Stupidity Tries
by Mosca

"Dangerous, having women on a ship," the stranger in the tavern said. The speech had long since ceased to be shiny and new, but Mal had learned to let the salty old spacefarers say their piece. They usually started up soon as they set their eyes on his first mate. "Nothing but trouble," the man said, his eye on Zoe, who was just now relieving a table of poker players of their hard-earned cash. "'Less, of course, you're sly, which case I reckon they might be a blessing. How many'd you say you had on board?"

"Four," Mal said.

"And you're telling me you ain't never had designs on any of 'em?"

It would've been nice to be able to say that. True, it was hard to find much distraction in River, who even without the fits of crazy and destructive and possibly homicidal was too much a little girl to hold his interest. He'd stopped being able to see Zoe in that light the first time he'd spent a week in a ditch with her. But he had to admit he'd had inappropriate half-drunken thoughts about Kaylee at least twice he could remember, and Inara, well, that was a whole other level of problematical.

Two for four was either a remarkable triumph of mind over matter or proof that a man could soar through the stars and still be a Neanderthal. Half full, half empty, it was hard to say.

"I know how to keep it professional," he said, "and so do they." Speaking of which, always a good idea to keep one eye on the wayward crew, especially the liquored up ones making for the door of the tavern.

"Just heading home, captain," Jayne shouted.

Mal beckoned him with a glare. "I've known you long enough to be skeptical of that," he said when Jayne was close enough to hear a whisper.

"Turning in early," Jayne said. "Don't wanna miss the show."

"There's a show?" Mal said. "There's a show on my boat?"

"I take it back. Turning in early. Is all."

"Tell me more about this show," Mal said. He marched Jayne back to Serenity and stopped short in the cargo bay to look around like he was searching for a stage.

Jayne sighed and muttered, "Come to my bunk."

"What was that?"

"My bunk," Jayne said. "Show's in my bunk."

"Now, you know I don't go in for any of that luen stuff."

"Ain't like that," Jayne said, a little too defensively. The first thing he did when they got to his bunk was pull out a jug of homemade hooch from under the bed. Across the widest part, Jayne had written in large block letters, "FOR AMERJENSES ONLY."

"You're gonna need some of this," Jayne said, taking a less-than-reassuring swig for himself. "Don't worry, I'm not the one brewed it."

The stuff tasted like medical-grade gin, but it was warm going down. "Now, listen," Jayne said. "May be a while, but it always happens sooner or later."

So they sat stone quiet, passing the jug back and forth, waiting for a show the nature of which was growing more and more dubious.

When Mal finally heard something, he thought it was the drink playing tricks on him. One set of footsteps down a metal ladder, in heavy shoes, and another, lighter set following behind. Talking, laughing-- two women. Had to be Kaylee, because she lived next door, and who could she be rutting often enough for Jayne to look forward to it? The other voice was low and soft, so much he'd have to work by process of elimination.

River would be a shriek and a gale of laughter. Zoe was loyal as anything, even if she weren't making out like a bandit at the poker table.

That was four women on his boat, three accounted for. Unless he had himself a stowaway, that left a glass looking mighty half-empty. "This doesn't fly," Mal said, hitting his head on a low swoop of ceiling as he stood up.

Jayne grabbed his arm. "Don't you go interfering with that," he said.

"Don't want me spoiling your fun?"

"Don't want you spoiling any of ours," Jayne said. "We got a pretty good situation on this ship-- awfully few brawls for nine people."

"How long's this been going on?"

"Dunno," Jayne said. "Couple months."

"It stops tonight," Mal said, slamming Jayne's door behind himself.

Mal was going to knock on Kaylee's door and march in like an Alliance trooper with a score to settle, but when he got there, he froze, took a breath. The door was thick industrial metal, and he couldn't hear anything. Made him think his head was thick like that, too.

He was all set to walk away. Go back to his bunk and sleep his discontent into a throbbing hangover. Over strong coffee, make some sidelong comment to Kaylee to the effect of he knew about them two, and he was fine with all the secret-keeping and the lesbian affairs between crewmates, one of whom was a-- he wasn't going to use that word.

A faint feminine moan shuddered through the door, and it was "whore" all the way. That whore was doing things to his sweet little engineer that he didn't want to imagine, He pounded under the innocent sign that said "Kaylee's," pounded till his knuckles ached, till he felt blood trickle between his fingers.

When Kaylee opened up, she almost hit him in the face with the door. "Captain," she said. She'd put on an old robe and not tied the belt tight enough, so one of her breasts was ready to make an appearance.

"Never mind," he said, wondering where to wipe the blood. "'m drunk."

"C'mon in anyway," she said.

Climbing down her ladder with one sore hand and mush for brains was actually one of his prouder accomplishments. Kaylee took some disinfectant and a tube of liquid bandage from a shelf by the bed and made him sit down in her one chair while she cleaned his knuckles. Inara sat, wrapped in the covers, staring into him the wrath of a thousand ancient love goddesses.

"How long?" he said.

"Four months," Kaylee said; "Five," Inara corrected.

"And all this time, you didn't see fit to tell me," he said.

"I'm sorry," Inara said. "We're sorry."

"It's not even-- so don't go accusing me of it-- your choices are yours, whether I approve or not, that's how it's always been on this boat." The speech sounded wise and gentle in a way that made him wonder if it would still sound so when that hangover came around.

"We were afraid something like this would happen," Inara said.

"And look," Mal said. "It did."

"It will break my heart to end this tonight," Inara said. Her voice was so measured, sweet as fresh apples. "But if you say the word-- It's your right, Mal."

He opened his mouth, not sure what was going to come out of it. Butterflies, maybe, all the ones breeding in his stomach. Inara got up from the bed, shedding the blanket as she stood, and there was a naked woman walking toward him. Not a naked woman: a nude, like a statue from Earth-that-was, only this one was pulling him forward by the suspenders and kissing him.

"I'm drunk," he tried to say, but his mouth was full of her tongue. She put a hand between his legs, and that was definitely uninvited. But it was looking like her hand or his was going to have to go there sometime, and her hands were prettier. He closed his eyes and tried to think about women he didn't know.

There were two pairs of hands on him now, the second set systematically unbuttoning. One mouth bit his earlobe while the other nudged aside his undershirt and licked his nipple. He reached out for something to help him stay on his feet and found a shoulder there. He leaned on that shoulder, and there were soft fingers, scratchy fingernails pushing his britches to his ankles, and it was all getting blurry by then but he was pretty sure about the lips around his ji ba.

He woke up in Kaylee's bed with two women piled on top of him. He was still wearing one sock, on his left foot. "I was drunk," he said. "That's my excuse, and I think I'll stick to it a while longer."

"No harm done," Inara said.

"How'd you know?" Kaylee said. "About us."

"Jayne," Mal said. "These walls--" he slapped the bulkhead to demonstrate-- "are mighty thin." He remembered, wincing, that he'd split the knuckles of that very hand the night before. He untangled himself from the twenty-five percent of his crew that was lying on him and searched for his clothes. "We've gotta be taking off soon," he said. "Not a word about this."

"I think you've lost the right to that luxury," Inara said. "Captain," she added, and Mal couldn't help but think she used that word a lot like one of his, the one that started with "W" and had five letters.

"If we get our hands on some of Jayne's stash, you think we could lure you back?" Kaylee said.

He gripped a ladder rung with his good hand. "Might be negotiable," he said. He'd been drunk: it was still his excuse. It was a sight better than moralizing, a sight better than blaming women. For the lying, he could maybe take them to task a little, but only so far. He didn't know what he felt for Inara, didn't know how to put it into words that she wouldn't laugh at, and for that he deserved anything she touched that wasn't him. If this was her way of shooting the elephant in the room, he had to credit her for wounding the beast mightily. No mystery in those lips anymore.

Funny thing was, taking away the mystery didn't take away the rest of it. He had an offer to come back, and not an empty one. It was his to turn down, his to convince himself that two women at once-- two women who were the source of a few prior complications-- weren't more trouble than they were worth.

And who was to say that two were more trouble than one? There was something they offset in each other that made it easier. Kaylee was so forthright she made everyone she touched less afraid. Made the whole wild situation seem innocent, wholesome, no trouble at all.

The men who made the rules, they caused the trouble by deciding what was trouble in the first place. He'd fought a whole war to try and prevent men from drawing the lines funny.

On the safe, lonely side of Kaylee's door, he surveyed his kingdom. "Time to redraw those lines," he said. He hoped it would make a woman out of him.


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