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Chapter posted Oct. 30, 2005
Sometimes, Mal thought of the Black almost as a living thing, like Serenity or the old ranch house his Ma had raised him in on Shadow. But where his boat and his childhood home both had an air of fondness to 'em, like they'd wrap you up in their loving arms and try to keep the darkness from you if'n they could, the Black was a horse of a different color. It divided up the worlds, harbored monsters, tore uncareful ships to pieces, and sent more'n one man to gibbering from staring into it too long. The legends of bogeymen had been about a long time before the Reavers had made their way onto the scene.
The Black was mercurial, tested a man harshly betimes and rewarded him richly at others. But unlike most else in Mal's life, it had always been there waiting for him and never pretended to be nothing that it weren't. Night like this, he needed that straightforwardness more'n a little.
Mal contemplated the stars for near to an hour after ZoŽ's departure, wondering what else he'd find on Book's tape, what either set of Tams would be like to do when they fetched up on Osiris, what might maybe go wrong with their latest job, and whether Inara would be about to bail 'em out of it....
He really needed to have a solid talk with that woman, something more substantial than that glance they'd shared at the doors of Mr. Universe's complex or the smile and pert reply she'd given when he'd asked if she were ready to leave 'em. He'd missed her something fierce while she'd been at her training house, and from the ease with which she'd slipped back into their usual arguing style he'd guessed she'd missed him, too. But there were more to the equation of him and her than the simplicity of wanting, else one of them would've done something about it a long time ago.
He was no gentleman, for one, and parts of that, particularly the scars left him by the War, Inara didn't seem comfortable with. She'd turned her face away from him on Haven, and there'd been horror and dismay in her voice when she'd demanded he think about what he was asking of the crew. She hadn't brought the subject up again since her own taste of battle, but he'd be a fool if he thought that was the end of it. Then, too, there was the fact she was too proud to stay aboard forever without paying her own way. Not to mention, the contacts and reputation as had got them out of so many tight corners were all based on that Guild license of hers, which would lapse if'n she didn't use it. It was a right tangle.
Mal cared for Inara, he couldn't deny it no more, but so much still stood between 'em. He still didn't think he could take the inevitable loss if he let her in that close-- matter of fact, he feared it might actually break him, much like what losing Wash had done to ZoŽ-- but he'd never been one for backing down from a difficult situation, neither. Now was the time to ask-- and answer-- the question of what they were to each other afore the 'verse did it for 'em.
Mal sighed and slowly moved back to the pilot's seat, scrubbing a hand through his hair before pulling up the course projections and making sure the autopilot would keep 'em on track while he slept. Before Miranda, he or Wash had often stayed up with Serenity most of the night keeping a casual watch, but he didn't have no one he'd trust to trade off with at the moment. The proximity alarms would have to do that job for him.
That task taken care of, he turned to the reader-screen again and glanced down at the place he'd left off.
"To that end, I, Derrial Tomos, along with several other Watcher trainees, have been sent out to the border worlds to search the population for Potential Slayers who may have been overlooked. I will be presenting myself as an itinerant schoolteacher, a role for which the academic side of my education has well prepared me. I expect no difficulty fitting in with whatever communities I may temporarily settle in; most parents are likely to be glad to have a genuinely cultured individual teaching their children, and the mothers in particular are likely to see me as a prospect for any daughters who may have already finished their schooling.
The entry ended there. Mal frowned grimly as he turned the screen off, then ejected the tape and stowed it in his belt pocket. He could almost hear the Operative's words after Haven in his mind-- "What I do is evil. I've no illusions about that. But it must be done." Young Book wasn't quite at that "world without sin" stage just yet, but the similarities as did exist made Mal's skin crawl.
Book had to've known Mal would react this way, too. Man was skilled at reading people, and however he'd got that talent didn't have no bearing on this question: knowing it would shake Mal's opinion of him, why do it? Had to be something more going on here.
Mal stretched a bit in the pilot's chair, loosening muscles made stiff by hours of stillness, then closed up the bridge and made his way toward the common areas. It had become a bit of a tradition for him to put Serenity to sleep on the nights she was in the Black, checking up on everyone aboard her and making sure everything was ship-shape before turning in to his own bunk. After weeks of being dirt-bound it felt like coming home again, even more than lifting off from Persephone in the first place.
The hatch to ZoŽ's bunk was shut up tight, as was Kaylee's; he doubted anyone was sleeping in either bunk just yet, though the reasons weren't like to be at all similar. Jayne's hatch was still open, a faint sound of guitar strumming drifting up the ladder; the instrument had been a gift from Book, and Mal didn't doubt Jayne was thinking of him, too, this night.
That were four of his crew accounted for, assuming the doc was with Kaylee (and it was pretty safe to do so these days, little as Mal wanted to think on it). The common area was dark, just enough lighting to keep a man from tripping over chairs on his way through; the engine room was equally empty, thrumming softly, lights pulsing in the familiar rhythm of Serenity's heartbeat.
Mal took the stairs down from the aft passage to the lower level and found both the lounge area and the infirmary dark and quiet as the level above. Weren't no sound nor lights coming from the passenger quarters, neither; River might actually have gone to bed on time this once. He'd used to run into her on this tour frequent-like, hiding in strange places and making stranger comments. Probably, now that he thought on it, taking advantage of the time the other minds on board were quiet to spend a spell in her own head.
Mal walked back past the infirmary to the cargo bay and stood a moment in the doorway, taking in the vast, echoing space. Extra supplies and spare parts were crated up to one side; overhead, the mule swung securely from its supports, all fixed up again after coming partway loose and thrashing about during Serenity's near-demise. Fortunate it had been fixable after what it had cost 'em; they couldn't never afford another one, not unless they got another score like the Lassiter. The thing had been easy enough to lift, but it had taken Saffron's codes to get 'em there and Inara's contacts to fence it, and daring such again would be asking for trouble.
He took the catwalks across to poke his head into Shuttle Two, then paced back across 'em toward the hatch to Shuttle One. It was dogged shut, no light visible through its window; looked he'd be having that talk with Inara in the morning instead. He'd rather not do so when the others might listen in or take note of it-- he'd taken enough fèihuà from 'em the last time she'd left the ship to want 'em blaming her choices on him this time-- but despite all her comments about him barging in unasked, he never had done when he knew her to be sleeping or bathing or... occupied.
Mal shook his head and walked back out of the cargo bay, taking the near stairs up to the fore passage. Morning would take care of itself when it came. Time and past time for him to be catching some shut-eye.
He climbed down into his quarters, shutting the hatch behind him as he went, and began unbuckling his gun-belt soon as he got to the bottom. When he turned to toss it bed-ward, though, he spotted something unexpected-- long white limbs and dark hair stretched out casual-like atop his blankets.
"What in the name of suŏyŏu de dōu shìdàng... River?"
The girl stirred, blinking her eyes at him sleepily. "I've made the bed warm for you," she said softly, then stretched and covered her mouth for a wide yawn.
The hair stood up on the back of Mal's neck at that comment and he shuddered uneasily, remembering the last time he'd heard those words. Least this time, the girl in his bed was on it, not under his covers, and still had her dress on; he could just see her announcing innocently at breakfast that she'd been down here in the altogether, and then she and Kaylee would both be hating him for what he'd have to do to keep Simon from killing him.
"I see that," he said carefully. "You do know you're not supposed to be down here, don't you?"
Her face fell, and she sat up slowly. "I couldn't hear him breathing," she said, plaintively. "Couldn't hear anyone breathing, couldn't..." She clenched her hands a little, plainly distressed.
"Who, Simon?" Mal thought on that, his irritation at finding her here fading into concern. "Hadn't thought on that before. What with him and Kaylee keeping company, you're alone in the passenger dorm, ain't you?"
She bit her lip and nodded slowly. "Gets awful lonely in the Black," she replied.
"And the empty crew quarters ain't been cleaned in months." He sighed. "Look, you can't stay the night here. What say you go back to your room, just 'til morning. After breakfast we'll have Kaylee come and help you spiff it up, move in your things, even put a sign on the door if you want. Only fitting, anyhow; can't have our new co-pilot runnin' all the way up from below-decks every time she has to fly, now can we?"
He gave her a reassuring smile and was rewarded by a look of relief on her face. "Xièxie, Captain," she said, then unfolded herself and padded past him to the ladder. She darted up to give him a kiss on the cheek in passing, then giggled at his expression before disappearing up through the hatch.
Gorram girl; he knew who to blame that little trick on. Miss Kaylee would be getting an earful in the morning-- and not just about that. He needed to have a word with her about not thinking what stealing the doc overnight would do to his sister, too. And as for Simon... well, the look on his face when Mal told him about this little encounter ought to be punishment enough.
"I am a bad man," he said aloud to his non-existent audience, then gave a tired chuckle and finished his nightly routine.
fèihuà = "nonsense"
© 2005 Jedi Buttercup.