Shrift, for you I post on a school night. I didn't have time to make it shorter, sorry.
Title: Mummys, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys
Rating: PG for fantasy swearing
Spoilers: Umm. No?
Summary: At least it wasn't zombies this time.
Notes: Written for Shriftday 2005. Hattip to cofax for organizing the 'fest, and to the lovely lady herself, long may she snark. With obvious debts to the old masters of suspense, and to S. Morgenstern.
Sweat trickled down the back of Mal's neck. The darkness around him was thick and close, heavy with dust and the smell of old things. To all sides he could hear breathing, the sound tight and harsh and a match for his own.
Like every eye in the room, his gaze was fixed on the huge creature before him. It was something out of the nightmares of a three-day smoke-binge – gray and ragged and moaning like the wind through a shattered window. Its face was featureless – two dark sunken pits for eyes, the rest blank and unreadable. Mal felt skewered on those sightless holes, unable to move.
"Oh. My. God." Wash's voice trembled on the edge of hysteria. "What is that thing?"
Beside him, he felt Zoe shift, drawing closer to her husband. "Quiet, now." Wash made a sound halfway between a giggle and a moan.
Some thing was crunching off to Mal's right, where he had last seen River and the Sheppard. He hoped the old man had a firm grip on the girl – they didn't need her going crazy here.
The creature lurched closer and raised its arms. They were blunt and deformed – gray and shapeless in the dim light, as tattered as the rest of it, like some legendary leper of Earth-that-was, losing skin and flesh and bones. It moaned again, a long, deep groan that made the hair on Mal's neck stand up.
"Oh, god, Simon." Kaylee's whisper was half-muffled as though her face was pressed to the doctor's chest. Behind him, their feet shuffled, grating on the dust and old plaster on the floor.
"Shut up, you two." Jayne growled. He was leaning forward, shoulders hunched. "Wait and see what it do-AAAGGG!"
He broke off and sprang back as a snarling whirlwind of teeth and fur hurtled out of the darkness and leapt upon the creature. The thing spun around and fell under the impact, crying out in a terrible voice just as Jayne overbalanced his chair and fell over in a clatter of shattered pine, loose firearm and tall merc.
Mal took his eyes off the battling monsters and reached down in the darkness for Jayne. "What are you doing? Quit rutting around!"
"I'm okay, just leave me alone!" Jayne stood up, silver light playing across his face and torso. All about, a chorus of "Sit down!" "Bizui!" and "Be quiet!" rose, as well as a few more colorful suggestions. "Shut up yer own self, ya flat-headed fang pi!"
"Don't get us thrown out of here, boy," Book said, a low voice from out of the darkness.
Jayne crouched down and began dragging whatever was left of the chair into place. Meanwhile, the furry thing and the tattered creature lurched back and forth across the sheet hung at the far end of the storehouse.
"Are you okay, Jayne?" Kaylee leaned forward, her breath stirring the hair on Mal's head.
"'m fine." Another grunt, and Jayne settled down again beside Mal, his head a mite lower than it had been before. "Just took me by surprise, is all."
"Didn't know it was your first time at the picture show, Jayne." Wash put in, the whispered words pitched to carry all the way across the room.
"I'll show you pictures, little man –"
"Shut up, both of you." Mal thought he would have to add muscle to the instruction, but the usher's light flashed across them then. Jayne grumbled under his breath, but subsided, and soon enough was lost again in the brawl flickering on the wall.
Outside, the wind was brisk. Mal shrugged his collar up and tucked his hands in his pockets. The rest of the crew sorted themselves out of the press departing the tiny theater. Overhead, the theater sign read Wolfman and the Mummy on the Moon of Castella in white letters half a meter high.
Wash and Zoe had their arms around each other's waists and were giggling into each other's ears like a couple of teenagers. Against them, Kaylee and Simon were solemn as a pair of nuns, hand fasted but barely looking at each other. Solemn, that is, until Kaylee touched a hand to her cheek and looked up.
"Oh, snow!" She bent her head back and stuck her tongue out, dodging after the tiny snowflakes with her mouth hanging open.
Mal stood there, refusing to smile at Simon as he followed after the little engineer, the doctor's protests lost in her laughing delight. Last of all, River and Book straggled out, arguing non-stop as they buttoned their coats and swung scarves around their necks, stopping every few feet to make another point.
"A fine example of the unshakeable struggle of man to preserve his immortal soul!" Book was saying, shaking a gloved finger at River. The girl shot him a sidelong glance and then spoke at the darkness.
"The Egyptian priests used instruments of ivory to remove the neural tissue. Modern solutions of fixed enzymes can selectively dissolve the cerebellum while leaving the pons intact, but not the reverse." Her eyes settled on Mal. "They kept their hearts in one jar and their livers in another. They crossed the River when they died, and went into the west."
"Well, I hope they found a nice place to stay. Maybe we can go visit some time. But not today, cause we have a ship waiting for us south." He pointed. "Thataway. If all of ya'll could start wandering that way, I'd take it as a kindness. Kaylee! We are leaving!"
An answering hail and a fresh spate of giggles was his answer. "Even if you're not on board, Kaylee! That means you two lovebirds, too."
Wash looked hurt as Zoe untangled herself. "Yes, sir."
"Yes, sir! Right away, sir!" Wash pulled himself up into a mockery of military attention, but lost it as quickly under the combined blistering stare of Mal and his wife. "Say, aren't we still short one?"
Mal looked about. Right, no Jayne. Just as he was about to holler, the big merc came trotting out, a paper crumpled in his fist.
"Keep yer pants on, I'm coming."
"We were worried, Jayne. We thought maybe the monster got you again." Jayne, still struggling into his coat, looked up at this, frowning at Wash. Jayne had stuck the paper in his mouth as he fought with the horsehair blanket, and Mal didn't know how Wash kept from breaking into laughter at the sight. Or maybe he did know – Zoe's boot was pressing hard on Wash's foot.
Jayne finally got the coat tugged down and took the paper from his mouth. "Wasn't no monster, you knuckle-head. Just a picture show." Kaylee bounded back up again just then, Simon still in tow. Mal seized the moment, before more words got exchanged and fists started getting into the market.
"All here then? Good. We're leaving. Inara is gonna think we got suckered into some mess of trouble or another, and I don't fancy her coming to looking for us."
"Awww, cap'n, you do too! Just imagine, she could come sweeping in, all spangley and shiny –"
"And slinky, don't forget slinky," Wash put in.
"And slinky, and rescue us all. Especially you."
"Little Kaylee, you need your love life to get more complicated, so you don't got the time to be messing with mine? 'Cause sure as the Black is cold, I can lock your boy here in the spare shuttle for a month."
"That won't be necessary, Captain." Simon set a hand on Kaylee's arm and tugged. He sounded as though he thought Mal was dead serious. Kaylee grinned at Mal like she knew he wasn't.
"Get on, both of you, before I decide to go wolfman on you both." Simon tugged at Kaylee again, and they ran on down the road, ducking in and out of the streetlamps. Mal looked around, counting heads again, and found Jayne standing under one gaslight's uncertain glow with the paper in his hand. Mal could have sworn he saw Jayne's lips moving as he read.
"Jayne. It's freezing. Are you coming along or what?"
"I'm coming, I'm coming." But the big man still didn't move.
"Jayne, what on earth have you got there?"
"Piece a'paper. About the picture show." Drawn in despite himself, Mal stepped closer and craned his neck to look. There was a line of flat pics along one side – actors, Mal supposed – and beside the pics, tiny lines of print.
"How can you read that? You're going to go blind, staring at that." He bumped Jayne with his shoulder. "Let's go."
"Just a sec – ah-ha! Here it is! Mark Hu Krause! Dang, I knew I had seen him b'fore."
"The feller who was the wolfman. Krause." Jayne's voice sounded very perplexed. He flipped the paper over again, and then returned to the first side.
"You don't sound too sure about that. You sure you got the right paper?"
"Yeah, I'm sure – it's just I seen this Krause fella before." Now he was moving, if slowly. Mal resisted the urge to shove him along, fascinated, despite himself, with this glimpse of Jayne's mind at, well. Play. In a non-homicidal sort of way.
"You saw him? In a picture house?"
"Nah. Three-four years before the war, I had me a chunk of money and I went to one of them real playhouses. Where they dress up in costumes and everything. He was in a play – the one with the girl named Julie and his name was Roger-something. Romer."
"Yeah. That one. That was him. He wuz real good – all that singing and sword waving and all that. I even got to jaw with him a bit, after, at the bar."
"Oh, yeah?" Mal tried to imagine the amount of money it would take to clean Jayne up enough to make him acceptable in a civilized theater. His imagination gave up when it got past a pile of gold high as his knees. Maybe it was a third rate theater. Or fourth.
"Yeah." Jayne was still staring at the paper suspiciously. "Funny thing is, I didn't think was him, being the wolfman. This Krause was a dinky little feller, no bigger'n Kaylee. I was expectin' someone taller."
"Ah. Well, he did look kinda big and scarifying when he jumped out like that."
"Hey, you jumped, too, don't try an' tell me you didn't."
"You breathe a word of it to anyone else and I'll dock your pay for a month. Come on, it's not getting any warmer." Jayne took one more look at the picture and folded it away.
"Hey, Mal, where we going next, Aurora? You figure they got any picture houses there?"
"Dunno. They might. You figure on going?"
"Maybe. Ifin they ain't got any whorehouses."
"Ah, yes. Priorities. Always have to remember the important things."
"Well, I ain't never got thrown outta no whorehouse for being loud."