The Fish Job: Chapter 17
Thursday, February 2, 2006

Mad Mal gets a chaperoned tour of his ship


Chapter 1.

Back to Chapter 16.

* * * * *

Zoe descended the ladder into Mal’s bunk slowly, taking care with the steaming mug in her hand. She didn’t notice him on the floor until she stepped off the bottom rung. He was laying on his stomach with his face turned toward her, eyes closed tightly and arms stretched out to his sides. His palms were pressed against the steel as if he was trying to hug the deck.

“Captain?” she asked. He didn’t move.

“Mal?” Zoe crouched next to him and set down the mug. Given recent events, she was hesitant to startle him, but she gently laid a hand on his shoulder. “Mal, wake up.”

He opened his eyes calmly. “m’not sleepin’,” he said.

“So what are you doin’?”

Mal blinked a few times. He started to draw his hands under him but stopped as his shoulders and neck cramped. Zoe helped him sit up. He rubbed his neck with one hand, keeping the other pressed to the deck. “Don’t think I can rightly answer that,” he told her, seeming a bit disoriented.

“You looked a lot like River just now.”

Mal smiled. “Has been a few days since I had a proper hair wash.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know.”

Zoe picked up the mug and offered it to him. “I brought you tea.”

“Everybody’s gone to bed?”

“Mal, it’s nearly lunch time.”

“Huh.” Mal carefully took the mug from her. “Guess that would explain why my neck is so stiff.”

“Are you okay?”

Mal sipped his tea. “How’s Kaylee?”

“She’s a little shaken. But mostly she’s worried about you. We all are.”

“With good reason,” he muttered.

“Sir, are you okay?”

Again Mal paused to sip the tea, and didn’t answer her question. “Zoe, I need you to do somethin’ for me. I want to talk to Kaylee. Come along, and stay close. If I start doin’ anything… anything odd,” Mal looked up at her, “you do what need to take me out.”

It was Zoe’s turn to be at a loss. She studied him; he certainly didn’t look rested and she wouldn’t swear to him being sane, but his gaze was steady on hers. “Will you do that?” he asked.

“Whatever I can do to help. Sir.”

* * *

Zoe waited in the dining room for Mal to have a little personal time. She watched Simon gather up a sleeping River and carry her to the passenger dorm, glad that they would be gone before Mal got there. It didn’t seem a good time for the Captain to be saying casual hellos.

Damned stubborn man had probably been up all night fighting his ghosts. She wished she could convince him that he didn’t have to do that. At least, he didn’t have to do it alone. She sighed; that was the thing though, Mal did need to handle it alone. It had become his way. There’d been a time when he would have talked to her about his troubles, but things had changed since the war and that terrible time after the war.

A person can only bleed out for so long, Zoe thought. At some point you learn to hold your wounds closed and trudge on the best you can, with nothing but your own two feet. And once you start doing that, it’s hard to go about life any other way. Now Mal was the Captain of his own small corner of the ‘verse, and the fragility of this life was a burden that he didn’t know how to share.

Zoe came out of her reverie when Mal came up his ladder and gave her a small nod. She followed him up the aft stairs, but he stopped in the corridor a few meters short of the engine room. She gave him a questioning look.

“Why don’t you go on in and check,” Mal said quietly. Zoe understood. She entered the engine room and found Kaylee laying in her hammock.

“Hey, Zoe.” Kaylee sounded tired. “Any word from the Cap’n?”

“Actually, he’d like to have a few words with you, if that’s okay.”

“He’s here?” Kaylee tilted out of the hammock and stepped toward the door. She stopped when she saw Mal standing in the shadows of the corridor, leaning against the wall with his arms folded and head down.

“Cap’n,” she said.

He looked up at her for just a second, then away. “Hey li’l Kaylee.”

“How you feelin’?” she asked.

“I’m… just fine. Except I’m a little concerned ’bout you.”

“You don’t need to worry ‘bout me, Captain.” Kaylee stepped up the stairs and leaned against the wall across from him. “I know you didn’t mean nothin’. I know you was just… ” Kaylee couldn’t finish.

“I was plumb crazy Kaylee. Still am a bit.” Mal smiled wanly at that and looked over to Zoe, who had followed Kaylee up the steps, staying close. “But I want you to know… I thought you were a Fed. Or… I thought there was a Fed at that table who had you locked up somewhere and was gonna hurt you.”

“Oh Cap -”

“But here’s the thing. I really, really wanted to kill that Fed. I had my finger on the trigger and wanted to pull it. But I couldn’t. River was right - I must’a known it wasn’t a Fed, that it was you.” Mal shifted his weight between his feet uncomfortably. “Point is, I ain’t capable of hurtin’ you Kaylee. No matter how crazy I am, I will never hurt you.” Mal couldn’t look her in the eye. “I don’t want you bein’ afraid of me.”

“Cap’n,” Kaylee’s tone was admonishing. “I know you wouldn’t hurt me. You don’t have to tell me that.” She stepped across the hall, started sliding her arms around Mal to hug him, but he pushed her away.

“No, Kaylee. I can’t,” he said, then he turned and walked back down the corridor.

* * *

Zoe followed Mal as he stepped down into the dining room. Warning bells went off in her head when he stopped suddenly, standing very still and staring at the table. Then he did the damnedest thing: he turned aside, walked to the bulkhead, and pressed his palms against it. He leaned forward to touch his forehead to the wall between his hands, and stood there. After a while his breathing evened out.

Finally he straightened up, and slowly turned to Zoe.

“Doc’s been sayin’ he wants to draw some blood,” she told him. “See if the drugs are clearin’ out.” Mal was visibly relieved that she hadn’t asked him to explain. He nodded and headed to the infirmary. All the way there he trailed his left hand along the bulkhead.

* * *

“Captain, how did you sleep?” Simon asked Mal as he unlocked the hatch and led the way into the infirmary.

“Didn’t sleep exactly.” Mal followed him in, with Zoe close on his tail.

“You really need to sleep.”

“Not like I’m wantin’ to stay awake.” Mal flashed a look at Zoe as he leaned against the exam table. She stood almost facing him, but keeping her right side, the side with the gun, turned away.

“Are you still hallucinating?” Simon asked Mal.

“Now and then.” Mal rolled up his sleeve.

“What are you seeing?”

“Rather not say.”

“Captain, I am trying to help you.” Simon tied a tourniquet to Mal’s arm and turned to pick up a syringe. Zoe saw Mal tense, and put a hand on his shoulder. Simon pressed the needle into Mal’s arm, not noticing how Mal’s other hand gripped the edge of the bed.

“Thank you kindly doc, but you just stick to the blood and guts and let me keep my crazies to myself.”

For once, Simon didn’t argue the point. “It should get better as the drugs clear out of your system. Of course, sleep deprivation doesn’t help.” Simon pulled the needle out and turned away. Zoe exhaled and let go of Mal’s arm.

“Have you eaten today?” Simon asked.

“Not hungry.”

“That won’t help either.” Simon picked up a small flashlight. He flicked it on and raised it, but Mal slapped it out of the doctor’s hand. “Don’t do that!” Mal snapped.

Zoe stepped between Mal and Simon, but Mal had already pushed himself away from the table and taken three quick steps to the door.

“It’s not the best time for a full check-up,” Zoe told Simon.

“I can’t help him if he doesn’t –”

“You can’t help me if I go and break your arm.” Mal said.

Simon did a little throat clearing. “Fine.” He stepped back to the counter, looking from Zoe to Mal. “It’ll take me a while to run the test, but if your system is clean I can give you a sedative.”

“I don’t want a gorram sedative.”

“Captain –” Simon protested, but Zoe stopped him with a look.

Mal turned back to Simon. He took a calming breath and spoke softly. “You do real good work doc. I appreciate that. But not now. Okay?”

Simon nodded, then he stood silently as Zoe followed Mal out toward the cargo bay.

* * *

Zoe let Mal stay ahead of her; the man was plainly not wanting to have words. He needed private time, but had to get out of his bunk. She knew how that was. She watched him settle on the deck of the cargo bay, out of the way where no one walking by would see him. Zoe climbed to the catwalk and sat where she could see his legs sticking out from behind the crate he was leaning against.

She’d been sitting for a while when Jayne stepped onto the catwalk. She hushed him with a look, and nodded down toward the floor of the bay. Jayne spotted Mal, then quietly came to sit down next to Zoe.

“We’ll be landing on New Melbourne in a few,” he whispered. “Wash just talked to the Prefect. He’ll be waitin’ to meet us.”

“You ready to have a talk with Ricky, explain why this kind’a thing won’t be happenin’ to the Captain again?”

Jayne looked down toward Mal, then pulled out his knife and inspected the edge. “I’m real good at explainin’ things.”

Zoe continued staring down into the cargo bay while Jayne cared for his knife.

“They messed him up, Jayne,” she said after a while. “I ain’t seen him this bad off in a long, long time.”

“He’s a tough old wangbadan Zoe. He’ll be okay.”

“Yeah. He better be.”

They sat quietly for a bit longer. Eventually River entered the bay, looked up to nod at Zoe, then wound her way through the crates until she stood in front of Mal. The girl sat down against the bulkhead facing him.

Zoe turned to Jayne. “Let’s take that as a signal to go on our way. River’ll keep an eye on him now.”

Jayne looked doubtful. “You really think that’s a good idea?”

Zoe smiled. “Somehow, I think she can handle him.” They went to gather what they needed for their planetside business, and joined Simon and Book in Shuttle Two a few minutes later.

* * *

Mal was sitting with his elbows on his knees, one hand clasping the other wrist. He didn’t look at River when she sat down.

“When do I stop seein’ things?” he asked her with a clenched jaw.

“Are you seeing something now?”

“Don’t you know?”

River tipped her head up to the roof of the bay, staring into the shadows with empty eyes. Then she looked down and focused on the space beside Mal. “That’s not really what Wash thinks,” she said.

“I know. I think I know. It don’t matter what I know.” Mal was struggling to keep his eyes on the floor.

“Your brain is creating these things,” River told him. “A part of your mind believes it; that’s hard to fight.”

“My mind needs to cut it the diyu out.”

She smiled. “It will. Soon.”

Mal was quiet for a while, then he spoke half to River and half to the space beside him. “It’s not like I make Zoe stay with me. I told her she should leave.”

“She doesn’t want to leave,” River said. “Wash knows that. He doesn’t want her to leave either.”

He looked up at River. “How do you know?” She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “Fine, right,” he said, looking away again.

River shifted to sit against the crate next to Mal. She passed right through Wash where the pilot kneeled, stabbing his finger in the air as he ranted. “He’ll go away,” she said. She leaned her head against Mal’s shoulder and waited. Neither of them reacted when the ship lurched slightly, entering atmo.

A few minutes later Mal exhaled and closed his eyes in relief. “It’s gettin’ better,” he told her. “At least I sort of know it’s not real, even if it still… ain’t fun.”

“The drugs are gone. But it won’t go away till you sleep. Bruises need to heal.”

He shook his head. “You saw what my dreams are like.”

“They won’t always be that way.”

“Yours get any better?”

“I learned to live with them.”

“You’re a tough one,” he said with a smile.

“Being tough is better than giving up. Laying down to die.”

“I’m sorry you know about that,” Mal said softly.

“You gave me a chance to figure it out. Helping get me away from them.” She looked up at him. “You know, it’s not as bad as you think.”

“What’s not?”


Mal smiled. “No, I suppose not. Tough and smart, ain’t ya?”

“Very smart.” River climbed to her feet and stood up in front of him. “There’s something important I know,” she announced.

“What’s that?”

“You need to talk to Inara. She’s looking for you.”

“Crazy girl, I’m not so sure Inara’s wantin’ to see me right now.”

“Trust me. Smart, remember?”

* * *

Mal sat still for a while after River left. He heard footsteps clattering along the catwalk above and disappearing into Shuttle Two. He waited for the mechanical whirr and clunk of the shuttle undocking, then stood and looked toward Inara’s shuttle. No matter how smart River was, she couldn’t ask him to risk going through that again. He shook his head and turned away.

As he stepped out of the cargo bay toward the infirmary, he saw Inara talking to Simon in the common room. She glanced up at him, as did Simon. They were clearly talking about him. Mal whistled to himself and turned around again.

He was just reaching the catwalk when Inara caught up to him. “Mal – wait.”

He took a deep breath; might as well deal with this now. He turned back to her and held his hands up. “Uh, hi. No gun, see?” She frowned at him. “OK, not so funny,” he admitted.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

Mal eyed her suspiciously. “You gonna start yellin’ at me?”

“I have no plans to yell at you. At the moment.” Despite her words, he could see her concern as she studied his face. “I have an idea, though – ”

“Look, I am havin’ a bad day,” Mal interrupted her. “I am havin’ a bad week.” He started backing away. “So as much as I like hearin’ about your travel plans, or your rent, or your fancy client list, I think I’d rather have a little alone time.”

“What, so you can get some sleep?”

“Maybe.” Mal turned away from her.

“Mal, I just talked to Simon.”

He stopped with an impatient sigh. “ ‘bout what?”

“About how you can’t sleep. Or eat. And apparently you’re still… hallucinating?”

He didn’t answer.

“Mal?” she prompted.

He turned back to her. “Fine, I am seein’ things. There may be a few loose screws rattlin’ around in my brainpan. So you may guess I ain’t much into socializin’.”

“Neither am I. But I think I can help. Come to my shuttle.”

Mal laughed awkwardly. “Whoa, Inara, I am not your client. You don’t owe me a thing, and I…” he stopped himself.


“I got no money to give you. Even if I did, I ain’t interested in no high class whorin’, no matter what fancy name you put on it.” He said it harshly and waited for her to explode at him, but she just smiled patiently.

“Mal, don’t get your boxers in a bunch. I have no designs on your… honorable person; there is nothing for sale here. I just want to talk to you.” She grabbed his wrist. “Come with me.” Mal found himself being pulled toward her shuttle.

* * * * *

wangbadan: S.O.B. diyu: hell

* * * * *

On to Chapter 18.


Thursday, February 2, 2006 4:19 AM


Random bits:

All this angst is giving me a stomach ache. (seriously) A little relief in chapter 18 this afternoon.

Thanks for the ‘Mad Mal’ name, capercaillie. Too funny!

I like Boston creme pies. And sticky buns (see the 10th floor thread).

Finally, not to be pretentious, but I’m thinking of writing a little making-of blog to post next week. There have been so many interesting comments I want to reply to! Also, I’m quite fascinated with how this story came together; I’ll share if you wanna know.

Thursday, February 2, 2006 4:43 AM


You keep raising the bar. I'm very glad that this chapter wasn't quite so freaky as the last - chapter 16 was brilliant but frightening . Well done, for all of it.

Thursday, February 2, 2006 4:48 AM


Wow, excellent! And Mad Mal is rocking! I have some nice creme pies with strawberries in them :O A tad lumpy though...;)

A making of thingy would be cool! Give us an insight into your mind...oOoOoo...

Thursday, February 2, 2006 5:04 AM


"All the way there he trailed his left hand along the bulkhead."

It's scary how I see River here, and then River turning into Mal. Wait, am I hallucinating now?

Thursday, February 2, 2006 7:25 AM


Great, great story!! I hear you about the angst. I've always felt too many people harp on the angst. You've written it but didn't overdo it. Very well done!

Thursday, February 2, 2006 9:02 AM


"Is it Christmas?"

Yes, Mal, it is!

Where is my thesaurus? I need some new and original superlatives to aptly describe your [place synonym for fabulous here] writing style, [place synonym for additive] plot-line and totally authentic characterizations! I need to take something for this [synonyme for immense] case of anticipation and joy everytime I approach my computer today.

I really liked this chapter. It was calming and I sure liked the way Mal used Serenity to calm himself. When he is speaking to Inara "Okay, not so funny" reminded me of OOG when Inara asks him to come with her in her shuttle and he says "Can't". He tries to brush it off as a joke but he can't quite make it funny. I saw that response here - very nice!

Thanks for all of this and yes, please blog away! Will you tell us how to find the blog though because I am a bit of a blog-o-phobe still.


Thursday, February 2, 2006 9:47 AM


I like how you've explained half the crazy stuff that River does. It fits well with your story.

Glad the next chapter will have some light relief.


Thursday, February 2, 2006 12:52 PM


Absolutely excellent and I am so glad the crew are worrying about the Captain and River is just perfect to be the one to bring him through this. Not too sure about Inara, she and Mal have a way of rubbing each other up the wrong way. I hope she doesn't open old wounds instead of helping to heal the new ones. And loved Zoe sticking by Mal too. Shiny! Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, February 7, 2006 1:03 AM


Great chapter again. I love the captains 'tour' and how he's so worried about the others, and how they're worried about him.

Thursday, July 13, 2006 1:20 AM


*and taken three quick steps to the door*
-This isn't a particularly significant line except for the fact that I have had the ZZ Top song in my head all morning, thought it was a neat coincidence.

Jayne looked down toward Mal, then pulled out his knife and inspected the edge. “I’m real good at explainin’ things.”
-*shudder* I most certainly would not want to have anything 'explained' to me by that man.

He looked up at River. “How do you know?” She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. “Fine, right,” he said, looking away again.
-I can just imagine that look on River's face, akin to the you-are-such-a-boob look she gives Simon.

“I have no plans to yell at you. At the moment.”
-I really think all the fighting and yelling those two do is just angsty foreplay.


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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.