“You’re here!” Kaylee says, a little startled. Her face is shiny with sweat and she’s beaming happily. She holds up for Mal’s puzzled approval the parts she’s found in the salvage yard. “These’ll come in mighty handy,” she assures him. “Let’s see what you got.”
He grins and reaches into the sack he’s carrying, setting it gently down. Out comes his hand with a horseshoe, and he waves it around a bit. Behind him, he hears Jayne let out a disgusted grunt and unceremoniously drop the two sacks he’s been hauling around.
“You know parts and metalwork,” Mal says. He holds it out to her and she takes it. Kaylee examines the shoe and hands it back. “Shiny, Cap’n,” she says cheerfully, marching past the men with an armful of parts.
“Mal,” Jayne says once she’s out of earshot, “these shoes and supplies are no good.”
“I know they’re heavy, Jayne,” the captain responds, taking the mercenary’s words as a complaint.
Jayne gives him a look, then takes the horseshoe out of Mal’s hand. With some effort, he snaps it in half. “They’re no good,” he says again, emphasizing each word.
Mal’s jaw has dropped. “How did you . . .”
“Saw it from the minute you started flashin’ that thing ’round at her. Bad metal, bad work.”
“Yeah, but how did you . . .”
“My pop was a blacksmith. He’s the one showed me how to make gun oil.”
Mal sighs, considering their options. “None of it’s any good? What about the folk headin’ over to Visick? They already paid for this fei-oo.”
“Ain’t my call.”
“That was not a fun time,” Mal says, rubbing at his face tiredly with one hand and turning off the video feed with the other. It’d been a chore trying to convince the people leaving for Visick the wares they’d bought would be of no use to them. Better to leave your horses unshod than put such uneven shoes on them, he’d said; don’t want to strain their muscles. He’d had to hold one of the broken shoes up to the cortex monitor before they’d believed him. He swivels around in Wash’s chair and sees Kaylee holding another of the defective horseshoes.
“Cain’t believe I let you down, that I didn’t see it,” she says, looking up at him regretfully.
“Whoa, whoa. No lettin’ down happened here. Your job ain’t to inspect ironwork. Quit frownin’ lines into that pretty face,” he orders.
“How’d you know?” she wonders as she examines the shoe once more.
“Jayne.” He can tell by the way her head whips back up that he’s surprised her. “Said somethin’ after you took off.”
“Oh,” she says, trying to guess what the mercenary was thinking. If there was ever one person whose thought processes she thought she could figure without strain, it was Jayne. But now he’s gone and thrown her for a loop.
Zoe must be workin’ through an idea of her own, or else she’d be with him right now, trying to figure what to do next. The ’verse is theirs; they’ve got fuel cells, credits, and the sweetest ride in space. He wonders if there’s anyplace she’s always wanted to go.
He wouldn’t be surprised to find her in the bridge with Wash. Since the Orlo job, he’s seen that she’s been making an effort to get along better with the pilot. Practical woman, Zoe is, and a damn fine second; she knows that a friendly word now and then will keep Serenity flying. But when Mal reaches the bridge, he doesn’t see her making polite conversation. Instead, she’s failing to keep a straight face as she and Wash play a game of chess. She’s on her feet the minute she spots Mal. “Sir?” she asks. “Something come up on the cortex?”
“No,” he admits, leaning against the nearest wall. “Just wanted to know if you had any ideas about where we could be headin’.”
“No one in this corner of the ’verse I’m inclined to say hello to,” she responds, sinking back down to her seat. She feigns absent-mindedness, pretending to consider the possibilities while she maneuvers her queen into striking position. She knows Mal sees through her; she also knows he won’t give her away to Wash.
But Wash is too focused on Zoe to miss any of her moves. His reply is quick, keeping his king out of danger. Mal nods approvingly, then examines the pilot more closely. “How about you, Wash? Any leads on a job or likely world for work?”
“No, I don’t know this area too well. Don’t even know the hub planet,” he says, groaning as Zoe’s knight knocks out one of his rooks. “Can’t talk now, Sir, she’s storming my castle.”
The dinner that Jayne made keeps them too busy stuffing food in their mouths to talk much about where they’re headed. And Mal recognizes the rare sense of relaxation, and decides to let the issue wait until morning. He’s enjoying the camaraderie, and proposes a game of hoopball after the kitchen’s left clean, Zoe and Jayne to be captains.
Kaylee watches as Jayne wins the toss. Her heart sinks a little when his eyes pass right over her and he chooses Wash. Every time he’s been captain before, he’s chosen her, and at some point in the game, gotten her up on his shoulders to score a few easy points. Before she can say anything, Zoe’s chosen Mal, and she’s left to wait on the sidelines as a substitute. The game starts off slow, even a little clumsy. She finds herself watching Jayne all the time, as he maneuvers and passes and shoots and positions himself. She hears his voice calling for the ball, whooping encouragement, mocking as he blocks shots. She sees how easy he is with his body, how sure of himself he is physically. There is a reason he’s still alive at thirty-seven, having been a mercenary for so many years. She still doesn’t like his job, but he’s good at it, and he’s necessary. She realizes now they’d all be dead – Captain and Wash right there on Pixley, she and Zoe as they tried to return to Serenity – if Jayne hadn’t been so capable. She sees Jayne call for a time-out and Wash head to the sidelines; when she comes onto the court, she tries to smile at Jayne. He ignores the hopeful look on her face and passes her the ball.
Serenity’s been floating carefree for weeks, in no particular rush to get anywhere. Mal’s worked out with Jayne for the last week, and once, when the muscle strain got to be too much, he’d chased Kaylee out of the engine room where she’d been holing herself up by taunting her for not knowing how to play Tall Card. It’s kind of silly to have only two players, but Jayne said he needed to exercise his legs, and he’d seen Wash heading to Zoe’s quarters with the mapbook tucked under his arm.
“Do you get it now?” he asks, smiling as he sees her bite her lip in concentration.
“No,” she admits cheerfully. “Where we headed?”
“No plans as of yet. Why?”
“Just curious. It’s nice, seeing the worlds like this,” she says, smiling around at the warmth of the common room, unaware that she’s tilted her cards so that he can read them.
“Now, see, if you’d put these two cards down, you’d’ve won,” he informs her.
“Really? I won?” she asks, beaming like a child, raising her arms for a victory pose.
“Not exactly –” he begins, but is cut off when she jumps up and hugs him from behind. “Yes, mei-mei,” he amends; “you’ve won.”
It’s been an odd kind of day, he thinks as he lies on his bed, his feet still on the floor. One of his hands is resting idly on his chest, and he can feel his heartbeat. The rhythm is picked up in a faint thrumming at the door. That’s Zoe, doing her fingertips-only knock; it means she wants to talk. “Come in, Zoe,” he calls, and sits up.
“Sir,” she acknowledges as she peeks around the door. Her face is grave and her eyes are shining, and he’s not sure what to make of it. He waits for her to have her say. “Mal, I’m getting married,” she nearly whispers.
He tries to stave off the panic that overwhelms him. He can’t think, but he must. Where could she have met anyone? They haven’t been on land long enough for her to do much more than nod professionally at men whose eyes were trained on her gun instead of her face or form. It occurs to him, suddenly, in a wave of despair that renders his panic trivial, that she hasn’t asked if he’d be willing to bring her husband aboard; she’s leaving. Leaving him, leaving Serenity. “When?” he finally asks. He needs to know the worst right now, needs to know how long he’s got until she takes off with his will to live.
“Don’t know. I haven’t asked him yet,” she says, her forehead knotting as she takes in how defeated he suddenly looks.
“What? Don’t joke,” he pleads. He still can’t figure who she intends to wed. “Give me a time.”
“I haven’t talked it over with him yet. I wanted to come to you first,” she says, gesturing almost helplessly, as if she wants to reach out to him but isn’t sure her touch would be welcome.
He wishes she would touch him. He needs an anchor to reality right now. “Goin’ about this a bit backward, ain’t you?” he asks, his heart crumpling as her hesitance with him proves that she means what she says. She really is going to marry and leave. She’s really found someone who can fill the holes in her heart and not just show her the holes in his.
“Mal, please,” she begs. “I want this, but I want you . . .” she trails off, unsure if she can put into words what he means to her, what she needs from him.
“To give you my blessing?” he finishes, torn between sorrow and rage. “How can I do that, Zoe, when he’s taking you away?” The rage might be winning.
She sees now that he’s on the wrong tack. She hastens to reassure him. “Wash and I won’t be leaving Serenity, Sir.”
“Wash?” his disbelief is total, and so, in turn, is hers. Who else did he think she was spending time with and falling in love with? At her nod, his face hardens a bit. The rage is definitely winning, but at least he’s not repeating all of her complaints about the pilot.
She sees that he’s clamped his mouth shut, his lips turning white from pressure, in an effort not to say anything hurtful. In the silence, she finds her own words. “Yes. Wash. I love him. I know we have next to nothing in common, but that little is enough. I trust him. I love him.” She glances at him, but his face is still angled down and slightly away from her; she’d have to stoop to catch his eye. She steps close instead, laying one hand on his chest. Her fingertips drum out the rhythm of his heartbeat automatically. He’s startled into looking up and they both straighten their spines. Eyes level with his, she continues. “But I could never leave you. You are a part of me, Mal, the best part. You’re so deep inside me that I can’t be me without you.”
He’ll take it. It might not be eloquent, but he knows she means it. He knows because that’s all he could say to her in return. You are me, Zoe, and without you I’m lost. He cups her cheek tenderly, and then she’s in his arms, and he has to be careful not to crush her to him. Instead, they stand there, warm in each other’s embrace, and there’s no need for anything else.
“Monty? Really?” Mal asks.
Zoe nods. “Makes sense, Sir. He’s been on Thalia long enough that he’s got some say in how things there are run, and we can be there in a few days.”
“And you got business to take care of,” Mal finishes. “Would be good to see the old walrus again,” he muses, “and mayhap he’ll have work for us. All right.”
She squeezes his arm as she slips by him, heading for the bridge. “Thalia,” she says low in Wash’s ear, and he plugs in the coordinates before swiveling around to face her.
When he sees her smile, he’s startled. “That’s where we’re getting married?” he blurts out. “Don’t you want to go somewhere nice, someplace shiny, where you won’t be the only woman who’s not marrying her cousin?”
She laughs and explains, “It’s the closest decent world from here. And as long as Mal is there, the rest doesn’t matter to me.”
His face darkens. “As long as Mal is there?” he repeats.
“Yes,” she says staunchly. “He belongs there. I’m not getting married without him.”
He’s hurt by her insistence. “Does the groom matter at all? Would you marry Jayne on Thalia if Mal was there?” He’d envisioned it being just the two of them, lost in each other; he wasn’t bargaining on this sort of menage a trois.
“Of course you matter,” she says plainly. She searches for a way to make this right, and the sight of his face bathed in starlight inspires her. “Look,” she says, gesturing to all the worlds visible from Serenity’s bridge. “Tell me what you see.”
He’s confused, but knows she’s trying to explain herself. He plays along. “I see . . . planets. Stars. New worlds to build lives on.” She stays silent, so he figures he owes her more. “And . . . there’s a balance, an order . . . it’s beautiful.”
She nods. “And when it’s just you up on the bridge, just seeing this view makes you sure your life has meaning, a purpose maybe even you haven’t figured out yet?” He’s dumbfounded by the way she’s seen into him, and seeing his astonished face, she explains, “What the stars do for you – that’s what Mal does for me.”
Continue: Part 15/21