"The world is dark, and light is precious.
Come closer, dear reader.
You must trust me.
I am telling you a story."
– The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
i. the floor gave way, and i fell down and down for miles
Sometimes, when they spent too long in the Black, Mal forgot what the sunrise was. Not the way it looked like when they were coming up on a solar system, the first peek of sun through Serenity's bridge, the way the windows filtered out the blinding light down to a harsh brilliance. Not the way it lit up every scuff and scrape on her outsides, the way she cast a shadow from it on the surface as they skimmed and hovered. Those were things he couldn't forget, because he relied on them, and he'd come to see them often.
The welcome dazzle of light as they came over and around new planets, after so many days in the Black, Mal enjoyed knowing it would always be there. Even after weeks flying, there was always that sight to come home to – no matter what home, or what sun, it would be there. When it wasn't, there was the ship's own sunrise – the starburst glow of her afterburn as she rocketed away from one danger or another, or just stretched her legs into a distance after too long a time drifting. As with all other things; when Mal had nothing else, he could still turn to Serenity.
The sunrise Mal forgot was much more simple. The sight of a deep, bleeding red as it poured itself up out of the earth, molten and warm. It wasn't about rebirth, it wasn't about consistency, it wasn't about having something happen every day just because nature said it ought to. It was about freedom, and space, and the smell of the earth as the dawn was chased away by a graying sky. It was about plenty of work to do, and being alive to do it.
For Mal, the sunrise never looked so sweet as when they'd come out from the Black. And he knew, as they neared Ariel for the first time in months, that the sun would never look so sweet as on that first beautiful morning after the Alliance had crumbled on its own expansive legs.
Which was why, he would think – later, when he had all the time for that sort of thing, and nothing more – he really should've expected the disappointment.
They'd had clear waves all the way through the Inner Rim. Simon had used the last dregs of any clout attached to his last name to gain the access necessary to monitor the signal band, and neither their names nor anyone else on Serenity had been mentioned at all. Which was, of course, worrisome in itself. Mal didn't want fame – though he wouldn't have minded a bit of the fortune – and he had no use for celebrity. It made things hard, caused drama where it wasn't necessary, and generally stirred things about in a negative fashion. But the fact that there was nothing being spread about what had happened on Miranda, even six months later; that was cause for concern. Something smelled off.
It was thirty minutes to atmo and they'd all gathered around the mess to sort through what rations needed to be purchased, when River's voice – and forever, Mal would have that feeling crawl down his spine, thinking on how she'd become the boat's voice – drifted through the coms.
"Voices," she said, and Mal wasn't halfway out of his seat before the word was finished.
"What's she heard?" Jayne called after him, looking more concerned with the low stock of sugar than much else.
"Trouble," Mal said, though it was mostly to himself. In a way – in most ways – he'd been waiting for it, though he supposed he hadn't realized it. But he could feel it, bone deep and strong and clear, like a growing musical tone, as he pulled himself up short next to the pilot's chair.
"Flashing," River said, and pointed at the vidscreen. They were being hailed. But she seemed distracted, eyes scanning the thickening stratosphere for something. Mal found himself pausing a moment to look as well, as if it would be anything he'd be able to see. He snapped his gaze back down and punched up the screen.
An Alliance uniform peered back at him. "Captain Malcolm Reynolds," the man said. "Captain Tandis Petsom."
"Right," Mal said. "There a problem?"
"Standard ship scan before docking," Petsom said. "You are most welcome back to Ariel."
Mal stared at the screen. "Right," he said again, quietly. "Sure we are. Anything else?" He could feel Zoe come up behind him, her sudden presence as strong as if she'd touched him.
"Have a wonderful day," Petsom said, and smiled, and signed away. The screen flickered blue back at him, until he jabbed the power button.
"Well, that's a mite unsettling," Mal said, to no one in particular.
"Sir?" Zoe cautioned.
"Brace for atmo." River's warning didn't interrupt Mal's stream of thought; both he and Zoe reached for the support bar above their heads, and rattled through the descent.
Mal's voice was unsteady as they shook in the small ship. "Did you see the way that hún dàn smiled at me? That ain't a kinder, gentler government."
Zoe blinked, serene and expressionless. "Trap?"
"You bet your two-toned roots it's a trap," Jayne said, shoving himself into the bridge. Zoe barely spared a glance for him. He carried a gun – large, of course, and loaded, and ready to be used. "What's the plan?"
"Got none," Mal said, and hated himself a good bit for how stunned he sounded in that moment.
"Captain?" Zoe said, not questioning, but reproachful. Never show doubt in front of the lower officers. "We turn tail now, we can make it back out of atmo in twenty, maybe thirty seconds. If we give her all we've got."
Mal didn't say anything for a moment, just swallowed, and weighed his options, and met Zoe's cool eyes, both of them thinking the same: they could've made atmo in twenty, maybe thirty seconds, six months ago. With the right pilot. Their glance was interrupted by River's voice, sharp and clear at his elbow.
"No backing out. They've taken us in claws."
Mal frowned, and came around the side of the pilot's chair to examine the view. "What's telling, xiǎo guǐ?"
Zoe stepped up to the secondary console to examine the reading. "We're locked in, sir. Hook and reel."
"Full reverse the engines, I want one-eighty." River didn't move, and Mal didn't look at her to snap, "Now, River, we haven't got much time for headgames and estimates and needlepoint, or whatever else you were pondering on."
"Won't work," River said, though she didn't disobey, and Mal had a small flash of something in his chest. If River knew, then River knew.
Still, that didn't mean they wouldn't try. "It will work," he called over the roar of the engines, and the coms crackled with noise before Kaylee's voice came through.
"Cap?" she sounded cautious, worried. "Something going on up there I oughta know about?"
Mal jammed his thumb into the still-mounted mouthpiece. "Give us everything she can afford, and strap yourself in." The order echoed around the belly of the ship, and Mal hoped the others would have the sense to get themselves down into safe areas by now.
He could feel the reverse thrust of the engines as they kicked, the whine of the vibration where it started low, and then shook itself up through his feet and into his teeth, clenched together. His eyes, though, stayed on the smallest point of the horizon, trying to judge by instinct and feel whether they'd made broken free even an inch.
For a moment – the space of a breath, of a heartbeat, of a single thought, or half – he could feel Serenity shudder backward; toward freedom and the Black. Barely a touch, and every muscle in his body instantly relaxed, tumbling into relief and liberty.
In the next moment, they were lurched forward, moving so fast that Mal could see the dim outline of the exterior docking ports through the cloud cover. River said nothing; just drew one knee up to her cheek, and wrapped her long arms around her shin. He could feel Zoe looking at him, and Jayne began to make impatient, angry noises behind him. The noises of a trapped animal.
But Mal only had eyes for the planet's surface drawing ever nearer, and what should have been the first sunrise of his free life.
ii. something the dead are keeping back
River woke to a gunshot.
Her body was pressed into the corner of the room, back to the meeting of the walls, palms flat against the trim, before she even registered that she was awake. Her breathing regulated more slowly than her brain, and she spent the time getting her bearings, and trying to understand the source of the sound. No windows, one door, and it hadn't moved. The door and its bolt didn't sound like that, far too raspy and much more metallic clang. She had heard a bullet, she was sure of it. A bullet from a gun. The biggest gun she'd ever heard.
Her vision flashed over, and she curled herself up, body folding like the flimsy canvas chairs she and Simon used to tote to the beach, fists grinding into her eye sockets – trying to replace the images with the sparks and fireworks that went off against rubbed eyelids. It didn't work – never had, so far, but that wouldn't keep her from trying trying trying. Grind out the images, grind out the thoughts, shut down her brain. Shut out the dreams.
But the shot hadn't been from a dream, was too real, had come straight into her head like the barrel pressed to one ear and the bullet coming out the other, had cracked open her head and poured in the gunpowder and used her mouth as the trigger.
Her vision flashed over again, and for a moment she thought she was blind – but the scene went backwards in jerks and starts, a sputtering old automobile from the history disks she'd watched as a girl – and the light shrunk, and shrunk, and shrunk to nothing, and as it peeled away there were people, people doing nothing, people expecting nothing, innocent except for their fathomless personal sins.
And then forward again, and all she could hear was the shot, and the roaring thunder and lightning flash of a thousand thousand thousand thousand voices going out at once, fast as a bullet leaving a gun.
She took a deep breath as the moment passed, and could feel the emptiness that the silence had carved out inside her, like being sick to her stomach after too much spun sugar from the traveling carnival. It was too much, and not enough, and it all felt like someone had tapped a tuning fork and laid the base against her open bone, and the only tone that could come through was a constant thrum of wrong, wrong, wrong.
Any further attempt at reflection was interrupted, though, by the scrape of the door opening. The sound was familiar by now – two thousand three hundred and four hours, one hundred and thirty eight thousand two hundred and forty minutes, over eight million seconds of familiar – but it still made her skin crawl, made her press back a little further into the corner of the walls, small hands curling up around her bare arms, wondering which of them it would be today, tonight, whenever wherever.
A boy came in, pale all over – eyes empty and hair dull from the industrial lights, mouth grey at the corners. River wondered if he could remember what the sun looked like, and then tried to remember if she could, either. But it wasn't the sun she was having trouble remembering. It was other things. Like always.
He shuffled in with a tray, wearing the same formless brown shift as River wore – as they all wore – stained in various bodily fluids, his own and those before him who had died, or been moved away to the factories, or 'cured' and shipped home. The tray had a shallow bowl filled with grey water, and he placed it carefully by the floor.
River watched him warily, knowing he would speak, as he always did, to the faceless schoolmaster whose questions he was always answering. He was never violent, and never tried to hurt her, or touch her, like some of the others – Claude, whose left eye she had nearly scratched out before the guards pulled her off, or Zin, whose hair had come out by the fistful – but his words did more than enough. He cocked his head at nothing, eyes moving back and forth all the time, as though he were reading something, and his voice leaked out in a high whine.
"There was a man in our town, and he was wondrous wise; he jumped into a brier bush, and scratched out both his eyes." The boy stood there for a moment, hands lax at his sides, limp white hair half-obscuring his eyes, and then, as though bidden by some unheard voice, took a deep bow at the waist.
When he straightened, he looked right at River.
"You go now," she commanded, and pointed toward the door.
"I go now," he echoed, completing their ritual.
River waited until the door was closed and bolted before she moved away from the corner of the wall, and stood, toes pointed outward, over the tray. She threw the liquid onto the floor, watched it explode outward in an exit wound spray, and then turned her attention back to what she had. Bowl, spoon, tray. Fifteen minutes. Door. Guard.
* * *
The Alliance controlled the Cortex.
Save for what had been officially dubbed as The Miranda Incident nine months prior, nothing had ever called that fact into doubt. The Alliance controlled the media – they controlled what people saw, when they saw it, how and why they saw it, how and if they reacted to it. After the news about Miranda was released by Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew of miscreants and fugitives, there was a tremor in this control.
A tremor, if given the chance, will grow to the size of a ripple. A ripple will touch every side of a pond, in some way, shape, or form. A ripple disrupts everything, even if only in the slightest way.
Nine months ago, after the news of Miranda's disaster was the first pebble to break the surface of Admiral Roger Tzalin's pond, a midnight gathering was called to discuss the problem. Although the word 'problem' was not used: it was considered far too negative a term, and so 'incident' became the tag to label the event in all of the Alliance's private history logs. Publicly, The Miranda Incident was never referred to. It would be included in no history texts, logs, coms, vids, feeds, waves, or recordings of any sort.
Nevertheless, it became Tzalin's assignment to bring Serenity and her crew to bear for what had fallen out of the aftermath of the Incident. Others dealt with the event itself: twelve hours after the midnight council was called, the Core planets went under Marshall Law, supported by the ever-vigilant Alliance troops. Less than twenty hours after that, the spare guard began to be dispatched in waves toward the Outer Rim – sonar circles, spreading from the Core outward, to spread the balance of the Alliance.
They would not be disrupted. Far worse had occurred since the War for Independence, and far worse would happen.
There was resistance, of course. But in the Core, in particular, a good amount of armed men on the streets were all that was necessary to get the crowds under a modicum of control. People wanted the Incident explained away. They wanted to believe, to be given a reason to believe in the Alliance.
And it was Tzalin's job to give the people a reason.
More than his job – his duty. His obligation to the people. And for the ensuing two seasons, he had fulfilled that obligation, to the letter. The military occupation was stepped up, reinforced with troops from bordering planets – they used all of Gaite as a staging planet for the special forces, after all – and every attempt at overthrow was sucked under, a step at a time. All broadcasts were seized, of course, nearly immediately. A campaign of antipropaganda was proposed, to turn Reynolds and his crew out of every haven they could attempt to find.
But Tzalin had found, relatively quickly, that no one in the entire 'verse had any idea that Reynolds' crew was responsible for the wave broadcast except for Alliance members. They were no heroes, no saviors. They were still criminals, and thieves, and general Bad Men. Which made it that much easier to simply sweep them under the rug.
Martyrs, after all, were significantly more difficult to deal with.
Four months after the broadcast, it was decided, after a heated debate amongst the senate, that a public recognition of the existence of Reavers would be necessary. A small lie to cover a large one – that they had known that Reavers existed, but certainly had had no hand in creating them. The plan had worked, and the subsequent revolutionary groups, though fierce and persistent, were no more than particularly angry flies buzzing on the expansive hide of the Alliance's reach. Even the Outer Rim was saturated now. In another six months, Tzalin knew, they would have the entire trading quarter regulated. No more smugglers. No more pirates. Nothing but absolute and total control.
But with the admittance of the Reavers, there came additional questions – why, if the Alliance had known about the Reavers, had they done nothing? A team of scientists was gathered and the problem was picked apart, piece by piece, over and over again. Nothing was found. Tzalin sent out Petsom, and three wives were killed before they achieved real results.
A solution. A promise. The end of all threat.
The scientists came and gathered, a special meeting of all the parliament was called. The data was shown, and the product was demonstrated on a glass cage with a homeless girl inside. Invisible, silent, just as deadly as the PAX that had been used before. But not a gas, not this time. Nothing so fallible as a gas.
If a planet could be made, it could just as easily be unmade. All the Reavers could be destroyed in a single fell blow, wiped out simultaneously, a slate washed clean with rag and soapy water. If a few of the Rim planets were also exterminated in the process, so be it. Planets that had been terraformed could easily be claimed under the Alliance flag once more.
The answer to all of Tzalin's problems.
And it had worked. Malcolm Reynolds and his crew in custody and scattered a far distance from one another. The Reavers had fallen silent. The furthest of the Rim planets had been wiped clean.
The dawn of a beautiful new era.
* * *
When she straightened, her shoulders were even, and her eyes closed. She raised her arms in a graceful arc above her head, her dress hanging oddly from her bony back, the crease of her spine visible through the cloth. She turned her face into her left arm, cold nose brushing her skin, and listened.
As she began to sway with the music, her shoulders dipping in slow rotations, she could feel her joints pop. They'd become too accustomed to the lack of motion, and relearned the dance steps more slowly than River.
It was easy to take the knife off of him, and she let her arm fall, and turned with the music, kicked off with her back foot, and left a graceful arc. A body fell behind her, in the beat of the song, and she could feel the warmth of the blood, sticky under her feet, and pulled herself in, bowing, her arm across her body.
Three steps backward, her shoulders down again, her head bobbing slowly – jazz, syncopated, the beat off. Room for interpretation. Her feet slipped and slid, and her arm arced out again, and another body fell. This time out of synch,
She stopped for a moment, brief, her hands clasped tightly in front of her, lids drawn over her eyes. The song arced over her, and her hand followed the motion of it, the blade slicing light in the dark of her eyes, a shower of hot sparks falling onto her bare feet as she moved, twisted, ducked, and stood again. The beat was stronger now, louder in the dark, she could feel it creeping up through the soles of her feet, and she tapped the bare toes of one foot along with the rhythm.
The hold crescendoed in its silence, and she moved again, power in her thighs this time, straight up, toward the bridge of the song. Something in her shoulder cracked as she swung her arm around again, the knife catching – again, again, again, toward the coda of the piece, lines and notes tangling around her legs, and she fell hard, sprawling in a crash of cymbals onto hot, slick metal. Her head cracked the ground, and her eyes fell open, and the song ended.
River craned her head up, and looked down at her hand, where it still clutched the knife, black with blood. Her shift was the same color, stained from the hem up in arcs and rings, the smear of a handprint along one knee.
"Dirty in her Sunday best," she said to the corpse next to her, and pushed herself to her feet, picked her way through the bodies of the guards. Plastic opened everything – grabbed a key card and, for good measure, took a minute to pull the coat off of one of the bodies.
As with all persistent songs, the tune stayed with her, and she hummed a few bars of it before she found a shuttle that would take her out of the dark and into the Black.
* * *
The days were long on Gaite, so Jayne got used to sleeping when it was light out. It wasn't hard – he'd spent enough time learning to sleep when and where he could, and it made sense to him that Gaite was selected as the military training planet for that reason. He didn't give it more thought than that, and mostly, people left him alone.
There'd been problems when they'd brought Jayne in to tether on Gaite. They had no record of him, for one. As far as anyone was concerned, Jayne didn't exist. What did exist, though, were the approximately one hundred and sixteen Alliance officers that Jayne identified as his own victims. It was an odd confession – a computer, Jayne in handcuffs in front of a vidscreen, legs splayed apart, slouched low, and making odd grunts of confirmation whenever he saw a familiar face.
Of the over one hundred officers that Jayne had killed, thirty four of them had been guards in prison cells that had held him. Six of them had been judges who had attempted to convict him – all six during the conviction itself. Two had been doctors who had tried to sedate him. One had been an ex-officer who spent his time moonlighting in a general store, and had refused to sell Jayne two new strings for his guitar.
The official statement, under confession, read only: "They shot first." And then, underneath: "Or they was gonna."
Given his history of escape, the panel decided, almost unanimously, that putting Jayne in a prison wasn't an option. So he was sent to Gaite, to work as a swineherd. And learning to sleep when it was light out wasn't the only thing Jayne had to get used to – he also had to get used to the smell, the utter reek of pig, of rotten slop and more feces than they could move in a single day, of animals in heat and the stench of the slaughterhouse. Summer on Gaite was that much hotter because of the smell.
But as far as Jayne could figure, he didn't have it so bad. The Foreman took a particular liking to him, and gave him work to do with his hands. If Jayne had something to do with his hands, he figured, he could forget what it felt like to be holding a gun, or a man's throat, or the hilt of a proper knife. Most days it worked.
Most other farms, the hands didn't wear shirts – it was too hot out. The hands at the slaughterhouse; they wore as much as they could bear in the heat. Jayne's t-shirt had soaked through after only two hours that morning, and he planted his shovel in the mountain of pig shit at his feet to swipe at one of his temples with his bicep. It made his skin sting, and he panted into the heat.
"Gonna be a hot one, kemosabe," the Foreman said to him, shielding his eyes to look up at the sun. As if he could tell the sheer temperature from the color of the sky alone.
"What'd you call me?" Jayne squinted up at him, pulled the shovel out of the manure with a dry sucking sound. The Foreman looked down at him, amused, and Jayne flicked a sneer at him, and went back to his shoveling.
"Captain wants you to play for him after dinner tonight," the Foreman said. "Thought I'd try out the harmonica with you, if that's alright." The Foreman, a man of frequently horrid humor and worse skills on the harmonica, was often of the habit of asking his prisoners permission for things.
"You bein' ironical," Jayne said, and grunted with the effort of moving a pile of waste onto the cart that would be brought to the fuel house. "Funny."
"I appreciate the recognition," the Foreman said, magnanimous. "Seven o'clock. After mess." The man wrinkled his nose, and turned his mount around – a spotted pony that huffed and stamped, eager to get back to the cool of a stable. "Wash up first. Not that it'll help."
Jayne didn't say anything, just nodded, and felt a trickle of sweat roll down his nose, and ground past it. He'd been taking orders his entire life, but for the first time, he was finding it difficult to understand what, exactly, he was getting out of this arrangement. Aside from a particular lingering aroma.
The Foreman raised the reigns on the pony's bridle, and then hesitated, and looked down at Jayne, sideways. "You seen the shipment due in yet, boy?"
"Nosir," Jayne grunted, and felt something in his back strain harshly as he straightened with his load. "S'posed to come yesterday?"
"That's the one," the Foreman said, and scanned the horizon again, at the rising sun. "Lǎn hún dàn runners. You give a yell, you see anyone coming, boy. We need those supplies."
"Yessir," Jayne grunted, and dug the shovel in particularly deep, focused on his pile of shit, until the Foreman clicked his tongue at the pony, and the two of them retreated from Jayne.
* * *
Inara told herself she would try to make it easier on Kaylee, but she couldn't be there all the time. The guards would come when she was away, and she would come back and find Kaylee gone. Sometimes, they would have summoned her so quickly that her shoes would still be by the door when Inara was dismissed, tattered and dark and waiting for feet.
Privately, Inara found it a small victory that they were still permitted clothes. The cells were cold, and without them, and unable to constantly rely on one another for body heat, it would have gotten both of them ill almost immediately. Inara didn't want to think about what would happen if they fell ill, and were no longer permitted to serve the guards in the one capacity that had been found suitable for them both.
Sometimes, she wondered what had happened to Zoe. Sometimes it was bitter – why the other woman had been spared this, and they were left to suffer. Sometimes it was simple worry – whether anyone else from the crew was still alive.
Mostly, she tried not to think at all.
The first week, Kaylee came back pale, bleeding at the worst, mostly. The guards struck her in the face sometimes, if she didn't obey fast enough. It took longer for Kaylee to learn this. She would shake at night, both of them curled up on the metal slab they'd set aside for sleeping – it helped to do domestic, normal things like that, sectioning off the room. Inara found bruises on her hips, and started sleeping on her back to spare her bones.
Inara had given in too quickly – she knew that now, that she should have fought and scratched and bit, the things Kaylee must have done, to draw the rough and stronger guards away from the girl. But she had let her training take over, in the horror-blurred rush of the first two days, tinged in blues and grays and purples, like a bruise in her memory. And by then, it was too late. Inara was taken by the elder guards, the women – the ones who cared about glossy hair and soft hands.
"Look at the whore," she would hear them say. "The whore who still thinks she's a Companion. Where has your training gone, míng yuán? Where have your choices gone now?"
And Inara would go deep into her mind, through they gray and the dark, and offer her body to the gods to destroy as they wished.
The day they shaved Kaylee's hair, the girl stopped fighting.
Inara was in her cell waiting – tending to scrapes on her knees with a rag torn from the bottom of her skirt, which had gone to tatters sometime after the third week, and a small bowl of water they were given three times a day. The door opened, and she kept her eyes on the floor – eye contact made them angry, mostly – and waited for the sound of the tumble of limbs striking the concrete, the sound she'd gotten used to of Kaylee resisting the escort. Instead, there was nothing but the whisperbrush of bare feet and boots, and the door closed itself again.
When the bolt threw closed, she looked up. Kaylee leaned against the metal door, her bare skull gleaming in the halogen light, the back of her head resting against the surface, eyes closed.
Since they were not permitted to speak, Inara could say nothing – and Kaylee's eyes opened, and where Inara thought she should have seen a dead gaze – corpse eyes, like she saw in her own reflection now – she saw only the rage that the girl kept off her face. It burned for a short moment, an eon unfolding and collapsing in on itself in the same instant. And then it was gone, and Kaylee came and sat next to her, and helped her clean her cuts.
The day they shaved Kaylee's hair, Inara forgot how to cry.
* * *
Simon was the first person to admit: he was not a strong man. He'd never won the races at school as a boy. He'd played polo for his preparatory academy, but had never thought to compete for team captain. After he had graduated, and been accepted into the Conservatory on Ariel, he'd been eager to leave organized sports behind. That sort of activity had been more suited for River – she loved going to the arenas, to watch the reenactments of the obscure sports from Earth That Was, rugby and cricket and golf. Anything she watched, she would immediately want to play, to touch, to understand, and Simon would return to their home to plead her case with their father, who stood as arbiter for any and all of River's interests.
It wasn't that Simon always won – far from it – simply that his father usually conceded to the logic in his son's queries. And so, for a week, or two, or three, River would litter the grounds with horseshoes and wickets and tees and clapboards and medicine balls. However long it took for her to grasp the activity in its entirety, and then the equipment would be stashed away – to where, Simon was never sure, though he sometimes wondered enough to think about, one day, asking – and River would discover something new, better, faster, more complex. Something to match her.
So, while Simon was willing to admit that he was physically fit – as any doctor should be, he considered, if they are to be able to properly advise the physical welfare of his patients – he was not, in his own mind, particularly strong.
His strength lay in his mind. In his ability to think, to puzzle, to muddle through. To remember things. His retention of fact and fiction and the often thin line between the two.
It was with great disturbance, then, that Simon found himself having forgotten the particular length of River's hair.
It was an inconsequential detail, he supposed, if he examined the matter from a distance. But the problem, really, was that Simon had never been able to consider any matters regarding River from any sort of academic distance whatsoever. So the thought hit him particularly hard: he was halfway in and out of his bunk, one leg under the covers, twisted around to give the verbal settings to the alarm clock for his shift in two hours, when the thought hit him – six months. If he hadn't seen her in that long, her hair would be fathomlessly longer. Dozens of variables flooded him – whether or not they'd been feeding her well, if they'd cut her hair upon bringing her into captivity, if, perhaps, she'd pulled it all out in a fit of pique.
He sat for nearly twenty minutes, staring at the far wall, imagining how different she would be. She was young, still, not far past seventeen, and girls faces changed so easily and so frequently at that age.
He closed his eyes, let his head rest on one of his knees, and tried to control his breathing. The last time he'd thought about River for too long, he'd had an attack, and nearly hadn't been able to activate the call sequence for medical attention.
Over the rush of sound in his ears, Simon became gradually aware of a pounding on his door. He struggled out of the covers and padded, barefoot, to the keypad, bumped his shoulder into it to open the door, and stood back a respectful distance.
An anonymous guard, one Simon had seen many times – or perhaps he'd never seen him before, perhaps they were all starting to look the same – snapped into the room, gun out, and swept the corners with his eyes before meeting Simon's. "Emergency. Put on your clothes."
Simon looked down at his threadbare linen pants, his bare feet, and shook his head. A new guard, then, if he was giving inane commands. "No time."
The guard took this contradiction in stride, and rammed Simon in the back with the butt of his gun. "Move," he barked, herding Simon into the hallway.
They went at a half-run over the cold metal floors, each step a biting shock to Simon's drawling neural system. He hadn't slept in twenty hours, and before that, it had only been for snatches of minutes at a time. As they swept up a long staircase, Simon made a mental list of all the patients he'd seen in the past two days. Which of them would qualify for an emergency wake-up call for the head electrosurgeon, and what precisely could have gone wrong in each of their recoveries to warrant a panic. Or if there had been someone new brought in that would require his expertise above the normal staff surgeons at the hospital.
"Move," the guard ground again, nudging him with the barrel of the gun.
"That's really unnecessary," Simon said wearily, half turned to look wearily at his escort, and used his back to open the door to the glossy bay. The ceramic floor, an immediately palpable difference from the metal, was stained a rusty maroon underneath one of the tables. A woman was hemorrhaging badly on the table, and Simon watched in frustration as a doctor let a vein slip through his fingers and disappear into the woman's body cavity.
"Your assessment?" The voice came from beside him. Captain Petsom leaned against one of the observation windows.
"I can fix her," Simon said. "If that idiot you've got crushing her arteries in there doesn't kill her first."
Petsom considered him for a moment, and then nodded toward the table. "Go on, then."
Simon could feel the strain in his calves that kept him from leaping toward the woman, shoving the inept doctor out of the way. "I need my hands."
The cool gaze that Petsom used on him was particularly effective, even Simon had to admit that much to himself. "Do you really."
"Who is she?" Simon snapped. "A dignitary? Some visiting Captain's mistress? A daughter?"
The other man surveyed the girl on the table. "Linguistics specialist."
"Is she important?" Simon persisted, turning himself away from the woman. One of the monitors behind him began to wail an alarm.
Petsom's gaze drifted lazily back toward his. "You might say."
"Well, she's going to be very dead in approximately three minutes if you don't give me my hands," Simon said, irritable. "And I'll be the one to suffer for it, and maybe you'll take away my food, or my water, or not let me sleep, and that's fine. But she'll still be dead, and you'll still be out a linguistics specialist."
One side of the captain's mouth curled up slightly.
"Give me back my hands," Simon said, and the 'god damn' was inherent in his tone.
Petsom pulled one of Simon's useless wrists up in his own scarred grip, turned it over, palm up, and examined the small metal band that cut into his skin. "Excellent work, doctor," he murmured, as he punched in the activation code.
Simon ignored the familiar rush of touch as his fingers began to work again. He spared neither word of thanks nor final scowl toward the captain, simply pushed his way into surgery – with his fingers on the door – and stepped immediately over the woman.
Assuming he stabilized her condition – something he now had less than two minutes to achieve – and then continued with the surgery – a minimum of thirty minutes – and then lingered for cleanup and assessment, and the other necessary signature work involved in any medical event, Simon would still have less than fifty-seven minutes with his fingers.
And then they would be dead again. Useless, the nerves cut from his nervous system, the muscles unstrung and limp, the bones set to rot within the skin.
Most days, Simon was not permitted to use his hands. He was brought in to assess each patient, and stood in advisement on the particularly difficult surgeries. It was only when there were complications that Simon was given the liberty to take up the tools himself, to exercise his delicate touch to remedy the situation. On average, Simon was given the use of his hands ten hours in any given week. There was never any warning or pattern to when or where he might be given the liberty.
When he slept, if he dreamt, it was of his hands.
* * *
"This row'll be all yours," the matron said, rummaging on her large key ring for the skeleton that would open the heavy metal doors.
"Just six?" Evie stood with her hands crossed over her chest, surveying the doors.
"Six is more than enough. These are the top security girls. No one goes out, no one goes in. They don't see daylight, they don't see you. They see a pail of slop come in for food. Those doors don't open, save for medical emergency." The matron scowled at the first door, and slammed open the small peep hole with a metallic screech, and pointed. "Mesh wiring, electrified. So don't touch it." She slammed the small door shut, and moved on to the next door.
"This'n here, you'll hear her crying quite a lot." The matron thumbed at the door. "Just ignore it. You'll get used to it after a spell. Doc don't want no false alarms, so don't be thinking she's in some sort of state. Just ignore her."
Evie nodded, and eyed the door warily. "There's passcodes on alla these. What's the keys for?"
"Keys is the secondary lock," the matron said, and finally managed to wrest the skeleton key out of its nest of brothers – they all looked the same to Evie, she wasn't sure how anyone would be able to tell the one from the others. "You gotta have both of 'em to open the doors. That's why you never," she slammed the key into Evie's hand and met her eyes, "but never open them doors, girl."
She waited until Evie gave her jerky nod of confirmation, and pocketed the key, before taking her further down the row. "Door number three, that'll get your eyes scratched out. 'S how we lost our last girl. So don't touch her, and don't give her a fork with her dinner, less'n you want your fingers chopped clean off. She'll bait you. Don't go for it. Clear?"
"Yes ma'am," Evie said, lip curling briefly, and then eyed the fourth door. "What's in that'n?"
"You don't need to fret your little head about these two," the matron said, bustling past the fourth and fifth door, all the way to the end. "They been here so long, they don't know left from right or Christmas from July. It's this girl's gonna give you the trouble." The matron pounded on door number six, and immediately, a scrabbling at the latch could be heard.
"She's our newest girl. Wants outta here something fierce," the matron said, laughing. "She don't wear no clothes, most times, the warden and the Doc figures it's some form 'a…" her voice took on a mocking, educated air. "Social Restrictive Control." She grinned, and tapped on the door again, and the sounds went wild once more. "Or something like that. Either way, you gotta watch she doesn't make a grab for you any time you open the latch for meals. She nearly got my eye out a few weeks back." The matron turned to show Evie her left eye, where deep claw marks had been left.
"How'n blazes did she manage that?" Evie asked, confounded.
The matron grimaced, and pulled away from the door, lowered her voice to an almost-reverent whisper. "She sits in there and files her fingernails down on the brick. Sharp as wildcat's claws, she's got 'em. You ever look in on her, that's what you'll see. She's on the end, y'see, so she gets a patch of sky, and sometimes the moon comes in. You look in on her at night, she ain't sleeping. Just waiting for somebody to be fool enough to open that door fullway."
"What's she in for?" Evie muttered back, her eyes still on the door.
"That t'aint your business nor mine," the matron said. "Our only job's to keep them clean and fed and alive. What the Doc does with them," here she paused to tap at her temple meaningfully, "that ain't our business."
Evie frowned, and turned her gaze toward the matron. "How's we supposed to keep them clean if we can't get near enough to was – "
The matron's hand clapped heavily over her mouth, and Evie let out a squeak of surprise.
"Whatever you do," the matron whispered, and her eyes went over her shoulder for a moment, checking, and then back to Evie's face. "Don't you never, ever say w-a-s-h. Not never. You got that?"
Evie squeaked again, and nodded, and the hand pulled itself away.
"Good girl," the matron said, and straightened her long skirts. "Come on, now, we'll show you where the lye's kept."
* * *
On days when Jayne was particularly well behaved – which was to say that he was too exhausted to start fights, attempt to grope the nurses, or to stay up getting drunk on poorly distilled gasoline and gambling away various bits of clothing – he was often rewarded with a shift in the mess halls. As one of the few prisoners who could be trusted to cook without poisoning the rest of the population, Jayne enjoyed the opportunity to get away from the numbing task of transporting vast piles of animal feces.
He had used the shift in the mess halls as an escape attempt only once. With so many knives handy, it hadn't been hard to kill a few guards and get halfway toward the shuttle landing pad before they'd taken him down with an animal tranquilizer. As punishment, he was beaten severely, forced to sleep in the manure piles for two weeks, and not fed for five days. During this punishment, he was still tasked to do manual labor. On the evening of the fifth day, he collapsed, and was not brought to any medical facility until the morning of the seventh day, where the doctors did just enough to put him back out in the yard again.
After that, Jayne hadn't tried anything more.
When he came in for his shift at the stoves that morning, the head cook was already snorting and spitting on the griddle, large wads of tar-flecked sputum sizzling on the hot metal surface. Jayne grimaced and washed his hands in lukewarm water, for all the good it would do, and pulled on a filthy bloodstained apron.
"Thing I don't get," Jayne said to the head cook. "We're living on a planet," he gestured all around them, "full 'a pigs." He looked at the cook as though his point ought to be obvious from that statement alone.
The cook raised his eyebrows in a bit of a 'so what' expression.
"We oughta be eating pigs!" Jayne said forcefully, slapping a spatula down on the griddle. The glob of spit hissed under the pressure, and he scraped it into the grease trap.
"Protein soup's good as anything else in the 'verse," the cook said. "Pigs is for shipping, not for eating."
"And what do you think happens to the pigs after they get shipped?" Jayne groused. "They don't just sit around as no damn house pet, that's for gorram sure."
"Mebby so," the cook said, and then snorted and spat again, this time into the sink. "Just our place to cook it, not to question it. Get the griddlecakes on, go halfs on the oat. We're low this month, too many new prisoners."
Jayne grunted and went for one of the large industrial mixers. They worked together in silence for some time, and then the breakfast shift began to shuffle in, and Jayne was relegated to serving. The extent of the job required him to stand at a large metal vat filled with lumpy grey liquid, and spoon it out by the ladle onto cracked and stained trays as his fellow prisoners shuffled by.
"Protein soup," one of the men said as he paused for his serving.
"Get it while it's hot," Jayne said, and they grunted at one another.
"You think it'd be any better cold?" the man behind him in line asked. He received a sharp glower.
"You find me after your shift," the first man said to Jayne, and pointed with his spoon. "I got something real interesting to show you."
Jayne blinked at him slowly. "Alright then."
The rest of his shift went slowly, and he was granted a twenty minute reprieve during the transition between breakfast and lunch, where he went behind the kitchens and relieved himself against the wall of the building. When he zipped up and turned around, the man was standing there. Jayne let out a yelp, and then growled.
"Ain't wise to sneak up on a fella when his back is turned," Jayne growled.
"Just trying to prove my worth, friend," the man said slickly. "Could've stabbed you with your pecker in your hands, and didn't."
Jayne gave him a wary look, as though he could follow this logic, but wanted a reason not to. "Alright then," he said. "What's this going on?"
The man looked around, highly suspicious, and pulled his shirt up. A crude little plastic baggie was tucked into his waistband, and he pulled it out and tossed it to Jayne.
Jayne caught the bag one handed and immediately examined its contents, though he spared a wary glance for the man, who was readjusting his shirt. "What's this supposed to be?"
"Mushrooms," the man said, and Jayne looked closer.
"Ain't like any mushrooms I ever seen," he said.
"Then you ain't ever seen real mushrooms."
Jayne made a sound. This was, in fact, true. He had never seen or eaten real mushrooms. But he'd seen pictures, on menus, and when shopping for supplies in the stock houses. "Where'd you get them?"
"Fresh grown on Gaite daily," the man said with a laughing sneer. "Best quality mushrooms pig shit can produce."
The startled noise that ripped out of Jayne surprised even him. "These were growing in the piles?"
"Course they were," the man replied.
Jayne squinted at him. "You want me to eat something that was growing in massive piles of pì huà?"
A satisfied expression leached itself onto the man's face. "And there's plenty more where that came from, if you can convince the Foreman to look the other way about the missed shipment from earlier this week.
"No way in guay am I eating something that came out of a zhū tún bù," Jayne said, and was about to toss the baggie back at the man when he stopped, and cocked his head, and squinted his eyes into tiny slits. "Why you want that missing shipment to stay missing, anyway?"
"The shuttle was due from the other side of Gaite," the man said, smirking. "And we had it hijacked. It ain't comin'."
"Mn," Jayne grunted. "Well, you might wanna check on that." He pointed over the man's shoulder toward a descending shuttle with a bit of a wobble in its balance.
The man swore under his breath and took off running toward the shuttle. Jayne, still holding the baggie, stuffed it down his pants and took off after him, itching for a bit of excitement.
The Foreman yelled victoriously as the shuttle touched down, and armed crew circled the loading docks, waiting for the cargo door to open so that items could start to be transferred. After the first minute of no motion, the Foreman began to look a little uneasy. After the second moment, as Jayne drew closer, he silently urged his men to open the shuttle, through a series of simple hand gestures.
A hatch in the side, small enough for a single person, hissed open as they drew near, and everyone stopped again.
"What in the damn hell – " the Foreman said. "I ain't never seen anything like this."
"I have," Jayne said, staring placidly at the door.
"What - ?" was all the Foreman had a chance to say before River stepped out and shot him in the head. Jayne caught him as he fell backward, stripped him of his gun and his knife and, for good measure, his money bag, and ducked behind one of the water pumps the shift men used for washing up while bullets exploded to the left of him. Jayne waited patiently for the shooting to take one turn or another, and when it became clear that River's steady one-squeeze shot technique was working, he threw his own ammo into the lot.
It took near five minutes before Jayne could work his way over to River's side, and onto the shuttle, but it seemed like longer. She spared him a cursory glance and shot a pursuing guard in the chest. "Ready to be rescued?" she asked.
"Like hell," he said. "You gonna stand around and gab all day, or get this tub of bolts back into the air?"
"I'm a better shot than you are," River said calmly, and, as if to prove her point, very calmly shot another two advancing guards. "You go fly her."
Jayne, uncertain, growled a little under his breath, and then tore himself away from the open hatch and slammed his way into the pilot's chair. The buttons were unfamiliar, but most of the dials were all the same, and he eventually found something to start up the booster engines. The sound of the port door slamming shut echoed all the way up to the tiny bridge, and River was hovering over him before he even had a chance to take off, shooing him out of the way in the manner of all young mothers do their infant sons, and expediently removed him from behind the controls.
"Well," he said, as they skimmed the surface of the planet.
She wrinkled her nose at him, and looked up, eyes wide in the afternoon sun. "You smell like evil."
* * *
Kaylee missed lemons.
When she'd been just a young thing, no higher than her daddy's knee and light enough to ride on the dog's back like her cousins did on ponies, her Ma had taken her to a bazaar three days away. The ride had been long and tiresome, and they'd taken most of it on the back of a man's transport. The rest of the way they'd had to walk in the dust, and at night they slept propped up against one another, or with Kaylee curled into a tiny ball in the curve of her mother's stomach and legs.
In the mornings, her mother would crack open a cactus and Kaylee would wash her face and hands and blow her nose, dark colors from the dirt of the road. "I don't mind the dirt, Momma," she would say, peering up through her bangs at her mother.
"Dirt's all well and good," her mother had said, and hefted the pack onto her shoulder again. It would be heavier on the way home, and the small cart they'd brought along would be weighed with seed and cloth and sugar. "But there's a time for clean same's there a time for filthy. Git along, Kaylee."
So Kaylee had got along, because Ma was worth listening to, and wasn't afraid to use her hand, since she'd raised so very many boys.
At the bazaar, Kaylee was free to wander – she knew most of the stalls because she'd been allowed to go the year before, in a sling on Daddy's back – and things were still new and exciting and ready to be held in her small, eager hands. She'd run from stall to stall grabbing things up, sometimes to the amusement, sometimes to the yelled chagrin, of the merchants. She saved her two bits for the clockwork shop, just like last time, and the pile of scrap that the shopkeeper dumped onto the table for her made her bounce with delight.
"Don't reckon I know what you plan to do with this," the man had said, scratching at his moustache. "But I reckon it's gonna get you into a heap of trouble, girlie."
"Momma said I could," Kaylee had said defiantly, trying to scoop all the cogs and springs and metal bits into her arms.
"Well," the man had said, his smile disappearing under his moustache. "I best get you a bucket, at the least."
And so Kaylee had gone on through the bazaar with her pail full of scrap metal, copper bolts and iron curlicues spilling out over the top, ducking to and fro between people's legs, until something assaulted her nose so hard it nearly made her drop the pail. She followed the tendrils of scent as far as she could, and at the end, nearly knocked into a cart full of yellow squashed spheres.
"What!" she said, not able to formulate her astonishment at the neon yellow atrocities. She hadn't been able to resist drawing nearer, pressing her nose to the rough wooden edge of the handcart.
"Those are lemons," came the smooth voice of the man who sat beside the cart. He was skinny, and wrapped up in silk robes and had a big straw hat – not like the kind her brothers had brought back from Persephone, but like the kind Daddy wore when he plowed the fields.
"What's lemons?" Kaylee had asked, tip of her nose bumping one.
"Fruit," the man said, his voice rich but neither amused nor disapproving. Merely informative, and he'd picked one of the lemons off the top of the pile and put it in her hands. She'd put the bucket of scraps between her feet so that no one could sneak off with it without her noticing. "They grow on trees. They're very sour."
"Like the funny looking grapes?" Kaylee had wagered.
The man's mouth flickered in something that could've been a smile, and Kaylee had beamed, to help show him how it was supposed to look. "Not like those, not quite," he said, and reached for another lemon. He pared it with a knife drawn from nowhere – a sharp one, from the ease it slid into the rough hide of the lemon. It was all knobbly and slick, and it had reminded Kaylee, at the time, of what a plastic plucked chicken would feel like. Though why anyone would make a plastic plucked chicken was beyond her.
At the cut in the lemon, a small well of fluid came out, as the man squeezed the sides. He'd nodded his head toward it and held it out for Kaylee to reach, and she'd swiped her finger along the fruit and immediately stuck her finger into her mouth to taste.
She'd yelped as the taste hit her, eyes wide, and that time, the man had smiled.
"That ain't right!" she had protested, staring. "That ain't any kinda natural!"
"On the contrary," the man said. "Nothing could be more so. The lemon gives us many things." He'd reached into a box near his feet and Kaylee had scuttled over to see, her pail of metal forgotten. "Look, here," he'd said, and pointed to the various shapes. "Candles, soap, candy, juice."
"Candy?" she'd said, her voice very, very quiet.
"Take this," he said, and passed her what looked like a candy cane. Hard sugar with, she saw as she held it lengthways up to the sun, a hole down the middle. A candy straw. The man took out his knife again and bored a hole into the side of the lemon. "Stick that," he'd said, and pointed to the candy, "in there," he'd said, and pointed at the hole.
Kaylee had bit her lip in concentration, and put the sugar into the lemon, and then, figuring the next bit out for her self, sucked the lemon juice out through the candy. Her face contorted into astonished pleasure. "Lemons," she said, when she could. "Goll-ee."
"So now you know," the man had said, and gave her a wink. His eyes had been a bit gold, or maybe it was just Kaylee's memory of the sun reflecting off of them.
"Wish I'd saved my money for a lemon," she mourned, looking at the small lump cradled in her hands. "Stead of the metal bits."
"Hmm," the man had said, and raised his eyebrows and pulled on his long, thin beard, and peered into the bucket the same way she'd peered into his crate of goods. "What were you going to do with all that?"
She'd shrugged. "Make something."
He'd looked her over and nodded. "I need a nightingale," he'd said, and pulled out a timepiece. "I expect your parents will be searching for you. Can you finish it before they arrive?"
She'd blinked at him, mouth slightly open. "Nightingale? Bird?"
He'd nodded. "Quickly, now."
So Kaylee had hunkered down in the dust, the lemon balanced carefully in the spokes of the handcart, to find properly curved metal for the man's mechanical bird. It took her just outside of an hour, but when she finished, it was perfect. If she pushed on the tail, the beak would open and close. The tour de force came when the man had pulled out a tiny music box, and Kaylee, her eyes squinted up close near the tiny feet of the bird, had hooked wires together to make it play the music if it's tail was depressed.
"That's fine work," the man had said. "What's left in your bucket?"
Kaylee turned back to the pail, and scooped the leftover bits she'd left in the dust back into it. It was a good third full, still. "Enough," she decided.
"Well," the man had said, and reached up for the top of his pile. He took two great handfuls of lemons, and filled Kaylee's small pail to the top, and then nodded to himself.
Kaylee's eyes had gone wide again, and she looked from the lemon in her hand to the ones in the bucket, knees in the dust, as the sun went down behind her. The man had sent her on her way, and she'd brought lemons home for good work tinkering with scraps. Her brothers had demanded to know how she'd done it, but Momma only smiled and laughed, and they had lemon soap and lemon candles and the whole house would smell like lemons for weeks.
Kaylee missed lemons the most. Lemons were home, and safe, and clean, and warm.
Her hair had grown in about an inch, enough to make her look like a shorn dog instead of completely bald, and she learned to keep her hands off of her scalp. She ignored it, if she spent enough time thinking about other things. Things that she'd be getting just as soon as she got back on Serenity. At night, sometimes, she'd cry. But mostly, she made lists. Of the feasts she was going to cook the whole crew, as soon as they were all back together.
* * *
Jayne glared over at River from where he was picking gravel out of the tread of his boots. "And I'm supposed to, what, do this outta the goodness of my heart?" His voice was more rough than usual, and he tried to remember the last time he'd had water. Better not to think about that, probably. Or when the next time he'd be able to have any was. There weren't any supplies on the cruiser, not that either of them had been able to find, save for some emergency rations in a first aid kit. "Not that I ain't grateful, you understand. But I don't owe you or nothing. I didn't sign up to be rescued by a damn girl."
River pulled her legs up Indian style, and capped her knees with her hands. A small stone came free and fell, tinkling, to the grated floor. "Money," she said.
He didn't even looked up, just snorted, and spat wetly onto the ground. "Of which you got xiǎo qǐ zhòng jī," he counted off on a thumb and forefinger, sounding surprised, "and pì huà." He scoffed to himself and went back to the knife.
"Ransom," River said, reasonably. "Worth more to my parents than the Alliance. There's still an old bounty." She gave him her grade-school smile, the one that made Jayne think of his sisters plastering their hair down for picture day. "Every egg in the henhouse has a price. Don't drop the basket."
Jayne scowled and scraped the flat of his knife against his pants. "I don't think so, niū." He gave her a canny look. "'sides, how do you know I won't just run with the money once you're back in home sweet home?"
She cocked her head at him. "They didn't melt her."
Jayne squinted one eye and fought something that felt like indigestion. "The hell you yabbing on about?"
"Serenity." River tilted her head back, straight up, to look at the ceiling. Like she could see through it, and up to the sky.
He blinked, and scratched at a corner of his jaw, right in front of his ear, thinking. Then he shrugged. "If they haven't yet, only means they will soon. Don't know about you, but I'm not crazy or keen to be on it when that happens." He pulled his other foot up onto the opposite knee and went to work with the knife again, eyes intent on the rubber.
"Still has all your guns," River said, drawing out the middle word expansively, illustrating with a slow undulation of her hands. "Each and every last one of them."
Jayne's head snapped up, and his eyes went focused and canny.
"Vera," River said, and cocked her head, listening. "She misses you. Cold and empty. Needs a man's hands. They've taken her apart – "
"You shut your gorram mouth," Jayne growled, offended and angry and disbelieving.
"Put a safety on her, gave her to some greenhorn with no aim. Liable to blow his own head off cleaning her."
"She's got a nasty jump if you don't take her apart in just the right order," Jayne said to himself, and River righted her head to watch him. He could feel himself waver, and imagined the solid weight of the gun in his hands again. Of any gun in his hands again, but really, he wanted his. Not that a knife wouldn't do, but there was something about the right weight at his hip. With a knife, Jayne could go far. With one of his own guns, he was unstoppable.
Unless he ran out of ammo.
"Not to mention," she said, and rocked forward a bit, and then back again. Jayne followed the motion warily, his face carved into suspicion. "Your bolt hole."
He blinked. "My whatnow?"
She giggled. "Your stash, Jayne." She screwed up her face in concentration and bounced her index finger along as she spoke. "Third panel to the left under the pilot's entry crawlspace, three rows back, and piled under netting. All your personal affects. With Alliance hands all over them."
Jayne stood, staring down at her, the knife handle firm in his fingers. "How the hell'd you know about my cubby?"
"Guitar," River said. "And the ratty old blankie from home, still smells like dust and alligators and the crabapple trees out back. The little dollie your sister May sent you for your twenty-eighth – "
"Shut your gorram face," Jayne growled. "So what's your plan then, huh? You can't just storm in and rescue folk. There's guards and such."
River hummed a little under her breath, but didn't answer Jayne. He slumped back against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest, squinting. When he spoke, it was with petulant defeat – he didn't give a damn about the others, he told himself. But he needed the money. "We need to find us a boat."
River beamed, and swiveled back around in the pilot's chair to take the steering column into her hands, off of auto pilot. "I know just the place," she said. "But first, you have to kidnap me."
iii. shadows of echoes of memories of songs
Simon dreamt he was playing the piano.
The instrument was on an empty stage, and Simon could feel the heat of a heavy spotlight on him. The red velvet chairs were shrouded in blackness like the thick drape of a fine opera gown, cast into shadow by the illumination on the stage, and he left the blackness at the corner of his vision. The piano was a varnished black, so bright it glowed, and the keys stood out like stars in the night sky against the paneling.
And though he was unaware of his fingers moving, he could see them pressing and sliding on and off of keys, the slight shift of tendons beneath the thin skin of the backs of his hands. He could see the depression of the padded hammers as they struck each string reflected in the high polish of the underside of the lid, and the motion was hypnotic, if only for a moment.
Simon moved slightly with the song – in three-four time, a waltz he thought he might've known, once, but if he tried to concentrate on the tune, it slipped away from him – and an ache had developed in his back, and he tried to wonder how long he'd been playing, but just as the thought came into his mind it slipped away.
There was motion in the beam of the lights, motes of dust whirling in time with the music, and as he tried, and tried, and tried more to concentrate on the sound of the song to try and place it, bits and pieces of it made its way to his ear. It reminded him, in the side of his mind, of an aunt who had entertained a rather scandalous affectation for artifacts from Earth That Was. Simon had always been uncomfortable sitting on her sofa with its hard cushions, head down and shoulders up, as she flitted about the lounge trying to find the proper parts to put her audio recordings back together.
River would scamper around behind her, to help, and eventually they would find everything they would need to access the Cortex, and she would bid them both to sit, and play for them old music from the end of the 1800, the musicals of the early 1900s. The endless waltzes of men in black and white suits and women in vast piles of stiff hooped skirts and hair piled high. It was a waltz with a melody of steady dips and dives, and a left hand full of rolling chords, spread out from one finger to the next like an object too warm to safely touch.
As a boy, Simon had found it secretly amusing, how little had changed. In the dream, Simon strained to hear the lyrics, beyond the scratchy gramophone transfer that even time and technology had been unable to do away with.
River had taken him by the hand and pulled him up off of the sofa, more than a head shorter than him at the time, and told him in a scolding tone that she had learned from the housekeeper that he had been dressed all wrong; that there ought to be short pants and knee socks for a proper boy his age. His aunt had laughed and laughed, and Simon had turned red, embarrassed and a little angry at not understanding the joke.
But still, up she had pulled him, and his aunt had helped him with the steps, waving with her fingers like she had her own conductor's baton, and they had turned in tiny circles around the lounge, the mid-morning sun glinting off the gilt thread woven through the sofa cushions as they turned and turned to the music. The rich piano had followed them, the recording crackling with their steps like dry paper underfoot, and then the song had changed, and River had let him go, sent him spinning off into orbit by himself while she performed a solo on her toes.
In his dream, the song changed – shifted and warped and bent itself around his ear – and though the stage was still dark the orchestra pit glowed and pulsed with the presence of violins, the sound shrill and unwelcome in the melody of the piece. Still Simon's fingers marched on, climbing an endless staircase of keys, every breath and rest a mere pause between movements.
The sinister quality of the song reminded him of marionettes, and their choppy, oddly choreographed dance as they jerked about on strings. The violins swelled to overwhelm the piano, and Simon brought his volume down, used the damper pedal and strove for pianissimo, and tried his best not to remember the days that this had been what he had wanted most, more than anything, more than to study for his father – the gift to simply hush, quiet, quick, hide, hide with his sister from the marionettes.
Except that somehow, when he wasn't watching, they'd taken his joints and skin and bones and every single body part that he could name in an exam, they'd taken them all and turned them to wood and resin and string and catgut. His fingers clicked wood-on-ivory as they pressed the keys, and his reflection in the underside of the lid gave his face grain, and a small yellow bird perched on his nose.
He looked out at the audience, and started mildly when he saw River sitting next to him on the bench, smiling gently and watching him play. She was wearing a crocheted sundress and tiny delicate wicker sandals on her feet, which she swung gently back and forth in time to the waltz. She pulled her eyes away from the keys, met his astonished ones.
"Simon," she said, and he woke.
The dream left Simon before the sound of his name did, and he woke in his bed, shivering, clutching himself at the elbows, curled up close under the covers, hearing the shrill violin wail of his alarm urgently striving to rouse him. The song followed him out of sleep, even after he'd shut off the alarm with a verbal command, and he spent the rest of his time before he was summoned attempting to remember the name of the song his aunt had played for him, that he and River had danced to together.
He squeezed his eyes closed tight against the darkness in the room and buried his face in the thin blanket wrapped around him, into his knees. After moment, the effort of keep his eyes shut so very hard began to make him feel light headed, and he let them drift open. Something swam at the edges of his vision, and he watched the shadows curl and lick at the edges of the light, like a dancing candle in reverse.
Something chill stole down his spine.
"River?" he whispered, and then immediately closed his eyes again, and let out a disgusted breath. "Can you hear me?"
He listened. For how long, he couldn't tell, because the alarm gave him no sense of time, merely the hour at which he must wake and sleep. He listened until he thought he could hear every hair on the back of his neck stand on end, until he could hear the sticky sound of his lashes as he blinked, until he could hear the expansion and crumble of his lungs as he drew racketing breaths. He had never realized how loud he was before, when all of his hopes of hearing her reply were dependant on her silence.
In reality, it took less than a minute before Simon realized how ridiculous he was being. How much of an utter fool he was being, to hope that someone would be able to hear him who was not, in fact, in proximity to him.
It disturbed him, in some ways. That he'd been alone so long that he was willing to attempt this as a logical alternative to his other failed escape endeavors. That he had honestly considered that River might be able to hear him, or might be in the room with him. Except that he had never been wrong before. She always had been able to hear him. She always had been in the room with him. Even if she had no way of telling him so herself.
In some ways, that thought was more disturbing than that he might be losing his mental facilities.
As he lay there, in the place between wake and sleep, he watched the guard's feet appear in the slice of light that came under the door. And he knew, the moment before the console slid open, that despite his misgivings, he was going to have to contact his father.
They lined each side of the road, the Browncoats in stained and rusty red, most of the color dirt and blood fused into the fabric. Reynolds had been there, a young man at the time, bleeding sluggishly from a cut along his jaw. He'd been grazed by a bit of shrapnel, Tzalin didn't remember him, of course, but the Cortex did, and that was all that mattered, because everything the Cortex knew was true.
He did, however, remember Reynolds' commanding officer. A coward of a man – Toland Vinterberg – maybe Vinterhaal? – something distinctly Norwegian sounding, and he remembered it because it was with that fact that the man introduced himself; a holdover from Earth That Was.
Vinterberg, to Tzalin's general memory, was not a good leader. He had been vaguely nervous, in a way more than unbecoming. All of the Browncoats present were careful to keep their expressions schooled to neutrality, no doubt having had some hearty lectures drilled into them ahead of time at the slightest misstep. But Tzalin could easily imagine the disdain that the troops would hold for their vaguely distasteful leader, when he wasn't looking. He'd been half tempted to send men into the ranks to report back to him on the matter, but in the end, it had been inconsequential.
He remembered the ground had been frozen, and the Cortex photographs showed snow in sharp relief against the extreme mountain dales in the background. Shenandoah was hardly neutral territory – it was considered Browncoat space, and his very presence was clearly unwelcome, even on the notion of peace. The talks went all day and all night, more and more troops gathering in the valley to wait and hear the outcome.
Early the next morning, the blizzard started. Most of the troops were still asleep, and the silent, creeping grey dawn stretched further and further away, as though something held it back, struggling, indefinitely. With not nearly enough shelter for the vast number gathered, they stood little chance against the violent clime. The snow gathered thick and fast, crusting over half-grown beards and cutting through the Browncoats thin and insubstantial, rag-tag uniforms. Tzalin, warm in his personal cruiser, had watched them struggle first to light fires, and then to keep them lit.
When the peace talks resumed that morning, Vinterberg was wearing a patched woolen cap, and mismatched woven gloves with the fingertips missing. He had looked, to Tzalin, no better than a common vagabond. Though, to be fair, Tzalin couldn't have imagined changing his opinion if the man had been in a three piece suit with tails and cane and spats polished to a high shine.
They made no progress, and when they broke for lunch, Tzalin went to stand out on the edges of the great path, and watched the troops wade back and forth on both sides through the knee deep snow. There were massive clusters all over the valley, of troops gathered around bonfires as large and high as they could make them, the meager shelters covering the tops of the flames to keep snow from dousing the only source of heat they had.
The official record in the Cortex was that it was impossible to know who fired the first shot.
Technically, this was true, as were all things in the Cortex. Tzalin, however, knew the truth, because it had been he who had pulled his gun, he who had shot his own Lieutenant in the back when he had seen the man attempt to struggle across the road to the Browncoats fire, his arms laden with poorly chopped wood.
"No peace," he had said to Vinterberg, who stood at his elbow, silent in horror and shock. Then he had turned and pressed the barrel of the gun into Vinterberg's gut, and looked over his shoulder as he shot the man, watching entrails and blood cascade onto the freshly fallen snow. Vinterberg fell backward, away from him, and collapsed.
By then, though, no one was paying attention to Tzalin. All they could see was the fallen Alliance soldier, and too many men with guns. Shots began to ring out, from no further away than five feet, and there was a stampeded attempt to run for cover on both sides.
Tzalin was correct in his assumption that he hadn't been seen shooting his Lieutenant. The silent murder of Vinterberg, however, had not gone unnoticed by Private – now Sergeant – Reynolds. With Vinterberg dead, Reynolds was now in charge of an entire platoon of men. But that had not appeared to be the notion on the young man's mind when he had launched himself bodily at Tzalin, hands around his throat, knocking him into the snow.
It had taken four men to wrench Reynolds off of him, and they had taken him immediately into the cruiser to be held as a prisoner of war. Reynolds was listed in the Cortex as an assassination attempt. But in the time that it took for Tzalin to return to his cruiser to prepare for takeoff – intending to leave all of the troops here to finish their own ridiculous lives out in a landslide of slush and blood – Reynolds was gone, and had slipped away out into the mayhem.
The scene was brutal. With no possible shelter to shield the gunshot, both the Browncoats and the Alliance began to use the bodies of their dead – indiscriminate to the political alignment of the corpse – to build walls to huddle behind. There was no removing themselves from the valley – the snow was too great and the amount of blood thickened it to mud and ice. It was three days before both sides called a retreat; the Alliance for lack of supplies and food and the Browncoats for lack of number. They were used to no food, after all, and fighting through it. It would have been easy to assume that Reynolds had been killed in the bloodbath.
Still, they processed his name, and listed him as having escaped. Reynolds hit every bounty list by the end of the year. It would not be the last time – he would learn to see his name lit up in such grim lights.
Until the Miranda Incident, Tzalin had promptly forgotten the man. Afterward, he had dug up everything he could find. There were a few citations of public brawling, a few smuggling accusations, but nothing ever proven. Reynolds flew under the radar, literally and figuratively, and short of charging the man for harboring fugitives, there was little that Tzalin could hold Reynolds for, legally.
He shut off the Cortex module as the door slid open, Reynolds' visage frozen in space, gazing at some far off sight beyond the Admiral's shoulder.
Tzalin turned toward the voice and nodded at Petsom.
"We're getting the first reports from the Rim, sir," said the captain. "Our readings are indicating none of the black hole effect that some feared would occur. The procedure seems to be a complete success."
"Seems to be," Tzalin said quietly, and shut off the console completely, Reynolds' face dissipating immediately in the calm light of the Cortex library. His voice was commanding when he turned to Petsom again. "Be sure. Be absolutely sure. I want every corner combed. Go through all the residue, any residuals should be mapped. Planets will, over time, begin to form again from that debris."
"Sir," Petsom said, and nodded.
"And I want full reports of any survivors found," Tzalin said, grim, his significant gaze boring into Petsom. "I want no survivors, Captain."
The man hesitated, but only in his eyes. "The Reavers, sir. No survivors."
"No survivors period," the admiral clarified. "Are we understanding one another?" On the off chance that someone had been able to anticipate their mass extermination, and escape the Rim planets before the Alliance government had struck, it would mean uproar, if people found out. If it was made public that their genocide was not only of the Reavers, but of the uncontrollable ignorant masses on the Rim. The people that no one would miss.
"Perfectly," Petsom replied, his voice tight with discipline, and he saluted. Tzalin returned the salute, and dismissed the man.
He turned back to the Cortex records, and thought for a moment. Then, carefully, he reached up with one thin finger and selected a narrow disk, and placed it on the player. He dimmed the lights, and watched as the narrow footage played itself in a continuous loop before his eyes.
She couldn't call it waking, not really, because it hadn't been sleep that she'd come out of. The doctors had put something in her food, and as long as she tried to resist eating it, sometimes, she couldn't help but break down. There were only so many days in a row she could go without eating. It made her wonder how long they'd been trying to drug her, how long they'd been coming in to check after each meal. Three days, at least, by her estimates. But it was hard to tell time here. It was hard to tell anything.
She turned slightly, and then froze, aware of several things at once. A heartbeat, the sound of breathing, arms wrapped around her, all of which were not her own. She wished for an ability to sleep again, for the drug to pull her under, but her adrenaline overcame the chemicals and she pushed away.
The hands on her back tightened instinctively, and luminescent grey-blue eyes blinked open, the expression in them going from confusion to alertness in the space of a breath.
"Honey," Wash said. "Not that I'm complaining. But why are you naked?"
Zoe ripped backward out of his grasp, used the leverage of her hands on his chest and one between his legs against the wall to shove hard, and found herself in a pile on the floor. She rolled with the impact, and landed in a crouch, hands out for balance, hair in her face, watching the unpadded shelf she was given to sleep on.
Wash pushed himself up on one arm. "Okay, really not complaining," he said.
"Who are you?" she hissed, her voice hard, and slowly pulled up to her full height. "When did you get in here? Did they send you in?"
He laughed, and looked around a little, like he was looking for someone to help confirm the fact that his wife was, in fact, quite crazy. When she didn't reply, his face shifted. "You're serious."
She narrowed her eyes at him, just slightly.
"You are serious," he said, sounded vaguely astounded. He struggled to get off the pallet, and she jerked back a step. "Hey," he said, his voice consoling. "Hey, come on. It's just me."
"I don't know what you are," she said, her voice shaking. "You're supposed to be dead."
He blinked at her, and then had the good graces to look ashamed. Whoever they had found, or created, or whatever it was that this man was, Zoe had to admit he was a good replicate. "I woke up here a few weeks ago. Maybe three. I've been in a – a hospital, there's one downstairs. Below ground, I think." He was frowning tightly at her.
"No," she said, and rose from her crouch fully, and started pacing the room, needing the action and the movement to organize her scattered thoughts. Even dementia wouldn't set in this quickly, surely. She was used to solitude, and used to undergoing harsh prisoner of war treatment. There was no reason for her to be snapping like this. None at all.
Wash's eyebrows went up, and he tucked his hands under his legs and hunched forward a little. "No?"
"No," she said, turning sharply on one heel. "You've been dead for six months, I've been – "
"Whoa, whoa," he said, eyes wild. "Back up. I've been what? Because I might be a little off with my hearing, but I could've sworn you just said 'dead'."
"Killed on the descent to see Mister Universe," she muttered.
"Really?" he asked quietly, and sounded a bit awed. "Flying?"
Something in his voice made Zoe lunge at him, and somehow she had him pinned up against the wall by the throat, kneeling over his lap. "Yes, flying, you pì huà chī wán pò háo wú zéi." He made a small choking sound, but didn't raise his hands against her. She gave him a disgusted shake and pushed away again, going back to pace the room like a tiger in a cage. "I can touch you," she said. "So you can't be a hallucination."
"Well," he said. "I don't know, I mean, that logic is sort of…" he faded off when he saw the look she was giving him. "Right," he said, cowed.
Zoe kept up her pacing, frowning. He wasn't a hallucination, but he certainly wasn't real, either. She'd buried Wash herself, lowered his eyelids and folded his hands together, bit her lip until it bled to keep from looking at the gored hole through his gut. She'd buried him – literally, if not figuratively. Wash was dead. Wash was dead. Dead.
If she hadn't been able to believe it before this, she wasn't sure how his being in the same room with her was supposed to convince her of it.
"Hey," he said, and she looked up at him, and watched him flinch back. Good. "What about Mal? Where's Mal?"
"You'd know better than I would," she said flatly, and leaned against the far wall, back cold against the brick.
"Right," he said again, but sounded closer to bitter than before. "Because I'm a bad guy. Sure."
They lapsed into silence, and Wash scrubbed at his hair, clearly frustrated, knees on his elbows. Zoe let her head rest against the wall, and that semblance of rest alone made her eyelids droop. The drain of the adrenaline was starting to steal her consciousness. Wash looked at her and read it immediately.
"You need sleep," he said. "You woke up pretty soon after I got here, you can't have slept much."
"Be quiet," she said, and forced her eyes open.
He huffed, annoyed, and she dropped down to the ground in the corner, next to the door. If anyone opened the paneling, all they would be able to see would be Wash on the bed. "Don't you think that if I wanted to hurt you I'd have done it when you were asleep, instead of awake and all fighty and insane?" he harped.
"Quiet," she said again, drawing her arms around her legs. She closed her eyes for a moment, and pretended he wasn't there, and tried to figure out whether that would be worse or better.
"Sure," he said, and leaned back against the wall. "I'm going to sleep, anyway. I'm exhausted. Coming back from the dead is hard work."
Zoe watched him warily, as he tried to shift into a comfortable position. She watched him for so long that he stopped moving, and eventually his breathing went shallow. It was a fitful slumber, she could tell. She knew what it would feel like when he woke up, the sensation of half-rest.
She hadn't intended on sleeping, but at some point, she did.
When she woke, she was alone.
"It'll work," River said, and bit her lip again, intent on what her fingers were doing. She manipulated the thin wires carefully on the public telephone.
Jayne shifted nervously behind her. "Somebody's gonna notice if you don't speed that business up," he said gruffly, and scanned both sides of the street.
"Hush," she scolded him. "Bees make the honey without buzzing."
"What?" he asked, brow furrowing, and she didn't answer him. He was about to demand she explain what the hell she was talking about when the screen on the wall of the booth fuzzed and fitzed.
She smiled up at him, all innocent victory and long black tangles, and then pushed him in front of the screen.
"Wait," he said, alarmed, resisting the movement. "This was your idea, you do it."
She rolled her eyes at him and clucked her tongue. "It's my mother. You've got to claim the reward." She leaned across him and punched in a long series of numbers, and the screen fuzzed again. The 'dialing' screen came up in place of the blue instructional screen, and Jayne gave her a bit of a panicked expression.
Someone picked up on the other end, and Jayne wished he had a hat to pull off. "Er," he said.
"Yes?" the woman said, encouragingly.
"Hello, Mrs. Tam," he said, his voice jerky from the script that River and he had agreed on. "I have come to speak to you about the op... opportunity to return – "
"Just a moment," the woman said, and smiled politely, and the screen went blue again.
Jayne twisted around to look at River, a panicked expression on his face.
"That wasn't my mother," she explained, and put her hands on Jayne's shoulders to urge him around again. "That was the maid. Try again."
Jayne fidgeted as he waited for the screen to go active again. River slipped out of view again, and he could feel her floating around in his periphery, and resisted the urge to snap at her to stop moving. The screen flicked up, and there was a new woman looking at him – more put together than the last, clean and calm and with an expression of mild disinterest carefully sculpted onto her face.
"Yes?" she prompted him, impatient.
"Uh," he said, his script forgotten. "I found your daughter."
He could hear River covering her face with her hands and sighing.
Regan Tam raised her eyebrows, and became a little less dignified. "Excuse me?"
"I'll bring her to you," Jayne said. "We just wanted to let you know 'fore we got there. Didn't want no trouble."
"Of course," the woman said, and looked, frankly, a little shell shocked. "We've had…" she said, and blinked, and cleared her throat. "We've had people tell us before, of course. But they were only looking for the reward money."
"Well," Jayne said, and put his hand over his heart. "I gotta say, ma'am, I'm just here for the public service."
"You dear boy," she said, the words catching in her throat a little. "I'll notify the guards. Please, come as soon as you can. I want to see my little girl."
"Right," he said, and signed off as soon as he'd established that the address was the same as when River had left. When he turned to her, she was quiet, and staring at the blank screen. "What?" he asked, defensive. He'd put on an excellent performance, in his opinion, and she had no right to look as unsettled as she did.
"She looks so old," River said quietly, and Jayne, realizing that the girl was talking nonsense, shoved past her out of the booth and toward their tiny transport.
"Let's get along," he called over his shoulder at her. "I want my pockets lined by supper."
He stumbled back from the small washroom tucked away behind the closet, and collapsed on the other side of the bed with a groan. He was young – younger than Kaylee, she was almost sure, or maybe it was just something in his face – and low ranked, but he'd done something right, apparently, to take his pick of the girls downstairs. It'd been a few weeks before Kaylee had realized that she and Inara weren't the only two being kept. They were merely part of a catalogue to choose from. They filled their roles; roles that sometimes appealed to other people. The simple country girl, the sophisticated, elegant companion. Though it was hard for Kaylee to see how they fit that brand, now.
"Oh," he said, muffled into a pillow, and pulled his head up. "Hey, if you want, uh, to, you know. Clean up."
Kaylee rolled her head toward him, eyebrows up. The man watched her back, with a small, uncertain twist in his mouth. She schooled her face toward something like impassive, but only after a moment. They weren't allowed proper washing facilities downstairs. Only the rudimentary hygiene standards were allowed.
"I'd really like to take a bath," she said quietly, and then, as soon as it was out, wished she hadn't.
"Yeah, sure," the man said, grinning, eager to please. Suspicious, to Kaylee's eyes. He hadn't been bad in bed – considerate, at least, not like most of the older and higher ranked men and women she'd been requisitioned for. He pushed himself up off the mattress, untangling himself from the blankets, and padded, barefoot and naked, back into the bathroom. After a moment, Kaylee heard water running. She felt her heart speed a bit, and sat up, the blankets pooling around her waist. She swung her legs carefully over onto the floor at the side of the bed, and inched forward. The motion made her grimace, reminded her how used up she felt, inside and out. Not dirty, not really anymore, she'd gotten over that after the first week – accept or go insane, really – just the feeling of a pull, an ache, in parts of her body that had no right to hurt.
Next to her, a clock flashed an incorrect time. She caught the side of her mouth between her teeth and fixed the settings so that it corresponded with the wrist watch next to it.
Immediately, the clock went back to its incorrect settings.
Kaylee made a noise, a cross between frustration and intrigue, and wasn't even conscious of it. She picked up the clock and turned it over, popped the battery cover off the back of it.
"Hey," the young man said, startled, as he came back into the room. He sprawled on the bed on his side, and peered at her. She shifted a little, crossed her legs, and fought down the instinctive blush. But he wasn't looking at her – he was looking at her hands. "What's that?"
"It's broke," she explained. "Loose coil, or a dead battery. But I'd bet the farm on a loose coil."
"Huh," he said, and there was a moment of silence as she popped the battery out and picked at the screws that held the backing panel on. "Can you fix it?"
She nodded, and picked at another screw, wedged her fingernail into the head of it and twisted. It came loose.
"Oh, hey," he said, and opened the drawer and pulled out a screwdriver. "Here."
As he put it in her hand, Kaylee had a moment of awareness: she could stab him, in the eye, maybe, or the throat, or even in the thigh or the stomach, and run.
But to who. Or where. She didn't even know where she was. And she was naked. And Inara was downstairs. She clenched her jaw a little, and aligned the head of the screwdriver with the screw. The back panel came off easily, and she touched the screwdriver to the coil. "See?" she said.
It was apparent by his vacant gaze that he did not, in fact, see. "Huh," he said again.
"You just gotta crank this down," Kaylee said, her arm twisting as she worked the coil taut again. "That way it'll hold its setting. You don't see many like this anymore."
"Yeah?" he said. "They gave me a bunch of junk when I got my solo apartment. I can't really afford the new stuff."
"Oh, the old ones work better, anyway," Kaylee said, and was too distracted by her work to offer an explanation, despite the curious look on the man's face. "There," she said, and popped the battery panel back on. The battery went back in, and the screws went down, and the cover snapped into place. The clock flashed 12:00. Kaylee set it, and this time, it held the time.
"Well," the man said. "Shiny."
Kaylee looked at him, startled.
"Oh," he said. "Your bath." He thumbed over his shoulder, and picked the screwdriver up off the bed and stuck it back into the drawer. She watched it longingly, but pushed herself up off the bed, and retreated into the sanctuary of a real bath.
She'd been soaking for about ten minutes when the door opened. He leaned in, one hand on the knob, and smiled down at her in the water. "You hungry? I'm gonna get some food."
Kaylee's distress must've been evident on her face, because he cocked his head at her. She sank a little lower in the water. "I don't think you're supposed to feed me," she said, reigning in her misery.
He shrugged. "Whatever. I'll get something for me, we can share it." He closed the door.
By the time Kaylee was done with her soak, there was food waiting. She sat wrapped in a large towel and picked at the simpler foods; fruit and bread with butter and bits of fish, though he offered more. She was afraid anything too complex, after so long without, would probably make her ill. They sat and admired the clock, and after another half hour, her time was up, and she slipped back into her clothes.
"Thanks," he said, and while his back was turned, she stuffed bits of bread into her pockets. If he noticed they were gone when he turned back around to look at her, he didn't say anything. "Maybe I'll see you around," he said.
"I doubt it," Kaylee said, and tapped on the door for the guard to fetch her.
When she returned to the cell, resisting and elbowing at the rough hands of the guards, as usual, Inara stood in her usual worried anticipation, to greet her. They could exchange no words, but they'd learned one another's expressions by now, and Kaylee beckoned Inara back into the corner they shared, in the small cell, far away from the door where they were monitored for sound.
She positioned them so that her back was to the corner where the walls met, and Inara crouched in front of her. Kaylee beckoned for Inara to put her hands out, palm up, and then dug deep into her pockets and pulled out the small hunks of bread, and watched as Inara's eyes went wide. She nodded encouragingly, and Inara ate swiftly. She hesitated halfway through, offering some back to Kaylee, but the younger girl shook her head, and Inara seemed to understand that this wasn't sacrifice, but fairness.
Kaylee could tell just how badly Inara wanted to ask where the food had come from, and where there would be more, but more than that, she was just happy to have real food in her again.
It was a small comfort, but it was real.
Simon said nothing in reply, but bowed his head respectfully in thanks. His hands he kept folded together on the table top, the fingers of his left cupping the fingers of his right, thumbs pressed together lengthways, the way his biology teacher used to demonstrate the halves of a human heart. He'd spent approximately ten minutes putting his hands into this position before his father had come in, through careful and tedious work using his chin and nose, and sheer grim determination. He had no intention of moving.
"I suppose you want to know where they're keeping your sister," Gabriel said.
Simon nodded shortly. There was no reason to hide this, after all. "Yes," he said. "I just want to know that she's being well looked after."
"Of course she is," the elder Tam said dismissively, distracted from the action of pouring himself a cup of tea. He gestured with the pot, embossed white china with blue juniper branches, toward Simon in question. Simon shook his head – he couldn't begin to maneuver a teacup, but there was no reason for his father to know that.
"We've thought that before," Simon said evenly.
Gabriel immediately shot him a disgusted look. "You, Simon, you have thought that. You put your sister's life at risk removing her from that facility, and even more gallivanting around the world with criminals. Criminals," the man spat, and Simon had an odd realization that he'd never seen his father as old before. And yet, here this man was, hair graying at the temples, watching his own son as he would a destitute stranger.
"I don't want anything from you," Simon said. "I'm…staying here for some time," he added carefully.
Gabriel snorted. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing here. You're not here of your own free will."
Something in Simon boiled at the thought that his father had properly estimated his failure at escape. Or perhaps it was assumed that he wouldn't have even had the spine to try. Simon closed his eyes for a moment, gathered himself together, and sat up straighter when he opened them again. "I just want to know that River's safe."
"Of course she's safe." Gabriel's flawless belief in the system that held the Alliance together was more than unsettling. "Ever since your…people pulled that ridiculous propaganda stunt – "
"Propaganda!" The word was out of Simon like a roost of birds alighting from a branch.
Gabriel slammed his fist down on the table and the teacup rattled in its saucer. "Don't you take that tone with me, boy."
"I'm not your boy anymore, though, am I," Simon said, his face cut into a tight, mocking smile. "You disowned me as soon as I disappeared. You think I don't read the trades, father?" His voice went low and threatening and he leaned over his useless hands, an intimation of a whisper. "Tell me, father. Did you wait until I shamed the family name, or have you been waiting to eliminate me as an heir since I'd started to worry about River?"
"Enough," Gabriel said.
The cold in his voice put Simon's hair on end, he could feel the back of his neck prickle with it, and he slowly leaned back. Not a retreat, but a defensive action nonetheless.
"River has been returned to the school you removed her from – "
"School!" Simon protested.
Gabriel continued to speak over him. " – and will undergo the remainder of her training there. Whether or not the government chooses to press charges for your ridiculous involvement and evasive actions after that will be decided at the appropriate time."
Simon tried switching tacks. "Doesn't it strike you as odd that she'd be considered a fugitive for breaking out of a school?"
"The Alliance will do as it sees fit," his father said, decisive.
Simon watched him from suspicious eyes. "And what does mother think of all of this?"
Here, Gabriel hesitated. Simon filed the pause away for later examination. "Your mother agrees with me wholeheartedly."
"Does she," Simon said slyly.
"Of course she does," Gabriel snapped. "Your mother and I are in accord on the matter." He shoved his cold tea way from him, as though it had suddenly become tasteless, and pushed himself up out of the chair. "We're done here," he said to Simon, and went for the door.
"You haven't told her, have you," Simon said, and watched his father's hand pause on the doorknob. "You haven't told her that her little girl's back in prison. That she's been found at all. Because it'll bring shame to the family." He laughed bitterly. "And here you'd always wanted to brag about your son working in an Ariel hospital."
The muscles in his father's jaw flexed. "I have no son," he hissed, and slipped through the door.
Simon watched him go. He'd achieved none of the things he'd needed, but the information he'd gained was beyond worth. His mother could still be reached.
It was only a matter of determining how.
"I just don't follow," he said. "I'm gonna say no, and then she's gonna give it to me? The hell kind of crazy system is that?"
"It's etiquette," River said, and felt her heart beat a little faster as they landed on her family's estate.
"It's stupid," Jayne decided. "If I want the money, I oughta just be able to say yes, and have her give it to me. Don't make a lick of sense."
"It's all a dance," River said, climbing out of the copilot's chair. "You have to know the steps. And when to follow, and not lead."
"Ain't never been much of a dancer," Jayne said, and he sounded contemplative, but he followed her.
She stopped abruptly at the hatch. "No guns," she said.
Jayne gave her a look that was nowhere near innocent. "I ain't got no guns."
With a sigh, Jayne reached out and pulled two guns from a squirming and slapping Jayne. "Knives are okay," River said. "But no guns. They'd just take them from you, and we need them for later."
"Why?" Jayne said warily. "What comes later?"
River just sighed and opened the door. She waited for Jayne to climb down. "You go first," she said. "It's proper."
"Sounds like a good way to get shot between the eyes," Jayne groused, but went anyway. They didn't make it halfway up the drive before a figure burst out of the front door, and River watched her mother – someone who looked like her mother, talked like her mother on the phone, moved like her mother – sprint down the gravel path.
River saw all this with a distinctly detached interest. Because no matter how much the woman could impersonate her mother, River knew, distinctly, that this woman was her mother no longer.
She was caught up in long arms, and lifted slightly off the ground in the enthusiastic embrace, which she attempted to return with wide eyes. "My baby girl," Regan blubbered against her hair.
River gave Jayne a look over her mother's shoulder, and Jayne held his hands up innocently, as though his face hadn't said enough.
"Enough," River said quietly, patting her mother awkwardly on the back, and tried to draw away. After a millisecond's resistance, her mother let her go, and swiped at her eyes.
"Oh, look at me," Regan said. "Aren't I just a sight. I'm sorry." She gave a choked off little laugh. "What you must think of me."
River did not confirm this disparagement, but gestured toward the house.
"Oh, of course." Regan smoothed her palms over her cheeks again, catching way the stray tear tracks, and started back up the path, looking over her shoulder every half second until River walked at her side. It wasn't until then that she seemed to take in Jayne. "Thank you ever so much," she said to the man.
"Weren't nothing," Jayne said stiffly, and jammed his hands into his pockets sulkily. River wanted to stomp on his foot.
"No, no," Regan protested. "It's something. We've had so many people say they've found our little girl, people who've spotted her as far out as the Rim." She gave a broken little laugh, and something in her face crumbled, and River's chest ached, but she wasn't sure why. "But they only wanted the reward money. And the Alliance hasn't been looking, not really. Not for a time, now."
She saw Jayne about to contradict this fact – that the Alliance had, in fact, been looking for River with a vigor before unseen – and this time she did trod on his foot, and he gave a yelp of alarm.
Regan looked at him, eyebrows up, and River caught her hand to distract her. It worked, perhaps too well. "He's said he doesn't want any reward," she said, in her best tone of disbelief.
"Er," Jayne supplied helpfully.
"Surely not," Regan said, alarmed, and her gaze went from River's face to Jayne's and back again, checking the sincerity of their words. "I'll not hear of it."
"Really," Jayne said jerkily. "It weren't necessary."
"Nonsense," Regan decided. "You're both being ridiculous. I won't hear of any of this. The man who saved my daughter's life must be appropriately rewarded."
River raised her eyebrows at Jayne, and he scowled back at her.
"That's what I told him," River said primly to her mother. And then, in a faux-whisper. "I think at least enough to buy a small boat, momma. The one he's in now is nearly in pieces."
"Boat?" Regan said, confusion etched between her brows. "Oh, dear, a space ship? My little girl's worth more than that, I should think. We'll talk it over with your father tonight, and see what sum he thinks is appropriate. If you don't mind staying for supper, mister…?" She looked inquiringly at Jayne.
"Cobb," he supplied. "And no, I reckon I surely don't."
At first, she tried to calculate the degree of the moon, and hoped that she would be able to figure out where she was according to the number. But without a third element to triangulate by, Zoe was lost in a sea of half-constellations stripped of context. She remembered the stories, of the water-sailors from Earth That Was, who could maneuver their boats – real boats, not ships like Serenity – according to the nothing more than the sky. The thought that the stars they had navigated by were the same stars that Zoe had walked on was a chilling thought. As was the idea of any planet with so much water to spare.
As she lay on her back on the cold concrete floor of the cell and waited for the moon to pass by, she heard something out in the passageway. It was too late for food – they never fed her when the sun was down – and the Doctor had already come this morning try to prod at her, once more. She'd fought him off and clawed down his arm with her nails, and he'd retreated promptly thereafter.
What unsettled her the most was the notion of cat and mouse that they were playing. If the man had really wanted to do his tests, she was certain he could find a way to restrain her. And yet, he persisted in doing nothing of the sort. It was more than unsettling.
The matron's voice filtered through underneath the door. Zoe turned her head to better here the echo along the ground.
"Alright, that's enough. Open it up and see if she's awake."
The small window behind the mesh paneling swung back, and a compact face with beady eyes peered down at her. She gave a little wave of welcome with just her fingers, nails sharp in the moonlight. The window slammed shut again.
"She's awake alright. Lying on her back in the middle a the floor like some wild thing."
A derisive snort was nearly muffled into silence, but not quite. "A course she is. Best throw him in there. He'll come conscious in a moment, and I don't fancy anymore scratch marks."
"Girl, you ain't seen never even seen proper scratch marks yet. Git that door open."
The steel door swung back, and Zoe didn't move. The matron and her ward dumped a body unceremoniously onto the ground, the wet slap and scrape of skin on raspy concrete making Zoe wince in sympathy. The door pulled shut and bolted itself hastily, and the voices of the women went down in volume as they retreated, speaking of trivial things. Zoe strained to listen as long as she could, just in case some useful information was passed along, but in the end, she found herself in silence. As always.
A thin, reedy wail of distress rose from the cell down the row, and Zoe clenched her jaw and ignored it. It roused the body, though, and as Zoe drew nearer – as she'd suspected – she saw Wash's face turn up toward the moonlight.
"Ow," he groused. "World of ow. Where am I?"
"Honey, I'm home," Zoe said darkly.
"Oh, guay," Wash decided, and covered his eyes with one hand. "Ow ow ow. Why do they always have to hit me? I'm sure there's a nice drug that would have the same effect." He pushed himself up into a sitting position, and then reeled a bit. Zoe, crouched at his side, reached out a hand to steady him, and pulled it back when the job was done. "Thanks," he said, massaging the bridge of his nose. "Dizzy."
"Mm," she said skeptically. "Quite a show the three of you put on."
"The three…?" Wash said, and squinted at the floor and then at her. "I only remember one lady." He made a large shape with his hands. "Sort of scary looking. Like Jayne, but bigger. And with breasts. And could probably eat Jayne for breakfast. What…?"
She was looking at him sideways, and pulled away to the other side of the room, "The matron has a ward, a young girl who helps her. But you knew that."
"Yeah, pretty sure I didn't, though," Wash said, and slouched forward over his knees. The shirt he was wearing – probably white at one time, though it'd faded to grey in some patches – had a large tear down the back, and Zoe spent a moment of idle speculation trying to guess what it was from.
"Then what was the purpose of letting me hear that exchange before you were dumped here?"
"What exchange?" Wash said, frustrated. "Look, I don't know why they bring me here – "
"What could you possibly have to gain – "
"I don't know!" Wash shouted, and silence fell between them, and the wail of the girl down the hall rose up again.
"This is ridiculous," Zoe said, and turned away again, to stare at the wall.
"Yeah, whatever," Wash muttered, and put his head in his hands, weary. "And again with the you naked. You want to explain that?"
Zoe didn't look at him, her posture rigid and her voice cool. "Does it make you uncomfortable?"
"Not so much," Wash said, a verbal equivalent to a shrug. "Except for the inappropriate tingly feelings when I should be trying to figure out how to get out of here. Maybe you wanna tell me more about that dead thing?"
The look she gave him made him put his forehead on his knees.
"Or not," he muttered into his legs.
"If I sleep again," Zoe said, "they'll remove you."
"Yeah," Wash said quietly. He looked up at her. "I missed you. For what that's worth."
"Not a lot, zéi."
"Stop calling me that."
Her voice was cold and shadowed in the dark. "Then tell me who you are."
"I've told you who I am!" Wash exploded, and then dropped his head down to his knees again. "I'm sorry. I just." He looked up again. "No, you know what, I'm not. I'm not sorry. This is ridiculous. Ask me something. Ask me something only I'd know."
Zoe gave him a withering glance and sat on the edge of the bench-bed, perched like she was ready to fly at any moment. "That won't work."
"Why not?" Wash protested. "I died pretty fast, right?" He stumbled over the word, as if he was still having problems accepting that as a particular truth. "How fast would the brain death have been?"
"Fast," Zoe confirmed, her stomach sinking, though she maintained her steely resolve.
"And you took my body – "
"We had to leave it," Zoe cut him off. "There was a battle. And we had to leave it. They could've harvested anything from your brain at that point."
"Clones can't be developed that fast," Wash insisted. "You know it takes a full twenty-four months to gestate anything remotely functional."
She looked down her nose at him. "Yes, and until a little while ago, we thought the Alliance denied the Reavers because they didn't want to have to deal with policing them."
Wash grimaced. "Fair shot. Still. There'd have been evidence. Didn't Simon do an autopsy for cause of death?"
Zoe looked at him.
"What?" he said.
"No," Zoe said. "Cause of death was fairly certain."
"So I'm either a zombie or a clone," Wash said. "Great. Which is more reasonable? Neither. Ask me a gorram question, Zoe."
She turned away from him for a moment, her eyes on the far wall, listening to the harsh howl of wind outside the thick walls and the matching yowl of the girl down the row. The sound rose and fell in waves, from both sources, and Zoe found it all the more chilling for its harmonization.
"Our first date," Wash said, leaning back on his hands a little. It was odd, a bit, to watch his posture unfold and hear it in his voice at the same time. "Not the first proper one – we fought about this, remember. When we were on Persephone and you were casing the Arcade for Mal. And you bought that blue candy stuff, and spent the whole night throwing up behind the bathhouse because you didn't know you were allergic to the dye."
She could feel him watching her, and turned her gaze back onto his. Encouraged, he went on. "And the whole job was ruined because of it, but I found you back there in the morning, completely a mess, shaking, and helped you back to the boat. And stayed with you while Mal found a doctor. You remember?"
Zoe nodded, haltingly. She remembered. The long three hours where she couldn't move, pressed into the cold ground, willing her body to work. And his warm hands on her as he pulled her up, managed to get her arm over his shoulder despite her height on him.
Wash's voice was quiet now, remembering. "You slept for two days, and Mal and I took it in turns, flying the ship and sitting next to your bed, and he kept asking me why I cared. Like nobody was allowed to but him."
"Stop," Zoe said fiercely.
Wash looked up at her, startled, like he'd forgotten he was even talking.
"Just stop," Zoe said, toes curling in.
"Right," Wash said quietly. "Sure."
The rest of their time together passed in silence, each one of them pressed against a different wall of the chamber, and when Zoe felt herself start to nod off, the door slid open with a bone-jarring sound, and Wash – the man – whoever it was – was removed from her presence.
Simon's was gone.
She stood on the threshold of the room and rocked back on her heels, blown by an immediate and invisible feeling of wrongness as soon as she tried to cross in. When she got the lights on, she could see why – there was no bed, no books, no small knight and horses lining the shelves. No shelves. His watercolor set, the life sized model of a human brain, the interactive miniature spaceships arranged by class. The uplink into the Cortex, the reams and reams of notes. All gone. Missing. Burned. Like he'd never existed.
She could wonder, if she wanted to waste the time on it, when this wrong had been done. Whether it had been as soon as he had left to rescue her – though she wasn't quite clear on how long ago that had been, not anymore – or if they had held out hope, and waited, and thought, perhaps, that their wayward children would be returned to them.
But it was Simon who had shamed the family name, and Simon who had turned the Tams into criminals. So it was Simon who would not be remembered.
The room was filled now with plants, a sort of mock greenhouse from the three walls with the paneled glass window seats. Ferns and flowers spilled over the benches that had been built into the walls, and the ceiling had been installed with an ever-shifting replicate of a kind summer sky. River shut the lights out immediately, and closed the door firmly in front of her, staring at the painted oak and refusing to see the insides.
Better left unseen.
She padded barefoot down the hall to her own room, the hardwood floor slick and sticky on the pads of her feet. She could feel the varnish cling and release on the ball of her foot with each step, and the small noise of impact was regular and hypnotic. She bypassed her own room, as well. A dead girl slept there, and she had no time for ghosts.
Into her father's study, stripped of all photographs of his children, to the window. She pushed it open and looked out at the drive, where her mother was giving Jayne a bag of cash.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I hope you won't have any trouble with the large bills. You know how the banks are lately. But that's precisely why we only use cash anymore."
River held her breath, but Jayne mentioned nothing of just how long it had been since they'd been in a bank, and what it was they'd been doing there. It was the money, most likely, that had thrown him into shock. The bag was full – and heavy. She could see the strain of his arm as he took it from her mother and hefted it, thoughtfully. "Nah," he said. "That'll do. Ain't no trouble, again. Like's I said before."
"Yes," Regan said warmly, and clasped his large hand. They shook, a bit awkwardly on Jayne's behalf, and then broke as the lights of a landing pod flickered overhead. Faces turned upward, they spoke, and their voices were obscured in the thrum of the small descending vessel. But River could guess just as well what was happening, no matter the words, and slammed the window down and raced out of the study, skidding on the slickly polished floors.
It took her longer than she would've liked to throw herself down the stairs, and she paused only long enough to grab a pair of old mucking boots out of the closet, and a long black jacket she'd seen her mother use for hot air ballooning, and sprinted out onto the gravel drive just as her father's ship touched ground.
Jayne was nowhere to be seen, but her mother looked hardly surprised by this, and River had to hope – it was the only possibility, really – that he'd gone into their transport to deposit the cash before returning to meet Gabriel, and to be hailed as hero again.
She threw herself down on the front steps and jammed her foot into one of the boots, lacing up as far as was needed to keep the laces from underfoot before grabbing the second. "Don't come out," she muttered to herself, staring at both of the ships, unsure as to which of the men she was speaking. "Don't come out don't come out don't come out don't come out…"
She fumbled with the laces and had to look down, and the sound of the engines cut on her father's pod. She cursed under her breath and righted the laces and started again, the edges of her thin dress still stained in blood and gore, and heard the door slide open and her mother greet her father. The sound made her pause, absorb the sheer normalcy of it.
"No more," she said her knees. "All dust."
Standing, River pulled on the jacket and contemplated the distance from the front door to Jayne's ship. He hadn't reemerged yet, but that didn't mean he wouldn't be foolish enough to.
She could feel the exact moment her father saw her.
"River?" her name drifted quietly, not calling to her but asking, incredulous, of her mother. What her mother replied she couldn't hear – the sound was lost in the impact of her boots on the gravel, and the immediate sprint as she left the steps. The coat snapped loudly around her, just twice, three times, and then shot out straight behind her. Like a bird. Like flying. Like falling.
"What's she doing here?" she could hear her father start to go after her, and her mother's alarmed shout, though whether it was at her escaping daughter or at her husband's display of violence, she wasn't sure.
River could feel her eyes tear and sting as she ran, the wind and dust kicking up sharp as she went, and her legs begin to burn, the boots heavy on her feet. But better than having to go barefoot, on all the sharp white stone that skidded up behind her like a plume of snow.
The noise attracted Jayne, or some other battle instinct, and he poked his head out of the open door only long enough to assess the situation, and then he disappeared again. When he returned, he was hefting the largest gun they had, and River doubled her efforts.
It wasn't enough.
She was nearly at the door when she could feel the yank, the wrap of Gabriel's hand twisting into the jacket and pulling her backward. She screamed, but she couldn't hear her own voice. She could see it in Jayne's face, though, in a flash as quick as a camera's shutter, and he clocked her father in the mouth with a quick butt of the gun. Her father grabbed for her arm, and something punched into her mind, a tumult of visions as sharp as her dreams from before Miranda, and she stumbled backward. Jayne hit him again, and again.
The grip in the coat fell slack, and someone yanked her up. Jayne. She looked up at him, dazed, and he gave her a confused, impatient look, and she pushed past Jayne into the ship. "Leave him!" she shouted, clamoring over the seats to slam all the controls on. The ship whirred into activity immediately, and the drone of the engine hummed through the thick soles of the boots. She set the auto pilot settings by slamming her fists down onto the buttons, and then tore back out into the hallway, and found Jayne with the gun trained on her father.
"What do you want me to do with this?" Jayne asked, gesturing at the fuming old man.
She stared at him, coming closer to stand next to Jayne, sideways, and saw how he wouldn't meet her eyes. "All gone," she said quietly, and his gaze flickered, and her mother yelled something again, but it was lost in the sound of the ship rising off of the gravel.
Jayne looked at her quickly. "Well?"
"Ashes to ashes," River said.
"Screw that," Jayne replied, and shoved the man out of the ship, slammed the door shut, twisting the airlock into safety mode. He gave her a disgruntled look, and then unchambered the gun. "Well," he said. "We still got the cash. Let's go buy us a boat."
River nodded silently, still breathing hard, and Jayne made some noncommittal noise and moved toward the front of the ship. When he was gone, she slumped against the inside of the door, the airlock wheel hard at her back, and slid down until she sat with her knees to her chin, staring. It wasn't until she was seated that she realized the boots were Simon's. Old, and more than worn, and she couldn't imagine why her mother would keep those and nothing else, but Simon's nonetheless.
The images from when her father touched her sifted and shifted like sand dunes in her mind, drifting away and eddying into patterns. Simon. Nearby. Alive, working, tortured, angry, alive. Alive.
Chapter 3: Fic: A New and Fairer Whole, Part IV
iv. we know not what we may be
Zoe hadn't realized she'd been anywhere long enough for the season to have changed – wherever she was – but she watched the moon come full and wane and wax and on and on, and one morning she realized she'd been staring into the corner for so long that it had piled up with a little eddy of snow. It was the corner under the strip of window. Between the iron bars, wind blew in and chilled her, and she pushed back into the wall under the ventilation shaft that leaked a useless stream of warm air until she could feel the shape of each brick digging into her back.
She stared hatefully at the prison uniform that sat, untouched as ever, on the small cot, and grimaced to herself. The line between pride and survival was a thin one. And not one she'd often walked of her own free will. Following her captain was an entirely different situation – Mal put himself into situations that she wouldn't dream of backing down from, once he'd established them. But Malcolm Reynolds was also slightly more of an instigator than she was, as well. The thought made her huff through her nose, and smile.
Standing, she picked up the rough fabric of the shirt first. The cloth was bulky, and would tangle if she were in a knife fight, but it was loose enough that she could move if she needed to, and mobility was her priority. She pulled it on over her head, long hair pulled out in a handful at the nape of her neck, and she tried to allow her skin a moment to adjust to the idea of wearing clothing again. But it was too strange, and these didn't even feel like what she thought clothes ought to.
The skirt, though, was a different matter. It bound her legs when she put it on, and when she turned an experimental circuit around the room, she felt more trapped than she had before. Swearing, she yanked herself out of the floor-length dress and stared at it. Hanging in her narrow fingers, it was nothing more than a tube of fabric with two seams.
Crouching on her knees, she searched for the doubled-over finishing stitch and pulled the cloth up to her mouth, worrying at the thread. She looked down, scowling, trying to see her own mouth as she worked, and the taste of rank, rough cotton-wool blend filled her mouth. How long she sat and chewed she wasn't certain, and she could feel her jaw ache as she teased apart the thread from the stitching. The thread that had been used to join the cloth together felt like wire between her teeth, and when she finally felt it give, she pulled the saliva sodden patch out of her mouth and spat onto the ground.
Zoe plucked the thread out of its housing with her pointed nails, and carefully unwove the seam all the way up the length of the garment. When she was a few inches from the top, she stopped and carefully tied off the thread, and spent another few minutes cutting the extra length off with her teeth.
Then she repeated the whole tedious process on the other side.
When she was finished, she put what remained of the dress on, and raveled together the two lengths of hearty string and tied both of them into the waistband of the skirt. She wasn't sure what she could do with the scraps, but she'd certainly killed men with less than that before.
As far as Zoe was concerned, she was armed.
* * *
"This is gonna get a little difficult if nobody's gonna take the money," Jayne growled down at River, his hands stuffed into his pockets, as they wandered the streets of Persephone.
"Shhh," she murmured, and looked sideways out at the street under the cover of a big sunhat. "Those two men following us."
Jayne grunted in surprise. He hadn't seen them, but he did now. The sun was going down, and would be in the men's eyes, and to their own advantage. Jayne looked around for some place to make their stand, if it was necessary. River's eyes were scanning as well, though he wasn't sure what for.
"This way," she said, and darted off in one direction.
"Hey!" he called after her, started, and then cast a glance at their pursuers before following her. He caught a flash of long coat in the crowd and tried his best to track it, but she moved fast, and light, and it was hard. And the men were still following her. A skitter of gravel and an upset among some fruit carts started him off again in another direction, but it was the last evidence he saw of her as he ran.
"Gorram girl," he swore quietly, pressing himself back against a wall in an alleyway. He strained for a sight of their pursuers, and swore again and ducked behind a stack of crates as they clattered by. He'd definitely been chased by worse, but he wasn't eager to find out who they worked for, or represented. Between the two of them, he and River had a whole lottery of people eager to see them again. None of whom Jayne particularly wanted to exchange words with, unless it was out of the barrel of a sturdy shotgun.
Pulling himself away from the wall again, Jayne went deeper in the alley, the dying sunlight at his back, to investigate another way out. The ground underfoot went mucky, and his footsteps got noisier, which did nothing but agitate his nerves. Something flicked in the corner of his vision, and he froze fast, in a small crouch, ready to fight if he had to. He still had the knife River had liberated from the guards, though she hadn't offered the story of how and Jayne certainly hadn't inquired after it, and the one he'd taken off the Foreman.
"Boo," said a small voice next to him, and he whirled back to find River at his elbow, laughing her high, girlish laugh. "Come on!" she said, and pulled him along by the crook of his elbow. "Slowpoke."
"What," he protested, and she shushed him.
"I found it," she said, obviously quite pleased.
He stumbled along further into the shadows with her, and she didn't let go the hold on his arm until she was satisfied he was going to move under his own steam. "Found what? We weren't looking for nothing specific."
She made a shaming sound with her mouth, and they stopped, and she pounded on the brick wall with one pale fist. But the sound wasn't against stone. Jayne squinted in the dark, and saw a wooden door just barely set back into the material. A peep hole slammed open and then shut again, and the sound of locks being thrown open sounded. River spared him a look over her shoulder. "Try not to get lost this time. Little sheep."
"Hey," he protested, and watched as the door opened and she went inside.
"Baa," she said over one shoulder, hair obscuring half of her face, and all of her smile.
He exhaled hard through his nose and went past the threshold, glaring at the man who stood behind the door waiting for him to come in. Another hired muscle, but not as big as Jayne, and they were quick to size one another up and realize this. The man opened his leather vest and exposed a rather nasty looking pistol. Which was about when Jayne knew they were surrounded by idiots, because what was the point in giving away the element of surprise like that, really.
River had slipped down the hallway, and he followed her, thinking something looked vaguely familiar about the place, but unable to understand or remember why. He caught up with her just as she was pushing aside some dirty looking satin curtains, and ducking through. The sounds of the market further on ahead indicated that the storefront, whatever it was, was significantly different from its back room.
As soon as Jayne ducked under the curtains, the whisper of cloth falling behind him, he groaned. "This?" he asked River. "This is where we're gonna get us a boat?"
She looked up at him with an over-innocent expression of confusion as to his negative opinion, and then turned her gaze back to the man sprawled, legs open, in a lazy slouch, in the wicker chair in front of her.
"Badger," Jayne said, and nodded, in a growl of a warning.
"Always a pleasure to work with my favorite crew," Badger said, his mouth cracked wide in anticipation of fresh meat. His eyes grew sharp and canny, an expression that always made Jayne uneasy. "And where is our dear bosom friend Captain Reynolds, hm? He hain't been seen for some time now, and I wager people are starting to feel the loss."
"We're here to speak for him," River said, her voice transformed into a cockney drawl.
The voice did wonders for Badger's face, and he rose up slightly out of his chair, startled, and pushed himself into a proper posture. "I thought I recognized you," he said, a bit of wonder in his voice. Jayne snorted. It took a moment, but his gaze sharpened on Jayne. "You said she were a passenger."
"Things change," River said daintily, cutting off Jayne's intake of breath to speak, and sat down daintily – which was remarkable, considering the bloodstained shift, boots, and jacket cut poorly to her frame – to look bored, off into the distance. Badger watched her, mouth slightly agape, until she seemed to notice him again. "Tea?" she snapped, incredulous.
"Tea," Badger replied, and sat up straighter, and snapped his fingers at one of the men near the door. "Lady wants tea, let's get her some tea, gentlemen." He gave River a beatific smile. "After all, we are all gentlemen here."
"Mm," she said, skeptical and bored.
Jayne went a little closer to her side and sat down at the small table she had leaned one of her arms against. "Some proper food wouldn't go amiss neither," he said.
River looked expectantly at Badger.
"Of course," the man hurried to agree, and pulled himself out of the large wicker chair to come to the table. He kept a respectful distance from River, which was unsettling in and of itself, and another man disappeared and the man who's been sent for tea returned, and planted the pot in the middle of the table.
River made no move to fill the cups, and waited, impatient, for Badger to do it for her. He pushed the handleless mug halfway across the table and she looked from it, to Jayne. Jayne stared back. "Hand me the cup," she finally said, exasperated.
Jayne's face twisted into incredulity. "Pick it up yourself."
"It isn't proper," Badger said, scandalized. "For a lady to accept something directly from a gentleman." River made a sound of disbelief at this honorific. "But her guards and servants may, of course, touch her."
Jayne shoved the mug the rest of the way across the table. "Trust me, buddy, there ain't no touching going on."
Badger made a face as though he'd just found gristle in his meat. "I'm sure."
River hid her face in the mug for a moment, longer than was necessary, and Jayne wondered if she was playing for time, or simply trying to suppress the urge to punch the man in the face, as he was.
"We need to purchase a small transport ship," River said, without preamble.
The look in Badger's eyes sharpened, and one hand went up to surreptitiously fiddle with the greasy looking cravat around his bare neck. "And what will you be transporting?"
River gave him a dead look. "Cargo," she said flatly.
"Of course," he said, closing the expression back up and aiming toward something like businesslike. "We've a number of excellently classed ships without, ah, registration, as it were."
"No," she said tightly. "We want something legal."
He winced at the implication of illegality, but the motion was hidden by the return of the man who'd been sent for food. "Right. Well." He pulled a handheld stylus off of his desk and activated it with a fingerprint scanner, and set it on the table between them, while Jayne ripped into something that looked and smelled like pulled pork, but tasted a little closer to processed rooster. Badger used a fingertip to scroll through the index and pulled something up. A three dimensional photograph sprung from the screen, rotating, a running list of specs scrolling next to the picture.
"We've got a nice bit of room here, with good handling capabilities, and – "
"Too big," River cut him off immediately, and pulled the stylus over in front of her, despite his undignified squawk of protest. "I need something smaller."
"But surely," he said, darting a nervous glance between the two of them, and laughing in a slightly broken, uncertain way. "Surely you'll need something…roomy."
"No," she said, dismissive, and scrolled rapidly through the next few screens. Jayne kept an eye out for anything particularly interesting, and made an appreciative sound at the next image that she halted on. "This one," he said, pointing at the rotating semi-opaque projected image of the pod. "Does the steering pull when you enter and exit low orbit planets?"
"Er," Badger said, trying to collect himself, and determine which vessel it was she'd chosen without the stylus in front of him. "Yes. We had that hand modified by our technician." He warmed to the subject now that they were both speaking the same language: money. "Which will, naturally, bump the price up a small amount."
"You've stripped off the protective plating from the exterior of the nose," she said. "That'll knock the cost back down."
"Er," Badger said again.
"Removed the gunner racks," Jayne said around a mouthful of meat, trying to catch some misplaced gravy with a thumb. He sucked it off his finger and then pointed to the image. "There, and there. Probably stripped 'em for another boat."
Badger didn't say anything, this time, just tightened his mouth.
"Hm," River said, and looked sideways at Jayne. "What do you think?"
Jayne shrugged, noncommittal. "Could probably do better with the twins."
"The twins are dead," Badger reminded them, testy at the prospect of his quarry moving off.
River gave him another one of her smiles. "We've been a little out of touch. But the tiny king watches over his mountain of trash." She switched her gaze back to the stylus' projected image, and tapped on the scrolling list. It shifted to a number.
"That'd better be an ID number and not a price," Jayne said. "Cause there's about three too many digits on that."
River sipped at her tea, and spoke to Jayne as if Badger wasn't even there. "Give him half the money and use the rest on supplies. I'll meet you at the loading dock in two hours. I have some business I need to attend to."
Jayne tried to figure out whether or not she actually had anything that needed doing, or if this was just more of the odd little act for Badger's benefit. "Half?" he asked, with a grunt, and went for a handful of odd looking red fruit out of a small bowl.
"Half," she said, and rose from the table.
Badger rose as well, trying for something like respect, and looking increasingly nervous about the amount he was to be paid. "Now hold on a tic…"
"Than you for your time, your highness," River said, and dropped a short curtsey. She beckoned to Jayne, who reluctantly pulled out the cash reward, and she pulled out a fistful of coin, without letting either of them see the markings on it. It was a sly move, and would keep Badger from knowing just how much they were paying him. "Take the rest," she reminded Jayne, and disappeared toward the front of the shop, toward the bazaar.
"Lovely girl," Badger said, and Jayne looked up at him, consternated that he seemed genuine.
"Right," Jayne said. "If you like a side of crazy for breakfast."
Badger made no reply, as he was too busy staring, so Jayne started loading his pockets up with the coin. When he'd taken out about half, he tied off the bag and dropped it on top of the used up plates, and grabbed two bananas, and stuffed those in his pocket, too. "Any time," Jayne said brusquely, and it snapped Badger out of his daze.
"This way," the oily man said, and nodded with his head. They headed back out the back room and down a side corridor, and into the scrap yard. The transport was only slightly larger than their pod, but it would have everything they'd need for extended travel. "Fully stocked," Badger said. "Though I can throw in a great deal on some plasma fuel if you're interested."
"Ain't," Jayne said, and stalked away from him.
It took the better part of two hours to get the ship moved and fueled, to check the registration and the capabilities, and to purchase and stock supplies for the trip. Jayne sectioned off a bit of the reward cash for the weapons cache, and by the time he visited the gunsmith and a steelworker off the main bazaar, he was starting to wonder how River was expecting to find him, especially with the sun fully down and the moon still hours away.
The bazaar still bustled, though, and as the crowd enveloped him and spat him back out on the loading docks, he was surprised to find River waiting on a pillar, legs swinging, posture elegant. She was wearing a new dress, a long, loose thing made of dyed black cotton, and the slightly over-large coat hung from her shoulders.
He stopped in front of the pillar and peered up at here. "We're late."
She cocked her head and looked down at him. "For what?"
"Gettin' the hell out of here." He looked around the loading docks, at the giant hulking shadows of the ships that loomed in the darkness, and the quiet constant hum of engines that came through even the thick soles of his boots. "Badger's boys are bound to come sniffing again if we don't haul tail."
"I was waiting for you," River pointed out. "All the pretty, pretty lights are on inside your head."
Jayne squinted at her, hesitating.
Her smile widened. "Like fireworks. Boom."
"Get on the gorram ship," Jayne said, pointing. She flashed him an impish smile and hopped down off the pillar, leading the way with her coat flapping in the slight wind stirred up by so many wing-engines powering up and down. "Where in the name of tian xiao were you all this time? Buying more than just a frilly dress?"
"There's no frills on it," River pointed out, quite reasonably.
Jayne looked fairly put out as he followed River onto the ship. "Well, there might as well be, the way you look."
She didn't say anything, which meant she was probably rolling her eyes. Teenagers. Jayne had no patience for teenagers. He closed the door behind him, and twisted the seal on the airlock. "What did you do with the stolen pod?" she asked, settling herself in the pilot's chair.
"Sold it to the scrap yard," he said. "Kept the cash. Bought some guns."
"Good," River said. "We're going to need them."
He cast her a sidelong glance as she powered up the ship, and he jolted into his chair as they shot into the sky, accelerating rapidly. "Easy, girl," he growled, and managed to get himself into his seat. "How do you know where we're going, anyhow?"
She turned to look at him, but the response was chillingly belated, and it made Jayne want to scrub at all the fine hairs along his arms that had stood on end. "Can't you hear them?" she said quietly.
"Hear who?" Jayne demanded, a small pitch of unease in his voice.
"Hm," River said, and turned back to the controls. "Probably not. Singing, singing. They all hum on a different tune. Yours was deepest. Easiest to find." She squinted out at the nearing starscape, and the ship began to rattle as they broke atmo. "And there's one that oughtn't be there, and one that ought to be that isn't. All humming together. In a round."
Jayne slumped in the chair and settled back for a long night, as River started singing "Row Row Row Your Boat." She cut herself off abruptly, though, and glared at him. "What?" he asked, defensive.
She sighed. "Never mind."
"Fine," he said, feeling insulted but unsure why. "Where we going first?"
She cocked her head to one side, and pursed her lips. "Inara."
"What?" Jayne shoved himself up from his slouch. "You crazy?"
"Yes," she said, with a genuine smile.
He covered his eyes with his hands. "How the hell is a Companion supposed to help us? We oughter go after Zoe first."
River was already shaking her head. "No. Inara and Kaylee."
"Mal," Jayne countered.
"No," River said simply.
Jayne growled and slouched lower. "I'm pretty damn sure I didn't sign up for you to be in charge."
River made a contemplative noise, the sort of magnanimous sound that very generous teenage girls were prone to making, and adjusted the auto pilot settings. Then she folded her legs up into a lotus position and placed both her hands on the console, like she was listening, and closed her eyes.
They flew on.
* * *
Inara and Kaylee were sitting, huddled together in the corner of the room, when one of the elderly guards threw the door back. The man had a particularly livid scar down one side of his face, and it partially obscured the natural line of his cheekbone, giving him a curiously lopsided expression. Inara had been called to his service a handful of times, enough to know that he demanded caution and respect, but didn't require the act of fear that some of the others did. She began a series of breathing techniques that helped her put away her mind during these tasks she had been appointed to – something she would never have done during her normal duties, as it was well within her training to teach that pleasure was to be taken from every aspect of living.
Nevertheless, there had been emergency courses taught during her time at the Academy – one's position as a Companion was a constant risk, to those who did not respect the title, and especially on the far cornered worlds, there had been reports of rape and abuse. The House Head took it upon herself to teach protection from the psychological trauma of such an act, if not the physical. Inara had used it since her first day here, and had found it served her well.
Whether or not it would continue to do so after she left, of course, she was uncertain. There had been no way to explain the act of removal from compartmentalization to someone who had never been forced to rely on the technique before.
But the guard's eyes did not fall on Inara, who was watching him – instead they went to Kaylee, and pointed at her. "Up," he said.
Kaylee, who had been staring at the wall, her arms wrapped around her knees, which were pulled up tight to her chest, looked up slowly. It was a testament to how long they'd been there that she did not ask him to repeat himself: merely stood, albeit slowly, and used the wall to support herself.
Her eyes held her sadness, and it made Inara look away.
"You're wanted," the guard said, needlessly. Or perhaps not – the day they were not wanted, after all, was the day their lives would no doubt expire. The thought made a chill skim through Inara's senses, and she packed it away as tightly as she had the other thoughts.
Kaylee padded silently out of the room, and Inara watched her go, and watched the guard hand her off to her escorts, who would bring her to whomever had summoned her. Then the guard turned back to Inara, his scar shifting as his jaw clenched and unclenched. "Is she as good with her hands as my ensign tells me?"
It took Inara more than a moment to puzzle out that his question had no sexual meaning. "I'm… not certain," she said. "She's more than competent with engines, I know that." Her knowledge and trust in Kaylee's abilities to fix and manipulate all things mechanical was close to unshakable. But she also knew the dangers of over evaluating a talent. Kaylee could cave under stress, or be given some impossible task, and Inara refused to have that miscalculation on either of their heads.
He made a disgruntled sound and crossed his arms over his chest. "She's been summoned on mechanical duties. This is…unheard of."
Inara carefully schooled her expression into neutrality, and didn't question him. He continued without prompting, after a moment.
"But no one else can fix the coil without copper." He turned to her, puzzled, and that he would even ask indicated the desperation of the situation he was in. "Would copper even work?"
"Kaylee would know, if anyone would," she said carefully. "But she may need supplies. No one can work miracles with nothing."
That, apparently, was more than was necessary from a whore. The man's expression closed up again, and he drew himself up straight. "That will be enough out of you," he said coolly, and strode toward the door, his long step and quick pace suggesting a utilitarianism that no doubt extended into his professional life, as well. Inara catalogued all of these things, and added them to the few scraps of knowledge she already had about him. In her weaker moments, she entertained ideas of banning all these men from the registry when she could contact her Sisterhood again.
He paused at the door, his hand on the lock, and looked over his shoulder at her. "I'll be back for you in a bit," he said curtly, almost as though this were punishment for her having spoken at all.
"Yes, sir," she replied quietly, and kept her eyes cast onto the floor. He left, locking the cell behind him, and she began her breathing exercises again, though it was more than significantly more difficult this time, knowing that Kaylee had been taken for some more specific purpose. She wondered if the girl would be safe, and how soon she would return, and in what condition she would be.
And whether or not she would bring food.
* * *
Every time they gave Simon his hands back, it took a little bit longer for them to regain feeling. When there were emergencies, he fumbled through the first few minutes of surgery waiting for his precision to return. The nurses frowned at him, but let the slips fall by the wayside, because he got the work done, and they never lost a patient.
Simon knew that it was nerve damage, though, and that sooner or later his body would stop recovering from whatever stimuli was being used to reactivate the frozen tendons and muscle. In his mind, he went over the anatomy involved: each nerve cluster and bone and they way they all connected. He spent hours in his small prison – because it was a prison, no matter how much they made it feel like a room – staring at his hands instead of sleeping. Just willing something to work. To move.
The bind was stronger than the body. This was an ideal he had held true for nearly as long as he'd known the different parts of each system, and to have it proven fallible at the eleventh hour was more painful than it otherwise would have been. In the privacy of his own rooms, he would sit with his hands palm up on his knees, staring at the lines and the ghostly pale of the restricted blood flow. His eyes would trace what he knew was hidden by the withering grey skin – the bracelets cut in at the transverse carpal ligament, slicing off the median nerve, the radial artery, the ulnar artery and nerve, the thousands of blood vessels and nerve endings that lay dormant with the temporary nature of being paralyzed.
He hoped it was temporary.
The longer he stared, the more he concentrated, the more convinced he was that if he just tried hard enough, he would be able to get his fingers to work.
So he sat, and didn't sleep, and just stared at his hands.
He stopped undressing, after a time – the unnecessary waste of time spent taking off one set of clothes and putting on pajamas was ridiculously difficult and frustrating – and got tired of ringing a nurse for the bathroom, and didn't bother to protest when they fit him with a catheter. It wasn't as though they were giving him much to eat, anyway, so he could hardly see how it would matter.
He could feel his body deteriorating, one step at a time. He could feel it in the base of his spine, from the protest of his bones at their lack of movement. He could feel it along the soles of his feet, where the arches were collapsing from being under too much pressure too often. He could feel it in the joints of his knees, too accustomed to having a night's rest to recoup the day's heavy gravitational stresses.
And his mind, he was sure, wouldn't take too long to follow after.
The scalpel in his hand was steady and sure as it made a Y-incision down the front of the cadaver. These sorts of things were never any easier even when the body on the table was cold and stiff (or not, if the rigor mortis had already passed), and Simon caught his lower lip between his teeth as he worked the skin back over the muscle and sinew. He knew what it would feel like if his hand slipped, the tearing, resistant rend of stretchy fabric peeling off of its seams.
But his hand stayed true, and he sent up a silent thanks for the regular adrenaline infusions they were doping him with that let him focus long enough to get the delicate surgeries done.
He peered down into the body cavity and frowned, looking at the splintered rib where the bullet had gone through, and started picking out bone fragment. He looked up at Petsom, who was standing against the closed door, watching him under lidded eyes.
"Maybe if you want to tell me what it is I'm supposed to be looking for, here?" Simon said waspishly, his vision swimming in the bright lights as he shifted his gaze from the glistening organs to Petsom and back again.
"Just do the autopsy," Petsom said, sounding bored.
Simon shot a glance at the girl standing next to him, and put both of his hands into the stomach cavity, grateful that that particular organ hadn't been ruptured, and that he didn't have to wade bare-handed through an interior gone septic. He lifted out the liver, carefully, and placed it on the digital scale, which not only weighed but measured the viability of transferring the organ for donation. The liver passed the required statistics and the scale shot out with NeuroWrap, which would keep the organ in stasis until it could be inserted into another body.
"Keep back," he said to River, quietly. "Your hair's too long, and you don't have it pulled back. These organs need to stay clean."
She looked up at him with wide eyes, and took a shuffling step backward.
Petsom appeared not to have witnessed the exchange at all. "You know," he drawled, "they did the first successful heart transplant from a NeuroWrap a few months back."
"Really," Simon said, the response coming out almost automatically. It wasn't until he'd finished saying it that he realized he really was interested. The technology had been hard to come by and was, of course, entirely Alliance funded, so those on the border planets or fighting in wars – the people who really needed them – still couldn't afford the treatment. But the more mainstream it became, the more lives could be saved.
"Tried it on a dead body," Petsom said.
Simon looked up, alarmed. "That would cause… that's… That can't be legal." He knew precisely how ridiculous such an accusation sounded, but it was horrible to think about. A dead body being reinserted with a working heart, filled with blood transfusions. An actual working zombie. The brain dissolution that would have occurred immediately after death was disturbing enough. If the body had been let to sit for too long… he shook the thought out, horrified.
Petsom gave him a withering look. "When you make the laws, son, then you can decide what's legal and what isn't."
Simon looked away from him, back into the body, and reached for a nasty looking device to crack the ribs and lift them out. The crunch of bone was shattering in the circular room as he cracked the sternum, the sound echoing back down to him from the domed ceiling. A smaller set of tools was used to snap each rib out of the chest, and he reached down for the left lung, which hadn't been punctured. Its pair had been shot through and would have ruined the set, if it had had a chance to fill with liquid, but the secondary bullet to the throat and ceased the drainage in time, and the way the man had fallen had kept one of the lungs in good condition.
Using a laser tool, and a small pair of magnifying glasses, Simon extracted the lung and placed it on the scale to be weighed and wrapped. "Should I try for the heart, then?" Simon asked, eyeing the organ warily. It was difficult to remove a heart, because he was never sure how much artery to take, depending on the body it would be put into. And he'd never tried it with a corpse before.
But Petsom waved him off. "No. We just need rudimentaries right now. And I'm going to have you do a skin harvest, as well, when that's finished."
Simon kept his sigh quiet, and started working on the kidneys. A skin harvest was difficult, and time consuming, and took more than one person. "Is there any chance you'll at least give me an assistant who's capable?" he asked, mostly to himself, his nose close to the open cavity. He breathed through his mouth, but the smell was still close to unbearable.
Petsom and River both took a step closer to see what he was doing, and he spared her a warning glance. She met his eyes, and backed off a step. Petsom, however, came to loom over him, and blocked his light.
"It'd also be great if you could move just a step to the left," Simon muttered.
After a moment of hesitation, weighing the options of having the job done right with the price of obeying a command from a prisoner, Petsom took one step to the left.
He completed the removal of the rest of the organs on his list – spleen, parts of the stomach lining, a few specific tendons from the arms and legs that were needed to help facilitate healing among the soldiers, basic parts that were kept on stock – and then Petsom helped him heft the body onto its back to carve out the spinal fluid and harvest the bone marrow.
"Who was this poor bastard, anyhow?" Petsom murmured to himself, and wiped his hands off on a cloth and went to look at the charts on the scrolling console next to the door. He laughed, when he saw whatever was written there. "Browncoat holdover from the prison planets. We've got a few of those. Can't believe they lived this long, anyhow."
Simon looked up, alarmed, and set the scalpel down. "What did you say?"
Petsom turned away from the screen and quirked a brow at him. "Browncoat," he said again.
Simon looked immediately at the man's face, studying it. Looking for similarities there, between this dead man and his captain. Mal. Not his captain anymore, because there was nothing left for him to be a captain of. Simon realized he didn't even know what had happened to Serenity, or all of the things on her. All of his things. He hadn't realized he'd even had the chance to accumulate 'things'.
Kaylee bordered on the edge of this thoughts, and he shoved them almost violently away, and focused on the body again. He could feel himself sway slightly as he straightened up, and saw Petsom take a quick step forward out of the corner of his eye.
"Time for another dose," the man said, and groped around in his pockets for the needle he kept.
"Mm," Simon said. "Sleep."
"Like hell," the man said. "We need these bodies done."
"Simon?" River said.
"Hm?" Simon asked, turning his head, and River swam into his vision on the other side of the autopsy table. She was looking up at Petsom, a mark of worry gathering between her eyebrows.
"What did you say?" Petsom asked him.
But Simon's attention was on River, who shifted her gaze to watch him intently. "I'm coming, Simon," she said. "Be careful. I'm coming."
"Why aren't you here?" Simon asked her. He watched Petsom locate the syringe and load the next shot of adrenaline, and could feel his vision cloud over with grey as the man approached. "River?"
"I'm coming, Simon."
He gripped hard at the metal table, trying to stay upright, but it wasn't much use. Too many days without sleep, and he could feel the cool surface against his palms, as his fingers skittered for a grip. "River…?" he heard someone ask, and realized it was him as the view shifted and changed, and he realized he was falling, and felt the impact just before everything went to black.
* * *
River wasn't sure about anything. The trick was to keep that somewhat disturbing fact to herself. She could be sure of getting the ship close enough to Capitol City, at least, even though the atmosphere was thick with Simon, like the greasy feeling of ash between her fingers. It was a matter of actually getting into the Alliance Bay that was a problem. And from there, finding out where Kaylee and Inara were being kept. River could locate them no more specifically than a vague radar, and parts of the signal kept getting scrambled, the closer they got to the actual city. Her mind started to filter in with more and more external voices as the population grew thicker around them.
What she couldn't do anything to stop was the fact that they were tagged for customs as soon as they hit the air traffic of Capitol City. It was a random sweep, allegedly, and one out of every five ships stood the chance of being kept at the docking bay and turned inside out.
A newly instituted rule. Since Miranda. It had no actual purpose, but lead to a deeper sense of safety and security among the upper class citizens in the City proper. Something in that particular thought made River's mind quiver, set off some small alarm of familiarity, and she tried her best to sweep it away, and couldn't.
So it stayed, and carved itself a nicely comfortable and familiar hole of paranoia into her brain pan.
As they followed the Alliance designated landing procedure, Jayne ran around and stashed things as well as he could. There was no law about carrying weapons, so long as one had the proper license, and Jayne did. Just not in his own name. It was herself she was worried about. If she was identified, then all of this would have been for nothing.
All those voices that fell silent. That nasty voiding silence that had been required to throw her into action. All of that would have been nothing, in the end. And she wasn't willing to accept something like that. Not yet. Not when there was still time. When she could find out what had caused the crushing echo of nothingness inside her own mind.
The silence filled itself with an odd vibration as the small ship landed and was opened, and a stern looking Alliance officer ushered out her and Jayne into the border patrol offices, where they would be forced to answer inane questions and endure boring paperwork. River wasn't sure she had the patience for it, and she was willing to put money on the fact that Jayne definitely didn't.
The man who showed them through was a curious looking fellow, face sallow like a skeleton's, except for the scar that slashed down his cheek. River, who was trying to keep her own face as hidden as possible, and the mounting panic in her sternum back, spared him little thought.
But she could feel him watching her. And she could feel Jayne watching the man. Both of them disapproving.
"This don't feel right," Jayne muttered, and his hands twisted for a want of something to do.
"Shush," River said, as though he were one of her dolls, and she was learning to care for it properly. She clutched both of her hands over her stomach and lagged a step or two behind Jayne, letting the attention of those around them slide off of her and onto his significant posture and power.
"Sit," the man said, and pointed at two chairs. Jayne sat first, after a moment's deliberation of the necessity of following orders, even ones so inane as something like that. River had followed suit, perched like a bird on the edge of the chair so that she could take flight if she needed to. She half expected herself to take wing as well, maybe not like a bird, but like the ships that were docked outside, the departures and landings making deep, seismic vibrations in the floor that she could feel rattle and hum all the way up her bones into the empty crevice of her skull.
The man flipped open a standard customs form "What is your business – "
"Passin' through," Jayne cut him off.
River and the man both looked at him.
"Well," he said to River, defensive and more confused sounding than he ought to. "We are, aren't we?"
"On our way from Osiris," she said, and technically, this was true.
"And your registration shows that you acquired the ship on Persephone?" the man said, and frowned. There was no way to connect anything illegal to Persephone; River knew this. It was simply a dock. Just because many ships of all sorts came in and out every day, didn't make it any less reputable than most.
"Yeah," Jayne said, easing back into the role of captain with the easier questions.
"And before that?" the man said coolly.
"Here'n there," Jayne said. "Farm work." Also, technically not a lie.
"Ah," the man said, wry. He turned his eyes back to the forms in front of him, and filled out a few lines. Physical description, River wagered, and she wondered what her own was being recorded as. If they registered any suspicious activity, the four cameras hidden in the room and the audio recorder hidden on the end of the man's pen would activate, and her voice and facial structure would filter though the Cortex's records in seconds. They would be dead before they even had a chance to stand.
"And nothing to declare?" the man said, and went through the list of items that they could confess to having – foreign fruits or vegetables, or the seeds thereof, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, guns with intent to sell, alien bacteria, human cargo, dust from Avite 9 – the options were nearly endless, and River found herself growing restless toward the end of the list.
"Nothin'," Jayne said, shaking his head. "We're just passin' through."
River nodded, and gave the man her best distraught expression, hair hanging over half of her face.
"Hmm," the guard said mildly. "Everything seems to be in order, then. Proceed back to your ship and fly on with caution. Good day, sir." He stood, and bowed slightly, his hands at his sides. "Madame."
Jayne nodded his head toward the door, beckoning for River to precede him. "Let's get out of here," he said quietly, and nudged her a little in the shoulder to speed her along once they were in the corridor. "Place gives me the heebie jeebies."
"The what?" River said quietly, and then tripped over a loose shoelace.
They were escorted back to the small pod that River had acquired for them, her senses still vibrating despite the current lack of takeoff and landing. Something didn't feel right. Something felt fake, or hollow, and it felt like it was getting closer.
After the captain showed them back to their ship and stamped and cancelled their cred for transport, they were free to go. But something held River back, standing at the door, and after a long moment of Jayne watching her with increased frustration, she took one step out back onto the platform.
"Come on!" he yelled at her, throwing his hands up in the air. "Make up your mind, would you?"
"No," she said, but she wasn't talking to him. "No." Something wasn't right. Something felt off. A glitch in the song, a skip in the recording, the crackle of signal buried in signal.
Something wasn't right.
* * *
Kaylee kept a wary eye on the door. It wasn't instinct, but an actual learned trait – something she'd had drilled in her head time and time and time again, and even still, she forgot. But doors had started meaning omens, since she and Inara had been taken here, and there was only so much she could take before the lesson finally stuck. Every time a door opened, her life changed again. Every time the door opened, another man or another woman beckoned her down the hall, and it was in the split second between the opening of the door and the raise of the guard's hand that Kaylee's life and Inara's hung in balance with one another.
And then the scales would tip, and it would all depend on who had been chosen.
Even now, out of the cell, she kept her eyes on the door, now and then. She knelt in front of the engine block, staring at the rusted over copper coils, and bit her lip. A young man came over from the work bench, and it took Kaylee a full beat to recognize who he was – the young man who'd fed her, and bathed her. An ensign in rank, and almost indistinguishable from the rest when he was in his uniform. For some reason, Kaylee had thought he might look different.
He grinned over at her, and handed over a small, pick-like instrument. "I thought you might be able to help," he said. "You have a way with your hands." The absolute lack of entendre in his delivery of the statement made Kaylee blink, and look down at the engine.
"Oh," she said, and thought of the only thing that seemed logical to come next: "What's wrong with her?"
The ensign sat up on his knees and swung the cover of the engine off to expose the rotary system inside. "It just won't go. We installed it on a new level cruiser and it just fried the entire system, I had to yank it out before it took out the connecting pods, too."
Kaylee shook her head and tsked at him. "You can't do that, you gotta treat her nice. There's only so much she can do. That's like trying to put a Bandes rod into a Hughes slot. It just doesn't work."
"Huh," the man said. "But they're designed by the same people."
"Don't matter," Kaylee said, exasperated, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "How'd you get your first stripe?" she teased at him, and he laughed and ducked his head. "I'm gonna need a sonic wrench for this, too."
"Sure," he said, and pushed himself off of his knees to go rummage on the workbench for the tools she needed. "You can call me Lewis, by the way."
"Oh," she said. "Okay." After a brief, startled moment, she recovered. "That your first name or your family name?"
"Neither," he said, and gave her a small shrug. "Just what folks call me."
She nodded, mouth closed, and digested this information carefully.
He gave her a wry, sideways look, and handed over the wrench. She immediately set to work getting the cover off and out of the way. "You're not supposed to tell me yours, I think," he said. "They didn't really say. Anyway, it doesn't matter, right?"
"Right," she echoed, not exactly sure what else to say on the matter of her being nameless chattel. "So, what happened when she started shorting out your system?"
"The nav controls shut down completely," he said, and Kaylee made an understanding sound in the back of her throat. "Why do you always call it 'her'?"
"'Cause that's what she is," Kaylee said simply.
His expression quirked, something like amused. "I've heard of vessels being female, but not the actual engines."
Kaylee ran a hand along one of the coolant wells, and traced the nerve-bundle of wires back to the pain compartment. "Engine's the heartbeat of the ship. Nothing flies without her." She gave the engine a fond pat, and smiled. "It's all in here."
"Right," Lewis said, looking a little out of his depth at this display of emotion. "Well. I guess I'll just…leave you to it." He retreated back to his work bench, and straddled a low plank seat. But Kaylee could feel him watching her, with a sort of quiet, intense curiosity that she'd gotten used to as a young girl working with boy's hands.
It only took a few minutes before it became painfully apparent that silence was as foreign to the young man as it was to Kaylee. Though she didn't really mind it while she had things to do with her hands, and helped to keep her attention off of him, it became increasingly obvious that he was burning to puzzle her out.
"Had a friend," she said casually, and mostly to herself, and yanked out one of the filters from the engine, "used to say it was always just easier to ask than not." She blew hard on the filter and a cloud of copper dust puffed into the air, and she pulled back and covered her nose with her wrist, fingers busy holding onto the wrench.
"Sorry," he muttered, tingeing slightly pink, self-conscious. "I was just…wondering. What it was you were convicted for."
She raised her eyebrows at him. "Weren't convicted. Just brought here and…" She made a general sweeping motion with her wrench.
Lewis' brow furrowed. "Well, but you…must've done something. There has to be something, and then you get sentenced to a certain amount of time here, and then you're done, and…that's it. They clear your record." He was gaining steam in his rambling now, in the surety of how the system was supposed to work. "And since you get cleared once you're done, I was thinking maybe with a few waves if recommendation, you could probably get a job working in one of the shops, if you wanted."
She shook her head. "Weren't like that," she said. "No trial, no… They just brought me here, and that's where I am." She looked up and gave him a smile, showing her teeth a little. "I guess I'm a lifer, then." But the joke and her cheery voice sounded a little strained, even to her own ears.
Lewis looked positively stunned by this revelation. "But your friend, I've seen the registration information. Isn't she a Guild Companion?"
Kaylee nodded, more than a little confused. "So?"
He swung his other leg over the side of the bench and leaned his elbows on his knees so he could look at her. "Companions only end up here if they default on their registration, or the Guild turns them out. Some of them fall into debt. She can work off her fines here, and earn enough money to buy back her standing with the Guild."
"She'd be getting paid then, wouldn't she?" Kaylee pointed out.
Lewis' mouth worked open and shut for a moment, and then he pushed himself up with his hands on his thighs and crossed to the small hand-held Cortex feed mounted on the wall. It took some time, but after a few moments he managed to pull up the most recent information about Inara – travel certificates with the Guild and Alliance approved. "There's no bank account," he said, startled. "I don't understand. There must be some mistake."
Despite herself, Kaylee felt a little bad for him. "Yeah," she said, mournfully. "Maybe so."
He continued scanning the vid screen, and Kaylee went back to working on ratcheting apart the belly of the engine. After a contemplative moment, she began working her arm slowly inside the device. She could feel her heartbeat slow as she worked – this was a procedure she hadn't done in months, but the last time she'd been doing it, there was a strong risk of the rotary function reactivating with her arm still inside the chamber. The rotary gained speed quickly, and the sides were sharp. It was a process that Kaylee had become accustomed to requiring a good bit of patience and care.
It was that she was focused on – navigating her thin wrists between the clusters of wire, bundled like synapses or muscles or nerve endings in a body – instead of keeping her eyes on the door.
Which was why they opened behind gunshot, she nearly took her arm off pulling it out of the machine.
The door spread wider, Lewis throwing himself away from the soon to be gone cover and around the side of the wall, and the sound of gunshot grew louder as two bodies hurtled through the entryway. Kaylee clutched at the wrench, the heaviest tool she had on hand, and snatched up the engine cover as a shield for whatever blows it could bear.
Except as soon as she actually looked, her fingers grease stained and leaving smeared tracks on her face, she recognized the girl that stood, crouched, in the middle of the room, watching the door.
"River?" she said, her voice incredulous.
River turned, and Jayne came around from the inside of the door to look at her, holding an impressively large gun.
"Go se," Lewis said.
* * *
Zoe had never been taught how to cook. Not properly.
She'd joined the armed forces young, straight out of primary, not because she wanted it to pay for her education, or because she believed in the ideals, but because it was what she wanted to do. Career military – not the Alliance, she could take or leave the government itself – but the army, that she liked. As a teenager, she found the structure refreshing, and the rules just bendable enough.
Her original plan, after basic, had been to go through the flight academy. Anything that would get her off the ground as quickly as possible – she didn't want to pilot, but she did want to crew. Mostly, all she wanted was to get the hell off her rock of a home planet and into the Black. The sky held adventure, and safety, and more family than her old home did. Living in the dusty battered down cities of the newest Core planets was still hard, even on those that'd been there for so long, and the children of most families in her neighborhood were all but ushered out the door on their eighteenth birthday with the clothes on their back and a switchblade, if they were lucky.
Zoe was more than lucky. She was strong, and smart, and fast. She was a good shot, and cunning with a knife. She was resourceful, and didn't question orders, and knew when to fall in line. Zoe was the ideal soldier.
Except no one wanted her in their unit.
"Bad luck," her station agent had told her. "Woman like you, all we need is for the other side to be thinking we've gone weak. Or that we don't know how to treat our women."
"What other side," she had said, dry but respectful. "Sir," she had added, after a conclusive pause, to get her point across.
It had worked. After all, they were a peace time army. She knew she would be shuffled back in the paperwork if they ever properly went to war.
Except then things had changed. Not just for the Alliance, but for the armed forces. With the rising of the insurgents, Zoe had returned to her home planet, and found her family, and her city, in ruins. The Alliance flag branded every high peak for a hundred spans in every direction.
That night, at sundown, the Browncoats had come, asking for help. Asking for volunteers, anyone to help fight.
Zoe was the last person in line.
She served as a spy for three years before she was ousted from the ranks of the Alliance foot patrol, and escaped before her trial for treason. The Browncoats brought her home, stripped her uniform – saved it for possible use for other double agents – and stuck her under the rule of a new Sergeant, an upstart with a bad temper and a reckless way.
She'd liked him immediately.
But despite all of it – the lessons and the shooting and the spying and everything in between – no one had taught Zoe how to cook. She could make a mean cup of coffee, and knew what to do with the grounds to stretch them three days longer than should've been possible. She knew how to put together a nasty stew from the dirt rodents on Wichitt. She knew how to slaughter and dress a cow, and the right way to skin a squirrel, and how to keep fur off of raw muscle and how to kill anything on four legs (or two legs and two wings) without wasting a bullet.
"I remembered that crate of peaches," Wash said, his arms folded behind his head, stretched out on the floor.
Zoe made a noise of recognition, the length of string curled in her palm. It wasn't strong enough to serve as proper garrote wire, but it would hurt something fierce, and it was better than the sense of security she'd had before, which had been the strength of her own two hands. Which, considering how often they fed her and the excruciatingly compact room she paced around in, was dwindling faster than she'd have liked.
Last night, she'd done push ups until she thought her lungs were ready to burst.
Now, as she lay in careful wait, staring at the door, she was beginning to wonder whether or not she might've – just possibly – misinterpreted the situation.
The Doctor had been the one to bring Wash today. Not while she was sleeping; not dragging him in and out with force. Just brought him down, by hand, shackled, with guards, and had thrown him into Zoe's cell, with nothing but a smirk.
Wash had been more upset than usual, but wouldn't say why. It took the Doctor to explain things, an hour later. He was studying the psychological arousal of fear and awareness in his prisoners, he had said. Zoe had kept her face stoic the entire time, while her mind clamored away from the scientific babble, sorting through for the truth. Part of that, the Doctor had said, was to study the way a person reacted to a fallen lover, or spouse, or close friend, returned to them.
Part of that, the Doctor had said, was to study the reunion.
Disgusted with his own lack of progress, the Doctor had reminded her that she only had one hour, and that she was ovulating, and to get started.
She'd let her mask slip then, unable to keep the shock off of her face, if only for the briefest moment. That had been what Wash wouldn't say. And now he stayed pressed as far back away from her as he could, though his body language was at ease. Zoe didn't believe a minute of it.
"What do you mean, 'remembered'?" Zoe asked, to move the conversation along. What she meant was, 'how could you forget?'
"I didn't before," Wash said, as though it was as simple as all that. "But now I do." It had gone like that, in stops and starts – Wash remembering things, or not remembering things, or needing to be reminded, a sort of first nudge into the deep. And despite her misgivings, Zoe couldn't help but fill in the blanks for him.
Even walls needed reinforcement. And she was running out of options.
"I remember thinking, 'apples aren't good enough for my Zoe'." Wash shifted a little on the cold floor, the dull undyed material of his trousers scratching against the concrete.
The afternoon of their marriage, Mal sulking off in a corner, Jayne still new and rough around the edges – not that that had faded much with time – and they'd gone out and done the deed, made it official and gotten it on paper and registered it in the Alliance books. Mal'd said it was stupid, leaving a paper trail for the government to follow, and dangerous for him, linking his name to a Browncoat. But off they'd went and done it anyway, and he'd sent her on back to Serenity with a kiss and a promise that he wouldn't be long.
He took ages.
There wasn't a wedding cake, but there hadn't been one at her parents' wedding, either. Butter was like gold, and sugar, though easier to come by, was nearly as impossible. Only rich people had things like that.
"I remember a whole crate of them," Wash mused, and Zoe had a feeling he was talking mostly to himself, but she couldn't help interjecting.
"Half a crate," she said sternly.
"Mm," he replied. "Spent the other half on the rest."
He'd come back at dusk, the sun streaming through his hair and lighting it up like spun silk, a poorly knocked together wooden crate under one arm, and a canvas sack swinging from his other hand. He walked the same way he always did, with a little more bounce than was strictly necessary, like he knew he had something worth being cheerful about, and she'd watched him from the loading dock door.
He hadn't said a word as he'd passed by her, just tipped her a wink and gave her a slow, sweet kiss, and brushed the tips of his fingers over the line of her throat, newly cut across the center with her leather cord. He'd disappeared into the kitchen, and she'd taken the helm and gotten them off world.
Mal had avoided her all evening, after making the appropriate wry and slightly more hateful than necessary wedding night comments, but she'd had a startle when she'd gone for the back of the ship, and crossed through the kitchen to do it.
The entire prep station was covered in protein powder.
"You had flour in your hair," she murmured. Because it'd been flour, but she'd never seen it before, and certainly not that color, the creamy white, so smooth it should've been liquid. She'd tried to clean it out with a damp rag, swatting at the tips of his mussed up hair as he caught her around the waist, leaving big dusty handprints on her hips and stomach. She'd gotten him mostly cleaned up before he'd reached back into a small brown paper bag and pulled out another handful, and tossed it up into the air. She had screeched, laughing and ducking and smacking him with the towel, but it hadn't stopped the stuff from drifting down into her hair anyway.
"So did you," Wash replied matter of factly, though he sounded much more nostalgic over it than she did. Maybe as nostalgic as she felt.
He'd shown her the crate of peaches then, and how he'd emptied his bank accounts to buy the ingredients – figured he wouldn't need money where they were going, and the life they were living, and what was the point of a life savings if you couldn't spend it on the day your life changed – and he'd taught her how to bake.
They'd had peach pie for dinner, and ignored Jayne's complaints that echoed through the course of the ship. For dessert they'd had each other, dried dough under Wash's fingernails and the taste of sugar in his mouth.
"Took about a year before I stopped looking for fruit stalls," Wash said ruefully. Zoe said nothing, and watched as he turned his head and looked at her, like there was something he wanted to ask. Whatever the question was, she could tell he changed his mind about it at the last minute. "Were you at least taking care of yourself?" he asked, his voice a combination of stern and joking.
She wondered whether or not the question had an ulterior motive, and what she would lose from answering it, after she'd already shown the weakness of her nostalgia. "No," she said, and the syllable came out strong and quiet in the small room.
"You weren't sleeping," Wash scolded her, and pushed himself up into a sitting position, and slumped over a little. Bad posture. Favoring his right side a little, like he'd spent too many days leaning on one arm in a pilot's chair and didn't know how to sit any other way.
Zoe blinked slowly at him, and processed this detail away with the others. "No," she confessed. "Never did have much use for it." Which was a lie, but she shoved the thoughts of them wrapped around one another deep into the back of her mind.
"Suppose so," Wash said, sounding rueful, and she had the urge to get up and start pacing. Except she'd done it so many times already.
Her nervous energy was starting to have no place to go, and it was getting worse and worse. They watched one another, not unkindly, for another few moments, before the door screeched open.
The Doctor stood there, his bulk in the frame, and the Matron stood behind him with some girl Zoe'd never seen before. They all looked braced for attack. Zoe realized, belatedly, that she would give up her position as a threat if she failed to do something, and she waited until the Doctor had crept inside a little bit before she bared her teeth fully, pulling her gums up high into a morbid grin.
The doctor's eyes popped a little, and he pulled Wash up roughly, who gave a shout of protest as he scrambled to move fast enough to not have his arm yanked out of the socket. "Alright!" Wash said, yanking his arm away and massaging his shoulder.
Wash spared a glance at Zoe, a mournful, beseeching expression, and Zoe snapped her teeth at him.
The sound filled her up from the inside, like something warm and sunlit was going to pour out from her heart and flood down into her stomach. She looked at him a moment too long, and it was all the Matron needed to yank Wash away, out of the cell.
She'd lost her moment. The doctor backed away, and it was all she needed to crouch low and spring, and she had her teeth in his jaw before he could knock her back, and even with the wind crushed out of her she struggled upright.
It took an pulse gun and two guards to get her back down again. The last thing she remembered was the Doctor, smiling.
Chapter 4: Fic: A New and Fairer Whole, Part 4.5
"River?" Kaylee asked, startled, the tool clutched in both of her hands like a small ceremonial dagger about to be gifted. "What are you doing here?" River knew it sounded inane, but it was better than the fear that was coming off of Kaylee in waves – not fear of River, but the muddled gray fear of confusion.
"Here and there," River answered her, and made an effort to have her eyes go unfocused. "Here and there and everywhere in between. There's no more. None. All gone." She clutched her belly, loosely.
Kaylee's eyes widened the fraction of an inch that River needed to make this believable. "You been here the whole time?"
"Here and there," River said again, quietly, and dipped her head so that her hair obscured her face. There was a large bolt cutter laying underneath the cover of the engine – she could see the handles, wrapped in molded rubber to prevent accidental electrocution, lay askew – and tried to estimate the distance between herself and the tool.
The young man – just a boy, by River's guess, younger than Simon in the skin and in the eyes, and definitely in the heart – looked nervously between them. "What - ?" he started, and then closed his mouth. Trained not to ask questions. Trained not to talk.
If it walked like a soldier and it talked like a soldier, it was a soldier. River reached down and picked up the bolt cutters.
If it walked like a little girl and talked like a little girl, sometimes it was a murderer.
* * *
Simon opened his eyes.
Sitting up, however, was another matter, and took significantly more work. He groaned and pushed himself upright, and rubbed at his eyes, and shoved his hair out of his face.
Then, for the first time in his life, he enjoyed the sensation of cracking his knuckles.
He turned, carefully, feeling the pain in his back radiate in sharp lightning strikes up his back, and tried to see who was calling to him. "Is someone there?" he asked. And then, on instinct: "River?"
"I'm coming, Simon."
Disturbed at this non-denial of the speakers voice, Simon climbed to his feet, and tried to feel for the edges of the black room. He could see himself, but none of his surroundings, and the voice came from everywhere. Every direction. If he closed his eyes, he couldn't be sure that he wasn't floating in mid air.
"River?" he asked.
"Simon," she replied, like a twisted game of Marco Polo in the family pool when he was ten. But even with her eyes closed, River had always been able to find him. He was never quiet enough, could never move fast enough. Not to escape her. Not that he wanted to.
"I'm coming, Simon," the voice repeated, and the edge of determination was fierce. "We just have to get the others first."
"Why?" he asked, the desperation I his voice clear. He violently shoved both of his hands through his hair, and felt himself sink to his knees. "Why, why them first? River?" He felt a stab of panic, that Kaylee might be in trouble, that he hadn't done enough to try and escape, that he'd never have his hands back…
His hands. He looked down at his palms, and stared blankly.
He wiggled his fingers.
"How," he said, mostly to himself.
"I'm coming, Simon," River said.
He nearly cut her off, snapping back. "I need you now." He started to wonder whether this was real, or a dream, or her in his head, or a hallucination. Or maybe she was standing over him right now, and if he could just force his way into consciousness, he'd wake up and find himself at home, with his father and mother worried and watching as River shook him awake, nightgown pooled around her feet.
Except his father wasn't safe anymore. And never had been.
"Soon," she said, and her voice sounded further away than ever.
Simon buried his face in his hands, curled up on top of himself, his legs folded under and his toes touching. He hadn't done enough. They would leave him. They would forget him. River would find Kaylee, and take care of her.
Maybe it was better that way.
He hadn't done enough.
He'd never done enough.
* * *
Tzalin had a particular appreciation for vid screen conferences, in that, through them, he need only pay attention to half of what was happening. He kept one eye on Petsom, but most of his attention was focused on the vast array of monitors that lined the room. On each screen – and sometimes the scenes flickered back and forth for different angles, though that feature had not yet been installed in all the rooms in the compound – there were scenes of the people he was meant to be surveying.
Petsom was still talking, upset over some discovery or another at his medical facility.
"Come to the point," he cut the man off, and Petsom's mouth closed with a satisfying sound.
"He's starting to resist the drugs," Petsom said, querulously.
"WhoTam boy," Petsom said, disgusted, and they both knew, then, that Tzalin hadn't been paying close enough attention.
The Admiral leaned forward in his chair, all his attention taken off of his monitors, though he spared one last favored glance for a man trucking rocks across a room. "Tam? Simon Tam? What's happened to him?"
Petsom was trying to reel in his patience, and it was visible on his face. "He's starting to debilitate. His body can't take the strain of the lack of sleep. And the drugs are starting to make him hallucinate."
Tzalin sat back, brow furrowed. "Right. Fine. Let him sleep, then."
Petsom narrowed his lips. "Well, that's done. He passed out in the middle of an organ harvest."
"Lao tien ye," Tzalin muttered under his breath. Then, louder: "Right. Bring him up top for a full medical evaluation. Put some real food into him. I don't expect to hear a report like this in the future."
Petsom saluted neatly, and gave his farewell signature. Tzalin let him go, and shut off the vid screen and turned slightly in his chair, back to the massive bank of computers.
With a few gestures of his hand, he closed down the Cortex feeds and took one of the images – the man lugging rocks – and expanded it to cover nine screens, and leaned back and watched, frowning.
The man was alone in the room, surrounded by grey. Grey walls, ceiling, floor. There were ventilation shafts, and a small reinforced Plexiglas window that brought food in and out of the room. There was a toilet in one corner, and a small corner where the dust and dirt had been swept away through care, despite exhaustion.
Tzalin watched, for long moments, as the man toiled. Two piles of rocks. His instructions, for two eight-hour shifts during the day, were to do nothing but move rocks. From one pile, to another. Large rocks – approximately the size of a small dog, or a large melon. From one pile to another, over, and over, and over again.
When one pile was filled and the other had disappeared, he would start over, in the opposite direction.
There were no breaks during the shifts. The first time Tzalin had used this particular means of punishment on a prisoner, he had broken the tasks into two eight hour shifts on, and one eight hour shift off. Later, as the punishment was fine-tuned, he realized how much more effective it was to have his prisoners work for eight hours, rest for four, and repeat the process from there.
It made it impossible to rest. Or to eat, for the first few days, while the body adjusted to a new feeding schedule.
Or to tell how much time had gone by.
Tzalin gave a little chuckle of satisfaction and closed the window down, after one last fond look at the man, and made a note that his scraggly brown hair ought to be cropped up short again. He wanted his prisoners uniform, and regulated, and identical. They were all here for the same reason, after all. Oidam was a prison planet, and Tzalin's sector was the most important of all, to the Alliance forces.
He was in charge of the Browncoats rehabilitation.
* * *
"It doesn't matter how it happened," Kaylee said, impatient, tugging at Lewis' sleeve, trying to get him away from the door. Jayne slammed his gun into the door controls, sealing them inside in a shower of sparks. "We've got to get out of here. Inara – "
"Who?" Lewis said, startled, and confused, and very clearly trying to keep a grasp on the few things that he did understand: who was who, what was what, and why was the scary large man pointing a gun at him. Jayne gave him an insincere little smile just to see the man cringe back, and then turned his attention back on River.
"That's who we came for," he said. "Let's find her and get the hell out 'fore I run out of stuff for shooting."
River, though, wasn't paying attention to any of them. She had her ear pressed close up against the door, listening. It made Jayne listen, too, though he wasn't sure what it is she was trying to hear.
"What is it?" he whispered.
"Too quiet," she said, her breath fogging up the brushed steel of the door. The condensation disappeared nearly as soon as it had formed, but it gave her words a ghostly feel.
The Cortex feed by the door crackled to life, switching over to a vid screen. "Lewis," the screen said, and then the man who had stopped Jayne and River for customs stepped into view, looking disgruntled.
"Sir?" Lewis piped up from the corner.
"Where are you, Ensign?" the man barked. "Take out the hostiles and report back!"
Jayne looked up at the screen, and saw the man's scar go a livid white on his cheek as Jayne came into view. "Sorry, boss, we got sorta a hostage-type situation going on right now. Gonna have to chat later." He popped the nose of his gun onto the 'disconnect' button, and turned to the rest of the people in the room. "Back door?" he asked.
"This way," Lewis said, and Jayne nodded at the girls to follow before he swept the room one last time, and trailed after them.
Lewis was struggling with a lock when he got there. "You're going to have to go back for your friend," he was telling Kaylee.
"Inara here too?" Jayne growled, his eyes on the door at the front of the room, watching it shiver under the renewed impact of bodies. The officer must have give the order for them to resume their attack.
"She's back in the cell," Kaylee said, and she was starting to sound desperate. River was looking eerily calm, and as the girls met eyes, Kaylee looked away first, and up at Jayne. Something in her voice had changed after that moment, and she sounded more stable. Jayne felt more inclined to listen, he had no time for panicky people. Panicky people passed out, and he wasn't in the mood to carry anyone in the middle of a firefight.
"I can get you back there," Lewis said, and slammed his palm into the control panel. "If I could get this gorram door open." He was reaching the end of his patience.
River slipped under his arm, and he fell back startled, at the contact. She spared no glance for him, though, just started going through different number combinations, and muttered to herself. Jayne turned his attention away, as it was usually far less unsettling to let River work without actually focusing on what it was she was doing.
"You hurt?" he asked Kaylee, surveying her for any incapacitating wounds. "It's a ways to the ship. River here sniffed you out."
"Woof," River piped up.
"I'm fine," Kaylee said, distracted. "Where have you two been? Have you seen the captain?" She turned her gaze briefly on River, but it flicked away fast. "Or Simon?"
"Nope," Jayne said, to both. "Weren't planning any rescue attempt, neither, until she came and bailed me out here. Seems to think we're on a bit of a schedule."
"Well I'd hardly think there's time to linger," Lewis said weakly, leaning on the inside of the doorway. The front door shuddered again, and something red hot began to glow from the outside of the passageway.
"They're melting through," Jayne said, directed at River, though his eyes stayed on the door. He automatically chambered another round in his gun, and brought the business gun up to point at the ceiling, hefting it in both hands. "Any time you wanna get out of here, that'd be just swell."
"Impatience," River said, "makes you look orange."
Jayne whipped his head around to frown at her, and then to look down at his hands. "What?"
But any answer was cut off in the victorious cry of the door sliding open – the sound of exultation coming form Lewis, not from River. She stepped back and let the others pass through, sticking close to Jayne's side, and he destroyed the controls on the outside of the door after they'd gotten through.
"Fast," Lewis urged them. He surveyed both sides of the hallway, and motioned them to follow with one hand. "They've got to have people on their way."
"Something a little humped about following around an Alliance officer," Jayne said, loud enough for the boy to hear. He didn't react to it, though, and Jayne didn't bother to unchamber his round. While he was at the boy's back, he'd be safe. Or as safe as he could be in a situation like this, at least.
They bolted down a hallway, and Jayne ducked two shots before they could get another door between them and their pursuers, and before Jayne realized it they were back at the docking bay. "There," he shouted, and pushed Kaylee in the direction of the docks. "Slip 32, get her unlocked and ready to go. Go!"
Kaylee didn't need the extra encouragement to stumble down the docks.
River yanked on Jayne to hurry along with them, and the larger man followed as quickly as he could.
Their cell opened easily under Lewis' key card, but when they entered, Inara was nowhere to be seen.
Jayne turned away from the door just in time to see a troop of Alliance uniforms clatter down a stairwell. "Faster?"
"This way," Lewis shouted, already sprinting away. He took a sharp corner, and pulled even with Jayne, both of them making sure to keep River between them. "I know she's a favorite of some of the higher ranking officers, she could be – "
"Here," River said, her voice quiet but somehow knife-sharp in the clatter of their boots. She yanked them down a corridor, stopped for a moment, and Jayne was reminded of the dogs on his old family homestead, that his mother had taught to track down ducks that her brothers shot.
It was only for the briefest moment, though, and then River was off again, and Lewis and Jayne were stumbling after. River stopped at a door and started pounding hard, not even bothering with the keycode lock.
"Password!" she yelled, shrill, and sounded, for the first time, at the end of her leash. "Password, password!"
"There is no password," Lewis said, sounding desperate, and turned to Jayne beseechingly. "What is she talking about?"
Jayne raised his eyebrows and shook his head, bewildered.
The door opened, and Inara flung herself at River with a shard of mirrored glass. River ducked in time, and Jayne caught the woman around the waist, holding her until she realized where she was.
"What?" was the first thing Inara said.
"No time," River scolded her, and yanked them all down the hall again.
Lewis took the lead, taking them down a different hallway, but Jayne could feel that it was in the basic direction of the loading docks. Still, Inara tried to ask questions.
"Kaylee – " She started.
"Already on," Jayne clipped, and then slammed to a stop as they rounded a corner and met a running troop of Alliance officers head on. The others took too long to turn, though, and Jayne laid down a sweep of cover fire. He ended up at the rear of the group, running half-turned so that he could shoot over his shoulder, and slammed himself up against a wall to breathe, and wait, while Lewis got them toward the bay.
It took another full clip from Jayne to lay down enough cover fire for them to get onto the ship, and Kaylee had already, miraculously, found a way to override the docking system that the Alliance was using.
"Weren't nothing," she was telling River as they climbed aboard, Jayne still shooting as officers poured out the door. "Just a simple 6-4 Alpha lock, with – "
Lewis screeched up to him, hands on his knees, and pulled a gun out of Jayne's arsenal around his hips and turned toward the door, covering Inara's retreat onto the ship. "Take me with you," he demanded.
Jayne looked at him. "What?"
"We oughta," Kaylee said, her voice pitying. "He can't go back now, not after they've – "
"You want an Alliance officer on this ship?" Jayne said, his voice raising with every word. "You nuts or something?"
"I won't cause any trouble," Lewis said.
"Your uniform causes trouble enough," Jayne growled, and squeezed off another round.
"Bang," River said.
They all turned to look at her, and saw her staring at the guards that were firing on them, over Jayne's shoulder. They missed the bullet that took Lewis between the eyes.
Kaylee's wail of surprise brought them all back into the moment, as she dove forward and tried to catch Lewis' falling body. The fire on them doubled, and Jayne turned back quickly. "Get him on the ship," he shouted above the impact of his gun. No one bothered to ask why, just pulled him quickly aboard.
Frankly, Jayne was getting a bit of serious déjà vu from the continuous escapes.
Kaylee threw the ship forward, and they were out of the docking area before the rear hull could suffer any gunfire. Jayne didn't want to wait around to find out how bulletproof they were.
* * *
Simon woke standing up.
It took him a moment to understand where he was, and even then, it wasn't anywhere he knew. He'd never seen this room before, or the all-white coffin-like chamber he was strapped inside. It didn't have a lid, which helped to keep down the risk of panic induced claustrophobia, but the fact that he was strapped down – a fact which registered only after he tried to move – didn't help things in the slightest.
His hands, of course, were still completely useless.
The room was also incapacitatingly cold. It wasn't until he tried to move that he found he had every muscle clenched, to keep from shivering. It wasn't that it was any colder than it should be, just far more frigid than could be at all comfortable. The kind of temperature doctors kept their autopsies at, to keep the smell of flesh from distracting them from their work.
But Simon wasn't in a morgue, and he wasn't in an autopsy room. This room was bare, and looked more like an interrogation chamber. One table, one chair, a ring of lights set deep into the ceiling that gave the room a tepid, blue wash to it from the fluorescence. It was more than unsettling, and made the hand on the back of his neck step up a bit.
When he opened his mouth to breathe, his teeth actually chattered.
"Hello?" he tried, half wondering if River would answer him again; half wondering whether or not River had answered him last time. It hadn't had the quality of a dream, and he'd had enough foul run-ins with knocks to the head and unexpected drugs to know it hadn't been a hallucination. But of course it hadn't been real, either. River couldn't see inside his head any more easily than she could see through a wall.
And he was fairly certain she couldn't do that. Yet.
No one answered his call, so he tried a little louder. "Is there anyone there?" he tried to say, and his voice came out as a croak, so he cleared it a few times, and tried again.
"Awake, I see," Petsom said, and hopes that Simon hadn't even known he'd let himself have crashed down hard in his stomach, and made his vision swim for a moment.
He was glad of the restrains, for a heartbeat, until he found his center again. "So it would seem," he said, his voice faint as his eyes swam. His vision hurt, and he wondered if his pupils were over-dilated. The colors were too bright, like someone had cracked open his brain and poured in paint.
Petsom stepped into his vision, his mouth twisted into a wry loop. "And getting back that aristocratic sense of humor, I see. Apparently we've been too soft on you."
Simon tried to protest – if they thought that what they'd put him through was 'going easy', there was something severely damaged in Petsom's head. Of course, that was probably true anyway, once he reflected on the thought. But before he could, he felt a frisson go through him, and his head dropped back to the surface of the wall. By the sound of the impact, he guessed it was ceramic. "Muh," he said, and his mouth slid open on one side.
"I think we'll just let you sit there for a moment," Petsom said, and stepped back. Simon spared a thought to loathe people who spoke of themselves in the plural, and then realized that Petsom might actually be referring to secondary parties, yet unseen, which made Simon even more anxious than before.
Simon tried to make another noise, to ask what it was that they'd put him through, but he couldn't make the words take shape as they left his mouth.
"Just a low level electroshock barrier," Petsom said, as clear an answer as if Simon had asked after all. "Not enough to disrupt any of your bodily activities, but it's like putting static straight into your brain." The man squinted at him, a dangerous smile lighting his face. He wiggled the fingers of one hand next to his face, and cocked his head. "Tingles a little, doesn't it."
It did, and more. It was like the buzz of a Cortex screen left on somewhere in the house, far away, just at the edges of his awareness. "Whu?" Simon managed.
Petsom shrugged. "Because you lost consciousness, Mister Tam, and that is an unacceptable alternative. You have rested for twenty-four hours, and you have been fed far more than any prisoner, and still you refuse to cooperate. You are living at immense cost to the institute."
Simon thought he'd probably like to see the numbers on that one. The hum ceased, abruptly, and Simon found he could lift his head again.
"That's probably enough for now," Petsom said thoughtfully. "The device hasn't been fully tested yet, after all, and we wouldn't want to lose our star surgeon." His voice indicated that, while that might be true, he wouldn't be particularly upset if something did happen to him.
The younger man shook his head, trying to clear it, and his dark hair fell into his eyes. He didn't bother bucking his head again to try and toss it out. There wasn't much to see, anyway.
Petsom turned away from him, and Simon searched the dregs of his mind to remember when they'd last spoken, and what had been hallucination and what had been real.
"What do you do with the hearts?" Simon asked, desperate for something to keep Petsom in the room. If he could get the man to talk enough, perhaps he'd get taken down. To someplace warmer, at least.
"We put them in bodies," Petsom said, and gave him an incredulous look.
Simon clenched his jaw, and swallowed, and tried again. "No," he said, "the old ones. What do you do with them?"
Petsom shrugged. "Waste disposal. It isn't our concern what happens to the donors or the corpses or the old hearts, so long as the new ones get transferred."
"You're talking about taking a living heart out of a living person and putting it into a dead body. The tissue decay alone – " Simon cut himself off before the medical jargon threatened to overwhelm.
Petsom considered him for a long moment. "Would you like to see them?"
Simon stared at him. "Yes."
* * *
A Firefly class transport, even if it was passenger rated, was not a pleasure craft. Mal had told Kaylee this many, many times when she had first come aboard Serenity, in a stern, scolding sort of tone that didn't reach his eyes. It had been clear to Kaylee, even knowing Mal as poorly as she did at that juncture, that there was nothing more that he thought of Serenity as than a pleasure in and of herself. His point, though, had been that she'd been using too much hot water.
The solution, then, was for Kaylee to completely redesign the water pumping system in Serenity's guts. Wash had been the first to comment that if they lost her to another ship and something in the water main broke, not even the most brilliant plumber in the 'verse would be able to put them in the sky again.
Kaylee had smiled, and said cheerily that they'd better not lose her to another ship, then.
Nobody was going to complain much, so long as they got hot water.
It hadn't taken much tinkering – the hot water tank and the plumbing system ran side by side, so all it took was a bit of retooling of the plumbing to link the two systems together. An unlimited supply of water, cycling through and through the ship in an endless loop. It was filtered every night, cleansed of its impurities of the day, and sent through the system again. There was a separate reservoir for drinking and cooking with, but the rest of the water was Kaylee's to do with as she pleased.
All it had taken was to run the water through the heart of Serenity's engine. The engines needed cooling and the water needed heating, and Kaylee couldn't see a more symbiotic relationship if she tried. She ran a pipe and a lock-down system in case of emergency breakages, right through the engine's center. The engine superheated the water, and by the time it reached a shower head, it was hot enough to boil lobster.
Just like that, Kaylee'd earned her place on the ship.
But really, all Kaylee wanted was a shower. It hadn't been about proving anything to anyone – she just needed to get herself clean at the end of the day. Half the fun of loving grease and muck and dust and oil was knowing that you could strip it all off when you were done, and come out shined up like new coin.
As soon as they were all settled in for the flight to find Zoe, Kaylee headed straight for the showers, and no one tried to stop her. She stood in the tiny stall, brushed and dull metal walls so close she could barely turn all the way around, and let the water run until it became tepid. She wasn't fool enough to not get out before it ran cold – cold water would ruin the entire point of a hot shower – and she came out and toweled what of her hair had already grown back.
She settled down in her bunk, wrapped in strange clothes and a borrowed blanket, and closed her eyes, and sat.
She hadn't had a chance to ask River about Simon yet, but in most ways, she wasn't sure she wanted to. Asking would mean knowing, and she'd managed not to even ask herself so far, whether or not he was alive, or alright, or injured, or… thousands of possibilities, and the thousand thousand more that kept her away from the single, horrible question that she knew was more than unfair, but couldn't entirely silence: Why hadn't he come for her.
Kaylee, having grown up with a crew of heroes who said they were everything but, was used to being rescued. And for the first time in her life, no one had come, until it was too late. She'd had to do the work herself, and by the time River and Jayne had shown up, all they'd amounted to were getaway drivers.
Not that she didn't appreciate the effort. But what it meant was that she wasn't done yet. She wasn't finished fighting, so she couldn't think about him. Because it'd be dangerous. Same as she'd seen Zoe shut away Wash, it'd be dangerous.
She looked up as Jayne clattered into the room, carrying Lewis' body. She didn't realize she'd been on the verge of tears until he stopped and stared at her, looking like he wanted to retreat, but less like he wanted to carry the body any further than he already had.
"Just gonna – " he said, and nodded toward the spare bunk.
Kaylee nodded, and pulled the blanket up tighter, her sad eyes fixed on Lewis' face.
"You closed his eyes," Kaylee said.
"And his mouth," Jayne said. "Powerful unsettling, fella dies with his mouth open."
"That's…really good of you," Kaylee said, strangely touched.
Jayne snorted his disbelief and dumped the body onto the bed that Kaylee had stolen the blanket from, rolling him this way and that to remove items of use – spare ammunition, identification keycard, boots, laces, knife, socks. He didn't hesitate to start undoing the dead man's uniform jacket.
"Oh," Kaylee said, and curled her toes under. She could use the socks, and the boots – her feet were big and Lewis's were – had been – small – and her feet were cold. But to watch Jayne strip off his jacket, was disturbing at best.
"Best do it now before the body freezes up," Jayne said. "Hell of a thing, trying to get clothes off a dead man. Just about as easy as getting – "
He cast a glance at Kaylee's face, and his mouth slanted.
"Well," he said, yanking off the jacket. "Wrap him up." He tossed the socks at Kaylee and she caught them, and didn't waste time in tugging them on. "We got a few hours at least before we gotta start dodging things. We got any engine trouble, we'll let you know. Inara said…" He drifted for a moment, and Kaylee wondered, in a spare corner of her mind, how all of this was wearing on Jayne, and whether or not he was having trouble taking advice from Inara, of all people. But then, he'd never shied away from something that seemed logical – to him, at least – no matter who it was coming from.
"I'll rest," Kaylee said. Then she blinked a little. "Where is Inara?" The idea that the woman might be avoiding her stung, in an unusual way. Kaylee brushed it aside as fancy.
"Trying to contact her folks," Jayne said. "Thought maybe they might be able to help us out once we get closer to the Core planets."
"Oh," Kaylee said faintly. "We're not headed out?"
Jayne shook his head. "The girl says Zoe's in deep. So we're going in deep to get her."
"Right," Kaylee said. Then shook her head, and when she spoke again, her voice was stronger. "Good."
"It might be," Jayne said, and turned and headed for the door. He had one foot over the threshold and his hand on the wall when he turned back. "Course, I been wrong before." He gave her a glare, which she assumed was meant to pass for sarcasm, and left her to sit.
She slept, a little, and when she woke, Lewis' body was gone. They'd dumped it out the airlock.
* * *
River liked to fly with her eyes closed.
There was something easier about not getting her eyes involved. Eyes played tricks, and didn't always show the whole truth. But with her hands, what she could feel, that was real. Usually. Most of the time. She could count on things like that, anyway, more than she could trust her own eyes. She'd been shown too many things that hadn't been true.
She'd kept track.
One of the worst experiments that she could remember – and there were plenty that she couldn't, and even more that drifted back to her like stray icebergs in a slowly warming ocean – was the reaction test. They'd put her in the chair, and lace her brain through with wires and sensory receptors, and then they'd tell her things. Or show her things. Things that she believed with absolute clarity, every time, no matter how many times they told her.
Eight times, she'd grieved for Simon's death, only to find he was alive again. She'd been in the middle of a ninth trial when he'd rescued her, and never before had the relief been so palpable as transferring directly from the sensation of being at his graveside as they lowered his body into the cold, dark ground, to having his arms around her, pulling her up. And up and up and up. Simon was always pulling her along, and keeping up was something that she was slowly learning to do.
And he knew that one day she'd pass him by. She could see it in his eyes, and she could see that he didn't mind it, but she didn't understand why.
That, she supposed, was part of being an older brother.
Or maybe just part of being Simon.
She opened her eyes as Inara came into the bridge, and sat down in the co-pilot's chair. "How're you feeling?" Inara asked.
River looked up at her to see if she was genuine, though she could hear it in the woman's voice. She couldn't fathom why in the 'verse Inara would be asking her if she was alright, when it was Inara who'd just been rescued. It had been a long night, though, and people seemed to be settling into their old roles. River had helped Jayne dump Lewis out of the airlock, though he hadn't let her touch the man's skin like she'd wanted to.
"We're almost there," River said. "Atmo in about an hour."
"Where are we going?" Inara asked, her back straight and formal, far away from the curve of the chair. Her hair fell in dull pools around her shoulders – malnourished, River thought. But then, weren't they all.
"Back to jail," River said, distracted. Something along the planet's edge had caught her eye, where they were approaching. A purple spark, there for an instant and then gone.
"Honey?" Inara said, her voice overly gentle. "What are you looking at?"
"Zoe," River said. When she didn't say anything else, or look at Inara again, the woman turned her gaze out to the planet as well, trying to see what River saw.
After a few moments of silence, Inara got up and left, her departure as silent as her arrival. River barely noticed it. She was afraid, if she blinked, she'd lose sight of where they were supposed to go. When they got close enough, she punched in the notifying alarm for Kaylee, and the mechanic's voice filtered strong over the com. "Atmo in five," Kaylee said. River pulled one leg up under her chin, and tilted her head, and told the ship to go down a little, and a little toward the purple.
The ship went, after a minor petulant battle with her.
Jayne poked his head into the bridge when they were rattling through the descent. "Good to go?" he asked.
"When I say," River said.
He grunted, and checked the set of his knife at his hip. "We got the winches and hooks ready. Don't remember Badger putting 'em on."
River didn't look at him. "Won't have much time. She doesn't see the moon anymore."
Jayne didn't bother to ask what she was talking about, just disappeared back down the hallway, calling instructions to the others about speed, and a need for it.
River switched over the atmosphere filters as they broke into the planet's stratosphere, and the fresh oxygen made her chest ache for just a breath. The ship's airlocks were cheap. But, then, she supposed you got what you paid for, even from Badger. For better or worse.
She let them settle above the cloud line, and drove straight toward the sun.
* * *
Zoe woke up safe, and warm, and confused. In that instant between wake and sleep, she figured things out, but it was different this time. She didn't push away, or try to strike out at the man that held her. She just shifted a little, to let him know that she was awake, and felt the moment he pulled himself out of sleep, as well.
"Cozy, isn't it," Wash murmured, his voice like sun-warmed gravel. His arms tightened around her minutely, so subtle that she could barely notice, and then he pulled the one that was around her stomach away. The other, which pillowed her head, she was fairly grateful that he didn't reclaim. It would've been a nasty knock to her temple.
Zoe didn't say anything for a long moment, and she could hear Wash listening, waiting for her to say something. They both breathed shallowly. "I thought for a moment," she said, "that I'd died."
Wash exhaled a little harder than normal, some hybrid of a laugh and a sigh. "Wouldn't that be nice."
"You already did," she pointed out.
"Well," he said, not hasty, but eager to recover. "It'd be different, if it was the two of us. We could haunt people. Maybe see Book again."
Zoe tentatively covered the inside of his elbow with her palm, feeling his pulse there, warm and steady. "No offense," she said, a little giddy from the sheer ability to be wry at this point, in this place, with this man. "But if I get to heaven, I don't particularly want to spend my time with a preacher."
"Better things to do?" he asked, his voice rumbling through her back.
"Better people to do," she replied, and turned around in his arms.
"Hey," he said. "Whoa." His large eyes took her in, and his voice lowered. "I miss you, baby, but – "
"Shut up," she said, and hit him in the chest.
He made a sound of impact, and grabbed her hand in his own, and laughed. "When we get out of here," he said quietly, and let the promise encompass everything. Not just the two of them, but the whole world. The whole world would be different, when they were free again.
"If you aren't real," Zoe said, very seriously, "I am going to kill you myself. Very slowly. With my bare hands. And I'm going to let the captain help."
Wash smiled. "That's my wife."
She studied him gravely, at their hands intertwined, trying to find some reason, some proof that it wasn't the man she'd married. That this was a clone, or an imposter, or a very convenient double. But the harder she looked, the less she saw. And he let her study him as long as she wanted, kept his eyes kind and relaxed, let her do what she needed until she could convince herself. She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to.
But he didn't look as if that was going to be a problem, either.
Frustrated, she rolled onto her back, and the hand that had been around her drifted to her stomach.
"I want to go home," she growled, angry with herself and the sky and the cell and the people who kept her here and her captain who hadn't come, and the ship that had disappeared, and the world in general. And when Zoe was angry, it wasn't generally a good time for other people to be in her way. She considered pushing away from him again, and again decided against it, though the nervous energy was starting to coil down into her back.
If she didn't get out of here soon, she was going to go crazy.
If she hadn't already.
Because she was already primed for the action, the clang against the wall made her shoot off the small ledge. Wash took longer, but was up just a moment after her, both of them standing warily in the cell, surveying the walls. "What was that?" Wash muttered, his eyes scanning the brick.
The sound came again, this time with a fierce shudder of an impact, and mortar dust sifted down from the ceiling. Zoe braced at the impact, dropping a few inches on bended knee, before she realized the wall was going to hold. Shouting in the hallway indicated that the Matron had heard it, and was calling for the guards to come investigate.
A large metal hook came spiraling through the miniscule window, and Wash shouted and pulled Zoe back, pressed her against the wall as they both watched the hook reel back, and catch on the window ledge.
With a great shuddering crack, the entire wall was peeled away, and fell. Zoe looked out at the great height below, and contemplated jumping. But the cliff was ragged, and she wasn't sure she would be able to miss the ship that was hovering just to the side, which was slowly winching up the great hook that had pulled the wall to crumbling rock.
"What in the – ," Wash started under his breath, and then she could feel him jump again as someone pounded at the door, swearing.
"This isn't right," Zoe said after a heartbeat, and watched as the ship was moved expertly closer, and the side hatch was thrown open at the same moment as the door to the cell. The Doctor and the guards grabbed for her at the same time as another pair of arms did, and she found herself yanked backward. Wash was taken by the guards, and the panic in his face made her fight toward him.
The guards pulled him further away, and a familiar voice was shouting in her ear, caught her around both arms. She snapped her head back into her captor's but the man managed to duck it, and Wash was yelling something but she couldn't hear what, not from the roar of the ship and the blood in her ears.
In the last moments before they pulled him from the room, something in Zoe snapped – it was visible in her face, the twist of rage and hate and unshed mourning, all tumbling up together like dry leaves in an autumn windstorm – and she slipped and wriggled and slammed herself free. Just free enough to latch her hand onto his outstretched arm, close enough to see the truth in his eyes as her skin landed on his, as their grip slipped and they were yanked further apart, that her Wash, her Wash, her dead husband, was alive. A burst of gunshot over her head, she wasn't sure what direction it had come from, distracted her from the thought, and she ducked and held on.
Another solid yank from the guards and they slipped again, tight fingers going from one another's forearms to wrists, until only their fingers held them together, all of Zoe wrestling against the pressure of the guards. She could see the shadow of a raised air rifle come up to clock her just as Wash was torn away from her, and she could feel her fingernails claw and catch and drag along his palm, could see the grim set of his face and the blood spill black in the low light, spattering the cold floor.
And then it was over, and she'd lost him again, and she would fail, and fail, and never stop failing.
Chapter 5: Fic: A New and Fairer Whole, Part V
v. if the sky can crack there must be some way back
It was only thanks to River's tricky flying that they escaped at all, and Inara knew it. She had no stomach for getaways – the retreat from any job had always made her vaguely ill – so she let Jayne retreat to the rear of the ship, to track their progress, and helped Kaylee take Zoe into the bunk, and settled her down.
The woman's clothes were in tatters, and they both agreed that getting her cleaned up should take priority. Then, when she woke, food. And if they could manage it, to get the story out of her, of how she'd been captured and what had happened to her in that place.
Kaylee and Inara spoke as they worked, in hushed tones, not wanting to wake Zoe from her unnatural slumber. Jayne had been forced to clock her hard before she tore him apart, the woman had been wild, from Inara's point of view, but, then, it was Zoe, and it was Zoe's strength that Inara had always admired the most of her.
"Oh," Kaylee murmured quietly, in the middle of cutting one of the sleeves of Zoe's shirt up the length of her arm.
Inara looked up, alarmed. She'd been looking for signs of abuse and hadn't found any so far, a corner of her mind afraid that Zoe had been forced to undergo the same treatment as Kaylee and herself. "What is it?"
Kaylee frowned and pulled Zoe's hand into her lap, between the two of them. "Look," she said, and flattened the woman's fingers, dark against Kaylee's skin, pale after so many weeks without the sun. Zoe's fingernails were caked in drying blood, and something else. Inara squinted, and turned the hand palm up, to examine what was trapped beneath.
"Hand me a hair pin," she said, distracted, and Kaylee rummaged through the bag of clothing and other odds and ends River had stashed in the room for them. The clothing was a bit of an odd fit, sometimes, but it worked for what they needed. Inara had thought it would feel strange, wearing something other than her Companion's robes. But after the same tattered dress for so long, even the simple garments she was wearing felt ornate and rich.
Kaylee deposited the hairpin in her hand, and Inara carefully wedged on end of it into the claws that Zoe had fashioned herself. "That'd hurt like nothing else," Kaylee murmured, her voice a muddle of respect and awe. Both of them were painfully aware that if Zoe came awake too abruptly in these strange surroundings, they would both be on the receiving end of those needle sharp nails.
It took a moment of work, but Inara managed to work some of the debris free from the nail bed. She worked until she'd cleaned out Zoe's nails entirely, and contemplated cutting them, but decided that could wait until Zoe could do it herself.
"What is that?" Kaylee asked.
Inara looked down at the small pile of scrapings in her lap, and poked at it with the end of the hairpin. She had a mouth over her hand at the same instant she realized what it was.
"What?" Kaylee demanded, the demand laced with a bit of tension.
"Skin," Inara whispered back, looking from her lap to the girl's face just in time to see it crumple in horror. They both looked at Zoe, and Inara tried not to imagine where it had come from – someone's neck, perhaps, or the inside of a thigh, where it would do the most damage.
It wouldn't do any good to dwell, though, so Inara stood hastily and shook out the hem of her shirt into the toilet, ridding them both of the reminder of Zoe's fight. They stripped, cleaned, and dressed the unconscious woman in silence and without further incident, and left her to sleep, carefully tucked in and with enough of Jayne's weapon stock left nearby for her to know she wasn't in the hands of enemies when she woke up.
"Or just very very stupid ones," Kaylee pointed out. Inara had to agree, but couldn't see a better way around it, and their conversation fell silent as they progressed toward the common area that was just behind the bridge.
Before they got there, Kaylee stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Are you alright?" she said, her voice tentative and soft, her eyes searching Inara's face.
It wasn't until she didn't meet Kaylee's eyes that she realized she didn't want to, or couldn't, and she pulled herself together and forced herself to. Not for the first time, she wondered at the thought that it should've been her asking the question, and not the girl. "I'm fine," she said, and from the sound of her voice, she believed it.
Kaylee didn't, though Inara doubted the girl knew she had that much on her face. She relented, though, and lead the way for the two of them to go into the common area. Jayne and River were already waiting, and Kaylee took a seat right away. Inara took her time, adjusting her clothes and her posture as she sat, and it occurred to her halfway through it was the sort of gesture she would make if she still had her dresses on.
Tightlipped, she sat, and waited for Jayne to speak. The man, though, was watching River. Who was sitting, cross legged, her boots in a pile of leather and waxed shoelaces at the base of her chair. She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, and her hair partially obscured one side of her face, despite repetitive attempts to tuck it behind her ear.
Inara remembered that Kaylee had tried to braid it, once. River had let her get halfway before she'd run screaming from the contact. She remembered the hurt on Kaylee's face, thought the mechanic had known not to take it personally. She remembered the sad lines of failure around Simon's mouth.
She remembered Mal watching it all, impassive, but somehow still judging, taking all of it in, absorbing all of them, shouldering everything quietly and refusing to linger on any one set of eyes.
"What now?" Inara said quietly, pushing the past firmly out of her mind, the same way she carefully sealed off everything she needed to, until she was free to open up her mind.
"Ariel," River said.
Jayne looked at his hands, or his shoes, or everywhere but River.
"They'll recognize me there, so I can't leave the ship," she said, matter of factly. Inara wondered how far in advance she'd planned this, if any of it. "So you'll have to get into the hospital and get Simon out without me."
"How are we supposed to do that?" Kaylee asked, sounding more overcome by the idea of staging a rescue without help than anything else.
"It's a hospital," River said. "You'll think of something."
The other three looked at one another, vaguely concerned at what she might mean.
"It's a hospital," River clarified. "Injured people go in. Injured people come out." She looked at Jayne. "We'll shoot someone."
"Hey," Jayne protested, scotching back in his chair. "Why do I gotta be the one who gets shot all the time?"
"You're very good at it," Inara said evenly.
Jayne looked up at her, startled, and slouched with his arms across his chest. "That ain't the point," he groused.
"Once one of you checks Jayne in, the other can go scouting for Simon. They'll have him working in a surgery bay, but probably not anywhere close to the main level of the hospital." She frowned, and considered her hands. "There are six hospitals on Ariel. I can get us to the right one, but that's as close as I can manage. He's… thready." She shook her head, though whether it was that something was wrong or that she was trying to dislodge a thought, Inara wasn't sure.
Jayne grunted. "Don't rightly see why we're gonna need him anyway."
"We don't," River said. "We're getting him anyway."
"He's just gonna get in the way," Jayne protested, alarmed at the prospect of needless crew.
"Jayne!" Kaylee said, horrified. "It's Simon! He's stitched you up more times than you can count on your fingers! And she – " Kayle pointed to River here, and it looked like she wanted to stand up to emphasize her point, but restrained herself in time – " saved us all, starting with you. So if you aren't gonna help find her brother, the rest of us sure as heck will, and you'll be the one who gets in the way."
"Ain't my fault if you miss your little lover boy – " Jayne started, and didn't get much further before Kaylee socked him in the mouth.
"Ow!" he bellowed, hand on his jaw. "The guay's gotten into you?"
Kaylee stumbled away, significantly more than fed up with what had happened, tossing a command to let her know when they'd gotten closer to Ariel over her shoulder. Jayne slumped back in his chair, and River moved her passive gaze from his retreat to Inara's face. She had her eyes locked on the wide ones of the girl before she had even realized it.
"I need you to shoot Jayne," she said calmly. "Can you do that?"
"Good," River said, and got up, and went toward the bridge.
* * *
Walking, after an extended immobility, was always a heavenly experience, provided his face didn't meet the floor along the way. Simon wobbled coltishly on his newly freed legs, leaning on one shoulder heavily, his hands useless at his sides.
"Try and keep up," Petsom said nastily, and hit the control that opened the door. He lifted his brows as a gesture at the vertical table Simon had just been freed from. "Wouldn't want to end up back in that, now would you, son?"
Simon carefully kept any reaction to the endearment off his face, his teeth set to prevent any unnecessary frustrations from slipping out before he could stop them. Before Simon could lever himself away from the wall, though, a distressed sounding tinny wail came from the Cortex display next to the door.
Petsom, surprised by the interruption, hesitated and then answered the com alarm with a snarl. "What?"
Whoever was on the other end was undaunted by the brusque approach. Simon couldn't hear the voices but Petsom's face grew cold and harsh, instantaneously transformed. "Notify Admiral Tzalin immediately," was his only reply, before he turned back to Simon. "Playtime," he said with a snarl, "is over."
"What?" Simon asked, baffled and more than a little concerned for his own safety, with the way Petsom was watching him. He wondered, abstractly, what the Captain would consider hard work, if holding someone prisoner, near starvation and exhaustion, crippling their hands, and shocking their central nervous system, was considered 'playtime'. After he considered, he decided he didn't want to know.
"Your friends," Petsom spat the word, and Simon's stomach went through atmo at double-speed. He grabbed Simon's arm in an iron grip and yanked him off his feet. Simon, to his credit, immediately began to struggle.
"Don't you fight me, boy," Petsom bellowed, and backhanded Simon across the face, which made him go limp for an instant, before he attempted to recover. "Or I'll take more than your hands."
It was amazing, Simon thought, the restorative properties intrinsic to the human body. When a being was under too much stress, or too much exhaustion, or in a situation the body found unbearable, its reaction was to shut down. Simon's overwork and starvation, for example, had led him to unconsciousness, forcing rest, if not food.
It was amazing, he thought as he threw an elbow into Petsom's face, what a few hours of sleep could do for the body.
Alarms blared in the adjoining corridor, and for a moment Simon thought he had caused it, their sounding coincided so well with his nicely-placed blow. Petsom had a small device out in his hand, and Simon recognized it as the box that controlled his hands' movements. The Captain punched a button, and Simon crumpled from the excruciating pain of over stimulated nerve endings.
"Keep your place," Petsom snarled down at him, cranking the dial, and Simon's vision went pale blue.
Simon, on his knees, could do nothing but whimper into the metal floor. There was a drain nearby, and he could see it vibrate with the clatter of booted footsteps as armed men passed the open door. "Nngh," Simon said warningly.
"What's that?" Petsom said, leaning down over him, squinting, daring him to say something.
"Mmngh," Simon clarified. And then closed his eyes as Petsom was shot through the head. Bits of skull and brain scattered onto Simon's back – he could feel them, hot and damp soaking through his shirt – and he was glad he had turned his face down in time. The box with the dial was near his head, and he went for it with his teeth, desperate to do anything he could.
A foot kicked it out of the way, and then kicked him onto his back.
Simon blinked, trying to clear his swimming vision. For a moment he thought he was hallucinating. The next moment, he prayed he was, as Jayne knelt down next to him. "Doc?" Jayne said.
"Box," Simon gasped.
For once, Jayne listened. He grabbed at the box, and paused only to shoot out the controls on the door, sealing them inside the room. Simon heard the impact of bodies on the other side of the door. Simon had never seen the box up close, so he wasn't sure how to instruct Jayne, and he wouldn't have been able to speak, even if he'd known. Jayne, ever practical, settled for smashing the box to bits under the heavy tread of his boot.
The pain ceased immediately, and Simon lay on his side, gasping.
"No time," Jayne said, and hauled him up by hooking his hands in the man's underarms. Jayne was bleeding rather nastily from one of his arms. Jayne followed his gaze as he pulled him to the staircase that led the way to the observation deck of the room, and snorted. "Your sister's got some interesting ideas of how to sneak into a hospital," he groused. "Wonder where she gets that from."
"River?" Simon managed, stumbling up the stairs and failing to catch himself. Jayne balanced him, an arm around his waist, and tugged him sharply along.
"Keep up, wouldja," Jayne muttered. "I ain't bleedin' my guts out for nothing."
"Who…?" Simon tried.
"Kaylee," Jayne said, distracted, and peered around the corner of an open door, and then edged carefully out with Simon in tow. "Was supposed to be 'Nara, but – gorram it." He ducked back, and a bullet came whistling by Simon's head. "I am getting </i>dí āi yā cuì</i> of dodging shit for that girl." Simon tried to keep up with the conversation, which Jayne seemed to mostly be having with himself, and failed.
Simon staggered a little, and nearly lost his footing again, but Jayne snagged him in time.
"C'mon, Doc," Jayne growled, in what Simon was sure he considered a subtle voice
"Oh, my god," Simon said, his eyes blinking up at the man. "I never actually thought I'd want to say I was glad to see you."
"Keep your pecker in your pants," Jayne said, poking his head around the corner to see how many guards had them cornered. The motion drew fire, and he pulled them back immediately.
"That could not have been further from – " Simon started.
"Shuddup," Jayne said. Simon did, and Jayne unloaded a round of bullets into the facing wall.
"Grab that," he told Jayne, nodding at a compact surgery kit. "We're going to need it."
Jayne squinted down at him. "What for?"
"You've been shot," Simon reminded him acerbically.
Jayne glanced down at his arm, which was oozing sluggishly through his green t-shirt. "Oh," he said, and grabbed the satchel. Simon couldn’t not roll his eyes.
"Right," Jayne said. "We're gonna sprint for it." He turned to look back at Simon, who had propped himself woozily against the doorframe. He could feel his fingers start to tingle – the feeling was coming back, and it was making him giddy – but he was in no shape to sprint anywhere.
"On my go," Jayne whispered, and crouched low. "Three. Two. One."
Simon lurched forward, and kept his feet.
* * *
Considering the short notice, the ball was incredibly well organized. Tzalin lingered near the door, greeting the Senators as they arrived, complimenting dresses and shoes, earrings and cufflinks alike, the smile on his face warm and genuine. After all, the dinner was in his honor. He had no reason not to be pleased.
The string quartet in the corner played quietly pleasing background music and the dignitaries that had arrived, mostly old men with women young enough to be their daughters – but definitely weren't, this wasn't the Rim, after all – were refraining from actually dancing on the floor that had been cleared for the activity. It was far too formal an event, after all, and Tzalin thrilled at the idea of it.
One of the elderly Senators who had been on the approval call for his proposal a few days ago came to shake his hand. "Well done," the man said, his voice a robust, rich, unaccented palate.
"Thank you," Tzalin said, clasping the man's wrist as he shook his hand, and then nodded and smiled at the man's mistress. She took the less than subtle curl of his mouth as a hint to move into safer territory, and it left Tzalin and his pet Senator in peace.
"Have you heard…?" the Senator prompted him, his cheeks red and shiny in the light from the chandeliers.
"I sent reconnaissance teams out immediately following the event," Tzalin said, his voice low and his hands clasped behind his back, their posture casual. "Whether or not it will prove to have done any good, however, I am uncertain. We have no way of knowing until the scouts return home."
"Of course," the Senator said, eagerly nodding. "Of course, very good. We're all waiting with, ah, eager minds, Admiral."
"Of course," Tzalin echoed, hearing the words for what they were – open instead of eager, wallets instead of minds. Tzalin had promised them a Reaver free future in exchange for the crackdown of Alliance control, and he expected them to fulfill their end of the deal as he had fulfilled his own.
The Senator lowered his voice and drew even closer. "And no word from…?"
Tzalin shook his head and took a step back, casually, not wanting to look like their conversation was anything anyone ought to be paying attention to. He fought down a flash of disdain toward the other man, that he hadn't learned at least that much in his years in office. "The Alliance does not regularly communicate with Outer Rim planets, Senator, of that you are aware."
The Senator nodded, and the motion went on a contemplative moment longer than it needed to, making the man look like a half crazed duck, for a moment. They both knew that the responsibility for the Outer Rim lay with the inquisitional staff circles – the odd little interns who ran to and fro, doing their humanitarian duty, fulfilling community service hours and attempting to log the death rate for family members who would never bother to check.
No one would notice if the Outer Rim disappeared entirely. No one would notice if the Alliance slowly, carefully tightened its grip around the Core planets. For the citizens' safety, of course.
The Senator was wetting his lips, and it took Tzalin a moment to understand that it was the man's way of attempting to regain his attention. He looked sharply at the Senator, and the foulsome licking stopped. "Supposing we do hear back from someone," he started.
"We won't," Tzalin snapped quietly.
"Yes, but," the man wheedled, "supposing we do."
Tzalin shifted his weight and pulled out a pocket watch, checking the time. The keynote speaker to honor his achievement in interstellar peace was due to begin in five minutes, and people were starting to shuffle into the auditorium to take their seats. The lights flickered a bit, prompting the stragglers. "We won't," Tzalin said, louder, and more firmly. "Come along, Senator." He put his hand on the man's fleshy elbow and steered him toward the center door.
They had nearly reached the entrance – the Senator's escort had found him again and taken his other arm – when a communications officer appeared at Tzalin's elbow, unobtrusive. "Sir," the man said casually, but something in the set of his voice made Tzalin look, instead of throwing him off.
"What is it?" he said quietly, giving the Senator a nod to go on ahead. They were left alone momentarily.
"There's a message coming in from Captain Petsom," the officer said. "I can put it through onto a private feed in the next room if you'll just step through, sir."
Tzalin hesitated, and then nodded, and led the way. It would be faster to listen and then deal with this after the speeches than to fight the man about it now. Besides, there was the off chance that Petsom might have some good news for him, for once.
The officer activated the feed on the Cortex screen and then ducked out the door. Tzalin knew he would be waiting right outside, just outside of earshot, waiting to disable the feed when the Admiral had finished.
"Speak," he commanded, his face set with impatience.
"Sir," said a Sergeant. Tzalin knew the man's face but not his name. "A message from Captain Petsom."
"Proceed," Tzalin prompted him.
"Prisoner JTTO4710111 River Tam, Prisoner JTTO331613 Jayne Copp, Prisoner – "
"What about them," Tzalin spoke over the next string of numbers.
"Escaped, sir," the Sergeant said smartly, and looked as though he was suppressing the urge to salute.
"Escaped," Tzalin said, his voice dead.
"Yessir," the Sergeant said, and regarded some notes in his lap. "Petsom's last report came from…an hour ago, five of the prisoners had been reported as missing, and nearly simultaneously there was an attempt at a sixth extraction."
"An attempt," Tzalin said. "It failed?"
The Sergeant looked up, grim. "Petsom's dead."
Tzalin swore under his breath, and then again, louder, when the first round wasn't satisfying enough. "But have they got Tam?"
The Sergeant turned away slightly from the camera, as someone came up to him to report. Tzalin kept his heart in his throat as he waited.
"Report, Sergeant," Tzalin snapped.
"Yessir," the man said, and couldn't stifle the salute this time. "No word on Tam's location right now, sir, but the ship is still in dock."
"Stop that ship," Tzalin said, his hands curling into fists at his sides. "Stop that ship before Tam gets off, and hold them there. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir, but what if – "
"Do it!" Tzalin roared, and punched the disconnect button on the com. He turned to the door and threw it open, and the communications officer approached him quickly. "Put security on high alert around transport vessel 35-6N, and change the guard rotation schedule for the next six days at the prison."
"The – the entire prison, sir?" the man stammered.
Tzalin went on as if he had not spoken. "I will not allow this band of idiots and traitors to take our company by surprise again, do you understand me, son?"
"Again, sir?" the man said, his eyes desperately trying to understand what matter of international security was occurring.
Tzalin didn't bother answering him, just stormed away to find the Senators who needed to be alerted. The ensign bolted in the opposite direction to spread his orders, and Tzalin sent up a frustrated silent thanks to whoever was listening that at least some people still knew how to follow command.
* * *
Kaylee was horribly, horribly lost.
Everything had gone wrong from the beginning. Inara had lost her nerve at the last moment, and she had been the one who'd had to shoot Jayne, and she'd meant only to graze his arm but the gun had jumped in her grip, and she'd never been the best with guns anyhow, and the shot had landed just short of shattering the bone, as far as Inara could tell.
They'd rushed Jayne in through the emergency entrance, Inara and herself not looking much better than the bleeding man to the nurses who had met them as they tried to keep Jayne's blood off the ground.
They'd answered all the questions right – despite a small bit of worrying commentary from one of the doctor's about the rather pungent odor emanating from Jayne's clothes, but Kaylee hadn't had time to inquire as to that herself, so they'd made something up about his being a farmer – and the doctors had immediately admitted Jayne, despite his having no health coverage on file. Inara had promised there would be money to pay for the treatment. For some reason, her word was good enough, and Kaylee wrote it off to the woman's secure-looking stature.
She sat next to Jayne as they extracted the bullet and stitched him up, and had faked a bit of nausea at the sight of the blood – as if she'd have trouble with blood, growing up how she did – and went out into the corridor to try to find a Cortex com that was plugged directly into the hospital's mainframe.
The display hadn't been impossible to find, and she'd rewired it quite efficiently and tapped into their central filing system. Simon Tam was a registered patient, but, unlike all the other records, there was no evidence of where he was being treated, or for what. Merely that he was a long-term patient. There was a code next to his name – an index code or something more sinister – and in the column for 'treatment' was one word: Petsom.
It had sent a chill up Kaylee's spine, and she'd hurried back to find Jayne to report what she'd found behind the nurse's momentarily turned back. Jayne had frowned in recognition of the name of the man who had separated them, and nodded quietly as the nurse turned back to paint a layer of Derm-All on Jayne's skin.
"Don't strain yourself," she had scolded Jayne, "and this'll heal up quite nicely. But if you tear it, you'll start to bleed again. So take a few days off, alright?"
"Sure," Jayne had said, distracted and watching Kaylee.
She'd slipped out again, trusting that he could finish the rest of the job of locating Simon, and started to work her way back to the entrance to notify Inara.
Except that she had gotten herself hopelessly, hopelessly lost. She could remember Simon telling her about the hospitals on Ariel, how they were like labyrinths below ground, how difficult it was to find anything. And of course everything was always worse when she was in a hurry, and she was certainly feeling rushed right now. Any moment, she was sure, something was going to pop out behind her and grab her and scare her. She'd had to duck away into a broom closet for the better part of an hour when a small battalion of hospital security guards had taken up stand outside of her temporary hiding spot to discuss what was to be done, and what strategies they could use to apprehend 'the problem,' as they kept calling it.
Kaylee breathed a sigh of relief. They'd gotten Simon. Jayne had gotten Simon. At any other time, she would have been grateful for the knowledge of the troops' movements. The only problem was that she had little to no idea of what route they were talking about taking. They used landmarks she'd never heard of, and room names she hadn't read on the maps.
Eventually, as they moved off to pursue their quarry, Kaylee had managed to slip out, and had been forced to go in the opposite direction from that which she had hoped, putting her even further off the course of her known location.
Now, almost an hour later, she was near the end of her rope. She had no idea where to go, or what floor she was on, or where the emergency entrance was in relation to her location. Desperate, she popped her head into the next door she found – a laboratory, in shades of white and frosted blue, with four or five men and women in lab coats.
"Excuse me?" she said quietly.
A girl nearest to the door looked up, startled, and then frowned. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry," Kaylee said, and the fact that she genuinely was probably helped quite a bit. "I just – I'm a little lost?"
One of the other people in the room, a man, snorted as he pushed his goggles up onto his forehead. "You're utterly distracting. Please, Hitch, show her out before she ruins an important experiment." He turned his back to her and focused on a spinet. "Interns," he muttered, and swore under his breath.
The woman eased off of her stool, grimacing, and steered Kaylee out of the room by the arm. "Sorry," she murmured once they were out of earshot. "He gets a little upset sometimes. Are you new?"
"Um," Kaylee said. "Yeah. Yes. I was supposed to start on maintenance crew today, and I got separated from my group."
The woman looked startled, and checked her watch. "Are they training new people already? That was fast. Well, just goes to show you what I know. Nose to the micro-oscillator all the time. Come on, this way." She used her key card to activate a small chrome panel, and part of the wall slid away to expose a lift.
"Oh," Kaylee said, startled, and followed her in after a moment. The door slid shut on the cylindrical room, and Kaylee tried not to feel trapped as they rose slightly.
"You'll get your own card tomorrow," the woman assured her, "and this probably won't happen again. There's maps on the Cortex panels too, if you just type in your pin number."
"Thanks," Kaylee said, and her stomach flipped and settled awkwardly as the elevator stopped. The door slid open with a gentle ping.
"Lobby," the woman said, and gestured out.
Kaylee waved at her as the door shut again, and took a deep breath. Inara was already streaking toward her, beside herself. "What happened?" Inara hissed when she was close enough, tugging and pulling Kaylee closer to the area she'd left them, the hope that Jayne would appear apparent on her face.
"I don't know," Kaylee said, distraught, trying to pull her toward the door. "Come on, we've got to get back to the ship." She'd barely kept herself from saying River's name. "I got turned around, come on."
Inara seemed to muddle out the explanation from the urgent plea, and followed her, despite the curious looks from the nurses.
River was waiting at the hatch to let them in. "Good," she said. "We're ready to go."
"No," Kaylee cried. "Jayne!"
"We'll lift him up," River said, distracted now that she was at the controls. "Like angels. Or tiny, tiny bugs. Though I suppose tiny bugs don't lift very much, do they? Unless they're ants." She smiled, and looked up at Kaylee, and the expression on the girl's face of utter joy drove Kaylee nearly spare.
"Sit," Inara told her, dragging her down into the co pilot's chair. Kaylee sat, haltingly, and River spared no good manner in her takeoff. Kaylee was jolted backward as River raced the jerky ship off the lot, and they were airborne and flying low in an instant.
"Where – " Kaylee started.
"There, look," Inara said, leaning over her shoulder so their perspectives were the same, and pointed along Kaylee's line of sight. Kaylee leaned forward to see.
"Helipad," she breathed, and River took such a steep dive that she had to grab onto the chair to not be thrown from it. Inara lurched behind her, grabbing the back of the seat and pushed herself upright as gracefully as she could manage.
Below them, the images growing gradually larger, came the bulk of Jayne, half stained from the blood on his shirt, and a hobbling, jolting Simon.
"How," Kaylee breathed, and she and Inara exchanged a glance and then looked at River.
They slammed to a hover right above the ground, and Kaylee hurried back to help pull the two men into the ship. They barely had Simon's feet off the ground before River was accelerating away again, and Jayne had to hook one arm into the other man's to make sure he didn't fly out the open hatch as they burst through the cloud line.
Kaylee smashed a fist into the emergency lockdown, and the door sealed itself, and the four of them collapsed in a messy pile on the hard metal lattice of the ground.
For a long moment, all Kaylee could hear was breathing. And then she realized she'd landed on Simon's stomach; the curve of her spine could feel every time he inhaled. She wasn't sure she'd ever felt anything more wonderful in her life, and, in spite herself, she burst out into laughter.
"Honey?" Inara said, struggling up from under the weight of Jayne's legs. The man was moving, but slowly. "Are you okay?"
"Sure," Kaylee said, and struggled to get her weight off of Simon. She twisted once she was sitting up, and helped pull him up along with her. His eyes were huge, like he couldn't believe any of it, like he wanted to reach out and put his hands on all of them to make sure they were real.
"Sure as hell don't look alright," Jayne muttered, rubbing at the reopened wound in his arm.
"She's broken like the clockwork mouse," River said, and they all looked up at her, surprised. She stepped over the threshold from the cockpit and smiled down at Simon. "Turn the key too tight and pop! It all comes apart in springs and gears and entrails all wet with supper."
"River," Simon said, his voice cracked with relief.
She was down on her knees and in his arms before anyone else could register the movement, and Simon's choked sob was buried in her hair. Kaylee, close to tears herself, pulled back a little to give them their moment.
Or she would've, if Simon's hand hadn't reached out and caught a fistful of her shirt, and pulled her into his other side.
"My girls," he murmured, quiet enough for only them to hear. It took Kaylee a long, long moment to relax into the embrace. They weren't safe yet.
They weren't whole yet.
* * *
Zoe was dreaming.
Simon wasn't sure what about, but, sitting in the bed across from her, he could see her eyes moving behind the closed lids. He pulled his gaze away, down to his own hands, and flexed his fingers. There would be no telling if the nerve damage could be treated, not until they were back up to full working order, and that would mean washing the numbing agent out of his bloodstream. The cuffs had been easy to get off with Jayne's help, at least.
It was odd, having the opportunity to watch the woman this way. She'd been injured less than the rest of them – except during Miranda, but there hadn't exactly been any touching sick bay moments then – and Simon was more used to slapping Redi-Skinn or surgical foam onto her body and pushing her back out into the fray than watching her actually heal.
She was not, like most people, deceptively peaceful in her sleep. She looked ready to run, Simon thought. She looked like he felt.
Ground gǒu meat looked like he felt.
He shuffled his hands under the blanket that had pooled around his legs, and shifted his gaze up again. Zoe had opened her eyes, and was watching him blearily, and he tried to suppress a tiny start.
"Wash?" she said.
A tiny part of Simon's stomach crumbled in pity. "No," he said carefully. Then, after Zoe didn't react, he added, "Do you know who I am?"
Her face wrought itself into condescension, in less than an instant. "Of course I know who you are." She pushed herself up, looking around, eyes falling immediately on the weapon at her side. "Where am I?"
"Rescue ship," Simon said, and nodded when she looked at him, disbelieving.
"Captain's here?" she asked, picking up the gun and checking its chamber.
"Not quite," Simon said, and tugged the blanket around himself, suddenly cold. "I just got here. Um. I think… Jayne or River?"
Zoe gave him a look that made him wither a bit, and she stood up and took survey of what she'd been dressed in – ill fitting and not her usual attire in the slightest – before punching the control that opened the door with the side of her fist.
"Um," Simon said. "Maybe – "
She kept walking.
Simon sat and fidgeted for a moment, caught between not being quite recovered enough to want to deal with other people yet and not wanting to be left out more than he already had been. He pushed himself up and went after her.
He checked the bridge first, but no one was there. They'd set a steady course after they refueled and taken on emergency supplies on the far side of the exterior docking planet, and it needn't be tended exclusively anymore. Not until they reached another solar system. He caught a thread of voices, and followed the sound into the small living quarters off the side of the bridge, the smallest mess he'd ever seen on a ship. Not that he'd been on many, but it seemed cramped even with just the six of them.
Zoe was carefully slipping Kaylee's hand off of her arm, a polite motion, but strict just the same. She didn't want help. Simon turned his gaze to Jayne, who was sorting through the food they'd gotten. He went over to see if he could help.
The first thing his eyes landed on was the only item of food – among the cans and small amount of fresh fruit – that didn't quite match up with the rest. Simon's hand hovered over the baggie, and he aborted the motion of picking it up at the last moment, settling instead to prod at the items within the sack.
"Mushrooms?" he decided finally.
"Wouldn't touch 'em, if I was you," Jayne said, bland. Simon had patched his shoulder up last night, along with two other bullet grazes, and he'd done nothing but complain the entire time.
Jayne shrugged, grabbed a melon, and turned to survey the room for an empty seat. "Was in my pants for about three weeks."
Simon stared at him.
Jayne looked at him, bland. "What?"
"Nothing," Simon said, shaking his head. "Let's just…" he grimaced, and took his hand off the bag, and wiped it surreptitiously on his pants.
"Zoe's got something," Kaylee piped up from the corner, where she'd propped herself on the arm of the chair that Zoe had chosen. Kaylee made brief eye contact with him, and it was enough to make Simon duck his head and go for a chair of his own.
River patted the empty bench next to her, and he threw her a grateful glance as he sat down. She immediately leaned against him, captured one of his hands to weave her fingers through.
"Hey," he said quietly, missing Jayne's question to the girls.
"Hi, Simon," she said. And then nothing more. He found he'd been bracing himself for…something, he wasn't sure what. But something just the same, and it hadn't come. He relaxed a little, but not much.
It left him free to turn his attention back to the others, though. And when Zoe said, "We have to go back for Wash," he almost missed Kaylee slipping out the door toward the bridge. He frowned tightly, and then was startled out of it by Inara and Jayne talking at the same time.
Zoe said nothing until they both stopped speaking.
"He's being held at the same prison I was. We were together when you came for me. We have to go back for him."
"He's dead," Inara said, aghast. "How could they – "
Zoe's face betrayed nothing, and it made something inside of Simon twist even more. "We weren't sure how. But he's there." Then, to Jayne: "I'm second in command here. But I know you're trying to run your ship. So I'm going to give you the chance to be the one to give Kaylee the new coordinates."
"Now wait a gorram second." Jayne leaned forward in his seat.
"I didn't see him," River said, just loud enough for Simon to hear.
He looked down at her, startled, and then back up at Zoe. "You're sure?"
"Jayne and the guards tore us apart," Zoe replied. Utterly passive. Simon wondered if she was furious, if she'd rather still be at the prison than here.
"Did you see him?" Inara demanded.
Jayne shrugged. "Wasn't looking for a dead man."
"He's pretty hard to miss," Simon said.
"Well excuse the hell outta me," Jayne snapped. "I was only busy haulin' her bony ass outta there. Didn't exactly have time to stop and see the sights."
"He was there," Zoe said. "Some form of psychological torture. Same as they did to the rest of us."
Jayne snorted, deep. "Not all of us. They just had me shoveling shit."
"You need a brain for psychological punishment," Inara said. Jayne's protesting bellow was masked by a slight rise in her voice, pointedly turned toward Zoe. "You really think he's back there?"
"If there's a chance," Zoe said, "I can't risk not taking it."
River shifted next to him, leaning forward and wrapping her arms around her knees so she could see Zoe. The woman immediately latched her attention onto River. "We're more than halfway to Captain Reynolds," she said.
Zoe said nothing, but a small muscle in her jaw moved.
"We have to go back and get him," Simon protested, clear by the tone of his voice that he couldn't understand why this wasn't common sense and unanimously decided among those gathered. "Even if it isn't him, I could do tests, there could be something."
"I'm in charge," Jayne said, as though he were speaking to a very slow child. Which, considering the speaker, was both effective and terrifying.
"God help us all," Inara murmured behind him.
"Hey – " Jayne said sharply, pointing a warning finger in her face. He turned his attention to the doctor again. "And I say no."
"You're in charge," Simon said flatly. He looked at Inara, who met his gaze and then looked away. "If it were River, we'd go."
"And let me tell you, doc, that ain't gonna happen neither. She wanders off, she gets left." Jayne jabbed the end of his knife into the orangeish melon. It leaked a trail onto the metal table as he split it open.
"I can't believe this," Simon said. "He wouldn't leave you, if the situation was reversed."
"Sure he would," Jayne said with a wave, and sliced into the melon again with a sickening wet sound.
Simon buried his hands in his hair on either side of his head, propping himself up on his elbows and staring at the far wall. "I can't believe this," he said again. He didn't feel the need to make it particularly clear whether or not it was that he was stuck working under Jayne or that the rescue was not to be attempted was the ridiculous part.
Zoe was, very carefully, looking at none of them.
Inara shook her head incredulously, arms wrapped tight around her stomach. "How did you even evolve far enough to survive?"
Jayne opened his mouth to protest, but Simon's murmur filled the void. "Actually, social psychology has proven that selfish people have a longer gene pool. It's self-interest. Darwin." He blinked, and pulled his head out of his hands.
"Hey," Jayne said, offended. "I ain't selfish."
Everyone looked at him.
It took him a moment to register the silence, and looked up. "Well." he said. "…sometimes. Alright."
Zoe took a deep breath, like she was steeling herself against something. "How far are we away from the Captain?"
River shifted her eyes up, like she was listening for something. "Maybe a day. Maybe a little less. It'd be three back to get the ghost, and then another four to make up the time this way. Captain'll be dead in three days if we leave him."
Simon looked at her. "What?"
She reached one hand up, brushing the low ceiling with her knuckles, a slow beat. "They know we're coming."
Inara made a frustrated sound, and tipped her forehead into her hand.
River pulled her hand down, and unfolded herself from the bench so gracefully, it took Simon a moment to realize she'd stood. Her hands were limp at her sides, but she stared at Zoe. Zoe stared back. "Ghosts can't get any more dead," she said.
Zoe said nothing, but after a moment, nodded.
* * *
The approach to Oidam was slightly different than their other landings. River broke though the cloud cover with no intent to land, passing over the prison transports. She ignored all hails from the gatemen.
And the warning shots that they sent up.
"River," Simon said, hand tightening on the back of the pilot's chair. "What - ?"
"Doesn't matter," she said, quiet, her eyes glued to the entrance gate of the prison. "They've got her here."
"She talking crazy again?" Jayne asked, as they took a shot, and he gripped his own seat.
"I don't know." Simon brushed her hair out of her face. "River? I thought we were going to get the Captain."
"He's here too," she said. She turned away from the display panel and smiled up at him. "Sit down, I'm going to crash." She turned back, switched the controls off of auto pilot, and tipped them down.
* * *
Tzalin's transport moved with the impact of weaponry. Possibly homemade explosives, he realized, rushing off as the craft docked. Except that after the initial impact, there had been no more – they'd wasted their ammunition in one shot, in getting through the gate. Tzalin's smile was grim, as he stripped off the sashes and outer robes necessary for the Senate gathering.
"To the prison block," he ordered his head guard, and a squadron of armed men marched at his back – a sensation hew as sure he'd never grow tired of, the feeling of power backing righteousness.
"Sir," said the head guard, in approximation of acknowledgement. Then he tapped his earpiece, and increased his speed. "The passageway seems to be blocked ahead, sir, we're working on clearing the debris."
Tzalin's spine went stiff. "What debris?"
The guard looked at him, his eyes hidden behind a visor. "From the crash, sir. We'll have to take a less direct route."
"Hurry," Tzalin bellowed, and the guards ran with him. They had to reach the prisoner first, or his edge would be lost, and all of their experiments with the Outer Rim would be for naught.
The nose of the ship had popped right through the central room. The neatly piled rocks had scattered. Dust coated the air, and the inside of Tzalin's throat.
Malcolm Reynolds stood in the center of the room, staring at the ship. Tzalin leveled a gun at his head, and the man didn't even blink. Just stared at the ship.
"Wrong one," he said quietly.
Tzalin didn't have time to ask him what he was talking about before the front shield of the ship shattered outward. A bulky man and a severe looking woman emerged, guns first, wary but not stupid. Tzalin eyed them.
Reynolds smiled. "Fellas," he said. "Sight for sore eyes."
"Captain," the woman said. Her hands didn't shake.
"Took you long enough." Reynolds brushed his hands off, more dust slaking into the air. As though it were merely a matter of collecting his belongings and walking out the door.
"Excuse me," Tzalin said, weeks of the frustration of the chase curling into a sneer on his face. "You're all under arrest.
"That's nice," said the woman, and holstered her gun. She bowed her head for a moment, hands clutched behind her, like she was gathering herself, and then approached him. Her eyes were startling, up close, and she was near enough to lower her voice for him. "Have you ever met River Tam, sir?" she asked.
The guards closest to him shifted restlessly. He frowned at her, and the cool composure in her face.
"I have," she said.
Tzalin's gaze flicked up, at the little girl picking her way, barefoot, through the broken glass of the cockpit. She wore a blood stained dress, and her hair covered her face. He sucked in a breath as the woman backed away, and the Tam girl neared. She spared not a glance for Reynolds, merely cocked her head to the side, long piles of hair shifting as she moved.
"Hello, Roger," she said. She looked down at her feet, and curled her toes into the earth floor. "This isn't dirt," she said.
"River," the woman said, her eyes back on Tzalin, "has killed Reavers."
The girl laughed, and spun on the balls of her feet, twirling slightly. It made her dress puff out, just a little, to show her pale skinny legs. She walked past Tzalin, to the head guard, and pulled his helmet off. He held himself rigid, his gun barrel at her stomach. She pressed his nose with one finger. "Boo," she said.
"But she won't have to kill you," the woman said, "because you're going to let us leave."
Tzalin had to react at that, even though his eyes were still on Tam, as she wrestled her way into the helmet. Her hair got caught. "You think I'm going to let you simply walk out of here?
"Yep," the girl said, and popped the visor up on the helmet. She leaned up and kissed his cheek. "No killing."
Tzalin laughed. "You're all insane."
"Likely so," Reynolds said, but it barely registered in Tzalin's ear. He was focused on other things. This girl, and the way she was poking at the medallions on his chest.
"If you let us go," River said, "I won't have to kill you. And all your guards. Each." She peeked over his shoulder at the large mass of troops behind him. "And every one."
"This is – "
"But if you try to stop us," she cut him off, her intense wide eyes staring up into his. "Then I will have to reap your secret things, and tell them all." She smiled. "And then kill you."
Tzalin chambered his gun, and pressed the barrel against her collarbone. The woman didn't react, except to sigh, loudly. Tam laughed, and spider-walked her fingers up the gun, over his hand.
"You shouldn't do that with the little boys," she said. "It makes them bleed, and they scream for their mothers, and that's what you like best." She leaned up on her tip toes so she could whisper in his ear. "You shouldn't do that with your sons."
The cold washed into his stomach, and he fought the urge to vomit. The woman raised her eyebrows at him, and he wiped his palm on his trousers. And lowered his gun.
"Stand down," he managed.
"Sir?" the head guard said, and leaned closer so he could hear.
"Stand - stand down," Tzalin shouted, turning, wiping the sweat off of his upper lip with a shaking hand. "Stand down, st – escort – them to – "
"Easy does it, Admiral," the woman said, her long fingers curling over his shoulder. "I think you'll come with us, for a little insurance."
Reynolds approached them cautiously, smiling down at Tam. She smiled back, and held out her hand for his. He took it. "Nicely done," he said. He turned to look at the man behind them. "I think getting' me sitting down would probably be best. Soonish."
Tzalin clenched his fists as the woman steered him through the guards. "This does not mean that you are not still a criminal, Captain Reynolds."
"The hell it don't," the quiet man with the gun protested, sounding mildly shocked – as though he could scarcely believe the unmitigated gall of the man preventing their mobility.
"Faster, please," the Tam girl said. And everyone picked up their pace.
Chapter 6: Fic: A New and Fairer Whole, Part VI and VII and endnotes
vi. what you love will take you places you never dreamed you'd go
Simon chewed on his lip a little as he peeked through the broken glass.
"Well?" Kaylee whispered.
He waved her back, scanning the empty room. "Alright. I think."
"Are you sure?" Inara hissed.
He turned and frowned at her. "No. Let's go."
Inara hefted one of the bags of their supplies over her shoulder, and tossed the other to Simon. Kaylee carried only her tool kit and Simon's purloined medical bag.
"What is it about Mal being around that makes everyone suddenly lose their ability to think?" Inara muttered.
Kaylee shot her an exasperated look, but it was somehow laced with commiseration. She sighed, and nodded toward Simon. "Lead on."
They crept down the abandoned corridors that Tzalin's mass of troops had swept clean, toward the docks. It was a slow journey, and one that left Simon skittish. But it wasn't until they reached the docking point that he felt the panic ball in his chest. All those guards. And Tzalin. And seven of them. It couldn't work. The air was thick with it, with fingers on triggers and unspoken words between the Captain and the Admiral. Both men looked like they were in rough shape, but for very different reasons.
Mal didn't pull his eyes off of the Admiral until they approached, and his gaze caught on Inara for a long moment before it switched to Kaylee. "The Admiral doesn't want to let us into our own boat, can you believe that? He says he'll let us go, but that's as far as his help extends."
She frowned, and dropped the box of tools to examine the door. She pulled out a screw driver, jammed it in the control panel, and twisted, hard. The panel came free, and she cut a wire with her clippers.
The rear loading door lifted.
"Ain't nothing." She shrugged, and smiled at Mal.
"Good girl," Mal said, a ghost of a smile on his face. "Everybody in."
Simon watched as they filed in through the loading bay, up the ramp, and ignored Jayne's complaints over the Alliance intrusion of their ship. It wasn't his place to fix those things. He raised his eyebrows at Mal. "You need to sit down." He picked up Kaylee's tool kit and gestured for Mal to follow him.
"For once, Doctor, we're in accord." Mal leaned heavily on Serenity's hull. "Zoe!"
She appeared out of the rear of the ship. "Captain?"
"You and River keep an eye on the Admiral here, make sure he remembers his promise."
Zoe ducked back inside to fetch river, and the Admiral bridled. "If you think I'm to be intimidated by two women – "
Mal caught the gun Zoe tossed him – Simon hadn't even seen it thrown, and it made him uneasy – and held it level at Tzalin's head. "Seems to me the intimidation's already been done." His brow creased with the familiar effort of looking down the barrel of a weapon. "You mightn't want to upset a new widow, 's all I'm saying. That right, Zoe?" He didn't turn to look at her, and Simon could tell in his periphery that she didn't move either.
The sound of her chambering a bullet into her gun split the prompt, and her voice was not amused, no nonsense. "I'm on the verge of tears, sir."
Mal lowered his gun once Zoe had trained her own on the Admiral, and Simon awkwardly insinuated himself, Simon's arm around his waist, Mal's over Simon's shoulder, to help him toward the ship. River appeared to join Zoe, still barefoot. Her boots – his boots – were somewhere in Inara's bag.
As she passed by, Simon paused, and Mal made a sound of irritation. "Hold on," Simon said, under his breath. Something in River's gait was unusual, something a little more off than he was used to seeing, and it was Mal's turn to shift restlessly when she walked right up to Tzalin.
"I saw," she said, a large smile cracking her face. "I saw what you did to all of them."
Tzalin glanced around, nervous. "Your friends are quite – "
"Not them," River said. She turned, and spread her hands toward the open sky. "Everyone."
Tzalin took a step back.
"No more Reavers," River said. Clapped her hands in his face. "Bang!" She stepped away, quiet, under Zoe's arm, and then behind to lean up against Serenity, like she needed to touch the ship. "No more anyone."
"Doc," Mal gritted out. "Sitting would be good now."
"Sorry," Simon said. "Right. Come on." He shoved River's words to the back of his head, and got Mal sitting down on a pile of cargo, and started examining him. Mal looked annoyed, but didn't protest. Too tired, Simon guessed, since he didn't seem to have sustained any actual injuries.
"Kaylee," Mal said, and the engineer came over to swap bags with Simon. "How much is it going to take to get her in the air?
She bit her lip and looked down at him. "Not sure. Captain, it's real good to see you."
He nodded, just once, recognition. "Later. We need to get out of here. Fast."
"Alright, let's see what we remember, then," Simon said. "What kind of condition was Serenity left in?" As one of the first people taken, he hadn't remembered much. Just River clinging to him, and her scream as she took out a half dozen of the guards before they wrestled her away.
Jayne slammed the lid on a cargo box shut, and shook his head. "No good. All I remember's getting knocked in the back of the head pretty ruttin hard."
Simon turned his gaze on Mal, who they all knew had been taken first, on the premise of a simple discussion in the boarding zone's guardhouse. He hadn't come back, and suddenly guards had flooded the ship. "Zoe," Mal said quietly. "Zoe was the last one they took into custody."
Slowly, everyone turned to look at him. Mal didn't twitch or shift his gaze, which was fastened on the far wall, like he could see through it, if he tried.
"Right," Simon said, after a moment: quiet, and not unkind. He turned to look at Zoe, standing, back straight, near the cargo door. River crouched at her feet, drawing designs with a fingertip in the pavement of the docking zone.
Her face was level, the same old, even, collected woman Simon was used to seeing. But something was off in her voice, something was colder than it should have been, more mechanical, more rote. He hadn't thought she'd been listening. "I barricaded myself in the bridge," she said. "Fried the controls and mag-welded the doors. The navigation's been entirely reworked if they could fix it. No one was going to be able to fly that ship, sir."
She was still speaking to Mal, despite their captain's distance. But the honorific pulled his attention back to her. "Good," he said. "That means she'll be flying on an Alliance navigation system, and that's easier to break down. But it's also gonna be easier to track. Kaylee?" He turned to her. "You can fix that, we get you a few minutes?"
"Maybe," she said, uncertain now that the focus was on her abilities. "If Wash were here," she said.
"Well, he ain't," Jayne snapped.
"That's not helping," Simon interrupted Mal's retort, and addressed the captain. "You're exhausted, and malnourished, but otherwise you're fine. Don't push it. We need to get you into a bunk, and then some food when you wake up. Something easy to digest, or your system's going to react negatively." He could leave out the strained and withered muscles, the improperly fixed broken arm, the general state of Mal's health. Rest and food would come first, everything else could wait until they were further away.
"All due respect, doc, that's going to have to wait." Mal's voice was a little stronger. "Kaylee, do what you can to strip off the Alliance signal, and get us airborne."
"On it," she chirped, and seemed relieved for something to do as she moved away.
"Zoe," he called. "Get the Admiral in the hold, and seal her up. He's our insurance off this rock." He didn't wait to see if Zoe followed the orders – even after so long apart, Simon was astounded by the way the two of them moved so very much in synch. Mal looked up at him. "Simon," he said. "I'd appreciate it if you'd help me to the bridge. I've got a ship to hotwire."
* * *
They left Tzalin with a bullet through his leg on the outskirts of the main prison. Mal had considered parting words – a moving speech, perhaps, about what it means to attempt to interfere with his family, or an explanation of why he'd done what he'd done. But in the end, it hadn't seemed right. None of it had seemed right.
They'd dropped Tzalin on a barren strip. Zoe had been the one to place the bullet, careful to avoid any larger arterial systems.
Mal had checked his gun, unloaded all the bullets but one, and dropped it a few feet away from where the Admiral had crumpled.
It seemed fair.
Kaylee got them airborne without fuss, and River found her way back into the pilot's chair.
Like nothing had changed.
Mal collapsed in his bunk. Or what had once been his bunk – it was filled with another man's things now, and they'd have to clean everything out. All the rooms were strange, now. Foreign.
They'd painted over Kaylee's flowers in the mess.
He woke, once, to cool, slim fingers on his cheek, and what tasted like broth from his old days as a soldier in regiment. And even if he hadn't regained consciousness, a day and a half later, to find Inara curled asleep on the foot of his bed, he'd have known who it was.
Getting out of bed was coltish and awkward, and he climbed the ladder and left her there, stealing into Jayne's bunk to use his kit, nearly resting his head against the wall from the joy of relieving himself in private for the first time in… he blinked, and realized he didn't know how long he'd been moving rocks. It hadn't felt like a year. He looked at his face in the mirror. Had it been a year? His face had aged.
A light tap sounded at the edge of Jayne's room. "…Mal?"
He zipped up his trousers and stumbled out toward the door. Kaylee caught his arm, laughing. "Easy, Cap," she said. "Who let you out of bed?"
"Guard dog fell asleep." He leaned heavily against the door, testing his legs. "There any food?"
"A little. We're still trying to sort out what's what." She crossed her arms over her chest, and frowned in the direction of the engine room. "You should see what they tried to truss her up with, it's gonna take a week at least to separate out the bù liáng."
"Well," he said. "You'll manage." His frown was tight, and he found he couldn't keep himself from saying anything anymore. "Where did they take you?"
She smiled at him. A little weary, that smile. "Don't matter. I'm fine."
"They cut your hair."
Kaylee ran a hand over her head, like she'd forgotten the batch of fuzz on her scalp. "They sure did. What do you think?"
Mal frowned. "I think I'm gonna have a time of it, trying to mess up the people who tried to hurt my girls."
"You're not going anywhere," she said firmly. "We'll figure out the plan after River's finished on her…" she wrinkled her nose. "Well, whatever it is that River's got to see through."
He gave her an inscrutable look, and her expression changed a little.
"It's just hair, captain," Kaylee said, her voice gentle. She gave him a smile, teeth showing through near her lip, and he felt something gather in his throat, something like words, and he swallowed them down hard until they settled in his stomach.
"Well," he said, and turned his face away for a moment.
Kaylee said nothing, and then realized that something was amiss. "Captain?" she said quietly. "You alright?"
He swallowed hard again, and turned back to her, nodded sharply. "Get back to her heart," he said, "and get her sorted out quick. I don't trust we won't run into trouble."
Her smile exploded as she turned. "On it."
Mal watched her go and the tightness in his throat dissolved, but slowly.
"Mal," Inara said, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.
"You have got to learn not to sneak up on people," he scolded, exasperated. She showed no sign of remorse. "One of these days it's going to get your head shot clean off."
"I'll keep that in mind," she said dryly. "I'll tell Simon you're awake. You should get back into bed."
"Mm. Won't fight you on that one." He eased across the corridor back toward the ladder. She stood aside for him, but only just. Mal cocked his head at her, sizing her up, and lowered his voice. "Something wrong with the shuttle?"
She frowned at him, wary. "No. My things are gone, but it's no worse than anyone else's quarters."
He nodded. "There a reason you seen fit to adopt my bed, then?"
Her face hardened into careful non-expression, and she took another step backwards. He climbed down the ladder and left her there, not sure whether she'd go and get the doctor or not. Frankly, he was still too exhausted to care.
* * *
Kaylee had half finished cleaning out the engine's rotary system, afternoon of the second day on their return trip to find Wash, when the com near the door crackled.
"Um," it said. "Is anyone there?"
She pushed herself up off of her knees, hands tangled in a greasy rag. The Alliance crew hadn't messed with her area too badly – they'd cleared out all of her personal belongings, of course, but all of her tools were still around, and her hotrigging of the engine, and most of her work hadn't been undone. Maybe they just hadn't had enough time. She punched the button on the com. "Yeah, Simon?"
The speaker crackled for a moment. "Oh. I. Was trying to find…River?"
"She's on the bridge. Everything alright?"
Another long pause. "Fine, fine. I could just use an extra pair of hands that aren't Jayne's."
Kaylee stifled a laugh. "Just a second, I'll be there."
She packed away her tools for the moment, tucked the rag into the pocket of some bulky coveralls left by the men who'd worked here in her absence, and wiped her hands off on her torso, before casting a wry expression at her hands. It would be easier to just wash them when she got there, depending on what Simon wanted her to do. Enough stalling.
Taking a deep breath, she wound her way toward the Infirmary. Simon was leaning against one of the countertops, wrestling with a bandage.
"Hey there," she said, and he looked up, blinking like she'd knocked him out of something that took a lot of concentration. She squirmed slightly at the threshold. "Um, if you want me to come back, you know, later, that's fine."
"No, no, I – come in, please." He waved her in with his other hand. "I could use, um, a good set of hands on this."
She followed his gaze down to his palms as she came in, and kept her gasp silent, but the horror in her voice was evident. She cupped one of his palms, and kept her voice hushed, like she was afraid someone would overhear her. "What did they do to you?"
"Nothing," Simon said, and then made a face at himself. "Well, that's…obviously a lie. They basically, uh, killed my hands. So now I'm trying to figure out what nerves need to be reintroduced, and what's damaged, and what needs reprogramming."
Kaylee spread his fingers, looking at them carefully, like she might be able to see what exactly was wrong from here. "How can you tell?"
He tugged her toward a machine. "There's a scope for it." A pen was held up, and placed into her other palm. "Except the scan is delicate, and I need someone else to do it, since both of my hands are sort of…incapacitated."
"Sure," she said. "Just tell me – oh!" She started as the pen emitted a red light, and then laughed.
Simon took about five minutes to explain how the pen and the scope worked together, and then positioned his hands under a screen, palm up. As Kaylee carefully scanned, the nerve endings in his fingers showed up in shades of red, blue, and purple on the screen. Simon made audio notes into a recording device next to the lamp on the desk.
They progressed gradually down into his fingers, and the notes became more and more complicated. It wasn't until she shifted back to his wrist that he spoke to her again.
"Have you had anyone look you over?"
She was proud of how the pen didn't waver at all. "Now why would I need someone to do that?"
He glanced up at her from the screen. "Kaylee, Inara said – "
She didn't look up at him. Kept the motion of the pen steady. She could hear him sigh.
"It's your responsibility. You could be injured, or internally – "
"Damaged?" she snapped.
"No!" he protested immediately.
His glare was palpable on her forehead, and she kept her eyes down, clenched her jaw, and kept on scanning. "I'm fine, Simon. Everything's fine. The hair will grow back, I'm sorry if – "
"What are you – don't apologize." He sighed again, and some of the fight went out of his voice. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"Well," she said, frustrated.
"It's not about the hair," he said.
She made a small noise of acceptance, if not agreement, and he paused to make another notation about an injured nerve in his wrist, something with a long name that reminded Kaylee of a brand of soap they used to sell on he home planet. They stayed silent for just long enough her shoulders to start to relax again, and he withdrew the one hand and she started on the second.
"You could be pregnant," he said quietly.
She gave an exasperated sigh. "No, Simon, I couldn't. I appreciate the concern, really, but I'm fine."
It was his turn to sound frustrated. "How can you – you keep saying that, it can't be true, Kaylee! What you went through – and I never stopped thinking about you, what they could be doing to you, I thought about you all the time…" He drifted, a little helpless.
Kaylee bit her lip. "I," she started, and then had to start over, and looked up at him. "I didn't think about you."
His gaze flew to hers immediately.
"I didn't," she said, and dropped her eyes, looking for something else to focus on, before she gave up the attempt and just looked right back. "I couldn't. It's over, Simon. It's done with. I just want to get back to my life."
She had never heard him sound so tenuous, so incredibly uncertain. "And am I still a part of that?"
Something in her chest broke and spilled warm all over her lungs. "For somebody so smart, you can a real shǎ zi." She ducked her head, and went back to the scanning. But in the corner of her eye, she could see the smile that Simon was struggling to keep back.
"Yeah," he said, and cleared his throat. "Well."
"Well," she echoed, scolding. His grin tripled.
* * ** * *
Inara could feel her throat burn, and embraced the choking pain of it. Her eyes blurred, and she applied the straight edge of a single fingernail to remove the gathered moisture without ruining her intricate makeup. It was easier this way, back in her own clothes and her makeup and the hard, dramatic shell that masked her from the others.
When she was sure she had herself under control, she gathered the long burgundy train of her silk skirts and went out into the common area to speak with the others.
That, at least, had been her intent. Mal waylaid her on the first gangplank outside of her shuttle's docking port, as if he'd chased her there himself and was merely biding his time for his prey to reappear.
He stopped pacing as soon as she opened the door, and her steps became cautious as she watched him. "Inara," he said, as though it had been a chance encounter.
"Mal," she echoed, and knew she'd sounded too suspicious when the lines between his eyebrows flickered into existence.
They were gone in an instant, though, and he stepped close, his arms crossed over his chest, in the manner she'd come to recognize as the stance he took when he was delivering particularly difficult news to her. Or when he was about to be particularly sarcastic. But she had a feeling it was the former, and not the latter, and not only because he usually favored an audience for the sarcasm.
"I'd like to know," he started, and tried to meet her eyes, and then got frustrated with himself, and backed away. He leaned against one of the railings and tightened his arms over his chest. "What I mean to say is," he said. "Whether or not you intend to stay."
Inara waited a beat too long, incredulous. "Is that a question?"
"Yes, it's a question," Mal clarified, straightening up. "One I'd like an answer to some day soon, if it wouldn't inconvenience you too terrible much."
"You honestly think," she demanded, "that I would leave now? After all of this?" She gestured out over the empty cargo bay, just waiting to be filled with the spoils of their next job. Just waiting to have the smells of Alliance crew driven out of its surface. The whole ship felt wrong, and Inara was set on fixing that as soon as possible. She turned, both of her hands on the rail, and looked out at the bay, assessing. "After everything we've been through to get back to this?"
"We?" Mal asked quietly.
She turned back to him, and his arms were still crossed, but his face was no longer as foreboding. He dropped he gaze and his mouth pulled into a reluctant grimace for a moment as Inara muddled out the half-dozen possible insulting implications of his reply before she realized that he meant it in an entirely different context. It made her back up a half step and frown.
"I think you should leave Serenity," Mal told the grated platform. "We'll need to stock again for a proper long-term trip after this last bit of business gets cleared up, and you can get off there."
"What?" Inara said, her voice utterly clear.
"You heard me," Mal said, and he'd managed to gather back his authoritative tone in the space of one word and the next, and it was an order now, not a request.
She squinted at him. "What is this?"
He stiffened against the protest, and Inara felt her own anger boil at the inference that he hadn't thought she would fight this. That she'd take it lying down, like she took everything else – pun intended, if it was Mal who was saying it. She gave a short disbelieving laugh before he spoke again. "We don't need you on this ship," Mal said. "There's nowhere for you to practice where we're going. Your trade's useless out here."
"Mal," she said carefully. "Think very, very hard about what you say next."
His calm brown eyes met her. "We don't need a whore on the Outer Rim."
She raised a hand to slap him before she was even aware of the motion, and he caught her arm. "How dare you – " she spat.
"None of that," he said, angrier than she'd heard him since they'd reclaimed the ship.
"I'm not going anywhere," she said, ripping her hand out of his grip. She took two steps closer, getting her face up as close as she could manage into his. "What's this really about? You don't have anyone else to rent the shuttle to, and money isn't going to matter out this deep, if we even find anyone to barter with." She was proud of how even her voice sounded. "I'm not leaving."
He regarded her, and in the instant before he opened his mouth to speak, she understood. "It's my – " he started.
"You don't think it's safe," she said.
He looked at her, and all of the tension, but none of the wary regard, drained from both of them.
"Mal," she said, and put a freshly-manicured hand on his arm. "Nothing's safe."
He nodded, his arms folded again, and swallowed hard.
"Did you try to run Kaylee off, too?" she asked.
Mal hid his startle well, and turned it into a shrug. "She threatened to come at me with a wrench if I said anything of the sort again. Figured maybe I oughta just let her be, if she was so dead set on blunt force trauma."
Inara gave him a look, trying to suss him out. "Are you ordering me off Serenity?"
He clenched his jaw, and she saw it in his face, that he was going to say yes. She took a deliberate step forward, and let her tone drop.
"I'm not leaving."
He hesitated, checking her sincerity, whether or not he might be able to talk her out of it. Whatever he saw there, it convinced him, and Inara let out a silent breath. "Alright," he said, quiet and gruff.
"Alright," Inara said, and dropped her gaze, and took a step back.
* * *
When Mal called together his entire crew, he usually had to wait. In the past, it had meant waiting for open air for the ship to be set on autopilot, but he was in charge of that now. Or for now at least; he had a feeling River was going to try to tempt him out of it again.
It was easier not to consider that Wash might still be alive. Because what if he was. That'd be about enough to make a man's skin turn colors.
But even without having to wait on the pilot, there were other considerations to take into account when he asked them all to meet in the mess. Zoe, for one, was notoriously hard to track down. She'd taken lately to silence, and trained as she was to move as quietly as possible, it wasn't getting any easier to figure out her central locations.
Kaylee had to be torn away from her tinkering, and the doctor from his. And then Jayne had to be convinced to clear his toys off the dining table, including the guitar, from the tight inventory he was taking of the loot he'd stashed all over the ship. River came along in time to help with that job, and proceeded to get herself good and greasy, but at that point Mal wasn't about to wait for her to wash up. He'd been pacing like a waterborne horse for the past twenty minutes, and he figured having everyone in ear shot was the best he was going to get, so he talked over the noise.
"We have an Alliance problem."
Which settled everybody into chairs, or the next available leaning surface, pretty quick.
He cleared his throat, not sure how to go on, and crossed his arms over his chest. Jayne slowly tilted back in his chair, the familiar sound of straining wood causing Mal to think again, for a moment, of a sailing ship.
Before he could go on, though, River piped up. Insofar as anything River did could be described as innocently as that. "They killed everyone."
Mal nodded, slow. Like it was too tiring to think about. "I know they did, xiǎo guǐ."
She blinked at the name, and then smiled up at him from her perch at Inara's side. Mal had heard them talking about the plans for demolition – like it was nothing more than a building to knock down. But they'd let him hear it, because surely he'd never escape. Surely, surely.
"All the Reavers," River said. "Gone. Like a struck match blinking out. Gone."
"Well that's great," Kaylee said, sounding pretty uncertain about it. "Ain't that great? Captain?"
"Not so," Mal said, and opened his mouth to explain, but River jumped in again. And he let her.
"All the Reavers that were, and all that ever could be. All the life. Cut a circle in the black paper, and let the edges fall away. Made the nothing into more nothing. It woke me up. It got too loud."
A short silence fell, and Jayne grunted when he realized that was all the explanation that would be forthcoming. "Right. What's that mean in people-talk?"
"It means they killed everyone in the Outer Rim," Simon snapped, and turned to River, who nodded fiercely.
Jayne blinked. "Oh," he said. And then turned to Mal, who dreaded what was about to come out of his mouth next. "Hey! Mal, we should go to those planets, see if anybody left anything behind – "
"No," Mal said sharply. "Isn't safe. The Alliance won't be monitoring something they think is dead, but if anyone survived that blasting, we'd have to take 'em on. It's too soon yet. Gotta let the survivors find their own way."
"Sir?" Zoe said quietly. He gave her a sharp look. She could see the logic in it, he knew.
"The way I see it," Mal said, "we fought our war. Some of us more than once. But we all fought it." He looked at the remains of his crew, sitting in this stripped and foreign mess, malnourished and bent and broken into pieces that didn't make any sense to his tired eyes. "So we're gonna run."
Silence from the crew as they all digested this. And it was Simon, of all of them, and he never would've thought it would be Simon, who spoke up. "Uh… run to where?"
Mal looked up at Zoe and saw the same answer in her face: anywhere.
"As far as we can manage in any direction," Mal said. "I'm talking about leaving behind everything. All our ports of call, our deals, our trade." His eyes passed over Inara at this point. "We take passengers if we have to, but I'd rather keep it just crew for a while. Safer that way." Simon opened his mouth and hesitated. "That includes you and your sister, Doctor. Can't rightly throw out somebody who saw fit to get me back on my boat."
Simon's mouth closed. River smiled into her knees. Mal felt his own mouth twitch, and wrote it off to a muscle spasm.
"Mal." Inara had a small crease between her eyes, and couldn't pull her gaze off the table for a moment. She'd been having trouble with that lately, he noticed. Making eye contact. "What you're talking about is how people turn into Reavers in the first place. Even without the Pax, Reavers can be bread through circumstance."
"That won't happen," Mal said. Like it was an order – he was forbidding it. No Reavers allowed on his boat.
"Well, maybe to Jayne," Simon said.
"Hey!" Jayne whinged an orange at him, and River caught it before it could do any damage.
Mal had to clear his throat again, and the crew settled. "I'm not talking permanent. Just until things settle down a little. Then we can go about checking on those planets that got wiped out, all those terraformed moons. Fuel up, see what we need to see, and move on if it don't look right. The Alliance is coming after us. We know that now." He crossed his arms over his chest. "But no matter how far the Alliance reaches, we'll be just a little further."
A quiet, contemplative silence had fallen over the crew.
"Anybody who wants off has until our last fueling stop on-world. Then we're slingshotting out of this system." He pushed himself up from his chair, and turned to head back toward the cockpit. "Dismissed."
* * *
Much to the general surprise of the crew, the descent into their second prison planet was significantly more calm than the first. River thought that was probably a good thing, because she'd run out of ships to crash; and besides, she liked Serenity.
She kept an eye out as they descended, but it wasn't until the boosters had turned and they'd landed successfully that she was able to understand what was bothering her.
"It's too quiet," she said to Simon. She picked at the laces on his boots with a chewed fingernail as they waited in the cargo bay for the rest of the team to join them. The captain was staying on the ship, because she was making him better. So had Simon been, but now the ship was doing the rest.
He stilled her fingers on the boot lace and then picked up one end, and flicked her wrist with it. She laughed and swatted at him. They'd all got new clothes – well, old clothes, someone had worn them before her, sometimes she could smell it – when they'd restocked, but she'd liked the boots enough to keep them. They were comfortable.
"Let's get on," Jayne said, shoving a wicked looking knife into his belt. She wanted to reach out and grab it, but made herself stay still.
"It's too quiet," she said again, this time to Jayne.
"That's cause I ain't had dinner yet," Jayne said. "Come on, let's go find the dead guy."
Simon wrinkled his nose at the joke and River tried not to smile, but she tugged him up. "You stay here."
Simon faltered then, exchanging a look with Jayne. Who shrugged, because he didn't care. "River," Simon said, and started to get that voice where he thought she wouldn't understand. "Someone might be hurt."
"Nobody is," she said, and patted him on the arm. Then she turned to Jayne. "Come along." It was nearly pitch perfect Inara, and she was sad the other woman wasn't around to hear her trick.
Jayne followed obediently. It wasn't until they got into the receiving area for new prisoners that River understood why they hadn't had any trouble getting in. Zoe, who had opted to stay on the ship, was still a wreck of nervous tension in River's head, and it left her on edge to start with. But finding the entrance completely abandoned was enough to kick her into high gear.
"Ain't nobody here," Jayne protested quietly, like he suspected he'd been lead astray on purpose.
River crossed the room and leapt over the embankment of computers. They were dull and lifeless, and she frowned up at Jayne. "Pull that metal bar."
Jayne looked above his head, and squinted. "What, this one?"
Jayne yanked, and a shower of sparks spattered onto the grating of the floor. The pristine white walls glinted momentarily.
"Good," River said, immediately tapping at a console. "That's auxiliary power. Now we can access patient records."
"Where is everybody?" Jayne demanded. "This pì huà's spooky."
"Abandoned. Recalled. So it looks like it never existed. But they can't bear to destroy everything, can they, and that's where we'll find – ah."
"Ah?" Jayne edged closer. Zoe's image sprang up between them, statistics scrolling rapidly. Treatment. Torture. Exposure to prisoners. The full list. River exported the information into the small datastick she'd brought from Serenity, and nodded.
"That's it?" Jayne said.
"That's it," River agreed.
vii. the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking
"I'm sorry," he said.
She shook her head slowly, a motion of disbelief, not negation, her chin nearly on her chest. He wrapped his arms around her lightly, she could feel his hands first on her hips and then sliding forward, over her stomach, tentative as he moved closer to her from behind.
"Is this alright?" He sounded unsure, in a disturbingly endearing way. He was worried – really genuinely concerned – that it might not be. She felt her jaw throb and forced herself to relax the muscles there.
Zoe managed a nod, and when she covered his hand with her own, the grip was fierce.
They sat like that for a long moment, Wash's forehead tipped into the smooth curve of her neck and shoulder, the feel of his chest tightly pressed up against her back achingly familiar.
They could stay like this, she realized, and no one would know. River and the captain, but no further than that, if she asked them. She could have her husband, if she really wanted.
"If it's any consolation," he murmured into her shirt, "I was probably really hard to spot."
"Top level," she murmured, her eyes fixed on the far wall. "That's my man."
He gave a dry chuckle, and pulled away a little. "What'll you do, d'you think?"
She shook her head. "Too soon to say."
She could feel him hesitate as he reclaimed his arms, and she turned to look at him. "I meant about me," he said quietly, and she looked at him, at the frown and the fear in his clear blue eyes.
"I don't know," she said quietly.
He nodded, this temporary verdict acceptable, and they went about slowly getting ready for bed, in a rhythm long familiar. It was at moments like these that Zoe couldn't understand it, not at all; how he could look so right and move in those same old ways, but not be he same man, or even a man at all (though she suppressed that thought immediately) that she had married. She pushed the logistics from her mind and tried to focus on resting, for the first time in nearly a year in her bunk, with her husband.
They didn't touch, as they lay in the dark, and slowly, slowly, Zoe heard his breathing become even and steady. She lay by, thinking.
The silence that wasn't – not with the ship rattling around outside their (her) room, like a crypt – was an unerring reminder. Everything went on without her. Without him.
In the dark, she rolled onto her side and regarded him. It was only when her eyes traveled to his face that she realized he wasn't sleeping. His gaze cut over to hers, and then he rolled, too, until they were facing each other. It took every power in her body not to reach out and tangle her fingers up with his.
"What's up?" he asked quietly.
Zoe had to swallow convulsively before she could even consider answering the question. The dry clicks filled her ears, but she finally managed to speak. "I think you should probably go."
Wash looked like he'd been slapped, mouth slightly open, and then he pulled himself together. He'd always been strong like that, and it made her throat burn again. "But what if you need me."
"I'll manage," she said. "And I'll see you again soon."
He pushed himself up on one elbow. She stayed where she was, looking at the space where he'd been, and did her best to keep her face resolved.
"Not too soon, I hope," he said. It pulled a tiny laugh out of her, and she darted her eyes up at him, almost embarrassed for letting it slip out. He smiled at her. "Love you. You take care of yourself, okay? I'll be waiting."
Her eyes slipped closed and she fought the flood of anger and self-pity. "Yeah," she said, face turned into the pillow. "Okay."
"Okay," he said, like that was settled. She took a deep breath, and managed to get control of herself again. And then another, and that seemed to help, even with her eyes closed.
He was silent, next to her, and then the distinct feeling of a kiss pressed between her eyes sent her heart pounding, eyes flying open.
She put her fingers to her forehead, like she could feel the kiss. More shaken from that than anything else, and suddenly she couldn't be in her bed anymore.
Zoe wandered out into the main run of the ship, and let her feet carry her until she found herself on the bridge, staring out at the great expanse of blackness ahead of them. It was the space of a few breaths – too many, enough to have been shot in the head time and time over – before she realized Mal was sitting in the pilot's chair, watching the stars.
"It done?" he asked.
"Yessir," she said quietly.
He didn't speak for a moment, and then slowly crossed his feet the opposite way on the control panel. "You want to talk about it?"
She stared out at the sea of black. "No, sir."
Mal looked up at her, and she looked down, her hands clasped behind her. They regarded one another for a long moment, and Mal looked away first, all the things a captain and a friend left unsaid exchanged between them in that instant.