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Chapter posted Nov. 4, 2005
Mal woke to a dull throbbing in his gut, a sure sign he'd been thrashing about in his sleep during the night. Alliance medical technology had done wonders for the stab wound that had aerated his insides, the laser burn on his back, and all the other little souvenirs the Operative had left him with, but flesh weren't like metal or plastic, coming out of the shop good as the day it were made. It still took considerable time to recover.
He'd been tempted more'n once to ask the doc for something to knock him out of an evening, keep him from stretching healing tissues every time he had a nightmare. Worse came to worst, though, he'd rather be sore and on his feet when the next Operative or Early came calling than laid out in his bunk dead to the 'verse. Man in his position couldn't afford to cultivate that kind of vulnerability.
Mal glanced at the clock and decided he could spare a few more minutes lying around feeling sorry for himself-- Captain's prerogative. Then he began rubbing at clenched muscles, loosening 'em up while he thought over his tentative plans for the day. Were a lot going on, between the scheduled stop at the Training House (staying or leaving, Inara's business there would probably take 'em a few hours) and all the 'maintenance' chores as needed doing afore they reached Osiris. If he really meant to have that discussion with Inara, he'd best be getting to it.
He rolled out of bed and went about his morning ablutions, then took careful inventory of his clean shirts. His choices were pretty much limited to his usual captain-y red or brown or the blue one what Kaylee had told him brought out the color of his eyes; he weren't sure which would make a better impression, or even whether it mattered. Not like his best measured up to Inara's finery, or would make her any more like to say what he wanted to hear.
Might make him feel better though, Mal decided, facing his doom looking as pretty as possible. He allowed himself a wry smile at his own expense, then chose the blue shirt and finished dressing. Not for the first time, he mourned the death of his leather suspenders; sure'n they'd got a bit worn since the war, but he'd been plenty attached to the things and he'd had more'n a few compliments on the look over the years. Ah, well. The new ones held his trousers up just fine, and that was all he asked of 'em.
The ship was still quiet when he made his way up to the bridge. The autopilot had held course over the night, and no changes would be needed for at least three more hours; for once, Mal's sky was as uncluttered as he preferred it to be. Thinning out half the Reaver fleet and a good quarter of the Alliance's war-craft had thrown doors wide for the smuggling trade in these parts, but not too many boats was taking advantage of that just yet.
He contemplated that thought until the scent of coffee drifted up from the kitchen, plotting where to look next after their business with Sir Warwick was done. Operative had been pretty gorram thorough when he took out their contacts; Mal was fair sure the hóuzi de pìgu had dug the list out of Fanty and Mingo, as the only survivors he'd found so far had been ones the boys never done heard of like Sir Warwick or folk like Patience and Badger what wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire, much less shelter him from Feds. Might be a good time to re-connect with a few more of the old war buddies he'd kept his distance from in recent years.
The coffee was of ZoŽ's making, and she had a cup waiting for him when he walked in off the bridge. He took it with a grateful smile, then slouched into his chair at the head of the dining table and wrapped his hands around the warm mug. She took a seat to his right, and they sat there in companionable silence for several minutes while they waited for the others to begin trickling in from their bunks. Crew didn't eat breakfast together every day, but first day on a job they usually made time to touch base.
Kaylee and Simon were the first to join 'em, looking all googly-eyed at each other even this early in the morning, carefully approaching from opposite sides of the common area like the boy hadn't snuck down the stairs from the fore passage and come back up again from behind. Mal bit hard to suppress the mischievous grin that hovered on his lips, wondering who they thought they was fooling, and threw ZoŽ an amused glance. He gave 'em enough time to get their own coffee and a bite or two to eat, then cleared his throat.
"So, doctor. Hear you're shackin' up with my mechanic, now."
He caught Simon with a mouthful of coffee, and the boy choked on it in a most satisfying manner. "Shénme?" he blurted, wiping at his face and then the table with a loose napkin.
"I said..." Mal began again, carefully expressionless.
"I heard what you said," Simon said, making a face that curiously resembled the one he'd worn back in Canton when the townsfolk burst into song about 'the man they call Jayne'. "I'm just having trouble believing that you said it," the doctor continued, with a quick glance in Kaylee's direction. "I'd expect it of Jayne, but not...." He paused. "Are you asking my intentions?"
Mal followed the doc's gaze to Kaylee, saw her watching the both of 'em part-amused and part-alarmed. Wouldn't bother her none, Mal knowing what they was up to, obvious as it was to folk with two working eyes anyhow. He was fair sure she was remembering his problems with Wash and ZoŽ, though, back when they'd started sharing a bunk. No point keeping her worried on that score.
"Guĭ, no," he told Simon, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Unless you intend on makin' our lil' Kaylee unhappy? 'Cause I'm fair sure there ain't no other way of pryin' her loose of you now, long as it took her to catch you in the first place."
"Cap'n!" Kaylee objected, blushing a little, exasperated with him now. He grinned back at her in all fondness, enjoying the chance to tease her all brother-like before launching into the real point of the conversation.
If possible, Simon looked even more flabbergasted at Mal's answer. "So you brought it up as crudely as possible in order to what, give us your blessing?"
Mal let the smile fade off his face and leaned forward on his elbows, emphasizing his next words in his best Stern Captain Voice. "No, son. I'm just sayin' it might've been nice to hear about the change in sleepin' quarters from the pair of you direct. Captain needs to know where to find his crew at all times, which shouldn't include the doctor's sis turnin' up in his bed complainin' of loneliness."
Kaylee's eyes went wide and round; the sounds of Simon and ZoŽ both choking on their coffee were music to Mal's ears.
"River what?" Simon yelped, going from defensive boyfriend to protective brother in the blink of an eye. "But why would she.... Is she okay?"
"Is she okay?" Mal objected, deliberately misunderstanding. "Hate to admit it, doc, but River's a mite more dangerous than I am, and you know it."
"That isn't what I..." Simon sputtered, then trailed off, grasping at one of Kaylee's hands for reassurance. "What was she doing there?"
Mal snorted. "Talkin' 'bout how she couldn't hear you breathin' no more at night. What d'you think she was doing there?"
"In your bed?"
On another day, getting accused of lecherous behavior for no good reason, Mal might've gone huffy and irritable at the expression of horror on Simon's face. Having caused it his ownself for effect, though, Mal was in a fine state of humor. He drew his face into innocent lines and replied, "Reckon she fell asleep waitin' while I was up on the bridge. Found her there when I got to my bunk, and let me tell you, it gave me quite the turn."
"Reckon it would at that, sir," ZoŽ said blandly, reminding him of her presence. Mal glanced over in her direction and saw her giving him the evil eye; he'd have to make it up to her later.
"But why you?" Simon continued, doggedly. "Why didn't she just tell me she was upset? I could've..."
"Could've what?" Mal smirked at him. "Brought her along with you? Drugged her flat? 'Spect she didn't feel much like intruding, nor availin' herself of any chemical remedies. And what's wrong with me? You'd rather she picked Jayne?"
"I'd rather she didn't pick anyone," Simon fretted. "You didn't let her, I mean..."
"Didn't let her stay there, if that's what you're askin'," Mal said primly. "What kinda man you think I am? Girl ain't even eighteen yet. Did see her point though; what if she woke up screamin', or we had another fire, or another húndàn like Early got on board? Wouldn't none of us be close enough to help her."
"Didn't think 'bout that," Kaylee said softly, looking guiltily down at the table. "Just... didn't want to disturb her, you know? Walls down there's all paper thin, and... well..."
Simon's face had lost its angry flush as Mal's words hit home. "No, it's my fault," he soothed Kaylee, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "I should've asked if Inara could watch her..."
"The Slayer Slays while her Watcher Watches," his mèimei's voice interrupted him sharply, "but Inara's not mine, and there's nothing here to Slay."
Mal jumped in his chair, startled, and cast a glance over his shoulder. River'd come up the front stairs, poised in the fore hatchway wearing that flowy blue sleeveless sheath of a dress Inara'd given her a few months back. She had a serious, disgruntled expression on her face, and as Mal turned his attention to her she looked away from her brother and wrinkled her nose in Mal's direction. "Is it time for presents yet?"
A prickle of alarm ran up Mal's spine as the word 'Slayer' sank in, souring his good mood. Had she picked it up from him, that thing of Book's he'd been reading? Or were his half-formed worries more'n just speculation-- an entire school run by kuángzhĕ de doctors trying to carve little girls into nursery tale Alliance heroes? He frowned, trying to shake off that line of thought before she could pick it up and spill the beans to the whole crew, and gave a nod to answer her question.
"Was just getting to that part," he told her, then turned back toward Kaylee and raised his eyebrows at her.
"Presents?" Kaylee perked up at the notion, though she looked a bit confused. "What kind of presents?"
"The kind where I promised you'd help clear the extra crew-bunk and move her things up," Mal told her. "This mornin', if at all possible, as I got chores what need all the extra hands I can get once we're planet-side."
"Cái bù shì!" Jayne objected, comin' in behind River. "You're givin' the moonbrain the spare bunk, too?" He glared irritably at Mal as he crossed to the kitchen lockers, then pulled out a bottle of homebrew liquor and poured a splash of it in the bottom of a coffee mug.
Mal sighed. "She ain't a passenger no more, Jayne. That should be clear even to you by now." He glanced around at the other four faces in the room, fed up of the mercenary's petulance. "Anyone else got an objection?"
Simon blushed a little, but didn't protest; Mal found that a good sign, as he'd as good as announced the doc would be moving in with Kaylee permanent-like and he weren't sure just how far the boy had thought ahead. Kaylee looked delighted, though some of that were likely at the idea of getting another chance to decorate since he'd forbid her from painting any more in the common area. River just looked impatient.
ZoŽ didn't look pleased, though, and that were a surprise. She frowned at Mal mightily, opening her mouth several times, but no words escaped. Then she looked down into her mug and sighed. "I've been thinkin'," she finally said, in a rough but determined voice, "that my bunk's a bit too empty these days. If..." she swallowed. "If we're going to be moving folk around anyway, seems like it might be a better use of space to put Simon and Kaylee in it."
Mal stared at her, at a loss for words. "ZoŽ..." He put a hand on her shoulder, not sure which of 'em he was trying to reassure. He'd never even thought she might not want to keep the space she'd shared with Wash-- hadn't thought; of course she'd feel it again every time she looked at the man's dinosaurs, or his clothes in the wardrobe, or the empty space in her bed. "Got a few empty crates knockin' around. Pack up anything you don't want to keep now-- I'll put it in a hold 'til you're ready to look at it again."
She glanced up from her mug and gave him an almost-smile of gratitude. "I'd appreciate that, sir."
"Looks like we got us a busy morning, then," Mal said, clapping his hands together as he turned back to the rest of the crew. "Jayne, you mind helpin' ZoŽ? Doc and Kaylee got their own stuff to move, and River's, and it'll all go a sight faster with an extra pair of arms."
Jayne grunted, but didn't object, and tossed back the contents of his mug.
"Okay then," Mal pushed back his chair and stretched. "Shiny. I'll go poke around for them crates; then I'll be on the bridge if'n y'all need me. Try not to need me, though, dŏng ma?"
They all ignored him as he left the room, already busy discussing just what was gonna go where. He shook his head at them, turned his steps toward Shuttle One, hoping his next conversation would go better than the last.
hóuzi de pìgu = "monkey's butt"
© 2005 Jedi Buttercup.