Categories > TV > Firefly > Under Their Skin

Chapter Four

by Stormkpr 0 Reviews

Chapter four of "Under Their Skin"

Category: Firefly - Rating: R - Genres: Drama, Romance - Characters: Book, Inara, Jayne, Kaylie, Mal, River, Simon, Wash, Zoe - Warnings: [!!] - Published: 2006/04/24 - Updated: 2006/04/25 - 6086 words

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Author's Notes:

Welcome to chapter four of Under Their Skin. This story will conclude with chapter six.

Thank you to Warrior Zoe and Kat for their beta-testing. I also want to thank everyone who has read and reviewed the fic.


*
Chapter Four

Zoe seeks out Ororo early the next morning. Speaking in hushed tones inside the passenger's cabin (Bishop's is next door and Ororo says he's a light sleeper), Zoe probes Ororo for details.

"He gives that speech to Logan and me every time we're on a mission with him," Ororo says and fights to keep from rolling her eyes at thoughts of Bishop's lectures. "He loves to preach the evils of interracial relationships, and nothing makes him madder than a 'white' man with a 'black' woman. The only thing that surprises me is that he managed to keep himself from preaching to you as long as he did."

Zoe looks steadily at Ororo. The other woman looks relaxed and even happy, and Zoe respects her calm. One would never know that Ororo was about to be transported to a colony where she would be fighting an uphill battle. Ororo has taken this job and its inherent risks for the love of freedom; she and her cohorts are not receiving payment for their work on Turkhana IV.

"What do you do when Bishop starts up with his preachin'?" Zoe asks.

"I tell him to shut up. Or Logan tells him. And then he drops it till our next mission together."

Zoe reads people well and can tell that Ororo is trustworthy. Zoe has no fears that she's being intentionally misled, but she has to be sure that Ororo's assessment of Bishop isn't faulty. She might be underestimating what he's capable of.

"And you said you're sure he's not a threat? My husband's pretty good with a gun but he ain't a warrior like you or Logan. Would Bishop avenge what's been done to his sister by taking it out on Wash?"

"He'd never do that. His bark is much worse than his bite."

"How long have you known Bishop?"

"About five years. We've been on several missions together."

"Have you ever witnessed Bishop causing physical harm to someone? Other than in an honest fight when the other person deserved it?"

Ororo smiles at the grilling she's receiving. "You really love your man, don't you?"

"Just makin' sure he's gonna be safe," Zoe says, a slight smile threatening her face. She likes protecting Wash. She enjoys tucking a napkin into his shirt, likes ruffling his hair, even enjoys when he plays with his dinosaurs. Perhaps this is why Zoe wants a child and Wash does not yet.

Ororo speculates, "I've never been in a relationship with a man who wasn't a warrior like myself. I wonder how that would be."

Zoe can't explain why she feels content and even happy to share with Ororo. She likes Kaylee and Inara a lot. They are like sisters to her; she'd never doubt that for a second. The crew might not discuss it much but they are a family. Perhaps it is simply easier to open up with someone you likely will never see again than with someone you will see every day.

Zoe thinks about her answer before responding. As much as she enjoys occasionally coddling Wash, another aspect of the relationship she likes is its versatility. Sometimes he is the powerful one and Zoe wants to convey that to Ororo somehow.

"Wash might not be as handy with a gun as we are or be unbeatable in a fist-fight," she responds, "but there are other things in a person that are right admirable. He's the best pilot I've ever worked with -- he can pilot anything, take it anywhere, invent new maneuvers, and make it all look easy. A starship crew's only as good as its pilot and there ain't many that got the finesse he has. And if Wash ain't real quick with a gun, he is quick with his wit -- and a sharp mind's a pretty important thing to have too. I like those things about him. He ain't weak. He's strong in a different way than me."

Zoe wants to continue and add, 'Besides, I've known plenty of warrior men who were complete wuneug de ren,' but decides to leave that out. She doesn't want Ororo to think she's taking a shot at Logan, especially given that Ororo has been respectful of Wash and his talents.

"I understand, and I agree," Ororo says. "I love Logan completely though there are times I do wonder what it would be like to be with a man who's not a warrior."

Zoe nods. "Now answer my question. Has Bishop ever attacked someone other than in a fair fight?"

Ororo again smiles at Zoe's dedication to her spouse, and continues to answer the questioning. The examination continues until Zoe is confident that Bishop is not a threat to Wash.

*
Wash uses his expertise to dodge Turkhana IV's sensors and quickly set the passengers down. He steers Serenity through the sensors' blind spot and lets the ship kiss the ground just long enough for the three passengers to dash out, their supplies in tow. It is nighttime on the planet and the dark cover will ease Logan, Ororo, and Bishop's short trek to the hidden headquarters of the freedom fighters.

Zoe thinks of their departure and wishes them, and their mission, well. Part of her would have liked to have gotten the chance to know Ororo and Logan better, but she reminds herself that the situation is better off this way. It's bad enough that she's allowed herself to care about the seven other people on Serenity and she cannot spare more emotional ties. Especially not after what happened to the Shepherd.

Along with Mal, Zoe, and Wash, the Tams are on the bridge. River wants to learn about piloting and Wash has been tutoring her. He doesn't need to do much though; River seems to instinctively understand how to pilot the firefly, a thought that gives Wash a moment or two of concern. River's a great fighter too, as they recently learned. Could she replace Wash and Zoe - or any of the rest of the crew for that matter?

Zoe has had the same thought but she's not worried. Mal's not about to get rid of any of his crew and his reasons for keeping them may not be based on practicality alone. She looks in the direction of her captain and smiles.

"That was an amazing landing," Simon says to Wash. As River goes on to describe in technical detail the exact workings of the vessel that allow the landing to take place, using jargon that is mostly lost on the others, Simon continues to express his admiration. "Wash, you're a great pilot. I'm glad you're letting River learn from you."

Zoe touches Wash's shoulder. "Nobody flies like my mister," letting the others hear the pride in her voice. Wash looks up at his wife and shares a smile.

Where Simon seems impressed by Wash's skill, Zoe has never been surprised by his gentle and expert touch with the ship. The first time she and Wash slept together, she understood. His flair and adroitness in the pilot's seat are mirrored well in this area too.

Mal says, "I'm glad my crew gets all appreciative with each other. Gets me right here," he taps his heart, sarcasm dripping from his voice. Everyone's in on what he really means, though. They know he does like it, even though he'd only admit it jokingly. "Wash, take us out of orbit. Ambassador Inara's got an appointment on ---"

"Danger!" River screeches.

The crewmembers whirl their heads in River's direction. They've learned to take her warnings seriously.

"Radiation leak," River declares, pointing towards the engine room.

"Radiation?" Wash echoes, looking at his console. "But there's nothing ----"

The pilot is cut off by the computer's voice. "Radiation shields have failed. Evacuate immediately. Fatal radiation exposure in approximately thirteen minutes, fifteen seconds." The message repeats in Chinese.

"Kaylee!" Mal yells, running towards engineering.

*
The crew of Serenity has set up base in the midst of one of Turkhana IV's densely wooded forests. It's a new landscape for the crew as they are accustomed to barren deserts and sparse landscapes. The forest is thick and full and provides excellent cover. Strange sounds are heard - birds calling, leaves rustling, wind singing. There is a chill in the air that pierces many of the crew's jackets.

"They must've had some amazing terraforming equipment here," Kaylee is saying.

"Bishop said that a lot of this is natural, like on Zeus," Inara adds.

"Alright people," Mal commands, calling the group together, "let's take stock."

The group discusses their situation. Serenity's radiation shield blew, proving accurate Kaylee's prediction about the necessity of a replacement. The back-up systems gave them enough time to land safely and then - while wearing space suits - quickly pull out supplies and equipment. The radiation damage on board the ship is now severe and they cannot re-enter it without grave consequences to their health. Until they purchase a new radiation shield and extensive filtration and cleaning equipment, they are stuck.

"A place like this gonna have all the supplies we need?" Mal asks.

"It should," Kaylee says. "They don't get many ships comin' in here but the parts you need for radiation shields is pretty common. We can prob'ly find enough to put somethin' together that'll tide us over till we get to a place with a better market. Same with the filtration equipment."

"How long's it gonna take to install? We gotta make sure we got enough air left in the suits."

Kaylee shrugs. "Installin' will be two hours, three tops. Then we gotta get off the ship, sit tight and let the cleanin' equipment do its work - it'll take at least a day or two to clean the radiation outta Serenity."

"We got money to buy all the equipment we need?" Zoe asks.

"And buy all the food we'll need the next few days?" Jayne asks. A few tins of nutrition bars and protein crackers were rescued and should be enough to keep the crew alive, though their bellies will groan. Several canteens were rescued as well and, thankfully, the crew's equipment detects a clean lake not far from their camp. They will have enough water to drink.

The crew brings their money to Mal and he counts it. With the filtration equipment thrown in, it will be tight. But they can afford it.

"It's nighttime," Mal says, "and the markets'll be closed till morning. We'll set out at first light."

"We're not too far from town," River says, tilting her neck up and appearing to sniff the air.

"She's right," Wash says, looking at a navigation device he retrieved. "Center of town should be a two hour walk from here."

Mal nods. "We'll keep watch durin' the night on two shifts. I'm on first for four hours. Jayne, you take second shift for four. Sun should be up by then."

Zoe's facial expression is steady. "Sir, shouldn't we do three shifts of three hours? I can take one of 'em."

Mal looks uncomfortable. The group is silent, looking at him. "I'd rather you didn't. This here's one crazy place."

"Yes, sir, it is but I can handle it."

"I know. You can handle pretty much anything, Zoe," he says, a slight smile on his face now. "But it's my fault we're stuck on this rock in the first place."

"Does that mean you'll take my shift?" Jayne eagerly asks.

"No. This discussion is over." He turns and looks at their supplies. "We got four tents. Sweet dreams everyone."

"So, uh....where's the bathroom?" Simon asks, mostly as an attempt at humor.

"Wherever the hell we want it to be!" Wash pipes up.

*
Wash is glad for Mal's decision regarding night watch. He also knows that Zoe can take care of herself but he would much prefer her to be ensconced inside their tent and away from any potential encounters with the racists who run the place. If there are any dangerous encounters in their future, Zoe will be brought into the melee soon enough. As Wash helps to set up their tent, he takes glances at Zoe.

He can tell from looking at her that she's fine, and he's very glad for that. Generally, if she's okay then he's okay. She's his source of strength, his rock, and his firmness. When she's off-kilter, then he is too -- but when she's taking a setback in stride, then he knows all will be well. The crew will get the engine parts they need and be off this planet in no time. He loves her quiet calm, her ability to handle whatever gets thrown in her direction. In this chaotic 'verse, she is his stability.

She's more than that too, though. She also provides a rich sense of beauty and mystery to his 'verse. When Wash is sitting in the pilot's seat, surrounded by the deep vastness of space with its twinkling stars, he feels awe. He experiences Zoe with that same sense of wonder and appreciation - she is the occasional shining star or brilliant comet the 'verse provides. And when he's piloting the ship and dodging meteors or Reavers or whatever dangers Serenity faces, he feels a similar sense of infinite thrill and excitement as being with Zoe provides.

Tonight Zoe, speculates Wash, might not be thrilled with Mal's decision, but she doesn't disagree strongly enough to challenge him any further. He's glad for that.

Wash overhears arguing and turns his head. As it turns out, Simon and Kaylee will occupy the second tent, and Simon saw to it that River shares the third tent with Inara. That has left Mal sharing a tent with Jayne, and the two men are arguing about the right way to set it up. Wash bites his lip to keep from laughing and surmises that they are now very glad that one of them will be on guard duty all night.

Once Wash and Zoe's tent is set up, Wash steps inside it as his wife looks to see if any of her team need help with theirs. But Kaylee and River actually raced to see whose tent would be up first (River won), and Mal and Jayne now seem to have things under some semblance of control though they are still cussing at each other. Wash sees Zoe enter their tent, her trusty gun at her side.

"You tired?" Wash whispers, once sleeping bags are opened and they have crawled under the covers. The sleeping bags give off a plasticy, artificial scent and the ground is surprisingly soft. Wash's pillow is mostly flat though. He will trade it with Zoe's as she likes a flat pillow.

"No," Zoe whispers back.

"Me neither." Wash doesn't need to restate the obvious. Sleeping in a forest in the middle of a place like Turkhana IV isn't exactly the most relaxing set-up. He knows that if Zoe sleeps tonight, it will be with one eye open. Fortunately her military training allows her to wake promptly at the slightest disturbance.

Now that Wash's eyes have adjusted to the dark, he can see that Zoe has a look on her face and is smiling.

"I saved you something," Zoe says. "From Serenity."

"Another nutrition bar?" he jokes.

"No. There'll be plenty of those for breakfast, hon."

"Can't wait," he mutters. "I'll just try to forget that my stomach's rumbling."

She touches his arm. "It's all in the head. You can think yourself out of most pain and discomfort."

"Well, you do that a lot better than I do," Wash admits. "You've really got the whole disciplined mind thing down."

"Just takes practice." Zoe then rummages around in her pocket and places something small and solid onto Wash's hand.

"It's T Rex!" he exclaims, loudly enough that the next tent could probably overhear. His mood turns from gleeful to appreciative. "You rescued one of my dinosaurs? In between grabbing the much more important and useful items like guns and money??"

"It was right by our wallet. I thought it'd make you happy."

"It does," he smiles, running a finger along the toy. Toy dinosaurs mean a lot to him. They mean happiness, levity, a reminder that life's supposed to have its fun moments - not that Wash usually needs reminding on that front. He looks at the T Rex and keeps their current situation in perspective.

He pauses and thinks. Keeping their situation in perspective reminds him of something else. "Zoe. I got something for you too."

"Is that so?" she asks, surprised.

"Remember that gift I said I wanted to get you on Zeus? I was able to get it."

"Really? I figured given how fast we left that place - and that Kaylee wasn't able to get the radiation shield - that you didn't have time to get it."

"Well, if I hadn't insisted on visiting this vendor first - and if the group hadn't all stayed together - hell, we might not be sitting on this rock right now. Aren't you glad??" he jokes.

Zoe smiles and then shrugs. "We're here now. Ain't anybody's fault." Part of her wants to criticize Mal for his role in their predicament but she brushes those thoughts aside. As always, Mal's heart and his morals were in the right place when he brushed off Collins. But thoughts of Wash's gift predominate her mind now. "So, then it looks like everyone else is in on this gift?"

"I kinda wanted to lose 'em at the market but Kaylee and Simon, and even Inara and River, wanted to see the gift," Wash says. He knows that Zoe's patience is infinite which is why she's not wrestling him to the ground to find the present.

"I also," Wash continues, "wanted to dream up the right moment to give this to you. But I'm kinda thinking there's never going to be a great moment. Our lives aren't exactly a bowl of strawberries. So maybe now while we're stranded on the crappiest planet in the 'verse is the best time."

He turns on his side and sorts through his bag. He then gently hands Zoe a small, velvety pouch.

The feel of the soft fabric itself is nearly a shock to Zoe's rough skin. The pouch alone must have been pricey. Zoe slowly opens it and finds a ring nestled inside. The ring is plain copper and must have cost more than anything Zoe owns. She's not even sure that her favorite gun would have cost this much.

"Oh Wash," she breathes. She holds the ring between two fingers but hasn't slipped it on.

"I always wanted to get you a better wedding ring. Er - I mean, I always wanted to get you a wedding ring," he explains. "I like the leather necklace but I wanted you to have a better gift. And it's a really high-grade copper too. I know you're not one for fancy jewelry but this ring I thought is tasteful and simple. I thought if you liked this - and when we get some more money - if you wanted, we could also get a ring for me. Not that anyone who sees us together can't tell that I belong to you. But I'd love to wear a ring too when we can afford another one."

Wash stops suddenly, realizes he's been rambling partially out of nervousness. In the darkness of the night, he can read Zoe's expression and he knows it is not the one he was hoping for.

"You don't like it," he says, his heart falling.

"Oh bao bei," Zoe whispers, "I do like it. I love it. But this had to have been so expensive."

"I got a good deal," he quickly says. "Someone on the Cortex told me about this merchant on Zeus and that her prices are ridiculous." He then slows down and adds, "But yeah. It was pricey. Remember what I told you on the bridge the other day? If you think it's too expensive, we could always sell it back. I just thought..." He stops. "I don't know; I just wanted to get you something nice. And to tell you that I'd marry you all over again if I could."

Despite her unease with the cost of the gift, Zoe reaches for Wash and hugs him. "Thank you. I feel the same way. You know I ain't the kind of woman who needs a fancy dress or an expensive ceremony to feel married. But I like this."

"Is it mostly the cost of the ring that's bothering you?"

"That's part of it." She takes a breath and then admits, "Part of what worries me is that a lot of people would figure that this is a wedding ring. I go off on some dangerous mission, it's better if the Badgers of the 'verse don't know I got me a husband."

"Oh. I hadn't thought of that."

"I worry someone might retaliate for what I do by goin' after you."

Wash thinks about her statement. "But that could happen now anyway. A lot of people know Malcolm Reynolds and they know about his crew. Especially after our broad wave. 'Sides, someone could retaliate against you and Mal and Jayne by attacking the ship and the rest of the crew, whether or not they know we're hitched."

Zoe considers his words. "True enough. Maybe I wear this on my right hand and not on the ring finger. That might throw some people." She looks at the ring. "Copper's pricey though. Some people might see this and think I'm rich."

"And so...if they try to mug you, you just punch 'em," he suggests, with a grin.

Zoe considers, her opinion of the ring slowly shifting. "Fair enough."

Wash looks at her and senses that she's warming up to his gift. "Look, hon. If times get really tough, we can sell it. But why don't you keep it for now."

Zoe nods. "That sounds like a plan. And if times get better, we get you one too."

He takes the ring and slides it onto the ring finger of her right hand.

Satisfied, she pulls him into another hug. "Thank you, husband. I like the gift. And I like what you're sayin' with it. I would marry you again too."

Wash quotes a line of poetry he heard somewhere, and only he can say the words without them sounding corny. "My love, if I had a thousand lives to live, I'd live them all with you."

The couple enjoys the warmth of the hug, and they then kiss each other. They want to make love that night but given the circumstances they are in, there are too many reasons not to and so their bodies' desire is tempered. They know patience, the value of waiting. The couple settles for sliding hands underneath clothing and touching each other's bodies, accompanied by several quiet kisses. They cling together against the night's chill, and Wash soon falls into sleep.

*
When Wash wakes up, the sun is shining. Rubbing his eyes, he takes it as a very good sign that his sleep was not disturbed at all during the night. Even as his senses slowly revive, he recognizes that the forest is quiet. A wave of panic suddenly hits him when he realizes Zoe is not by his side. He scrambles to his feet and dashes out of the tent.

Mal is sitting on a nearby log, peering into a tiny mirror as he shaves. Simon sits nearby looking through his medical kit. They turn their heads at the approach of Wash, his hair far more askew than usual.

"Good morning," Simon says.

"'Morning. You guys, uh, seen my wife?" Wash asks.

"She and the other ladies headed for that lake to bathe," Mal says, cocking his head in the direction of the water.

Jayne emerges from his tent holding Vera and growls, "I'd've gone with but Zoe said she'd tear my eyes out."

"That's my baby," Wash smiles. He watches Jayne spit, and fights the urge to do the same. His mouth tastes like a few dead bugs took up residence inside, but he didn't have time to pack toothpaste.

As if reading his mind, Simon rummages around his kit and hands him a tiny pill. Wash gladly takes it and his mouth is instantly refreshed.

"So what's the game plan?" Wash asks.

"Well, soon as the ladies return, I'm gonna go bathe myself," Mal says. "You're welcome to come."

Wash nods. He suspects Jayne is going to take a pass on grooming today, and Mal probably would appreciate more company at the lake so he won't have to be alone with the doctor.

"Once we're all gussied up and pretty as can be," Mal continues, "Kaylee and I are gonna head into town and buy what we need. We wanted to look decent before we hit the market. Zoe will hold down the fort here. All goes well, we install the stuff soon as we get back and we're outta here tomorrow or the next day. 'Pending on how fast the equipment works."

Mal gestures at a stack of protein crackers. "Here's breakfast."

"Thanks." Wash's eyes dart around. Serenity is stationed in the distance, looking forlorn. "So we didn't get any company last night then?"

"Nope," Jayne says. "It was dead quiet 'cept for a few animals but even they weren't no trouble. Sure wouldda made some tasty eatin' today."

"But I said no gunshots," Mal states firmly. "Unless it's an emergency. Last thing we wanna do is attract attention from the locals."

"So we're stuck with protein crackers and nutrition bars," Jayne finishes. He yawns, but despite having worked night guard duty, he can't sleep now. Thoughts of the women bathing have distracted him too much for slumber. Right now he'd give up Vera for a chance to be invisible and at the lake. Or be visible and have his presence welcomed.

"This here's a big planet. We picked a good place to settle down," Mal says. "Let's just hope it stays quiet."

*
"Wow, Inara, you're just as beautiful without all your make-up and stuff," Kaylee says appreciatively.

"Thank you, Kaylee." Inara feels almost naked, given that her face is free of cosmetics and her hair not coiffed. She still knows she's beautiful though. Besides, she asks herself, what does it matter? None of the crew members are future clients and she certainly would not select one from Turkhana IV, if they did encounter one of its citizens. She chases away the possibility that she wishes she had her usual glamorous accessories mainly for the benefit of the captain.

The lake is cool and crystal clear. With the sun shining upon it, the water nearly sparkles. The air is crisp and soft; it is a pleasure to breathe. There's no breeze today and the surrounding trees proudly boast multiple shades of green, from spruce to forest to kelly. Zoe blinks several times; she's unaccustomed to this natural beauty.

Kaylee removes her clothing and quickly wades into the water, gushing about its warmth. She urges the others to join her.

Zoe's eyes dart around. Beautiful as their surroundings may be, her focus has never wavered. She's still on the shore and gripping her gun even though she and her crewmates are alone. She thought she saw a few leaves shake but realizes that her eyes were merely playing tricks.

River looks intently at Zoe.

"Nobody is here," River states. "Just us stranded people."

"You sure of that?" Zoe asks.

River nods, her eyes wide and her face showing concentration. "I will know if someone comes near."

"Good," Inara smiles. "Let us know if Jayne starts heading this way so Zoe can remind him, using her gun if necessary, that we're not here for his entertainment!"

Inara's eyes then narrow and she regrets her flippant tone. She realizes she forgot Zoe's plight, the difficult situation the other woman must be in given the extreme skin-color prejudice that infests this planet. Zoe has every right to be a mite jumpy and, besides, the first officer is just doing her job by staying focused on security.

"Maybe we could bathe in shifts," Inara suggests, serious now. "If you think that would be a good idea, Zoe. I'm not very skilled with weapons, but we know that River has some experience in the combat department. Would you feel better if we took turns? Maybe Kaylee and River bathe first, then you and me?"

River tilts her head up towards the bright sky. She nods once, a decisive gesture. "I could guard you," she says, in that dreamy, faraway voice. "There's no need for worry now, though. But I will be a good guard." And then, as if the others needed a reminder, "I finished off a whole pack of Reavers, remember?"

"How could we forget?" Inara responds.

Zoe nods. "You would make a fine guard indeed, River. Good plan, Inara. Go on and undress, River," she commands, nodding her head in the direction of the water.

The young woman obeys Zoe without question, which Zoe likes, and joins Kaylee in the lake.

Zoe waits on the shore, still holding her gun, her eyes and ears continually scanning the distance. She hears River and Kaylee giggling as they bathe, and Inara joins in their banter from the shore. River playfully dunks Kaylee. Zoe watches, making sure that River truly is joking and not having a spell. But Kaylee is fine and is allowed by River to successfully retaliate.

Zoe wishes she had made the time to grow closer to the other women. Even River, despite all of her issues, has grown closer to Kaylee and Inara than Zoe has. None of them bear any ill will towards Zoe, and Zoe certainly respects all of them too, but their bonds could be stronger. Zoe shakes her head. `It's just the way I am,' she tells herself. `Seen too many people die during the war, don't got a lot of attachments.' The amount of love and caring she feels for Wash, and to a much lesser extent Mal, is enough to exhaust her supplies. She can't allow herself the luxury of loving too many others. Look what happened to Shepherd Book, she reminds herself. Zoe liked the preacher and is glad that they weren't any closer than they were, that he wasn't a deeper investment of the heart to leave her even more wounded.

`Does look like I'm missin' out on somethin' though,' Zoe thinks as she watches the others play. `But maybe it just ain't meant to be. They're frolicking in the water and I'm thinking they're wastin' time. Me, I'd have dipped in, scrubbed my pits and crotch, and gotten outta there so we can get back to camp, do our job, and get back to the gorram ship.'

"Zoe!" Kaylee suddenly exclaims. Zoe whirs her head, her omnipresent gun ready.

"You got your ring on!" Kaylee squeals.

Inara squeals too, though with more dignity and restraint in her voice. River begins quietly detailing the properties of copper.

"We was all there when Wash bought it," Kaylee says. "He was so cute! He wanted to make you all happy."

"He did an admirable job whittling the price down," Inara adds. "You would've been impressed."

Zoe smiles at their well wishes and fingers the ring. Copper doesn't exactly gleam but it still catches the sunlight in its own way. "Thank you. I like it," she says demurely.

`Yeah, I'm definitely different than the others,' Zoe thinks. She loves Wash but she doesn't much love discussing their relationship with other people. Anyone can see that the two of them are soul mates and heaven knows that plenty of private moments are overheard on board a starship. That's enough, and the others don't need to know much more.

`There were,' Zoe consoles herself, `several women army buddies I was friends with. Still wave Chen every so often.' Chen and her partner returned to Paquin after the war and run a self-defense training program for women, supplementing their incomes with odd jobs. Zoe reminds herself to wave Chen when they're out of this place.

Inara looks at Zoe and politely suggests that Kaylee and River speed up their bathing. Zoe is grateful to Inara for making the suggestion.

"After all, Kaylee," Inara is saying, "you have a big day ahead, having to go into town with Mal. And I'm sure the guys are already thinking we're taking too long."

Zoe adds, "And Jayne's surely volunteering to come check in on us."

The four women laugh together.

*
Late that afternoon, Mal and Kaylee walk back to the camp. Mal is lugging a piece of heavy equipment; Kaylee holds several smaller pieces. Mal's face is stoic; Kaylee looks like she's witnessed a Reaver massacre.

Mal glances at the small navigation device Wash gave them. "Almost there," he says. "Just another half mile."

Kaylee nods mutely. Earlier her eyes had been red from weeping but her face is now ashen. The nutrition bar she ate for breakfast sits in the pit of her stomach and has been threatening to travel upwards.

"You holdin' together okay," Mal asks, the words somewhere between a statement and question.

Kaylee has not said one word since their visit to Turkhana IV's town square, so Mal is surprised when Kaylee's dry mouth finally acts and at last the silence is broken.

"No. I ain't okay. Planet I'm from don't got no slavery," Kaylee says, her voice agonized. "Wasn't no paradise but we didn't have slavery."

"We've been to places before that've had it," Mal states.

"Nowhere else has it on account of someone's skin color!" Kaylee exclaims, the sentence ending in a screech. "And I ain't never seen human beings standin' on an auction block before! Ain't never seen torture equipment for sale that folk can use to 'discipline' their slaves!" she cries, describing some of the horrors she and her captain just witnessed.

"'Verse is a damn rough place, Kaylee. Time you realize that. Or did you forget what we saw on Miranda? Or Haven?"

Mal regrets his tone while simultaneously wishing he'd always been harder on Kaylee. He wants to both push her away and embrace her - and what she represents -- at the same time.

"I get it, Cap'n," Kaylee says, trying to pull herself together. "Just seems a damn shame we can't do anything about it."

"We got a ship that's got no weapons," Mal says, looking straight ahead, "a crew of eight people, only three of which are fighters. Four, if you count River. We got a few guns and we got justice on our side. Ain't enough to win here," he shakes his head.

Kaylee is quiet for a few seconds before she softly says, "We took down Burgess."

"He had a dozen - maybe two - men. There are thousands here, and they got the backing of the Alliance."

"And you're tellin' me you wouldn't like takin' down the Alliance 'nother notch or two??" Kaylee asks, incredulously.

Mal stops in his tracks and sets down the heavy equipment he had been carrying. His callous voice is replaced with a tender one, a softness that mirrors the look in his eyes as he meets Kaylee's. "Kaylee, this place makes me sick. I've seen a lot more in my years than I hope you'll ever see, and even I want to throw up when I think of the way they's treatin' people here. If the Shepherd was right and there is a God somewhere, I hope he brings justice to these people and the ones who run this place get what they deserve. But there's nothing we can do about it."

Kaylee digests his words, looks downwards, and then finally nods. They continue their walk.

Soon the two reach camp. Simon rushes up to Kaylee and she collapses into his arms.

"Is something wrong?" the doctor asks, hugging Kaylee tightly.

Zoe represses the urge to throttle him. She's never been to Turkhana IV before but she knows what Kaylee has seen. She knew the girl wouldn't handle it well.

"Let's get to work," Mal orders. "We got equipment to install and a ship to air out."

*

TO BE CONTINUED

Feedback and comments are always welcomed, and con-crit is good too.
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