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Chapter posted Nov. 27, 2005
Mal crossed the cargo bay catwalks to the open hatch of Shuttle Two, feeling with every step as though he'd left a part of himself behind. He already knew what his answer would be, no matter what ZoŽ had to say; he'd keep Inara aboard, using her to spin whatever information got sent to her Guild. He hadn't missed her plea-- "If it isn't me, it'll be someone else"-- and the implied suggestion she'd be more'n willing to color her reports to the benefit of ship and crew. The prospect of facing her every day, though, after the efficient way she'd trod on his dreams, left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Mal paused in the doorway to the shuttle, leaning against the jamb and breathing hard. The last time he'd stood here like this, it had been after the death of Book and the destruction of Haven; remarkable how grief of any sort could work on a man's control. Perfect example of the reason he'd put up rules about shipboard relations in the first place, not that anyone else ever took him serious on the subject. And not that there'd ever been actual relations 'tween him and Inara-- but that didn't make no difference to how he felt.
"Cap'n?" ZoŽ's voice sounded behind him unexpectedly, near sending him right out of his skin.
"ZoŽ?" he replied, taken a deep breath before turning to face her. "Was just scarin' up them crates; think we was storin' 'em in this shuttle."
She crossed her arms and kept staring at him, her set expression fair screaming 'I know you better than that, sir.' "Was wonderin' what was keepin' you," was all she said aloud.
Mal studied her face a moment, then glanced over her shoulder toward Inara's territory. He'd promised to tell his first mate anyhow; weren't no profit in waiting. "Had me a talk with the ambassador," he said as neutrally as he could. "Seems she's been keepin' a few secrets from us all this time."
ZoŽ's brows drew together. "That ain't no surprise. Ain't not a one of us without secrets. I am a little surprised she'd share any that'd have you so hangdog, though. She ain't taken up with that Wing character again, has she?"
He snorted a little at that suggestion. Honestly, he'd almost rather it had to do with a client. If Inara'd just chosen elsewhere, that he could handle. He might be a mite jealous, but he could handle it. Weren't no such easy way to deal with the truth.
"Or something," he replied. "Turns out she's been spyin' on us for her Guild since the day she set foot on Serenity, watchin' us to see when and where we met up with other Browncoats."
ZoŽ's eyes widened. "Āiyā, huàile," she breathed. "Guess it's a good thing we been keepin' our distance, then."
He nodded. "My thought as well."
"Don't make no sense though," she continued. "All that time she stayed on board? Toward the end there she was helpin' out on jobs often as not; don't strike me as the kind of behavior encouraged in a spy. Not to mention Simon and River-- you think she was behind Early showin' up the way he did?"
Mal shook his head. "I had the same worries, but she swears she ain't reported nothin' but what they asked for. Maybe it's naÔve of me to believe her, but I can't help but think we would've got shut down a long time ago if she were reportin' in more detail."
ZoŽ sighed. "Still don't make no sense. Why tell us now?"
"'Cause she wants to stay on board," he answered grimly, "and after Miranda, I s'pose she don't feel like keepin' it from us no more. Givin' us some control over what she tells 'em."
"Ō, zhè zhēn shì ge kuàile de jìnzhăn." ZoŽ shook her head. "You're thinkin' of takin' her up on it, ain't you?"
"Well, as there seems to be rumors spreadin' already 'bout our involvement with Miranda..." Mal shrugged, then turned away and moved further into the shuttle, glancing around at the boxes and things they'd been storing in there.
ZoŽ finished his sentence for him, as he'd known she would. "Might keep some of the hounds off our tail, they think they got eyes on board."
"Exactly." He lifted the first of the empty crates into his hands, then turned and held it out to her.
She accepted it with a frown as he went back for the next one. "You're the Captain."
He dredged up a smile for her, fending off the concern in her eyes. "'Sides," he said, attempting cheer. "Kaylee'd kill me, I scared her jiĕ jiĕ off again."
"Ain't that the truth," she conceded warily. "Long as you're sure, then."
Mal nodded, then gestured with his crate toward the catwalks. "Sure as can be. Speakin' of. You sure 'bout this movin' thing? Ain't too late to change your mind."
ZoŽ shook her head again, then turned and headed for the stairs up to the crew passage. "Sure as can be," she said firmly, echoing his answer.
He knew when not to push.
The next half hour or so was pure chaos, as Mal managed to get sucked into the moving despite his intention to stay well out of it. He never could say no to Kaylee's puppy-dog eyes, and she seemed to have passed the trick on to River; he was reminded more'n once of that talk he'd meant to have with his mechanic 'bout all the ways she had of getting around him when he was tetchy, and how River didn't need to know 'em. Might be too late for that, now.
One good thing come of it, though; on one of his trips fetching stuff from the Tam guest quarters, he ran into the doc with an armload of his own, and nobody else in range to hear 'em. Perfect time for a few things he hadn't dared say at breakfast, what with Kaylee right there listening.
"Look, doc," he began, putting on his most serious face. "I know it might seem kinda sudden-like, this offer to move you in with Kaylee, 'specially since you ain't been, y'know, together all that long."
Simon opened his mouth, then closed it, as though he didn't quite know what to say. He'd been looking a mite stunned ever since the earlier conversation, as though he weren't quite sure who to thank for his sudden good fortune, and Mal'd noticed he weren't too articulate in the grip of the kinder emotions. Could be he was a mite uncertain 'bout how Mal would react to whatever he said, too; smart boy.
"You know my opinion on crew gettin' together. A mite too late to stop it now, though, so I s'pose I'm just goin' to have to put up with it. Long as my mèimei's happy, I'm happy, dŏng ma?"
"Wŏ dŏng." Simon nodded, looking relieved, and shifted his load in his arms as if to continue what he were doing.
"I ain't done with you yet," Mal cautioned him. "Anything goes wrong between you, the double bed in that room'll convert to two singles, and we can swap you into River's bunk. 'Less, of course, it ain't Kaylee's decision; you hurt her, the airlock's always an option."
Simon paled a little, but stood firm. "I'll do my best to keep her happy," he said. "I know I've had a hard time adjusting to this life, but I could never imagine going back now, and Kaylee's..." An unconscious smile curved his lips. "She's, she's wonderful. As long as she wants me, I'm hers."
Mal nodded approvingly. "I'll hold you to that," he said, then stepped aside and let the doc on his way. He hoped Simon's enthusiasm would hold up past their visit to Osiris; he almost wished now they had some other destination. No matter. Better faced now than later, to his mind.
He carried up his own armload of belongings, then pled off running any more errands on account of 'Captain-y things to do'. Which basically meant pulling up the Cortex to check the latest news 'waves, followed by a glance over all the important screens and dials. Serenity was still on course, but there was a persistent signal glitch that'd been showing up every time the Cortex was active since they lifted off Persephone, and he was a mite suspicious about it.
Alliance may've curled up to lick its wounds since losing a quarter of its fleet against the Reavers, but they'd hardly been the only ones after River. There would be more hunters coming for her. And more'n that-- those as had made her had now had a chance to see their weapon dance against foes as would scare normal folk twice her size. Clear slate for ship and crew didn't mean nothing if the folk as thought they owned River had some way of picking her up whenever they took a mind to, now they knew how useful she was.
All those parts come aboard from unusually helpful vendors to fix Serenity-- it was a fair bet at least one had a smart transmitter embedded in it. Soon as they was dirtside, he planned to get Kaylee looking for it with a scanner, maybe move the snoop-chip to some other visiting ship. Close-up pursuit could still detect Serenity's new pulse beacon, but weren't no way to track that over interplanetary distances, and with luck the exchange wouldn't get noticed for a good long time.
Couldn't do nothing 'bout that while the crew was busy rearranging quarters, though. For the time being, he might as well get back to another mystery he might maybe have a chance at figuring out: the tape Book had left behind.
Mal fumbled it out of his belt pouch, then inserted it in the reader and frowned at the roster of dates it gave him. He'd already tried the first entry, and learned more'n he'd wanted to about his reclusive friend. The following entries would probably be more of the same; if he really wanted to put the strange tale he'd read into some kind of perspective, best check at the end this time and see if Book had left a specific message.
Hello, Mal.He nodded. That answered that question; it were Book's decision to have this forwarded to him, not any strange politics on the part of the Abbey's leadership. Not that he'd seriously thought so, but it were nice to have his conclusions confirmed.
If you're reading this, I don't doubt you've already pulled up at least one of my earlier entries and now have serious questions that you hope I'll answer here.Mal scowled at that. Shepherd knew him, all right. The payoff on this 'good cause' better had be worth it.
That weren't the end of the entry, though; what else could Book have to say, if it weren't explanation? Better not be a diatribe on his lack of religion-- he hadn't never told the man about his own religiosity in his youth, nor his reasons for giving up on God, and though the Shepherd had usually kept his mouth shut on the subject he'd made clear he'd like to convert Mal into one of his flock. What better time to do that than after he was dead, when Mal couldn't shut him up?
A quick scan of the text didn't seem to prove out that theory, though. Mal sighed and dove back in.
The organization I once worked for, the Watchers' Council, is a private organization that often works hand-in-hand with the research departments of major corporations, such as Blue Sun. Official inquiries to either entity are unlikely to net you any reliable information, however, and will expose you to levels of scrutiny you would be better to avoid. Indeed, none of the things you need to know about River in order to keep her safe over the long run can be discovered through such channels or would be believed if I told you plainly.Mal scrubbed a hand through his hair. What a fàngzòng fēngkuáng de jié; if the man had so much faith in him, why not just tell him outright? He hated this kind of self-discovery lèsè. Whatever strangeness lay in the tale of Book's life, couldn't be any stranger than what Mal had already lived through.
"You'd be surprised."
Mal's head jerked up, his hand coming down automatically on the screen's off toggle as he reacted to the intruding voice.
River smiled gently at him from the co-pilot's chair, her knees tucked up under her chin. She had a habit of doing that, sneaking up on him without tripping his usual danger-sense. "You said it yourself," she continued. "Half of writing history is hiding the truth. The truths Book knew were hidden even before Earth was left behind-- but truth never sleeps. It is time for you to awake."
He frowned at her. "You know what he's talkin' about, then. So why don't you just tell me?"
She shook her head, still smiling. "The girls are objects, weapons being readied for the fight; the handlers see no need to tell them their purpose."
"But you know somethin', it's pretty obvious," Mal insisted. Even hearing the story in the kind of garbled metaphor River tended to lapse into would be better than all this damned research-- he'd never been particularly fond of paperwork in the past, 'specially reading others' reports.
"I Dream," she announced, as if that explained everything.
Mal shook his head in frustration. "I don't got time for this," he growled.
"Just time enough," River insisted, then turned away from him with an intent expression and poked at the navigation screen in front of her. "Time to tell her she can stay," she added firmly, pointing at their flight path-- which showed them much closer to their destination than Mal had thought.
"Guĭ." She was right; he needed to share his decision with Inara, then tell the rest of the crew what they'd be doing once they landed. "Time flies when you're havin' fun," he muttered, then reached for the intercom.
Āiyā, huàile = "Shit on my head"
© 2005 Jedi Buttercup.