"This plan ain't gonna work," Jayne grumbled.
"I dunno, the doc's ideas usually pan out," said Wash as he adjusted their course. "That job on Ariel was a sweet haul."
Jayne shrugged, uncomfortable. "Leastways that scam had some loot involved. But that ain't here nor there. I'm just tellin' you, I got a bad feelin' we're all gonna get humped. You don't mess with religious folk."
"Why Jayne, I didn't know you were a man of faith," Zoe said, leaning against the doorframe.
"I got faith," he replied. "I got faith in me an' Vera. But religious types are touched in the head."
"I can't say I disagree with you entirely," said Shepherd Book as he entered the ship's cockpit. "Sometimes it takes more than a touch to change someone's course – a mighty knock to the head might be more apt. Bolts of lightning are also traditional."
"You on board with this cockeyed plan, Shepherd?" Jayne asked, surprised.
"River needs help," he said simply. "If Simon believes this Dr. Chen can provide that help, then I'm willing to do what it takes to get access to her."
"Riskin' a hell of a lot for a mental case, if you ask me."
"I don't believe we did ask you," Zoe said calmly. "Cap'n told you, and if you don't intend to back us up, I suggest you take it up with him."
Jayne blanched slightly at that. "I ain't saying I won't go along with it. Just that I think it's risky. Sihnon's a Core world, it'll be crawlin' with Alliance, and we go waltzing in all loaded up with wanted fugitives."
"Speaking of waltzing in," said Wash, "you got that landing pass all sorted out, Shepherd?"
Book nodded. "It'll pass at a glance, but I wouldn't want them to look too closely at it. So let's try not to attract too much attention, shall we?"
"Yeah," Wash said, not a little sarcastically. "'Cause we're so good at keeping a low profile. Now, ladies and gents, it's getting a smidge crowded in here, so if you wouldn't mind taking yourselves somewhere else, so I can concentrate on us not dying…"
Jayne clomped heavily down the stairs. "Still ain't happy 'bout this," he muttered to no one in particular. "That plan depended on the doc knowin' how to act like a doctor. This one, on the other hand…"
"Turn," said Inara, stepping back to cast an appraising eye over her work.
"I think the shoes are going to be a problem," Simon said, taking a careful step.
She reached out to adjust one fold of the dress. "Is it the heels, or…?"
"No, they're just too tight. My toes are cramping up."
"I think you look real pretty," said Kaylee, sitting by on Inara's bed, legs crossed.
"Uh, good, I guess," Simon replied, squirming just a little. He still hadn't quite mustered up the courage to look at himself in the mirror.
"I don't know what I can do about the shoes," Inara admitted. "Just… try not to walk too much. The rest is perfect, though."
"How'd you make the boobs, Inara? They're so… perky." Kaylee seemed mesmerized.
Inara smiled. "Companion secret. No, actually, they're rolled-up stockings. The silk makes a nice, smooth curve, don't you think?"
"Uh-huh. Kinda makes you just wanna grab 'em…"
"Please don't," said Simon quickly. "I don't want Inara to have to rearrange everything. Again."
"I'll keep my hands to myself," Kaylee said, a bit regretfully. "We doing the hair and make-up next, 'nara?"
Inara retrieved the wig, still on its stand. "Please sit down, Simon. This will take some time."
"So," said Kaylee as they worked, "this old professor of yours is some kinda genius brain-doctor?"
"She was the most brilliant neuropsychiatrist at the university – sorry," he said as Inara frowned at him for talking while she was applying a thin layer of adhesive to his hairline. Once she had the wig in place, he continued. "When she gave up her career and retired to a convent, everyone was shocked."
"Perhaps it's not that great a stretch," said Inara, accepting a small cosmetic brush from Kaylee. "If she was a gifted healer, she must already have practiced compassion and wisdom. Perhaps she's just channeling those skills in different ways now."
"Maybe," Simon said. "I can't pretend to know what was going on in her head. I just hope she can tell me what's going on in River's."
"So do we all," Inara said kindly. "Now look up so I can do your lashes, please."
Jayne and Zoe prepped their weapons in the cargo bay, and River drifted around the room in her typical aimless-seeming way, while Mal nervously paced the catwalk above. "Settle down, sir," Zoe told him at last. "You'll wear a hole through the grating."
"Just antsy. If that fake pass of Shepherd Book's doesn't hold up, we'll be in a joo fuen chse."
"Shepherd knows what he's about," Zoe replied calmly. "This is gonna be –" She cut off abruptly as Inara and Kaylee exited the Companion's shuttle, smiles dancing about their lips. "This is gonna be good," she murmured instead. Mal turned and looked as well, waiting to see what was coming next.
A young, slim-hipped woman stepped out of the shuttle behind them, long lashes lowered and full red lips unsmiling. Her long black hair was piled carefully atop her head, and she walked gingerly, her high-necked white gown embroidered with dark blue thread and tied at the waist with a broad sash of the same colour caught up in one hand to keep it from trailing on the grimy floor. "Presenting Miss Shenandoah Yao," Inara said brightly, as Kaylee suppressed a giggle.
"Yow," Mal echoed, eyes wide. "That's, uh, quite something."
"You come up with the name yourself, Doc?" Jayne snickered from down below.
"It was Inara's idea," Simon muttered, taking a step forward and almost pitching over the rail. Mal instinctively caught him by the arm to steady him, and their eyes met for slightly longer than was necessary. Once Simon regained his balance, Mal let go and both of them looked away awkwardly.
"Shenandoah, meaning daughter of the stars," said River, tipping her head curiously to one side as she examined her brother. "A tributary of the Potomac river on Earth-that-Was, and also a traditional folk song associated with that river. Your hair isn't real," she added after a moment's pause.
"Still don't know why you couldn't dress him up as one o' them boy companions," said Jayne, looking vaguely unsettled.
"Because," Simon said through gritted teeth, "then I would still look too much like Dr. Simon Tam, wanted criminal."
"Yeah, well, you got that part of the problem taken care of, right enough. You go out all tarted up like that, a fella could make a serious mistake. I mean, not that that's ever happened to me…"
"Jayne, shut up," said Zoe, not unkindly. "You're lookin' good, Simon. You learn to walk right, and you'll pass just fine."
"It's these shoes," he said miserably, hobbling down the stairs. "Inara's feet are slightly smaller than mine, you might be surprised to learn."
"Is that all?" Zoe said, surprised. "Well hell, if you need some bigger shoes, I can loan you mine." She looked at the others, who wore various expressions of surprise and amazement. "What, I'm not allowed to have a pair of high heels stashed away in case of emergencies? I'll get 'em for you. Besides, I have to go tell Wash to get down here and have a look at you, all got up in your finery." She strode off, stifling her laughter.
Mal followed Simon – Shenandoah, rather – down the stairs. "You've got your story all worked out, then? No gaping holes?"
"I'm a Companion, originally from Osiris, just finished my training at Kalina's Guild House in Lu'weng…" He glanced at Inara, who nodded approvingly. "And I'm visiting the Hua Si nunnery to meditate and contemplate the beauty of its famous gardens before I set out into the big, scary 'verse. There are so many Companions on Sihnon, another one won't be noticed."
"What about your ID? Registration?"
"Shepherd's taking care of it as we speak. He'll cook up a couple of ident files that look good enough for a scan, and scatter a little bit of info about Shenandoah Yao about the Cortex, just enough to convince a casual searcher she actually exists."
"Who knew havin' a Shepherd on board would come in so handy?" said Mal grudgingly. "All right, it sounds like you've got that part pretty well covered. Who're you taking with you for back-up, though? And don't tell me you're goin' in alone, 'cause that just ain't gonna fly," he added before Simon could protest. "You gotta have someone to fall back on. Take Ja-… Ah, take Zoe, maybe."
"I don't know how I could explain her presence there with me, Captain. Unless we're going to dress her up as a Companion too…"
"Ooh, can we?" asked Wash as he wandered into the cargo bay with his wife on his arm. She had a pair of black high-heeled slingbacks dangling from her fingers.
"Shouldn't you be flying?" said Mal irritably.
"We're in an orbital queue for processing, got at least an hour's wait according to the automated system."
"Ta ma duh," Mal cursed. "I thought Core worlds were supposed to be efficient."
"Do I have to hide in the crawl space yet?" River asked, balancing lightly on her tiptoes.
"No, mei-mei, not quite yet. Not until we're about to go through the customs check," Simon told her.
"It's dark in there, but the ship spins around me and keeps me safe. Makes me dizzy," she said, looking neither relieved nor disappointed, and returned to running her finger along a single seam of the hull, tracing its path around the cargo bay.
Zoe handed Simon the shoes, and he accepted them gratefully, then looked around for a place to sit where he wouldn't get his dress dirty. "I might need a hand with these," he said. Kaylee jumped to help him, letting him lean on her shoulder as he bent down carefully to remove the too-small shoes and put on the new pair. "Much better," he said at last, flexing his toes.
"Yeah, my wife's got some big ol' feet," said Wash proudly, before Zoe turned to glare at him. "Big, beautiful feet, keep her planted solid on the ground," he added hastily, with an ingratiating smile.
"No, I think it's pretty clear who should come with me," Simon continued, facing Mal again and returning to the subject at hand.
"Well, you, Captain."
Mal arched a skeptical brow. "Me?"
Simon nodded. "Clean you up a little, you can be my new patron, letting me have a last few moments of peace and quiet before whisking me away to a life of passion and faithful service."
"I, uh, well. Could work, maybe," Mal stammered. "What do you mean, 'clean me up a little'?"
Everything on Sihnon was beautiful, but the temple's grounds, sheltered at the base of a cliff, were freakishly beautiful. Tall, willowy trees with pale blue and purple leaves swayed in the breeze, and everywhere there were flowers, so artfully cultivated that they almost looked natural. But the highlight of the gardens, the thing that really drew in the tourists, was the waterfall. It was narrow rather than torrential, but it plummeted from such a height that it was nearly all mist by the time it reached the pool below. Its fine spray suffused the air, and, when the sun was shining, made rainbows everywhere you turned.
Mal wanted nothing more than to get out of there.
He sat on a curved stone bench, leg twitching irritably. It was taking too long, way too long, and they'd been too lucky so far. Their fake passes had been barely glanced at, there'd been no troubles on their way to the monastery by low-grav rail, and no one had seemed to notice that the lovely lady at his side was in fact a wanted criminal by the name of Simon Tam. Something was bound to go wrong – it couldn't be this smooth, not and the 'verse keep turning.
Besides, his gorram collar was too tight.
"You seen her yet?" he asked his companion under his breath.
"Not yet," said Simon, scanning the workers in the garden.
"This had better be worth it," Mal muttered. "I mean, she'd better have something good, not just tell you about the Four Noble Truths bein' the cure for what ails your sister."
"If anyone can analyze those brain scans correctly, it'll be Dr. Chen," Simon said with more confidence than he was feeling. He knew his former professor had been out of contact with the medical community for five years, and he doubted she would have been able to keep up with advances in the field over that time. It was a gamble. He knew it, and he was pretty sure Mal knew it too. "Try to relax," he advised him. "You should look like you're enjoying the view, at least."
"I should look like I'm humouring you, which I am. I should look like I can't wait to get you out of here so I can finally get you to myself and fuck you 'til my dick goes numb," Mal hissed.
"Oh, is that what that look is on your face? It's hard to tell it apart from your 'I'm all paranoid and twitchy' expression."
Mal frowned, moreso, if such a thing was possible, but any possible retort was cut off as Simon stood up. Mal followed his gaze, and saw a small, plump woman with a shaved head and a cheerful, wrinkled face, dressed in simple grey robe like most of the other nuns here. She didn't look any different than the others, but Simon had obviously found the woman he was looking for.
Simon – Shenandoah, rather – picked his way across the garden, the slim heels of his shoes sinking perilously into the moist soil at places, approaching the elderly nun by an indirect route. He paused, pretending to admire a patch of purple irises, while his target drew closer, picking off wilted blossoms and dead leaves and gathering them in the woven basket she carried.
"Excuse me, qianbei," Simon said as she drew near. He kept his voice soft and eyes lowered. "May I speak with you for a moment?"
"Of course," said the nun, polite but puzzled. "How can I help you?"
Simon cleared his throat, suddenly feeling more awkward than he had all day. "It's… rather complicated. You may not remember me, Dr. Chen, but I used to be one of your students…"
She looked up into his face, scrutinizing it, and finally her eyes widened slightly. "I…yes, I believe I do remember you, though I must say you've changed considerably since last we met. My name is Fajing now, since I came here. Come, let us walk while we talk."
Mal sat not-so-patiently, trying not to be caught staring, and wishing he could hear what they were saying. Simon and the nun were deep in conversation, and they'd gone behind a clump of some kind of pink-blossomed shrubberies so that all he could see was the top of Simon's head with that ridiculous hairdo sticking up. He thought about moving to where he could keep them in full view, but decided that might seem too obvious.
"Pretty, ain't it," said a familiar voice behind him. Mal about jumped out of his skin, and turned to see Jayne and Zoe there, arm in arm like any courting couple. He noticed immediately that both were packing weapons, though they'd gone to some effort to conceal them – Zoe's leg didn't bend quite as smoothly as it ought to, suggesting she had a gun strapped to her shin beneath those loose-legged trousers, and Jayne had a pistol at the small of his back, the subtle bulge covered by a handsome coat that Mal hadn't seen him wearing before. He wondered who he'd stolen it from.
"Real pretty," he agreed, eyeing both of them. Zoe gave him a hand signal from their Browncoat days, one they'd developed for those many times when the commpack just wasn't safe to use – Alliance ahead. He nodded to show he'd got the message loud and clear, but wondered just what exactly was going on. Suspicion without solid information only made him more antsy, though at least now they had a bit more firepower on their side in case things turned south. The 'couple' walked away from him, down one of the garden paths that led to the monastery and the cliff's base. After a moment's consideration, Mal stood and moseyed after them.
"I suspect I know what has brought you here," said the former Dr. Chen quietly. They had found a secluded spot between two rows of high bushes that would keep passers-by from observing them too closely.
She shot him a look he well remembered from his classes with her, as if she was surprised and disappointed that he hadn't arrived at the answer himself by now. "I was the top neuropsychiatrist on Osiris, and yet I left all of that behind, left my family and my work to come to another world, work in a garden, and meditate. What can you imagine might have driven me to this place? Bear in mind that I remember you telling me about your sister."
Simon bit his lip. "They… ah, the Academy?"
She nodded. "They approached me, expressing considerable interest in my research, about which they were surprisingly well-informed. Their salary offer was…more than generous. I saw a little – a very little – of what was going on there. I didn't care for it, and I let them know that I was no longer interested in their job offer. They seemed to accept that, but when I returned to the university, the situation rapidly become… uncomfortable, to say the least. First there were 'problems' with my research grants – my personal bank account was frozen pending investigation. Then my lab was shut down temporarily due to possible prion contamination…"
"I remember that!" said Simon, surprised. "But it didn't amount to anything, did it?"
"No, of course not. But it took six weeks for all our instruments to be sterilized to the authorities' satisfaction, which accomplished nothing but wasting valuable time and funds. And in the process, several irreplaceable sets of tissue samples were 'accidentally' destroyed, setting my research back considerably. I tendered my resignation on the morning when I arrived at work to find that three of my assistants had received anonymous waves accusing them of serious violations of the university's code of ethics and threatening to turn them in. Even though there was no basis to the accusations, it could have ruined their careers. I had my suspicions as to who was behind all of these problems, but it would have been impossible to prove, and might only have brought far more dangerous threats, even physical harm, to me or my associates. I resigned instead, and came here. So far, at least, I haven't been bothered."
"Except by me," said Simon, suddenly morose at the possibility of causing problems for his former teacher. "Chen-jiaoshou, I'm so sorry I came…"
Her face crinkled into a wry smile, ignoring his use of her old name. "You are no bother, Tam-xian. I'll help you however I'm able."
Simon looked encouraged. "I have some brain scans…" he said, drawing out the data disc from his ridiculously tiny purse.
Mal sauntered down the garden path, following Zoe and Jayne at a discreet distance while trying to figure out where the hell the Alliance might be lurking in these peaceful surroundings. The skies overhead had grown cloudy, but he was sure he would have heard any large ships landing nearby or keeping watch up there. Something more subtle, then. A squad of feds, then, waiting for them outside? A single soldier, armed with a sniper rifle maybe, waiting up on one of the cliff ledges for a clear shot? Gorram, it could be about anything. He had to get more info from Zoe, somehow. He picked up his pace just a mite, trying not to look too hasty.
He caught up with them as they stopped to admire a little pond covered in water lilies. No one seemed to be within earshot, so he risked a few words. "What's going on?"
"Wash heard the alert go out over the fedband, sent us word – wanted criminal, possibly in the vicinity of the Hua Si temple, suspect should be considered armed and dangerous. I think we got in on the last train before they cut off access. No one's getting out of here without going though some serious scrutiny."
"Mei yong ma duh tse gu yong," Mal muttered.
"We'll figure something out, sir."
"You shouldn't have come in," he told them crossly. "All it'll mean is you two get caught along with us."
"Hey, if they try an' bind me by law, I can always tell 'em I don't know the pair of you."
"Yeah, most likely the feds don't have anything else on you, Jayne," Zoe said sweetly. "I'm sure they'll just let you walk away clean."
Jayne just glowered, looking around suspiciously. "All I know is, they won't wait forever. They don't see their target come walking out pretty gorram soon, they'll send in the troops, holy ground or no."
"Hate to say it, sir, but he's right. We need to make a plan, and quick. Where's your, ah, companion got to?"
"She was right over there…" Mal said, turning to look for the white-and-blue dress, only to see nothing of the sort. Simon and the elderly nun had vanished. "Well, fuck me," he said to no one in particular.
Simon was surprised that the convent, which appeared to be a highly traditional and simple structure from the exterior, had a state-of-the-art dedicated sourcebox. Chen –Fajing, rather – was poring over the scans he'd taken of River's brain during their unauthorized visit to the hospital on Ariel, occasionally zooming in on one area or another for closer examination. "Fascinating," she mumbled to herself. Simon could barely follow her train of thought, so quickly was she moving from one section of River's mind to another.
He cleared his throat cautiously, not wanting to interrupt her at some crucial moment. "Qianbei," he said, "I don't meant to rush you, but… my friend is waiting for me." He looked around, as worried that Mal would be anxious as that someone would come along and find them using the terminal for unauthorized purposes.
"No, that's fine, I'm sorry. I was absorbed – the alterations that have been made are relatively subtle, but I'm sure the changes have been dramatic."
Simon just nodded, a lump in his throat making him unable to find the necessary words to express precisely what was different about his sister since her time at the Academy. "Is there anything I can do to help her?" he asked instead.
"I suppose taking her to a proper medical facility is out of the question."
"I can't. I just…can't."
She nodded, unsurprised. "I heard about it when you left Osiris, you know. I do keep in contact with some of my former colleagues – they were all startled by your departure. I wondered if… well, it all makes rather more sense to me now." She pursed her lips, thinking. "Some of the procedures they've done might be reversible, under optimal circumstances, but we've already determined these are far from optimal circumstances. If I could see her, speak with her, I might be able to undo some of the conditioning they've implanted. Even if it were possible, though, it would take weeks, perhaps months of intensive therapy."
Simon's face fell. "I guess it was foolish for me to hope there would be a simple solution."
"Don't give up hope so easily," she told him with a stern wag of her finger. "There may not be a simple solution, but that doesn't mean nothing can be done…"
"They must've gone into the temple," said Mal at last. They'd split up to make three quick circuits of the gardens and found no trace of either Simon or Dr. Chen, which left only one option. Well, there were other options, all far less pleasant, but he didn't care to consider those just yet.
"More'n likely they needed to use a terminal," Zoe said reasonably. "I can't imagine nuns just carry databooks around with them all the time, even on a Core world."
"What the hell are we supposed to do, then?" Jayne demanded, keeping his voice low, but only with obvious effort. "Just stroll in there and ask where they are?"
"Why not?" said Zoe. "It don't seem like we've got much choice, under the circumstances."
"Because if we start actin' all suspicious and bargin' in places we ain't supposed to be, how do we know them nuns won't just call in the feds themselves?"
"Everyone take it easy," said Mal, doing his best to keep control of the situation. "We'll walk to the door of the temple and hope that Si – Shenandoah comes out before we get there." Together the trio sauntered toward the building, trying to look casual.
Luck wasn't on their side. No one exited through the large wooden doors during their slow walk toward them; however, two Alliance soldiers in full tac armor strolled through the main gates of the convent grounds. Mal knew, perversely, how fortunate they were to be on Sihnon. On a border planet, those guns at their sides would have already been drawn, or maybe they'd just have come in shooting and to hell with anyone who got in their way. "Don't look," he muttered, "and don't run. Just keep on for the temple." The purple-bellies didn't seem to notice them right off the bat, but wandered off toward the waterfall, giving them the few crucial seconds they needed to get inside – where they came face to face with a very old, and apparently very cantankerous nun.
"Visitors are not permitted in the convent," she told them tetchily, but she was distracted, keeping a close eye on the small bank of monitors on her desk.
Risking her wrath, Mal took a look over her shoulder himself. He didn't much like what he saw – outside the gates were a veritable swarm of feds, plus one of their big patrol boats. "Ta ma duh," he breathed, drawing another frown from the nun – not that she'd actually stopped frowning at any point since they'd walked through the door, but her wrinkles shifted around a bit, so he figured maybe it counted as a new frown.
Zoe stepped up to the elderly woman, bowing her head respectfully. "I beg your forgiveness, Elder, but we need shelter." Mal and Jayne glared at her, but she ignored them.
"Am I to take it you're the proximate cause of this…this disruption?" the nun asked, scrutinizing them more closely for the first time.
"I'm afraid we are," said Zoe, unusually humbly for her. "Or rather, one of our companions. We're looking for her. Perhaps you can help us to locate her so that we can leave without causing any further problems?" From anyone else, it would have sounded like a veiled threat, but Zoe managed to make it sincere.
"How in the hell are we gonna manage –" Jayne began, before being cut off by a sharp but discreet swat from Mal.
The nun looked inclined to boot them all out on their asses, but she hesitated just for a moment – long enough for Simon and another woman to walk in. Mal just barely stopped himself from blurting out the doctor's real name, but managed to change it at the last minute to a "Sss – urprised to see you here!"
Simon – Shenandoah, rather – glared at him. "Chen-jiaoshou, these are my, ah, friends…"
"Never mind the introductions," said Jayne brusquely. "There's feds swarming the place outside, and if they come in and find us here, we're humped. Beg pardon, ladies," he added, tipping his hat to the startled nuns.
The prune-faced doorkeeper conferred quietly with the woman Mal figured was Dr. Chen, while the four of them stood awkwardly by, waiting for their fates to be decided. There was much pointing to monitors and some hushed but heated debate going on. Finally, both the nuns turned to them.
"Against my better judgment," said the doorkeeper, who seemed to outrank the former doctor, "we will help you." She still looked mighty sour, but Mal was starting to think maybe that was just her usual expression. "We have no desire to have soldiers tramping through our convent – already they have shown disrespect by bringing their guns onto sacred ground." Jayne and Zoe, to their credit, managed not to shuffle their feet or look guilty in the slightest. "We will hide you for now, and secure your exit as soon as it is safe to do so." She nodded to Dr. Chen, who beckoned for them to follow her further into the temple. As they hurried away, they could all hear the heavy boots on the steps outside.
"In here," Chen directed them, leading them past a heavy door and into a maze of corridors and small rooms that were presumably the nuns' living quarters. From back at the entryway, the sounds of an argument were audible – that crotchety old nun must have been giving the soldiers what-for, and buying them valuable time to hide. Chen all but shoved Mal and Simon into a not-much-bigger-than-closet-sized room, and then hustled Zoe and Jayne off to who-knows-where.
"I hope this was worth it," Mal muttered.
"Dr. Chen certainly gave me plenty to think about," Simon whispered back. "If she could only come with us, I'm sure she could help River…"
"No," said Mal flatly. "No more takin' in strays, we're full-up as it is." Simon nodded. In the close quarters, even that subtle motion of his head wafted a scent in Mal's direction. "Did you… are you wearin' perfume?"
Simon shrugged. "Inara got it as a gift from one of her, um, clients, but never used it." He might have been blushing in the faint light. "Do you like it?"
If it didn't suit the Companion, Mal had to admit it sure as hell did wonders for the doc. That and the hair, and the make-up, and the gorram dress that sorta clung to his hips and his backside, and… "Makes my nose itch," he said, looking away, trying to force his thoughts elsewhere, like maybe back to the imminent danger they were in.
"Don't you dare sneeze," Simon said softly. "We don't want this to turn into a cliché." Both of them expected to hear the tramp of soldiers' boots at any moment, so they kept quiet. Mal couldn't help noticing the way Simon kept glancing over at him from under those long eyelashes, though, any more than he could ignore the beads of sweat trickling down the back of his neck or the ache building up in his groin. The first touch he could pretend was an accident, fingers just skimming across the silk sash that circled Simon's waist, but then the doc was pressing back against him, ass tight against his crotch and squirming just a little, and that was no accident, no way in hell.
What did it mean about him, Mal wondered, that he was getting so fired up over a feller he'd looked at a million times before without a twitch, but stick him in a slinky dress and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to drag him down to the floor and fuck him senseless? At an utterly inappropriate time, no less. Probably it meant he had some powerful gorram psychological issues, he decided. He let one hand creep around Simon's hip, casual-like, feeling the smooth fabric of the blue sash slip under his fingers like water. The doc didn't quite moan, that would've been too noisy, but he sighed real hard, breath escaping from him like a rush of steam under pressure as he tugged Mal's hand where he wanted it to go, gripping his wrist tight. Mal could feel the tension in his body, the warm weight of Simon's cock straining against whatever he might be wearing under that dress, and then his mind went all sorts of places he didn't rightly mean it to, and yet couldn't stop it from going – Simon lying back on his bunk, legs splayed open, stripped to nothing but a pair of lacy pink panties that bulged obscenely, stretched in ways they'd never meant to be stretched…
They both froze momentarily as a door slammed somewhere, but when no heavy boots could be heard in the corridor outside after a minute or two, they let themselves breathe again. Still, the moment was lost. They drew apart, shame-faced and red, and tried not to look at each other. It was probably for the best, as a short while later the door opened and a young nun they hadn't seen before was staring at them. "Hurry," she whispered, beckoning for them to follow her, so they did so without question.
"They're searching the other side of the temple first," the young woman said quietly as they made their way down the corridor, "but they'll come here next. We need to get you out, quickly, and we think we have a way." She gave a quick look at Simon over her shoulder, and a momentary look of concern crossed her face. "You might need to lose your shoes, though, miss."
"Now how in the hell is this going to work?" said Jayne, shifting his weight from one foot to the other in his nervousness.
Zoe stared up at the almost-vertical face of the rock wall. "The nuns have grav-packs
stashed away somewhere." She shot a glance at the little sour-faced old woman beside her. "Right?"
The nun shook her head. "I'm afraid not. The climb will be difficult, but it can be done."
"And what's to stop the feds from shooting us down when they see us scaling a cliff like gorram flies, excuse my language?"
"With any luck, they will not see you." An unaccustomed smile playing about her lips, the nun gestured to the thin torrent that cascaded down from the clifftop. "You will be climbing behind the falls."
"Well, that's grand," said Zoe, trying to sound hopeful. Mal and Simon were just emerging from the temple's rear exit, led by yet another nun. It seemed the whole convent was in on the scheme now. So much for keeping a low profile.
"Where are we going?" Simon asked, clutching his skirts like a debutante walking through mud. Zoe quickly filled them in on the plan, and watched Mal's face go from stony to stony-with-maybe-a-hint-of-hopeful.
The nuns were conferring quietly with one another. After a moment's time they seemed to have reached some arrangement. "Deshna will go with you to show you the way," Mal and Simon's young guide told them. They all tried not to look dubious – the nun was seventy if she was a day, and the climb didn't look like it was going to be a walk in the park.
"Come along," Deshna said sharply. "Don't stand there gaping." It was only a short distance to the waterfall, and they could keep between the convent and the cliff face nearly the entire way, which was a relief. The last little way, though, they had to cross an empty space of the gardens, where they would be hidden only by some low-growing bushes. Their guide dropped to her stomach and slithered along the ground like a snake, and after a moment's hesitation they each followed her lead.
They could all hear the sound of Alliance troops searching the grounds, the noise of their signals over the steady hiss of the waters. "AMANDA CHEN," blared a sudden voice, artificially amplified, "COME OUT AND YOU WILL NOT BE HARMED."
Mal, Zoe and Jayne all craned their necks to stare at Simon, wishing they could say just what was on their minds at that precise moment. Simon had to settled for a confused shrug. As they crawled to the waterfall, he worried not for himself or his friends, but for his former professor. He dearly hoped it hadn't been his visit that had attracted this unwanted attention to her and her place of refuge.
Deshna clambered up onto a little ledge, as nimble as a woman half her age, slipped in behind the waterfall and vanished from their sight. They followed her cautiously. The spray from the cascade was almost blinding here, a steady mist that soaked them to the bone in a few short moments. Emerging into the cave the waters had carved out, they were relieved to find themselves in a space large enough to stand in, while still remaining hidden from the view of any outside onlookers. Deshna brought a small handset out from her robes. "You can contact your ship and tell them to meet you at these co-ordinates," she told them, handing the device to Zoe after a brief moment of appraisal.
"Won't they pick up the signal?" Zoe asked. "They must be tracking everything that's going on around here."
"It is heavily encrypted," the elderly nun told her. "If they do pick it up, it will be nothing but gibberish."
Zoe still looked wary in the faint light, but she tapped some buttons on the handset. "Wash, baby, you there?"
A moment's delay, then a crackling but familiar voice echoed in the chamber. "Where are you?" Mal winced at the volume, even though he knew it was almost certainly being drowned out by the waterfall's noise.
"No time to explain, honey. Just come pick us up if you can. I'm punching in the co-ordinates now."
"I'll be there," Wash promised, and then cut out. Zoe handed the set back to Deshna, who stashed it back up her sleeve, in a handy little holster built for just such occasions. Not for the first time, Simon wondered why the harmless group of nuns had such an unusual assortment of tech.
"Hurry now," Deshna told them once she'd secured the set, and began climbing up the wall. She seemed to be doing all right for an old lady, and they soon realized that rough hand-holds had been carved there long ago for some unknown reason. They were still serviceable, if somewhat damp and slippery in places.
Zoe watched ruefully as Simon tucked up his dress and removed her shoes to begin his climb. "It's all right, leave 'em," she told him when he bent to pick them up. "No sense risking a fall over a pair of pretty slingbacks." Still, he saw the look on her face and vowed to buy her a new pair as soon as they got out of this mess.
The crevice narrowed as it went up, which in one sense made it easier, since they could at least lean back against the other wall and take a breather for a second or two if they needed it. At one point Jayne had to suck in his breath or he wouldn't have been able to squeeze through, but after a bit of grunting and with help from Zoe shoving from below, he made it. Mal tried not to get distracted by the way Simon's wet dress clung to him even more closely than before, and Simon mostly just tried not to plummet to his death.
The faint light shining down from above gradually grew stronger, and the rush of water almost deafening. They knew they had to be nearly to the top. There were a few hair-raising moments as they scrambled up over the wet rocks with water pouring down over them, strong enough to carry them away if a finger so much as slipped, but at last they made it out, drenched and muddy and bone-tired. Simon had never been so happy to stand on solid ground again, or to see Serenity coming in to land.
"PUT YOUR HANDS UP," a voice crackled behind them, making them all jump and turn to face the cliff's ledge. Hovering there, studying them with a single beady eye, was an Alliance scout drone. Zoe was already drawing the gun holstered on her leg to try and shoot it down, but before she could get a bead on it, Deshna had taken out her handset. A single button press and her sharp order of "Now!" were all it took. With a whir and a screech of metal, the drone dropped from the air, plummeting over the edge to land somewhere far, far below.
"What the…?" Mal blurted.
"Signal blocker," she said simply. "They were just waiting for my word."
'Why do I get the feeling you all have done this before?" said Zoe. The nun just smiled enigmatically.
"Will Dr. Chen – Fajing, I mean – be all right?" Simon asked, concerned. "And what about you, for that matter?"
"We have long since made provisions for her escape in the event that this happened – she warned us when she came here that it might," said Deshna, sounding calm and confident. "As for myself, I will make my way back to the temple by another route, while contacting every news outlet on Sihnon to let them know what is going on here." Mal began to interject, but she continued right on over him. "Alliance soldiers harassing innocent nuns will make for excellent press, I suspect. No, we will be just fine. Your ship is waiting, hurry along now."
They dashed across the rocky ground and ran into Serenity's waiting bay with a feeling like coming home. "Wash, take us out of the world!" Mal shouted as soon as they were all on board. The door had barely sealed before they were in the air.
"Feds on our tail, Mal," Wash's voice warned him. "Gotta do some fancy flying, everyone hang on." Then the floor tilted underneath them and those who hadn't had the presence of mind to grab whatever was nearest did some fancy footwork of their own to try and stay upright. Finally, after what felt like ages but couldn't have been more than a minute or two, things leveled out. "Think I lost 'em," said Wash over the comm. "I hope I didn't concuss anyone down there."
"We're just dandy," said Mal, rubbing a sore elbow. "Good work." They all picked themselves up and dusted themselves off.
Inara emerged from her shuttle. "Are you all… oh." She looked them over, covered in grime and still dripping. "Well, I guess I won't be getting that dress back," she said, though she didn't sound too miserable about it. "I'm glad you're all safe, at any rate. Did you find what you were looking for, Simon?"
"I hope so," said the doctor. "Maybe."
"Yeah, did she tell you anything useful?" Zoe asked, wringing out her hair. Her tone of voice clearly said Tell me we didn't just go through all of that for nothing.
"It's… slightly complicated to explain," said Simon. "She believes that River's conditioning can be reversed, but that it will be difficult, and will almost certainly require treatment, perhaps even surgical intervention, at a medical facility. A real one. But," he continued before they could get too disappointed, "she was able to recommend a course of autogenic meditation that might…"
"Gorram it!" Mal exclaimed. "Didn't I say she better not give you some kinda mystical claptrap answer?"
Simon frowned. "It's been conclusively demonstrated that even seemingly simple acts like mindfulness and chanting can have dramatic effects on one's conscious mind – and sub-conscious, for that matter. I believe that Dr. Chen's advice might be able to help River better control her… herself, until we can find some more permanent solution."
"I got your permanent solution right here," Jayne muttered, shrugging off the once-fine coat that surely wasn't his. "What a ruttin' waste of time."
"Jayne," said Zoe, "what's that in your pocket?"
"Huh? Oh, nothin'," he said, going all shifty-eyed.
"Take it out," Mal ordered him. Grudgingly, he did as he was told, withdrawing from the coat's pocket a small but clearly heavy gold statuette of a seated Buddha. "You steal that?"
Jayne shrugged. "Didn't figure they'd miss it, they got dozens of the things."
"They helped us escape!" Simon said angrily.
"Besides," Zoe added, "wasn't it you who said you oughtn't to mess with religious folk?"
"Gotta get paid somehow," Jayne defended himself.
With a stifled groan of frustration, Simon walked away from the debate, barefoot, with the ruined dress trailing behind him. He had thoughts of going to find River, perhaps to try and explain to her what Dr. Chen had told him, but was surprised when a hand caught him on the shoulder before he'd made it too far down the hall. He turned around to find Mal standing there. "I'll make him send it back," he said, looking a bit shamefaced. "Soon as we hit land, it'll go in the post."
"It's not that," Simon replied. "Well, it is, partly, but… I don't know. I appreciate that it doesn't seem like much of an answer after everything we went through, but… I really do think this treatment might help River."
"Well," said Mal, eyes not meeting his, "you go right on ahead and try it, then. I reckon it can't make her much worse, at least." Simon said nothing, just turned to go again, but Mal coughed, so he turned back. "I was thinkin'," the captain continued in a husky voice, "about everything, back there, and…"
"And I figure I might like to find out what you got on under that dress," he said, almost too quiet to be heard. "If you were willin'."
Simon's rouged lips parted in a shy smile. "If you stopped by my quarters later, you could get your chance."
Mal nodded, businesslike, but the corner of his mouth turned up just a smidgen. "All right, then." Before Simon could say anything else, he turned and strode back to the cargo bay, where Jayne was still loudly protesting his right to steal anything that wasn't nailed down, and maybe to steal the nails too if he had the time and a good pryin' hammer. The doctor sighed and went off to find his sister, whistling a jaunty tune under his breath.