This is not scary, Wash told himself as he warily ascended the stairs to the foredeck passage. Reavers were scary. Alliance cruisers were scary. That fanged cartoon octopus in the fruity oaty bar commercial--that was scary. Fuzzy, raccoon-sized mammals were not scary.
Except they really were. Especially when there was one loose on the ship and it was entirely possible that the thing could jump out at him any second with all those teeth and claws and those beady red eyes.
A wolverine could take down a moose if it had a mind to. A moose! Wash had been doing some reading on the cortex since they'd brought the animals on board. Turned out the reason it was illegal to import them was because they pretty much devoured all the natural ecology in any environment they were transplanted to. Lovely critters.
And to make matters worse they were exactly twelve--make that eleven--minutes from the drop-off. Zoe had everyone on board searching the ship from top to bottom, but with half the crew gone and God knows how many hiding places on Serenity that something that size could squeeze into, Wash was not feeling especially optimistic.
Wash froze. Okay, that hadn't actually sounded like an animal growl. It had sounded more like--
He stepped into the galley and found the girl crouched on the floor, staring at something in the pantry.
Then he heard another growl, and this one definitely came from an animal.
Wash edged closer and saw the ravenous slavering creature that was busily tearing through what was left of their food rations.
"River," said Wash, moving slowly toward her. "Let's move away from the tiny ferocious monster, okay?"
"It's hungry," she said.
"Yes, I'm sure it is. We don't want it to eat you, though." He reached down and pulled her away from the wolverine. Then he shut the hatch to the foredeck and dragged River out into the aft passage. He shut that hatch too, trapping the wolverine in the galley.
He pushed the comm button. "The demented hell beast is in the kitchen," he announced to the ship at large.
About 45 seconds later, Zoe was beside him, peering in the hatch window. "Where is it?"
She was all business now, the unflappable warrior women who'd first caught his eye. It was, Wash had to admit, incredibly hot.
"Food pantry," he said, trying to focus on the current emergency rather than his wife's attractively commanding presence. "What'll we do now?"
Zoe drew her rifle and levered a round into the chamber. "Only one thing to do."
"You don't think Kennet will mind if we kill one of his animals?"
She cocked her eyebrows at him. "You want to be the one to get it back in that crate?"
Wash thought about the teeth and the claws and the slavering. "Killing it is."
"No!" wailed River.
"Wait!" called Simon, hurrying up the stairs from the infirmary. He had a small medicine vial and hypodermic auto-injector in his hands.
"Doc, you really don't want to get close enough to dope that thing," said Zoe.
"It's just scared," said River, on the verge of tears. "It's not it's fault, it didn't ask to be made this way."
"It's all right, mèi mei," said Simon, loading the hypo. He looked back at Zoe. "If we don't deliver all twenty-four animals alive, we don't get all our money, right?"
Zoe nodded. "Best case scenario."
"And the worst?"
"Threats, violence, gunplay. The usual."
"I don't have to get close," said Simon, holding the hypo like a dart. "I just have to hit the bullseye."
Zoe shrugged. "Worth a shot, I guess."
Simon looked at River. "Stay here, okay? Keep the doors closed behind us and don't try to come in. Promise?"
River nodded. "Don't kill it."
"Not if we can help it."
They slid the hatch open quietly. Simon, Zoe and Wash slipped into the galley and crept toward the wolverine. It had given up on the food pantry and was now doing unspeakable things to various kitchen utensils.
"I'm feeling violated for the sake of the can opener," said Wash uncomfortably.
Simon raised the hypo and aimed it at the wolverine.
Zoe leaned over beside him for a better look. "You're good at darts, right, Doc?"
"Sure," said Simon, not actually sounding particularly sure. "I played when I was in medacad."
"And you were good?" said Zoe.
"I never played in any tournaments or anything, but I won a few free beers off my friends."
"I'm not overflowing with the confidence here," said Zoe.
"Do you mind?" said Simon. "I'm trying to concentrate. Unless you'd rather do it yourself."
Zoe held up her hands and backed away.
Simon raised the hypo, aimed, and threw. The needle struck the wolverine right in its furry backside and stuck there. The surprise attack and the indignity of the needle sticking out of its haunch became too much for the beast and it went into a kind of frenzy, whipping around in circles, trying to bite at the offending hypo.
"And now you've made it angry," said Wash. "Well played."
"Like it wasn't angry before," said Simon.
The wolverine finally succeeded in removing the needle from its haunch and turned its red beady eyes on the three humans.
"Holy mother of crap!" yelped Wash as the snarling whirlwind of teeth and fur charged straight for him, its sharp claws skittering for traction on the deck.
Wash fumbled with the gun at his side, trying to get it out of the holster and knowing he wasn't going to be fast enough.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Zoe launch herself into the dining table, knocking it onto its side and sending it flying straight into him. It knocked him off his feet and sent him crashing into the counter, but the table made a serviceable barrier between him and the angry wolverine.
Startled and confused by the noise and the falling table, the wolverine darted right, then left, then made straight for Zoe. She stood her ground and calmly raised her gun.
But before she got a round off the wolverine stopped dead in its tracks and dropped to the floor, eyes rolling back in its head. It lay there, snarling quietly to itself and twitching like a hophead tweaked on drops.
Wash breathed a sigh of relief and sank back onto the deck.
"Wash, baby, are you okay?" Zoe was at his side, holding his hand, her luminous eyes wide with worry.
This was an opportunity, Wash decided, that should be milked for all it was worth. He rubbed his leg where the table had hit him and moaned pitifully. "Ow, my leg."
Zoe narrowed her eyes at him. "You're fine, you big baby."
"You threw a table at me!"
"I was trying to save you."
"By throwing a table at me?"
"It worked, didn't it?" She smiled at him, and suddenly everything in the world felt like it was okay again.
He thought about kissing her, decided he was going to do it, and then the alarm warning him of the approach to Despina went off. Figures.
"That would be for me," he said, reluctantly and somewhat painfully pulling himself to his feet. "Pilot-type stuff to do."
He looked back at Zoe one more time, basking in the glorious radiance of her smile just a little bit more before limping to the bridge.
Inara smiled reassuringly at the red-haired girl named Leah. It hadn't actually taken much persuasion to convince the girls to go along with her plan. Apparently Kaylee had already gotten some of them pretty well worked up earlier, and it'd taken only minimal use of Inara's wiles to convince the others to follow her. Leah had been the most resistant initially, but Inara had finally enlisted her enthusiastic participation by giving her a starring role in the scheme.
At Inara's signal Leah closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let loose an ear-piercing scream. Then she dropped to floor and huddled in a ball, clutching her stomach. The other girls all backed away from her, fanning out around the perimeter of the room.
"What the hell's going on?" demanded the guard who threw open the hatch.
"I think she's sick or something," said the blond girl named Chloe.
The guard bent over Leah, who continued to writhe and moan loudly. While his attention was focused on the girl's antics, Inara deftly slipped the nightstick from his belt and cracked him over the back of the head with it.
Leah rolled herself out of the way just before the man crashed to the floor.
"I do alright?" she asked, standing up and brushing herself off.
"Perfect." Inara swiped the keycard from the guard's belt and unlocked the hatch. She threw a look over her shoulder at the girls. "Everyone ready to get out of here?"
They nodded back at her, looking scared, but determined.
"Drop your weapons," said the biggest of the goons leveling guns on Mal and Jayne. Two more men came into the hold behind him and spread out to cover them.
Mal's mind raced, trying to think of a way out, but when there's five guns trained on you there's not really a whole lot to be done about it.
"I said, drop 'em!" the number one goon barked.
Mal complied. The fellow struck him as being on the nervous side. Which might be good, because maybe there was a better chance they could get out of this if they were dealing with unseasoned muscle, but might be real bad if it meant the guy was gonna get twitchy and shoot them on accident before they had a chance to make their daring escape.
"I don't like to drop Vera," said Jayne carefully. "How 'bout if I just lower her slowly to the ground so's her scope don't get bent?"
"You think I'm playing around?" said the guard, starting to appear concerningly agitated.
"Jayne," hissed Mal. "Just drop the damn thing like the nice gentleman said."
"Nuh uh. They'll have to kill me 'fore I let Vera come to any harm by my own hand."
"That can be arranged," snarled the goon, though Mal was fairly certain the fellow had never actually shot anyone with the gun he was holding in increasingly shaky hands. He was probably just some street thug spent most of his time pushing around scared girls and never even had to use his gun before. The rest of the guards didn't look much better, either. Which meant he and Jayne could probably take 'em in a fair fight.
If only they could cook up some kind of distraction...
A shiny red apple fell out of the air and bounced off the deck just behind goon number one. Followed immediately by a veritable hailstorm of apples that rained down on the guards from the platform above.
"What the hell?" The guards momentarily let their attention waver from Jayne and Mal as they tried to duck away from the fruit projectiles.
Huh, thought Mal as he grabbed his gun and rolled for cover. That was easy.
Inara grabbed another apple and pitched it as hard and as far as she could from behind the cover of a supply crate. So far the guards hadn't seemed inclined to use their pistols against the girls. Presumably they'd been rather severely warned against damaging the merchandise.
Some of the girls had truly impressive throwing arms, she observed proudly, as an apple bounced off the head of a guard trying futilely to aim his gun at Mal.
Below them, Mal and Jayne were doing a pretty fair job of fighting off the guards on the floor of the cargo bay. Inara grabbed another apple and winced as the percussion of gunfire echoed through the hold.
A girl screamed to her left and Inara spun around. One of the guards had managed to get up the stairs and grab Chloe, and was dragging her back down into the hold. Inara charged after him, swinging the nightstick with all her strength and connecting with the back of his head with an arm-numbing crack. She made a grab for Chloe as the man holding her started to tumble down the stairs but the force of his fall dragged all three of them down in a jumbled heap at the foot of the stairs.
Inara sucked a painful breath into her lungs and pushed herself to her feet, nightstick still clutched in her fist. Before she'd even fully regained her balance, though, another guard had grabbed her from behind. He shoved her, hard, and she went careening into a stack of storage crates, bounced off of them and landed painfully on her shoulder.
The world went a brilliant white, and then dark, before her vision slowly began to telescope back to some semblance of normal. Inara rolled onto her back, gasping at the pain it caused, just in time to see a guard standing above her, nightstick raised. She cried out and tried to scramble away, but her left arm was all but useless and the pain screaming in her shoulder was threatening to black her out again.
There was another blast of gunfire, closer than the others, and a spot of bright red blossomed on the front of the man's shirt. The nightstick fell uselessly from his hand and he slumped to the floor.
Inara sagged back against the deck and tried not to pass out.
"Inara!" Mal rushed to her side, kicking aside the body of the gunshot guard.
"I'm okay," she said, squeezing his hand. She wasn't exactly okay, though. Just from what he could see she'd taken a good whack to the head and maybe broken a few ribs, too, the way she was favoring her left side. He cursed himself once again for letting her get involved in this mess.
Behind him, the fight had pretty much petered out, and Mal was content to leave it to Jayne to mop up while he saw to Inara.
"Apples?" he said, carefully helping her to sit up. "You had a bunch of girls attack armed men with apples?"
Inara smiled despite the pain she was obviously feeling. "It's what we had to hand."
There was no makeup on her face to enhance or mask her expression, no rich fabrics calculated to attract the eye, no fancy scents to cloud his senses. It was just Inara now, looking up at him, as natural and as lovely as Mal had ever seen her. Something stirred within him, and he became acutely aware of the nearness of her. Their faces were so close he could feel the soft touch of her breath on his mouth, count the dark lashes around her eyes--
Inara's face clouded and she tightened her grip on his arm. "Mal, you have to find Kaylee."
"She wasn't with you?"
"They took her to another part of the ship. I think they might be hurting her." She made a valiant but foolish attempt to get up.
Mal put a gentle but restraining hand on her waist, guiding her back to a sitting position. "I'll find her." He pressed a pistol he'd lifted off one of the guards into the hand of her good arm. "Stay here, don't try to move."
Jayne had been busy tying up the guards who were still breathing, with the assistance of some of the more level-headed girls. Seemed like he'd picked himself up something of a fan club, the way the girls were following him about and making moony-eyes at him.
Mal hauled the most coherent-looking guard to his feet and threw him up against the bulkhead. "Where's the other girl?" he demanded. "The one you took this morning?" He didn't have the time nor the inclination to go searching the whole damn ship for Kaylee.
The man glared sullenly at him, refusing to talk. He felt Jayne step up beside him.
Mal raised his gun and pressed the muzzle against the man's nose. "I never like killing a man--"
"I do," Jayne piped up, smiling broadly and waggling the big damn knife in his hand.
"--but he does," said Mal, jerking his head toward Jayne. "And he's got lots of interestin' ways of doing it, too."
"I know where she is," said a small voice behind them.
Mal threw a look over his shoulder. One of the girls had come forward--a pretty, dark-haired thing with a big ol' shiner and nasty-looking bruises down her arms and legs. He shoved the guard at Jayne and turned to face the girl. "They do that to you?"
She nodded. "Miss Hope and two of her men."
"That what they're doing to my friend Kaylee?"
"What's your name, darlin'?"
"Wei-An, you think you could show us where they took Kaylee?"
"Yes. It's at the top of the ship."
"Okay, then, let's go. Jayne--"
The merc was holding his knife to the guard's throat but at a quick shake of Mal's head settled for punching him with the haft instead. Much as Mal would have liked to see the fellow laid open from belly to breakfast for what they'd done, he didn't much like the idea of Jayne's little teenage fanclub watching it.
They followed the girl into the bowels of the Deuce, up two flights of steps and across a catwalk into the ship's loft area. Mal and Jayne kept a careful eye out, but they didn't run into any more company along the way. Even the bridge was empty.
"In there," she said, pointing to a hatch at the end of the passage.
"Good girl," said Mal. "Now you skedaddle back down to the hold and keep the other girls out of trouble."
"Are you gonna kill them?" she asked staring at the closed hatch.
Mal looked at her levelly. "Might do."
A hint of a smile quirked the corner of her mouth. "Good." She turned and ran off back down the steps.
"Long way away from the rest of the ship up here," said Jayne. "They probably never even heard the tussle down below."
They positioned themselves on either side of the hatch and Mal knocked loudly with the butt of his gun. The hatch slid open and before the man who'd opened it knew what was happening, Jayne had yanked him out into the passage and heaved him headfirst into the bulkhead.
The other guard in the room was just starting to move toward the hatch, reaching for a sidearm that was still holstered when Mal stepped into the room, gun leveled. "I wouldn't," he said sharply, and the guard's hand froze. "Hands up on your head, if you don't mind."
There was a woman standing beside him, plump and motherly-looking, though she had a hard cast to her mouth. Beyond them he could see Kaylee, sitting in a chair with her hands pulled behind her, head slumped down on her chest. Her hair was hanging down over most of her face, but where the skin of her arms and legs showed it was marked by contusions that hadn't yet had a chance to darken. Mal felt his finger tighten on the trigger.
"Jayne," he said through gritted teeth. "Relieve our friend of his weapons."
Jayne started forward and then hesitated, his eyes falling on Kaylee. "Mal--"
Jayne disarmed the guard with brisk efficiency and then hauled back and pistol-whipped him with his own gun. The man crashed limply to the deck, but Jayne hauled him up by his collar so he could hit him some more. Mal couldn't much blame him. Seeing what they'd done to Kaylee made him want to join in, but he had himself other things needed seeing to at the moment.
He turned his attention to the woman. "You'd be Hope, I'm guessing."
"I am. " She thrust her chin in the air, like she was accepting some kind of award instead of facing down a man aiming a pistol at her guts. "I take it you're here for one of my girls."
"My girl." He inclined his head in Kaylee's direction. "That one there, matter of fact."
"So take her. She's a nuisance anyway."
"She is that. Still, I'm not well pleased with the condition you're returning her in. There's gonna have to be a reckoning, you understand."
She cast an uneasy look at Jayne--still pounding her man into meatloaf--and backed up a step, clasping her hands nervously across her bosom. "Surely we can come to some sort of financial arrangement."
Almost too late, Mal saw her hand slip inside the frilly vest she was wearing. "Uh uh," he said as her fingers closed around a small gun-shaped bulge. "Don't think for a second I can't turn your insides to outsides before you even draw that little girlie gun."
She froze, eyes narrowed at him, trying to make up her mind whether to go for it or not. Mal had a sense he knew her type--couldn't ever believe she wasn't better and smarter than everyone else around her. He watched her patiently, waiting for the tell, never doubting it would come.
It did. The muscles in her hand twitched a half-second before she started to draw. He shot a hole in her middle before she even got the gun pointed in his direction.
He walked over to where she lay bleeding and gurgling on the floor and pocketed the small gun that had fallen out of her hand. Then he calmly raised his pistol and shot her once more, in the head. His momma had always told him, anything worth shooting is worth shooting twice.
Once he was sure the woman wasn't going to be getting up again, he holstered his gun and spared a glance at Jayne, still beating the living shit out of the other guard. Mal left him to it and sank to his knees at Kaylee's side.
The right side of her jaw was puffy and pink, her lip split open and bleeding. She flinched at his touch and her eyes flew open but they were glassy and unfocused, like she didn't even see him.
Kaylee Kaylee Kaylee. His heart thudded in his chest as he sliced the cord at her wrists and pulled her gently into his arms. He hadn't gotten to her fast enough. He'd taken too gorram long finding her and look what had happened. They'd beaten his bright girl.
She blinked a couple of times and then finally seemed to focus on him.
"Cap'n," she whispered, so soft he could barely hear it.
"There's my girl." He wanted to hug her to him, but he was afraid he'd hurt her worse. Instead he gave her a smile meant to convey comfort he didn't quite feel qualified to give.
She reached up and pressed her fingertips to his forehead, tracing a crease along his brow. "You look cross."
He smoothed her hair back from her face and tried not to look at the way the marks on her arms stood out bright pink against the paleness of her skin. "That's on account of I am cross, Kaylee. You gave us all a mighty scare, disappearing like that."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."
"Yeah, I guess maybe I'll let you off the hook this time."
She brought her hand to her mouth and stared at the blood that came away on her fingertips. "I must look something awful, huh?"
"Not a bit. You're the prettiest thing I ever saw."
"You're lyin'." She gave him a faint, fragile smile.
"Possible you may have looked prettier, but you're still a far sight prettier than me. Well, maybe not prettier than me, but you're definitely prettier than Jayne."
It won him a real smile, not so fragile, with more of his Kaylee in it. The smile he'd been aching to see again.
"Kaylee alright?" asked Jayne, coming to stand over them.
"Yeah," said Mal. "I think she is."
"Hey, Jayne. You come to save me, too?" Kaylee's voice was a thin echo of her usual chirp.
"Sure did." Jayne shifted from foot to foot like an awkward, big-boned boy and tried to wipe his bloody hands off on his pants. When that didn't seem to work he settled for shoving them in his armpits. "You got me in a heap of trouble with the captain, you know."
Mal rolled his eyes. "Never was there a tale of greater adversity than Jayne's. He starts to tell it, I may have to cry."
"Can we go home now?" said Kaylee. "I'm ready to go home." He could feel her shaking in his arms, a faint tremor that ran right through him.
Mal held her as tight as he dared. "Sure, bǎo bèi, anything you want."
Despina was a smallish moon, drifting along in its quiet orbit just beyond Beylix's icy rings. She was greener and sunnier than the cloud-covered planet that dominated her sky, but on the cold side and with a bit more than her fair share of annual rainfall.
Serenity had set down in a clearing a few miles outside of Brigham, a modest-sized logging town. A light, steady rain fell on the hull, filling the cargo bay with a soothing, gentle patter. At least it would have been soothing and gentle if it weren't for the snarling and rattling of the wolverines drowning it out.
Zoe tried to remember how long it'd been since she'd even heard the sound of rain, then decided it didn't really matter and gave up wondering.
Ham Kennet was slowly circumventing the wolverine cages, inspecting his newly delivered merchandise with the eye of an experienced rancher. He was a sallow sort of man, well past his middle years, who favored a stiff knee with the aid of a gnarled wooden cane.
The two men he'd brought to do the loading and lifting were passing the time by engaging in a spitting contest off the end of Serenity's ramp. They wore rancher's boots and canvas chore jackets and hats with flannel earflaps--definitely farmhands rather than mercs.
"You're really gonna breed these things?" said Wash, fiddling absently with the strap on his holster. He seemed to have pretty much given up on trying to look menacing once they'd gotten a good look at Kennet and his hayseeds.
"Sure am. Fur's worth a damn fortune on the black market."
"And you don't mind the smell?"
Kennet tapped the side of his nose and grinned. "Lost my sense of smell in a mine accident a few years back."
Good thing, thought Zoe, because the damp really was not making the beasts' odor any sweeter.
"This one ain't moving," said Kennet, peering into the cage of their lately re-imprisoned escape artist.
Zoe and Wash exchanged a silent look of alarm.
"He's sleepy," piped up River from her perch on the mule. "Needs a nap after his adventures."
Kennet poked his cane into the crate and nudged the wolverine. It answered with a lethargic snarl.
"That must be it," said Wash. "Just sleepy. He's healthy as a horse, though. A horse that's really healthy."
Kennet shrugged and called out to his men to start loading the crates onto the back of the wagons. As they carried the first of the crates down the ramp Kennet dropped a small sack into Zoe's hand. It jingled promisingly as she palmed it and she let herself relax just the tiniest bit.
Wash wandered over to stand beside her. "You know, I think I'm actually going to miss the little devils."
Zoe raised an inquiring eyebrow at him. "That so?"
"I was starting to fantasize about keeping one as a pet. I'd name him Fluffy, we'd go for walks, and frolic together as everyone around us screamed in terror."
Zoe laughed. Even before she'd ever let herself like the man, Wash had always been able to draw forth her laughter. And that laughter had been like a balm to her parched soul in those bleak and barren years after the war. And so she'd opened herself up, let down her guard, and fallen in love with this ridiculous, goofy man with terrible taste in shirts.
It'd been a long time since Wash had made her laugh and she'd missed it. She'd been missing a lot of things lately and decided it was past time to do something about it.
She captured Wash's hand in hers and tugged him into the back of the cargo bay, away from River and Kennet's men. He looked a mite surprised, but not displeased, which was a promising start.
"Listen, honey," she said squeezing his hand affectionately. "I know I've been offish lately, and I just wanted to say I'm sorry--for letting things get so cold between us."
"Well, I've been kind of a jackass, so who could blame you? What say we just call it even and forget the whole thing?" His blue eyes were clear and guileless.
"That's sweet, dear, but I seem to recall something about two wrongs not making a right."
"No, but three lefts make a right just fine." He grinned at her. "Trust me on this, I'm a pilot."
There was just something irresistibly endearing about her man. She hooked a hand around the back of his neck and pulled him in for a kiss.
Zoe reluctantly tore herself away from Wash and looked up. Shepherd Book was leaning over the catwalk railing and smiling down at them.
"Got a wave from the captain," he said. "He wants us back on Beylix as soon as we're done here. They've got Kaylee. "
"Starboard hatch green for docking, Shuttle Two." Wash's voice crackled cheerfully over the shuttle's comm system. "Welcome back, Captain."
"Thanks, Wash." Mal felt the shuttle lurch as he guided her into Serenity's docking bay. "Shuttle Two locked."
He jumped out of the pilot's seat and hurried into the back to help Inara, who was struggling to unfasten her safety harness one-handed. "Let me," he said, reaching for the buckle.
"Thank you." Inara smiled gratefully, which right there was enough to tell him she was hurting pretty good. That and the fact that she was about three shades paler than normal.
Jayne threw open the shuttle's hatch and bent to scoop up Kaylee like she weighed nothing at all.
"Jayne, I can walk just fine," she protested.
"Hush up," the big merc growled. "Captain said to see to you and that's what I'm doin'. Don't want you falling down all those steps on the way to the infirmary and getting yourself even more banged up than you already are."
He carried her out through the shuttle's hatch and Mal heard the greetings of the crew waiting just outside, their reactions a mixture of relief at having Kaylee back and alarm at seeing the state she was in.
Mal would have liked to carry Inara, but he didn't think she'd thank him for it, proud and stubborn as she was. "Ready to get up?" he asked.
She nodded, her lips pressed together in a thin line. "Ready as I'll ever be."
Mal slipped a hand carefully around her waist as she draped her good arm over his shoulder and allowed him to help her to a standing position. Her left arm hung limp and useless at her side and he was almost certain the shoulder was dislocated.
Most of the others seemed to have followed Kaylee and Jayne to the infirmary already, but Zoe was waiting for him just outside the shuttle as he guided Inara onto the catwalk.
"Welcome back," said Zoe, darting a worried glance at Inara.
"You do the thing?" asked Mal as they started toward the infirmary.
"Sure did." A smile curled the corners of her mouth as she held up a small bag of coins and jingled it for him.
"That's what I like to hear. Now, what the hell's that horrible smell on my boat?"
"You don't even want to know, sir."
It took a while for Inara to get down the steps from the catwalk, but Simon was waiting for them at the bottom. "Kaylee sent me to check on you," he said, looking concerned. "She said you were hurt worse than she was."
Inara shook her head stiffly. "I'm fine, Simon, I just hurt my shoulder."
"Dislocated," said Mal, and saw the doc's curt, professional nod of agreement as he observed Inara's slow, painful movements.
Kaylee was sitting up on the counter in the infirmary, pressing an ice pack to her face while Jayne hovered around her like a mother hen, along with Book and Wash. Her eyes clouded with concern when she saw Inara.
Mal knew it must be tearing her up inside to see how Inara'd been hurt trying to rescue her and he felt bad for the girl. Hell, it just about killed him to see Inara like this, too.
For her part, Inara was trying her damnedest not to show how much pain she was in. She was one hell of a lady. Mal admired her for it, but he knew the effort had to be a strain.
"Whyn't you all take Kaylee upstairs, get her something to eat," he said while Simon helped Inara lay down on the exam table.
They filed out obediently, throwing sympathetic looks over their shoulders. Inara seemed to relax a bit once they'd gone, and stopped trying so hard to act like she was made of stone. She wore the pain on her face clear as day now, etched in lines around her eyes and mouth.
"Are your fingers numb?" said Simon, gently manipulating her arm. "Can you feel this?"
Mal gestured toward the door. "You want me to--"
"Stay." She winced as Simon gave her an injection. "Please."
"Sure," said Mal, moving to stand beside her. He took hold of her good hand and felt her fingers intertwine with his. Her skin was cold and he held onto her tightly, trying to transfer some of his warmth to her small hand.
Inara's eyes followed Simon warily as he felt around her injured shoulder; she knew what was coming as surely as Mal did.
"Hey," said Mal gently. He pressed his hand against her cheek and turned her face to him, away from Simon. "Look at me, okay? Let the doc do his thing and it'll be over before you know it."
Whatever Simon had doped her with had already started to do its work because the tension in her face had eased and she was breathing a lot slower and easier than she had been a minute ago.
"It's not bad at all," said Simon soothingly as he manipulated her arm. "I saw this man once, back in the E.R. on Osiris, he fell off a grav lift and dislocated both shoulders and cracked his pelvis. We had to--"
Inara gasped as Simon jerked the bone back into place, but she didn't cry out. Mal squeezed her hand reassuringly.
"All done," said Simon. "It should start feeling better soon." He slipped a sling over her head and guided her bad arm into it.
"See there," said Mal. "Easy peasy."
She smiled fuzzily. "Feels better... I'm just going to... rest for a few..."
He smiled as her eyes fluttered closed. "You do that."
She forced her eyes open again. "Mal?"
"Never." He brushed a lock of hair off her forehead. "I'm right here."
"You always take care of us," she murmured sleepily before drifting off.
Mal woke with a start, momentarily disoriented. He'd stayed in the infirmary with Inara until late, when she'd recovered enough to retire to her shuttle. He was in his own bunk now, but he'd been dreaming that he was back home in the kitchen of his momma's ranch house and there was bacon frying on the stove--
He sat up. Inhaled deeply and got a whiff of just about the best odor in all the 'verse.
He dressed and pulled on his boots just as fast as he could, and followed the heavenly smell all the way down the foredeck to the galley.
"Mornin', Cap'n!" said Kaylee cheerfully when she spotted him. The bruise on her face had purpled dramatically overnight and she wore long pants and sleeves to hide her arms and legs, but she seemed as high spirited as ever despite her experience the day before.
He laid an affectionate hand on top of her head. "How's my girl?"
"Glad to be home," she said, and her eyes almost matched the smile she gave him.
Mal moved to the stove, where Jayne was hunched over a frying pan. "That bacon I smell?"
"Yup," said Jayne, transferring several strips of deliciously greasy meat onto a plate.
"Real bacon? Sliced off the backside of an honest-to-God mud-loving hog?"
"And eggs," added Shepherd Book, holding up a bowl of frothy yellow liquid that he was stirring with a whisk.
"And strawberries!" called Kaylee from the table.
Mal reached out to snag himself a piece of the bacon as Jayne walked by, and got a whack on the knuckles for his trouble. "Ow!"
"That there's for Kaylee," growled Jayne. "You can just wait your turn, Captain."
Kaylee beamed as Jayne set the plate in front of her. She popped a strip of bacon into her mouth and held another out to Simon, sitting beside her.
Mal poured himself a cup of steaming hot coffee that was a pleasing shade of brown and went to sit down at Kaylee's other side. He tried to sneak a piece of bacon off her plate while she was busy looking at Simon, but she caught him and gave him another thump on the knuckles.
"You heard Jayne, wait your turn!"
"Just where did this sudden bounty of riches come from, anyway?" he asked, sucking on his sore knuckle. "Don't tell me ya'll already went and spent all our paycheck on food?"
"Not a bit," said Kaylee. "It's all gifts from the parents of those girls you rescued."
"A group of them showed up at dawn bearing baskets of fresh food," said Book. "And several crates of what appears to be a rather competently home-brewed whiskey. Not that I would know about such things."
"And that ain't even the best part," said Jayne. "Magistrate sent word for us to come by and visit him at our 'earliest convenience,' on account of there bein' a reward for the capture of one Hope Leung, wanted in three systems for kidnapping and slave-trading."
"Huh," said Mal, hardly able to take it all in. He wasn't used to good things happening.
"And Woo-Ping even sent over a couple of elements for the stove when he heard about what happened," said Kaylee. "Which is how come we can cook all this fine food."
Zoe and Wash walked into the kitchen arm in arm, nuzzling and cooing at each other like a couple of lovebirds.
"Morning, you two," said Kaylee with a sly grin.
"Good morning, dear friends," said Wash, sliding into a seat across from her. Zoe poured two cups of coffee and set one down in front of her husband, trailing her hand along the back of his neck.
"It's about damn time ya'll were back to bumpin' fuzzies," said Jayne, observing them sagely from the stove. "Two a you are downright unpleasant to be around when you ain't getting' your ends wet."
There was a moment of awkward silence and then everyone--including Zoe and Wash--erupted into laughter.
"What?" said Jayne.
Mal sat back in his chair, enjoying the bustle of activity around him, letting the bubble and swell of friendly voices and laughter wash over him for a minute.
"It's Pandemonium," whispered River in Mal's ear.
He started, nearly spilling his coffee. "Panda-who?"
"Pandemonium. The capital of Hell, dwelling-place of demons."
He turned around in his chair to look at her. "Sounds real nice. You been at the preacher's bible again?"
She smiled innocently, swirling her skirt around her knees. "Pandemonium also means a very noisy place, wild uproar, or state of disorder."
"Now that's more like it," said Mal, smiling back at her.
She deftly swiped a piece of bacon off Kaylee's plate and sank into the chair on the other side of her brother. Jayne moved around the table, passing out plates of food to everyone.
Everyone except Mal, apparently. "Am I invisible?" he said as Jayne passed by him. "A man could die of starvation before anyone offered him any breakfast around here."
"Here you go, Captain," said Book, swooping in to drop a plate piled high with eggs, bacon and fresh fruit in front of him.
"That's more like it," said Mal. "Saved a bunch of girls from slavers, oughta get some bacon for my trouble."
"Inara!" chirped Kaylee.
Mal looked up and saw Inara standing in the hatchway. "Is that really bacon and eggs?" she asked.
Her arm was in the sling Simon had given her but otherwise she looked back to her old self--all fancy clothes and makeup and hair done up as pretty as ever. And not even a trace of grogginess, despite the fact she'd been doped to the gills the night before. The woman really was a wonder. Mal had no idea how she managed it.
He stood up and pulled out the chair next to him with exaggerated courtesy. Inara sat down with a grace that seemed to require a little more effort than usual, the only indication that she was still in any kind of pain.
"Here," he said, moving his plate over to her place. "Saved this for you special."
Their eyes met and she gave him an almost timid smile, all the more bewitching for its artlessness. "Thank you."
For some reason, he got the feeling she was talking about more than just eggs, and felt his blood starting to rush to places it had no business rushing to.
"I'll go get you some tea, 'Nara," said Kaylee.
Mal put a restraining hand on Kaylee's shoulder. "I'll do it. Eat your breakfast."
In the kitchen he put on the kettle and leaned back against the counter, chewing a piece of bacon while he waited for the water to boil. Muted morning light leaked through the skylight, laying a soft yellow blanket over everyone gathered around the kitchen table. He watched--a part of them, yet a measure apart--as they ate and chattered and argued and joked and got on just the way a crew--the way a family--ought.
It was one of those rare perfect moments when everything comes together with an almost audible click, and suddenly, for that one instant, everything falls into place. All the people that Mal cared about most in the 'verse were here--safe, happy and together--which was just the way it ought to be.
But already his mind was moving on to other things--supplies to be bought, repairs to be made, jobs to be found. The moment was nice but it wouldn't last. The good ones never did.
That's why he always had to keep moving. Keep working. Keep flying.
As I row, row, row
Going so slow, slow, slow
Just down below me is the old sea
Just down below me is the old sea
Nobody knows, knows, knows
So many things, things, so
So out of range
Sometimes so strange
Sometimes so sweet
Sometimes so lonely
The further I go
More letters from home never arrive
And I'm alone
All of the way
All of the way
Alone and alive
You just have to go, go, go
Where I don't know, know, know
This is the thing
Somebody told me
A long time ago
--Folk song of Earth-That-Was, circa 2010*
* Recent research by the Institute for Cultural and Historical Studies, Londinium, attributes this song to late 20th/early 21st century songwriter Patty Griffin.