Summary - The job gets complicated. Sorry, its late and I can't come up with anything better. Thanks beta angel (mercsgoodgirl).
Jayne yanked impatiently on his collar and leaned against a column in the long hallway outside the ballroom. From his position he couldn’t see Zoë and he didn’t like it one bit. Leaving her alone with Merrick was a piss poor idea, but Mal wasn’t in any frame of mind to hear him out.
“Kaaayleeee.” Mal said for the seventh time. That was six times too many by his estimation which explained why his right eye was doing a jig.
“Right here Cap’n.” Kaylee’s voice finally crackled through the small black box he clutched under white knuckles.
Jayne didn’t miss the giggle before the comm clicked off on Kaylee’s end, seemed Mal didn’t miss it either.
Jayne glanced over his shoulder at the Cap’n who was tucked up in a doorway still on the front end of curses Jayne hadn’t heard since the last time Kaylee and Simon got caught ‘cleanin’ the infirmary naked.
He didn’t blame Mal. He wouldn’t begrudge another man his trim, but there was a time for everything and right in the middle of a job with their asses on the line, wasn’t it.
“Kaylee, I swear on that boy’s wandering wood, if I see or so much as hear him breathe in your direction during a job again, he won’t ever have to worry about fathering any of your brood or anybody else’s. Dong Ma?
“Everything’s shiny Cap’n. It won’t happen again. Promise—”
“Make sure it don’t and this ain’t the end of this. Hear me?”
“Now, you got an eye on us?”
“One sec…yep, I got your location.”
“Please tell me you secured the line.”
“Anybody listenin’ s’only gettin’ static Cap’n.”
“Good. Now I didn’t get all dressed up just cause I look pretty, where am I heading?”
“The library’s on the other side of the complex Cap’n. This place is like a maze with all them corridors and --”
“Kaylee while I appreciate you trying to cheer me up—”
“Sorry Cap’n, I didn’t mean—“
Mal sighed, “Kaylee.”
“Um, you gotta go straight down the corridor in front of you and take the first right, then down that hall you take the third left. There’s a courtyard thing in the middle of the complex, if you can’t go through it you‘re gonna have to go around it, and its big. After the court yard you head to the southeast side of the building.”
“Ta ma de, find us a shorter route, we don’t have all night to crawl about this ruttin’—”
“I’ll try, but um…Cap’n?”
“Spit it out Kaylee.” Mal’s jaw was locked so tight only his lips moved.
“Be real careful OK?... River’s actin’ kinda funny.”
Mal squinted, a preemptive effort to keep his erratic right eye in check, “What do you mean funny? Ha ha, funny, or funny as in I’m going to get shot again funny?”
“I ain’t real sure Cap’n. She’s not really sayin’ much that makes sense. She keeps sayin’ something about ‘timin’ and runnin’ about the ship lookin’ for… well, we ain’t real sure what she’s lookin’ for, she just keeps sayin’ she needs something ‘big enough’”.
“Jayne?” Mal glanced over his shoulder.
“Exactly how much of this job gone according to plan?”
“Ah, lemme see.” Jayne scratch his head in exaggerated contemplation then instantly replied, “None.”
Mal nodded, “Just checking.”
Jayne shrugged and went back to trying to look like he always went to fancy balls and wore frilly shirts and tuxedo suits. That took a whole lot of concentration seeing as how he had to stand straight like he had something stuck up his pi-gu, hold the gorram lace up his sleeves, keep his collar from strangling him and his pants from riding up on his boys, which they had been doing all night.
Fact that he couldn’t see Zoe was really pissing on his calm. A ballroom with almost a hundred folk wasn’t exactly alone but Zoë was half naked on Merrick’s arm and he knew first hand there were plenty of holes a man could find to hide in that crowded room.
He shook himself. If’n it was Kaylee, River or ‘Nara he’d be just as set against it. He figured if he said it enough, it was bound to sound convincing. Especially seeing as how that jackass Merrick didn’t sit right with him, but Zoë and Mal got him pegged as some liou mahng that don’t know his ass from a black hole. But a man that wasn’t born to this kind of coin—and Merrick for all his fancy talk wasn’t—must’ve got it somewhere and it wasn’t from asking nicely for it. Something wasn’t right and he just hoped they were back on Serenity and hauling ass away from Half Moon when he figured it out.
“Kaylee—” Mal hissed into the comm.
“Cap’n, I got something. Them plans that Fanti and Mingo sent us… well, they ain’t wrong. We just ain’t lookin’ at them right is’all.”
“There’s a third level to the place. Well not a real floor… there’s corridors under the ground but… they just start an’ end an’ don’t lead nowhere. Got one right under where you standin’ that ends close to the library. But Cap’n, I ain’t sure how to get to it, or even if there’s a way out at the other end or what’s down there. That’s all I got.”
“Good job Kaylee.”
“Cap’n, sorry bout—“
“Kaylee you done good. Tell Simon and Inara they bes’ calm River down and get her mind on the job, or at least in a frame to fly my boat. Ok?”
“We’ll check-in in a few minutes.” Mal clicked off the comm and stared balefully at the expensive red carpet under his feet as if the underground tunnel would appear if he stared long enough.
He was wrong; the God of Fools does have a sense of humor. wang bao dahn
* * * *
She drew the line at dancing.
Neither the dress nor the shoes were made for it and she wasn’t about to make a fool of herself trying. Even if she could remember the intricate steps, the money wasn’t good enough.
Besides, the last thing she wanted was to give Merrick any encouragement. Though he didn’t seem to need any for the hand kissing and compliments to start.
She still didn’t know what to make of the man.
His infatuation with her was a mite heavy handed at times but seemed genuine. Lord Huron Merrick was interesting, and, she couldn’t deny, good for her ego. No crime against all that flowery talk, bowing, and flirting he had taken to. Truth be told, she kind of liked it. He was rich, handsome, in a way, charming even. Some small part of her felt bad about stealing from him, but it was the really small part she liked to ignore.
Merrick reappeared at her side and interrupted her thoughts by offering her a glass of amber liquid.
She smiled, lips and eyes.
The rich taste of real bourbon warmed her.
It was nothing like the engine flush Kaylee passed for whiskey or the cheap stuff they could afford, and none of the danger of going blind.
She passed the edge of the crystal under her nose and Jayne’s scent, warm and rich, laced with cigar smoke, gun oil, and sweat, tangled in the rich woody flavor.
She lowered the glass.
“I hope we can find something more… festive to toast.” Merrick’s distinct outer planets rhythm laced with core flavored accent brought her back to the ballroom, with its clusters of elegant people, the tables around the perimeter of the room littered with delicacies, to the women and men gliding under the glass chandelier hovering and rotating in the center of the room, to a pair of grey eyes twinkling with amusement.
“I think we can.”
“I hope I wasn’t the cause of such an outburst.” He feigned injury.
“Did you do something to deserve it?” Zoë smiled, still hopeful she was channeling at least some of the Inara’s grace.
“Never.“ He grinned boyishly. “Now that we’ve agreed that I’ve been exemplary, let’s toast… to us.” Merrick lifted his glass in salute.
“So now there’s an ‘us’?” She arched an eyebrow in his direction, a smile hovering at the corners of her lips.
If she was a different woman, or maybe the same woman in a different time, she would have been more than a little taken with the whole handsome rich lord thing. But in this time and this place she was Wash’s widow, and the first mate of the transport vessel, Serenity, with a crew to mind and a Captain to keep in line and alive. She would say she had her hands full even without counting the jealous mercenary she had taken to bed.
“There could be.”
There it was again, the not so subtle courting that started the moment she walked in the door to his study earlier in the day. She couldn’t figure what he wanted from her. Sex? But why her? He could have almost any woman in the room, on half moon, he could even afford a companion –- though Inara had unofficially retired when her and the Captain finally got past all the fong luh dancing they’d kept doing around each other. It didn’t explain why her.
“Do you still love him?” Merrick asked.
“Your Mr. Washburn. Do you still love him?”
Knowing he meant Jayne, the devil and her own demons made her say, “Yes.”
His gaze slid suggestively from her eyes to her naked shoulders, “Well… I have no doubt you will forget him in time.”
“And if I don’t want to forget him?”
His voice dropped to an intimate whisper, he laced one of her loose curls around his finger, “You will.”
Zoë reclaimed the curl and placed it behind her shoulder out of his reach. His move from playful to creepifying set her suddenly on edge.
“I’ll let you know how it goes.” She glanced around the room eager to change the subject.
“The right man may change your mind.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“What do you want, Zoe?”
“From life. What do you want?”
“What every woman wants.” She answered vaguely.
“Gowns then, jewelry, servants,… “
“I reckon you’ve been talking to the wrong kinds of women.”
“Then tell me, what do you want?”
“What I want can’t be bought.”
“My dear, everything can be bought.”
“Not everything.” She corrected him without any trace of uncertainty in her voice.
“You mean love?”
“It’s a start.”
“Given enough money and patience, what cannot be bought, with enough time can be taught.”
“Don’t recall love being something you have to teach. Either you do or you don’t.”
“I have found that it can be taught… I can be very persuasive… and patient.”
“Can’t say I was ever much of a good student.”
“Lucky for you I am an excellent teacher.”
Zoë contemplated him with serious brown eyes, suddenly feeling like food in front of a starving man. “Seems to me you’ve been in this pitch more than a time or two?”
“You find yourself having to teach people to love you often?”
Unadulterated fury awakened in Merrick’s features. He seemed to catch himself and the pieces swam back together as if to cover a gaping hole. A brilliant, but unquestionably plastic smile, tried to hang onto his features.
He quickly excused himself and strode out of the ballroom.
As Zoe watched him leave she was certain that she had finally met the real Lord Huron Merrick.
* * * *
Consciousness brought pain and the distinct taste of her own fear.
Zoe’s eyes remained closed, her body stayed limp as she took in whatever her awakening senses could tell her.
Tight heavy straps circled her wrists and her ankles. Her arms were stretched taunt at shoulder level. Her feet were apart and anchored to the floor. Thick carpeting cushioned the bare soles of her feet.
She wasn’t alone.
She slowly raised her head.
Merrick sat in a velvet green chair a few feet directly in front of her. A glass and a bottle of wine were perched next to him on a low table a top an intricate silver tray. The tray looked heavy, heavy enough to kill him or at least leave him unconscious. She would take either one if she ever got out of these rutting straps.
She remembered following Merrick out of the ballroom, he had crossed the wide hallway greeting guests as charming as ever and entered the room directly across the hall. There was no sign of the Captain or Jayne so she had joined in a conversation just outside the door to see if she could hear anything.
The last thing she remembered was slipping inside the door, her excuse of looking for the bathroom at the ready, and facing an empty room.
For the moment, she ignored the pleased look on Merrick’s face to scan the room he was holding her in.
They were still in the palace, the length, width and height of the room told her that. The room was large like all the other rooms in the place. Decorated in old earth that was style. A pair of large wooden double doors on the wall to her right was the only exit. There were two large windows, one on each of two adjacent walls. The heavy green curtains were drawn.
At best she could guess she was in one of the far corners of the palace, since there were two adjacent walls of windows, and none on the other two sides. Not good. The ballroom was in the center of the place.
Zoë flexed her wrist, the only part of her body other than her neck that she could move, even if minutely. The restraints holding her wrists were built into two columns. Not good. Looked like she wasn’t the first one to end up here. She glanced down at her bare feet. The foot restrains were bolted to the floor and her shoes were gone. She still wore the silver dress. She wasn’t sure if that was good or bad at the moment, but she was covered, so it would do.
“Now, where were we?” Merrick’s tone was playful as if they were in the ballroom and she wasn’t strung up just a few feet in front of him.
“Ahhh, yes… we were toasting to us.” He poured red wine into the glass, raised it in a subtle salute then drained it.
He wasn’t talking about the wine. She had seen that look before He didn’t plan on letting her go anytime soon, or at all.
He set the glass on the table, rose and came to stand in front of her.
“Do you know what you are, Zoe?” He tugged off his jacket, discarding it on the floor.
Great; a talker.
As he spoke he rolled up his sleeves to the elbows revealing wiry tattooed and scarred forearms more fitting of a hardened convict than any Lord.
Lord Merrick was full of surprises. She hated surprises.
When she didn’t answer he continued as if she had spoken.
“You’re payment.” He watched for a reaction.
There was none.
“Your Captain Reynolds owes me a great debt and you are just the first of many… payments.” He loosened his bow tie and tossed it on the chair.
He paused in the middle of unbuttoning the top button of his shirt, “You’ve been to Miranda haven’t you?”
A flicker of emotion, that had everything to do with Wash and nothing to do with Merrick, crossed her features.
Merrick smiled a small satisfied smile.
“I see you have. Beautiful isn’t she? I was born on Miranda.” He laughed, “The only person alive who can say that really...well other than reavers.”
Miranda. She was really starting to hate that planet. It had cost more than she had expected and it looks like they weren’t done paying. She just hoped the Captain and Jayne found her in this maze before Merrick got tired of talking.
She tested the restraints. No give.
She would just have to bide her time until they came for her or Merrick was stupid enough to give her an inch. Either way, she would be ready. She didn’t know what all this was about but she didn’t plan on sticking around to find out.
She wondered what he had in mind but didn’t waste time guessing. She had a feeling she would know soon enough.
She balanced on her toes to take some of the pressure off her straining shoulders, keeping her eyes on Merrick.
“But reavers aren’t your problem… I am. Now you belong to me, and your Captain Reynolds will have to make amends.” He paused, “By the way, salvaging my ship and invading my home to steal from me, is not the way to do it.”
This is a link to What I want...What I need Part 8