Pairings: River/Jayne, Mal/Inara, a tad of Simon/Kaylee
Beta: My Magic Beta Lady, ceslas
Previous Chapters: Ch. 1 - Through The Keyhole Of Time; Ch. 2 - Tentative Beginnings; Ch. 3 - Ghosts; Ch. 4 - Voices Of The Living; Ch. 5 - Battles Won Battles Lost; Ch. 6 - Caught In The Moment; Ch. 7 - Like Puzzle Pieces
Voices And Visions
Ch 8 - In Dreams
Serenity was due to arrive on Calderon’s third moon in fifteen hours twenty-two minutes and fifty seconds. It would be early morning, planet time and mid-morning, ship time. They had an additional three hours until the scheduled meet that Badger had lined up. River double-checked the coordinates and did another search on the Cortex to be sure nothing new had been posted about their destination.
“Poor planetoid,” she muttered. “They didn’t care enough about you to give you a proper name. All you received was a numerical designation.” She reread the scant information available. Officially they were heading toward All-31685-Cald-3. This told her it was claimed by the Alliance; it had been the 31685th astral body identified since leaving Earth-That-Was; but most importantly to her, as a pilot, it indicated that, she needed to use the navigational beacons for Calderon and then the ship’s charting computer to home in on the moon. She knew Wash had upgraded the system with some special programs of his own making, so that they could fly undetected past the planet’s spatial identification markers, pick up the information they need and go on their merry, unless it had been specifically set to alert the authorities to their presence.
River screwed up her face and looked into the Black. “Hmmm if I used the space cartographer’s method, what would my name be? Would I be Ser-9-Simon-1?” She shook her head because that didn’t work. There were only seven of them left on Serenity, and she was sure that Kaylee now occupied the number one orbital position in Simon’s life. River thought it was a good thing and was happy for him and her friend. As much as her heart would have liked her to be Ser-9-Jayne-1, or maybe it was Ser-7-Jayne-1, it didn’t matter because she knew that the large body that she gravitated toward didn’t think of her that way. Life had been less confusing when she was still wondering how and when she’d move from liking Jayne Cobb to being in love with him.
It was easier to dwell on the oddities of how things were named, than to worry about her inner turmoil. Earlier that day she’d discovered a small footnote regarding their destination. It was more trivial than informative, as well as probably outdated since it was at least twenty years old, but she found it soothing in her current state of mind. It had said, ‘Colloquially, each of Calderon’s moons was known by its prominent weather condition.’ Though the Cortex hadn’t bothered to state what those were. River knew what hers were or had been.
“They’ve certainly used those when giving me names,” she muttered and frowned. “They have called me, Mei-mei, Crazy, Moonbrain, Girlie, Hey-you, Killer Girl, Little Albatross, Little Witch, Little One, Sweetie, and Honey.” Only Simon and Kaylee used her given name with any frequency, unless she counted her years in Gabriel Tam’s household, but if she did, she’d have to include her brother’s childhood nickname for her, Peanut. She’d always detested it, but not as much as she’d hated what the Blue Hands had called her: The Subject.
“Hey, Girlie-girl,” Jayne walked onto the bridge. River was facing forward so he missed the way she rolled her eyes at him, mentally adding one more name to the long list she’d already gathered.
“Yes, Man With a Girl’s Name.” She smiled at him deciding two could play that game. He’d called her River three nights ago. Thinking back, she realized that hadn’t been the first time. She wished he would do so more often.
“What’d I say ‘bout that?” He glared at her.
“That you would show me your ‘man parts’ if I kept it up.” She engaged the autopilot to give her hands something to do, because she knew that if she didn’t they’d begin to shake or she’d end up gripping the controls so tightly she’d cut off circulation to her fingers. “But I know you won’t, so it is an empty threat.” She quickly crossed her arms over her chest and sat up very straight.
Something slammed into his gut because he could suddenly picture…no he refused to let his mind go there. “I don’t make empty threats,” he growled from deep within. The words straddled the border between passion and violence. They sounded too much like the last time he’d said almost the same thing to her, three nights earlier. “Ya should know that by now.”
“I do,” she sighed. “You made that very clear the other night in the cargo bay.” She was thinking of what it had felt like to be pinned beneath his body and filled with the realization that she’d come to love him. It was a picture that had floated through her mind too often in the last few days. “That day in the infirmary was almost six months ago. We were different. You would have taken great joy in trying to embarrass me, though I believe if you had actually done as you’d threatened, it would have been Simon who would have been the most upset. I was still too crazy for it to make any difference.” River laughed remembering how the big man had scowled and reached for his zipper. She wished she had the nerve to tell him that his attitude toward her would change again and he would be the one to teach her the joys found in a man’s body, not just give her an anatomy lesson born out of anger.
“It might ‘a been worth Mal yellin’ at me, just ta see the Doc squirm.” He laughed relieved that the tension in the room was broken.
“I realize he can be most entertaining when upset, but it is my prerogative, as a younger sibling, to create such a response.” She tilted her head and looked up at him in that odd way of hers that he used to find irritating, but now thought was kind ‘a cute, though he liked it a damn site better when it was aimed at someone else. “Do you really think so little of him?”
“Weeelllll,” Jayne hemmed and hawed. He hated to admit that his opinion of the younger man had changed. “He sure does look like a sissified Core-gent, but he ain’t afraid ‘a me and thinkin’ on it I don’t think he ever has been, least not for himself. I gotta respect ‘em for that but it don’t mean I’m not gonna tease him. It builds character.” He shook his head at the Doc’s odd personality. “He could ‘a killed me easy that day, when he found out what I done on Ariel. Had every right to, but just wanted to put it behind us. Even early on, he knocked me out when I was givin’ everybody a hard time ‘cause Zoë and the Captain was late meetin’ up after the train heist. That took guts.” He looked down at her and glared. “Ya know that’s somethin’ you Tams are real good at. I wish to ruttin hell ya’d both stop knockin’ me out.”
“Genetics, what can I say,” she shrugged.
“Ya can say ya ain’t gonna do it no more.”
“I ain’t gonna do it no more,” she put her hands on her hips and imitated his accent and expression and then easily slipped back to being herself. “But I can make no promises for Simon. Also, there is a condition tied to my response.”
“Ain’t there always,” he groaned and shook his head to keep from laughing. “Woman always got their conditions.”
It was hard for her to keep from smiling, he’d called her a woman, but what she had to say was too important to be lost in their usual teasing. “Jayne, you’re my friend and Simon is my brother. I want the two of you to get along.”
“We’re gettin’ along.”
“I know, but this will help you both. There is only one thing I want you to remember about Ariel. It is the key to understanding Simon. When that patient went into cardiac distress, my brother rushed to help him. That was who he really is. It had taken over two years of planning, all his money and his reputation to help me escape from the Academy, but he chanced throwing all that away because a man would have died if he hadn’t.”
“T’were gorramn amazin’. I seen lots a men meet their maker, a goodly number at my hand, but that were the first time I seen somethin’ like that.” Wanting to reassure her, he knelt beside her on the balls of his feet with a hold on the board in front of her to keep his balance and looked her straight in the eyes. “Just so ya know, he didn’t go off and forget ‘bout ya. He told me ta take care of ya but there I was gonna…”
“No, that part is not important. It is in the past! All of our sins were washed away by the blood spilled on Miranda and Mr. Universe’s moon. If I didn’t believe that, the only way I could face living would be detached from reality, stark raving crazy.” She covered his hand with hers. “Please, Jayne let it help you understand Simon. The rest is of no importance.”
“You’re wrong, River,” he whispered her name. “If’n it’s all right with ya, I’d like ta keep one other memory from that day.” He reached over and ruffled her hair. His fingers searched for the scars he knew were on her scalp but he’d never had the guts ta touch before. “I want ta remember these, how ya got ‘em and what they did ta ya. Then I’ll know that no matter what I’m offered, it’ll never be enough and I’ll be able to keep the promise I made ta Simon that day.”
“But you wouldn’t turn us in, not now.” She felt the truth deep in her bones and even if she didn’t, the surety of her vision told her he’d never betray her.
“Ya know that for sure? Ya seen it?” As much as he wanted to look away, he didn’t. He needed to know it was one of her reader-things. “’Cause I done some ruttin bad things in my time…and…well since we become friends it’s been hauntin’ my dreams some and I ain’t just talkin’ ‘bout Ariel.” His nights had been bad the last few days. In his dreams he’d be sexin’ River somethin’ fierce, then he’d either hold her through the night, or he’d hand her over to the Alliance. To his thinkin’ both were equally damaging.
“I know it for sure.” She couldn’t help herself. She placed a gentle hand on the side of his face. He’d shaved that morning, so his skin was smooth except for where the pad of her thumb made small circles against his goatee. She wanted to lean forward and feel those scratchy whiskers against her lips, her cheeks, and down the arch of her neck.
The seconds drifted by. All Jayne could do was stay exactly where he was, lookin’ deep into her pretty brown eyes. He was caught in something he didn’t understand, as desire flared though him, but it was more than that. He’d sworn he’d do his best ta keep his hands to hisself and he’d been doing real good. ‘Bout the only time they’d touched was when they sparred. This time she’d reached for him. Now all he wanted to do was pull her close and let that little hand ‘a hers do some more explorin’. If it felt that gorramn good ta have her rubbin’ against his cheek, what would it be like if’n she was touching other parts?
“You will not betray me,” she whispered, lost in the feel of him.
“I’m already doin’ just that, Baby-doll.” He wasn’t aware he’d spoken out loud. The endearment that had slipped out hardly registered on his unconscious thought, but she had heard it and it shook her to the core. Jayne took a deep breath and wrapped his large paw around her wrist. Her skin was soft and all her wanted to do was hold on, but he gently lifted her hand away from his face. With all the strength he could muster he stood and took a step back. “I…ah…just came up here ta tell ya, that tonight’s games is gonna be in full weapons dress…but…no ammo. So…ah meet me in the…ah…lounge ta get weaponed up.” He nodded at her and didn’t give her a chance to answer, just fled the bridge.
River stared straight ahead out into the Black, but didn’t see a thing. All she could do was feel. His desire had washed over her in waves and sent her head spinning. Her body felt strange. She was tempted to let her mind follow his retreat to his bunk, sure that if she did that the ache deep inside of her would be relieved. “Can’t, wrong to intrude,” she muttered and slumped in her chair with her face buried in her hands, still tempted to follow.
“Hey, Little One, you okay.” Zoë put a reassuring hand on River’s shoulder, causing her to jump in surprise.
“I…ah…didn’t hear…how did…your tread is very light.” She was astonished anyone had been able to get near her without her knowing it. Even when madness had taken control of her, she could hear foot steps. But then she had been unsure which were real and which were not. In surprise she lowered her hands from her face and met the penetrating stare of the older woman.
“At least you’ve got the good sense to put the ship on autopilot when distraction comes your way.” The First-Mate had seen the expression on the Merc’s face when he’d pushed past her to get to his bunk. It was one she’d seen before and it was always caused by a woman or lack of one.
“I found it necessary to take a small break.” River slowly reached over to take back control of Serenity, but darker, larger hands gripper her smaller pale ones and wouldn’t let them go.
“You might want to give yourself a few more minutes.” Zoë knelt beside her in almost the exact spot where Jayne had been minutes earlier. “It’s all right you know.”
“’Course you are, honey. You already explained that you feel everyone’s emotions and that old hundan who just stomped outta here don’t know the first thing about controlling his.”
“Jayne didn’t have anything to do with it! I was only taking a small break,” River insisted.
“Okay, if that’s the way you want it.” Zoë smiled softly thinking about all the times she and Wash had…ah…christened the chair the girl was sitting in. With sparkling eyes she stood and looked down at the small person. “I guess you could always blame it on the pilot’s seat. I’m amazed that thing doesn’t glow in the dark.” She lovingly caressed the worn material.
“Sometimes when I’m flying, if I’m worried about what I am doing, I can feel him and because he is there, the fear goes away. All of the rest belongs to you. There is a deep base of love here, but it was always here. I knew about it long before he was gone.” River’s eyes had cleared but the other woman’s filled with tears. “Be reassured it speaks only to Zoë.”
The First-Mate sniffed and wiped at her eyes before she spoke. “I dream about him all the time. Sometimes they are so real that I’m surprised when I open my eyes and find that he isn’t beside me. Those mornings are hard. Because I have to tell myself all over again that he died.” She flopped into the co-pilot’s seat, confused; confused that she was talking about her feelings; and confused that she was having them in the first place. She was a realist and knew that dead was dead. “The strangest part is that I have the memory of the dream from the night before and that helps some.”
“Before, when I lived in the shadows and nothing was clear. I didn’t know who any of you were.” River took back control of Serenity, almost as if she needed to have the feel of the ship in her hands to be able to speak about the time between when she jumped from a cold sleep box and Miranda. “I didn’t understand what had been done to me. All I could do was feel. Everyone had a distinct mental signature, except for you and Wash. Yours were blurred. It would always surprise me when I’d come around a corner and find only one of you standing there. The really interesting thing was that it would mix and change. Sometimes there would be more Warrior Woman, sometimes more laughing pilot.” The girl turned slightly, unsure if what she was about to say would be helpful or not. “It’s still like that.”
“I’m glad,” Zoë whispered, dropped her chin to her chest and wrapped her arms tightly around herself as if to keep the image in River’s mind held securely against her.
“You seen where Jayne got to?” Mal skidded to a halt a foot inside the hatch to the bridge. He took one look at both women and began backing out slowly. There was no way in gorramn hell he was goin’ ta face two weeping females, especially when one ‘a them was Zoë!
“In his bunk,” both women answered simultaneously without looking up. They heard their Captain cussing. He tromped away, knocked hard on the bunk door and called out for his Mercenary. Suddenly they were both laughing.
“Ah thank-you, honey,” the First-Mate wiped tears off her cheeks. “I think we sent the poor man into a state of panic.”
“He cares about you.”
“Yes he does, but so far you’re the only one who will really talk about Wash with me. I appreciate that.”
“For them, everything that happened is like a gaping wound, which is still new with exposed raw nerves. They feel the pain and haven’t learned to process it.” She shrugged unsure if she was making any sense. “I’ve lived that way, for most of the last three years, with nothing but feelings and a damaged brain that won’t let me hide from the emotions all around me. I’ve come to realize that it helps to speak of what hurts most. Then if I’m very lucky, the pain will fly away and leave only its shadow behind. But the Captain,” she shook her head in doubt. “He lives in a valley littered with the dead and the body count keeps getting higher and higher, to be numb, turned to stone, is his protection.”
Zoë nodded quietly and stared into the Black. The girl knew what she was talking about.
If a bad dress rehearsal is a good omen for a coming performance, then the disaster that was their war game that afternoon prophesized a stellar job of thieving on the following day. Nothing went as planned. Jayne and River lost the ability to do the simplest task together, until even Zoë and Mal were snapping at each other. Their leader finally called a halt to the proceedings before he banged someone’s head against a bulkhead.
“Tonight I don’t want you two sparrin’.” The Captain glared at his gun hands. “In the mood you’re in, you’ll do serious damage to each other and despite the dismal way you was acting, I need you both in working condition tomorrow.”
“If he hadn’t gotten in my way…”
“If she’d followed orders…”
“Not a word, not one single word outta the two of you until you cool down!”
They glared at each other for a moment and then the Merc swung Vera’s strap over his head. “Girlie,” he called out and sent his favorite weapon flying toward her. She reached up without saying a word, and the automatic rifle fell into her palm. As she brought it down, she flicked her wrist so the strap slipped over her head. Before anyone could blink, they were staring down the barrel of the deadliest gun on the boat held expertly in the hands of most likely the deadliest person on the boat.
“Qu tamade,” Mal shouted in disgust. “Why the gorramn hell couldn’t ya done that before.”
River shrugged as Jayne walked up to her holding out his hand. “Give her back, Girlie.” His smile was tight, but his insides had stopped heaving. He knew it had been his fault things had gone so badly between them. He had been trying to run interference for her and they’d ended up tripping all over each other. Tossing her Vera had been as much a test as an apology.
“She feels so sweet.” The girl crooned as she caressed the cool metal casing she held in her hands. The weapon always reminded her of Jayne. She could understand why it was his favorite.
“Bring her along.” The big man understood her reaction to the gun. He indicated for her to follow him with a sweep of his arm as he turned toward the stairs. He really didn’t want her in his bunk, but he figured it would be safe enough if he was careful. “We got ‘ta put the rest ‘a your armaments with my stuff, ya might as well carry Vera.”
“I still don’t want you two sparring. Everyone should make an early night of it.” The Captain looked around at his crew. He hoped things went smoothly the next day or he was sure someone was going to catch a bullet and too often that someone was him. “See you all at dinner.”
River followed Jayne down his ladder and reluctantly handed over Vera as soon as they were both standing on the deck.
“I’m sorry, Girlie, ‘bout what happened. T’was my fault.” He looked at her a bit uncertain, nervously playing with his favorite gun’s heavy leather strap. He wasn’t used to apologizing to anyone. “But I was worried…the other night when we sparred, I shouldn’t ‘a been able to take ya down like I did. I know you was tired. It had been the first time ya’d fought ‘long side ‘a us, even if they was only a practice, and we’d been arguin’. I deliberately pushed ya as hard as I could, ‘cause I needed to talk ta ya and didn’t want to get my ass kicked or my balls twisted off if ya didn’t want to listen ta what I had ta say. Ya dropped your guard, Girlie. That can get you dead real quick like.”
“I thought we had an understanding, Jayne, no matter how violent things may appear to others, we wouldn’t hurt each other.” She plopped down on his bed, her hands gripped tightly together, feeling off kilter.
“I didn’t hurt ya did I?” He quickly sat beside her. He knew he’d been rough on her, but he’d been careful not wantin’ to inflict pain while gettin’ his point across.
“No.” She shook her head, wondering if he hadn’t pushed her physically, pressing against every centimeter of her body, if the love she knew she’d finally feel for him would have stayed hidden a bit longer. She understood that because of those feelings she’d answered him the way she had. “Part of me is disappointed that you felt you needed to restrain me in order to get me to talk to you about not running away if I became frightened. Part of me understands completely why you did it, given your past experience with both Tam siblings during disagreements. And there is another part of me that is very glad you did, because I may never have given you my promise to talk to you first if things got bad.”
“Huh?” He crinkled his brow completely lost in the twists and turns of her odd confession. “That still doesn’t explain why ya dropped your guard.”
“I know,” she sighed and looked up at him. “It was completely against all of my training. But I’ve never had the luxury of fighting with someone who I trusted before.”
Jayne was hit with anger, sorrow and pleasure all at the same time. The most natural course was for him to explode. “Well, gorramnit, Girlie, if that isn’t the stupidest thing I ever heard! The whole idea ‘a those little sessions is to practice. Ya always gotta be on guard, always! Trust don’t mean a thing in the ‘verse when your life is on the line.”
“I know.” She got up and took off the last of her weapons. “I’m sorry I worried you, it won’t happen again.” She’d just placed her hand on a rung of the ladder when she spoke quietly, but didn’t turn or look at him. “But wouldn’t it be nice to have one person you don’t have to worry about betraying you.”
“Girlie, we been over this on the bridge this afternoon.” The trust she was offering him was something he wanted to reach for, and bask in its warm glow. But if he did that he would destroy it and he’d have nothing left to hope for.
“On the bridge, we addressed your fears, not mine.” She turned back to him, her eyes filled with pain. “To know that I can fight, and be selective about who lives and who dies, means that you, the Captain and Zoë will be safe when there is a weapon in my hands. Your nightmares may be filled with images of turning Simon and me over to the Alliance, but mine are filled with death, your deaths.”
“It ain’t gonna happen, River.” He gently ran his hand through her hair until his fingers felt a small ridge of scar tissue. “I know it ain’t ‘cause you didn’t kill us in the Maidenhead, or back on the boat when ya broke free. Ya could ‘a, but you didn’t.” He wouldn’t bring up her cuttin’ him, he figured they’d finally left that day behind them.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “The knowledge is helpful, but I do not know if, or when, my dreaming mind will accept it.” His hand still held her head, and his touch gave her more reassurance than all the words that could have been spoken, so she stood on her tiptoes to lightly brush her lips against his cheek.
“Ya need ta be gettin’ outta here, Girlie.” He nodded toward his ladder then remembered his finger was still rubbin’ against the knotted ridge on her scalp and quickly pulled his hand away. “This ain’t no place for ya to be.”
Malcolm Reynolds lay in his bunk and listened to Serenity on night running. The gentle click of Zoë’s hatch and then her light step as she headed for the bridge told him that everyone had settled in for the night. He hated to think of his First-Mate curled sleeping in her dead husband’s chair, but the Doc had advised him to leave her alone for the time bein’ and he planned on doing just that, as long as it she was getting enough sleep. As of tomorrow they’d be back to thieving and he needed her by his side.
Once things quieted again, Mal grabbed his small flashlight and left his bunk. Kaylee had indicated he needed to listen to the goings-on in the night, that there was somethin’ he might learn if he did. He figured it had to do with ‘Nara. Those two had always whispered girl stuff between ‘em. He considered himself lucky that the Mechanic had given him a hint ‘bout what was goin’ on.
He moved quietly to the catwalk. During the year Inara had rented from him and the four months she’d been gone, he’s spent hours sittin’ on the top step. He knew from experience that wishin’ her to open her door and come join him, was just another useless hope. He’d had a passel of those back on Shadow. It had been why he’d become a Browncoat.
He gave her shuttle one look of longing and moved on. It had been a long day and the disastrous war games before dinner worried him. The other three needed to be at peak performance, ‘cause as much as he hated to admit it, he still had some healin’ to do from his fight with the Operative. That slimy bastard had stuck him good with that gorramn sword of his. If he’d died that day, he’d at least have had the satisfaction of makin’ it back to his own people first. The last thing he would’ve seen was ‘Nara’s face. Nope, not a bad way to die in his way of thinkin’, even if she’d been all teary-eyed and there’d been somethin’ he’d been tryin’ ta tell her, but he couldn’t remember what it was.
With a deep breath he moved on into the back of his ship. Just as he entered the engine room his flashlight illuminated dark curls hanging over the side of the rainbow hammock Kaylee’d hung when she’d first come aboard. He pulled back into the corridor, as his thumb moved to switch off the beam. Only one person had hair like that. Mal shook his head sure he was dreamin’ and then stepped into the room again. It was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen: ‘Nara sleepin’. He couldn’t tear himself away, though he knew it was wrong to watch her.
One moment Inara had been behind heavy metal boxes, bow in hand, waiting for Reavers to break in and suddenly her mind was pulled away. She was sitting beside a hospital bed listening carefully to Mal breathe, counting each breath. She’d become obsessed that night, counting everything: the drops of blood falling from the bag into the drip chamber attached to his intravenous tube; all the times he’d made her cry; all the times he’d made her laugh; the nights she’d spent sleeping in the engine room after Nandi; the nights she’s paced her terrace at the Training House, unable to sleep, because she was too embarrassed to wave him, requesting, that he come and get her; but worst of all the minutes between when he’d lost consciousness and when he had received medical care. The odd counting had kept her sane when her world tipped and spun. It was all that had gotten her through that first terrible night when the Med-Tech had tried to convince her to leave, to go to her room and clean up, but she couldn’t. She knew she had to stay. She’d left him once and she couldn’t ever do it again.
She could hear the breathing again, but it was out of place. Mal had regained consciousness, if only for a moment. A pinched frightened looking River had walked into the med-bay and convinced the older woman to leave for a few hours of sleep, promising she’d watch over the Captain and the rest of the crew. Inara knew what strength it had taken for the girl to leave her hiding place in her room and walk among members of the Alliance, so she’d done as River had asked…River…River?
“River,” Inara mumbled as she began to waken. Mal swung around and moved quietly and quickly out of the engine room. He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there staring at the sleeping woman, but he was smart enough to know it was something he shouldn’t have done.
Her broken ribs made it hard for her to move. It had been Simon’s main argument against her sleeping in the hammock. He’d knitted the brakes when she’d finally admitted to him that she’d been injured, but as long as she spent the night at an awkward angle, the new bone that formed around his repair job kept cracking and refusing to build properly. Inara had just brushed it aside as trivial, sure that she’d be fine eventually. She felt secure in the engine room and with her world shifting out from under her that was more important.
It had been her hiding place ever since she’d discovered Mal walking out of Nandi’s room buttoning his shirt. She couldn’t face the ghosts of all those other men who lived in her shuttle. They had taken up residence and had begun taunting her in her sleep. Logically she knew that it would have been easiest and better for her to trade rooms with River, but she’d refused. The bright rainbow material was familiar against her skin and she’d needed that. She didn’t admit, even to herself, that there was also more chance she’d be discovered by the Captain if she had to walk across the cargo bay every morning and evening, or that she didn’t want to get into a protracted argument with him while her private, professional and political beliefs were in shreds.
As she maneuvered out of the hammock, she shook her head at how close she’d come to getting caught when Jubal Early had broken onto the ship. If Kaylee hadn’t been working late that night, it would have been Inara the bounty hunter would have threatened. She often wondered if the outcome would have been different. She wasn’t as easily intimidated as her young friend. It might have cost her more than the bloodied and bruised lip she had received. Simon’s presences in the shuttle that night had been both a protection and hindrance.
“River,” Inara called out as she moved down the corridor. It had been warm in the engine room and she hadn’t bothered to pull the matching blue robe over her silk gown and now she wished she had as she padded barefoot out onto the catwalk. All was quiet, so she headed for the shuttle and knocked lightly on the hatch. “River, honey, are you all right?”
The girl answered the door rubbing sleep out of her eyes and wrapped in a blanket. “Inara?” she yawned. “No nightmares tonight.” She gave the older woman an odd smile as she pulled her blanket tighter around her shoulders and buried her nose in it. “Thank you for checking.”
“I…a…hmmm…I was sure I heard....” A frowned marred her lovely brow. “I apologize for waking you. Go back to sleep, Sweetie.”
The girl nodded and yawned as she stumbled back to bed. She’d been having a lovely dream. Tonight there were no dead bodies, blood or screams. The slight scent of gun oil, leather, cigar smoke, whiskey and Jayne that clung to her blanket would surely guide her back to where she’d been.
Shivering Inara made sure the shuttle door was locked before she headed back to the engine room. She hadn’t taken ten steps when she saw Mal standing in the shadows on the catwalk. His arms were folded and in the dark she couldn’t read his expression, but his body language shouted anger. As she moved closer, she realized it was worse than she had expected. He had her robe and blanket over his arm.
“Shame to cover up somethin’ so pretty.” His eyes traveled over her body with only the deep blue silk covering it. “But it is the wiser course of action.” He handed her the matching robe.
“Thank you.” She tried to move around him, twisting the garment he just passed to her in nervous hands, but he blocked her way.
“I understand why ya turned me down about sleepin’ in crew quarters when I offered them on the way to Miranda.” He shook his head angrily. “Ya couldn’t have made it down the ladder, still can’t, probably, with them ribs ‘a yours. But why in the gorramn hell are ya sleepin in the engine room? If ya closed and locked that door, even on night runnin’, you’d be cooked good and proper by mornin’! Didn’t we learn our lesson once on this boat? Nobody, ‘specially the women folk sleep with an unlocked door! This is my boat…”
“Don’t yell,” she snapped. “And don’t pull out that trite ‘it’s my boat, it’s my rules’ either. No one is arguing that it is your ship and we try to follow your rules, but you weren’t here…we couldn’t ask you…” She began to shake but refused to let him see her cry again. “I haven’t been…” She clamped her mouth closed and bit down hard. She’d almost let it slip that she hadn’t been sleeping in the shuttle since before she left to go to the Training House.
“Simmer down.” He patted her shoulder and his fingers strayed to play with one of the tiny straps that were all that was holding up her gown. “I…ah…” he blinked to get his mind back to what he’d been about to say. “I gather that was River sleepin’ in there?”
“Yes.” She looked up, caught in the burning blue of his eyes, and automatically shifted her body closer to his.
“Mind tellin’ me why?”
“Because she needs to,” Inara whispered. His hand resting on her shoulder radiated warmth and she leaned into it. “Nightmares, Simon knows. She’s doing better and she always checks with me if she’s had a problem.”
“That’s why ya got these.” He brought his other hand up and gently touched the dark circles under her eyes. “You’re not getting’ ‘nuff sleep.”
“It will get better now.” She smiled and wrapped her hand around her wrist to pull it away from her face. “Jayne has volunteered to help when River has bad nights and she’s willing to let him. So there are two of us to share the job.”
“Is that something I need to worry ‘bout?” He knew she had to be freezing, standing in the middle of the catwalk, wearing nothing but a skimpy nightgown, with Serenity powered down to night running, but she hadn’t made a move to put on her robe or cover-up with the blanket he’d hung over the banister. It was as if they were both afraid that if they changed positions everything would change and they’d go back to arguing. He kept waiting for someone to hammer on the hatch of his bunk telling him to wake-up and stop dreamin’. Lord knew she’d filled enough of his sleepin’ hours since the day he’d met her.
“No.” She shook her head. “I’d never let anything bad happen to the crew. I did what I could until you were…”
“Until I was what?” the edge to his voice and the glitter in his eyes left no doubt that his anger was close behind. Things were falling into place. Things that had nearly driven him crazy when he was too sick to take care of his responsibilities, but he’d tried not to think about since gettin’ released from the hospital. His hand tightened slightly on her shoulder. “You made the decisions ‘bout the repairs, didn’t ya?”
“Please don’t be angry.” The dream that had woken her was vivid in her mind. She supposed it was partly Kaylee’s doing after the warning the younger woman had given her a few days earlier. Telling her to remember what Mal had looked like when he’d collapsed and almost bled to death. That memory was what prevented her from walking off in an angry huff as they stood on the catwalk balanced between an argument and something she wasn’t ready to admit existed. “Zoë was in no shape to do it and I think if we hadn’t been able to resurrect Serenity, she might have given-up.”
“She’s not the only one,” he muttered remembering those dark days of worry. “I can’t believe Jayne didn’t give ya no trouble and try ta run things.” Just when he thought he had the Merc figured out, the big man goes all strange on him. Had been ever since Miranda.
“He was oddly silent. Not like himself at all, almost relieved that someone else was making the decisions.” She shook her head trying to remember clearly what had happened only seven weeks ago. She’d been exhausted, her beliefs had been destroyed, and she’d been in pain, both physically and emotionally. She remembered resenting having to pull on her old personality and deal with officials and merchants, but it was the most expedient way to get their home and lives put back together.
“’Nara where’d ya go?” Mal bent so his face was almost touching hers. She’d been staring off into the distance as if seeing something only she knew about. “Ya sure Jayne didn’t give ya trouble?”
“Sorry, I was just remembering.” She blinked to wash away the grinding, desperate feelings that were sneaking up on her again. “No, he didn’t. He really didn’t.” She searched for words to describe what it had been like, but she wasn’t sure they were in her vocabulary. “It was bad enough to lose Wash, but I believe Shepherd Book was the first friend he had, maybe ever,” Her eyes glistened and she bit her lip to stay in control. “Jayne was always there; willing to do whatever job needed to be done and didn’t complain once when I asked him to help River with the wiring. The first two days we had no power at all. River hated being in those conduits with only a flashlight and blackness, but he would talk to her, keep her going, always letting her know that there was someone on the other end of that rope. Once or twice she panicked and he pulled her up real fast. He took her outside into the sunshine and would just keep on talking. Then when we had the main power on it was all we could do to keep her out of the crawl spaces, with or without help.”
“Gorramnit, I should ‘a been here.” His hand was resting on Inara’s shoulder as his thumb slid gently between the delicate notch of her collar bone and the beginning swell of her breast. “Ya shouldn’t ‘a had to take it all on by yourself.”
“You’re here now.” Inara’s words flew out unheeded.
“’Nara,” Mal whispered as he pulled her into a tight embrace. He was a breath away from kissing her as he’d always dreamed of doing, when she gasped in pain. He froze remember she had broken ribs.
“It’s all right. I’m fine.” She had wrapped her arms around his waist to reassure them both.
“No ya aren’t.” He knew he’d hurt her, but he wasn’t the kind ‘a man who could put it into words. ‘Sides his mind was still filled with thoughts of kissin’ her. If he’d done that, he was sure that slinky gown ‘a hers would be lying on the catwalk ‘bout now and he’d have had her backed up against the nearest wall. His driving need for her would have taken over and they’d both have been lost. If her ribs were too tender for a hug, they sure wouldn’t have survive that little fantasy ‘a his. “Your eyes are all swimmy.”
“Mal, breathing hurts, so don’t worry about a hug.”
“Then how the ruttin’ hell do ya manage to sleep in a hammock and why would ya even try? You could be sleepin’ in River’s bed in the passenger dorm.” He kept his arms gently around her to keep from throwing something. He’d never met a woman who confused him so. One second all he could think about was how good her skin would feel against his, the next he had to fight to keep from shaking her silly.
“Sleeping in Kaylee’s hammock is difficult.” She looked up at him and her eyes begged him to calm down. “Every time I move it wakes me up.” She smiled gently at some joke only she knew. “And getting in and out is a challenge.”
“Ya still haven’t told me why you’re doin’ it.” He glared at her.
“I…” How could she tell him about all the nights that hammock had been her refuge from the ghosts who wandered the shuttle? “Please,” she gasped and buried her face in her hands with her forehead resting over his heart. “I can’t right now. You have to give me time, stop…digging, stop…”
He looked at her seeing an exhausted woman. She’d been living out of that trunk in the shuttle, almost no make-up and the same three or four dresses were rotated. Always clean and neatly taken care of, but repeated over and over again. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her with any jewelry except for the small gold chain she’d taken to wearing during the days. He finally realized that over the last weeks she’d been watching over everyone but herself. With that thought came the memory of the only other time she’d ever begged him for anything. It had been on Miranda, after they’d seen the taped message. It had been painful for him to see the Alliance in action one more time, but had been devastating for her to discover her beliefs and life style had been based on deceptions and lies.
“If you slept in the passenger dorm, do you think you’d get any sleep at all?” He couldn’t conjure what it was about the engine room that held such an attraction for her and he really didn’t want her sleeping there, but if she rejected his idea, he wouldn’t insist.
“I’m sure I’ll be able to.” She agreed, relieved he hadn’t pushed about her reasons.
“Give it a try for tonight and if it don’t work out, we’ll see what we can come up with tomorrow.” He took her robe from her hands and tossed it over his shoulder, wrapped his army blanket around her then took her arm. “Come on, I’ll help you down the steps.”
“I’d appreciate that.” She pushed her left hand tightly to her side as he wrapped his arm around her so she could lean on him and the banister as they slowly made their way to the cargo bay.
“Do you want another blanket or something?” Mal stood hesitantly at the door to River’s empty room.
“No, not unless you want this one back.” She looked over her shoulder at the bed. “There are sheets and a quilt, but it would be nice to have this for extra warmth.”
“You’re welcome ta use it.” He got an odd shivery feeling in his stomach at the idea that ‘Nara had been snugglin’ in his blanket. “I didn’t even realize it was missing from the locker on the bridge.”
“Thank you, Mal.” She gave him a sweet smile, one that was all hers.
“You’re welcome. It’s just an old thing.” He picked at the corner figuring she was smart enough to know all the memories it held for him. He only hoped they wouldn’t haunt her sleep like they did his. “Don’t really need to thank me for it. No one was usin’ it anyway.”
“Not just for the blanket, but for…well…not pushing.”
“Least I could do. You didn’t argue about tryin’ this.” He pointed to the room that was behind her. “Knowin’ you’re sleepin’ behind a locked door will go a long way to givin’ me a peaceful night.” He caressed her shoulder and looked her directly in the eyes. “But the other, I got an idea there’s a whole passel of things that need to be said that’re tied to why you’d choose a noisy engine room over my right nice passenger dorm or your shuttle. If ya ever get ta where ya can speak on ‘em, I’d be mighty glad to listen.”
Her emotions were too close to the surface to answer so she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek, then turned and stepped into River’s room. As she was closing the door he was sure he heard her mutter, “The shuttle isn’t mine, anymore.” But he was too shocked to believe anything that had just happened.
“Yup,” he sighed. “Just a dream and I’m gonna wake-up real soon.” But he grinned and hoped like hell that he hadn’t imagined the last hour.
The next morning Mal and Inara watched over River’s shoulder as she navigated past Calderon to its third moon. He nodded and sat in the co-pilot’s seat indicating for Inara to take the main controls once they’d entered atmo. “Right nice job ya did there, Little Albatross, now it’s ‘Nara’s turn.”
“I am picking up rain on the sensors but we’re on course.” The girl passed on the flight information as she did her seat.
It took a moment for Inara to adjust to the bulkier feel of Serenity, compared to the shuttle. When she’d practiced in the Black, there hadn’t been gravity and that had made a difference, but she had enough flight experience to easily compensate. “I’ve got it, Mal. You can relax now.” She smiled at the man whose hands hovered over the controls on his panel, ready to take over if the need arose.
“Well then take us in.” He did his best to look relaxed, but he doubted he’d fool anyone.
“Sorry about that,” she muttered as they passed through the clouds and were hammered with rain, causing the ship to buck once.
“Sure you’re okay?” He instinctively reached for the controls.
The Companion only nodded, concentrating completely on what she was doing. “Better I practice under adverse conditions…” She didn’t want to tell him that he was the one making her insides shake. She’d flown in storms more times than she could count, but it had never been the morning after she’d kissed Mal, even if it had only been on his cheek.
River patted her on the shoulder to give her reassurance. “I am going to eat, my presence here is superfluous.” She could hear indistinct sounds of the rest of the crew gathering in the galley and she was hungry.
“If this rain don’t let up, we’re in for a nasty time,” Jayne grunted as he poured some coffee and scooped protein mash into his bowl. He didn’t know what Inara had been doing ta the stuff, but it didn’t taste like cardboard no more.
“We’ve worked in the rain before.” Zoë’s voice was hard. There was no trace of the woman who had spoken of her husband with River the night before. “Mornin’, Little One.” She nodded as the girl drifted into the room. “Is that Inara at the controls?” She couldn’t keep the smile off her face when she thought about the anxiety Mal must be going through on the bridge.
“Here ya go, Girlie.” The Merc held out the huge portion he’d been dishing-up and tried to give it to her, but he couldn’t get her attention.
“She is doing very well, but the Captain is making her nervous.” The young pilot tried not to laugh, but it slipped out anyway.
“Girlie…” The big man ground his teeth when he didn’t get a response the first time.
“Thank you, Jayne.” She turned toward him and saw what he was offering her. “I can not eat all of that. One scoopful would be more than adequate, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m sure he is.” The First-Mate’s mind was still on the bridge. She didn’t think she’d ever met two more stubborn people in her life. “If those two are being their usual selves we’ll be lucky if they ship don’t crash the boat.”
“What do I look like, the ruttin’ maid,” Jayne muttered and rattled dishes loudly as the women went on chattering and he plopped a spoonful of mash into another bowl. “Okay, ‘nuff of all this girlie-talk!” He glared and handed River her breakfast. “Good way ta drive a man round the bend. We got serious crime ta do, so everybody sit down so’s we can concentrate on the job we got ahead ‘a us.”
“Well I guess we’ve been told.” Zoë grunted as she poured a second cup of coffee and joined the others at the table.
“Mornin’ all,” Kaylee yawned as she and Simon shuffled sleepily into the galley.
“You two have a rough night?” Jayne grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. “Didn’t hear no screamin’ comin’ from the bunk ‘crossed from mine so you should look all bright–eyed and bushy-tailed.”
Simon turned and glared at him. But the Mercenary just laughed, until River elbowed him hard in the ribs.
“Jayne!” Kaylee gasped. “T’weren’t like that at all.” She’d never admit that the only reason her moans hadn’t echoed through Serenity’s hull had been Simon’s hand held securely over her mouth or her sheet gripped tightly between her teeth. He’d had nightmares about River goin’ on the job ‘a crime and several times during the night he’d reached for the woman at his side and let their passion burn away his fears.
“That will be enough of that type of conversation at the breakfast table.” Zoë stared the Merc down until he shrugged and mumbled an apology that neither of the couple heard because they were too busy concentrating on each other.
As Kaylee carefully filled their bowls with mash she wondered at her lover’s abilities to constantly amaze her. He looked all prim and proper on the outside, but she knew there was another man hidden behind the white shirts and fancy vests. She leaned her shoulder against him while he poured coffee and smiled lovingly into his eyes. “Maybe you should take a nap while they is gone, just in case someone needs doctorin’ when it’s all over.
“Only if you join me.” His hand caressed her cheek. “I’ve discovered I can’t sleep unless you’re there.”
“Honey, if I’m there you won’t get any sleep anyway.”
“Good point,” he grinned. “It might be wiser for both of us to keep Inara company in case we need to make our usual hasty get-away.” He dropped a kiss on her temple and helped her carry their breakfast to the table.
Kaylee sighed at Simon’s unexpected and pleasurable reaction to anxiety.
“You did a right fine job there, ‘Nara.” Mal looked at the woman across the cockpit from him. She was as beautiful as ever and it thrilled him to see her graceful hands controlling his boat.
“Thank you. She doesn’t handle exactly like the shuttle did, but I can see why River and Wash loved flying her.” Inara caressed the half-wheel she was holding.
“Ah…” The man across from her had to clench his jaw to keep from moaning. Her touch seemed to vibrate through the ship until he could feel it against his skin. “Ah…How’d ya sleep last night?” He blinked at his stupidity when he was almost unable to find words. He’d been meaning to ask her that but the question kept getting lost somewhere. Watching her fly Serenity made him understand why Zoë had spent so many hours on the bridge with Wash. He’d always thought ‘Nara had a provocativeness about her, but seein’ her with the controls to his ship in her hands, gave new meaning to the word.
“Fine, good…better actually.” It was the truth, but only after she’d gotten to sleep. She’d laid there playing the conversation they’d had over and over again in her head. When she’d finally drifted off she’d been more comfortable than in the hammock, but she wasn’t sure if it was because of the location or the lovely memories that had followed her into her dreams. For the first time in seven weeks she’d dreamt about Mal and he hadn’t been dying. “If it’s all right with you, I’ll talk to River when she’s back from the job and we’ll change rooms.”
“Ya want to give up the shuttle?” His eyebrows rose at the ramifications.
“Can we just call this a temporary change?” Her hands fluttered in a very un-Inara like way. Mal recognized the odd look in her eyes. It had been there the night before when he’d pushed about why she was sleeping in the engine room.
“’Nara, it’s all right.” He got up and moved to where she was sitting. He took her hands in his and held them until she calmed down. “I’m not tryin’ to dig, or push ‘bout why your…the shuttle upsets ya. I just keep remembering that when you sent that wave you told me ya missed it.” He hoped it was true, and that she’d missed more than the shuttle.
“I did, I do, there are things about it I missed very much.” It was the shuttle that had brought Mal into her life and she missed the times they’d talk in the quiet of a place she’d made into a home. What she hadn’t realized was that it was only home because it was located on Serenity. “This…I can’t...” She was still spinning from their discoveries on Miranda. Her world had been torn to shreds and she was unsure of almost everything in her life. “For the moment, let’s just say it’s temporary.”
“Sounds fine to me.” Though it wasn’t really fine. He used to take joy in trying to break though ‘Nara’s calm cool exterior, now that it had happened, it didn’t set well with him. “Best we get to the table before Jayne eats all the breakfast.”
As they weaponed up, River stood in the middle of Jayne’s bunk carefully checking each gun he handed her. She’d seen him examine each round of ammunition, flick-on the safety, load the gun, and then go over his work a second time. When it came to weapons the man was very careful, but her training had kicked in and no matter how much she trusted him or what she’d seen with her own eyes, once she had the instrument of death in her hands she ran through the process one more time.
“I got one more thing for ya, Girlie.” The Merc reached into the top drawer of his dresser and pulled out a long thin-bladed knife. “It ain’t exactly a sti-letto, like ya drawed for me, but I been working on it. See what ya think.” They’d carefully gone over all his knives a few days earlier, but had found nothing that could be worn strapped to her leg. Jayne’s taste in blades ran to the big hefty sort. Any number of them was weighted correctly for throwing, but River hadn’t found one she was comfortable with.
“It’s beautiful.” She balanced it in the palm of her hand testing the feel of it. “Where did you get it?”
“I did some work on that one knife that was almost right. Slimmed down the blade a mite, and then shortened it so it would fit under your skirt. The grip gave me the most trouble. It needed to be smaller, but still have the weight so the balance was right.” He’d been afraid she wouldn’t like it, but her sunny smile told him otherwise. “Here, I got this from Inara.” He handed her a specially constructed black garter. It was made of some strong stretchy material he didn’t recognize, but he knew exactly what it was for.
“Oh that will be perfect.” Right then and there River slipped out of her right boot, pulled her skirt up and slipped the weapon carrier over her creamy skin until it gripped her thigh. “And the stiletto fits perfectly, see!” She grinned sliding it between her skin and the 1 ½ inch high band. Smiling, she quickly executed a round-house kick, then spun around and kicked from behind.
“Made,” he muttered as his eyes slammed closed and something flipped over in his stomach. River wasn’t wearing her black shorts and he’d gotten a peek of things he shouldn’t ‘a seen. He finally understood why Mal had looked like he was gonna pass out when Inara had lifted her skirt exposed most of her leg and pulled off the black strap. He didn’t think the Captain had even noticed the small gun she’d placed on the table “Girlie,” his voice was deep and dark like he’d had to work hard to find the words. “That just ain’t appropriate in my bunk.”
“Ah…sorry,” she answered as her throat closed up. For one moment she had forgotten where she was or more correctly when she was. The familiar hug of the stiletto to her thigh took her back in time, but the presence and scent of the man standing a foot away from her had taken her into the future. She’d forgotten they were still walking the same path, but he had yet to catch up with her.