charlie_bz: (Serenity)
[personal profile] charlie_bz

Title:  Somewhere Down the Crazy River (part 2 of 10)
Author:  Charlie_bz
Pairing:  Canon, if any
Rating:  PG
Timeframe:  Post BDM, this story follows Black Days
Disclaimer:  Firefly et al are not mine.
Description:  Inara and River stay with Serenity as Mal and the rest of the crew go to town.
 

Author's Note:  Thank you, Gilliebeans!  The Sheydra scene would have been sorely lacking if not for your input.  Other sections as well!

Part 1

________________________________________________________________________

Part 2

"I can see why this place is called Deadwood,” Simon commented loudly trying to be heard over the noise of the wind. The journey to Barren Break had been even more boring than expected; the ride was utterly devoid of interesting views and conversation was sparse. In the front seats, Mal and Zoë sporadically exchanged a few words that no one in the back seat could hear. Simon could, however, clearly hear the various noises emanating from Jayne’s direction in the back seat. Lots of huffing and exasperated puffing – all for his benefit he supposed.

“Ain't named for dead trees or anything like that.” Kaylee yelled, her hair blowing wildly about her face. “Named for some Wild West place on Earth-That-Was." She glanced at him, sweeping her hair out of her eyes. "You know the Wild West, don't ya?”

“Not really,” he responded absently, his attention briefly diverted by something in the distance that turned out to be more of nothing.

Holding her hands over her head to calm her hair, Kaylee peered closely at him. “Ain’t you never seen a Cowboy Roy viddie?”

“Uh…no.”

"How in the name of holy cowboys can you be a person and not see at least one?” Jayne’s face was almost comical in its contorted disbelief. “Classics is what they are!"

“They are at that!” Kaylee agreed, nodding at Jayne. “My daddy and I never got enough of Roy’s adventures. Outlaws, gladiators, samurai…he fought everybody!” She sighed wistfully. “All for the love of Navajo Rose…”

Simon grinned at her enthusiasm. “Sounds interesting.”

“Better than interestin’!” She leaned back into him, her face a picture of sincere concern at his lack of proper Western knowledge. “But you’ve never seen nothin’ on the Wild West?”

Simon was silent as he thought. The American West was a genre that had never particularly appealed to him. He reached for something, however remote, to satisfy Kaylee’s concern. "I did see Kubayashi's Ode to Montana."

Three more pairs of eyes turned to Simon.

“Sounds fancy and boring,” Jayne mumbled, turning away as if offended.

"Ode to Montana?” Kaylee asked, her tone doubtful of the Western merits of that title. “Who was in that?”

“Madame Balasubramanium.”

“Who?”

Simon paused before speaking. He was almost embarrassed to clarify; he knew what to expect. “Madame Karina Balasubramanium was the premier soprano at the Grande Operahouse on Osiris.”

“Told ya!” Jayne snorted loudly.

“That a viddie?” Kaylee asked.

“No. An opera.” Simon responded, refusing to feel embarrassed. He didn’t miss the glance between the Captain and Zoë, their amused disdain all too apparent to him.

Jayne and Kaylee fell into a spirited discussion about their favorite Cowboy Roy moments. As they debated who the worst villain was the discussion turned heated.

At last, the blurry vision in the far distance cleared revealing a cluster of buildings. Simon leaned forward eager to get a glimpse of the town but he was vastly disappointed as the mule drew closer. To say the town wasn’t much would be a compliment. Little if no color could be found save for the odd assortment of flowering cacti that someone had planted in an attempt to break the brownness of the town. Slowing down, Mal drove through the center of Barren Break, parking the mule away from the busy section of town; the busy section being about half a dozen locals going about their daily business.

Climbing out of the mule, Simon looked down the wide street at the roughly twenty buildings – all the same shade of tan stucco. It had the look of a dozen other Rim towns that Simon had visited: windswept and weary. Vainly, his eyes searched the buildings, trying to find something that looked remotely appealing.

“We all trudging to this meet?” Jayne asked, hopping down from the mule.

“Nope. Ya’ll free to take in the sights.” Mal glanced around before grinning at Kaylee. “Or whatever passes for sights in this town.”

“Look, Jayne!” Zoë exclaimed, pointing at a sign near where the mule was parked. “Town’s got a bathhouse!”

Jayne frowned at her, his brow furrowing in irritated confusion. His frown deepened and his look of confusion gave way to alarm as he glared at a building across the street. “Jail’s awful prominent, ain’t it?”

Instinctively, Simon turned away, trying to look as normal and invisible as possible.

“Sends a message to people like us which we will heed. No trouble will be made in this town,” Mal said with a stern look at Jayne. “Now, out of the town…” He grinned at Kaylee, before turning to Simon. “And, Doctor, still ain’t seein’ any notices with your face as of late.”

Simon nodded not pacified. Even though it felt like years, it had only been three months since the Alliance had unleashed the monster known as the Operative. Simon found it difficult to believe that such an effort to find his sister had been abandoned. The silence on the official front was…unsettling. Was he free?

“Zoë,” Mal said. “Ain’t necessary to draw attention by us all traipsing in. Might be a good idea for you to go along with them. Keep Kaylee out of trouble.”

“Can we wait in there?” Jayne nodded his head toward the far end of the street. Near the corner building, a red neon sign blinked with dismal regularity: “Nick’s Café.”

“Yeah.” Mal started off, turning briefly to address Jayne. “But don’t want no ruckus of any kind, you hear me, Jayne?”

“I’ll keep the doc from brawlin’,” Jayne drawled with an insulting grin. Sidling up next to Simon, he put his arm around his shoulders as if they were best buddies. “How ‘bout it doc? Buy us a drink?”

“We’ll find something of our own to do.” Kaylee wound her arm in Simon’s, pulling him away from Jayne. “Have to buy your own drinks.”

* * * * * * *

“Run, Dorothy!” River shrieked, grabbing Inara’s hand. They had been having a nice walk - as nice as could be had in the middle of nowhere - until River spotted what looked like a small twister moving swiftly toward them. Pretending that they were dodging a deadly tornado, River pulled Inara, making her run as fast as she could back to the ship.

“We made it!” River exclaimed triumphantly once they reached the safety of Serenity.

“That was close.” Inara grinned at River’s flushed, happy face. After closing the cargo door, they stood inside the bay listening to the dust storm that swirled outside Serenity. “So much for our walk.”

“This place is not as exciting as it looks.”

“It looks exciting?” Inara teased.

“There was a dust devil.” River reminded her. “That was briefly exciting.”

“Briefly,” Inara agreed. But it had been; getting caught up in River’s play, running furiously for no reason.

“Now what do we do?” River asked.

Inara ran her fingers through her hair shaking out stray bits of dirt. “I need to wave Sheydra.”

“Aw! That’s not what I meant.”

“I know but I’ve been putting her off.” Like a coward, she had delayed having an actual conversation with her friend. Instead she had sent messages assuring Sheydra of her well-being, avoiding discussions and difficult questions. It's getting to be a habit, Inara chided herself. “Now that we’ve…you…the crew has secured a job, I need to get back to mine.” Inara started up the stairs.

“You can’t go,” River whined. “You’re the only I find remotely tolerable.” She followed Inara up toward Shuttle One. “I’m sick of everybody. Especially my brother and his… xiǎo lǎo pó.”

Reaching the catwalk, Inara turned, waiting for River. Her gaze was loving as she affectionately cupped River’s chin, shaking her jaw slightly. “You! Why so grouchy?”

River made a face, rolled her eyes, did everything she could short of stamping her feet to express her vexation. “She’s making him silly!”

Shaking her head, Inara turned away.

“Kissing. Whispering. Endlessly groping. Feeding each other crotch smelling protein.”

Inara glanced back, a reproving look on her face, before continuing toward Shuttle One. “But it’s good for him, don’t you think?”

“Eating crotch smelling protein?”

Pausing outside the shuttle’s door, Inara gave her a look.

River swept past her into the shuttle. “My parents would never approve.”

Once inside the shuttle, Inara stopped. River mentioned her parents only very rarely, and the few times she did Inara detected a definite touch of wistfulness. River usually acted as if she had none; her parents’ very existence steadily ignored by both Simon and her. Inara couldn’t help but wonder about them, the people who sent their daughter off to an exclusive school then, apparently, forgot about her...

She watched River closely before asking, “Does that matter?”

River shrugged, walking around the empty room. “I guess not.” She wandered around the bare shuttle, touching whatever caught her attention before heading into the cockpit. “The briefly exciting wind activity has passed.”

Dragging a crate over to the Cortex station, Inara sat down. She pressed a button near the screen, waiting for it to activate.

“I can kill a room full of Reavers but I can’t stay on the ship by myself. Does that seem right to you?” River had silently approached, standing directly behind Inara.

The question was asked idly, River hadn’t the slightest interest in an answer which was good because Inara had none. Who had answers for the reasons why someone had seen fit to gift River with the scarcely imaginable abilities to be such an effective killer? She had no answers for River and only questions that they had all learned were dangerous to ask. Inara stared at the wall of the bare shuttle. River’s words took her back to that room. The room where she had been so certain they were all going to die a horrific death.

The Cortex beeped indicating an open transmission. Inara smoothed back her hair, her hand slightly trembling. She entered the code for the Training House, taking the opportunity to clear her mind while she waited for a connection.

“Maybe I could go with you.” River sat on the crate next to Inara, her hip scooting Inara over to make room. “To the Training House.”

Inara turned away from the screen, looking tenderly at River. Spending her days dancing, painting, enjoying beautiful music and all the arts, River would blossom at the Training House. Inara had seen these things touch River's soul despite all the painstaking, meticulous work the fine Academy scientists had undertaken in their attempt to cure her of her every quality that made her human; robbing her of the woman she had once dreamed she’d become.

Tucking a stray tendril behind her ear, she softly said, “I can’t do that, mei mei.” Her smile was apologetic, helpless. “I wish I could.”

“Can’t endanger all the lovely, young Companions with bright shiny futures, can we?”

“River…” Even if Inara were able to make the offer, she knew River would not want to leave Serenity. Why would anyone want to leave Serenity?

The screen beeped again indicating an incoming transmission.

“Ní hǎo!” Inara wished her greeting didn’t sound so forced.

“Well, ní hǎo, yourself!”

Cursing herself for not checking the incoming id tag, she nudged River further away, anxious for her face not to be seen. “Ms. Dae.”

Sunny Dae smiled. Her black hair, much longer than it had been two months ago, was elaborately piled on her head in an intricate and expensive looking design. “Surprised? I’m not detecting a lot of missing me in your lovely face.”

Inara gazed disinterestedly at the screen. “Captain Reynolds isn’t here.”

“Off earning my money, I hope.” Sunny’s eyes tried to discern where Inara was, attempting to gather as much information as the limited view would allow.

Inara shifted again, making sure her body blocked Sunny’s view of River. “Would you like me to pass along a message?”

“He’ll know the message just knowing I waved.” Sunny’s eyes returned to Inara. “But do let him know that my patience and his time are running out.”

“He is well aware –“

Sunny’s friendly expression vanished. “It’s been almost two months and I haven’t received as much as a ní hǎo from him. He’s about to forfeit his collateral.”

“Collateral?” The word slipped out before she could stop it. Her mind raced, quickly inventorying the precious few valuable items Mal owned. Other than guns and Serenity, she couldn’t imagine what he could have possibly pledged as collateral.

“Collateral is customary in the lending business, sweetie.” Sunny’s hand went to her head, drawing attention to her new hairstyle. The woman fairly preened before Inara, wanting to show off. “Just so he’s aware that this here is a courtesy call.” She smiled again, but this smile didn’t even attempt to convey warmth. “If I don’t hear from him within the week, the next call will most definitely lack courtesy.”

Inara nodded, her dread about what Mal was in for with this woman rising. “I’ll let him know.”

“You know, honey, I thought you would be long gone by now.” Sunny favored Inara with a long, speculative look. “Is something interesting happening over there?”

“Excuse me but I have another wave coming in.” Inara abruptly ended the transmission, taking a moment to compose herself before talking to Sheydra.

“I don’t think you should have done that,” River said in a sing song voice. “She has flying monkeys, you know.”

Inara glanced curiously at River before touching the screen, opening the next wave.

* * * * * * * *

With an apologetic shrug, Simon draped his arm over Kaylee’s shoulder. “Here I am, showing you yet another good time.”

“I don’t mind. It’s good to be off Serenity for a bit.” Her voice held a touch of guilt as if she was betraying her girl at the thought. “So…how did you show the ladies at home a good time?”

Pushing his discomfort with the question away, he looked down at the cracked, concrete sidewalk. “There weren’t very many.”

Kaylee grinned, elbowing him softly in the side. “No social life for Doctor Tam?”

“Some, I suppose.” He tried to think back to his leisure life on Osiris, but thoughts of his work kept intruding. “I was busy with the hospital.”

Kaylee nodded absently. “Wish we had time for the bathhouse.”

She pointed toward a jaunty sign. Naked, sudsy people advertised, “Tubs by the Hour!” Simon repressed a shudder as he read the small print under the advertisement, “New Water Extra.” Not wanting to dwell on what exactly that meant, he tugged at Kaylee to keep moving.

They strolled further until they passed a decrepit looking adobe shack. Simon glared at it as he caught a whiff of the unmistakable odor of vomit and urine.

“I see they have a doctor slash veterinarian,” he observed, utterly appalled when he read the sign that barely hung over the door.

Kaylee giggled. “And, look! He does dental work, too! Fancy having your teeth cleaned?”

The squat building looked like the last one fit for proper medical treatment. “I can’t even think of an appropriate response to…this.” He shook his head, finding it difficult to shake the shock at the medical conditions of the so-called doctor’s office.

“You needin’ the doc?” A voice behind them drawled lazily.

They turned around to see a man studying them. Standing authoritatively with his arms folded, the man exuded an air of self importance. He was older, bordering on seventy. Several days worth of gray stubble littered his jaw giving him a grizzled appearance. He gazed at them as if he had the right to know all their business.

“No, sir. We’re just lookin’.” Kaylee squeezed Simon’s hand.

The man continued to stare at them, waiting for some explanation on their part.

“We’re just passing through on our way to…Robert’s Town.” Kaylee explained.

“Came up through the badlands, didja?”

“That we did. Awful lonesome out there.”

“Ain’t it, though?” He spat on the ground, the amber liquid landing near Simon’s foot. “What takes you to Robert’s?” He studied Simon. “Lookin’ fer work in the mines?”

“Maybe.” Kaylee smiled.

Simon glanced at her, admiring her coolness, her easy charm. Too bad Simon was thwarting her charm with this guy, though. The man glared at Simon, suspicion clouding his eyes. “Well, I figgered ya’ll was out-of-towners. Know all the locals around here.”

Simon glanced around taking in the empty street, thinking of the barren wasteland that surrounded the town. This place has locals? Local what?

As if he guessed Simon’s thoughts, the man explained, “Town’s the only one for about a thousand square miles. Mines ain’t far off and when the miners come in, things pick up a bit.” He gave them a long look as if he expected them to do something wrong. “Pick up in not always the best way.” He stood a little straighter puffing out his chest, his hands slid over his belt, his coat opening to reveal a shiny star. “We don’t like loiterers here.”

Simon’s manner instantly became more respectful. “We’re just walking around.”

“Got a destination, have you?”

“Not really.”

“Best settle on one. Like I said, loitering ain’t tolerated.” He walked away, calling out, “Nor jaywalking!” Cackling at his own joke the man walked into the Sheriff’s office across the street.

“Well, that’s not very friendly,” Kaylee said.

* * * * * * * *

River lay on the cot listening to Inara’s conversation with Sheydra. Or, rather, watching. Words were being said, pleasantries exchanged but there was far more to their communication than met the ear. Changing positions on the cot to better see, River gazed at the beautiful woman on the screen. She looked like a wise fairy princess; her petal pink dress draped elegantly across her shoulders, emphasizing Sheydra's perfect posture.

“I told you not to worry.”

River detected the slightest note of impatience in Inara’s voice. Apparently, this was not the first time she’d said these same words to the enchanting woman on the screen.

“I know.” Sheydra sighed, tilting her head looking intently at Inara. “It’s just…you’ve been gone a long time. You can’t just disappear for months on end and expect people not to notice.”

“I promised myself to stay until they are back on their feet. It’s taking longer than I anticipated for things to get sorted out here. But…things…are being attended to and I feel more comfortable…leaving.”

“What sort of things?” Sheydra asked with a deceptively casual look.

“Just business things,” Inara replied.

“Your business?”

Inara glanced quickly back at River. “I haven’t---“

“Oh, I know you haven’t.” The casual look became even more studiously casual. “Which is why I wanted to inquire about your…” Sheydra’s face took on a subtle but unmistakably insinuating expression.

At that, River rose from the cot, no longer content to sit back and watch the exchange one sided. Creeping closer, she positioned herself so she could see both women.

“He’s not my…” Inara’s face assumed the same expression.

Sheydra’s eyebrow raised in disbelief. “Please don't be offended, but I can't help but worry that your circumstance is perhaps preventing you from thinking clearly. That you are under some kind of, well..." Sheydra hesitated, then went on, love and determination in her expression "thrall."

Inara laughed unexpectedly. "Are you suggesting Malcolm Reynolds is using his wiles to compromise my better judgment and keep me here?"

“It’s the general consensus. Not that we've been gossiping, dear, but we can't stay disinterested observers when someone we love may be in danger."

“I’m not in any danger.”

“Not even the interesting kind?”

“No.”

“No…” Sheydra paused, her eyes flitting over River who had moved into view. “…torridness?”

“None whatsoever.” Inara answered in her firmest voice.

“Then what are you doing there, Inara?” Sheydra’s attempt at coy interrogation ceased. “I’m concerned. We’re all concerned.”

"Sheydra - you were worried that I was having...torridness with him, and now you're worried that I'm not?"

"I can discern what you mean by torridness,” River piped in. “Also, it's not even a word."

Sheydra didn’t appear to have noticed River’s interjection. “Need I remind you of the manner in which you left?”

“That wasn’t his fault.”

"Dearest, it's only natural to look for the best in the man once you've..."

“Believe me, there are plenty of things that I will blame him for but not that.”

“If you say so.”

“And there is no once I’ve…” Inara reminded her.

“Inara, you are, Buddha knows where, on a ship that very recently incurred the wrath of an Operative.” Sheydra’s eyes widened imperceptibly, revealing her distress. “An Operative, Inara!”

“That…situation is taken care of.”

Sheydra’s look was disbelieving.

“Sheydra, I’m fine,” Inara insisted.

“You need to make a decision, Inara. Either stay or go.” Sheydra gazed serenely at Inara, giving her friend time to think before continuing. “We just wonder what’s keeping you on that ship?”

River moved closer to Inara, wanting to remind her of her presence. Inara smiled at her before addressing Sheydra. "They need me."

Sheydra was quiet for a moment. Her eyes searched the empty shuttle before finally resting on River. She, too, gave River a small smile before turning her attention back to Inara. Her smile, River noted, held a touch of sadness. "But what do you need, my dear? What about your life?"

River’s attention transferred from the Fairy Princess to the lost girl trying to make her way home. Again, Inara met River’s concerned gaze, a flash of regret appearing in her eyes.

“Sheydra, despite what the gossips may say, I am perfectly aware of what I need. As I said before, Captain Reynolds and his crew are getting back on their feet. I should be back at the Training House within a week.”

Instead of looking satisfied, Sheydra looked guilty.

“What is it?” Inara’s voice was deceptively calm.

“I didn’t want to say anything until you were back but I feel treacherous not speaking more frankly.”

“What?”

“Oh, Inara, I wanted to keep it open for you but… I had to fill your position last month.” Sheydra gazed steadily at Inara, sorrow shining in her eyes.

River surmised that this new woman wouldn’t have the Training House disrupted by military intervention. Flash bombs, Operatives, shooting… Inara plucked out of danger by the Captain. Saved from death, River was certain. Clenching her fists, a wave of impotent anger swept over her as she thought about how many more ways people she loved would suffer for her.

“Oh.” Inara didn’t look surprised. Disappointed but not surprised. River took that to be the bestest sign.

“The Guild sent a lovely woman from House Okuni on Ariel,” Sheydra fretfully explained. “She’s recently retired and the novices love her.”

“It’s alright, Sheydra. Really.”

"Inara, kàn guān, I'm afraid there is another matter you need to know about." Sheydra straightened, seeming more confident in her next news. “Minami has been waving me on a weekly basis. I think she’s feeling some pressure to locate you and persuade you to return home.”

“Pressure?”

River cringed at the worry in Inara’s tone, knowing that she was the cause of it.

Sheydra shook her head, allaying Inara’s fears. “Pressure in the sense of the responsibility that every House Priestess feels for her daughters.” Sheydra’s voice held a note of chastisement. She looked steadily at Inara before adding, “And pressure from your aunt.”

Taking a moment to digest that bit of information, Inara remained silent. River pried a little, curious about Inara’s aunt. Family. Deciding she didn’t like this news of other family, River focused, trying with all her power to lift the curtain of Inara’s mind but she only succeeded in gleaning an image of an older, lovely woman who looked remarkably like Inara before the image was swept away.

“Sihnon is too far to get a good signal from here.” Inara’s tone was all cordial business but River strongly suspected there was much more to this news about an aunt. “Would you wave Minami and let her know I’m fine? That I’ll contact her as soon as I am able?”

“Of course.” Sheydra looked closely at Inara, also seeming to notice that Inara didn’t mention the mysterious aunt.

“I must go now, Sheydra. Please don’t worry about me.”

“Inara, your room is still yours. You may stay as long as you wish. Please don’t take this as a…reason not to come back.”

“I’ll wave you soon.” Inara smiled at Sheydra, showing she wasn’t angry. “Cí xíng, Sheydra.”

Switching off the Cortex, Inara stared at the blank screen.

“I’m sorry you lost your job.” It didn’t occur to River to attempt to sound sincere.

“It’s not wholly unexpected.” Inara sighed, turning to face River.

“That wasn’t very nice of her. Giving your job away.” River sat next to Inara unable to contain her glee.

“She does have a Training House to manage.”

“Still…” But River couldn’t think of anything of comfort to say because this was the best news for her. Taking Inara’s hand, River rested her head on her shoulder feeling very content. “So, now you’re staying. Home. You don’t even need to click your heels.”

When Inara didn’t answer, River looked up into Inara’s eyes and pretended to see happiness.

* * * * * * * *

Zoë paused outside Nick’s Café eyeing a litter of dead insects. The red sign, the only real color she had seen in the town, acted as an advertisement but also as a bug killer. Jayne, uninterested in the ground, stepped on the dead bugs, opening the door for her.

“Buy you a drink, Zo?” Jayne asked.

Zoë nodded, stepping into the dark bar. After her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she scanned the crowd finding that they looked exactly like every other group of bar patrons that frequented a tavern on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Shiftless and lazy.

Finding them a table near the back of the room, she walked over to it avoiding the curious glances that followed her progress. As soon as she sat down, she saw that one of the older fellows at another table looked like he was angling to approach her. She threw him a stony stare which had him hurriedly sitting back in his chair.

“And you thought this was a falutin’ coffee place.” Jayne slid a beer in front of her.

“Never again will I underestimate your ability to suss out a tavern,” she said, taking a sip of the cold beer.

“It’s a gift,” Jayne confided. Tilting his chair back, Jayne sighed a contented sigh. “Good to be back in business, ain’t it?”

“That it is.”

Settling in, she observed the crowd of young rowdies who were gathered around the bar. Feeling their eyes on her, she turned her attention to walls pitifully barren of any adornment. But her mood was far less morose and even the raucous jokes she knew were being told about her failed to crush her good spirits.

“Hope we get a fight outta this,” Jayne said. “Not a serious fight, mind you, but I ain’t averse to exchanging fisticuffs with a fellow.”

She half-heartedly listened as Jayne babbled. His voice low as he made fun of the locals. Zoë smiled very pleased that with everything that had happened Jayne was still Jayne.

A shaft of sunlight filtered in followed by Simon and Kaylee. Blinking at the darkness of the bar, they looked about the room until they found Jayne and Zoë.

“Ain’t we lucky, Zoë?” Jayne exclaimed as they sat down. “They decided to join us after all.”

“Stow it, Jayne,” Zoë’s tone was gruff, her good humor had dimmed a little.

“Town ain’t big on loiterin’,” Kaylee explained. “Figured it best we wait here with you.”

Everyone at the table was silent and the feeling was uncomfortable until Mal came in. Sitting at the last empty seat, he looked happier than Zoë had seen him in a long while.

“We’re all set. Meet’s just after sundown.”

“Sweet Moses Supposes! That’s good news!”

Zoë grinned at Jayne’s exuberance. It had been a disturbingly long time since they had a good opportunity for coin. Forgetting about her antipathy, she leaned in to get the details, her relief at finding work palpable.

“Need to head back to Serenity to get prepped,” Mal explained. “Meet’s tricky to get to but Levon, our guy, will wave us with specifics on the gettin’ there. He reckons it’ll take about an hour in the shuttle.”

Zoë felt Mal’s excitement, but she quickly noticed that he avoided her gaze.

“Kaylee, make sure Shuttle One’s set to go and ready for cargo. The cargo may be on the heavy side so make any adjustments that are necessary.”

“How heavy Cap’n?”

Mal shrugged. “Dunno. Pieces of heavy is what it is.”

“If it’s so heavy, why don’t we take Serenity?” Simon asked.

It was something Zoë had been pondering but the fact that Simon uttered something she was thinking irritated her. She sat back in her chair and glared at him.

“When we got a question on how to spend our days doin’ nothin’, we’ll ask you,” Jayne said. “Ain’t none of your concern no how.”

Kaylee looked angrily between the three of them but neither Mal nor Zoë admonished Jayne.

“I think I’ll just go…check on the mule.” Simon avoided everyone’s eyes as he quickly rose from the table and left the bar.

“Ain’t a need for you all to be so gorramn mean!” Kaylee glared at each of them before rising in a huff, following Simon outside.

“Touchy, ain’t they?” Jayne laughed as if he’d made a fine joke.

“Give it a rest, Jayne,” Mal said.

“Aggravates me, is all.”

“Channel that sentiment elsewhere. Job comin’ up ain’t gonna be all ease.”

“Test of brawn is in order?”

Mal nodded. “Let’s just say we ain’t the first crew been hired to get this stuff off. Not the fourth neither.”

“A challenge!” Jayne exclaimed, banging his fist on the table in excitement.

“Our contact’s got a touch of trouble hence the extra out-of-the-wayness.”

“What kind of trouble?” Zoë asked.

“Rival outfit been angling to make a play. Levon’s covering his end best he can but…,” he glanced at Jayne. “Our brawn is the reason we’ve been hired. Dong ma?”

They looked at each other, grinning with relief at having a paying job.

Jayne downed the last of his beer. “So, uh, Mal, why ain’t we takin’ the ship?” He asked the question sheepishly. “We take the shuttle then have to unload it our own selves onto Serenity. Wouldn’t—“

“Got no option to take Serenity herself so do what you can.” He pointedly kept his eye on Jayne.

Zoë’s good humor vanished just as abruptly as it had surfaced. Staring at her full beer; her eyes focused on the few remaining bubbles. Again with the pilot problem…or lack thereof. The sound of Mal and Jayne’s chatter seemed far away. Transfixed, she watched until the last of the suds popped out of existence. A fresh wave of realization struck her. He ain’t coming back.

Needing to get away, Zoë mumbled something, hardly aware that a sound was coming from her mouth. She walked to the bar, keeping her gaze firmly fixed on her destination. She felt like she was walking through a tunnel, like she was in a dream and she was outside herself watching. Her eyes flickered over to the kid who kept eyeing her. He had the look of spoiled privilege with a generous helping of the arrogance of new manhood.

She waited at the bar, not only for the bartender. As she expected, the young man approached. Unjustifiably confident with his too fancy but tacky clothes, he sidled up to her, showing off for his buddies.

“Don’t get many fine ladies such as yourself in these parts.”

Zoë didn’t look at him.

“My daddy is Young Faron. Mean anything to you?”

“Not a thing.” Her fingers gripped the bar. “Best you run along, little Young Faron,” she said softly. If the green kid had any sense, which she knew he did not, he would have heard the warning.

“Hey!” He leaned closer, utterly assured of his status as local heartthrob. “Just trying to make your acquaintance, lambytoes.”

She stood frozen for a few seconds unable to believe the words that fell from this shǎ dàn‘s mouth. What did he just say to me? Zoë’s simmering rage boiled. The kid had said exactly the wrong thing for him but the right thing for her. What did he just gorramn say to me? Fury pulsing through her, she stared fixedly in the mirror behind the bar seeing Jayne and Mal talked amongst themselves, oblivious of the storm brewing.

Grabbing his shirt, she roughly shoved the dandy’s back hard against the metal pole that lined the bar. His blue eyes widened in pain before reflexively closing as her fist smashed square into his nose. The feel of bone and blood was a welcome one but Zoë was not satisfied. Knowing she had little time before his friends joined in, Zoë rapidly delivered another blow to his pretty face.

Futilely, the kid raised his hands to protect his face, but two more hard-hitting punches and his hands sagged down to his side. He slumped to the ground. Still holding his shirt, she lifted his body only to slam it hard against the concrete floor.

“Sorry…” he gurgled, weakly holding up a hand. Blood dribbled from his mouth and nose, tears from his eyes. Zoë paid him no mind, couldn’t hardly see him through the gray haze that encompassed her.

She hit him once more before someone grabbed her from behind. Roughly hauling her up, the man held her while another hit her in the abdomen. She lost her breath for a moment before glaring up at one of the kid’s cronies. The man came closer to hit her again, Zoë kicked his kneecap. He fell down, howling in pain. She grabbed the other’s man hair and pulled hard. His grunt of surprised pain echoed in her ear. She elbowed him in the stomach until he let go.

“Get the gorramn law!” The bartender yelled out. “Get the gorramn law!”

Backing up against the bar, she realized that she was surrounded by the kid’s friends.

“Zoë!” Mal anxiously called to her. He was trying to get to her but she didn’t want him to.

Squaring her shoulders, she struck out at anyone who dared get close to her. Furious adrenaline powered her, giving her the strength to deliver and receive pain. Pain. The skin on her cheekbone split, she tasted blood in her mouth. She spat blood and saliva at whoever had delivered the blows. Her only connection with reality was the physical sensations. Pain.

She heard another grunt, familiar this time. Jayne was getting through, coming closer to her.

“Break it up!” Someone cried out. “This is your only warning!”

The words were followed by a loud pop. Zoë heard the sound of a heavy body falling to the floor. Jayne.

“Break it up, gorrammit!” Another pop sounded, close enough to get her attention. She looked up in time to see Mal fall.

Finally snapping her out of her stupor, she raised her hands in surrender. An old man with a star on his chest stalked angrily to her. Turning her around, he cuffed her hands behind her back. The weight of the metal against her wrists signaled a return to reality and Zoë bitterly realized what had just happened. What she had just done.

“Woman, you are hereby bound by law…”



Part 3 





 

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charlie_bz

March 2012

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