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Chapter posted Oct. 26, 2006
The cleaning project got under way with about as much enthusiasm as Mal'd been expecting. Kaylee, still bright-eyed over Inara's promise to stay aboard Serenity, had a word or two of praise for River's first landing, but the others were all over nerves in one way or another as they grimly assembled in the cargo bay for the day's activity.
"So many long faces," Mal chided them, cracking open the first of the hidden smuggling holds and peering into the dark space. Pungent fumes drifted up, and he blinked as his eyes watered; it must've been the one he'd stowed their trading liquor in. Anything actually worth drinking they'd kept in the pantry off the kitchen, but the rotgut they'd kept out for dickering purposes, for when they had to deal with a backwater ruben with a real appreciation for the bargaining process. "We're goin' to need to spray this one out but good," he said, squinting, trying to get an idea for how many of the sealed earthenware containers might still be intact.
Metal scraped and shrieked as Jayne heaved open another pocket-sized space tucked in behind a legitimate cargo hold, and the mercenary grunted in disgust. "This one, too," he said. "Looks like we picked up a nest of little bitin' critters someplace, and they's all in the grain. Some of 'em's died in there, I think; don't look like we'll be able to salvage any of this plantin' seed."
"Might as well get rid of these disguises too, while we're tossin' out the garbage," ZoŽ added, holding a length of patterned cotton fabric at arm's length.
Mal squinted at the shapeless thing as he turned away from the hold he'd opened, waving the fumes out of his face. "Wèi! Isn't that the dress they tried to put you in on Triumph?" he blurted, remembering the complete lack of amusement on ZoŽ's face when they'd been negotiating for that job with Elder Gommen. Before that day, he'd only seen her in a dress all of once, when she'd dressed up for her wedding to Wash; he'd known the instant the elderly settler started talking about "dressing the part of the trader's wife" that ZoŽ was not going to be posing as the woman in question.
ZoŽ snorted. "You mean the dress you ended up wearin', sir?" she said, fluttering the garment at him like a matador's cape.
"Húchĕ," Kaylee blurted delightedly, clapping a hand over her mouth. "You didn't."
Mal raised his eyebrows at her and debated giving the cotton-airflow speech again, then decided it would be just that bit over the top. Really, it weren't his fault he'd had occasion to wear a dress more'n once in his varied career; it just so happened that the time on Triumph was the only one since Kaylee'd signed on to the crew, and she'd stayed back aboard ship with River, Simon and Book on that particular adventure.
"Tī wŏ de pìgu if I'm lyin'," he said, drawing a cross over his heart in the ancient sign for truth-telling.
"Why didn't nobody ever tell me 'bout this?" the mechanic asked plaintively, still looking as if she were about to break into laughter.
"I suspect we were all slightly more concerned with the presence of a certain Mrs. Reynolds at the time," Simon said dryly, drawing more fabric out of the compartment ZoŽ had opened. The snarl of dark cloth resolved itself into several slightly crumpled medical uniforms from St. Lucy's Hospital in Ariel City, left behind when they'd got rid of their counterfeit ambulance.
"That do sound familiar," Mal said, latching on to the explanation, then paused and aimed a frown in Kaylee's direction. "Didn't you tell me you was going to be doing mechanic-y things on the bridge today?" he hinted, wondering what she was up to.
"Just stoppin' by to offer a little moral support, is all," she said, making exaggeratedly innocent eyes at him.
Mal finally caught sight of the little technical gadget in her hand and grunted. Wouldn't have been his choice to start with a surface scan of the cargo bay while all of them was down there, but he supposed she did at least have the element of distraction in her favor. "Yeah, well," he grumbled half-heartedly, "you stand around much longer disturbin' the doc and I'll have to find you somethin' more constructive to do." Then he picked up the pair of work gloves he'd set out and slipped them on for protection from the broken crockery he was about to wrangle.
"I'm goin', I'm goin'," she muttered, then followed her own instruction. She leaned up on her tippy-toes as she passed Simon, pressing a quick kiss to his lips; the boy blushed a little, still embarrassed to be seen necking in public, and stared starry-eyed after her as she headed into the ship's interior.
Mal sighed at the display and shot a glance at his second to see how she was holding up. She returned his glance with a raised eyebrow and a flat stare, the equivalent of "Back off, sir," in ZoŽ-speak; he shrugged apologetically at her, then turned back to the tedious work before him.
They broke for a quick meal a couple of hours later, eating up the last of the perishables they'd bought on Persephone, but otherwise spent the late morning and early afternoon bagging bits of variegated wreckage and tossing it into the lower airlock to be vented with their next garbage dump. There were a few salvageables in the lot, including most of Kaylee's spare odds and ends and some bolts of undyed fabric they'd took in lieu of payment some while ago, but most everything that could have broken, had.
River did come up with a few baubles she felt worth keeping: a bobble-headed geisha doll as had somehow escaped from the last shipment, a pretty length of patterned scrap silk suitable for a wall hanging, a bit of twisted metal what bore a vague resemblance to a man on a horse, and a few other odds and ends to scatter across the desk in her cabin. Mal watched her smiling over her bits and bobs and made a mental note to pick up a spare light slate for her personal use next time he had a chance; girl had a right to keep her own books, schematics, notes on whatever.
Now that she was officially crew, it was his responsibility to do for her as much as it was her brother's. Not to criticize Simon-- the boy had thrown a promising future away to save his mèimei, at least as promising a future as could be had in the Union of Allied Planets-- but he'd been focused on her health and sanity to the exclusion of all else since fetching up on Serenity, and it was time someone looked to encourage the side of her that was more person than child or weapon.
The hour finally came when they had things as picked clean as they were going to get, and Mal sent Jayne down to the nearby creek with the mule to fill several barrels with water. There was a pressure washing system in the cargo bay proper, but Mal preferred not to use ship's water for cleaning purposes unless'n it was necessary; out in the Black, there was only just so much recycling could be done before none of it was potable without boiling. Normally, he'd just hook her up to the dockside pumps when the bay needed cleaning, but that weren't always possible; fortunately, this world was wet enough it wouldn't be a problem.
They stacked all the undamaged cargo and supplies up along the catwalks and in the spare shuttle and propped every bay as far open as it would go and pumped the water into the spare tank. Then it was spraying time. Mal claimed that job for his ownself, meticulously blasting every crevice and corner clean, and felt surprisingly lighter for it, as though the debris on his soul that had accumulated over the last few months and years of following no other cause but freedom was washing out the main hatch along with the detritus of all that spoiled cargo.
He hadn't thought much on the nature of faith since the battle of Serenity Valley, more'n seven years gone. All the weeks he'd spent fighting there-- so many officers down he'd ended up with over two thousand men under his command, soon whittled down to not quite four hundred as the Alliance made them pay for every square meter in blood-- and it had come down to the complete failure of the 82nd to provide the necessary air support. It had been a long wait for a train don't come, as he'd told Book not so very long ago, and as if that hadn't been cruelty enough, he and his men had been stuck another seven days in that hellhole hiding behind the bodies of their dead while the Independent High Command negotiated their surrender. Come that first U-Day, Mal had put God behind him and never looked back. It weren't that he'd stopped believing that there was a higher power; he'd just decided that if the Man Upstairs cared so little for him and his, then he was surely going to return the favor.
His opinion hadn't exactly changed on that subject. But Mal had to admit, something had sparked in him when Book had clasped bloody hands to Mal's face and ordered him to just believe. It was like he'd been half-asleep since the day he'd left Hera, doing only what it took for him and his to survive; then all of the sudden he'd had a cause again, a focus, something to fight for. Something worth dying for.
So what if that cause was all tangled up with the fate of a bùtài zhèngcháng de seventeen year old girl he might be leaving behind on Osiris? There were other girls out there needed protecting, other projects the Alliance had put in place that would need stopping. The bits he'd seen of Book's journal so far had confirmed that for him, put the seal on the nebulous plans he'd been forming for the future. He wasn't sure yet how he was going to work a living in around it, nor whether it would be fair to drag the rest of the crew down with him, but there was time yet to think on it while they used up the public good will the Operative had bought 'em.
The hose slackened in Mal's grip as the pressure suddenly dropped, spilling the last of the water out of the cleaning tank onto the floor. He shut off the system with a sigh, scanning the metal plates with his gaze for any stubborn areas that might call for another tank-full, then decided it was good enough to do for now.
"Lookin' shiny," he commented, smiling benevolently around at his damp, grimy crew as he began coiling up the hose. "Now all we got to do is let it dry and shift the cargo back under 'fore we get to Osiris."
The tired smile slipped off Simon's face at that statement, and he flinched a little, staring at Mal in apparent disbelief. "Osiris?" the boy gasped.
Mal nodded back. "Got us a pick-up scheduled there for Sir Warwick, a week from tomorrow."
"But that's--" Simon tried to say, still staring.
"--Less'n three day's journey from here, I know," Mal interrupted, picking a possible objection out of the ether. He suspected it weren't the one Simon had actually been blurting, but that didn't so much matter; he was fair sure he knew what the boy's real problem was. "Figured you might maybe could look up your parents in the meantime, now you won't have to worry 'bout being snapped up by Alliance patrols for your trouble. You ain't seen them in what, somethin' like a year now? And it's been a lot longer for your sister."
"I..." Simon said uncertainly, then swallowed. "I'm not sure if they..." His voice trailed off, and he glanced over toward River, distress etching lines in his too-young face.
"It's okay, Simon," the girl said gently, dangling her feet over the edge of the catwalk where she'd perched to watch the action. She'd worn her boots today at Mal's suggestion, and they made rhythmic thumping sounds against the catwalk supports as she swung them back and forth. "I'm not the daughter they sent away any more, but they still have a part of you. Emotional closure is indicated before the formation of new family ties can be completed."
"But what if they..." Simon tried again, looking back to Mal with wide, lost eyes. "I can't..."
Jayne snorted at that and paused in stowing the empty water barrels to give Simon a baleful stare. "Can't never did nothin' but marry shouldn't and have a buncha little do-nothin's," he said, disdainfully. "You don't go, you're always gonna wonder if'n you shoulda."
Off everyone's stunned looks, he continued: "What? I got me a little sister last time I stopped talking to my ma. Don't want to think what their life might be like, I hadn't got back in touch with her."
"And on that surprisingly edifyin' note," Mal drawled, looking up at the hatch to Shuttle One as the sounds of the smaller ship docking with Serenity echoed down to the cargo bay. "Looks like we finished up just in time. I'll be up checkin' with Kaylee; the lot of you secure the loose gear, and I'll see about gettin' us out of the world."
ZoŽ moved to the door controls, starting the ramp to raising, and the others began bustling about in the open holds, settling covers and grates and hatches back into place. River came down from the catwalks as Mal climbed up them headed for the back stairs to the bridge; he smiled absently at her in passing, then arrested his steps in shock as he noticed a familiar glint of metal at her throat.
"Where'd you find that, little one?" he asked, throat suddenly tight, as he stared at the necklace that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
A cautious look crept over her face, one he weren't used to seeing directed at him, and she covered the little crucifix hastily with one hand. "It isn't poisonous, or a danger to me," she said defiantly, then lifted her chin, eyes scanning his face for his reaction.
"I don't know about that, darlin'," he said, wondering how it got from the hollowed-out spot under his mattress down into the cargo bay. "It sure ain't like to be a help. But if you want it--"
"I do," she confirmed.
"Then keep it," he said hoarsely, hardly knowing how to feel about it, and turned away.
He could feel her eyes on his back all the rest of the way up to the bridge.
Wèi! = "Hey!"
© 2006 Jedi Buttercup.