Chapter 1: Prospects
Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle towards my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
– Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 1
Zoë describes the end of the Battle of Serenity Valley to Simon
(Firefly pilot episode, deleted scene transcript, abridged)
SIMON: (turns on talking encyclopedia) Serenity. Read.
ENCYCLOPEDIA: In the war to unite the planets, the Battle of Serenity was among the most devastating and decisive. Located on Hera, the valley was considered a key position by both sides, and was bitterly fought over. The Independent Faction, with sixteen brigades and twenty air-tank squads, held the valley against the Alliance forces for almost two months, until superior numbers and a brilliant deep-flank strategy by General –
(Zoë enters the room. Simon turns off encyclopedia)
Zoë: Nearly half a million people lay dead on that field at day's end, about a third of them 'winners'.
SIMON: Mal was there with you.
Zoë: He was my sergeant. Commanded thirty-odd grunts – five days in, there were so many officers dead he commanded two thousand. Kept us together, kept us fighting, kept us sane. By the time the fighting was over, he had maybe four hundred still intact.
SIMON: Wow. That's a hell of a –
Zoë: I said the fighting was over. But you see they left us there. Wounded, and sick, and near to mad as can still walk and talk. Both sides left us there, while they negotiated the peace. For a week. And we kept dying. When they finally sent in medships, he had about a hundred and fifty left, and of our original platoon, just me. Mercy, forgiveness, trust... Those are things he left back there. What he has now is the ship, the ship and us on it.
SIMON: If that battle was so horrible, why'd he name the ship after it?
Zoë: (thinks for a minute) Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave. You just learn to live there.
Chapter 1: Prospects
"He did not neither," Kaylee laughed, her hand flying up to her mouth in protest. A bit of extra color crept into her fair cheeks. "But he looks a darn sight better without it, don'cha think?"
The tall, dusky woman drinking with her let just the briefest flicker of a smile cross her face. She leaned over slightly farther than necessary to grab the wine bottle, which just happened to afford her a glimpse of the three men playing at darts in the corner of the bar, appraising each in turn.
Mal – well, he was a handsome man. No, take that back. Mal was a pretty man. He also had that whole dark, brooding cloud of disgruntlement thing that women mistook for hidden depths, still waters and all that romantic nonsense. Women tended to fall hard for Mal, which oddly seemed to please him not at all. This puzzled Zoë some, since she knew for a fact he wasn't sly.
Zoë herself almost never thought of Mal in those terms. He was, after all, her captain, and before that, her commanding officer in the war. They'd shared plenty of intimate moments, most involving incoming ordnance. Seen a fair amount of each other's bodies, too, what with patching up wounds caused by the aforementioned ordnance. But lying biblical with a man she still felt compelled to call 'sir'? Zoë's brow contracted imperceptibly at the thought – that was just all manner of creepifying.
As for the bulk they called Jayne, sure, it could fight well and handle a variety of weapons, which Zoë respected. Decent tracker. The looks were ... she decided to be charitable and went with 'rugged.' And there had to be a brain in there somewhere, 'cause it seemed mostly to comprehend human speech. Even produced some once in a while. But as soon as Jayne joined the crew he'd wasted no time informing Zoë that all his man parts were intact, impressive and available for sexin' everywhichaway... Ugh! Zoë gave a slight, involuntary shudder, commanding that image to stop in its tracks, wither and die.
The other one? Despite the jaw-droppingly tasteless shirts and seemingly endless stream of fei hua that spewed from his mouth, she had to admit he was a talented pilot, pulled his weight among the crew. And not a coward, at least. A good match for sweet, sunny Kaylee. They were kind of cute together when they were talking geek over something to do with Serenity's workings. Okay, he's got nice eyes. Never considered them before, but they were easier to notice now he'd shaved off that yu bun duh mustache for Kaylee (she could deny it all she wanted, but Zoë knew). And powerful arms. A very, very private part of her acknowledged it was kind of a turn-on to watch him wrestle the ship into submission. The man certainly did love his job, which was more than she could say for her own self.
But he was clearly intimidated by her, and that was just plain pathetic. Beyond pathetic. Weak. Wash and his huang tang plastic dinosaurs wouldn't last one day among real soldiers. Even today, new bar, new planet and the man refused to carry a weapon, not even a one. No way anybody that... that soft would'a made it out of the Valley intact. And the captain wondered why she didn't like him! She needed someone with real strength, tough like she was, willing to do what was necessary, without hesitation, when the time came. And taller. Who wasn't Jayne, of course.
"If you say so, mei mei." Zoë shrugged, leisurely refilling her glass, her eyes efficiently sweeping the bar to see whether there were prospects for any other male specimens to catch her interest (there so rarely were). Or any potential threats (the more likely scenario).
At the other end of the room, Wash had gotten bored with winning and was using his turns to make star charts on the dart board. Mal and Jayne, who had wondered why Wash refused to play for money at the start, watched, mesmerized. Right hand, left hand, ten extra paces back, didn't matter. All the darts just lined up wherever he took a fancy, first bullseyes, and then an ever-shifting panel of constellations and galaxies.
"And that, boys and girls," Wash intoned in a breathy, overly-patient voice, "is Virgo, once visible in the skies of Earth-that-Was. And above the smiling Virgin is the Southern Cross. Lost pilots used to navigate their ships home by the light of the Southern Cross." He paused, lost in some thought.
"Betcha navigated yer way 'round plenty o' smilin' virgins with them clever hands o' yers, little man," Jayne snorted licentiously, hoisting his beer in a mock salute.
It annoyed Wash to be called 'little man.' In point of fact, he was a perfectly respectable height. He just looked shorter in the company of the Amazon Queen, Captain Mal-content and Steroid Boy. Wash flashed a good-natured grin to Steroid Boy (aka HGH-Man*, aka Mr. Overcompensation, aka Vera's Tool, aka...). "As a gentleman, I never kiss and tell." He doffed an imaginary hat and bowed genteelly in the general direction of the ladies of Serenity.
Wash knew he had to tread carefully on that score. Kaylee? Sweet kid. Cute, too. And let's face it – kind of a sure thing. Well, so was he if given half a chance. He'd even kissed her in a mutually playful moment while they were fixing something under the flight console. Shaved off his gorram mustache 'cause she didn't like it. They had lots in common, understood each other's techno-babble. True, Mal treated Kaylee like a younger sister (with special emphasis on the 'young'), and would probably have no qualms about administering a righteous beating if he felt Wash was taking advantage. But yeah, Kaylee and him made sense. She was warm and comfortable. And uncomplicated. And mercifully free of gigantism! And, and...well... dull.
Now Zoë! If Kaylee was a camp fire for roasting marshmallows, Zoë was a blast furnace for tempering steel. The darkest eyes, the fullest lips, the longest legs. Intriguing – like a female praying mantis. And oh yes, mustn't forget that sawed-off rifle she apparently never put down, adding that extra little touch of back-the-fuck-off-or-I-will-hurt-you allure. And yet, and yet, the woman had a wicked sense of humor! A quick, dry wit so unexpected it came at him sideways and knocked him speechless. And smart. Smarter than the captain for sizing up a situation. More careful, too. Mal might be willing to dive in head first to get the coin, but Zoë gave more than a passing thought to the exit strategy, which Wash, being selfishly attached to keeping breathing, appreciated.
She wasn't happy, though. Wash could tell. Her smiles were too infrequent, and always laced with a sadness that made him want to touch her cheek or stroke her gorgeous hair. No, no. Just regular shipmate-type hair, Washburne. Best keep things professional, since he quite clearly tried her last nerve when he wasn't piloting them out of a jam. He'd start talking ('garrulous' it said on his flight school fitness reports), and that imperious, disapproving eyebrow'd start going up. So no prospects there. Just you put those un-shipmatey-type thoughts aside. That's right. After all, what could he possibly offer this fierce, indomitable, magnificent woman, except easy target practice?
"Well." Mal rose leisurely from his chair. "We best be getting back to the ship, Jayne. Comin' near the time for that call. Got us the prospect of a shiny job if this new employer pans out." Mal gulped down the last of his drink and roughly nudged the mercenary to his feet. "No need for you to cut short your astronomy class, Wash. Seems a clean, respectable place and the girls are still enjoying themselves, so y'all can stay another hour or so. If you get into any trouble, Zoë'll more 'n likely help you out." After pausing to consider further, he added, "But best if you don't go testing that theory."
As if pre-rehearsed, Mal exchanged a quick nod with Zoë across the room and strode out. Funny, Wash thought, how they were always aware of one another. Always, no matter the place or what else was happening.
So! Wash rubbed his hands together with nervous energy. Go join the ladies? Zoë's quick scowl out-voted Kaylee's cheery wave. Deciding maybe today was not the best day for a broken insert-bone-of-choice-here, Wash moved to the other end of the bar and ordered another beer. Two guys in flight suits were there talking and Wash was soon happily engrossed in swapping pilot stories. New drinks appeared. When Wash slid to the floor a few minutes later, he was more focused on his blurry vision than his failing limbs. "Tsai boo shr!" Then there was nothing.
Halfway into their second bottle of wine, amid the idle talk about places to go and pretties to buy, Zoë conducted one of her periodic room scans. She suddenly frowned and put her drink down. "Gorramit!" she muttered. No Wash in sight. She rose to her feet for a better view, leaning on the table, slightly light-headed. "Where's that fong luh pilot gotten to?"
Although it wasn't directed at Kaylee, the girl involuntarily shrank away from the sweep of Zoë's supremely dissatisfied glare. Zoë's hand abruptly slipped from the table's edge, but she managed to pivot with natural grace so as not to fall. She stared down at her arms, wondering how they came to be attached to her body. "Huaile...something wrong...gotta...get..." The room began to spin. Or was she dancing? Part of her was delighted at the thought – she hadn't danced since before the war.
Kaylee's wide, uncomprehending eyes, pupils unnaturally dilated, were her last sight before the black. The last thing she heard was, "That's the one, but I guess we should take all three."
The light flashed on Serenity's cortex. Incoming wave. Mal leaned casually over the console, ready to charm (or at least not piss off) the new employer. But he started when the client's face came into focus. Mal's countenance quickly paled, then darkened. Ta ma de, pull it together, Reynolds! He planted his feet to steady himself, shoulders tensing.
"Sergeant Reynolds." The man spat the words as if he couldn't get them out of his mouth fast enough.
Hearing his former title, Mal flinched and swallowed hard, anger swelling up faster than the fear. "Frog-humping sonofabitch! Is this some sick joke?"
"No joke, Sergeant. It's really me. Still alive. Leastwise, still breathing." Even as he said the words, the man's breathing seemed to become more labored, as if his lungs were unaccustomed to the extra effort speaking required. Mal groped far back in his memory for the name that matched. It registered somewhere in Mal's consciousness that the man was...lopsided. Crippled? Prosthesis? Using a cane?
"And I have guests," the man continued, regaining his composure. "For the trip."
Callum (Yes, thought Mal, that's right. The man's name was Callum) stepped aside and then Mal could see them, Zoë and Kaylee laying unconscious in a heap on the floor.
"To 'the be-all and the end-all', Sergeant. Back to Serenity Valley. Time to finish the war."
End Chapter 1.
Literary References, Chinese Translations and Miscellaneous:
* HGH = Human Growth Hormone
* Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 7 (Macbeth, while contemplating the murder of King Duncan, surmising it will lead to his own eventual downfall: "that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here...But in these cases / We still have judgment here; that we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor
fei hua = nonsense
yu bun duh = stupid
huang tang = ridiculous
mei mei = little sister
tsai boo shr = no way!
fong luh = crazy, loopy
huaile = something's wrong
ta ma de = dammit
Chapter 2: Prospects
Mal faces off with a foe from the past while a captured Zoë, Wash and Kaylee await what's coming next
Warning: The story takes a darker turn. Contains disturbing situations.
Mal's throat was suddenly parched. His stomach heaved while the sea roared in his ears. Focus, focus, damn it! Won't do the women any good you showin' weakness.
"Wasn't easy to find you. Or Corporal Alleyne." Callum hitched forward a little, and his voice dropped low as he added, almost to himself, "You know, I think I'm even more pleased to see her than you."
"Callum," Mal somehow kept his tone level and firm, "you got a score to settle you settle it with me. I was in command, I gave the orders. Ain't no call to drag others into this."
"But Sergeant," he spat the word again, "didn't Shan Yu* say 'Attack a man's strengths, not his weaknesses'?"
"We should settle this like men, Callum, you steaming pile of crap." Callum made a slight motion, and beyond him Mal could see men grab hold of Kaylee and Zoë, dragging them out of view.
"Coward!" No, mistake! Too emotional.
Callum shrugged off the word. "You ever read 'Macbeth'? 'When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurlyburly's done / When the battle's lost and won.' Today my battle lost gets won. Your pilot's already dead. He didn't look to afford much sport, so my boys cut his throat. A mercy killing, really, in the name of fashion. But Corporal Alleyne and this sweet little thing - they're perfect for what I've got in mind." He turned to someone off-screen. "Strip 'em."
"Chur ni-duh, it was a war!" Mal sputtered. "Not personal, Callum. Never was personal!"
Callum turned back to the screen sharply, and locked eyes with Mal. And Mal knew that long after he'd killed Callum, watched him gurgle out his last breath, Mal would have nightmares about those eyes. Hear in the night's quiet the inexorable march of what followed:
"I'm gonna torture these girls, Sergeant. I'm gonna break them on the wheel. I'm gonna ruin them. Then maybe I give them both over to the Reavers. Or maybe – and now I have the little one here, too, I think this might actually be the way to go – maybe I stuff 'em down a hole and starve 'em by inches. Like old times. See how well Corporal Alleyne remembers her training."
Mal stood stock still as his world fell away. His whole being now a cauldron of anger and frustration, and something he hadn't felt since the surrender - impotence.
Callum continued, speaking slowly, deliberately, each word a smash of the mallet on the anvil, with Mal's chest in between. "There should be no misunderstanding about one thing, Sergeant. Whatever I do to them, you will never know. I'll die someday, probably soon. You might even track me down and kill me. But you will never find them, nor any trace of them. And your not knowing... That, Sergeant, is my victory."
The screen went blank.
It took Mal a while to realize he wasn't breathing. A thought flickered in the dark. Trace the wave, trace the gorram wave, you hwun dan! But the gos se thing was scrambled beyond all comprehending. And Mal cursed Wash, cursed him for not being there to trace it back proper. Cursed all three for being so hopelessly yu bun duh as to get themselves za jiao captured. Zoë, Zoë should'a been more careful.
Mal pounded on the cortex console.
- Don't pound on the gorram console, you idiot! his frontal lobe screamed.
- Shut the fuck up! his hind brain bellowed. Gotta do violence to something!
- Yeah, but you're gonna gorram break ...
Sparks flew, the panel sputtered and then went dead. Mal stumbled back, stunned. Then he could almost feel the synapses in his brain, which had paused in disbelief, start firing again. He cocked his head to one side, knowing.
"Jayne!" Mal roared over the blood pulsing in his ears, lunging towards the hatch, "Get every mother-humping gun, knife and grenade you got t'hand. Crew's in trouble and we're going after them!"
Zoë struggled up from unconsciousness. Her neck protested mightily when she tried to raise her head. Where the hell...? She tried to put a hand up to her throbbing temples, and realized both were tied, stretched straight out on either side. Her legs were lashed down, too. She was lying on a gurney of some sort. It had side extenders for the arms and was tilted at a 45 degree angle. And she was naked.
Instantly, the agony in her head was forgotten. Zoë's pulse shot up, but nevertheless an eerie stillness settled over her. Whoever took her probably wanted her to panic, struggle, maybe even scream for help. But Zoë was a soldier, and a damn good one.
Okay, okay. Conserve energy. Breath. Assess the situation.
A room. Rough plastered walls, dingy white, high ceiling. Too brightly lit. Check the exits. Instead of a window to the outside, there was a narrow ventilation grate on the ceiling diagonal to the gurney. But the air was stale. The only other opening in the room was a small, square observation glass two-thirds of the way up on the door, covered from the outside by a metal panel. Some kind of cell. Prison? Mental hospital, maybe? Despite the circumstances, Zoë just had to curl her lips a bit over that. Perfect!
Okay. Must be a corridor behind that door. A gray metal chair was set about five feet in front of the gurney. So somebody was planning to visit. To her left was a long, narrow rolling metal table. A variety of instruments laid out neatly – tongs, scissors, knives and scalpels of varying sizes, and something that looked like a long ice pick curled into a hook at the end. Zoë forced her mind to push past the contents of the table, focusing instead on its distance from her outstretched hand. Slightly under one meter. Too far away. Wrenching her eyes from the table, she braced to inventory herself.
Stay cool, count slowly to five. Straighten your posture. Breath.
Except for the headache, the stiffness in her neck and the numbness in her wrists and ankles from the tight straps, nothing hurt. Looking down, she didn't see any blood. So whatever was going to happen hadn't started, yet. Zoë embraced the wave of relief that rushed over her, even as she despised the indulgence of it. How long had she been there? The last thing she remembered was looking at Kaylee...
Kaylee! Gotta get out of here, gotta find Kaylee. Poor thing was defenseless. And they probably had Wash, too.
Now Zoë started to struggle some. Not frantic, but systematically trying her strength against the thick leather bindings. No give on the wrists, both held fast. The strap on her left ankle was almost imperceptibly looser than on the right, but that only meant a little less numbness in her foot. Great! Zoë though, I can wiggle my ninja toes at those filthy cattle-fuckers when they come. Zoë smirked at her grim little joke. Gotta hold on, gotta keep up morale. No question Mal and Jayne were looking for them. And God have mercy on the mole-ruttin' bastards when Mal arrived, because no other power in the 'verse would.
Nothing to do then but wait. So she waited.
And waited. Zoë tried to keep count of the time, but her head really did throb something fierce, and when she dozed a little by accident the task became hopeless. Occasionally, she heard footsteps coming down the hall outside her room. They'd approach the door, slide open the metal panel and presumably someone would look in. From her position on the gurney, Zoë couldn't see any faces. She was cold, her arms ached, and she dearly wished she could reach that table, just one tantalizing meter away, with all those nice sharp objects for cutting leather restraints. But also for doing other things, a timid voice inside her added.
Then Zoë would shake her head purposefully and square her shoulders. Ninja toes, girl! You will get through this!
His ship was drifting slowly amid a field of shooting stars. The streaks of light spiraled and swirled a silent symphony before the cockpit windows, forming endless patterns in the Black. It was beautiful, but Wash was terrified. He didn't recognize this part of space. And the ship had no power. His hands danced over the switches and buttons on his beloved console, but nothing worked. Suddenly he saw it off the port side – the Southern Cross. And Wash knew, down to his very soul, that if he could bring the ship around, just point Serenity's nose straight towards those stars, he could find his way home. He struggled with the yoke, straining for all he was worth, but it wouldn't budge. Then he heard a high-pitched hissing sound. Looking up sharply, he saw that the glass had cracked and oxygen was leaking out fast. He began gulping air. Not fair! Not fucking fair! There was the Southern Cross, so close...
"Wash! Oh, screw the universe into Tuesday! Wash, wake up!" Kaylee was hissing in his ear and pinching his nostrils together.
Wash gasped and bolted upright, reflexively swatting her hand from his face. He rubbed his nose gingerly and was about to protest that she'd pinched pretty darn hard. But then he saw she was shaking, and looking at him like he was her last hope in the 'verse for sanity.
"Where are we?" he asked, beginning to climb stiffly to his feet.
"We were drugged!" Kaylee blurted out. Then she blinked. "Oh. I don't know."
End Chapter 2.
Literary References, Chinese translations and Miscellaneous:
* Shan Yu - A psychotic dictator who believed that only in pain would a person reveal his true nature (mentioned in "War Stories")
* Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 1 (The witches, awaiting their chance to prophesy to Macbeth his rise to power, thereby setting the play in motion)
chur ni-duh = screw you
hwun dan = bastard
gos se = dog crap
yu bun duh = stupid
za jiao = fucking
Chapter 3: Apologies
Wash and Kaylee – a little romance, a little danger, a little straw...
Ta ma de!
Wash grimaced in pain. Once their eyes had become accustomed to the gloom, it had become apparent that they were underground. The earthen room was irregularly shaped. Tufts of straw were scattered about at random, emitting a sharp, acrid smell. Despite the surprisingly high beamed ceiling, a sack of dusty potatoes in the corner bore lonely witness that this was, in fact, a root cellar. Judging by the room's size, the potatoes must, at one time, have had a great deal of company. Rough, uneven wooden stairs led from the hard dirt floor to a pair of very solid, very solidly locked double storm doors.
From his vantage point, flat on his back, left side throbbing accusingly, Wash could see thin gaps in the mocking planks, through which a weak light was filtering in. So much for the hurling of his semi-muscular body at the door to break the lock asunder. "Sorry." His voice rose discouraged from the floor, followed by the rest of him. "We're humped."
Kaylee scooted up the stairs to examine the results of Wash's manly efforts. "Not even loose. There ain't no way outta here, 'cept someone unlocks that door," she said with sad finality. She descended slowly, absentmindedly brushing dirt off her clothes. Wash put a consoling arm over her shoulder.
"Hey, now," he said softly. "At least it's not raining. I mean, then we'd be standing around in mud. And wet straw, which smells foul, I can tell you!" His voice took on a slightly manic edge. "Especially when it's from a horse stable. That's another god-awful smell, wet horse. Worse than wet dog, if you ask me, although that's also pretty gorram disgusting. This straw here doesn't seem too bad, though." He gave her an encouraging squeeze. "And we can eat the potatoes."
Kaylee turned towards him and slid her hands around his waist. Blood rushed to Wash's cheeks. And elsewhere. His arms reflexively encircled her.
"I never did get a chance to tell you, you look shiny without the mustache."
Wash swallowed hard and rolled on, eyeing Kaylee uncertainly. "And it's cool down here! Okay, maybe that's not such a good thing. Might be downright cold when night falls, but we won't be here that long. You know Mal and Jayne are looking for us. Hmm, Jayne." Wash frowned slightly. "Well, anyway he's a good tracker, 'cause the sense of smell is more developed in lower species."
She rose on her tip toes and kissed him. This was, to put it mildly, unexpected. Nevertheless, Wash applied a light pressure to her lips. Didn't want to be rude, after all. But then he pulled back. "Uh, Kaylee?"
"Makes me feel better," she smiled sweetly and, looking a tad mischievous, moved her arms to drape lightly around his neck. "Besides, anything to stop your jabberin'."
"Sorry," he said again. "Can't help it."
And he really couldn't. "Used to drive my mother up the wall. In flight school, no one would co-pilot with me. Of course, I just put that down to jealousy, being second in my class, but still it did kinda hurt my feelings."
His equilibrium disrupted, Wash's brain and mouth were rapidly going their separate ways. The words just kept tumbling out because, well, it wasn't healthy to keep things bottled up inside, right? Anyway, communication was an essential part of human interaction. And talking was helpful, to alleviate worries and resolve misunderstandings and such. Even though right now it was annoying the pretty girl who waited in his arms, apparently expecting something else. No denying she was pretty. So was that his heart pounding so loud? "But I'm not one to hold a grudge. Although there was this one fella..."
She kissed him again, more insistent this time. Parts of his body, parts with their own agenda, took note of her, soft and yielding in all the right places, and made an executive decision. His grip tightened and he drew her in, lips parting lips. This was nice, Wash thought as his tongue and hands, now on auto pilot, went exploring. Kinda not helping with the whole escaping thing, but it felt good. Very good, actually.
Wash moved to nibble on her neck, and felt Kaylee's fingers running through his hair.
Maybe they'd get married (assuming they lived through this, of course), have a passel of beautiful little mechanics and grow old together. Sit rocking on a front porch somewhere, her with the knitting, him with the watching her knit. Thanks, Washburne! Real sexy image, that! Might be useful to stop gorram thinking, y'know, and focus on your love making responsibilities here...
But he really...just...couldn't.
After a time, it was she who pulled back. She searched into his confused blue eyes. "You ain't much interested, are you?"
"I'm sorry," Wash repeated for the third time, feeling like a heel, as she slipped away from his now-flaccid, uh, arms.
"'s alright," Kaylee said matter-a-factly. "I wasn't lookin' to marry you or nothing. Just thought it'd be a comfort 's all. Don't pay it no mind," she added quickly, noticing his serious, slightly panicked look. She gave a reassuring smile to let him know she meant it.
They both jumped at the voice.
"Attention crewmen of the firefly." They looked around quickly. "You are unharmed, and I'm sure you will be pleased to know that you're going to stay that way." There it was, a small speaker high up in the corner behind the stairs. Tough to notice in the darkened room.
"What do you want with us, you rotting piece of maggot meat?" Wash yelled. He hoped for Kaylee's sake that he sounded more angry than frightened.
"Nothing, crewman. My business is with Sergeant Reynolds and Corporal Alleyne." The voice was infuriatingly calm and patient, speaking as if to a simple child. "You'll both be released in a day or two. In the meantime, I don't want you to be too uncomfortable. There's a water canteen and some blankets behind the potatoes."
"Who the hell are you?" Wash demanded, this time very definitely angry, and unconsciously clenching his fists. He stalked up to the speaker, wishing there were a person there to deal with. Hard to glare menacingly at a disembodied voice.
"For a time, I was Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Callum, Commander, 5th Light Infantry Brigade, Epsilon Battalion, Union of Allied Planets." The voice was proud, haughty, even, snapping out the words with military precision. Wash almost expected it to add, "Reporting for duty, Sir!" He waited, but the voice apparently had nothing more to say.
"Okay, Mr. Former Lieutenant Colonel Suo Yang Ju, what the guay do is going on here?" Wash glanced at Kaylee, who met his gaze with equal parts puzzlement and concern. "And where is Zo-…Corporal Alleyne?" Wash realized he hadn't thought of Zoë since he'd charged the storm doors, and hurt his shoulder, and had his, uh, 'contact' with Kaylee. He suddenly felt terribly guilty, that he'd somehow let Zoë down.
"You didn't fight in the war, did you, crewman? I couldn't find any service record on you." The statement was so unexpected, it took Wash a moment to process. A sudden chill gripped him. What in the ruttin' hell was going on? "And you, miss, well, you're much too young. So you wouldn't understand."
This guy was some post-traumatic-stress lunatic. "The war's been over for more than two years, you bench-humping bastard. And your side won, in case you didn't notice."
"Irrelevant!" Callum snapped. "Reynolds and Alleyne are war criminals, and there's going to be a reckoning for what they did." There was no calm in his voice now, only righteous indignation. "I had to take you for bait, for which I do apologize. But you two've given me no cause to hurt you, and I won't. I'm still an officer and I still have a Code. You'll be released soon, so no extreme measures will be necessary. That's all you need to know." The speaker crackled and then nothing.
"No extreme…?" What a shee-niou bizarre thing to say! Now they really had to get out of there. Find Zoë, warn Mal.
Wash stared at the wooden storm doors for what seemed like hours, his peripatetic mind churning over the problem anew. Had to break that gorram door! Had to...No, wait. Yeah, that might work. They didn't have to break the door, just had to get it open.
To Kaylee's amazement, Wash actually grinned widely. "Kaylee, get me those tzao gao blankets that hwoon dahn was talking about," he said, as he began clawing at the rim of the speaker. Tugging it from the wall, he carefully pulled until he had extended the wires as far as they would go without disconnecting from the main unit.
Thin flannel, excellent! "Stuff one there between the doors and the top step. You keep the other." Great. The go se wires would reach, no problem. "Could I have some straw, please?"
Wash was still grinning. Maybe it wasn't seemly to admit, but now that he knew for certain (and somehow he surely did) that his brilliant and daring escape plan was going to succeed, he was enjoying himself. Turning over the speaker unit, he gingerly pulled out first a white, then a red wire and stripped them at the tips. He looked back at Kaylee. She nodded, and laid down flat in the dirt at the far side of the cellar, pulling the blanket halfway over herself.
Sparks flew. The straw caught. Wash dropped the speaker and ran. He threw himself to the floor next to Kaylee and she drew the blanket over both their heads, as the fire sputtered and smoke began to spread.
"Burn, damn you, burn," he muttered over and over. He noted with pride that Kaylee wasn't trembling. The girl was no slouch in the courage department, either. They could hear the crack and hiss of the fire, and a sharp crash as one of the stair planks gave way. Kaylee and Wash felt the heat, caught the heavy smell of burning wood, and instinctively pressed closer to each other and to the cool earthen wall.
When it was over, the entire squat staircase had been reduced to a heap of blackened shards and ash. Part of one charred storm door swung stubbornly on its hinges. The other was completely burned away. Wash and Kaylee shared a triumphant hug, which he was pretty sure was of the platonic, shipmate-type variety.
Climbing back into the world, they found themselves in a sort of pantry, attached to what seemed to be a large, institutional kitchen, dingy white and too brightly lit. A door to the left opened to the outside, where a mule was parked on a dirt road. Across the kitchen was another door, leading, Wash supposed, further into the building.
Wash felt the nervous energy building in him again. Callum and his strange words still echoed in his head. Extreme measures...war criminals...a reckoning... The man was in a very, very dark place, and Zoë was in there with him.
"Hot wire the mule and get back to town. Find a cortex and tell the captain where we are. I'm going to look for Zoë."
"But..." Kaylee started.
"Look," Wash snapped, his voice rough and harsh, "there isn't time to debate this. Someone has to find the captain, and who knows what that Shan Yu-wannabe* psychopath is doing to Zoë." Kaylee stepped back, mouth gaping open like she'd been smacked across the face.
Wash was just as startled at his outburst. "I…I'm sorry." Seem to be saying that a lot today, he noted miserably. "But this is really, really bad, and there's not one big damn hero in sight. So we're all they've got, dong ma? You have to go for help, and I'll see what brave and hopefully not too gorram stupid thing I can do here. Yes?"
After she'd gone, Wash paused at the inner door to take in a deep breath. Zoë, I truly am sorry. (Ha! Note to self: If survive, tattoo "SORRY" onto forehead.) Not the big damn hero you need, but I'm afraid I'm the best I can do.
He turned the handle on the exhale and stepped forward.
End chapter 3.
Chinese translations and Miscellaneous:
* Shan Yu - A psychotic dictator who believed that only in pain would a person reveal his true nature (mentioned in "War Stories")
Ta ma de = dammit
Suo yang ju = suck my stick
guay do = hell
shee-niou = cow sucking
tzao gao = crap
hwoon dahn = bastard
gos se= dog crap
dong ma? = understand?
Chapter 4: Blood Will Have Blood
Zoë and her captor come face to face, but the confrontation doesn't go as either one expected
Author's Note: A very dark section ahead. Contains disturbing situations. I really wanted to do something different from the typical captor/captive confrontation scene and I'm very curious to know what people think of the results. Those who are interested will find additional notes at the bottom on the Shakespearean connections to the action in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zoë was now well and truly pissed. Where the hell were they, these mysterious enemies? She needed something to fight, something to direct her energy against. Were they just going to leave her here with only a table of sharp, pointy objects and an empty chair for company? Those damn torture instruments practically felt like old friends, it'd been so many hours.
So when the door swung open, she was actually relieved. "About gorram time," she muttered. A man came in, limping and leaning on a crutch. Something about him was familiar, something to do with the war. But it was a vague feeling. There were so many things about the war that she'd tried to forget. This man must have been one of those things.
"Corporal Alleyne," the man announced. Not a question, Zoë noted. So he knew her, at any rate. As he advanced, it appeared to Zoë that he approached with some reluctance. Each step seemed painful, but nevertheless she judged he was coming forward slower than necessary. What the hell? She's tied down and he's afraid of her? Not being able to move much beyond her head, Zoë could only glare at him. She tried to ball up her fists, but her fingers refused to cooperate on the grounds that they'd run out of circulation quite some time ago.
Okay, so this was the enemy. A well-built man, early-40s maybe, dressed in civvies, but with ash brown hair cropped short in military fashion. Must have had perfect posture once, but the limp made that impossible to maintain now. Some scars visible, but not necessarily a cruel face. As he came closer, she saw that he wasn't looking at her body, except in the most general sense. No, didn't seem to be lusting at all. Seemed to be kind of… nonplussed.
He stopped abruptly next to the long table (Zoë, in her boredom, had named it "Fluffy"), the disappointment in his face now unmistakable. He'd obviously rehearsed something else, probably a phrase he thought was clever and intimidating. But somehow she'd flustered him, because he only managed to stammer out, "You...you don't remember me! How is that possible? Your face was very nearly the last living thing I ever saw."
Zoë watched him closely, analyzing every gesture, parsing every word and noting the tone in his voice, looking for a weakness, an opening, something she could use to her advantage. He was clearly upset she didn't recognize him, so best try to keep that going. He must be Alliance.
"You're not that sagua grunt from my unit on Trophy? The one who couldn't figure out which end of the bazooka was front, and I had to drag your sorry ass off the line so you didn't get your buddies killed?"
Yep, that was the button to push alright! His face darkened and his nostrils flared indignantly. He practically hopped those last few steps to the gurney, and put his face so close she could feel his breath, see the strain in his eyes.
"No, Corporal," he snapped out crisply, "I was not one of your shee-niou Browncoats." He jerked upright, collecting himself. Then he looked back down at her, thoughtful.
His hand came up suddenly, and Zoë reflexively flinched. Hold it together, girl! You are a rock, you are a statue.
But instead of hitting her, he ran the back of his knuckles lightly along her jaw line. Under other circumstances, Zoë would have called it a caress. He bent over her again, and his whole expression became pensive, even imploring. Green-brown eyes so close, too close, drilled into her, through her, beseeching her recollection. At last he said softly, "You honestly don't know me? I called you the Angel of Death."
And suddenly she did remember him. She remembered all of them. Before she could will it otherwise, her face grew slightly pale, her eyes widened, and the defiant smirk she'd painted on was washed away. And, gorammit, he saw all that! So much for having an advantage.
"Ah, better." Callum smiled faintly, apparently relieved.
He seemed to gather confidence from the fact that she now knew him. He began tracing his fingers lightly around the outline of her face, starting at the forehead and moving down one cheek to her chin, and then repeating on the other side. As he did so, he murmured, "What is your substance, whereof are you made / That millions of strange shadows on you tend? Since every one hath, every one, one shade / And you, but one, can every shadow lend."
She wished he'd stop touching her like that. Her skin recoiled from his caress (there was no other word for it), but at the same time, she'd been lying naked in that cold room for some hours, and her surface parts couldn't help missing the warmth when his hand moved on. Why didn't he just beat her, or use the knives? Or even rape her. That, at least, would be straightforward. That she knew how to cope with. But this, this …what? Perverse seduction?
Bian shi tou, I am granite. "You should know, I've been trained to withstand bad poetry."
"That's Shakespeare," Callum said patiently. "Maybe the greatest poet the 'verse has ever seen." Zoë's glare intensified when his hand brushed softly along her collar bone, but she remained otherwise still. She refused to flatter him with pointless struggling when it was impossible to get away.
Callum's mild expression didn't change. "I'm a big fan. I find myself thinking on 'Macbeth' a lot these days. 'Out, damned spot! Out, I say!' That's your line. 'Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.'"
His fingers trailed slowly down and up the length of her arm and Zoë, trying hard not to be unnerved by the…whatever it was he thought he was doing, was thankful her limbs were mostly numb from being so many hours immobile in the tight restraints. He leaned even closer, bringing his lips to her ear. "You remember it, don't you," he whispered, his voice sweet and hopeful, "the smell of blood and rotting flesh? In the Valley?"
"Does that line work on other women? 'Cause frankly, it ain't doing a thing for me."
Callum smiled again. "Ever the brave soldier, eh? Sergeant Reynolds would be mighty proud. But you're right. Enough pillow talk. Time for the bloody business." He drew a syringe from his pocket and, forcing her head to one side, carefully injected something into her neck. "This will prevent clotting."
Zoë cast her mind for something, anything to delay 'the bloody business'. "Where are the others, Callum?" she demanded sharply, making one futile attempt to wrench her arms free.
"Oh," he replied carelessly, "the pilot is probably half Reaver cloth, half Reaver dinner by now. Never saw such pitiful begging from a grown man before. The girl," Callum paused to lay down the syringe and select a scalpel from Fluffy's tray. "My men shared her 'round for a time. But she cried and carried on so, the more squeamish ones felt sorry for her, so I let them put her down. Bullet to the brain, I think, although my orders weren't specific. That was all some hours ago."
"But don't you worry," he continued as he shifted her elbow into position. Zoë braced herself for the cut, and winced only slightly when the scalpel dug deep along the vein. Callum hobbled over to the other side of the gurney and made a similar incision in her other arm. "I can't deny my men have enjoyed the view from the door. But no one is going to spoil you like that."
"Then why am I fucking naked, you mother-humping hwoon dahn!" She hadn't meant to say it out loud, been determined to deny him the satisfaction. But she could feel the panic rising up, almost as another being, and looking on, horrified despite her best efforts, as blood started pooling on the floor. Must calm down, must stay in control. Keep the anger cold, cold like stone.
Callum looked surprised. "Maybe because you are beautiful, Corporal Alleyne. Even on the battlefield, dressed in Browncoat rags and covered in mud, you were beautiful. The Angel of Death, dark and terrible, but an angel nonetheless. Some say Death is like a lover." He reached over to stroke her hair, but this time Zoë spat in his face. "I've always liked that notion," Callum continued, his voice still soft and dreamy, as he wiped his face with his sleeve. He limped away and settled into the chair in front of her. "Or maybe because we come into this world naked, and it seemed fitting that you should go out the same way. Or maybe I just wanted to take everything from you – clothes, comrades, dignity – before taking your life. Or all of the above."
Zoë felt sick, nauseous. Her arms, the floor... "Mal." She took a breath and shook her head to clear it. "Will come for me. And there's no corner of Hell dark enough." She blinked hard to focus her eyes. "To hide you from him."
"I'm counting on that. The good sergeant will find us, but just a little too late."
"Why…all this?" Zoë wiggled her hands and her ninja toes feebly. She was starting to have trouble concentrating. Blood flowing out of her, blood from the stone. "Why not just kill me?"
Callum rose up, suddenly enraged. She had just pushed the wrong button, and if he had been closer, Zoë was sure this time he would have struck her savagely. His voice, until now gentle and smooth, even pleasant, became harsh and clipped again. "How lucky you are, Corporal, to have forgotten everything so well," he snarled. "Revenge by symmetry, dong ma? This is how you would have made me die."
End Chapter 4.
Additional Author's Notes: You're probably wondering about Callum's strange behavior towards Zoë, why he touches her and speaks to her as he does. Callum's interaction with Zoë here is being influenced by his attachment to the concept of Death as a lover, a concept which originated in the early 1500s, shortly before Shakespeare's time. Macabre as it might seem to some, people derived comfort from the notion of Death as a caring figure, enveloping the dying person in an affectionate (sometimes erotic) embrace. Callum has latched on to this idea in connection with Zoë for reasons that will become clearer in later chapters. For now, suffice it to say that he thinks his 'role' here, as the instrument of Zoë's death, is to behave not as her tormenter but as her lover. So Zoë is not far off the mark when she likens the encounter to a 'perverse seduction.' Make no mistake, though - he is genuinely trying to kill her.
In addition to his physical behavior, the Shakespeare lines Callum uses here also reflect Zoë's central role in his revenge plan. He quotes first Shakespeare's Sonnet 53, a lovers sonnet. However, he is giving the verse a very different meaning. In the original poem, Shakespeare wonders about his lover: "What are you made of that causes everything I see to be refracted through the prism of you? Everyone else has only one shadow, but you, though you are only one person, cast shadows that touch everything around you." Shakespeare goes on to extol the virtues of his lover that he sees reflected in those shadows - beauty, constancy, devotion. In quoting these lines, Callum is using the 'shadow' literally, not as a reflection of beauty and positive emotions but of darkness and negativity. Callum is saying Zoë has cast a pall over his life that he cannot shake off. With Sonnet 53 and the lines from Macbeth, he is also indicating that Zoë is (or should be) be weighed down by shadows and guilt, as Lady Macbeth is when she utters those words in the play. Why he thinks this will be explored in later chapters.
Literary References and Chinese Translations:
* Macbeth, Act III Scene 4 (Macbeth, acknowledging that there will be a reckoning for the murders he has done)
* Shakespeare's Sonnet 53 (see Author's Note above)
* Macbeth, Act V Scene 1 (Lady Macbeth, wracked by guilt following the murder of King Duncan)
sagua = damn fool
shee-niou = cow-sucking
bian shi tou = I will be a stone
hwoon dahn = bastard
dong ma = understand?
Chapter 5: Incoming
Mal and Jayne search for the others, Zoë starts running out of time, and Wash plays at being a hero
Author's Note: Thank you to everyone who stuck with our brave crew through a grim Chapter 4. Things are about to start looking up, I promise. Reviews and constructive criticism are truly appreciated.
Mal was ready to tear someone apart. Preferably bare-handed. Preferably that dog-humping kuang-ren Callum. But his fuse, never very long in any case, had just about reached the powder keg and he was feeling mighty unparticular at that moment.
Too much time had passed since Callum's za jiao wave. They'd searched the bar, scoured the town, then returned to trash the bar good and proper. Jayne had threatened the proprietor with everything from Ginnylee, the jaunty little switchblade, to Vera, the meanest sonofabitch gun known to mankind. But the woman swore on the eyes of her children (whom Jayne had also helpfully brought into the 'conversation') that she had no idea who'd kidnapped Zoë and the others, nor where they'd gone.
"Here," she cried desperately, tossing a sack of coins towards Mal. "Take the money. That's everything they paid me and all else I got besides." She threw up her hands defensively. "Don't know no more. Can't tell what I don't know. Take the money. Take my gal!" she gushed hysterically, grabbing her oldest, who was maybe 15, by the shoulders and giving her a shove in Mal's direction. "T' replace your women. She can do for you like whatever they done."
Jayne leered approvingly at the shivering slip of a girl, and turned a hopeful eye towards Mal. But Mal's scowl only deepened in disgust. There must be a special hell for mothers like this. He grabbed the money and stalked off.
"C'mon, Jayne. Ain't no more t' be done here," he called over his shoulder. "And leave the girl!"
Clearly disappointed, but not particularly surprised, Jayne obeyed. Mal was a man just didn't know how to enjoy the good things life threw his way.
"Don't know," replied Mal. "Callum said we were going back to Serenity Valley, but I don't reckon he'd actually want to go back to that wasteland any more'n anyone else who came out alive. No," Mal continued, scanning the horizon. "They're somewhere nearby, I can feel it."
As he looked in the distance he saw, on the edge of town, a mule headed straight for them. When he realized who was behind the wheel, his wrath was all-consuming. Mere death wasn't good enough for Callum. Mal didn't believe in God, but he was drinking buddies with the devil. Between the two of them, they'd think of something better.
"So why's this ol' Alliance colonel so hell-bent against ya he'd lie 'bout killin' Wash and torturin' Kaylee an' all the rest o' that go-se dway?" Jayne shouted above the roar of the wind.
Mal was a taut string ready to snap. It had taken Kaylee about two hours to find her way from the abandoned hospital back to town, and they'd need nearly that much time to get back, even with Mal tearing up the dirt like it had done him personal offense.
Kaylee turned her eyes towards him as well, timid but curious. "He said you 'n Zoë was war criminals." And much to Mal's consternation, he saw his mei mei, the most trusting soul in the 'verse, looking a little afraid of him. You're gonna burn for this, Callum.
Mal frowned, angry at the question, even angrier at them for asking it. "He was at Serenity Valley. Whole unit died and he was crippled. Blames me, and I guess blames Zoë, too." Yeah, thought Mal. That'll do for explanations. Jayne didn't really care one way nor t'other, and Kaylee… Well, that'll do for now.
"Okay, Wash, my bright-eyed boy. What would our handsome hero do next?"
The asylum was huge, and it had taken a while to get oriented. The kitchen turned out to be located on the far side of a long, rectangular building. Wash wandered cautiously, first through the dining hall, then a series of day rooms, operating theaters and nurses' stations, before finding his way to the building's main entrance at the other end. "A great place for ghosts," he thought, more than once.
Like with most people, hospitals made Wash nervous. And that was just places for regular sick people, and old folks who smelled funny. But it became apparent once he found the cell blocks that this place had been designed for the not-altogether-all-together crowd, wards for everyone from the mildly cuckoo to the violently insane. Guard posts at each end of every corridor. Didn't matter that it had all clearly been abandoned for some time. Wash's ample imagination filled in unscrupulous doctors, heartless orderlies, kindly but powerless nurses, ungrateful nephews committing poor Aunt Agatha for the inheritance. And every abused patient became Zoë, and every sinister villain embodied the voice he'd heard in the cellar.
Moving to the second floor of the building, he stopped abruptly on the landing and ducked down low. Voices up ahead along the corridor. Two? Three? And the bastards were laughing!
- Step one: Reconnoiter evil lair. Check.
- Step two: Locate bad guys. Done.
- Step three: Kick the shit out of aforementioned bad guys. Yeah, that'll be the day!
- Step three: Lure bad guys away from damsel in distress.
Hmm... The place was built to keep people in, right? So they'd have perimeter alerts for if someone tried to escape. More Kaylee's area of expertise, but he might be able to set them off from here, presuming all the guard posts were linked to the central alarm system. It'd be an older system, judging by the age of the building, which was good, 'cause that wiring was actually easier to navigate. At least for Wash, who'd rarely had the luxury of working with the latest model of, well, pretty much anything.
He winced a bit as he glanced up at the intense fluorescent lights. For sure the building still had power. Hopefully the rest of the facility did, too. Just had to plot a flight plan from the landing to the nearest guard post, and hope none of the people changed their orbit suddenly.
Zoë was lying on the ground. It was nighttime and hard to make out shapes. She could hear Callum's voice, floating somewhere not far off. "…begged you … murder… pinned … too late..."
Late. Yes, it was getting late, and she was so tired. Everything ached, and it was so, so cold here. It was always cold at night in Serenity Valley. Four days now, four days since the cease fire. No medicine, no supplies, barely any water and nothing edible to speak of. The smell of blood and death everywhere. And they weren't coming, neither the reinforcements nor the medships. Her turn to guard the POWs. Callum talking, making his gorram arrogant Alliance demands. He wanted to see the Sergeant.
She…she should say no. Won't do no good. Mal's lost near 120 grunts since the cease fire, won't be in no mood to humor some piece of Alliance luh-suh about twelve more. Ten more, she corrected herself. Two had died that morning. But she felt sorry for them, down there in that pit. Wrong way for a soldier - for a human being - to die. Helplessly, by inches.
And suddenly terror gripped her. She was the one in the pit. Alone. And it kept getting bigger and deeper, and she couldn't move at all. The blackness was swallowing her whole. The stench, overwhelming. And no one was coming.
Gonna die here. The certainty of it broke her heart, but she knew she had to be brave, had to stay strong. Mal had never seen her less than brave, and he was counting on her...
Far off, she heard sirens blaring. Incoming! Brace for impact.
End Chapter 5.
kuang-ren = lunatic
za jiao = f**king
go-se dway = steaming pile of crap
mei mei = little sister
luh-suh = garbage
Chapter 6: Heat and Cold
Hoban Washburne, hero to zero in no time flat
Wash peered cautiously up from the guard post console. Good God, those perimeter alarms worked, and how! The noise was deafening!
A man with a crutch limped out of one of the cells and barked orders to the three men gathered in the room across the way, who rose swiftly from their poker game, grabbed some very intimidating weaponry (talk about overcompensation!) and fanned out to cover the entrances.
That was the voice, the voice from the cellar. But now Wash was surprised to see that the villain of the piece was just an ordinary man, a guy you'd pass on the street. Anybody, really, and nobody.
Callum turned back to someone in the cell. It seemed to Wash there was a touch of affection in his voice as he said, "Don't worry. I'll be back in time to say goodbye. But we must go greet Sergeant Reynolds. He's early, but no matter."
Wash figured he had maybe 10 minutes until Callum and the rest caught on to the ruse and high-tailed it back there. Probably less. He bounded towards the open cell door, grinning. Zoë was gonna be so surprised! Not Captain Speaks-with-Fist. Not Hillbilly Cobb, even. But him, Hoban Washburne, the most annoying yet supremely talented pilot in the 'verse, to the rescue! Perhaps she'd look a bit more kindly on him after this, not be quite so stand-offish, and they could –
He stopped. He gasped. He froze, mind reeling at the horror of it.
Burn the world into oblivion!
Indignation, rage, embarrassment, and just a smidgen of curiosity all warred inside him as he stood there for the briefest second. Rage – mostly at his own delusions of heroic glory – won. And then he was moving forward, trying really hard not to look at certain things. Because Curiosity, which had appalling manners, was clutching at Rage's heel.
She would have slipped to the floor when Wash cut her bonds, but he caught her, and, holding her against his chest, half lifted, half dragged her to the far corner of the room, where he gingerly let them both sink down. Her long legs folded elegantly beneath her. Zoë's lush, very definitely un-shipmatey hair brushed against his cheek, and a few rogue strands sneaked under his collar, lightly tickling his neck. Had she fainted? No, she was still clutching him. Wuh de ma, the scars on her back!
He heard just the barest whisper. "...strong."
"You are. You're the strongest person I know," he said soothingly. "Strong and frightening. Scare the gos se out of me on a daily basis. No question," he continued in a slightly higher, brighter tone, "but you could probably kill me with your pinky, although I'd take it as a personal favor if you don't." Shut up, Washburne. You know she can't abide your babbling. But he was a stick jockey, who played with plastic toys and occasionally juggled goslings. Comforting a naked (and therefore presumably unarmed?) warrior woman, one who had bled practically to death, was completely beyond his life experience.
No sound. Had she even heard him? He thought he was running his hands gently, tenderly over her back, but when he actually brought some attention to the task he found his fingers were tracing the scars. Like the lines on a celestial chart, the ones you fill in to transform the stars from discrete points of light into constellations. Which then become myths and live forever. She felt so cold.
Zoë was…elsewhere. She sensed powerful arms around her and an earthy, musky smell that drove away the odor of fresh blood. Someone was in the pit with her. Someone not Mal. Another soldier, come from the battlefield. He felt so warm. Not so bad here now. Maybe he'd stay with her until the end came. But now the arms were retreating. Pushing her away! No, no!
"Zo, Zoë, bao bei," Wash didn't even realize the endearment had slipped from his lips as he tried to fend off her feebly grasping hands. "It's all right. I just want to cover you." But he felt terrible even as he stripped off his shirt. She hated, hated his flowery shirts. And this one reeked, thanks to a busy (yet increasingly productive) day of escaping and rescuing.
Zoë sat completely passive, which scared Wash more than any loaded rifle or sardonic eyebrow ever could, as he carefully put first her left arm, and then her right, into the short-sleeved shirt, and brought the front folds together.
Then, and only then, did Wash allow himself to look properly at her. God, she was breathtaking in that hideous shirt! A solar eclipse of elegant neck, impossibly full lips, large almond eyes. And beneath, on a blanket of pale blue, the garish green and yellow palm trees swelling forward over her breasts, giving the tropical print an even bolder personality. All framed by a cascade of golden brown tresses. A sensation – natural enough, he knew, but surely inappropriate to the moment – stirred his lower regions. A small part of him, a very small part, was ashamed. But the rest of him was in love.
Wash's mind, multi-tasking as ever, gave just the barest nod to his dancing heart and raced forward. Gotta stop the bleeding. Gurney – sheet – got it! Gotta get away from here, out of this room at least. Go where? Back to the kitchen, out the front door? It's certain both'll be watched now. Merciful Buddha, she's so pale!
"Zoë, Zoë, come back, baby. You're gonna be okay now," he repeated like a mantra, trying to catch her unfocused eye as he tore the sheet for bandages and wrapped her forearms. No reaction. He put his hands on her shoulders, but then was afraid to shake her, even slightly. This fragile, absent figure seemed so little like the commanding presence that he knew. He checked her pulse. Barely a flutter. She's lost too much blood.
Wash now felt like the furthest thing from a hero. In fact, he felt like a complete failure. Hoban Washburne, the most useless man in the 'verse. Somehow, he should have protected her from this.
Enough, you'll do self-loathing later. Wash forced his mind back into fairytale mode. Heroes need weapons, right, to defend the damsel in distress? He scooped up the contents of Fluffy's tray. Handling the syringe with extra care, he rolled everything up in what remained of the gurney sheet. What next, Prince Charming?
The asylum alarms cut off abruptly.
"Zoë," he tried again to rouse her, "We can't stay here. Can you walk?" No answer. Gorram stupid question, you idiot! Look at that floor over there. Of course she can't walk. "Okay, hon'. Hold on to this." He placed the roll in her lap and put her hand on top of it. Zoë had just enough awareness to wrap her other arm around his neck as he lifted her.
Her head fell heavily against his bare chest and she gave a light sigh. Yes, she thought. The warm solider is back and he'll stay with me until I go.
Where, where could they go? Won't get far like this. And Callum will hunt them, that's for damn sure. Have to hole up somewhere and hope to hell Kaylee brings the others.
End Chapter 6.
Wuh de ma = mother of god
gos se = dog crap
bao bei = sweetheart
Chapter 7: Chemistry
Wash has to improvise to save Zoë, leading to some unexpected results
When escaping, it is usually sensible to move towards the exits. But Wash had found over the years that doing things which seemingly made no sense often worked for him. So instead he carried her deeper into the building, to the high-security wing, designed to contain violent inmates. If, like the former residents, they couldn't get out, Wash reasoned, maybe he could set the doors so that no one else could get in. But once they got there, Wash had to reassess his so-called 'plan'. The doors were heavy, all right, with multiple electronic locks. But the equipment was newer – fewer wires, more microchips, and some electro-plasma grid thingy. Although Wash was pretty good with gadgetry, he saw no obvious, quick way to rig the system to be controlled from the inside, and he sensed that Zoë couldn't spare the time it would take him to figure one out. She wasn't looking glassy-eyed at nothing anymore. Her lids were closed, body listless, and her breathing was dangerously shallow.
In the end, he took a page from the Malcolm Reynolds' Guide to Mechanical Engineering – close the doors and bang the panel until it short-circuits.
He picked a cell at random from among the dozen or so small and well-padded ones that lined the corridor. The air was close and stuffy, but reasonably warm. Zoë flopped like a rag doll when he put her down. Wash fussed over her as best he could, smoothing her hair from her face (yep, every bit as soft as he'd imagined), unfolding her legs, pulling the over-sized shirt down to cover her upper thighs. This last he did with deliberate care while staring at an imaginary spot two meters up on the far wall, as Love held off Curiosity at gun point.
He knelt on the floor beside her. "Now Zoë, I'm gonna help you, bao bei." This time he was very much aware of the endearment, but it seemed at home on his lips, so he let it stay. He carefully fished the syringe out from amid the pile of knives and scalpels. "And I'm so sorry if it hurts, but I have no idea what the ruttin' hell I'm doing."
'Course, he was no doctor, but Wash had steady hands he fancied would be the envy of any surgeon. Taking the syringe in his right hand, he balled his left into a fist, and –
Okay, try again, hot-shot. And this time let's see if you can hit a gorram vein.
His second effort, executed with more humility, was successful. He drew the syringe full, and carefully pulled it from his wrist. Shifting slightly on his knees, he reached for Zoë. But one look at the dark bruises on her wrists and he knew he couldn't inject her there. Her forearms were out of the question, which left... Wash gulped nervously, because the only other veins he felt he could navigate were those bold, defiant ones in her long neck. Putting blood into someone's neck. A reverse Dracula. That maneuver seemed all kinds of wrong.
But he couldn't see any alternative. There was no other equipment, and Wash wouldn't have known how to use it, anyway. Zoë's head moved just slightly as he gently brushed her hair aside and gave the injection. She didn't make a sound. He repeated the procedure, drawing twice more from his left wrist, and then switching to hold the needle in his left hand and drawing three times from his right wrist. And then switching again. Fill. Empty. Fill. Empty. Wash kept it up, alternating wrists, until he felt like a slightly woozy pin cushion. It occurred to him at some point that this was probably not the recommended protocol for an impromptu transfusion. He was O-negative, so no worries the blood wouldn't agree with her. But didn't the medical establishment frown on reusing needles? Or was it sharing needles? Needling people? Needlepoint? Something like that.
Well, she can thank me later for the Hepatitis B.
But it was working. The veins in Zoë's neck were near to mutiny, and Wash's left hand, which was the weaker of the two, was starting to tremble. But some color had returned to her lips and cheeks. Gradually, her breathing deepened, and she passed from the torpor into something resembling normal sleep.
Feeling a little drained himself, more from the adrenaline crash than the blood donation, Wash lay down, slipping his arm under Zoë's neck to support her head and pressing his side flush against her. Had to keep her warm, and there was nothing to cover her with. And softly caressing her face, well, that was meant to soothe her. Soothe both of them, really. After all, didn't heroes deserve a little comforting, too? So, you see, all very justifiable. No connection to certain fantasies that may or may not have allegedly occurred to certain parties in the past, none whatsoever.
They lay like that for a time, Wash memorizing her profile. He wondered if he'd ever get another chance to be this close to this woman without threat of serious bodily injury. Then a new possibility occurred to him. "Now, if you find yourself getting the urge to play with my dinosaurs after this, well, I think we can come to some arrangement."
Zoë's eye lids fluttered, and a sigh escaped her. She heard him! "Come back, sweetheart," he whispered tenderly in her ear. Yeah, it felt right, calling her that. Brushing his fingertips lightly across her lips (just checking her breathing, mind), he debated the wisdom of hazarding a kiss. One gentle, chaste kiss to make up for all the day's drama. He hovered indecisively over her upturned face, and then her eyes were open. They were clear and focused, and she was staring at him inquiringly.
"Tell me they got earplugs in the afterlife." She smiled weakly.
Flush with relief and joy, Wash gave a laugh and folded her into a tight embrace. And then somehow his mouth was on hers. To the extent he'd consciously intended anything, it had just been a light pressing of lips, a brief really-glad-you're-alive, sorry-for-all-the-needle-marks, by-the-way-I-love-you-but-I-guess-that's-my-problem kind of peck. But she responded! Not with much force, but most definitely she was reciprocating.
For the first time, probably ever, in his life, Wash's mind went blank as he fell into the kiss. No running commentary, no distracting editorial asides. Only the mystery of her mouth, the salty sweetness of her tongue, the undiscovered contours of her body. He was in the Black, amid an endless field of stars. And it was quiet. Wash began, quite automatically, to do what he lived for, what he loved. It was his second nature. He began deftly to pilot the ship that was under him.
Zoë's body welcomed her home. She seemed to have been away a long time, because the house had fallen into disrepair. She couldn't recall letting him in, but she instinctively trusted the cheerful blond man with the merry blue eyes who was wandering around, pulling dust cloths off the furniture, drawing back curtains to let in the sun, awakening every room in her body. She followed after him, fascinated by how he was transforming her house as he moved through it. His earthy, musky scent lingered on everything he touched and she liked that. Her body wanted to open up the lower floors, rooms that hadn't been used since long before she went away. And he wanted to enter them, she could tell. But there were sharp spasms when she tried to shift position to invite him in.
Wash's thoughts, unaccustomed to exile, came trudging indignantly back. Okay, this is great, amazing. Unbelievable, really. But that was an I'm-in-pain gasp, not a Wash-you-irresistible-manbeast gasp. She's too weak for this.
Wash rolled back onto his side and opened up a space between them. The intense concern on his face startled her. "Lao-tyen!" he said, a little breathless. "I...I didn't... You okay? Did I hurt you? I mean, I guess I must have, because there was that whole groaning in agony thing you did just now."
"I've survived worse," she said dryly. But there was amusement in her eyes.
And then, to her great surprise, Wash sat up abruptly, his open, trusting face darkening. "This isn't funny," he scolded. "Do you know that you just almost died?" She looked at him skeptically, and Wash rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Not just now. But back there." He gestured towards the corridor outside the cell.
Zoë raised her head and then eased herself slowly up on her elbows, grimacing but refusing to bow to the discomfort. She remembered Callum injecting some kind of anti-coagulant into her neck, but that didn't account for why it felt so bruised. She surveyed the empty padded room, took in the fact of her bandaged arms, her bare legs and ... the shirt. It registered that Wash was topless, and a part of what had happened became clear.
Her gaze lingered on his torso. Wash, growing self-conscious, flushed pink, which, Zoë noticed, brought out the strawberry tones in his hair. He had a nice body, solid and muscular. Shouldn't keep it hidden under those aloha shirts and baggy flight suits. Was that some kind of rash on his wrists? She furrowed her brow, examining the marks more closely. Then another piece of the mystery resolved. She looked steadily into his face for a few beats, mentally reviewing the information to make sure she had understood correctly.
"Thank you," she said sincerely, indicating the needle marks on his wrists. It occurred to her that she had never spoken to him before with anything other than impatience or indifference. Always seemed warranted at the time, but maybe she'd been too harsh with him. She certainly was beholden now, to be sure. Wash's blush deepened as she continued unabashedly to run her eyes over him. Had every right to look, and why not? God knows the man had stared at her plenty during the 8 months since he joined Serenity. Yeah, clean-shaven was better. Made him look younger, but more mature. Easier to appreciate how expressive his dark blue eyes were, too. It was kinda cute how he had them downcast just now, all shy-like. And based on that bit of housekeeping back there, he seemed to know his way around pleasing a woman.
Well, well. Lots to ponder on. But later. Need to get back to the business at hand. "So what's our status?" she asked, using the practical, disciplined, but not unfriendly tone she normally reserved for Mal.
Wash was still reeling from the "thank you," as well as the brief but dazzling test flight that preceded it. And now she was sizing him up like some expensive trinket, kind of appealing, but unnecessary and probably overpriced. Nevertheless, he did his best to organize his thoughts and imitate her soldierly style as he recounted escaping from the cellar, sending Kaylee for help, setting off the alarms and carrying her to the maximum security ward. She listened, face impassive as he spoke, and when he'd finished he waited anxiously, hoping he'd passed the exam.
"You did pretty well, considering you got no training for this sort of situation."
A 'B'. Maybe even a 'B+'. Yes!
End Chapter 7.
bao bei = sweetheart
tzao gao! = damn!
Lao-tyen! = God in Heaven!
Chapter 8: Vulnerabilities
Mal and Jayne raid the asylum while Zoë revisits an unpleasant past
Author's Notes: A bit longer chapter this time, but there's a lot of ground to cover. If you have been asking why our antagonist Callum is the way he is, well, here's why. Contains disturbing situations. Additional notes on the connection between the themes of this story and the play Macbeth are including at the end of the chapter for those who are interested. Feedback still very welcome, even if – perhaps especially if – you disagree with my interpretation of the characters. Thank you again to everyone for following the story.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Not you, Kaylee," Mal said sternly as she started to dismount the mule. It was dark now, but the lights from the abandoned hospital blazed out like laid-off workers ignoring their pink-slips. Kaylee looked determined, so Mal shook his head again. "You get back to Serenity." He stopped. And do what? He started again. "Lock up good and tight, you hear? Cortex is broke, so you can get busy fixing that. I want it working properly when we get back." Mal was almost pleased with himself for breaking the fei-oo thing. Tinkering would give her something positive to do, keep her from feeling helpless.
Go on, Reynolds, his conscience prodded. Gotta keep at least one of your crew safe through this. Gripping Kaylee by the shoulders, Mal looked hard at her as he said firmly, "We don't come back in a day or so, you get on that shiny working cortex and contact your folks. No arguments," he held up one hand as if to physically deflect her protests. "Callum ain't after a broad revenge, I don't reckon, else you'd be dead already." He pressed the money satchel he'd taken from the saloon owner into her hand. "So you just stay put 'til your kin can come fetch you, or find a pilot to take you to them. But we are coming back, so don't be packing your things just yet." Mal tried selling a forced grin and Kaylee reluctantly pretended to buy it.
Her kin! They must be near a week away at hard burn. Well, if it came to that, with any luck he'd be dead by then. 'Cause right at that moment, as he watched her drive away into the night, fighting back tears, Mal felt he'd rather take his chances with the revenge-crazed lunatic than have to explain to Kaylee's sturdy, honest dad why he'd made his little girl cry.
Now Mal sized up Jayne with a sidelong glance. He was always uneasy when he didn't know exactly where things stood with Jayne, when he didn't have a leg up on the truculent mercenary. Jayne had made it abundantly clear from the start that he'd stick around only so long as there was profit to be had. But Kaylee'd just drove off with the money, and they were walking into a trap, certain. In a bug house, no less. And yet Jayne was still here, waiting on Mal's orders. No accounting for it. Zoë was nothing to him, except maybe competition for a larger cut. Wash he tolerated even less than Zoë did. It just didn't figure.
Kinda reminded Mal of the war – all those soldiers who'd stayed by him, followed him into the maw of violence, more than once. For a lost cause, as it turned out.
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more." Mal muttered as they crouched by the hospital's main doors. That was Shakespeare, too, wasn't it? Some king said it. About a battle where they were all outnumbered but they won anyway. Yeah, Mal thought, a little pleased with himself. Despite his admittedly spotty education, he nevertheless knew a smattering of the Bard. Wasn't the completely ignorant hump Callum took him for.
He signaled Jayne to take the left flank while he moved right as they entered the eerily silent building.
A shot rang out. Then another. The men of Serenity dove for cover behind the in-take nurse's station, although Mal observed that both bullets went almost criminally wide of the mark. Scrambling to a crouching position, Mal shifted his grip on his sidearm, and Jayne sought a target worthy of Vera's tender mercies. No one visible on the stairs or down the hallway.
There was a brief, sharp electronic screech as power surged angrily over the building's PA system.
"Do you sleep nights, Sergeant, or hath Reynolds murdered sleep?"
Ruttin' Callum. His voice reverberated through the whole of the empty hospital. Piss-soaked hwun dan sounded genuinely curious, conversational, even. More mind games, thought Mal contemptuously. Well, he was done playing.
"Sleep like a newborn with a thimble of gin, thanks for askin'. Now where're my people?" Mal demanded loudly, leaning cautiously around the side of the nurse's station to look through the sights of both guns down the long corridor ahead. No one in sight. "And don't hand me any more of your tsway-niou lies."
"Your man's hiding somewhere with the Corporal's body," Callum replied matter-of-factly. "You know," he mused, "in the play, too, Lady Macbeth dies off-stage. I wonder if he knows that?"
Impossible to be sure, thought Mal, given Callum's track record for falsehoods. But it sounded like Wash and Zoë weren't with him, which could only be to the good. Mal caught Jayne's eye and inclined his head sharply toward the first T-intersection in the hallway. The big man hefted his guns and scooted to the new forward position.
"This ain't no flight o' fancy, Callum. That's a lesson I'm aiming to teach you tonight." Hugging the wall, Mal moved to take up a position in a cell doorway a few meters in front of Jayne on the diagonal.
Callum's tranquil tone was insufferable. "'Better be with the dead / Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace / Than on the torture of the mind to lie / In restless ecstasy.' I await you, Sergeant."
Jayne snorted in disgust. "Ya couldn't just piss off some gangster, huh? Had t' go with the ruttin' drama queen!" he huffed and scurried past Mal, zig-zagging to the next T-intersection.
Callum left them alone, in word and deed, after that, which was for Mal, in many ways, more provoking than a firefight. A relentless silence dogged them as they moved systematically from the front the building to the back, finding nothing. The first floor was clear.
She noticed that Wash looked anxious. Zoë herself was more concerned. Similar to anxious, but with steadier nerves.
Mal was not a patient man, she knew, and she could hear Callum over the PA system, baiting him expertly into a trap. Only a matter of time before he made a mistake out of frustration. Grateful though she was to Wash for getting her away, it wasn't even a question that Zoë had to leave their improvised refuge, get to Mal, watch his back, back his play. Callum thought she was dead, and apparently didn't consider Wash a threat. They could use that.
Just hump the sun black!
Another infuriating stab of pain along her arm as the knife fell ineffectually to the floor, another reminder that she still lacked enough fine motor control to wield even one of Fluffy's smaller instruments, let alone a proper gun (which they didn't have, anyway). Her strength was returning, but being able to lean against a wall unaided was a far cry from walking, running or kicking pi-yan. She sank down facing Wash, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the heavy ward doors.
Yeah, Mal was just about all she had left in the 'verse. Mal, Serenity (though she was Mal's ship, not Zoë's), and a few other war buddies she'd lost touch with (kinda accidentally on purpose). And shadows from the past like Callum. He called her a shadow, didn't he? No, not quite. Said she was full of shadows. Which maybe she was.
Her back to the wall, Zoë continued to watch as Wash struggled to repair the broken connections and bypass the burned circuits and reconfigure the deep-fried whatnots on the go se doors. Not the most far-sighted idea fusing the locks. But shouldn't berate him for that. He ain't trained for this kinda crisis. The man handled himself pretty well today, all things considered. Manhandled her pretty well, too, if it comes to being honest in that direction. Zoë allowed herself a private grin, although she was careful to keep it off her face. Lord! to have a capture at this moment, take a lasting image of her in nothing but that tropical top and crudely-fashioned gurney sheet panties, trapped in a madhouse with the half-naked pilot, who was... well, he was ...all manner of unexpected.
Yes, yes, she's staring at you again. Wash glued his eyes to the undoubtedly expensive locking mechanism he had broken. Just calm down. And stop gorram blushing! You should be enjoying this – a beautiful amazon who could sling her pick of men over her shoulder, contemplating after your shuai, virile body. Still, now that she isn't dying, might be your best chance to get some answers.
"Zoë?" Avoid eye contact, it's less confrontational. And steady your voice. Heroes don't squeak.
"Before I ask, just remember you need me to get the door open, okay?" Zoë blinked noncommittally. "Um, Callum said some crazy things to us in the cellar, and... and clearly the man has issues..." His voice trailed off.
Wash didn't have to look away from the flinty circuit board to know that the dreaded eyebrow had been arched. Hey, Courage shrugged at Curiosity and backed away, you started this!
"But he seemed to think...he said this was all payback for something that happened during the war. Called it a reckoning." Called it worse than that, Wash added, but silently to himself. Besides the possible lusting, she appeared to be warming to him a bit emotionally, and nothing withers a budding romance faster than suggesting your newly-beloved might be a war criminal.
Gently but firmly, Zoë cupped his chin and turned his face towards her. The air hung heavy as she searched deep into his eyes, contemplating the risks and the costs, while Wash stared back, helplessly spellbound.
And Wash thought, Aiya, her eyes are gorgeous! But no good's gonna come from this conversation.
And Zoë thought, Gotta try to explain. Won't be a future with this man nor any other if there ain't honesty between us.
Then, feeling suddenly protective, Zoë took his hand, because he seemed so ...vulnerable. And she held it, tenderly, like a parent readying to tell a small child some very unhappy news about the family pet.
Oh, such a happy reconnoiter through hell!
The second floor.
Below there was some variety to the architecture. But now only institutional monotony. Jayne and Mal alternated taking point as they moved through eternal corridors, checking endless rooms. No sign of anybody. It was maddening. Yeah, Mal curled his lip wickedly. The perfect word! One room made Mal almost heave – an empty gurney at one end, and two massive, dark pools of drying blood beneath it.
"Gives you the creeps, doesn't it?" Callum's oddly sympathetic voice returned, echoing off the harsh metal doors, bouncing down the deserted hallways. "I spent a year in one of these places after the war. An Alliance facility, though, much nicer than this."
Mal grimaced and shook his head. Cat and mouse, cat and mouse. And even though he was the one prowling around, weren't no doubt who the mouse was.
Callum kept on in his patient, meditative tone. "The doctors, they wanted me to leave the Valley. Abandon my men. But I could never do that. Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave, do you Sergeant? You just learn to live there."
"It was just before the cease fire. Mal'd shot down an Alliance transport with an anti-aircraft gun, and it crashed behind our lines. Marcus Callum and about a dozen from his unit were still alive. We knew Callum pretty well, at least by reputation. For weeks, he and his troops had been one of the main infantry divisions shooting up the Valley. Mal started with about 2,000 under his command early on in the fighing, but Callum's people cut into those numbers pretty deep over time. Reckon they killed about half of those we lost before the cease fire, so about 800 maybe."
"So there we were with him and the others on our hands. We had them dig a pit and we kept them there. Weren't nowhere else to put them. Cease fire came, but we didn't know which way that was gonna go, so we just kept them. Couldn't send them back to the Alliance just so they could have another chance to put holes in us."
"Four days go by. And we had nothing. No food, no medicine, barely any supplies. I want you to understand, we weren't denying them anything to keep it for ourselves. Day four I was on guard, and Callum demands to see the captain. Again. I wish I'd said no. But I didn't. Y'know, Wash, sympathy is a weakness will get a soldier killed."
For the first time since he'd known her, Wash heard something, something vulnerable in Zoë's voice. He squeezed her hand gently.
"So Mal comes over, and Callum shouts up to him about the Articles of War, about how his men had rights. Rights! And Mal, he stares at Callum for a bit, and then he turns to me and says, 'Shoot 'em.' It didn't register at first. I just stood there blinking, looking from Mal to Callum and back again. Callum yelled something to Mal, I don't remember what. Then I aim my rifle at Callum and Mal says. 'All of them. We got nothin' to spare and I'll be strung up by my own suspenders before I see one of our side die to save Alliance luh-suh.'"
"And Mal walked off. Callum, he tells me, 'Corporal Alleyne, this is murder. Can you honestly stand there, like the Angel of Death, and not know that this is wrong?' He sees I'm gonna do it, so he says to shoot him, but spare his men. I remember he begged me, 'For God's sake, at least give them a chance!' But I have my orders, and start firing. And the men start screaming. And I keep firing, shooting to kill the noise, 'cause I can't stand it. And then they were all lying there, in a jumble at the bottom of that pit, and it was quiet again."
"I thought they were all dead, thought I'd done them a kindness by ending it quick for them. Remember, we were dying ourselves. Hunger, infection, exposure. Over 130 more Independents passed in the next two days. The lucky ones went in their sleep, but I can tell you none of 'em went quick. You gotta know, Wash, I would never have deliberately left someone to suffer like Callum did. He told me, back there," she gestured vaguely beyond the heavy doors, "I'd just hit him in the leg, and he was pinned under the others, knocked unconscious and bleeding out slowly from that wound. No one went back to check. A few days later, when the medships arrived, Alliance went to collect their bodies from the battlefield and found him. But it was too late for his leg. Never healed right."
There are moments that demarcate a person's life, divide everything into 'before' and 'after.' Wash knew he'd had one earlier, when he bandaged her arms and fell in love. For the past few hours, he'd been thinking, hoping, he'd spend the rest of his life in that particularly joyful and effervescent after, with her always near him and there'd be friendship and laughter and really, really hot sex. But now a chasm opened and suddenly Wash was in a new after, a bereft and barren place, where Zoë was far apart from him, a stranger, capable of abhorrent, merciless things.
For a few minutes, neither of them moved. Then "I see." Wash's voice was tight and forced. He withdrew his hand from hers, carefully, picked up the circuit board and turned back to repairing the panel.
No, I see, thought Zoë with knowing regret as she watched his horrified expression evolve in profile. Won't be needing to ponder on romantic prospects with the pilot after all.
The third floor.
Mal was jumpy, but he could tell Jayne was near to crawling out of his skin, clutching Vera, Ginnylee and the rest of his lethal ladies as mental bulwark against a cruel, uncertain world. They moved along as before, first one then the other, wing by wing, scurrying from doorway to doorway. Between the mind-numbing sameness of the landscape and the constant vigilance, Mal felt exhausted.
Stay sharp, Reynolds! He shook himself and flexed his hands before taking hold again of his guns. Ahead was the maximum security wing, which appeared to be sealed up tight. So Callum was in there, huh? Makes a kind of twisted sense, Mal supposed. This is where he'd be if he were still a patient. No sign of Wash or Zoë, though, so maybe they were in there with Callum?
Suddenly, there was a volley of shots from behind them. Much better aimed this time, Mal noted grimly as a bullet grazed his calf. He dove through the nearest doorway, Jayne doing likewise into the room opposite. And then they heard:
"Drop 'em, or I'll shoot her." It wasn't a threat, just a statement of incontrovertible fact.
Mal squeezed his eyes shut for an instant, as a picture of Callum holding a gun on Zoë formed in his mind. Having no choice, Mal extended his arms harmlessly away from his sides and stepped slowly into the hall. And into a fresh nightmare. There stood Callum, gripping Kaylee by the arm and calmly pointing a pistol at her head.
End Chapter 8.
Additional Author's Notes on Macbeth: If you are wondering why my antagonist has latched on to Macbeth in particular, rather than another of Shakespeare's revenge plays like Hamlet or Titus Andronicus, the answer is that there are several themes in Macbeth that apply to this story.
The first major theme is that you can't outrun your past. The wrongful deeds you have done will catch up with you in the form of your enemies' vengeance, and even before that happens, your own conscience will plague you with remorse, guilt and doubt. Additionally, Macbeth contains the idea that mental torture (madness included) is as terrible as, if not worse than, physical torture. Thus, it was not necessary for Callum to actually hurt Wash and Kaylee, merely to make Mal and Zoë believe that he had. There is also the existential question in Macbeth, what is the purpose of life? This applies to all the people who are stuck in some way in Serenity Valley, merely existing instead of living. Is life for them 'but a walking shadow', in the end 'signifying nothing'?
The shooting of the POWs plays into Macbeth as well, echoing the themes of loyalty, duty and betrayal. King Duncan was a guest in Macbeth's house when Macbeth killed him. This was a double betrayal: it violated the formal allegiance Macbeth owed Duncan as his liege lord, and also the customs of protection that a host is honor-bound to extend to his guest. In other words, Macbeth's betrayal is both legally and morally reprehensible, and he is, of course, suitably punished by his conscience and his enemies. Callum and his troops were in Mal's custody. Callum equates Mal with Macbeth because, in Callum's view, Mal violated a legal responsibility to treat his POWs humanely under the Articles of War, and a moral responsibility not to kill people who were at his mercy.
Lady Macbeth, of course, assists her husband in plotting, carrying out and then reaping the dubious benefits of the murder of King Duncan. So it is natural that Callum equates Zoë, Mal's second-in-command and the actual instrument of his men's deaths, with Lady Macbeth.
Incidentally, the character of Macbeth is a bit like Malcolm Reynolds in terms of his basic nature – a soldier, a leader of men, swift to violence, and a person who refuses to give up. Whereas Hamlet asks "To be or not to be?" when contemplating committing suicide rather than going further down a murderous path, Macbeth says "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword? whiles I see lives, the gashes / Do better upon them." Or, to quote Malcolm Reynolds "I aim to misbehave." Macbeth and Malcolm Reynolds share an inclination to going down swinging.
Literary References and Chinese Translations:
* Henry V, Act III Scene 2 (The siege and battle of Harfleur, which Henry's troops won despite overwhelming odds)
* Macbeth, Act II Scene 2 (Callum references Macbeth's lines, uttered just after he has killed King Duncan and the King's attendants. Guilt is already starting to gnaw at Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! ...Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.' Glamis and Cawdor are titles of nobility that King Duncan had bestowed upon Macbeth earlier in the play in gratitude for his military victories)
* Macbeth, Act III Scene 1 (Macbeth declares he'd rather die like his victims than live a coward, tormented by bad dreams and waking nightmares)
fei-oo = piece of junk
hwun dan = bastard
tsway-niou = bullcrap
pi-yan = ass, butt
go se = crappy
shuai = handsome, fine-looking
aiya = damn!
luh-suh = garbage
Chapter 9: Opening the Door
Mal tries to cope with an unpredictable adversary, while Wash and Zoë confront some hard truths
"Gotta say, Kaylee, this ain't how I pictured you spending the evening." Mal's voice was low, coming through gritted teeth, his eyes focused on Callum. It didn't sit well with him, being disobeyed. Through this whole ordeal, he hadn't had much of a plan, but such as there was included Kaylee not being with them now.
They were all on their knees, hands tied behind their backs. One of Callum's men stood behind them with a shotgun aimed at their heads, while the other two were gathered with Callum around a panel in the door to the high-security ward, looking mighty displeased. Something about the lock being busted.
"I meant to go back to the ship, Captain, honest," Kaylee protested in a hushed tone. "But then I thought on how you'd never leave me stuck like that. And how maybe you might, y'know, need a mechanic or, uh, or a look-out, or a wheel man, or…or somethin' and…" Her voice trailed off. She turned her head just enough to see Mal press his lips together and look even grimmer than before. "And anyway, I don't want no stranger flying Serenity," she declared firmly, indicating that, from her perspective, this reason alone justified all obstinacy.
But Mal didn't look much placated. Loyalty was a fine thing, and it pleased him to know weren't no cowards on his crew, but gorramit! Things weren't so shiny before she showed up. Didn't help that he couldn't figure out what Callum's end game was gonna be. The madman had said something about "assembling the whole cast for the final act."
At least Zoë wasn't dead, Mal was sure. With the bond they had, he'd have felt a hole in the 'verse if Zoë had left it.
The door consultations ended with one of Callum's men heading out of sight down the stairs. Callum hobbled over to his prisoners.
Only three men now, one of them crippled. Could they...? No, Mal talked himself down. Too risky. The fellow behind was too far back. One of them would be killed for sure before he was overpowered.
"Your pilot has managed somehow to lock the door from the inside, which I must admit is quite ingenious, although not very far-sighted in terms of food, water and air. I could just leave him in there, I suppose, kind of like you left me in that pit. But I'd rather not. I don't share your callous nature, Sergeant Reynolds. Besides, your crew's surprisingly mischievous. Better to have everyone in one place. So I've sent for the key to the manual override."
Callum stepped in front of Kaylee, and Mal heard the catch in her breath. "We could ask the ingénue mechanic to help, but I suspect she wouldn't give a very effective performance."
He continued to regard Kaylee for a bit, but it seemed to Mal that he wasn't really seeing her. At last he said mildly, "You must think I'm a monster." Kaylee sneaked a glance sideways towards Mal, who shook his head almost imperceptibly. Eyes wide with apprehension, Kaylee repeated his headshake for Callum's benefit, only more emphatically.
"It's all right." Callum laughed deeply, as if she'd just told a wholesome joke. "You needn't lie. But I'll tell you a secret." He leaned towards her, smiling conspiratorily. "'I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.'" Kaylee's eyes narrowed slightly in puzzlement, so Callum added, "Or think of me as 'a walking shadow, a poor player / who struts and frets his hour upon the stage /and then is heard no more.'" She looked blankly at him. Jayne scowled his contempt for 'book lernin'. Mal squared his jaw, face inscrutable.
Callum sighed wistfully. "Art, music, literature, poetry – not much of it gets through out there on the Rim, I suppose. A shame, really. I've always found literature to be a great comfort in times of stress. I'll bet you like animals, don't you?" he continued in a fatherly tone. Kaylee maintained a rigid, uncertain stare. "You remind me of a lad in my unit, a conscript about your age. Vissarion. Very bright, but hardly had any formal schooling. He wanted to breed horses when he got out. Sergeant Reynolds and Corporal Alleyne murdered him."
Gotta stop this somehow. Draw his attention. "Let 'em go, Callum," Mal yelled. "They ain't part of this."
"Well, they weren't," Callum reproved, still looking meditatively at Kaylee. "But your crew's caused me some trouble today, and it's hard to overlook that."
Callum hitched past Mal to size up Jayne, who seemed no less menacing for being bound. "Truth is, I'm not sure what to do with them. But answer me this," Callum wheeled to face Mal. "You'd do it again, wouldn't you?" Mal continued to look stony.
"Answer me, you go tsao de piece of scum!" Callum bellowed, his face suddenly contorted in rage. He swung wide and struck Mal hard across the jaw with his crutch. "You owe me that. You owe me – owe my men – a lot of things, but at least that."
Mal spat blood to one side and glared back defiantly. "Under the same circumstances, you know I would. But we ain't in a war now, Callum. This ain't a battlefield and they ain't soldiers. So go ahead. Prove you're the better man. Show them the mercy you didn't get from me."
"Oh, Sergeant," Callum was once again preternaturally calm when his man handed him the key. He shook his head, seemingly in regret, as he fitted it in the lock and pulled the manual release lever, "Why are you making this so easy?"
Zoë sighed inwardly. Wash wasn't a soldier. He didn't understand. "Those Alliance troops didn't have a chance anyway, dong ma?" she tried again to explain. "It was a mercy, ending it quick for them, sparing them from scourge and starvation. Like I said, we started the cease fire with 400 Independents and lost over 250 before that week was over. That's near three outta four."
Wash continued to stare at the door panel, his hands fiddling ineffectually with wires and nubs. "I ain't saying I'm proud of what I did." Her voice was low and steady, resigned. "But I ain't ashamed, neither. We were just trying to stay alive ourselves. Lots more terrible things than that happened in that valley and elsewhere besides during the war."
She stopped and a heavy silence fell. Well, Zoë thought, she'd spoken plain enough. Nothing more to say. Either he'd see her point or not. Hmm, still won't look her way. If she put her hand on his shoulder, touched him again, would that help maybe? No, no call for such foolishness, she scolded herself. You're in the right, so gotta hold like marble. Plus, added a tiny voice she pretended not to hear, what if he shook her off?
You hold! How often had Mal given her that command? Mostly out of habit, she supposed. Weren't necessary, really. He knew she'd hold, kinda took it for granted she was strong enough, whatever the challenge. And she always did, and she always was. But were his orders always right? She'd thought so, until today. Thought Mal was just making the tough but necessary decisions. That's why she always obeyed. And it had stood her in good stead so far. She was still breathing, after all.
That order in Serenity Valley, for example, that was the right call, she was sure. But hearing that story her own self as she told it to Wash, reflecting on it, perhaps Mal thought his orders were correct because she always followed them. Might behoove her to re-consider that approach, be more critical in her appraisals. Something else to ponder on if they lived through this. And told baldly like that, to a sensitive man like Wash (she couldn't in good conscience call him 'weak' anymore), having no context, what she did must sound pretty horrific. Small wonder he wasn't taking it well.
Wash was journeying in a world he didn't understand, an earth-bound world of violence and destruction. Trying to make sense of it, first he did the math. She said three out of four Independents died? So of Callum's dozen, odds are maybe three other Alliance men would still be strutting the 'verse if not for Zoë and Mal. Was that what pushed Callum to madness, trying to figure out which of his men would have been among those lucky three?
Wash couldn't even imagine the strength a person would need to survive under those conditions. Zoë had that strength. Mal had it, too. Callum, obviously. But Hoban Washburne? Probably not so much. That was a humbling thought.
He circled back to Zoë. Yeah, he'd nicknamed her Our Lady of the Mare's Leg, joked about her being a lethal beauty, with 'contract killer' allure and so forth. But actual real people had died at her hand. He could see, even out of the corner of his eye, that she believed everything she'd told him, honestly thought Mal was justified, thought she was liberating those poor devils from that pit. But who knows how many she'd sent on to whatever comes next before the war was over, without a thought to mercy.
And not just during the war. Something he'd managed to avoid thinking about before was now inescapable. Those guns Zoë and Mal and Jayne toted around weren't for show. Deadly force was a tool of their trade. And as much as he hoped he was wrong about this, the truth was they probably did kill people sometimes, even when it wasn't strictly necessary.
So what did it say about him, that he worked alongside them for all these months, took the money (on those rare occasions when he actually got paid), and never acknowledged the blood on it, the stories that, though untold (because he never asked), went with those on-the-job wounds? He just wanted to fly Serenity. The sky, the Black – that was his world. But, no, he couldn't pretend any more that all the rest had nothing to do with him.
Did it make him a bad person, a selfish bastard, that he still wanted this woman to love him?
Because he did want her to love him. Staring at the panel, Wash watched her on the edge of his vision, waiting for him to react, wearing his ear-splitting shirt, which somehow heightened her femininity even more than her own form-fitting clothes. A woman strong enough to endure that brutal war? To return from the brink of death with a joke on her pillowed lips? To be honest with him about what happened? Plus the smarts, plus the physique. Definitely the physique! He knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with this glorious woman. He wanted it, maybe, yes, maybe even as much as he wanted to fly.
Wash knew something else – that Mal, no matter how drunk or desperate, would never, ever have told him that story. And he knew why, too, and it made him furious.
Zoë saw his facial muscles tighten. Saw shoulders tensing and head shaking from side to side in fundamental disagreement. So that's how it's gonna go, huh? Now he'll call you a murderer. The coldest, bloodiest, blackest-hearted bitch in the 'verse. Say he'd never do such a thing in your place. Well, who the fuck is he that you should need to justify yourself! And if he expects some sort of apology….! She braced for the venting of his naïve fury, his shallow, self-righteous indignation.
So Zoë was completely taken aback when Wash turned and spat out bitterly, "How could he do that to you?"
He? "You mean Callum?"
"Mal. Ordering you to kill those men. Cowardly tzang-huo! Should have done his own dirty work!"
This brought her hackles up. She stared Fluffy implements at him. "Mal ain't no coward. Saved my life more times than I can count. He gave me that order because he was in command. And he was right."
Yeah, no one did intimidating better than Her Fierceness, but it infuriated Wash, this...this deference to Mal, and he pressed on. "He gave you that order because he wanted revenge. Because the Browncoats had lost and he knew it. For you it was a kindness, and...and maybe you thought it was your duty. But he was just being cruel and vindictive. And petty. To men who were defenseless. And he had you..." Wash drew a deep breath and plowed forward in the face of her rising ire. "Well, he didn't do right by you, either."
They locked eyes for a few seconds, dueling. Zoë noted the man had more backbone than she'd thought. Some part of her was impressed, approving, even, while the rest of her rallied for the offensive.
But as she looked at him, Zoë was surprised to discover she didn't want to fight. Maybe because she still felt pretty weak. Maybe because it displeased her for some reason, seeing that face turned to her in anger. Maybe because she didn't entirely discount what he was saying. No denying it was more than disturbing, how she'd failed to recognize Callum, even factoring in all the purposeful forgetting she'd managed since the war's end.
She decided it wasn't necessary at that moment to know why in order to stand down the troops. Her expression softened and she said with exquisite sadness, "It's not easy, Wash, being in command. 'Specially when lives are at stake and there are no good choices." She slumped against the wall and shook her head. "Don't mean to disappoint, but I'm just not up to arguing right now. Shame we got nothin' to eat. Would help put me in a more combative mood."
That melancholy smile. He'd seen it dozens of times, and never been able to do anything about it. But now he reached for her. Because, Wash decided, this was the part of the story where the hero comforted the damsel in distress. And he knew that for her to initiate contact would have meant leaping years of careful detachment, whereas for him it was just the merest hop back to 10 minutes ago.
And for the first time in a long time, Corporal Alleyne was dismissed. The marble became clay, and Zoë fell into his strong embrace just as Wash had fallen into their first kiss - without reservation. Remembering how his overzealousness had taxed her weakened body earlier, Wash was holding her delicately this time. But she pressed in closer, molding herself to leave no air between them.
And Zoë thought, Hold on while you can, girl. Once we get out of this and everyone's okay, he'll probably leave. Sign on to one of those respectable ships for the safer, better paying job with the decent folk that he should have taken in the first place.
And Wash thought, Tien shiao duh, this feels so right.
"Wash?" she said from over his shoulder.
"Yeah, Zoë?" Wash was rubbing her back, fascinated anew by the crisscrossing scars.
"I know this changes things. You do what you got to as regards yourself, leave the ship or whatever seems right to you. But promise me you won't tell Kaylee. She worships Mal. Thinks he's all shiny. It'd break his heart if she knew. And it's not right, her hearing about this, unless it's me or the captain doing the telling."
Mal! Ni hunqui hypocrite. If he really thought what he did was necessary, Kaylee knowing wouldn't matter. But Zoë was right, it was their story to tell, even though he knew Mal never would. He didn't have Zoë's courage.
"I won't tell, I promise. Because I want my shirt back. And because I love you."
The air became strangely thick. Wash pulled away, aghast. "I said that last part out loud, didn't I?"
But before Zoë could reply, or even react, they heard a faint click, and the heavy doors began to swing inward.
End chapter 9.
Literary References and Chinese Translations:
* Hamlet, Act II Scene 2 (Hamlet, explaining that he is feigning madness to throw his enemies off balance while he plots his revenge for his father's murder. The question of whether Hamlet is actually mad remains open to interpretation.)
* Macbeth, Act V Scene V (Macbeth, contemplating the meaninglessness of existence as he sees that all he has done to conquer his enemies has come to naught.)
go tsao de = dog humping
dong ma? = understand?
tzang-huo = filthy bastard
Tien shiao duh = name of all that's sacred
Ni hunqui = no good, wretched
Chapter 10: Look to the Lady, part I
Zoë Alleyne – playing for time
If it hadn't been so ludicrous, Mal would have entertained the notion they'd intruded on a very private, possibly adult moment between his pilot and first mate.
There they were, half-way down the corridor. Zoë, kneeling on the floor, shapely legs exposed, wearing Wash's garish, oversized shirt and not quite clutching a long, menacing knife. And Wash, bare from the waist up, planted in front of her, seemingly poised to throw the petite scalpels balanced in each upraised hand. Try as he might, Mal found it in no way reassuring that the color had drained from Wash's face and his eyes were big as saucers.
What's he waiting for, an engraved invitation? Mal couldn't understand it. He was sure he was shouting at the top of his lungs for Wash to throw the ruttin' blades. He'd seen the pilot hit a bulls-eye from over eight meters away – with either hand! Callum wasn't as remote as that, and couldn't be standing in a more convenient trajectory. So why didn't the man throw? Had he shaved off all his sense along with the mustache?
Who are you kidding, Washburne? Wash's pulse and thoughts were accelerating, rapidly, but the rest of him was frozen in place. You can't do this. In what 'verse could you ever do this? She's gonna think you're pathetic, can't protect her. Yeah, might lose some ground on Mt. Zoë, but can't be helped. Don't remember skewering people with little knives being part of the job description. Nope, just checked and it definitely is not in there. Maybe if you had some time to practice, y'know, with a training dummy, or a board with Callum's face on it. Just get used to the idea gradually, work your way up to a life-sized cardboard Callum cut-out. Not even sure you can throw these things like darts. Might miss and hit...
At that point, Wash became distracted by the pain receptors in his raw wrists firing, because one of Callum's guards, tired of watching him hesitate, had crossed the short span into the hall and used an iron grip to make him drop the scalpels. The man started roughly tying Wash's hands behind his back, while Courage head-butted Doubt contemptuously. Then turned and smacked Stupidity upside the head.
Zoë just couldn't, it drove her to distraction how she just couldn't close her fingers around that knife hilt with any firmness. Her death-ray glare was in fine form, though, and as that was the only weapon she could control, she aimed it full at Callum.
He stared at her, stunned and disbelieving. And then, "No. No, no, no. That's not right," he protested, impatiently shoving Wash out of the way. "Lady Macbeth dies off stage." He was a few feet from her now, but coming no closer.
Zoë watched him like a snake in mid-uncoil. She sensed that inside him, within that fractured psyche, something was happening. Across his face the emotions traveled from confounded to intrigued, and then, yes, Zoë was sure of it, to awed.
A thought struck her. It was a terrible gamble, but there were no other cards to play. Zoë straightened up, her breasts filling the shirt front and making the palm trees swell. She put the knife aside with elaborate grace, at the same time shifting her weight to reveal more elegant leg. Then she tossed her hair lightly, pointed her chin and pushed down the growing disgust at what she was about to do.
"But I have another role, remember?" she said seductively. "The Angel of Death." And Death is like a lover. Zoë affected the most alluring smile. "At the moment, in need of an escort." She delicately extended her hand to him, palm downward, as if inviting him to squire her 'round the dance floor.
For Wash and Mal both, everything in the hall that wasn't Zoë or Callum blurred to grey and their vision telescoped in on the aberrant pair. For both, apprehension slid seamlessly into alarm as Callum, apparently falling into some poetic dream, stepped to Zoë's side, took her hand in the courtly, Core fashion Alliance officers learned, and reverently raised her to her feet.
Wash felt his chest being squeezed in a vice. Don't, don't hurt her!
Mal's eyes darted a quick left-right-left. Must be a move we can make, now he's distracted.
Then Zoë shot them the briefest look. Wash, who didn't know her very well, couldn't read it, but Mal got the message instantly: Follow my lead.
She had to dig deep for the strength to walk across that floor without falling. The cold anger helped. The adrenaline surge helped. The fact that the limp slowed his steps also helped. But she succeeded primarily out of loathing for the alternative, which was to put her arm around Callum for support. Bad enough, having to give him her hand, which longed either to return to Wash or to be holding an efficient and deadly weapon.
Once she was sure her body would play its part, she steeled mentally for the next feint. As they passed the prisoners, all except Wash still on their knees, Zoë said casually to Callum, "If the play is over, shouldn't the audience be excused?"
But that didn't have the intended effect. Zoë heard his breathing change and then he was standing not beside but in front of her. There was a brief look of recognition, and maybe even scorn, and then he slapped her hard across the face, backhanded. She crumpled to the floor. Leaning heavily on the crutch, Callum loomed over her, fuming, while Zoë gasped for air.
"Bravo, Corporal Alleyne! Who'd have thought you were so clever?" he sneered with patronizing zeal. "But the play isn't over, not yet." She tensed, anticipating more blows. But in the span of a few seconds, Callum seemed to have forgotten she was there. He straightened up and cocked his head to one side. "Ha! What a wonderful notion." He turned to Mal, genuinely excited. "I know what to do with your crew. It's perfect!"
Wash, Kaylee and Jayne stumbled into their seats in the main operating theater, ably assisted by two of Callum's heavily armed 'ushers'. It was a cavernous, circular room, with stadium-style benches fanning out from a central raised platform. Dissection lights, still harsh and unforgiving all these years after illuminating some doctor's final procedure, burned down on the dusty, vacant dais.
Their hands had been untied (so they could, what, applaud? Wash wondered), and Jayne was clearly flexing to fight. All things being equal, Wash knew the hulking mercenary could have taken down both guards. But Callum's men, and more importantly their shotguns, were watching him especially carefully and keeping a distance that left Jayne nothing to do but radiate ornery discontent.
Mal walked slowly, deliberately, down the aisle towards the center, carrying Zoë and trying hard not to jar her too much. That last gambit with Callum, that was the dregs, and now her last reserves of strength were empty. Nevertheless, the third guard followed warily behind them, keeping his gun at the ready and never getting too close.
Callum had gone ahead and was sitting in a chair on the edge of the platform.
"A front row seat for the lady," Callum sang out, rising. His face shone with giddy delight. "Vissarion," Callum called up to the risers. Kaylee started and blanched. "You were asking about stage fighting. It's all in the choreography, boy. Watch closely."
"What's that about?" Zoë kept her voice low. She grimaced, unable to hide the pain, as Mal positioned her in the chair.
"Seems he mistakes our Kaylee for a boy in his unit," Mal muttered back.
Hmm. Could they use that? "Don't seem his delusions help us much, since he's cast you as the villain."
Mal had already turned to face Callum, but he nodded agreement. Just give me a weapon, you za jiao hwoon dan. Got no more patience for the foreplay. Mal smirked despite himself. 'Scuse the pun.
"The broadsword was popular with men of honor and scoundrels alike once upon a time on Earth-that-Was," Callum explained as one of the men handed Mal what looked like a wide, two-foot-long dagger with a robin red basket hilt. "So it's a fitting weapon for today's drama. But I can't maneuver especially well with this leg, so we're gonna even things up."
Without warning, Callum drew his pistol and shot Mal in the right calf, not far from where the other bullet had grazed him earlier. Mal dropped on one knee, and looked up, seething. Callum's eyes narrowed. "And Sergeant," he continued, not a shred of warmth in his voice, "for your crew's sake I expect you to put on a good show, pretend you can save them."
"Don't worry," Mal said grimly, clutching his burning calf as the warm blood ran through his fingers and down the leg. "Won't be nothin' pretend about me killin' you. But what'll your men do then? They just gonna run along home like good little thugs?"
"If I die, yes. They have those instructions. But if I kill you," and here Callum's eyes sparkled, "which, of course, is how our drama actually ends, then they will help me dispose of Corporal Alleyne and the rest. As a gift to the lovely corporal, I promise everyone will die quickly."
Callum unbuckled his gun belt, lay down his crutch, gripped the sword with determination and attacked.
End chapter 10.
Chinese Quotes and Shakespeare References:
* Macbeth, Act II Scene 3 (Lady Macbeth distracts the Scottish lords who have been questioning her husband closely about King Duncan's murder)
za jiao = fucking
hwoon dan =bastard
Chapter 11: Look to the Lady, part II
Mal and Zoë struggle against enemies without and within
It was a brutal, ungainly fight. Both men lurched and stumbled, spun, thrust, parried and fell. And fell again. Fists connected with more vulnerable body parts, like chins and stomachs and ribs. The swords did double duty as clubs when necessary. There were oaths and taunts and vainglorious pronouncements. As the fight went on, the crimson on the pommels deepened and the hilts grew wet and slippery. Blows that gradually lost some of their ferocity nonetheless still took their toll on flesh and bone. The operating lights, which had been designed to illuminate a different kind of bloody spectacle, left no dark corner for the audience to hide its eyes from the primal conflict playing out on stage.
At the last, they were just inches apart, each man grappling to bring his sword into position for the ultimate success. Mal got there first. His bruised and bloody face contorted in rage, his whole frame trembling, as he drove the blade deep into Callum's abdomen. And Callum's eyes were wide and wild. An animal cry of wrath and indignation welled up from his chest and echoed nakedly in the vast, empty hall. With a final savage effort, Callum shoved Mal backwards. Near insensate with exhaustion, Mal stumbled, lost his footing and pitched off the dais, crashing onto the first row of benches. And he lay there, sprawled awkwardly on the floor, completely spent.
Callum also stumbled back and fell, hitting the platform hard just a few feet away from where Zoë sat. She had watched, been forced to watch, the final scene unfold, drops of spit and sweat and blood spattering her whenever the conflict came too close. Now she stared down at her defeated enemy as he pulled the sword from his belly and tossed it weakly aside. His fevered eyes, still wide but no longer wild, once again drilled into her and through her, demanding her to look.
The wound gaped hungrily. "Corporal," Callum called hoarsely. "Zoë." She was outraged, revolted, to hear her name on his lips. He had no right! "Please!" Callum pushed the word out in a gasp. He had been clutching the angry gash with both hands, but now he extended one towards her. "Please." This time it was more of a whimper.
Zoë struggled within herself, briefly. Had to be brief – he was dying. Weren't no doubt. She'd seen enough stomach wounds during the war to know. And by his haunted expression, so had Callum.
Ta ma de, what's to decide? Shouldn't even be a ruttin' choice! Mal on the floor there, in a world of hurt. Yeah, there surely was a cornucopia of cuts and gashes and gouges all over him. Even a bullet. But...but even so, he'd mend. But Callum, Callum had the only wound that mattered, his blood escaping with such cruel urgency. Her eyes sought for Wash, but he and Jayne were lifting Mal off the floor to lay him properly on a bench.
Looking again at Callum, she remembered the ill-fated sympathy she'd felt for him and the others in that pit. And her own despair, until the warm soldier came. Frog-humping sonofabitch! Just stay with him, gorramit! It'll only be a few minutes.
Unable to stand, she slid from the chair and with difficulty crawled the few feet to him. But once there, she changed her mind. Vehemently. No! Why should I? He tried to kill me, almost did kill me! But there were other forces within her, ones that shouted: Gut it out, soldier! Got a job to do. And Zoë clenched her teeth, stilled her mind and found her center, a place where she could hold. Now, do it now!
Thinking of the stone helped. She snatched his bloody hand. "I'm here." She forced herself: "Marcus. I'm here." She was never sure afterwards, had he whispered my love, or did she just imagine it?
Callum slipped like water from one unreality into another. "Vissarion? Private Vissarion!" That precise soldierly diction, but raspy and frail.
"Kaylee," Zoë called sharply and motioned the girl over. She grabbed her sleeve and drew her down beside them.
"Just play along," Zoë hissed in Kaylee's ear. Kaylee clearly wanted to bolt at the sight of that ghastly wound, but there was such fierce conviction on Zoë's face, the girl didn't dare disobey her.
"Is Reynolds dead?" Callum's eyes had the glassy aspect of a man lost in delirium.
Kaylee looked desperately at Zoë. The coldest, bloodiest, blackest-hearted bitch in the 'verse, who was still firmly holding his hand, nodded solemnly and inclined her head towards the broken man.
"Um, y..yes..yes." Another meaningful look from Zoë. The frightened girl bestirred herself. "Sir." There was not the slightest trace of military propriety in Kaylee's address, but the words alone seemed to suffice for Callum's shattered mind.
He sighed with immense relief. "Good, good. Then the play is over," he murmured, as in a dream. "''Now, quiet soul, depart when heaven please, for I have seen our enemies' overthrow.'" Callum blinked and his eyes focused slightly, because Kaylee was crying (from the stress, Zoë supposed) and a few stray tears had fallen on his face. "Ah, you were worried." He smiled at her, a protective, nurturing smile that actually made Kaylee want to stop sniffling for his sake. "Brace up, Vissarion. None of it was real." His voice was unbearably reassuring. Like those long-ago screams from the pit, it tore at Zoë and she prayed for it to cease. "Gather your gear, son. The unit's shipping out. All of us, leaving Serenity."
Hold, gorramit! You hold!
A long silence followed. At some point, Callum's men withdrew. They'd been paid in advance, and were good at following directions. Zoë closed his eyes.
Kaylee stood and Wash, who was hovering uncertainly nearby, came forward to lift Zoë in his arms. She didn't have to ask, he already knew, and brought her to Mal's side. Grunting with the effort, Mal pulled himself up to a sitting position as Zoë settled on the bench next to him. Jayne, determined to be reunited with his lady-loves, purposefully followed Callum's men out.
Kaylee was the first to speak. "I don't understand. Any of it." She broke down anew.
Wash put his arms around the sobbing, bewildered mechanic, who buried her face in his chest. He looked questioningly at Zoë. Zoë looked stoically at Mal.
And Mal thought about the man he used to be.
That antebellum fool was long gone, of course. The Malcolm Reynolds-that-Was, who believed God had a plan and thought people were basically decent. That they were fighting for a just cause and right would surely triumph in the end. Gone and good riddance.
But nevertheless, he wasn't able to forget him, that man of nobler motives, the one still on speaking terms with the better angels of his nature. Because, for some reason, when Kaylee looked at him, despite all evidence to the contrary, she saw that man. Her good opinion – it gave him one little corner to stand in, one infinitesimally small place to go, if only once in a while, when he really needed not to hate himself so much. And wrongly got though it was, Mal was damned if he would give that ground up willingly. Not for anyone or anything in the 'verse. It shocked him, shamed him more than a bit to realize, but no, not even for Zoë. Not unless he had to, and he didn't have to today.
"Nothin' to understand," Mal said curtly. "Callum was pure crazy. Driven mad with guilt's my guess. Terrible thing, losing men as trusted you and followed you. There's some can't carry that burden."
Wash couldn't help it. He muttered "Knew it" under his breath. And Zoë, who heard him, was troubled.
Jayne returned with Vera, Ginnylee and the others, but reported there was no sign of Zoë's clothes.
"Gonna have to keep your shirt a bit longer, pilot," said Zoë, feigning nonchalance.
"My clothes and my dinosaurs are always at your disposal," replied Wash with a roguish twinkle. When Zoë didn't try to hide her grin at their private joke, Wash was a man enchanted.
Now it was Mal's turn to be troubled.
Huh! Some new connection between those two, and it wasn't just the wardrobe swapping or the sharing of mortal danger. Whatever it was, the mere fact there was an it irritated Mal in no small portion. No, indeed, he did not like it, and he'd have to put a stop to it right soon.
"Wash," he snapped, maybe a bit more captainy than necessary. "I want us out of orbit yesterday."
Zoë knew that look. She frowned deeply as Wash helped her up, but passed it off as a pain of the body. Stay calm. There's time to think this through, if he stays. She bit her lip and pressed against Wash, though not as closely as she would have liked. And if he goes, won't be no need.
"One time warp, coming up, sir." It surprised Wash, the effort it took to wrap that lame quip in a civil tone. He had never been fond of calling Mal "sir," but now, he realized, he despised it.
End chapter 11.
Chinese Quotes and Shakespeare References:
* Macbeth, Act II Scene 3 (Lady Macbeth distracts the Scottish lords who have been questioning her husband closely about King Duncan's murder)
Henry VI (Part I), Act III Scene 2 (the battlefield death of Lord Bedford, following the defeat of the French forces)
ta ma de = dammit!
Chapter 12: House and Home
Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope / Being had, to triumph, being lack'd, to hope.*
Author's Notes: And finally, we come to the bittersweet beginning of Wash and Zoë's future together. It's been an amazing experience – developing, writing and sending this story out into the world. A huge thank you to those who have been interested enough to ponder on and correspond with me about the themes and issues raised in DOTM and how the characters were presented. I'll be keeping my proud parent's eye on the story, so feel free to place a review and/or send me a message if there is anything you want to discuss, or just to let me know what you did or didn't like. See you all in the Black! Ella
It didn't take long for Mal to get around to that conversation with Zoë. He gave them both a few weeks to get more or less back on their feet, before he came calling at her bunk. Zoë knew unpleasantness was forthcoming, but she composed her face as usual and waited for him to have his say.
"You know I frown on shipboard romances?"
Zoë's impassive expression didn't change. "Don't know what you mean, sir."
Damn, she was good! "I mean," said Mal, a bit tetchy, "I frown on shipboard romances. They complicate matters, distract people from their proper duties. Then when it don't work out, just creates discord among the crew. And I just want to recall this fact to your mind, as it seems you've taken to looking at Wash in an amorous-type fashion of late."
Captain or not, this was going too far. Telling, no, ordering her, and about this, of all things! "Who I look at is my business, sir," Zoë said with cool finality. "I ain't sexin' the man, and he hasn't crashed us, yet. So I reckon 'til one of those scenarios changes there's nothing to discuss."
That was not the answer Mal expected. Arguing back to, taking issue with – that was definitely not what he was accustomed to from 'Yes, sir, No, sir' Zoë. So there was an it going on, and it was already starting to change things. For the worse, from his perspective. But her imperious, you-really-want-to-have-this-conversation? stare shut down the continuation of what promised to be, at best, a mutually vexing discourse, and Mal retreated, uh, strategically withdrew from her space.
He didn't even consider speaking to Wash. He was different, too, Mal had noticed. Like an element in his core had shifted, given him a more sober hue. Seemed kinda worried about something, but Mal's efforts to draw the pilot out had met with responses that were positively Jayne-like in their brevity. Was that on account of the it, or had Callum really shook him up that bad? Well, things would get back to normal soon enough, Mal was confident. Everyone was safe, Serenity was flying true, he and Zoë were healing, and Mal had a lead on the prospect of a shiny new job. Maybe that wasn't much, but it was enough.
After Mal had gone, Zoë looked at the effrontery that was Wash's blue, green and yellow print shirt, still thrown over the chair in her bunk. She hadn't gotten around to returning it. It was clean, though, all the stains of sweat and dirt and blood gone, because when she did return it, she didn't want Wash thinking she was ungrateful for what he'd done. He didn't ask after it, so appeared to be in no rush. Sad to say, the man seemed to have a small army of similar monstrosities to take its place.
That didn't bother her. The clothes didn't hide anything, now she knew the look and feel of the well-proportioned, muscular body underneath them.
As for monstrosities, those plastic dinosaurs remained scattered around the flight console, which suggested that Wash was gonna stay on as Serenity's pilot, at least for the time being.
And that did bother her.
Mal wasn't wrong about romance complicating the running of a ship. Dividing loyalties and such. But ta ma de, it meant a lot, more than she would have expected, having a man put her first like Wash had done when she told him what happened in the Valley. Wash was wrong, of course, blaming Mal. Didn't know what he was talking about. But still…
Zoë shook her head in protest. He wasn't the sort of man she needed, a soft man. How could he be? Hell, she didn't want to need a man at all. But sonofabitch if there wasn't something comforting about having that gorram ugly shirt around. Her frown deepened as she tried to find something else to look at in the bare little room. Knife… rifle… bed… pistol… mirror… second rifle...gorram ugly shirt. And it was just like him – chatty, irreverent, playful.
Driven to honesty, Zoë had to admit she was in love. She'd been there once or twice before, a long ways back, and wasn't so keen to return. Didn't like how it made her feel all warm and girly. And vulnerable. That'd all be fine and good if Wash felt the same way, but things didn't look to be headed down that road. He hadn't had much of anything real to say to her after they got back to the ship, although he fussed awkwardly over her at first, sitting with her in the infirmary and later in the common area, talking, listening, telling his fei hua stories to make her laugh. And she had leaned against him, and smiled, and laughed, feeling in herself an unaccustomed lightness.
But that all stopped about a week back. He hadn't said much of anything at all for some days. And he spent a lot of time on the bridge, surely more than necessary. Seemed kinda worried about something.
Chances are the man felt embarrassed, maybe even guilty. Going through an intense experience like they done at the asylum, conjures feelings in the heat of the moment that maybe aren't real. Emotions get all mixed up. And what he said before the doors opened, well, he'd probably reconsidered, but didn't want to hurt her feelings. Zoë understood, she did. It was a tough thing to ask of a man, a soft man, to look past the violent, vagabond life she had led. Was still leading. And they both knew that part of her life wasn't gonna change.
It'd been her and Mal, the two of them, for a long time. And Serenity was their home, their refuge, a place to hold, together, against whatever the ruttin' 'verse threw at them. But Zoë had no illusions. Mal lived in Serenity Valley. She hadn't had cause to think on it before, but now it struck her that, like Callum, he'd never really left there. But where Callum had lost pieces of his mind, Mal had lost pieces of his soul. And Zoë stayed in the Valley with him, of course she stayed, and willingly so. Out of loyalty, yes, but also out of love. A type of love. And it was companionship, of a sort. So they holed up there, in a house with no laughter, a cold house, full of shadows and things they both tried to forget.
Lately, she'd got to thinking – that part, where she lived – that might be susceptible to change.
Soldiers had to hold.
But women got held.
That's what she was thinking the last time she caught herself looking right at Wash. Fortunately, he didn't notice.
He'd been spending a fair amount of time with Kaylee these days. Maybe that was back on again. Better for everyone, Zoë supposed. No, she didn't begrudge that Wash should choose Kaylee. After all, I am a stone.
Wash was taking the phrase for another test run, getting a better feel for it, really putting it through its paces this time. "Meet my wife. Have you met my wife? She's pretty hot, isn't she, my wife!" He grinned broadly. Yes, he definitely liked the sound of that phrase. Sounded like he belonged somewhere.
Speaking of belongings, she still had his shirt. That was a good sign, right? Don't women take the shirts of the men they like? Wear them around the house. Sleep in them, 'au naturel', as it were, with nothing separating their soft, supple cocoa skin from the shirts of the men they like. Oh how Wash envied his shirt!
"I'll just have to check with my wife. Love to stay and chat, but I'm going to have sex with my sexy, sexy wife."
He'd been rehearsing with Kaylee, who declared she'd never heard a more romantic speech. But Kaylee was easily pleased. For Zoë, he needed to sound decisive, persuasive, strong. Especially that last one, although he knew that, of course, he'd never be as strong as she was.
"My deadly wife." The grin lost some luster, but hung on tenaciously.
He'd had plenty of time to think it over, the 'deadly' part. As far as Wash was concerned, he'd made his choice, back at the asylum, and he was surprisingly at peace with it. Zoë wasn't going to forget the war or pretend that Serenity Valley didn't happen. Those experiences were all part of what made her Zoë, and he understood that, he did. So everything that followed was simple. He loved her. He wanted her. And she wouldn't leave Mal. So, yes, to stay with her he would choose this life, this time with his eyes open.
If she would have him. That was still the question. She hadn't said anything afterwards, about his declaration of undying love, blurted out at just the wrong time, just before those heavy doors opened. And yeah, that was gonna be a great bedtime story for the kids one day, how mommy and daddy fell in love in a mental ward! She practically had to marry him now, if for no other reason than to end the fairytale with that.
And why shouldn't the story end happily? That's what he was thinking when he caught her looking at him again. She still had his shirt. As long as she held on to that, Wash held on to hope. And the dinosaurs remained on the flight console.
Zoë sighed. The thoughts had gone 'round in her head long enough. Best have it out with him. Not good for ship morale when folks don't know where they stand with one another. She swung her long legs out of bed, tucked the gorram ugly shirt under her arm and headed to the bridge, resigned.
Stay cool. Straighten your posture. Breathe.
He heard her approaching. Tzao gao, I'm not ready, not yet! Calm down, Washburne. Breathe. I said breathe! Okay, now just like you practiced. Commanding, serious, tall. Above all, no blathering. Blather is a definite turn-off to this particular woman.
"Hey there," he said breezily, swiveling around in his chair to flash her a wide smile. So far, so good.
Ha! thought Zoë. You don't fool me with that yu bun duh grin on your face, Hoban Washburne, 'cause your eyes ain't smiling. Yep, just as she'd suspected. He looked downright unsettled – nervous, agitated, apparently not at all pleased to see her. She decided to be brief, get right to business and spare him the distress.
"I wanted to return your shirt," she announced, her pitch low and unemotional.
Oh, so that's why she's here. The grin drained away.
It upset her to see that smile run and hide.
"Oh, um, thanks," he said awkwardly, holding the shirt at arm's length, as if it was a lump of moldy protein.
"It's clean." Zoë watched him carefully. Did he not want it back?
"Hm? Oh, yeah. Thanks." Wash seemed thoroughly distracted, in consequence of which there was a decided lack of conviction in his voice.
Huh! After all her pains, he didn't even care. She nodded once, hiding her disappointment pretty well, she thought, and turned to go.
But…but…the hero is supposed to get the girl at the end! Damn it, Washburne, do something!
"Zoë?" She turned back to him. "I...I got you something." In an instant he was next to her. And then he had retreated to stand by the flight console. He moved so quickly, it took Zoë a beat to understand that he had pulled something out of his baggy vest pocket and nervously thrust it at her, and now a small, flat box was in her hand.
As she started to open the box, Wash couldn't help himself. He shifted into full-on panic mode, and the carefully crafted phrases of tender and ardent devotion were unceremoniously shoved aside, replaced by:
"I saw it when we were on Persephone. A week back. And I thought maybe you'd like it, 'cause I know you wore your old one every day and Callum took it when he...uh, took the rest of your things. Er, your clothes. Anyway, I just thought maybe you'd like to wear this one. And...and think about ...think about it, y'know? The idea. Or not."
The words finally ran themselves out and dropped from nervous exhaustion. Oh God, Washburne! That was just a big, hot mess! You'd have done better reading off a gorram greeting card.
Zoë looked at the contents of the box for a few seconds. Then she lifted the necklace and held it up against the background of night and stars outside the cock pit windows. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she examined it closely in the dim bridge light, and then she raised a questioning eyebrow at Wash. He screwed his courage to the sticking-place and bobbed his head, hardly daring to breath.
"This is a betrothal necklace." Keep your tone level, girl. Perhaps he just made a mistake. Menfolk don't know from jewelry.
Wash gulped air and nodded again. "Um, yes, yes it is." Stop! That was great, nice and short. Might be we can salvage the situation.
Zoë looked at him thoughtfully. So it wasn't a mistake. And now she had a choice. Maybe. "I'm not leaving Mal. You understand that, right? And he's still the captain. Whatever hard feelings you got towards him, you're gonna have to put those aside or this won't work."
It took tremendous effort. In fact, it was probably the single most difficult thing he ever did in his life, and he didn't dare trust the job to his voice. But in the confines of that tiny bridge, under her smart, savvy, and potentially bone-crushing scrutiny, Wash managed to give a thoroughly convincing nod. It was to be the first, last and only time he ever lied to her.
They'd make it work, that much was true.
But no, he would never forgive Mal. Never forgive him for putting extra blood on Zoë's hands. For inspiring this blind, irrational loyalty that bound her to him and their violent, risky life. For any part of Zoë she would never give Wash, because Mal had already laid claim to it. For letting her be unhappy. Selfish bastard didn't deserve...
Wait! Shut up a minute…
Was that a yes? She just said yes, didn't she? She's smiling. She's laughing. She's coming closer. Musta been a yes!
He opened his arms to embrace her, but Zoë pushed him down into the pilot's chair and folded herself onto his lap. Then, to Wash's amazement and delight, she mussed his fair hair playfully. He gazed up at her, his earth, his ether, his new and glorious eternal after.
Then she took his head in her hands and kissed her man full on the mouth. Her man.
And Zoë thought, 'Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave.' Well, hump that all to hell! She wasn't going to stay and lose pieces of herself, like some. Behind her closed lids, she looked once more around the Valley, engulfed in dark and death. And then, feeling mighty, she climbed the hill and saw a fertile plain stretch out before her. For the first time in two years, the dawn rose, yellow with a hint of strawberry. The sky was endless blue. Yes, she would build her new house here, in this land, and she would thrive.
And Wash? He thought nothing at all. There was only a warm, velvety silence and the endless evening sky. And then, enveloped in her kiss, that's when it happened. That's when he saw it – the Southern Cross. He was home.
Literary References and Chinese Translations:
* Shakespeare's Sonnet 52
ta ma de = dammit!
fei hua = nonsense
tzao gao = oh, crap!
yu bun duh = stupid