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Chapter posted Oct. 24, 2005
Mal was much relieved when Serenity was cleared to lift from Persephone at last. Even a last-minute appearance by that húndàn of an Operative failed to make an appreciable dent in his mood. They were flying again, stores topped up and a job on the line, and as always, that was enough.
Even ZoŽ seemed to have perked up a bit with their departure. She was wearin' her pink shirt again, the high-collared one he'd last seen her in the day they robbed the trading station vault, and a little of the old spark had come back to her eyes. She was still a grieving widow, but she'd got her feet back under her. He wasn't going to lose her to it.
Still and all, Mal wasn't about to ask her to take the helm anytime soon. ZoŽ'd been raised shipboard, had in fact taught him most of what he knew about keeping a boat in the air during the War, but it would be plain cruelty to make her sit in the chair Wash had died in while the loss was still so fresh. That left Mal the only halfway competent Firefly pilot aboard-- not a job he much looked forward to, but there weren't no arguing with necessity.
Fortunately, it looked like their little albatross might have an aptitude for it. Only made sense, all the maths Simon said she knew, and all the time she'd spent up here keeping Wash company while he'd worked his wonders. Not that Mal'd trust her to take them in or out of atmo by herself anytime soon, but he thought he might let her do some of the course plotting for the trip, see how it went from there. Might finally get that stick out of Jayne's pìgu about her not being crew, not to mention giving her something of her own to keep her busy. She was near normal these days, mostly coherent and eager to learn; she'd given the doc and Kaylee a fright a time or two with her curious ways and meetings with ZoŽ still tended to end in tears, but most days now she was smilin', and it warmed his heart to see it.
She stayed with him on the bridge until the scents of cooking wafted up from the kitchen, then unfolded from the co-pilot's seat with a smile and a soft "xiè-xie" and padded aft.
It seemed as good a time as any to pull the 'wave tape from Southdown Abbey from his pocket and try it out in the ship's reader. They hadn't been able to do much with the one from Miranda-- it had been Alliance coded, impossible to break with the time and equipment they had, not to mention that Serenity's transmitter wasn't near as powerful as Mr. Universe's set-up. Uncoded tapes, though, weren't a problem.
A list of dates and times popped up on one of the smaller console screens, marked out pretty regular from a couple of years before Mal's birth up through the year the War ended. There was a large gap after that, one that appeared to match up with the time Book had said he'd spent at the Abbey, followed by another short series dating to the Shepherd's time on Serenity.
Mal wrinkled his brow at the index. Had to be a collection of text files; tape this size wouldn't hold that many vid clips. Was he looking at the Shepherd's diary? The thought made him uneasy. Why would the Abbey send it to him? And why would they have had their hands on it in the first place? What could be so important about Book's life that the older man had preferred Mal not know it while he lived, yet thought he needed to be made aware of it after? It didn't make any kind of sense.
His musing was interrupted by the heavy tread of boots on the bridge stairwell, and he toggled the screen off with a frown. Probably just someone bringing dinner, but he didn't want Book's legacy to become common knowledge just yet. He had a feeling what he learned from the tape wasn't going to be at all pleasing, and he wanted to put off spreading it to his still-recovering crew until he absolutely had to.
"That you, Jayne?" he asked, toggling a few more switches to make sure the auto-pilot was engaged before turning to face his visitor.
"Mal," the mercenary acknowledged, thrusting a plate of molded protein shapes at him with a frown.
Mal took it from him, then watched in puzzlement as Jayne moved to lean against the co-pilot's console instead of heading back down the stairwell. "Somethin' botherin' you?" he asked.
Jayne huffed an irritated breath, aiming a glare in Mal's direction. "Crazy girl says you're teachin' her how to pilot now," he said.
"I surely am," Mal replied mildly, wondering if there was any way to avoid the impending argument. Jayne had a very direct view of the 'verse, one Mal usually appreciated, but when it came to the Tams the mercenary had never quite seen eye to eye with him. "Seems she has an aptitude for it."
"You sure that's such a good idea?" Jayne plucked one of Wash's toys from Mal's console, a tyrannosaurus rex, and began turning it over with his hands while he waited for an answer.
Mal took a deep breath, determined not to get his dander up. "Don't see nothing wrong with it. Girl needs a job, the rest of us aren't too keen to hire a pilot none of us know. Works out just fine."
Jayne's frown grew deeper. "You forgotten already what happened on Beaumonde? What if she turns xiōngmĕng de kuángrén up here and crashes us into an asteroid or somethin'?"
A legitimate worry, but one Mal had already thought through, not to mention that he'd pestered Simon for River's safeword just in case. "Ain't gonna leave her up here alone anytime soon, and I won't be lettin' her answer any broadwaves neither, not until her brother figures out how to deprogram her. Won't be any way the Alliance could set her off."
Jayne looked a little mollified at that, but the frown still hadn't gone away. He set the toy down again, then leaned back, crossing his arms. "Still, it's not like she's exactly safe to be around, even without that. You saw what she did to him, that day she broke out and got up to the bridge and didn't want nobody stopping her. Not to mention what she did to me."
Mal's temper flared at the reminder of certain events he'd been trying not to dwell on. So much for keeping this conversation peaceable-like. "That's enough, Jayne. I came pretty damn close to puttin' you out the airlock as it is; you really don't want to push me on this."
Jayne jerked a little at that, surprise and dismay washing over his face. "Aw, Mal, it's been months since Ariel. I done told you, I just got stupid; I won't do nothing like that again. Just because I think the girl's a menace don't mean you gotta keep bringing that up every time we have an argument about her."
Mal slammed his plate down on the console without regard for the food that went flying and stood up, glaring at the mercenary. Did he never learn? "You think I'm blind, Jayne? Is that it? You think I didn't notice the storage door'd been opened from your side? She didn't break out and attack you, Jayne, she was waitin' when you came in after her."
It took a moment for that to register; Jayne uncrossed his arms, paling, and raised his hands placatingly. "I wasn't gonna do nothing to her, I swear," he said hastily. "I was just gonna take her off ship in a shuttle, stow her somewhere she wouldn't be a danger to the crew. You think I'd turn her over to the Feds? They'd kill me soon as look at me, I tried to do anything like that; I learned my lesson on Ariel. Besides, even if they didn't, you'd hunt me down and kill me after."
Mal narrowed his eyes. At least Jayne hadn't tried to deny it this time, and his claims sounded pretty close to what Mal had already guessed to be the truth. "I figured as much. And that's about half the reason you're still breathing."
Relief washed over Jayne's face, followed by a wrinkle of suspicion between his brows. "What's the other half?"
Mal stared impassively at him a moment longer, trying to decide how much to say, then decided to hell with it. Jayne was going to squawk, but best he knew now, or there could be more trouble later. "Well, she wanted out of there, that's plain, and we're still not sure the extent of what she can do with what they did to her. I figure there might have been a little bit of influence, there, myself."
Jayne jerked again, straightening up to his full height; he was maybe an inch or two taller than Mal, but he ofttimes seemed a lot larger when he was angry. "Nĭ tāmā de. Tiānxià suŏyŏu de rén. Dōu gāisĭ! You tellin' me she can mess with people's brains now? And you're still wantin' to keep her?"
Mal sighed, but didn't back down. "She ain't done nothing like that to me, Jayne, and as far as I can tell anything she may have done to you was for good cause, not for the hell of it. I aim to give her the benefit of the doubt on this. Just like you, I might add, in case you're still not noticing the fact that you're still breathing."
"Ain't done nothing?" Jayne's voice started to rise, and an angry flush crept into his face. "You so sure about that? You've been soft on her ever since she got here, and it's got worse since what happened on Miranda. I ain't never seen you treat no-one that careful afore, not even 'Nara."
Mal stared down at Jayne's index finger, which the man had been using to prod him in the chest for emphasis, then raised an eyebrow in Jayne's direction. "We ain't discussin' this any further, Jayne," he said, putting steel in his voice. "I know what I know, and I ain't got no obligation to discuss with you the way I treat my crew. You understanding me, here, or do we got to take this to the cargo bay after all?"
Jayne worked his jaw a little, but seemed to finally get the point. "Yeah, I got it. Don't mean I have to like it, though."
Mal held eye contact with him a little longer, just to make sure he'd made himself clear, then glanced back over to the pilot's console. "I'll keep that in mind," he said mildly, taking in the mess he'd made with his plate. "Now, I got my dinner to eat, and captainy things to be doing. You got anything else you need to get off your chest?"
"Not a damn thing." Jayne stomped off the bridge, still plainly disgruntled, and Mal sat back down in the pilot's chair with a sigh. He made quick work of cleaning up the console, then toggled the darkened screen back on and frowned down at its mysterious contents.
húndàn = "bastard"
© 2005 Jedi Buttercup.