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Easy Tickets: Chapter 12/25 - mal4prez
mal4prez
mal4prez
Easy Tickets: Chapter 12/25


Disclaimers and notes:

Obviously, it all belongs to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and the rest. I’m just playing with it.

For your ease, mouse-over Chinese for English translations.

Many thanks to Guenever, vera2529, and LEEH from fireflyfans for doing beta.

Previous chapter: Easy Tickets: Chapter 11/25
Start over: Easy Tickets: Chapter 1/25
Previous series: The Fish Job: Chapter 1/19



Easy Tickets, Chapter 12/25
by: mal4prez
Kaylee gets a task and Zoë gets a contact; Mal spends some time with Will. Warning for those sensitive to unpleasantness: this chapter starts like a lamb and ends like a lion. A hungry lion. In a bad mood. It ain’t nice.


Xiaojun set a capture screen on the table in front of Kaylee. It showed a much younger version of the Chinese woman, standing on a wooden deck. Young Xiaojun smiled and waved hello, then proudly gestured at the landscape behind her. It was a green hillside, sloping down to a scattering of trees along a sparkling river. The capture zoomed in on a large, well-ordered garden just beyond the deck, and young Xiaojun’s arm entered the image, pointing at various groupings of plants. Her recorded voice described the garden’s layout.

Old Xiaojun turned down the volume so it wouldn’t interfere. “Should have seen my home Before,” she told Kaylee. “So pretty! See here, my garden. Féi wò! Grew all we need for all year. Look, blueberries! Buckets and buckets. This is patio out front of cave home, when we just finish making it. Fēng guāng, hmm? Very pretty land. Little river pass through valley, with many shù mù, tall and make cool shade, bright colors in fall. Field here so green and many wildflowers, chà zĭ yān hóng. Zhenya, my husband that was – see him there? Very handsome! – he cut grass near home, let far field grow wild. He love outside. Die along with all the green. Not meant to live without green. Me, I have toys to fix. Keep me living way too long! Ha! More tea? No? Okay. It was something, Before. Too bad you not see. All different now, biàn. Had to take down patio. Need to hide now. Should not catch eye of strangers. Not all as nice as you…”

Kaylee tried to look like she was interested. She wanted to be polite, at least to make up for Jayne, who was sitting across from them, rolling his eyes, sighing loudly, and fidgeting. But Kaylee’s mind kept going elsewhere. She was thinking about the captain, and about Simon and River and Book. She wondered if Zoë and Wash had made any progress; after talking to Ziaojun, they’d gone back outside, saying they needed to discuss their options. Or maybe Wash was just trying to get Zoë to cool down.

“…seem like all nice people go away. A few still here, but not visit so often. Not safe you know, to travel around. No law. No zhì ān. Alliance would bring law, zhí fă, would not let dăi Cartel kill world. Alliance should come fix world.”

“You want the Alliance here?” Kaylee asked, startled out of her reverie by words she didn’t hear often.

Xiaojun sat up straight, her voice growing louder. “Better than tān lán Cartel. They want money, do not care about any other thing. You wonder why terraform fail here? Hmm? And don’t fail where Alliance in control? I know. I figure out. Is because it cost too much to keep going. Cartel decide it is cheaper to let everything die, huài shì. You don’t believe me, you should!

“I know Alliance do bad things, but they have laws. And some laws are for good.”


* * *

Wash leaned against the hovercraft, trying to stay quiet and not interfere with Zoë’s pace-like-a-caged-lioness-and-think time. He could see the rage she barely held in check; he saw it in the way her shoulders were pulled up and forward, her face frozen, her steps measured out. He knew it grated on her to have to hold it back, to keep herself calm so she could think.

There was a decent amount of light for him to watch her by, since the sun still shone on a large portion of the rings. Wash looked up at the sky, suddenly realizing that there never would be total darkness here. The planet’s shadow would cover the center part of the rings at midnight, but there’d still be the bright sections rising like impossibly tall curved skyscrapers from the eastern and western horizons.

He looked at his wife again. She was still pacing, her eyes on the ground, her mind too busy to waste time on the pretty skyview. That made him feel guilty. There had to be a way he could help. Maybe just talking it out…

“Okay,” he said. “Xiaojun has nothing. But we can head back to the city.”

“And that helps how?” Zoë snapped. Wash reminded himself that she wasn’t snapping at him. Not really. He kept his voice calm.

“Maybe there’s a ship we can hire.”

“If it were that easy, I’m thinkin’ people wouldn’t be takin’ a bullet to the head tryin’ to get at ours.”

“So…” Wash pushed away from the mule, scratching his forehead as he thought. “We need to reach Inara.”

“You know the comms ain’t set to talk to the shuttle.”

“Then we contact the Cartel where she’s staying.”

Zoë stopped pacing and looked at him pointedly. “I never talked to her before she left.”

Wash’s stomach suddenly felt heavy. “Oh.”

Zoë crossed her arms in front of her. “You didn’t ask?”

“She always goes her own way. It didn’t occur to me… ”

Wash stopped when Zoë took a deep breath, but there was no explosion. Maybe she just needed a moment for the oh shit feeling to settle down. He sure did.

Finally, she joined him by the hovercraft, leaning against it. Her shoulders slumped like she was admitting defeat.

“So what do we do?” she asked. “Sit `round and drink tea `till Inara comes to find us? Hope Serenity left us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow?”

Her questions were answered by an electronic voice.

Whoever’s listening: I’ve got myself a Firefly complete with captain, doctor, and old man. How much do you care if I start killing?

Zoë and Wash shared a frozen look, then Zoë dug into her pocket.

It’ll be real slow and painful, and, to be frank, none of them are in the best of shape right now anyway…

Zoë finally got the comm in her hand. “They alive?” she asked.

For now. Would this be the dark-skinned Amazon?

“You ought’a try askin’ that to my face.”

I mean it as a compliment; I’m all admiration. The man let his chuckle carry over the comm.

“Let me speak to my people.”

I don’t think you understand the situation, princess. I want your cute little mechanic, with the parts she went to buy, the ones to fix the grav drive. Have her at the site where your ship was parked, thirty minutes.

“Pardon, but I don’t think I’ll be handin’ her over.”

Fine. I’ll start with the old man, I have no use for a preacher. Have her there in thirty minutes, ready to fix this wú yòng ship, or I’ll throw him out the airlock. One piece at a time.

Zoë didn’t respond, and the man didn’t speak again.


* * *

When she heard Zoë burst into the cavern, Kaylee sat up eagerly, hoping for good news. But Zoë’s face didn’t look like anything she had to say would be cheery. She pulled out a chair, sat down, and looked at the mechanic glumly. Her manner was enough to startle Xiaojun into silence.

“What?” Kaylee asked hesitantly.

“Someone just called down from the ship.”

“That’s good, right?” Kaylee glanced over around at Jayne, who was tight-lipped. Not good, then. “Who?” Kaylee asked.

“I don’t know.” Zoë sighed, then looked Kaylee in the eye. “He wants you up there to fix the grav drive.”

“Me? But… how’d they know `bout me?”

Zoë glanced at Wash. “We wondered that too. Whoever these people are, they knew we were comin’ out here, lookin’ for a part for the grav drive. It had to be the kid in the shop this mornin’. Your little buddy set us up.”

Kaylee’s mouth dropped open, then closed again. “Oh. But… he seemed so nice.”

“Nice or not, they want you up there to fix the ship, or they’ll start killin’.”

“Killin’?”

“They’ll start with Book.” Zoë’s eyes flicked over Jayne when he shifted in his seat. He looked like he was ready to skin someone.

“Shepherd Book?” Kaylee asked. “But he’s a preacher!”

“The man said they don’t need him.”

“But… but Book’s okay now? Simon and the cap’n and River, too?”

“The man could’a been lyin’, but he said they’re alive. `Cept he didn’t mention River at all.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jayne asked.

“They may not have found her. The girl has a way of disappearin’ when she wants to.”

Kaylee took a deep breath, trying to force herself to be calm. “Okay, so I gotta go fix the ship. I can do that. Do it all the time.” Her face set in determination and she looked at Zoë. “Tell `em I’m comin’. Got the servo right here, see?” Kaylee picked up a small part from the table. “I can go. Right now.”

Kaylee started to stand up, but Zoë stopped her. “Hang on, we need to sort some things out. I need to know everything you remember `bout that kid.”

Kaylee sat back down, holding the servo in her hand while she thought. “Well… but… ” She turned to Xiaojun, who was looking at the capture screen with a wistful smile. “Xiaojun, lăo dà mā, you know the boy who told us `bout you, right?”

“Boy? Oh, you mean Jase!” Xiaojun’s face lit up. “Ahh - such a nice boy. Loves my tea. Used to come visit, sit for hours, so polite. Hé qi tóng. Ask about my toys and help fix. Talk in Chinese too, not a lot do here anymore, you know. Ask about the old days, about Before, when Zhenya still alive and we have shù mù and garden and – ”

“Please, lady,” Zoë interrupted. “We need to know more about him, `bout this Jase.”

Kaylee straightened suddenly. “He said somethin’ about a ‘Ray.’ Do you know Ray?”

“Oh. Ray. Oh - mmm.” The woman hooked her hands over one knee and rocked back, looking away and continuing to make mm-mmm sounds in the back of her throat.

“You know him?” Kaylee prompted hopefully.

Xiaojun nodded once, then shook her head. “Bad man. Very, very bad man.”

“Why… why d’ya say that?”

The woman sat forward again. “This Ray – Ray Whittaker his name, he come get boy once, slam door open and yell and make fuss, like boy not allowed to come here.” Xiaojun leaned toward Kaylee and spoke low. “And then – I go by door, listen after he take Jase outside – Ray say how he hate Chinese. Can you believe? Do not want to hear boy speak own language! And hit him, too. Hit him! Chuí!” She took a deep breath and held it for a second with her lips pursed, then she let it out and shook her head sadly. “Jase come back after that, but not so much, not for long. Always nervous, tí xīn diào dăn. Such a nice boy.”

Kaylee bit her lip. With a shock she remembered the man she’d seen talking to Jase in the dockyard, the good looking one, wearing all black. He’d smiled all pretty when she greeted him, even though he must have been busy plotting to steal Serenity. He probably sent the boy in to talk to her, to use her to set them all up.

“This Ray,” Kaylee asked, “was he kinda tan in the face, dark brown hair, strong lookin’?”

“No, no. You think of someone else. Ray is skin and bones, look all faded, like bad spirits live inside, eat up all the flesh and leave nothing.”

Zoë leaned toward Xiaojun. “Do you know anything else about these folks?”

The woman began rocking again, making humming noises as she thought. Then she suddenly sat up straight and looked at Zoë sharply. “Why you want to know? You out to get Jase?”

Kaylee answered before Zoë could. “No! Not at all! They just... they took our ship. Probably this Ray, and… and other folks we don’t know. They have our captain and our friends.”

Xiaojun swept her doubtful look back and forth between Kaylee and Zoë.

“Really, we ain’t lyin’!” Kaylee insisted. “I hafta go fix the grav drive or they’ll kill the Shepherd! They’ll kill a preacher!”

The old woman relaxed, then leaned over to pat Kaylee’s knee. “Need minute to think. Not so quick to remember as I was long time ago.” She tapped her own head with a fingertip and smiled. “Hūn ăo.”

Xiaojun gathered the tea cups and set them in her little kitchen, then wondered off into her mammoth workshop, humming tunelessly.


* * *

Zoë pulled her timepiece out of her pocket and checked it, squinting in the dim light of the cavern.

“I’m givin’ her one more minute, then we gotta go,” she told Kaylee. “I ain’t riskin’ that the man’s clock runs fast. The Shepherd ain’t gonna die on account of us bein’ a little late.”

“Don’t see why we’re waitin’ at all,” Jayne said. “Ain’t nothin’ else to be had here but a lotta hot air.”

“He does have a point,” Wash said.

Zoë looked to Xiaojun, who was sorting through a box in her workshop. “All right,” Zoë decided, “let’s go.”

They all stood up, but Xiaojun came running out and caught up with them at the door. “Wait wait! I help, bāng zhù, see?” The old woman held up a small metal disk.

“This for you,” she told Kaylee. “Put inside shoe, no one see you have it. When you need, get out and flip switch on edge here. Need one minute for charge up. Then hold in hand like this, touch blue strip to bad person, and Zap! Out like light. Dŏng ma?”

Zoë gave an impressed tilt of her head and Kaylee started reaching for the disk, but Xiaojun pulled it back.

“You use on dăi man, on Ray, not Jase, okay?”

“Okay,” Kaylee replied with a nod, and Xiaojun handed the disk over. Then the woman turned to Zoë.

“Big strong woman, they will not let you go to ship, will they?”

“No, they won’t.”

“Here’s what you do. Go to town, I draw map here, see? Is Cartel compound. Guard at gate, but all are lazy and greedy these days. Give a little money, măi tōng, you will get by. Go see man inside – he will help get ship back. His name Bucky. Can you remember? Bucky.”

Zoë studied the map, then looked at the woman doubtfully. “Bucky? Are you serious?”

“Is his name! Tell all about Ray and Jase, okay? You tell him that, tell him I send you. Bucky will help. You must do this. You must go.”

Zoë took the map and thanked the woman, though she didn’t agree or disgree with the ‘must’ part. Kaylee gave Xiaojun a hug and a warmer thank you before they left.

“You be careful! Zĭ xì!” Xiaojun called after them. “Bad, bad people on this world! Very sneaky!”


* * *

The night air had a chill when they returned to the valley. Zoë checked her pocket watch again, then there was nothing to be done but wait.

A few minutes later the shuttle settled out of the sky, landing a good fity meters from them. The hatch opened, though no one was visible inside and no one came out. Kaylee reluctantly left the hovercraft. She looked small against the dark, empty landscape as she crossed the space alone.

“I ain’t likin’ this,” Jayne said in a growl, gripping his gun tight and glowering at the shuttle.

“No one is, Jayne,” Zoë replied. “We got no choice.” She glanced at Wash, who put a comforting hand on her arm.

Kaylee looked back at them one more time before she stepped through the hatch. It closed behind her, and the remaining three watched silently as the shuttle powered off the ground and disappeared into the night.

“All right,” Zoe said with a heavy sigh. “Let’s go see `bout this Bucky fella.”

*
*
*

When Mal finally activated the ship’s internal gravity, he was watching Ray out of the corner of his eye. He had hoped to catch the húndàn unaware and give him a few bruises. Unfortunately for that plan, an automatic delay had been programmed into the system. An alarm sounded and a recorded voice warned about the imminent return of verticality, and Ray was able to get his feet under him in time.

The grav kicked in, and crashes echoed throughout the ship as the few things not tied down returned to the deck.

“Guess I just know my girl!” Mal said as he climbed to his feet. “You’ll want to be careful, though – could go out again anytime.”

Ray appeared to take that as a threat. He tensed. “Then you’ll just have to fix it again.”

“Only if you ask real nice.” Mal smiled sweetly.

For a few seconds, Mal thought he had gone too far and was about to get shot, but then Ray shook his head and leaned back against the side of the hatch. He looked hard at the captain.

“What?” Mal asked, all innocence.

“I’m just wonderin’ how you can be so sure I won’t start breakin’ bones. Startin’ with the ones you don’t need so much, and movin’ on from there.”

Mal outdid Ray’s casual pose, leaning against the end of the engine with his elbow set on the lever that protruded from it. He knew his attitude had passed out-of-hand long ago, but despite River’s message and the continuing ache of his beat-up face, he just couldn’t make himself take this whole thing seriously. Āi yā, he’d been jumping at his own gorram shadow for more than a week, and now that he finally had himself some real mortal danger, he couldn’t seem to care.

“Ray, I guess I seen enough that I can’t worry over it anymore,” he said. “You do whatever you need to do. I won’t cower in front of you. You ain’t worth it.”

Ray’s response wasn’t what Mal expected. The man gave Mal a look like he understood, like he maybe agreed, then he took a step back and motioned with the gun for Mal to proceed him down the corridor.


* * *

The only person on the bridge when Mal and Ray returned was Will, sitting in the pilot’s seat, hands sliding over the controls as if he were reviewing what he knew. He heard them enter and turned around, and Mal saw his swollen nose, blood on his upper lip and chin, and bruises forming under both eyes.

“I like it, Willy,” Mal said, waving a finger toward his own nose to make his meaning clear. “It’s a good look for you.”

Will glowered but didn’t take the bait.

“Where’s Ginger and the doc?” Ray asked from behind Mal.

“Ginger’s running a little errand. Doc, well, he got stupid.”

Ray pushed Mal to the front of the bridge so he could keep an eye on him while he swore at Will, “Gorammit, if you killed him, you won’t be breathin’ long yourself.”

“Relax, he’s fine. He just took a bit of a fall when the grav came on.” He motioned over his shoulder with his thumb. Mal realized there was labored breathing coming from the far side of the console. He cast a dark look at Will, then slipped into the narrow space in the nose of the ship.

Simon was laying on the deck, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around his middle. Mal knelt beside him

“Simon, you all right?” he asked softly.

“Just bruises… possibly a cracked rib or two,” Simon replied in a forced voice. “I managed to throw up that way, though,” he waved toward the front of the small space. “I don’t think I got it all over me.”

Mal smiled. “Knowin’ how to puke properly is one of the first lessons of zero G, Doc. Congrats, you’re a natural.”

Simon started to laugh at that, then clutched his torso tighter at the pain.

“If it’s any comfort, you broke his nose.”

“Did I?”

“Yeah, he looks almost as good as me.”

Simon lifted his head and focused on Mal’s bruised face. “Oh. I’m sorry… I should have done something about that, could have helped the bruising – ”

“Come on, Doc, stay with me. You ain’t had much chance of that, remember?”

Simon dropped his head, then nodded. “Right.”

“Can ya move?”

“There’s only one way to find out.”

Mal helped Simon up and led him to the co-pilot’s chair. Ray was watching them, and not looking pleased with the doctor’s condition.

“Will, can I leave you alone with anyone without you makin’ `em useless to me?” Ray asked.

“Do you see my face?” Will snapped. “He attacked me. It was self-defense.”

“Mal,” Simon said softly, “she went to get Kaylee.”

Mal felt his stomach drop. “What are you talkin’ about?”

“That woman, Ginger. They talked to Zoë about Kaylee fixing the ship, and Ginger took the shuttle down to get her.”

Mal turned on Will, who was now standing next to Ray behind the pilot’s seat. “You don’t need a mechanic. I fixed it!”

Will grinned, happy to confirm Simon’s news. Or maybe happy about Mal’s response to it. “Too late now, she’s on her way. And once we have her, I’m thinking that we won’t have much use for you anymore.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “Although – it is possible I’ll find more than one use for her.”

Without a thought as to whether it was a good idea, Mal took a long step across the bridge and tackled Will, slamming him into the lockers before they both tumbled to the deck. Mal kept Will pinned down and repeatedly drove his right fist into the man’s side, not stopping until a hand slid under his chin to pull his head back, and the barrel of a gun pressed against his temple.

Mal wasn’t so far gone as to miss the message. He held his hands out to the side, palms forward, to show that he was in control. But it took a few deep breaths before he recalled the details of the situation. It wasn’t exactly funny, but he laughed at it anyway.

“Go on and have a seat,” Ray ordered, giving Mal a hard shove toward the pilot’s seat.

Mal laughed again as he pulled himself into the chair, short and forced and with a edge of not right to it that even he could hear. No, there was definitely nothing funny about this.

He heard Ray telling Simon, “Find somethin’ to tie him up with, `fore I lose my temper and shoot him.”

Simon stammered in reply, “I… I don’t know…”

“Just do what I say!” Ray snapped. “Gorramit, why does everythin’ on this ship gotta be so damn complicated!”

Mal nearly doubled over in the chair; he couldn’t make the laughing stop. “I feel for you, Ray,” he managed to say, “really, I know `xactly how you feel.”

Apparently, that was all Ray could take. He took a step toward Mal and put the gun right up to his head again, then he looked at Simon. “If he ain’t tied up in one minute, I will blow his brains all over this crappy ship and let the job be damned.”

The force of the gun made Mal’s head tilt to the side, and suddenly he didn’t feel like laughing anymore. Suddenly he wanted to crawl into his bunk and sleep. Sleep for a very long time. He watched Simon push himself to his feet and look around the bridge in confusion.

“Third locker, Doc,” Mal said in a quiet voice. “There’s some cargo rope in there.”

Simon looked at Mal and nodded. He had to step over Will to get into the lockers; the man was still laying in front of them in a pose similar to the one Mal had found Simon in.

Mal took a deep breath, but it wasn’t enough. Reality was catching up, and it was a bitch. These bastards had walked onto his ship and started beating his people. Started beating him. If River hadn’t kept herself clear of it and worked her distractions, he’d most like be dead by now. And they were bringing Kaylee into it. It was real, and he couldn’t stop it. Here on the bridge of his own gorram ship, he couldn’t do a thing.

But there was something in Ray, something he might be able to reach. Mal looked up the gun barrel, found the man watching him.

“Ray,” he said, “you need to know that if any hurt is done to my mechanic, I’ll be feelin’ a lot like you did `bout that boy.” He paused until he saw understanding in Ray’s eyes. “None a’ yours better lay a hand on her `less you mean to kill me, or die yourself. Dŏng ma?”

Mal waited for a reaction that didn’t come, but he held Ray’s stare while Simon bound him to the chair.


* * *

Ray pulled Will through the hatch just outside the bridge. Will was holding his left side, not recovered enough to be properly mad, but it was coming on quick. Ray saw it, and he pushed Will back against the bulkhead.

Will winced in pain. “Ow! What the dì yù– ”

“Shut up and listen,” Ray snapped, keeping his voice low enough not to carry into the bridge. “You have got to get it in control.”

“I’ll be in control, right after I rip his damn head off!”

Ray shoved him against the wall again, this time grabbing his shirt to hold him there. “Do I have to beat sense into you? You ain’t here to kill, and you sure as hell ain’t here to mess with some girl. You’re here to fly this thing. That’s the only reason I brought you into this, and you screwed it up. Now, I need that captain or we’ll be stuck on this world, with no transport to the Core and no payday. You so much as touch him, or any of them, and we will have a problem `tween us. You got it?”

Will was opening his mouth to answer when Ginger’s voice sounded over the comm.

Will, you there? I got the girl, comin’ in to dock.

Ray didn’t look into the bridge; he wanted to sort this out before moving on.

“You’re gonna stay up here,” he told Will. “Sit tight – watch over the captain but do not touch him, while the girl fixes the engine and the doc fixes Jase. You’re gonna stay cool, you hear me?”

Will’s face screwed up in a grimace, but somehow it shifted into a smile.

“Not a problem, Ray. Cool as can be. Don’t you worry about a thing. Just take care of your boy.”

Ray let Will go. He looked at the man’s smile with distrust, but there wasn’t anything else he could do. It briefly occurred to him that he could send Will with the doc and stay on the bridge himself, but he dismissed that idea without further thought.

“Boy ain’t mine,” he muttered as he turned back to the bridge.

The captain was tied up now, facing out the front of the ship. The doctor stood nearby, still looking pained. Ray stubbornly found the comm himself, instead of asking the doc for instruction. He replied to Ginger in a tired voice.

“Come on in, and get the girl straight to the engine room. I want this thing fixed so we can get on with it.”

Ray took Simon’s arm and gave him a push toward the hatch. “You got a job to finish, Doc.” He didn’t say a word to Will on the way out.


* * *

Mal ignored the discussion going on behind him, and didn’t look up when Ray stood beside him to use the comm. He just stared out at the half-shadowed planetary rings and the Black beyond until the echoes of Simon and Ray’s departure faded.

He was trying to make himself breathe deep and slow, but his lungs didn’t seem to be holding enough air. It wasn’t the ropes; Simon hadn’t tied them tight. Mal could have easily worked himself free if he was alone, but he wasn’t. He could hear the small sounds of Will standing in the hatch behind him. Probably watching. Definitely planning.

No, it sure as hell wasn’t the ropes. The pressure was coming from inside his chest, pouring up out of some deep place like a ruttin’ O2 tank that sprung a leak. Worry, ill-ease, the feeling of a hard blow about to land any second now – it was back, and worse than it’d been before all this crap went down. Something was bad, everything was bad, and he couldn’t do a thing about it. Couldn’t control what was happening on his ship, couldn’t make his breathing slow down, couldn’t get away from this fear that gnawed at him from the inside.

Zhòu mà, he wished that feeling of distance would come back. Now was the time for a healthy bout of denial, not a fēng zi panic attack.

He almost smiled at that, but then he heard a few quiet steps behind him, approaching. The ropes begin to tighten. Will passed around the front of the chair, checking the knots, and he looked at Mal with his mouth stretched in an eager toothy smile, like he knew a secret that he couldn’t wait to tell.

Mal didn’t ask. He thought he might be sidling up to some kind of edge inside himself, and trading smart-ass insults with this sadistic bastard was like to push him over. He returned to staring out at the Black.

Will finished with the bindings. He stood still behind the chair for a moment, quietly busy at something. Mal caught just a glimpse of a rolled up bandana as it came down in front of his face, then it was pulled hard between his teeth and knotted behind his head. It tasted like dust and sweat, then it started tasting like the bile that was rising in his throat.

Will sat down in the co-pilot’s seat, and Mal didn’t need to look to know that the man was still grinning, enjoying his game. The silence stretched, and the pressure inside Mal slowly increased. He had to struggle to pull short, shallow breaths around the gag; the lack of oxygen was making his head spin, and the colorful rings outside the windows began to blur.

Finally, Will stood up and walked over to half-sit on the console in front of Mal, smiling like it was his damn birthday. After a bit, he leaned forward and spoke in a whisper.

“Hey, Mal. I have an idea…”

He paused a bit, letting Mal imagine what the idea might be. Mal clenched his fists at his sides to control his response. He was beginning to see dark spots, blotches in his vision. The gag had sucked all of the moisture out of his mouth and he couldn’t swallow. He was barely hanging on, and Will had to know it. The man didn’t wait much longer before he drew a knife out of his belt and thumbed the edge of the blade. He glanced up to make sure that Mal was looking at the knife.

“No,” he said with a smile. “This isn’t my idea. But I like how you think.”

He leaned to his side, and through a cloud of black blooms Mal saw him set the blade against a cord running to a lamp on the console, then he yanked up on the cord to slice it loose.

Will jumped to his feet with a cry of pain and dropped both knife and cord. The live current had carried through the blade and handle into his hand.

Nĭ tā mā de tiānxià suŏyoŭ de rén doū!” he swore in a tight voice, shaking his stung hand briskly.

Mal should have thought that was funny.

He didn’t.

When Will turned back and saw Mal watching him, the grimace on his face turned into a gleeful smile.

“Whoo-ie,” he hooted, playing the cowboy for his audience. “That smarts! I tell ya – this is gonna be a bucket a’fun!”

Okay, so that’s what it is, Mal thought. It should have calmed him to know. He’d been through this before, and he’d gotten by with a smile on his face. Well, something like a smile. So how come if he wasn’t tied to this chair he’d be on the floor right now, curled up and wailing like a baby with a lost binky? What the hell had happened to his nerve?

Will, still cackling, bent down to pick up the cut cord. Mal closed his eyes, trying to get away from this suffocating dread. Then something came into Mal’s darkness that had no business being there. Not in the place this bridge had become. Inara’s voice.

At first, all Mal could hear was the comfort in it, the warmth and light of Inara Serra. As much as the gorram woman could vex him, hearing her now was like seeing a lifeline hanging at his fingertips, and he wanted like hell to grab hold. But her voice was gone quickly. He realized that it’d come from outside his head, and that she had spoken words. He had to replay it in his mind to work it out.

Serenity, this is Shuttle One.

Mal’s breath caught and his eyes flew open. Her voice – she sounded tired, shaken. Then she was speaking again and he could listen more carefully.

Serenity? Do you read? My appointment was… cut short. I’m on my way in to dock.

The words were ordinary, but she sounded done in, near tears. There was a long pause, and when she spoke again, there was a hint of accusation in her voice.

Mal? Is that you?

Mal remembered that Will was watching and looked up. The húndàn’s smile was bigger than ever, and Mal knew that his fear was showing in his face. He couldn’t put it away. He couldn’t put this kĕ pà feeling away.

Will sat back on the console again. “Mal?” he asked brightly. “First name? No ‘Captain, Sir?’”

Of course it’s you. It’s the middle of the night – you took over the helm for Wash.

Her voice was turning angry, but the words ended with a faint sniff. Mal heard it clearly now: Inara Serra was crying into a silent comm, like she was unhinged. Like she was carrying the same kind of weight that was crushing him. What the hell had happened…

“Why, this must be your woman!” Will said cheerfully. “She sure sounds nice.”

You’re sitting there, listening, aren’t you? I know the comm is live. I know you’re there.

She thought that he’d really do this to her, ignore her when she was so upset. Hell, she wasn’t far wrong. There’d been plenty of times he’d been just such a bastard to her.

Damnit Mal! I… I’m very tired. I’m not going to play these games with you. Just let me know you’re there.

“I do believe I have a new idea,” Will said.

Mal couldn’t hold his head up, and began to hunch over himself. He saw the severed cord fall to the deck at his feet.

You must be loving this. Fine. It didn’t work out, all right? I’m not leaving. You were right.

Mal could barely breathe. He knew Will was watching him wither; he knew the man liked it.

“Not leaving?” Will snickered. “That’s sweet. Is she sweet, Mal?”

Gods, are you there?

Will leaned forward to stick his swollen, bloody nose in Mal’s face. His voice lowered to a whisper again. “Is she hot? Fun to play with?”

Could you just acknowledge me?

Inara’s voice broke; it was a plea, not an order.

Will leaned closer, his cheek almost touching Mal’s, and he whispered in Mal’s ear so softly that it was barely audible. “Do you think she’ll scream?”

Fine.

Her voice was firm again, but harsh. Forced.

I’ll be docking in ten minutes. Don’t bother me. Ever.

Will picked up his knife from the console and put it back in the leather sheath on his belt. “I’ll let you know how it goes,” he said, and he patted Mal’s shoulder on the way out.


* * *

A few seconds later, Will came back and picked up the cut electrical cord.

“Aw, hell,” he said, “I have ten minutes.”

*
*
*

Translations
féi wò:   fertile
fēng guāng:   natural scenic view
shù mù:   trees
chà zĭ yān hóng:   brilliant purples and reds
biàn:   to change
zhì ān:   public security
zhí fă:   law enforcement
dăi:   evil
tān lán:   greedy
huài shì:   to ruin something; to spoil
wú yòng:   worthless
lăo dà mā:   Madam (affectionate term for an elderly woman)
hé qi tóng:   polite, friendly boy
chuí:   beat with the fist
tí xīn diào dăn:   to be very scared and on edge
hūn ăo:   forgetful old woman
bāng zhù:   assistance
dŏng ma:   understand?
măi tōng:   to bribe
zĭ xì:   careful; cautious
hún dàn:   bastard
āi yā:   damn
dì yù:   hell
zhòu mà:   damn
fēng zi:   lunatic
nĭ tā mā de tiānxià suŏyoŭ de rén doū:   F*** everyone in the universe to death
kĕ pà:   horrible

*
*
*

On to Chapter 13/25.

8 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
From: (Anonymous) Date: April 4th, 2007 04:02 pm (UTC) (Link)

Absolutely brilliant.

Alread read the whole story a number of times, but it still ermains a work of art.
mal4prez From: mal4prez Date: April 4th, 2007 06:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow. Thank you so much!
shinybulle From: shinybulle Date: April 5th, 2007 03:11 am (UTC) (Link)
oooh how much I want to kill Will!! He deserve a very long and extremely painful death ... I want to lock him in a cave with the Gnarl!

I realised that I held my breath during this last scene... ;( you put me on the edge of my seat and I've already read this gorram story! I already knew what's going to happen here.

I agree this chapter is ... wow! See! I have no more words ...

mal4prez From: mal4prez Date: April 5th, 2007 06:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
OK - what's the Gnarl? Sounds like it could be fun...

Excellent, I got you the second time through! I got myself, too. After posting this, I just had to read the next few chapters, even though I know very well what happens LOL!
shinybulle From: shinybulle Date: April 6th, 2007 02:51 am (UTC) (Link)
OK - what's the Gnarl? Sounds like it could be fun...

Oh! You don't know him! He's such a nice and sweet guy ^^ ... He's a vilain in BTVS (703 you can take a look at the screencaps here : http://www.screencap-paradise.com/caps/thumbnails.php?album=133&page=5 ) He's got the ability to incapacitate his victim with his poisoned nails. So they are paralysed but not unconscious. That's where the fun part begin, 'cause after that he peels them, like a fruit. What can I say ^^ Guy loves skin. And meantime 'cause he's also a fine psychologist, he can torture the victim's mind too with her fears and private nightmares.
Yeah! He's a fun vilain... Joss's mind is full of joy :D

empirex1020 From: empirex1020 Date: May 4th, 2007 05:10 am (UTC) (Link)
>>A few seconds later, Will came back and picked up the cut electrical cord.

“Aw, hell,” he said, “I have ten minutes.”<<

*gasp!* Ohhhhhh. You're Eeeeevil.

But then that's just the way I like my fanfic writers.

And yes, Will completely deserves to be locked up with Gnarl. I really hope Mal kills him soon. Or River kills him soon. Whatever.

*cries* Would somebody get with the killin'?!?
kbdfmf From: kbdfmf Date: September 4th, 2007 03:58 am (UTC) (Link)

Wow.

I hope this late-to-the-game comment reaches you. I'm guilty of lurking appreciatevely through your wonderful work before, but I must de-lurk to say... WOW.

The last scene in this chapter physically gives me chills.

Mal's decent into sanity is deliciously tense. His reactions are perfectly balanced with Will's terrorizing dialogue and Inara's desperate wave. GAH.

I've read this series and The Fish Job before, long ago, but I'm seriously freaked out, even though I know what's going to happen. That is the mark of masterful stuff. You, sir, are amazing.
mal4prez From: mal4prez Date: September 4th, 2007 07:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Wow.

Comment received and very much appreciated! It's my aim to write stories that continue to entertain after several readings, so this just makes my day to hear! Yeah, and I wrote the thing and it still twists my stomach a bit to read this chapter...

(and not to be nitpicky, but I'm a ma'am LOL! I know - it's my large frame and muscular, toned build that fooled you, right? :p)
8 comments or Leave a comment