Mal's strangely blurred self-awareness is fascinating. He seems to be slipping back and forth between old and new without even realizing it.

Also, interesting how Mal phrases his intimate moment with River. "Got hit on", eh? Coupled with Kaylee's foreboding last line, I think this will get a lot more interesting. Especially since River's confusion with Will's vile hatred and Mal's feelings is now bound to be over. If Inara finds out, I wonder how she'll take it, how capable she'll be of rational calm, mired in guilt and trauma as she is.

You are setting things up to be verrry interesting!

Saturday, August 21, 2010 12:49 PM

NUTLUCK


Well at least we didn't have to wait as long as last time. :)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 6:02 PM

POTEMKINVILLAGER


This fanfic of yours is like totally awesome, dude(tte), yeah.

Other than that, you're gorgeous, off the charts intelligent, talented in only positively productive happenstance, and a helluva writer.

I've nothing else positive to add.

Okay, there was a typo in Chapter 15, an "of" that should have been an "off", but that's just like the blemish that sets off the perfection.

Post as you can, this fic is worth waiting for, no worries.

Squee, etc.

Thanks for this hella fine entertainment.


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