The Fish Job: Chapter 7
Thursday, January 19, 2006

Unhappy trails…


Chapter 1.

Back to Chapter 6.

* * * * *

Mal stopped in the corridor to make sure his shirt was tucked in straight and his clothes as little disheveled as possible. He wasn’t looking forward to commentary from the rest of the crew. It simply wasn’t possible that no one would notice where he had spent the night; he couldn’t be so lucky.

He started when he noticed River sitting with her back against the bulkhead, staring at him with sad eyes. She mouthed a few words, but there was no sound.

“Uh, what was that again?” Mal asked.

She kept talking silently, and a few tears slid down her cheeks.

Mal wiggled a fingertip in his ear, but it didn’t help. “You need to actually speak,” he told her. “As in, use sound.” River pressed her lips together in frustration, then just looked at him with her sad eyes.

“River, there you are!” Simon said from the dining room. He stepped through the hatch and noticed Mal. “Oh, good morning Captain.” He took River’s arm and pulled her to her feet. “You need your medication,” he told her. River let Simon guide her down the corridor toward the infirmary, but she stared over her shoulder at Mal the whole time. As the Tams turned the corner, Mal thought he heard her whisper: She cares.

Mal stared after River for a long moment, then he shook his head. “Crazy girl.” He checked his shirt and his fly one last time, took a deep breath, and walked into the lion’s den.

Kaylee, Jayne, and Book were sitting at the dining table, already at breakfast. Jayne whispered and nudged Kaylee as soon as he saw Mal come in, and Kaylee hopped up. She trotted into the kitchen to top off her mug while Mal poured one for himself, and she chucked him on the shoulder. “Nice goin’,” she whispered with a big grin.

“Nice goin’ what?” Mal asked belligerently. Book kept eating, but with his head slightly cocked to the side so he could hear. Jayne turned around in his seat so as not to miss a thing.

“You know!” Kaylee arched a brow and tilted her head towards the door Mal had just entered. The one that led to the cargo bay, and Inara’s shuttle.

“Now I am saying this once,” Mal said in a loud voice, heading to the table with Kaylee in tow, “so all ya listen up ...”

“Yes Mal?” Wash asked as he walked in with Zoe. “Important announcement. Something about crew relations?”

“Wash. Honey.” Zoe shook her head slightly.

Mal gave Wash a drop-dead stare as the couple passed by him, heading toward the kettle. Then he continued.

“I need y’all to just relax with the commentary, dong ma? No ‘nice goin.’ No ‘crew relations.’ Nothin’ of the kind.”

“Come on, Mal,” Jayne said. “You ‘spect us to believe you spent Inara’s last night aboard Serenity in her shuttle, all night, and nothin’ happened?”

“That is exactly what I expect you to believe.” Mal said as he sat down.

Jayne snorted. “You two been so tens-ual with the sex’sion it’s makin’ my own balls turn blue.”

Mal fixed Jayne with his best swallow-your-tongue-and-choke-to-death stare.

“Come on,” Jayne continued. “There’s no way you’d let her leave without tryin’ something. Everybody knows it.” He turned back to his vittles. “Anyone with eyes would be into Inara. And for some reason she seems to be, I dunno, in-terested in you.”

“That so?” Mal looked around at all the smiling faces and downturned eyes. “Perhaps y’all been a little mistaken about that.” Mal huddled around his mug gloomily, then took a sip to avoid the incredulous stares.

Jayne stopped shoveling tan colored mush from his plate into his mouth, thankfully swallowing it down before his mouth fell open. “What? You tellin’ me you struck out?”

“Gorram it, can we get some real damn coffee once in a while?” Mal slammed his mug down and turned to Jayne. “No. I did not ‘strike out.’ I was not ‘at bat’.”

“The Captain’s an honorable man,” Book chimed in for the first time. “I’m sure he would never try to form improper relations with anyone on his ship.” Book ended with a questioning look at Mal.

Mal glared at Book. “I would thank y’all kindly for minding your own business for once.” Mal slid his chair back. “How long till we get in, Wash?”

“Little over an hour till we drop Inara at the refueling station, then head into atmo.”

“You two all packed and ready to go?”

“Yes sir,” Zoe replied.

“Good.” Mal took his mug and headed to the cargo bay.

As he walked out the hatch, Mal heard Kaylee ask Jayne. “What does ‘struck out’ mean?”

“Means he got de-nied.”

“No way! You really think so?”

“Course. Man is plainly lackin’ in the satisfaction department.”

* * *

Mal opened the weapons locker. Ammo wasn’t top on the list of items that needed inventory, but it did fit his mood. People attacking him on the space station was something he was used to. But the things happening on this ship were beyond him. Annoying words from Jayne, sure. But Zoe and Wash leaving so quickly, and apparently without a regret? Kaylee and Simon talking like they had yesterday? And Book, telling him his crew was leaving him out’a nothing more than good sense?

Then there was Inara. Mal shook his head, he didn’t want to think about that. But he could still feel her mouth against his neck, repeating his name, and her hands…

Mal slammed the locker door shut, and opened the next one over. He was stupid, he knew what she was and shouldn’t have set himself up like that. Shouldn’t have gone to talk to her, given her the chance to play him. …the clients I’ve serviced, she’d said, looking him up and down. That look had cut through him, made him ache in a way he thought he wasn’t capable of anymore. It’s so satisfying when I can put my training to good use…

Mal tried to distract himself by sorting scattered ammo into their proper boxes, but his mind wouldn’t stay put. He thought over all the trouble he seemed so good at finding. Letting himself get jumped by a couple of Fed goons, probably untrained local recruits too. Taking a job from a virtual unknown like he hadn’t learned his lesson from Niska. Getting in fights. Mal stopped himself, it wasn’t his way to be telling lies in his own head. That was no fight. That was a him being a crazy bastard and lashing out at an innocent. That kid in the gun shop was doing his job like his elders taught him, not too different from the boy Mal himself had been at one time. That boy didn’t deserve a broken face because those who reared him were fools.

Mal leaned against the locker and rubbed his neck. Still had a sore head. He grimaced as a sharp jolt ran through his cranium, accompanied by a buzzing sound that quickly faded into the background again.

Mal noticed River, sitting on the stairs watching him. “How long you been there?” he asked her.

“I followed you down. I didn’t see us walk by though.” She glanced back through the hatch toward the common room.

Mal cast her a doubtful look and turned back to the locker.

“The walls are getting thinner,” she said. “It’s getting easier. Easier for me, I mean.”

“Uh-huh. Be careful with the walkin’ through walls. You got enough talents as it is.”

River sat up and stared at him. “You can hear me?” she asked, her voice rising. “Really?”

Mal whinced and turned back to her. “Loud and clear, poppet. Just take it easy with the shrill, all right? Some of us have had head trauma lately.”

River calmed herself with a visible effort and then gave him an intensely serious look. “You have no idea.”

“I guess not. No offense, but why don’t you go play dress up with Kaylee?”

“No time. Listen: imagination is important. Pay attention to imagined things. They hide truths.”

“You learn a lot that way, do ya?” Mal turned his attention back to the locker, moving past the half assembled boxes of shells in favor of the guns. He pulled out a rifle and cracked it open.

“Yes. Dreams too. I saw your dream,” she said.

“What dream is that?” He checked the bore. Shiny clean.

“The questions. You didn’t know the answers. Still don’t.”

“Never was good at tests.” He snapped the gun back together with a satisfying sound.

“Not a dream. A memory. Memorys look blue a lot of the time.” That reminded Mal of something, but he couldn’t place it. “Do you hear it?” she whispered then her voice rose several pitches. “buzzzzzz…”

Mal turned to her, suddenly very interested. “What did you say?”

“Captain?” Book called through the hatch to the passenger dorm.

River looked toward Book, then leaned back against the stairs. Softly she began to chant: “Once upon a time when pigs spoke rhyme …”

“Do you have a minute?” Book asked as he entered the bay.

“Hang on.” Mal held a palm up to Book as continued watching River.

“…and monkeys chewed tobacco…” River stood up and began hopping down the stairs, in time with her rhyming, “…and hens took snuff to make them tough…” her voice filled the bay “…and ducks went quack, quack, quack-O!” She landed on the deck with a light balletic hop. “Too many distractions!” she finished as she skipped toward the dormitory.

“Sorry Book, I thought there was somethin’ important for me to hear in all that. You get anything?”

“Besides quack-o?” Book asked.

Mal shrugged.

“What were you hoping to hear?” Book asked.

“She seemed to know something…”

“About what?”

“Do you hear that?” Mal asked like he was changing the subject.

Book tipped his head, then gave Mal a questioning look.

“Never mind.” Mal shook his head. “What can I help you with?”

“I thought I ought to let you know. I’ve been talking to Wash about the situation on Barnard. I think I can be of use there.”

“What kind of use?”

“Helpin’ out people who want the aid.”

Mal realized he was still holding the rifle from the gun locker. He turned to put it back. “So you’re gettin’ off too?”

“I feel my stay here has been overlong.”

“Shepherd, if this about what happened back on New Melbourne-”

“There’s more to it than that Captain. I think you know what I mean.”

Mal shut the locker and turned back to Book. “This here is a conversation I don’t need to have. Get your stuff packed and get the hell off my ship if that’s what you want.” Mal passed the preacher and climbed the steps to the engine room.

* * *

He stood in the back of the engine room, turning in a slow circle like he was lost.

“Cap’n?” Kaylee came down the steps, studying him curiously.

“Hey, Kaylee.”

“Wha’cha doin’?”

“I was wondering if she’s turning like usual.”

“Sure. Not a thing wrong with her.”

“But… do you hear that?” Mal waved a hand, motioning at the general area over his head.

Kaylee listened. “Hear what?”

Mal walked around to the other side of the room, cocking his head to the side. “It’s a buzzing. High pitched like.”

Kaylee listened for a minute. “I don’t hear nothin’.”

“Kinda… electrical.”

Kaylee shrugged.

“Huh.” Mal didn’t quite give up on it. “Well, it don’t seem louder here than anywhere else.” He smiled. “Maybe it’s just something left over from gettin’ my bell rung by the Feds.”

“I hope not Captain. Your head still hurtin’?” Kaylee looked concerned.

“No, I’m all fine now,” Mal lied. “Don’t you worry about me.” He took one more listen around the room. “Still, s’mighty odd.”

“Maybe you should talk to Simon?”

“No need to trouble him about it. Guess I’m just imaginin’ things.”

“I’ll check over the ‘lectrical system, just in case.”

“Thanks. It would put my mind at ease.”

Mal stopped at the hatchway. “Kaylee, you ever curious about livin’ in the Core?”

His question took her by surprise, and it took her a bit to put together a reply, but he could see the answer in her face right away. “Well, I guess I just… I never seen what it’s like there. Big cities with lots of lights, and fancy shows and good food. I wouldn’t mind seein’ it sometime.” She looked at Mal. “Not now though! Not for a long time!”

Mal nodded at her. “Ya, I figured.”

“I’m sorry Cap’n. I like it here, I really do…”

“That’s all right Kaylee. It’s only natural you should wonder what life is like other places.” Mal tried not to react to another throb in his head, but Kaylee saw it.

“Cap’n, you’re not okay. Why don’cha go see Simon?”

“I will li’l Kaylee, first chance I get.”

* * *

Inara was leaving her empty shuttle as Mal stepped down onto the catwalk. She turned to Mal with a smile and he couldn’t avoid going to talk to her.

“All ready to go?” he asked.

“I’ve arranged for my things to be picked up. Shouldn’t take long to be rid of me.” She seemed to think that was a funny thing to say.

Mal turned to look down into the bay. The crew was assembling to say goodbye as Zoe checked the docking seal. “Inara. You don’t have to leave.” What would it hurt to say it at this point?

“Why in the ‘verse would I stay?”

“Ship’s gonna be awful empty.”

“Oh – you thought there was something between us, didn’t you?” Mal looked over at her. “That’s so sweet. Poor Mal.” She gave him a pouty look.

“Did I do something to make you tetchy?”

“Captain, someone of your limited experience is easily overwhelmed by the service of a Registered Companion. Don’t let it get you down that you misunderstood the situation. I’m sure there’s a little lady somewhere that… well...” She bit her lip and looked to the side, charmingly out of words. “Anyway, best of luck.” She finished with a smile and offered him a hand to shake.

He looked at her hand but didn’t take it. “When did you become cruel?” he asked her.

Inara patted his cheek with a look of pity and turned away.

Mal watched from the catwalk as Inara exchanged hugs and kisses with the rest of the crew, then she disappeared into the station without a backwards glance. He rested his elbows on the rail. …overwhelmed by the service of a Registered Companion… Was that what was happening? Mal rubbed his eyes. How did he get himself into this?

“That was bullshit,” River told him. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” She was beside him, leaning on the rail.

“What – weren’t you just down…” Mal looked back down to the bay. It was empty and dark.

“But that other thing she said was right. Remember - she said you should stop punishing yourself? She was right. It’s not helping. Actually, it’s making it all get worse.”

“What are you talkin’ about?” Mal asked. “Have you been eavesdroppin’ where it ain’t your business?”

River gave him a long look, then she leaned toward him and whispered, “Captain, things are going to get weird. Weirder. Just hang on.” She glanced dramatically down to the cargo bay floor. “It’s going to take a little while to work it all out. But I’ll keep an eye on you when I can.”

“No! Now you stay out’a my head and don’t be airin’ my business with the crew.”

River sighed and rolled her eyes. “You’ll see,” she said like she was talking to an exceptionally slow child, and then headed off for the kitchen.

* * *

Simon was busy in the infirmary as usual. Mal wondered what the boy found to occupy himself. Couldn’t be that much needin’ to be sorted out.

“Hey doc.”

“Um, Captain?”

“I just wanted to check in.”

“About what?”

“The bump on my head.”

“It should be getting better by now.” Simon turned back to the counter.

Mal didn’t like talking to Simon about this, especially after what he’d overheard the other day. But he was going to be running things without Zoe, and he couldn’t have these headaches slowing him down. “I’m not sure about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m havin’ headaches.”

“I guess that’s to be expected.”

“They’re gettin’ worse. And…” Mal shifted uncomfortably. “I think I’m hearin’ things.”

“What kind of things?”

“Just… buzzing.”

“Probably just an effect of the concussion, but I’ll have a look.” Simon nodded at the exam table. Mal had a seat and Simon shone a small flashlight into his eyes. Mal pulled his head back away from the light and blinked several times.

“Do your eyes feel sensitive?”

“That light was damned bright, if that’s what you mean.”

“Your pupils are dilated.” Simon attached a clip to Mal’s finger. “Have you taken any painkillers?”


“No meds at all?”

“A little drink last night, that’s all.”

Simon looked up at the screen. “I’m not seeing anything in your blood. Lie back, I’ll run a scan.”

The scan showed nothing but the bruising at the back of his head. Mal looked at the image of his brain on the screen, then pulled the clip off his finger.

“I’m sorry, Captain. I just don’t see anything, and there’s nothing else I can do for you here. I can give you something for the headaches if you’d like.”

“No thanks, doc. I’ll get by.”

“Tell me if it gets worse.”

“Sure. Hey Simon.”


“Would you really leave your sister to get your old job back?”

Simon leaned back against the counter, blood draining from his face. “Wow. Where did that come from?”

Mal studied Simon’s response, then slid off the table. No point in forcing the issue. “Bad week. Headache. Forget I said that.”

* * *

“Mal, you’re all welcome to stay for as long as you like” Wash told him. “You should take a little time off. It’s a large ranch, there’s always lots to do. Stay and lend a hand, breath real air for a while, eat real food, work the land a bit. They don’t have much cash, but they can pay in food and supplies.”

“Maybe next time we come by this way we’ll stop in for a spell.”

“You can’t stop now?”

“I’m feelin’a powerful need to keep movin’.”

Wash ran his hands over the controls with a smile. “You sure you can handle her?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I’m gonna miss her,” Wash said. “You’ve got a good ship here Mal.”

“But you’ll be back to her before too long, right?”

Wash was studying the control board like he didn’t expect to be seeing it again. He shut the ship down, then looked up at Mal. “What was that?” he asked.

“I said when you get back you’ll have less free time. For practicing stunts while we’re en route. I hear those diaper things take some doin’.”

“It’s mostly the lack of sleep and constant cleaning up the path of destruction that worries me.”

“You’ll do fine, Wash.”

“I know we will. I can’t wait. It’s like starting a new life.”

“I imagine so.”

“Hey, Captain, if you’re really so keen on getting back to the game, I know a guy in a village called Morristown, on the far side. He handles a lot of off planet transport, could be he’ll have a job for you.”

“Thanks. It’d be good to have a somethin’ solid to move us along.”

“I’ll get his info to you before you leave.” Wash stood up. “Guess I’ll go see if my wife is ready to go. Finally, a real hot bath for my lady tonight!” Wash smiled in anticipation as he left the bridge.

Mal looked out the window at the green land that appeared as the landing dust settled. A few clouds drifted over the crest of a gently sloping hill. As the clouds passed, sunlight brightened on a collection of wooden buildings and sparkled in a lazily winding stream. A soft breeze stirred the large trees which crowded around the stream, and made a tire swing sway. It was a good place for them, a good place to raise a family.

Mal sat down heavily in the pilot’s chair and rubbed his sore eyes.

* * * * *

dong ma: understand

* * * * *

On to Chapter 8.


Thursday, January 19, 2006 11:16 AM


Oh good gorram, Mal's words to Inara really hit the nail on the head - "when did you become cruel?" I am going frantic with worry but the one bright light on the horizon of hope is knowing River is keeping an eye on him. I think she'll be the only one to help him out of this nightmare in his head. Absolutely brilliant writing, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, January 19, 2006 11:20 AM


Had me going there for a while. A well written, gripping story.

Thursday, January 19, 2006 11:23 AM


Kinda sad that everyone is leaving Mal. :D

Another Great Chapter. :D Can't wait to see what happens next.

Thursday, January 19, 2006 11:44 AM


My favorite bit: That River is talking clearly in this hallucinatory mindscape. That she is able to express herself in this realm that is more hers than Mal's. I love what you're doing with her in this scenario.

Still with the pitch-perfect crew voices, even when they're an evil incarnations of their true selves, they still speak like they should in that situation. (And it's hilarious when you neglect the chilling sadness of it all.)

And how is it that you made me take a liking to Evil!Inara?? Spunky and bitchy, but in such an over-the-top way that it's adorable again.

I delight in Mal's screwed up mind and I so so so cannot wait to see how this will spin further. Mal seems to be slowly coming around to the truth of the situation.

Thursday, January 19, 2006 12:43 PM


Goodness, you are just doing a brilliant job with this. Half of me is enjoying the pace you're taking, the way you're leading us -and Mal- along, the way you're strip-mining his psyche, and introducing River's role. The other half of me wants to promise to be your best friend forever if you'll just give me the whole rest of the story, right now, because I can't stand it!

Thursday, January 19, 2006 12:46 PM


Aww wow! :D Really liking this, please post more soon!

Thursday, January 19, 2006 1:21 PM


Good use of River's character I was wondering how you were going to get that aspect of 'guide' into it.
Some of the scenes can really be pictured. Great use of character speech.

Don't keep us waiting to long for the next chapter... and the next... and the (you get the idea.)


Thursday, January 19, 2006 2:17 PM


I really liked getting two installments today. This is great! Thanks so much!

Thursday, January 19, 2006 5:06 PM


I loved the two installment eliment of today, this is shaping up to be my favorite series around (no offence folks I still love everyone)
Although what is Inara thinking- she's cutting out poor captain's heart out here!

Friday, January 20, 2006 2:14 AM


What's going to happen next? I can't wait to find out. two more great chapters and an intriguing story.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 8:04 PM


And the mind-fuck continues. . . .

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 4:27 AM


Jayne snorted. “You two been so tens-ual with the sex’sion it’s makin’ my own balls turn blue.”
Great Jayne line, you write him really well.

I absolutely love River's part in this chapter, trying to warn him of what is really going on in her usual cryptic way. Very good stuff.

The bit with Wash at the end was a little sad.


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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.

Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.