"SAFE AND SOUND"
A "Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *
He was tired. The job on Tremont had been all kinds of frustrating what with their contact having to be broken out of gaol before they could make the deal and the shipment being raided by Alliance goons and such. But in the end everything had played out well and they had been paid. As Jayne would say, "Any one you walk away from". He sighed. Some days winning didn't feel much different from losing though he would never let his crew see the flatline of weary pain in his eyes like a flag of defeat. He would fight because he had to. Wasn't any other way he knew how to live.
It was why he was a mite distracted when he finally got to his bunk. The early hours of the morning stealing up on him until his body began to collapse around his tense frame luring him to get some much needed sleep. Not that the nightmares were any more comfort that the day ones. It wasn't much but it would have to be enough. So finding the crazy girl in his bunk, in his BED, was not a funny thing. Unamused he glared down at her as she feigned sleep.
"River, what the gorram are you doin' in my bed?"
"You ain't asleep."
"Yes, I am."
"If you're asleep we can't be havin' this conversation."
Silence. He sighed. Too tired for this *gou shi*. He turned to go, maybe he could get some sleep on the bridge. It would be fitful at best but the Black always soothed him. Her voice came thready and needy to his reluctant ear. A tug on the gentle side of his heart he rarely showed. "Don't go."
He turned back to face her and now her eyes were open. Her pale face looked traumatised, her eyes wide and fearful. His resolve was all at sea. "What're you doin' here?" He asked gently.
"Couldn't sleep. Afraid."
He sighed and sat on the bed, took a pale cold hand in his and stared at her. She saw his nightmares shining back at her from the deep shadows of his haunted eyes. She saw the broken pieces sliding about inside his soul, cutting him anew each time he moved. Each time he tried to heal himself. "Best I get you back to your brother."
She clutched his hand. Odd strength for one so fragile. "No! He'll hurt me though he won't mean to."
The Captain frowned. "Hurt you? Simon would never hurt you, River. He loves you."
She was nodding, bright tears like glittering stars unshed in her wide eyes. "I know. Thinks he's helping but his drugs aren't the answer. They just muffle the questions, quiet the brain but can't heal the trauma."
"What you doin' here? Really."
He swallowed. "River this ain't right or proper."
"Just want to sleep." She said in a soft, sad, folorn voice that cut right through his defences like a knife through cobwebs. Her hand in his felt warmer. The look she gave him a plea from the heart.
A small soft smile lit up her face like a low voltage bulb behind frosted glass. "I don't snore."
Her comment surprised a laugh out of him which he cut off abruptly as if guilty to be finding fun in this. "That so?"
She nodded and silently implored him to let her stay. He stared back for a while, his features softening. Memories touching him deep. She was just a child. Frightened. Traumatised. Was it any crime she wanted company to get through the night? Even if that company was only his? He found himself nodding slowly before his tongue caught up with his thoughts. "Okay, but one snore and you go flying out nose first, *dong ma*?"
She wriggled over to make room for him. He paused and stared. "No, River, that wouldn't be right an' you know it. Go, sleep, have no more nightmares now."
They were back to that. He hesitated then looked at the chair and bit back a sigh. "Okay, I'll be right here in this chair. You go on now an' sleep."
His reassurance seemed to calm her and she settled closing her eyes. The Captain watched her for long minutes, wondering what in the world he was going to do with her. He had a good crew, a shiny one even, but all of them were damaged in some way himself included. This girl, this child, had suffered perhaps most of all. A strange mix of child and wise woman, defenceless and empowered at one and the same time. It was all kinds of confusing but it also pulled at something deep inside him. A need to nurture and protect that was so strong he could not turn his back on her any more than he could leave her to face her fears alone. He sighed softly and could not find it in himself to be cross with her. She was afraid and he knew all about the dark places fear could drag you down to.
Settling in the chair he slouched down and stuck his legs out. It was damn uncomfortable but right now he was so tired he could have slept on the roof of his boat at the end of a tow line. Heavy lids slowly closed, River's soft even breathing lulling him to sleep. Every reason this was a bad thing to do vanquished from his tired mind as oblivion claimed him in willing arms intent on teaching him a new song.
When he woke she was gone and he felt strangely refreshed. Good even. He gave a slight smile and felt better than he had in days. Remarkable what a few hours of uninterrupted sleep could do for a man.
Things settled back into what passed for normal on Serenity and he forgot the odd event. After all, River was River and he had gotten used to there being an oddness about her. He ate a leisurely breakfast, the banter of his crew like little breaking waves over his head hardly stirring conscious thought from him. Zoe noticed his distraction. "You okay, sir? You seem a mite distracted."
He looked up. "Not so much distracted as thinkin'. The job went well."
Her eyebrows rose in sarcasm. Sarcasm? How in *diyu* did she manage that? "*Well* sir? We had to break a man out of goal before we could take the job, then the *liumang* Alliance boarded Serenity, crawled all over the ship. Thought they were gonna rutting well impound us. Not what I would call *well*, sir."
Mal smiled. "We got paid."
"Any one ya walk away from," Murmured Jayne like an echo of Mal's earlier thoughts. Oddly enough it was more comforting than creepifying.
The Captain looked at Wash. "Remember that foreman? Peter Grey?" Wash nodded. "Best we give him a wave once we finish breakfast."
"What we wanna do that for?" Growled Jayne as he snatched his half eaten bowl out of River's hand. She stuck her tongue out at him and he tried to ignore her.
"Said he might be able to put another job our way."
Zoe looked suspicious. "If that's so why didn't he tell us on Tremont?"
Mal shrugged. "Maybe we can ask him when we make contact."
Zoe watched him closely. "Sir?"
He finished his bowl and pushed it away from him, a hand reaching out to grab the mug of tea. "Somethin' you wanna say?"
"Yes, sir. Why are we trustin' him?"
"Not trustin', Zoe, listenin'. Can't hurt to hear what he has to say."
"Unless he's settin' us up."
He kept eye contact with her as he took a long slow swig of tea. "What makes you say that?"
She shrugged and leaned forward to snag a piece of two day old bread off a platter. "Nothin' just don't like bein' contacted after the job and when we're away from the planet, sir. Makes me think this Grey may be plannin' somethin' for himself. Somethin' our last employer don't know about."
* * * * *
Her words rang in his ears as he watched the man figetting on the screen on the bridge. The Captain was sitting in the pilot's chair to talk to the man, Wash standing next to him, Zoe right behind him. He felt a twisting in his gut. Zoe was right. He cut straight to the chase. After all. A job was a job. Pleasantries he could live without. "Said you might have work for us?"
Grey nodded. "Yes, if you're as good as you think you are Captain."
His eyes narrowed. He was fast moving Grey from his file of irritating people to the one of deep dislike. It was gifted how the man had skipped the trays imbetween. "What kind'a job you got in mind?"
"First I need to know if you're in or out."
Suspicions raged in the back of his mind. He could almost hear Zoe's mind screaming for him to tell the *wangba dan* they already had work. Anything but take this job. "Well now, I'm needin' more information than that. Could be I'd be gettin' myself an' my crew into somethin' I don't wanna."
Grey reached for the control to cut the connection. "Very well, if you don't need the work Captain..."
The Captain cut in before he could sever the connection. "But that don't mean I ain't interested."
The man's face cleared, his nerves evaporating as he began to smile. As if that disingenuous smile was sealing their fate. Zoe closed her eyes and inwardly cursed her Captain. He was her closest friend. Like family but more so though there were times when she could cheerfully strangle him. For such an experienced soldier he was amazingly niave at times. Business being a case in point. It was why she always liked to be there when he was making a deal or meeting a contact. That and the Captain's unfortunate penchant for getting himself shot. Why oh why didn't things ever go smooth?
* * * * *
Simon looked up from what he was doing. His long sensitive fingers poised over the electron microscope in the infirmary. The Captain had come looking for him to see what supplies he would need to replenish. Word having it that Sweetwater was the place to restock their dwindling supplies. Food and fuel they had got on Tremont but their medical supplies were rudimentary at best. Nothing Simon had wanted to touch with a barge pole though he had been fussily polite about it. He was a little surprised the Captain had remembered. "Sweetwater?"
The Captain nodded. "You been there before, doc?"
He shook his head. "No."
"Just make out a list of supplies, *dong ma*? Not promising we'll get them all here but we'll get what we can."
"*Xie xie ni*, Captain." He paused. "If I may ask, what's on Sweetwater?"
The Captain gave a little half smile. "A contact. Grey says he has a job for us."
"What kind of job?"
The doctor nodded accepting the Captain's word and grateful that it would give him a chance to resupply their medicine chest.
"Oh and doc?"
Simon turned back to look at the Captain. "Yes?"
"We land in just under three hours."
The doctor nodded getting the unspoken request. "I'll be ready, Captain."
* * * * *
The Captain took Jayne and Zoe with him, urging Simon to take the Shepherd with him. Inara watched in silence, her large dark eyes taking in what was not said as well as what was spoken. Surprised to detect tension in the Captain that had not been there before they landed. Why was he uptight now when he wasn't before? It took some manouevring to get a minute with the Captain away from the others before they left. He was jumpier than a cat on a hot tin roof and she wanted to know why. "What's wrong, Mal?"
"Wrong? Why would you think somethin' was wrong?"
"You're tense and jumpy." She paused and her eyes narrowed. "Who are you meeting?"
"Man named Wilkinson."
"Never heard of him."
"Then why are you acting like a man with his neck in a noose?"
He frowned hard at her. "Ain't that." She raised dark eyebrows and waited. He huffed in barely suppressed anger. "Found out he's a link man for Badger."
That explained everything. The change in the Captain's mood from happy optimism to suspicion and wary interest. "You think Badger's setting you up?"
"Wouldn't be the first time."
"Then why take the job?"
"Coin is good, Inara. With what this job'll pay we can relax a little, be a bit choosier about our next job. Kaylee can get them parts she's been beggin' me to buy her."
She was watching him carefully. Wondered if he knew how much he gave away. "Mal, if you don't trust it walk away. No one will think less of you."
He gave a snort. "Walk away? I've come this far Inara, I'm not gonna let past experiences cloud my judgement. I wanna find out what the job is first."
"And if it doesn't sit right, then what Mal?"
"Then we walk away."
She nodded and decided it was the best she could hope for. Silently she watched him turn and walk briskly over to where Zoe and Jayne waited for him. Zoe threw a curious look back at her but the Companion's look was unreadable. Once they left Serenity the Captain made straight for the rendezvous point. Wilkinson was already waiting for them. He seemed a lot less slimey than Grey but that was not saying much. Wilkinson seemed to pick up on the Captain's increased tension. "Is something wrong, Captain?"
"No, just anxious to see if we can do business *dong ma*?"
"You are in a hurry?"
Mal shook his head and forced himself to relax. Gorrammit he would accomplish nothing here if he didn't find a way to settle down. "Not so much. You said you had details?"
Wilkinson nodded. "Yes. Fetch and carry. Four crates to go to Argon."
Four crates. Was that all? "What's the cargo?"
Wilkinson just looked at him then after a moment seemed to relent. "Nothing that need concern your sensibilities, Captain. You collect the cargo from a bonded warehouse here on Sweetwater. Drop it off on Argon and that's it."
The Captain's eyes narrowed. "Why so generous for such a small cargo?"
"You ever hear of Argon?"
He shook his head. "Can't say I have."
"Rim world, mineral poor planet. Anything they need has to be shipped in. Alliance stop most cargoes, divert them to the Core Planets. Folks there are desperate."
"So these are supplies?"
The man nodded slowly. "Could say that."
"What's to stop the Alliance diverting us?"
"Come now Captain, from what I hear you fly beneath Alliance radar. That's why the job offer is being made to you. Take it or leave it but decide now. Those people need what we have and I don't have time to parlay with you if you don't want the job, *dong ma*?"
Mal nodded. Thought about it a second then agreed. Wilkinson put his hand inside his vest, Jayne watching him like a hawk. Ready to splatter his head all across the floor if he tried anything. A heavy cloth purse came out in his hand, he smiled at the Captain and handed it to him. "Half now, half when the job's done."
The Captain took the purse and handed it back to Zoe. "You don't mind if we just check before we go? It's not that I don't trust you but... I don't trust you."
A little dark smile played on the man's lips but he nodded benignly enough. Some hidden humour held back but glimpsed in his eyes. Zoe nodded to him, the money was right. Mal smiled for the first time. "Okay, where's the warehouse?"
When they got back to Serenity everyone crowded round them. The Captain told Wash the location they would be heading for and told him to calculate the fuel and how long it would take to get there. He took Jayne and the mule and left to find the warehouse, trusting Zoe to make sure everything else stayed tight and that they would be ready to take off on their return. He just hoped the doctor was back by then. A couple of hours later they returned with the cargo. Shepherd Book looked at the large heavy wooden crates. There were only four of them but they made an ominious addition to the cargo bay. "What did he say the cargo was?"
"Supplies." Said Mal, voice clipped, hands busy settling everything in place. "Where's the doc?"
Kaylee waved behind her. "In the infirmary."
"He get what he want?"
She beamed at him. "Yeah, Cap'n. Never seen Simon so happy."
Well good, that was good. He felt his mood lifting and nodded to Book to seal the door then told Wash to take off. The sooner they dropped off the cargo the quicker they could pick up the rest of their pay and hit atmo. Then he could breathe easy. Wash looked up when the Captain entered the bridge. "How long, Wash?"
* * * * *
He had been sleeping. Fitfully at first but then a deep slumber crept over him. He awakened slowly, hours later, his bunk was dark and he felt warm and content. Then his brain kicked into gear as he realised there was a light warm body draped over him like an extra blanket. Shock woke him the rest of the way. "*Tian Yesu* River, what the gorram are you doin' here?"
The girl did not stir. Her pale moon face was turned so that her cheek lay against his chest, her ear tuned in to the steady rythym of his heartbeat. He sucked in a quick breath and shook her.
"River! River, wake up!"
She stirred slowly. Only as her body moved did he realise that she was wearing no clothes. He closed his eyes against her nakedness. What in the rutting *diyu* had he done to deserve this? Bad enough he was taking work from Badger that had him wanting to crawl out of his skin without having the crazy girl latch on to him like this. He could not be doing with this. He was about to shake her again when her eyes popped open.
"What you doin' here, River?"
"I can see that but why? We already had this conversation, *jide*? You sleep in your bunk not mine, *dong ma*?"
She shook her head and her eyes widened as she looked at him, almost swallowing him up in some emotion that stirred deep and drew him to her. What was it the Patron had said? *Girl's a witch*. He was surprised to feel her tiny hand cradle the side of his face as she sat up, not a bit mindful of her nakedness. He took a deep breath and made himself concentrate on eye contact. The girl was all kinds of distracting. "Not a witch," She said softly echoing his thoughts. "Just couldn't sleep. Feel safe here. Protected."
"That as may be," He said more gently, not wanting to startle her or upset her. "But it ain't right."
"Yeah, an' this ain't helpin'."
She gave him a sweet smile and laid back down, her head on his chest, eyes locked on his. Her hands sliding round his waist to hold him close as she breathed in his scent. Soaking him up through the pores of her skin. Eyes closing. They opened again when his forefinger tapped her gently but firmly on the nose.
"Hey, no goin' back to sleep."
Her eyes sparkled a moment and he caught his breath awkwardly.
"I mean no more sleepin' here, you go back to your own bed now."
She shook her head and hugged him then sighed. "Too tired. Sleep now." Her eyes closed and he looked down at her, helpless and at a loss what to do. He could grab her and throw her off him but that would like as not send her into some kind of fit and how would he even begin to explain that? Simon would think he had tried to rape her. *Wode ma*. Simon! How in the nine hells would he ever explain this to the doc? No. Maybe River was right. Once she had slept a bit he could shoo her out and get everything back to normal before the rest of the crew awoke. He sighed. It was not a good plan but it was all he could come up with.
River listened to his breathing slowly steady and deepen, a smile forming on her lips as he gently pulled the covers up over them. As he drifted off to sleep she matched her heartbeat to his and followed him. For this night at least there would be no nightmares. Not for him or her.
* * * * *
Three days. Three rutting days with a crazy girl creeping into his bunk. Not even doing it when he was awake. How to keep her out? He didn't want to hurt her but he also didn't want any complications and the girl was all kinds of complicated without this. He felt a headache coming on. Fortunately when he had woken up River was gone. The relief made him feel guilty. After all she was just frightened. Came to him for comfort and safety nothing more. Said she wanted to sleep and that was exactly what she had done. Why was he making a big thing of this? But he knew and the knowing made him responsible for whatever might happen.
* * * * *
Simon looked up when River danced into the infirmary. He was carefully putting away the medicines and supplies he had bought on Sweetwater. "Where've you been, River? I looked all over for you."
She smiled at him. "Safe and sound in Serenity's heart."
He took that to mean the engine room but he had checked there. He frowned and closed a drawer then opened a cupboard to put more supplies away. Everything in its' place. "I didn't see you."
"I come and go like the tide. Moonshine affects the tide, pulls the deep water to and fro. Like a dance."
There were times when River was as much a stranger to him as the surface of an unknown planet. "I worry about you, *mei mei*. You shouldn't go wandering off like that."
She knew he was thinking about Jubal Early. "You worry too much, Simon. I'm safe."
*Yes* thought Simon. *Safe but not sound*. She shook her head, picking up his unspoken thoughts.
"*Bu qu*, I am safe and sound. Found a protector. Heart of the ship. Sometimes you just have to let go."
"I have no idea what you're talking about River but you know I love you, don't you *mei mei*?"
Her smile was sweet. Understanding. Accepting. "Love you too, Simon."
The next time he looked up she was gone again. He smiled to himself and sighed.
* * * * *
CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)
*gou shi* = crap
*dong ma* = understand
*wo dong* = I understand
*diyu* = hell
*liumang* = bastard/asshole/criminal/gangster
*xie xie ni* = thank you
*tian Yesu* = sweet Jesus
*jide* = understand
*wode ma* = mother of God
*bu qu* = no (lit. not yes)
*mei mei* = little sister
*wangba dan* = bastard