Mal walks into the mess hall a little disoriented, feeling off-balance because he hasn’t yet talked over the new job with Zoe, heard her low, logical voice flow in agreement with his. He sees Wash in one corner, trying to make himself unobtrusive behind a large and dusty book. Kaylee’s there too, sitting silently as she forces down a bowl of protein mush; it always tastes worse after a night of proper food.
Zoe walks in, her heels ringing against the metal grating, an odd bulge in one of her pockets. She looks a little puffy-eyed, and he frowns, trying to work out what might have upset her. “Zoe,” he greets her, waiting for a cue.
“Sir,” she nods briskly back.
“Missed you last night. Thought we could talk over this job on Pixley,” he says, still trying to ascertain the cause of her discomfort. “You get too busy?”
“I was . . .” she falters, never having had to account for herself to him before, “with . . .”
Jayne walks in at that moment with a gruff “Mornin’.”
Mal catches the note of defiance in the folds of the mercenary’s voice, sees the way he can’t quite look straight at Zoe. He turns and finds his first mate looking unflinchingly at Jayne, an unreadable expression on her face. His confusion gives way abruptly to anger. If he’s tried anything . . . He strides furiously over to Jayne, halting only when something large and bright flies right in front of his nose. Jayne catches it neatly and Mal looks down into the man’s hand to see a blood orange. He looks up, confused again, and sees Zoe’s face telling him in no uncertain terms to back off. He takes a step away from Jayne, his mind racing. That’s got to be the last of Zoe’s share of the fruit from the job before Rasam, the stuff she’s been hoarding for well over a fortnight. And now she’s tossed it to the mercenary, in part as a gift, and in part to keep him from confronting the bigger man. It’s a mite unsettling how the women on this ship have been eager to feed and defend Jayne, he thinks, but if Zoe’s got no quarrel with Jayne, then he doesn’t either.
He clears his throat and gets on with the day’s work. “Zoe, you and I will go find our client and bring the goods back to the ship.” She looks up at him, eyes saying she’s ready. “Wash,” he says, “I want us ready to get to Pixley soon as Zoe and I get back. Map out a quick route that won’t use more’n two-thirds of our fuel cells.” He doesn’t wait for acknowledgment before he turns to Kaylee. “Your turn to do the laundry. Best to get it done while we’re on land and can fetch the extra water.” She nods but by the way her gaze remains trained on his face, he can tell she has no idea what the chore involves. She’s probably used to doing the wash by hand. “Jayne’ll show you how the washer works,” he reassures her, turning to Zoe once more, hitting the button to extend the docking ramp on their way out.
Wash uncurls from his seat in the corner, letting the mapbook fall heavily on the table. He’s beyond surprised that Zoe didn’t go running to Mal last night after their confrontation. They’re closer than lovers, more interdependent than twins. He envies them that closeness. Or maybe it’s just Mal he envies, knowing that Zoe’s shining eyes will always turn to him first, that her voice will always second his, that she will always hold him back from whatever darkness he courts.
He sighs, rubbing tiredly at his cheeks, covered in stubble. No point in dwelling on Zoe now. He needs to get the ship ready to run. Pixley sounds like a nice place, a little out of the way but firmly in Alliance territory. It sounds kind of like Bolus, he thinks as he makes his way to the bridge.
Continue: Part 9/21