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Irresistible Force

Chapter Text

"We've become a big business, oh, galaxy merger. Two of us, a big bang."
"We didn't know that it would blow up with such might."
"Some may call me a lucky shot; no, no, no, but it was not."
- "Irresistible Force"; Jane's Addiction

Leaving Earth was the hardest possible thing for any nation to comprehend, let alone execute.

Earth - our home, our birthright, our mother planet. She'd been given to us, graced us with her wide expanse and her resources, and we'd used and abused her with abandon. We didn't think. We didn't stop to consider what exactly it was that we were doing - at least, not until it was too late to change anything. Progress was too effective a blindfold, and by the time we looked past it and tried to make amends, we were too late. Our home was drained, dying. Our people were in danger of following suit. Our very lives were threatened with extinction by our own arrogance and our own mistakes.

So we chose the only path we could.

It was almost laughable, that the only time we were able to successfully unite was when we'd been driven against a wall, left completely without other options, by our own foolishness. But we did it. We united. We pushed out past Earth to explore in all haste the vast unknown of the universe, and it was there that we found our salvation.

So we left. We left our Earth.

Not all of us abandoned the mother planet, however. Not all of us survived the transition. It took a great upheaval, a great effort to reach our new home, and by the time we had, our numbers had irreversibly dwindled.

They continued to do so, one by one. Our kind, the Earthborn, was dying, even as we raised our successors. We couldn't do anything. We couldn't stop it. It was inevitable, as people and culture and history warped and forgot and faded.

Until, at long last and many years after Earth... there were only two of us left standing.

Alfred could hardly remember what it felt like to truly be America.

He was still fundamentally the same person - there was no getting rid of Alfred F. Jones, no sir - but the circumstances were so radically different that the degree to which he'd been forced to adapt was startling. His culture was barely distinguishable among the many, slowly taking on entirely new characteristics from all that now encompassed it, and so much history had been forgotten by his people that thinking about it made him cringe. His was a history of revolution and democracy, of heroics and hypocrisy, of westward movement and civil war and a changing world. But that history, which made him and broke him and was such an integral part of his identity, did not matter so much, here in this foreign part of the 'verse.

For years, he hadn't thought about this. For years, he'd dealt subconsciously with the growing loss. But it was resurfacing now, and with it came an ache inside of him, raw and doubled since Matthew and Kiku had died. Yao had once called it the ache of Earth, and it couldn't be more aptly described. It was a longing, a yearning to go back - the land made up a nation almost as much as the people did, and even though Alfred had long since accepted this star system as his home, it was not. It wasn't his birthplace. It wasn't Earth. He missed Earth something fierce, and the ache for the mother planet had grown stronger as of late, where before time had eased it.

He didn't realize the implications of this until it was far too late.

There hadn't been a collection of enlightened minds like these since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Alfred knew that for a fact. Even amidst his inexplicable misgivings and Earth-centered aches, it gave him hope for the future. Men and women like these were what humanity needed; keeping the many planets linked and ensuring their survival was an enormous task, but if anyone could do it while guaranteeing humanity's safety, these people could.

Yao was thinking the same thing, Alfred knew. The two of them sat side-by-side, accompanied by Winston and Akiko, at their rightful places in the joint session of their respective Parliaments. Today, it was being held on Londinium, and most of the gifted leaders of Londinium and Sihnon were present. Discussion had not yet started; Yao's boss had announced a few days ago that he wanted to make a game-changing proposition before the joint session, and no one, supposedly not even Yao, knew what it was. Speculation was evident in the controlled whispers that floated around the Parliament floor, and the animated air of the place was making Alfred jumpy.

"So you really don't know what he wants to talk about?" he asked Yao earnestly. It wasn't the first time.

"No," Yao said again, as patiently as possible. "He did not tell me."

"But word is that it's huge! C'mon, Yao, I wanna know!"

"You'll find out in a few minutes! Act like an adult!" Shaking his head, Yao leaned forward to give Winston a look; the young planet sat on Alfred's right and therefore, within the immature nation's sphere of influence. "You see that overgrown child between us? He sets a bad example. Don't follow it."

But Winston looked almost as antsy; it seemed that Alfred's excitement was infectious, his influence too strong. "Are you sure you don't know?" the young personification of Londinium asked hopefully.

Akiko, who sat on Yao's left, covered her mouth to hide a giggle as Yao threw up his hands in frustration. The smaller nation leaned on the half-circle table and looked down at the gathered political leaders, scanning their numbers; he, Alfred, and the two planets inhabited the only dais present, giving them an elevated view of the room. It had long ago been agreed that no member of Parliament would take a higher place than another; the only thing that would be lifted would be the people, conveniently represented by Alfred, Yao, and their charges. "If you want to know so badly," Yao told his 'western' counterparts, "perhaps you should make sure that your leaders aren't late!"

Alfred sighed in impatience. As if that was his fault! "It was short notice, 'kay!" His curiosity was getting the best of him, and within seconds he'd leaned his elbows on the table and dropped his head onto folded hands, starting to noticeably fidget and willing the last few stragglers to hurry.

Yao's mouth was twitching upwards, and he looked away, shaking his head and muttering something. Alfred didn't catch all of it, but the few words he heard were enough to cause him to freeze in his anticipatory twitching. "What was that?" he asked, trying to appear nonchalantly curious.

"I said, you haven't changed at all since Earth," Yao replied, then seemed to realize the meaning of what had just left his mouth. He frowned, his eyes locking with Alfred's, as the two planets sensed a changed in the mood and looked up at the nations inquisitively.

"So..." Alfred said quietly, feeling that old ache twinge in his chest. He should have guessed. "... You've been thinking about it too."

Yao sighed, absently raising a hand to his chest as a small scowl crossed his face. "All too often lately," he murmured. "I thought I had suppressed those memories." His head cocked slightly as he studied Alfred's face. "And you-?"

"The ache is back," Alfred told him. "I haven't felt it this strong since... well, since not long after we left." It was present like a large hole in his chest even as he spoke; in the past few weeks, it had becoming impossible to ignore.

"What's wrong?" Akiko asked in concern, breaking the melancholy spell that had temporarily descended over the two nations. She looked at them intently, mirrored by Winston opposite her. "What ache? Are you hurt?"

Alfred and Yao exchanged a glance, then Alfred gave the young planets a reassuring smile. "We're fine," he said. "Just some old memories. Don't you worry!"

Neither Akiko nor Winston looked convinced, but before either of them could say anything, the room abruptly fell quiet. The nations and planets, startled out of their conversation, looked out over the assembled politicians, and Alfred realized that all were finally present. Li Huan, the Minister of Sihnon, had gotten to his feet and was approaching the open center of the room reserved for those with something to say. He stood tall despite his rather small stature, and his was a commanding presence. Alfred had always liked him and not just because the guy was reminiscent of Yao himself.

"I realize that this is an informal way to begin a session," Huan said, as soon as he was in the speaker's circle and was sure he'd captured all attention. His voice was carried powerfully, projected by the well-designed acoustics of the oval room. "But... my proposal is not to be taken lightly, and we must discuss this as fellow members of humanity." He nodded in respect and grave acknowledgement to the nations. "In particular, I speak to you."

Alfred and Yao shifted simultaneously, nodding in return; their attention was focused solely on Sihnon's Minister, and after a moment, the two young planets followed suit, fidgeting in excitement as Alfred had previously been doing. Huan smiled, then continued.

"I will not bore you with preamble or pretty speeches," he said. "What I am proposing is a merger between our governments, what we deem the 'American western' planets and the 'Chinese eastern' planets. In short, a true alliance under one government, whose sole purpose will be the continued existence of our race." He fell silent in response to the massive surge of murmurs that followed this startling statement, and he gazed out serenely over the crowd of Parliament members, waiting for them to quiet.

Alfred's eyes were wide, and his mind was already calculating. It was always calculations, now, always a precarious position, and he was rapidly trying to figure out what exactly such a merge might entail. Would it ultimately be beneficial or harmful? How much would it cost, both in money and politics? Would he be able to get along with Yao enough to make it work?

That last was a given. They'd worked closely together since Earth, for nearly three hundred years, and they might as well have been lumped together under a single nation for all the nonexistent differences and quarrels present between them. And Yao understood more than anyone what it all was like. The recollection intensified the ache in Alfred's chest, and he realized that it was not a question of Yao - it was a question of himself.

He was already losing the identity he clung to so fiercely. And he knew that this would only erase it even more. The question was: did he even care?

He was surprised to find that the answer was no.

Not if it was Yao.

At least, not after Arthur and Matthew and Kiku and everyone they'd lost.

Alfred winced as he looked askance at Yao, who was gazing back at him with much the same surprise.

Huan continued abruptly, drawing attention back to himself as his words rang out across the room. "A significant concept, I know," he said. "But after thinking on this for many weeks - months, even - I have come to the conclusion that we're stretching ourselves unnecessarily thin. Our governments are possibly the most harmonious in all of human history, but the constant coordination between them drains away precious resources and drags out. Imagine, if you will, an alliance of all the central planets - a seamless creature that will unite us even more closely." He paused for a moment to let that sink in. "That is our goal, is it not? Unity... and the safety of our race." He smiled suddenly, face alight with the thrill of the idea alone. "It is not so far-fetched a scheme as you might think."

Perhaps not, but it was huge, a veritable bombshell. And yet - so had been every decision they'd made in the past centuries, all the way back to the formation of the Anglo-Sino Alliance. They were not strangers to radical ideas, and this... this was not as radical as some. This wasn't even close to leaving Earth.

"I ask your opinions first," Huan said to the nations, and all eyes were on them. Winston and Akiko were riveted, caught up in the tense, excited atmosphere. Conscious of this attention, of young minds who would remember this moment for the rest of their existence, Alfred looked to Yao again.

They didn't exchange a single verbal word, but they didn't need to. After a moment, Alfred gave a light shrug as Yao inclined his head, and then both of them were smiling tightly. "Our opinion?" Yao asked.

"Seems to me that this is going to take a fair bit of planning," Alfred said simply.

Huan smiled in return, and there was scattered applause from a few of the younger and more enthusiastic Parliament members. Alfred's words seemed to have broken a dam; several voices were raised in encouragement, doubt, agreement, and question, and spirited debate began with hardly a prompt. It grew in volume, reverberating around the Parliament chamber, and the renewed charge of the atmosphere infected Alfred yet again.

It was sudden and unexpected. It would take months. There was no guarantee of it working. It might not even come to fruition at all. And Alfred wasn't quite sure if he'd truly registered the implications yet.

But if the lively environment of the Parliament floor and the members' unusual enthusiasm was anything to go by, then Alfred had the feeling that change was in the wind.

If there were any two people who could get things done with remarkable speed and enthusiasm, they were without a doubt Alfred and Huan. Yao reflected on this with a smile and shake of his head; his boss and Alfred were known for getting along famously, and they'd taken to this new project with zeal.

It hadn't been easy, no. After Huan's initial proposal, debate had raged in the Parliament room for a full week - some for, some against, and Yao began to live for the breaks in between sessions. But the majority had agreed to an experimental stage - the proposal would be formally written up and sent to all the planets and their respective governments and people, and their vote would ultimately determine if this plan was to be carried out.

The vote had returned quickly, and the majority had once again ruled in the plan's favor. And that was when the full impact of the situation had hit Yao.

He and Alfred had already agreed to dually represent this new union, as neither of them was willing to push the other out. It was strange, the harmony between them, and Yao wondered where it would take them further. Soon, he would not be able to refer to himself as a singular nation. Soon, he would lose even more of the self he'd left behind on Earth. Could he do that?

Alfred was obnoxious and loud and overly enthusiastic and too damn cheerful, and yet Yao was perfectly fine with that. Were it anyone else, he may have resisted, rejected this new arrangement, but he'd shared the same burden with Alfred for years. He may have been about to lose a part of himself, but so was Alfred. And Alfred understood the loss.

The answer was: Yao could. And only because it was Alfred and not a stranger.

After the confirmation had come the drafting of a new constitution, a step that he and Alfred had griped their way through. It was tedious work, going through the old and working out compromise after compromise - political positions had to be renamed, rearranged, and compensated. The election system had to be altered, the chain of command adjusted. Londinium got the Parliament location, the political power, and Sihnon got the guilds, the financial power. Londinium had too much of a concentration of power? Then fine, Ariel got the military. It was like this for weeks, planets arriving and leaving and coming back and quarreling, and sometimes Yao just wanted to introduce his head to a wall, or perhaps their heads... until at last a document was drafted that suited everyone as much as possible.

And finally, finally, came the crux of the matter.

They were in the same place that the plan had first been proposed, and now it was coming to fruition. The Parliament room was crowded near to capacity with the addition of several planets and their leaders, and the air was hot and thick. In the speaker's circle, a table had been set up, and on that table was a piece of thick paper on top of the new constitution. It was a symbolic thing, meant to represent methods of bygone days, and underneath the surface of the table was a pressure pad that would digitally record signatures for storage and later confirmation. But the only thing the room's occupants could see was the physical signing of the paper in ink, and Yao could tell that the sight was making Alfred a tad melancholy.

The nations and planets present inhabited the dais, which had been cleared of its table and chairs in order to make room for the increased amount of planets here today. They were not going to sign; their names never appeared on any official records, but their presence marked their approval. Alfred and Yao were in their center, with Winston and Akiko once again on either side, and Yao placed a comforting hand on Alfred's shoulder.

Alfred glanced at him and smiled apologetically. "Sorry," he said, rather sheepishly. "I'm being a bummer right now, aren't I?"

"No need to apologize," Yao said. "This is very much like your memories, isn't it?"

Alfred sighed. "'We hold these truths to be self-evident,'" he murmured, "'that all men are created equal.' I've come a long way since then..."

Winston, at Yao's left, glanced around the smaller nation curiously. "That's from your Declaration of Independence, right?" he asked. "Those are nice words."

"Yeah," Alfred said quietly. "Though I guess my Constitution applies here more. 'We the People...'" But here he fell silent again, unwilling to give voice to an old name, and Yao gave him a reassuring, if sad, smile.

"'To form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to ensure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.'" Winston and the nations looked in surprise to Akiko, who was on Alfred's right. Sihnon's personification looked back at them with earnest eyes, and she laid a gentle hand on Alfred's arm. "Those are beautiful goals," she said. "Even if they aren't written specifically in this particular constitution, we should still give voice to them, to remind ourselves that this is what we need to do. And besides, they're very historical and yet still relevant. They are amazing."

Yao smiled at the look on Alfred's face, a strange mixture of melancholy, happiness, gratitude, and not a little wonder. Alfred put an arm around Akiko's shoulders and drew her into a one-armed hug. "Thanks," he said thickly. "You're so right."

"Hey," said Winston, looking a little sad at being cheated out of a hug. "I said the words were nice."

"And it was right fine poetic!" Alfred reached over with his free arm to pull Winston into the hug, and he withdrew his arm from around Akiko in order to playfully ruffle Winston's hair, enveloping the young planet in a giant bear hug. "So moving, in fact, that I may never let go!"

Winston began to protest, giggling so much that his words were unintelligible, and Yao smiled to see it. A moment later, he felt arms gently wrap around him, and he looked down to find Akiko smiling up at him. "You need a hug too," she said.

Yao's smile widened, and he placed an arm around her shoulders in thanks. Then Alfred glanced back at him, grinning. "Aww, does Yao want a hug from me too?" he asked, as Winston finally managed to squirm out of his grip.

"No," Yao said firmly.

"Yeah, what is this, free hugs day?" one of the other planets called.

"It totally is!" Alfred said with a lopsided grin. "Free Hugs Constitution Day!"

This earned many eyerolls and sighs, and Yao shook his head in amusement, gazing out over the room. The line to sign was considerably shorter, almost at its end, and the atmosphere was one of increasing merriment. And Yao could sense the change in the air; the nation side of him knew that it was about to alter. The line continued to dwindle, and he and Alfred became utterly focused on it as it shrunk to a mere three people.

Finally, only Huan was left. He'd been unanimously voted into the new and highest position in the 'verse, that would lead this new Union of Allied Planets - the Lord High Marshal. As he bent down to write his signature on the cluttered parchment, Alfred and Yao leaned forward simultaneously, their hearts beating rapidly in anticipation.

And as Huan completed the last loop of his name, those heartbeats, already so close in rhythm as they had been for many years, synced perfectly.

It felt... different. Yao frowned at the sensation. He saw Alfred doing the same.

He thought it would have felt more... pleasant. He thought it might have eased some of the ache in his soul, as the distance between himself and the mother planet grew. But it did not. If anything, the ache intensified, deepened by that distance.

Amid the cheering that surged as Huan stepped away, the two nations looked at each other in confusion. But neither had an answer in their eyes, and after a moment, they shrugged together and joined the celebration.

"So I was thinking we could add designs to the walls, like flames and stuff, 'cause that'd be cool."

Yao gave a heavy sigh and rolled his eyes in response to this obviously amazing suggestion. "You really are a child," he said. "We are not putting flames in the Parliament room."

Alfred pouted. Yao was no fun. "But it would look awesome!"

"We're expanding it only! Not giving it a makeover!"

The two of them were on their way to the room itself, strolling down the halls of what was now ordained the official Capitol Building of the Union of Allied Planets. It had only been a day since the historic merging, and one of the first orders of business was the expansion of the ever-important Parliament room, to accommodate the ruling body's larger size. Alfred and Yao were on their way to do a preliminary survey, Alfred having volunteered them for the job, and they soon reached the enormous double doors that marked its entrance.

"Alright, let's get down to work!" Alfred said enthusiastically and pushed open the doors as if they were nothing. Engrossed in their own thoughts and conversation as they were, he and Yao failed to notice that they were not alone until they'd taken a few steps in; then, they stopped short, staring.

There was a boy sitting on the dais.

Alfred opened his mouth to ask what the kid was doing there, but the words wouldn't come out. Because the first thing he'd noticed, the only thing that his mind was registering, was that the kid looked like him. And Yao. The resemblance was startlingly obvious. It was as if someone had taken their respective traits and tossed them into a genetic blender, with this kid as the result.

The boy sat calmly in the center of the dais, regarding them with an expression cool and proud. Alfred shot Yao a bewildered look, but Yao was too busy gazing at the kid. "Who are you and what are you doing here?" the smaller nation finally asked, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I belong here," the boy said, standing. He was nearly as tall as Alfred. He smiled down at them suddenly, and Alfred couldn't help but think that he smiled like Yao. "My name is Julius Chou," the boy told them. "I am the Union of Allied Planets."

Chapter Text

"My childlike creativity, purity, and honesty is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts."
"Reality is catching up with me, taking my inner child, I'm fighting for custody, with these responsibilities that they entrusted me."
"No one man should have all that power. The clock's ticking, I just count the hours."
- "Power"; Kanye West

"I don't get it, Yao. How the hell is he so aware?"

Yao's eyes were on the newcomer - Julius, who claimed to be the representation of the Alliance that had only just been formed. Julius was tall and broad-shouldered, a striking combination of East and West, and there was no doubt in Yao's mind that he was indeed the Union of Allied Planets. There was no mistaking a fellow nation - or in this case, however unintentional, a usurping one. But even as that answered a few unpleasant questions that had been lurking in the back of Yao's mind, it raised too many more.

"Perhaps because this union is the extension of a fully formed one," Yao murmured, watching as Julius spoke to Li Huan. The two were engaged in rapid Mandarin, and listening in, Yao realized that Julius instinctively knew more about the state of the 'verse than even the older nations did. The boy couldn't really be called a child - he was a teenager, already older and more matured than Winston and Akiko, and Yao couldn't help but reflect on the purpose and strength that was plainly evident in this new nation. It was enough to sent foreboding chills arching down his spine.

He had a feeling that things were slipping out of his and Alfred's control.

"Makes sense," Alfred said reluctantly. "Still, he bypassed the whole kid stage! He's nearly full-grown! Hasn't happened much before, right?"

It was certainly unusual, but not impossible, particularly not in later centuries of Earth's history when colonization had ceased. Still, the situation was so completely different now that nothing was certain. They were treading on new ground, and Yao had the heavy feeling that great history was resting on what happened next.

"... Yao? Yao!"

The present rushed back to the smaller nation all at once, and Yao blinked in surprise, frowning and rubbing his forehead. "Duì bù qǐ," he muttered, then tossed his partner a glance. "What did you say?"

"I said, what does this mean for us?" Alfred had a strange mix of hope and concern warring on his face. "D'you think-?"

Yao nodded as the other trailed off. "The beginning of the end," he said, and the odd sensation of conflicting emotion made itself known strongly within him. It made too much sense, explained so much, and it was like a glad hammer had hit him in the gut. "The ache, Alfred... we're dying."

Alfred's outward expression did not alter, perhaps the truest mark of how much he really had changed since Earth, banter to the contrary... but Yao knew his heartbeat was speeding up just as Yao's was. It was terrible, wonderful news... and a moment later, the two of them turned to frown at the artful drapes covering the windows of the new Lord High Marshal's office. It had been a barely perceptible sound, but the nations were old and sharp, and they recognized the small female gasp at once.

"We can hear ya, y'know," Alfred said dryly, drawing the attention of Julius and Huan, who broke off in mid-conversation to look their way.

There was a very familiar male sigh, and the drapes began to rustle. Two figures tumbled out from behind them; more accurately, Akiko emerged with swanlike grace while Winston got tangled in the deceptively heavy silk. "Ack!" he squeaked as he lost his footing, and Alfred caught him, steadying his wobbling form as the nation pulled the drapes clear.

"Impressive," Alfred said, letting the drapes slide back into place as Winston turned red. "We didn't even know you were there."

"Why were you hiding?" Yao asked sternly, folding his arms. He may have not been remotely close to being the tallest person present, but sheer presence made up for it, and he made the two planets shuffle together guiltily.

"Because we heard about what happened!" Winston said. "We wanted to know for sure."

"You could have just asked to come in," Alfred sighed. "We wouldn't keep anything from you."

"But you do!" Akiko said suddenly, passionately, and it seemed that the words burst out of her before she could stop them. She gazed at them reproachfully, balling her fists and rivaling Yao for presence. "You always keep things from us, you never tell us the whole truth! You think we're too young, and you don't want us to worry, so you always try to make things sound better than they are! When the others died, when you first mentioned that 'ache'..." She fell silent for a moment, eyes glistening. "Is it true that you're dying?" she whispered.

She looked so upset, Winston so frightened, that Yao felt a melancholy weight settle on him. The prospect of dying brought the strangest sense of relief, but at the same time... these children. He and Alfred had, in a sense, adopted each planet they'd brought their people to, these two in particular, and leaving them...

Huan had become grave, and Julius looked bewildered at the outbreak of emotion that suddenly clogged the room. It seemed, Yao reflected grimly, that the boy didn't know everything. After a moment, Huan broke the thick silence, giving the nations a sad look. "Well?" he asked. "Is it true?"

All eyes were on them, and Yao sighed. "There is a strong possibility," he said. "Very strong. With your appearance," here he nodded to Julius, "it seems clear to me that things are changing, and most likely... we won't be necessary soon enough."

The words stung. The measure of gladness that came with the prospect of rest, of being reunited, had nothing to do with the magnitude of what was likely to be given up soon. The burden they'd carried for years had been a heavy one, but a proud one, and the identity of a nation was not easily surrendered. He and Alfred had decided to carry on under this new union with the full intention of embracing a new identity, and now it had every likelihood of being lost the moment it was put into motion.

And so, in speaking those words, the very first seeds of resentment were planted.

It was easy to see that the two planets were devastated, and Alfred gave them a grin, trying to be comforting. "It won't happen overnight," he told them. "Chances are it won't happen for a long time, 'cause these hands of mine are still capable of breaking steel, trust me. We're not dead yet."

Yao had to admire his sincerity, because the truth was... neither of them knew. They didn't have to exchange a word to know that the other was just as clueless about how this would go down.

"Why don't we introduce you to the new guy, huh?" Alfred said, a little too cheerfully.

Julius rose to his feet at once, circling around Huan's desk. He stopped a few feet before them, looking uncomfortable. "I've caused trouble," he said slowly.

"Not at all," said Alfred, and only Yao knew that he forced the words out. "Ah... Winston, Akiko, this is Julius Chou, the, ah... Union of Allied Planets, I guess. Julius, this is Winston Montgomery, Londinium, and Akiko Sakai, Sihnon."

The three of them faced each other, planets to newborn nation, and Yao couldn't help but think that it was bizarre to see the latter as physically older than the other two. He observed the confrontation in interest; Julius looked curiously confused, though he hid it well, and he bowed his head. "It's nice to meet you. I know of you, actually."

"You do?" Winston asked incredulously. "But... you... you're so..."

Akiko stepped on his foot. "It's nice to meet you as well," she told Julius, as Winston sighed. "I don't suppose anyone's officially welcomed you or showed you around yet?"

Julius shook his head.

The female planet first shot a look at the nations, then at Huan, and the three of them winced under her glare. She smiled back at Julius almost at once, however, and offered him an arm. "Come," she said. "If I'm right, I think the Lord High Marshal wants a private word with our forebears. We'll give you a tour, and you can ask me or my compatriot here any questions you have. I promise, we don't bite. Although," her other hand reached out to grab Winston by the shirt when he didn't make a move to follow them, and she tugged him along, "this one here tends to explode."

"Only on occasion!" Winston trailed behind, the last to leave the room, and he hesitated for a second at the door, glancing back with unmistakable worry in his eyes as he gazed straight at the nations.

Yao shook his head. "We'll talk more later," he said to the young planet. "And we won't sugarcoat it, either, if that makes you happy."

Winston gave them a small, sad smile and then slipped through the door, closing it behind him. In the following moments, the room's three remaining occupants did not move or speak, until at last Huan turned his gaze on the nations. "Remarkable children, they are," he said softly.

"You have no idea," Alfred murmured.

"She's right, you know. I do want to talk to you privately." Huan had become solemn again, and he gestured for them to take a seat in front of his desk. They did so, and the Lord High Marshal continued. "There is much to discuss, much I don't understand. Julius - in speaking to him, there is no doubt in my mind that he is the essence of this new Alliance. But... how is that possible?"

It was a habit, sharing a look, and both Alfred and Yao were grim. Yes, they had suspected that this might happen in the future. Yes, it was possible, however unlikely. But there was one thing that they did not understand.

They'd consciously decided to shoulder the new union. They'd taken it on with every intention of representing their people, and such a decision was not made lightly, nor broken easily. And while the connection to their people was still strong, it was at the same time distant... as if something stood in its way.

Yet if that connection was still there, that decision still held, how, then, had Julius come into existence?

The only person who was more confused than any of them was Julius Chou himself.

He had only to look at the two planets to know their names, their populations, the state of their health in relation to their economies... everything. To say nothing of the humans he'd met - he knew things, and he wasn't entirely sure how or why.

He was the Union of Allied Planets. There was no doubting that, for he knew it in his bones. He knew too much about everything, and yet, at the same time, he knew nothing. There were empty places in his mind where he was sure that some sort of information or feeling should have rested, and some things that the others said or did made no sense to him... and if he was honest with himself, it was terrifying. He knew for a fact that he'd only been in existence for a day, but it felt like he'd been around much longer, even though he could recall none of it. It made no sense.


He looked up with a start and found that Akiko and Winston were both staring at him. "Are you alright?" Winston asked. "You have a terrible expression on your face."

Julius nodded, frowning and trying to smooth whatever expression it was. "I'm fine," he said, and it wasn't quite the truth; it felt vaguely wrong to speak it. Was that what lying did to people? "I was... distracted."

Akiko placed her hands on her hips, raising her eyebrows at him; she looked doubtful of his claim. "Are you sure?" she asked. "You shouldn't try to hide things."

He didn't want to explain it. He didn't even think he could. He didn't want to show any sign of weakness - for if there was one thing he understood perfectly well, it was that such a thing would not help him in the position he was in.

Julius found himself speaking nonetheless; it was something about these two and the way they looked at him. "I'm just... confused," he admitted, looking away. It took him several moments to continue. "I don't... understand everything that's happening, and I feel as if I should. It feels as if there's something missing... in my head." His voice took on a note of unwanted desperation. "Is this normal?"

Akiko and Winston were frowning, and at first he thought it was directed at him... but he soon realized that it was at his predicament. Winston bit his lower lip in thought and looked to the female planet. "Hmm," he said. "You think?"

"Probably," Akiko said, and Julius had no idea what they were talking about, until she elaborated. "I think it is normal," she told him, answering his question. "For you. You were only born yesterday, after all! You haven't had any time to grow up!" She gave him a reassuring smile.

Winston looked very thoughtful. "You probably don't understand some things because your brain developed without experience," he said. "Are you confused about people's actions or how to approach a situation, maybe?"

Julius's eyes widened in surprise; it was dead on. He nodded.

"Ah..." said Winston, as if he'd been sure of it; he gave a scholarly nod. "Then that's probably it. You just need time to live a little!" He grinned and tossed an arm over Julius's shoulders; they were about the same height. "Don't worry, we'll help you! This tour is just the thing!"

They hadn't gotten very far as of yet. They were still in the office wing of the building, in one of its wide halls, and so far, they hadn't come across many people. Akiko led them on with renewed vigor, but before they'd taken many steps, Julius stopped suddenly, bringing the other two to a halt.

"Could you... explain something?" he asked slowly. "Since I don't quite understand."

"Anything," Akiko said, and the two planets looked at him expectantly.

"Could you explain why Alfred and Yao don't like me?"

This was met by confused frowns, at first, and Akiko shook her head slowly, as if she was the one who didn't understand. "What are you talking about?" she asked. "Why would they not like you?"

"I was hoping you could explain it," Julius replied.

The planets appeared nonplussed, as if they hadn't seen it. "But... they do like you!" Winston said. "Trust me, when they don't like someone... heh, it's kinda funny, actually." He shook his head with a faint grin. "But they weren't like that with you, so why are you worried?"

Julius was once again confused. He was the one without the experience, so how had the other two failed to see it? Or... maybe he was the one who was wrong. Maybe he was assuming to read the situation when he shouldn't; after all, Winston was right. He didn't have experience. Maybe the older nations were just as confused as he was, and maybe what he'd read from them was that and nothing more.

He bowed his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I must still be confused."

"Well, we don't blame you!" Winston said, though Akiko was still frowning and was looking very oddly at Julius. "And you don't need to be so formal, Julius. Er... kind of a long name, don'tcha think? You need a nickname."

"I do?" Julius asked in some alarm.

"You do," Winston said firmly. "Hmm, Julius. Julius. How about Jules? Yeah, that works! That's a great nickname!"

Akiko seemed to let go of the earlier subject at last. She pulled herself out of whatever thoughts had been troubling her and rolled her eyes, giving Winston a glare. "Don't just go around giving people nicknames!" she said. "Ask him first!"

"But it's an awesome nickname! Right, Jules?"

"I suppose," Julius said. It was hard to argue with that kind of charisma.

"See, he doesn't like it," Akiko sniffed.

"Why don't you ask him first before you say that, hypocrite!"

As the two dissolved into good-natured arguing, Julius watched with some bemusement and decided to observe. He might as well start gaining experience now.

But the uneasy feeling in regard to the two older nations had not left him, and it rested in the back of his mind, swirling in his subconscious, like a foreboding prediction for the future.

Chapter Text

"Tell me where our time went and if it was time well spent. Just don't let me fall asleep feeling empty again."
"Now that I'm losing hope, and there's nothing else to show for all of the days that we spent carried away from home."
"I can feel the pressure, it's getting closer now. We're better off without you."
- "Pressure"; Paramore

The answer to the mystery of Julius's existence gradually made itself known to the older nations over the course of the next few weeks, and with it came the beginning of the severing of something that they'd hated and loved all their long lives.

There was an alarming distance growing between them and their surroundings, a frightening detachment that could not quite be grasped or explained. The life they had grown accustomed to was now whirling past at a pace almost too fast to catch, and the feeling of loss of control was intensifying. They did not have the same authority, the same responsibility, and unconsciously they found themselves shielding their identities by clinging to the culture that they, through a cruel twist of fate, were still connected to. And that wasn't the only way they subconsciously fought against the encroachment on their identities.

Julius was progressing at just as alarming of a rate. It took him a matter of days to outgrow his hesitation, and within two weeks his grasp of human actions had improved dramatically. What he did not instinctively know he learned with impressive speed, and with this new awareness came one of the most driven senses of purpose that Yao had ever seen.

"That is it, Yao! I'm not dealing with him anymore!"

Yao looked up from the stack of printed economic reports he'd been unceremoniously dumped with; he was sorely considering handing them off to a poor soul of lower rank, because this sense of detachment was not helping his focus. "That's a very childish way of handling things," he told Alfred. "I assume you mean Julius?"

"Who else?" Alfred made a face as he dropped into one of the vacant chairs, scowling at their surroundings; they'd been given a private office many years ago, but it no longer had the comfortable, homey appeal it had possessed not so long ago. "The kid is stubborn as hell! Looks me straight in the eye, polite as can be, and refuses to give any ground! I can't make any headway with him!"

Oh, Yao knew. He'd seen it clear as day, and it annoyed him just as much. "That reminds me of someone," he said dryly and Alfred rolled his eyes.

"At least I can be reasonable," the taller nation grumbled. "He already wants to push a dozen things through Parliament, Yao. I tried telling him that you can't just force those kinds of things on people without giving them time to decide if they want it, but he's convinced it's what they need. I was under the impression that our system was working perfectly fine, thanks."

It wasn't often that Alfred got this upset about something, but Yao knew the underlying source. Their bitterness traced back to the distance between themselves and, well... everything. It was hard to deal with when things were happening so fast; they hadn't even made a conscious decision when it came to Julius and where to go from here, and the three of them had an uneasy coexistence as of now, too caught up in everything that had to be done to want to make a confrontation at this point. But there was an almost primitive territorial instinct at play here, and Yao wondered when it would come to a head.

"Everyone has a different opinion of what's best," he said softly, as his mind started to drift into unpleasant territory, and he was only dragged out of it by the change in Alfred's tone.

"Hey, Yao... what're you working on, anyway?"

Yao refocused. Where before Alfred had been lounging in the chair with a lazy air, he was now leaned forward, frowning down at the economic reports on the desk. Yao pushed them towards him with a dismissive gesture. "Someone gave them to me with the assumption that I wanted a headache," he said. "Is it just me, or have these things gotten harder to read?"

Alfred was still frowning. He grabbed the papers, scanning them over, and his eyes became glued to a particular spot. "D'you think it's possible that someone coulda made a mistake?"

"Computers generally don't. Why?"

"These numbers can not be right." Alfred shoved the papers back to Yao, who took them and scanned where his friend gestured.

After a moment, his eyes grew wide, and he flipped back a page, looking it over rapidly; how had he not noticed this before? "The interplanetary tariff rate," he said in astonishment. "It's been tripled."

"What?" Alfred snatched the report and confirmed this for himself. "Since when?"

Since when indeed. Yao knew for a fact that neither of them had been privy to anything about this, but he had a suspicious feeling that he knew who did. When Alfred looked up, scowling, Yao knew that he thought the same.

"I said I didn't want to deal with him anymore," Alfred said mulishly.

"I'm coming with you, of course," Yao returned, getting to his feet. "You great big háizi."

As if to further emphasize Yao's point, Alfred jumped up and stuck his tongue out before heading for the door. Yao followed with a roll of his eyes, which immediately narrowed when he thought of the report he should have been paying better attention to.

He didn't know how the boy had sneaked that past them, but he was irritably keen on finding out.

"Yes, I proposed it," Julius said calmly, admitting it like it was nothing; his serene demeanor was really beginning to get on Alfred's nerves. "The Parliament liked the idea. What's the problem?"

The problem... Alfred almost laughed. "You didn't even bother running it by us at all!" he said. "Tripled? Really? It isn't necessary!"

Julius sighed. They'd caught him just as he was leaving the Secretary of Commerce's office - why did the kid have such a penchant for work, anyway? - and now he leaned against the wall beside it, arms folded. "I didn't run it by you," he said, "because I knew you'd react this way. And it isn't quite tripled, actually."

There were so many things Alfred could have said to that, but he had to pick one, and Yao beat him to it, anyway. "Setting aside the math for a moment," the smaller nation snapped, his patience obviously wearing thin, "... the point is, it's an unnecessarily large rate."

"I find it to be very necessary," Julius returned. "We could use the extra funding. This merger isn't easy, after all. And it compensates the large planet-based businesses who are going to lose profits from the cheaper interplanetary commerce that this merger brings about. Isn't it our job to protect our entrepreneurs?"

"This is just like the nineteenth century," Alfred muttered, rubbing his forehead; tariffs, why was it always tariffs? "To a point, yes! But not at the expense of the people! This is going to drive prices up on necessities, and their wages may not make up for it. You can't just do that to them all of a sudden!"

Julius was beginning to frown, frustrated. "But this is extra revenue - more profitable revenue," he explained. "We'll be able to lower taxes in other areas, and that will balance it out."

"Are you planning on every change you propose to be passed?" Yao demanded. "Or that it will cover the majority? What taxes are you planning on lowering?"

"That's why I was talking to Mr. Shan," Julius said, gesturing back to the Secretary of Commerce's office. "We were working that out. And it will be passed. These are reasonable people."

"You can't be sure of that," Yao said sharply, sternly. "That's why you have to pass these things as collective plans. You can't just jump ahead like this!"

Julius considered this and flushed faintly at the reprimand, his eyes narrowing. "I-" he began, almost hesitantly, and then he stopped, drawing himself up with dignity. "I don't think these things rest within your authority anymore," he said coldly and stepped past them, making his way down the hall.

The nations watched him go, nearly speechless. It was a direct challenge, an almost brazen one, and Alfred wanted to call him back and deny it. But he couldn't, because worst of all, it was the truth - the cold, hard truth of the matter, and it stung fiercely.

"Yao," he said quietly, after a moment of distressed thought. "I think these people - this government is moving on without us."

The other smiled tightly, and there was no mirth in it. "Yes," Yao agreed. "I get the feeling that, right or wrong, what we say will have little bearing from now on."

Alfred watched as Julius disappeared around a corner, and he shook his head. "I hate feeling useless," he muttered.

"As do I, my friend," Yao said. "As do I."

Alfred's increasingly unhappy mood brought to mind another issue that had been bothering him, the reason he'd dropped in to bother Yao in the first place, complaining aside. Alfred cast his friend a hesitant glance and opened his mouth to speak, but the words didn't quite want to come out. Yao saw this and looked at him curiously. "What is it?"

"Um... well..." Alfred began, but that approach wasn't getting him anywhere. "Yao... buddy..."

"What, Alfred?"

Alfred sighed. "Don't go back to Sihnon just yet!" he said all at once, rather desperately. "Please... couldn't you stay a bit longer? I mean, we still haven't decided what we're gonna do about that kid, and I really don't want to be alone with him right now, I swear, he's driving me up the wall..."

He was interrupted by Yao's laughter. The smaller nation seemed to all of a sudden find something highly amusing, and Alfred glared at him in indignation. "I'm serious!" he said.

Yao, who'd been just about to recover, dissolved into further laughter, covering his mouth to try to hide it. "I know you are," he said, smirking even behind his shield. "You do realize that I'd be coming back within a few weeks, right?"

"Yeah, but..." Alfred trailed off, trying to hide the fact that he was embarrassed. How was he supposed to articulate that he just wanted Yao around without coming across as a sap? Or worse, needy? It wasn't that he couldn't manage by himself, it was just... lately he'd been feeling so alone. Even surrounded by so many people, loneliness was hitting him hard. Was it a side effect of whatever was happening?

Yao seemed to get it. The other's smirk faded, and he looked almost sad. "To tell you the truth," he said, "I'm not looking forward to leaving, either. You're irritatingly easy to get used to, xiǎo lǎohǔ."

"That's 'cause I'm lovable," Alfred said breezily. "So...?" He ended the drawn-out syllable on a hopeful note.

"I suppose I can postpone the trip," Yao said, with an air of great leniency as he gave Alfred a small grin. "Akiko will be happy. And besides..." his expression suddenly darkened, and he sighed, "we do need to decide what to do about Julius."

Winston Montgomery was feeling rather melancholy, and he didn't like it.

He understood that Akiko had to go, that she and Yao had to get things settled back on Sihnon so that the new government and new alliance could flow smoothly. He understood, but that didn't mean he had to like it one bit. He'd gotten used to having those two around on a regular basis, no matter how much 'Kiko nagged him about his clothes.

Honestly, they were just clothes, why did they have to be spotless all the time? What did it matter if there was a little soot or grease on them?

He hadn't managed to find her yet. He'd been sure she was packing, but she hadn't been in her room when he'd checked, and she wasn't anywhere else he'd looked, either. The gardens were his last resort; they weren't nearly anything like the ones on Sihnon, but they were nice enough. They connected the complex of government buildings to Winston and Alfred's house, which was where Yao and Akiko always stayed when they came, but so far Winston hadn't spotted either of them around. Where was everyone?

He found someone soon enough - the last person he'd expected to find in the gardens.

"Jules?" he said in surprise, and the person in question jumped at his voice. Julius had been seated on one of the stone benches, but now he rose to his feet at once, trying to compose himself.

"Hey," Winston said in concern. "What's wrong? You look depressed."

"Nothing," Julius said, smiling. It was a pretty fake smile, Winston could tell. "I was just enjoying the quiet."

"Oops," said Winston sheepishly. "Did I disturb it?" He knew that wasn't the case, but it was hard to wrangle anything out of Julius. He was just so closed sometimes, it was baffling.

Julius shook his head. "Of course not."

Yep - he was definitely hiding something. Winston sighed to himself, wondering if he should try to help. Maybe not - Akiko was already proving to be better than him at getting Julius to open up. Which reminded him... "Have you seen 'Kiko anywhere?"

Julius thought about it for a moment. "Not since this morning."

"What about Yao? Or Alfred?" She might be with one of them.

Winston could see a muscle tighten in Julius's jaw. "No," the Alliance said shortly.

So that was what was bothering him. Winston sighed again in frustration. Honestly, couldn't those three get along for anything? "Did you... get in a fight with them?" he asked hesitantly.

Julius scowled, looking away. "No," he said again, and Winston thought that he wasn't going to open up for anything today, but after a moment, Julius continued with a sigh. "It was more of an argument. They were angry, but... they were right. I made a mistake." He was frowning down at the ground, looking anywhere but Winston. "I was too impulsive. I didn't think. I need to learn!"

"Hey, it's alright!" Winston said, somewhat alarmed. Julius looked as if he was really beating himself up over this. "No one expects you to be perfect. You're young, after all." Winston paused. Already it was hard to remember than Julius was younger than him. He seemed so old for his age. "Trial and error, right? Besides," he went on, because it didn't seem like he was making any headway with this, "if you want to learn so much, why don't you just ask them to show you the ropes?"

Clearly, Julius was not very receptive today. He shook his head at once. "No," he said determinedly. "I don't need them to teach me. If I can't do this on my own, then I never will." He fell silent abruptly, as if he'd meant to continue but thought better of it.

Winston bit his lip in thought. "You know," he said slowly, wondering just when he'd end up crossing a line, "if you want them to respect you..."

"I don't!" Julius said sharply, his scowl deepening. "I can do this on my own!"

Winston had found the line and definitely put a foot over it. He sighed to himself for a third time, wondering why everyone insisted on being so stubborn. Meanwhile, Julius looked a bit embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I didn't mean to snap. I know you're just trying to help."

Winston shook his head. "It's fine," he said with a reassuring smile. "You're stressed. You just need to take your mind off things! You know, I've got this amazing project going on right now, if you'd like to see it. It involves ships," he added, drawing out the last syllable for tantalizing effect. "Because transport ships are always falling apart and hard to repair, I've been working on a new design, and it's coming along wonderfully!"

Julius smiled at the enthusiastic description. "No, thank you," he said.

"Is it because 'Kiko told you my experiments are dangerous? Because I promise, I only cause fires sometimes."

Winston grinned when Julius laughed. It was so hard to get him to even smile, sometimes, but this, at least, seemed to be real. "Actually, I need to get back to work," Julius told him. "And Akiko is behind you."

As Winston spun around, jumped, and swore to high heaven, Akiko was giggling. "That was far too easy," she said, amused, and Winston ducked his reddening face, grinning. Even if it meant Akiko putting one over him, it was gratifying to see Julius still laughing.

"Where have you been?" Winston demanded. "I've looked everywhere! I need to hang around you as much as possible before you leave so you can be thoroughly annoyed and remember me while you're gone!"

"Must your intentions be so elaborate?" Akiko was still smiling. "And actually, Yao's postponed the trip! Something about Alfred being a needy little puppy. He's not the only one," she added, after Winston's face lit up and he hugged her with an exclamation of joy. She looked to Julius, shaking her head. "Has he been moping to you?"

Julius's smile had softened. "Not at all," he said. "I'm glad you're staying longer than planned."

He made his apologetic goodbyes, citing that he still had a lot of work to do, and nothing they said could keep him around. Winston watched him leave, brow furrowed in concern, and he was about to ask Akiko for advice when she spoke up.

"He's been arguing with them again, hasn't he?"

It was more a statement than a question, and Winston looked at Akiko in amazement. "How did you know?"

Akiko shrugged, giving him a sideways glance. "Alfred and Yao were on edge," she said. "So was he. Don't tell me you didn't notice."

"I did!" Winston insisted. "It's just... ah, never mind." He frowned in worry. "What are we supposed to do about them?"

It was disheartening to see Akiko shake her head. "You know how stubborn they are," she said. "All of them. And this... this runs deeper than just what we can see or understand. I don't think they can coexist peacefully."

"How can you say that?" Winston asked, wide-eyed. "Surely..."

"As normal people, I'm sure they could if they just tried," Akiko said sadly. "But as nations... even worse, nations representing the same thing... it's a power struggle, Winnie. And eventually, only one side can win."

Winston's face fell, and a brooding worry took over him. The happiness at having Akiko and Yao here to stay a bit longer was dimmed, and he didn't like it at all. Why, oh why couldn't everyone just get along?

It wasn't the first tense confrontation to occur between Julius and the older nations, and it certainly wasn't the last. It seemed to build, each one placing more and more pressure on an already boiling situation, and it was a wonder that it didn't explode before it did. But the true confrontation was inevitable and didn't actually come until the entire situation was faced head on.

Yao knew that Huan was well-aware of the tension, but the man showed no sign of acknowledging it as he made his proposal, Julius beside him. The nations were conscious of the symbolism - a nation and his leader, side by side as they should be in the office of the Lord High Marshal. It made everything seem so much more final and made the words that much more conciliatory.

Dual representation... hadn't Yao and Alfred already made the same agreement not so long ago? It didn't mean much anymore, apparently. The opportunity to train Julius, effectively to raise him... he clearly didn't want it, that much was obvious. And they'd be provided with anything they needed, as long as they needed... the words weren't said, but Yao knew, to die in comfort.

As if he hadn't already felt far too old.

"I'm sorry for taking so long to offer this," Huan said. "Things have been so busy as of late. But... this is such a curious situation that I believe this would be the best approach."

Was this how the others had felt? Their fellows, who'd essentially handed off all control to Yao and Alfred while their only remaining job was to be protected, to die slowly. Only that had been a desperate move, an effort to save humanity. This was not; the realization brought forth a wave of something dangerously close to misery, and Yao tried not to think of them.

He looked to Alfred, who seemed to be thinking along much the same lines. The other gave him a long, steady glance; they'd already discussed this and made their decision, and all that was left was to speak it.

"No, thank you," Alfred said. "We have other plans."

Huan frowned in surprise, as did Julius. "What plans?" the Lord High Marshal asked.

"We're leaving," Yao said calmly. "It's about time we were among our people. We'd rather die as one of them... and not as an old memory to be shouldered."

Huan looked concerned. "We're not trying to drive you out," he said. "Don't think for a second that you'd be a burden or an old memory. You did the impossible and built this civilization from the ground up. It would be an honor to have you among us for as long as possible."

"Thank you," Yao said quietly. "But that doesn't change anything. You're human; I don't think you'd quite understand how this feels." His eyes flickered briefly to Julius, who was looking increasingly unhappy. "We're losing ourselves. Intentional or not, half of us has already been usurped."

"So... me," Julius said suddenly, and there was an unmistakable note of bitterness in his voice; it was surprising, given the tendency he'd shown to hide emotion. "You're leaving because of me."

"In a word, yes," Alfred said.

"Because you don't want to share the same roof with me."

"Are you in the mood for a territorial battle?" Alfred asked, a touch patronizing. "Because we're not. Like you said... things aren't within our authority anymore. Best not to challenge that."

The room had become frigid. "I see," Julius said softly, and never before had Yao seen him look truly angry. But he did now; perhaps he'd taken personal insult to the matter. "Well, then... I suggest you leave soon. I don't think I could stomach either of you under my roof for much longer."

Alfred's eyes narrowed. "Look here, you little upstart," he said dangerously. "Don't go twisting our intentions around. We leave when we decide and not at your whims."

"Oh, really? You acknowledged it yourself; you don't have authority anymore." Julius had drawn himself up, his eyes flashing and his very demeanor bristling. "Either we can fight about it, or you can get out. But I think we all know who's going to win."

It was a clear challenge, one the boy was going to fight with every intention of winning. Yao gritted his teeth but controlled his mounting anger and frustration, placing a gentle, restraining hand on Alfred's arm when the other's fists clenched in preparation to continue the fight, verbal or physical. Alfred relented at Yao's warning, but he continued to glare at Julius.

Yao gave Julius a cold gaze, much more controlled than his partner. "Remember that you wouldn't even exist if it weren't for our efforts," he said. "And your authority is solely in terms of government. For the time being, we share everything else, or have you not felt that yet?" His eyes hardened. "You'll have to deal with us for a while longer, regardless of when we leave. I suggest you learn to live with it." Having said that, he turned to Huan Li, who had wisely remained silent, watching the proceedings with saddened eyes. Yao bowed his head, letting his gaze become apologetic. "Once again, I thank you for everything. We'll be leaving within the week."

Without another word, he turned to go, and he saw Alfred give his own nod of thanks to the Lord High Marshal. They exited the room without looking back.

The worst possible thing they had to face after that was Winston and Akiko.

"Oh, no," Alfred said in mock horror, as he discarded yet another thing he'd considered bringing along. More and more he found himself unattached to material things, and his baggage was pathetically small. "Not the puppy eyes. Anything but that. Yao, help, I'm being attacked!"

"Better you than me," came Yao's voice from the adjoining room; he was also busy packing.

The faces in question were incredibly earnest, and Akiko sighed. "This is serious!" she said. "Stop joking!"

"I would if I could," Alfred sighed in return. "It's in my nature."

"Come on, you guys," Winston said, a bit desperately. "You don't have to leave!"

Alfred stopped what he was doing for a moment as he came across an old treasure in the closet - the bomber jacket was faded and aged, but it had some of his lifespan and was still wearable. He took it out, curling his hands in it and clutching it to himself. "Of course we don't have to," he said, wandering back to the bed to place it among the scant other things he was bringing. "It's a choice."

"But why choose it?" Winston asked. "I know you don't get along with him, but we still want you here!"

"And you have no idea how much that means to us," Alfred said. He seated himself on the edge of the bed and patted the areas beside him, gesturing for them to sit. He then looked to the adjacent door and raised his voice. "Hey, Yao - get your butt in here!"

"Don't tell me what to do!" Yao called back, but a moment later, he appeared in the doorway, smiling sadly.

As Winston and Akiko settled themselves beside Alfred and Yao took a seat on Akiko's left, Alfred gazed at them and found his hands once more wrapping into his bomber jacket. Old memories were resurfacing unbidden, and he wanted to pretend that Arthur and Matthew and everyone else was here, too. He wanted to go back to that, to having all of his family around him. But the memories died just as quickly as they had come, and he brushed them aside, focusing on the present.

"Look," he said. "It's not like we're leaving forever. No doubt we'll end up checking on you so much that we'll annoy you, and you'll tell us not to be overprotective, and when we visit we'll get into nice little family squabbles, and then you'll be glad to get rid of us."

"What he's trying to say is," Yao intervened, shaking his head, "it's about time for you to come into your own. You can't do it with us around. You were right, 'Kiko, when you said we try too much to protect you. To us, you're still the children we helped to raise. To our minds, you should be having fun and not worrying about a thing. But that's not how it works."

"If you're trying to imply that you're holding us back," Akiko said, in a tone that brooked no argument, "then you're wrong. You're not. But..." she dropped her eyes to the ground, giving a small sigh, and her tone softened, "I had a feeling you'd be leaving sooner or later." She raised her head, looking around Alfred to Winston, who reluctantly gave a small, dejected nod. "We may not like it, but... we'll respect it," the female planet continued. "Just know that you'll always have a place here, with us, wherever we are."

Winston was sniffing. "You'll never be without a home," he said, his voice wavering. "So if you need help or anything, remember that." His eyes were welling up, and he hiccupped slightly.

Alfred was touched, and he saw Yao look away quickly, obviously hiding any emotion he was starting to feel in earnest. "Aw, c'mon, kid," Alfred said. "Don't cry. You're gonna make me cry."

It was too late. As Winston dissolved into tears, Alfred heaved a great sigh and felt his own eyes starting to burn. "Dammit, don't act like it's forever," he said, drawing the young planet into a hug. "You guys are makin' this impossible."

"Good," Winston mumbled into Alfred's shoulder. "Maybe you'll stay."

Alfred laughed at this, a release he probably needed, and he shook his head, wiping at the corners of his eyes. "You two make my day," he said, wrapping another arm around Akiko as he looked over her to his partner, who was still turned away. "Hey, Yao, don't pretend like you're not a sap. Manly men show tears and hug people, y'know."

"Shut up," said Yao, turning back to them and scooting in closer to Akiko. He enveloped her in a gentle hug and reached over to take one of Winston's hands. "You wouldn't know the first thing about being manly with your nǚ qì. You still scream at horror movies."

"I do not," Alfred said indignantly - it was a blatant lie, and they all knew it. The planets laughed at this, snuggling in closer, and for that short time, everything was peaceful... everything was family. The two nations quietly gave their charges advice, every bit they could think of on short notice, until... "And stick with him," Alfred said finally, almost reluctantly; he didn't specify who 'him' was, but he didn't need to. "Lord knows we don't want to be around him any longer, but that kid is going to need you two. So stick together, and don't make the mistakes that us nations have been making for centuries. Be a family, alright?"

"We will," Winston said solemnly, and Akiko nodded.

Alfred and Yao unwillingly withdrew from the bundle the four of them had made, getting to their feet. "We need to finish packing now," Yao said, straightening his clothes. "Winston... wasn't there one last project you wanted to show us? Some ship prototype you've been developing?"

Winston surged to his feet with a renewed sparkle in his eyes. "Yes!" he said. "Do you want to see it now?"

"As soon as we're done," Yao said with a smile. "Go on! Get it ready!" Winston departed with great, excited haste, and Yao chuckled. "'Kiko, make sure he doesn't accidentally kill himself."

"I'll try," Akiko said, smiling softly, and she followed Winston, leaving the two nations to themselves.

Yao was once more turned deliberately away, facing the wall, and Alfred shook his head. "This is the worst part," he said, gazing at the door through which the planets had just departed.

"Zhè díquè shì," Yao agreed, and it didn't take them long to finish packing.

There was something very anticlimactic about it all, once everything had been said and done.

The transport ship was ready. It would take them wherever they wished to go, which for now was a few emergent, recently colonized Border planets they hadn't had enough contact with in the past few years. All that remained was to board, and Alfred and Yao found themselves trailing, trying to postpone it.

"Remind me why we didn't get a ship of our own?" Alfred asked, gazing up at the bulk of the transport looming above them, casting them into shadow. It reminded him of Winston's project, which the young planet had been so eager about, and it didn't help his mood. He rubbed at the ache in his chest, taking a deep breath.

"Too much work," Yao answered. "We'd need a crew, and we'd outlast them."

"Oh, yeah," Alfred muttered. "That." He turned around, gazing back at the city of Columbia spread out behind them. Its docks were bustling with ships and cargo and people, and further out, hidden in the center of the city, was the government center itself, where everything had changed.

They'd already said their goodbyes today, and parting with Winston and Akiko had been harder than he'd thought it would be. Sighing, Alfred tore his eyes away from the city and its docks and looked to Yao, the only person who really understood everything he was feeling in this moment.

"How long is this gonna take?" he asked quietly.

Yao shook his head, meeting his gaze evenly. "I don't know," he said. "Months, years, centuries... however long it takes for the memory of us to fade enough."

It would be too long, then. Alfred could see their legacy stamped everywhere he looked. They were, in essence, the fathers of this entire star system, or at least what it had become. The new government they'd created may have become a separate entity from them, but they were still connected to everything else they'd labored to build, to the people they'd fought to protect. This place they'd come to call home - even when it was not exactly home - and the people who now inhabited it tied them to life as surely as if it was all a part of their vitals.

Alfred sighed again; death would be a slow thing in coming. "Why does everything have to hurt so damn much?" he asked moodily.

"Yúchǔn xiǎo lǎohǔ, you should know better than to ask questions that have no answer," Yao told him. "Are you ready?"

"No," said Alfred, and as one they turned away from their old life, boarding the transport.

Chapter Text

"Wait, wait a minute, take a step back. Gotta think twice before you react."
"Damn, damn it all down, took one in the chest without making a sound."
"One push is all you'll need, fist first philosophy."
- "Diamond Eyes"; Shinedown

She couldn't quite explain it, but Akiko Sakai had the uneasy feeling that today was the final day of negotiations.

There was nothing out of the ordinary to indicate that it was, however. The Border and Rim planets were resistant and Ezekiel was belligerent, as usual, but those on the opposite side of the room, the couple of Border planets that made up the rest of the negotiating party, were cordial, at least. They gave not an inch of ground when it came to to accepting full membership in the Union of Allied Planets, but conversation with them was easy enough when it focused on unrelated subjects. When considering this, Akiko could not understand the faint worry that had come over her.

She may not have understood, but... she trusted it. Her gut was telling her that something was wrong, that danger approached, and she cast a worried glance at the door that separated the anteroom from the room where Julius and Ezekiel were enclosed in private negotiations, as representing leaders of their respective parties.

"Are you alright?" Winston asked, and Akiko turned her head to find both Winston and Joanna gazing at her in concern. She smiled, shaking her head and trying to throw off the unease.

"I'm just a little worried about him, is all," she murmured.

Winston leaned forward and patted her arm reassuringly. "Oh, he'll be fine. Jules knows what he's doing."

"And this station is neutral ground," Joanna added quietly, practically. "None of them are going to dare violate it."

To do so would be war, Akiko knew. Her eyes trailed back to that closed door, studying it intently as if she could see through it and reassure herself that Julius was indeed fine. It would be war to initiate violence under the pact of neutral ground, and even a hotblood like Ezekiel knew that. And none of them, not even him, wanted war... did they?

Things were, in Julius's honest opinion, going dismally, even as he made one last attempt to salvage a rapid deteriorating conversation.

"I'm just trying to-" he began, but as it usually was, he couldn't even finish a sentence.

"We don't need your fucking help!" Ezekiel growled. His broad-shouldered form would have been intimidating, so insultingly close and threatening, but Julius was not inclined to fear. He held his ground, coolly regarding the bristling planet and feeling his frustration grow with every passing moment.

"Would you let me finish talking?" he snapped.

"Why should I?" Ezekiel demanded. "I've had enough of you and your so-called 'promises'. You keep your nose out of our business, y'hear? Or else..."

Julius gritted his teeth. He'd been at this for weeks, and it was always the same. His welcome was always frigid, and his words fell on deaf ears. He couldn't make any headway with these people! And recently Ezekiel had fallen to threatening him; the planet was deliberately aggressive, always ready to speak with a gun as he gave empty threats. He thought he could intimidate Julius with them.

"Unless you're going to back those words up," Julius said coldly, "I suggest you hear me out. I'm offering you help. You don't have enough resources. You have people who die unnecessarily because-"

"Don't tell me how to look after my people!" Ezekiel snapped. "We don't want you here, you greedy bastard. All your 'help' amounts to is land-grubbin'! We're fine on our own, and we don't need the high-minded likes of you layin' hands on our land and the resources we do have. You don't help. You destroy! So get out, before I hurt you."

Julius narrowed his eyes and did not move. "Listen to me," he said. "I'm not leaving until I say what I need to! You don't scare me." Why in the 'verse had Ezekiel been chosen as lead negotiator, anyway?

Ezekiel glared at him, and the planet's presence seemed to magnify as he leaned forward threateningly, inches away from Julius now. But the Alliance did not flinch. "Don't you see the corruption in your own damned government?" Ezekiel snarled. "They get control, they'll spread their nastiness everywhere. I just can't figure out if you're in on it or you're just too blind to see it."

The reminder wasn't necessary. Julius knew of those within his government who wanted to use his plan for their own nefarious purposes, but he could handle them. "I know exactly what you're talking about," he said through gritted teeth. "It has no bearing on this. This isn't about that! This is about bringing the necessary resources and protection to your people, but you're too stubborn to see that you need it!"

Stubborn, blind, it was all the same thing, and it all applied to him. He was the one who'd failed his own people, and he had to make up for it somehow. He had to save as many people for the ones he'd inadvertently killed through his own naivety. Miranda, a voice whispered in the back of his mind, and he repressed a shudder, focusing on the task at hand. Find a solution, fix this.

But apparently, it had been the wrong thing to say. Ezekiel's glare turned fiery, the muscles in his jaw drawn tight. "Stubborn?" the planet asked with a dangerous edge to his voice. "I'm stubborn? What about you, keepin' at this for months, assembling troops where you think we aren't lookin'!"

Some of Julius's leaders were pushing for forced annexation, but he was resisting. That wasn't the way they should go about assisting these people. Yet their voices were growing stronger as they gained support for it, and it was all he could do to keep them from launching an offensive. There was no way he could explain that to Ezekiel, however, and have Ezekiel actually believe him. Julius opened his mouth to respond, but the other cut him off before he could speak.

"If you want a fight, you've got it," Ezekiel growled.

Julius sighed explosively. "Who said anything about fighting? You don't understand-"

"It's what you'll get if ya try any harder," Ezekiel said, once again cutting him off. "We will not submit to your tyranny!" He pulled away, waving at Julius dismissively as his gaze burned furiously. "I'm done talkin' now. Get out."

Why couldn't they see that he was only trying to help them? Julius clenched his fists and still refused to move. "Ezekiel," he began.

"Did ya not hear me? Get out! Or I swear to God I will hurt you!" the planet threatened, turning away and clenching his fists.


Julius saw Ezekiel turn again and heard a distant crack. He stumbled back, feeling white-hot fire spreading in his chest, and he looked down in astonishment to see the dark blue of his uniform being stained black.

Ezekiel... Ezekiel had shot him.

It had hit a vital; his dizzied brain knew that much. Judging by the area, near or at his heart, which was not good. As he staggered, his legs losing strength, he told himself that he couldn't die. He knew he couldn't die. But it hurt so much. He could feel his nation's immortality warring with his human body's instinct to shut down, and his heart was trying desperately to pump blood despite the intruder. His head hit the ground, and he tried vainly to push himself up, but his considerable strength wasn't working. His heart beat erratically, and his muscles were seizing.

Through dim eyes, he saw Ezekiel's large form standing above him, gun still cocked and ready and aimed precisely at him, as the planet's eyes glowed in defiance.

The muffled shot echoed from within the closed room, and Akiko almost felt as if a bullet had torn itself through her. You knew, her conscience whispered, but she pushed it aside and leapt to her feet at the same time as everyone else in the anteroom. She looked from Winston to Joanna, then to the planets across the room, and she saw that all faces were equally alarmed. Then they were all running.

Akiko was the first to push through the door, and she gasped when she took in the scene. Julius was sprawled out on the floor, bleeding, as Ezekiel stood over him with a cocked pistol. Akiko felt a flurry of movement as someone slipped past her, and Joanna was suddenly in her line of sight, making a beeline for Ezekiel. Ariel's personification ducked gracefully under Ezekiel's defensive swing and came up with a sweeping strike, knocking the gun from his hand as the other planets surged forward to try to get a handle on the situation.

Winston and Akiko went in the opposite direction, dashing to their wounded brother. Julius was bleeding steadily from a gunshot wound to the chest, and if his jerky movements were anything to go by, he'd taken it too close to his heart. "Stop moving!" Akiko said fearfully as she knelt beside him. He was trying to rise, and he ignored her words, still struggling.

"Help me up," he muttered, and he started to cough, spraying blood. "I'm... okay..."

"No, you're not!" Winston said, his voice rather shrill from barely contained panic. "We have to get you out of here. 'Kiko..."

She looked back. The Border planets had pulled Ezekiel away from Joanna, urging him to calm down, but Ezekiel would have none of it. He glared around Joanna at Julius, his eyes ablaze.

"This is neutral ground!" Joanna spat out, crouched protectively before her fellow Core planets and Julius. "That's as good as a declaration of war!"

"Let's start it right here, then," Ezekiel growled, lunging forward out of his siblings' grips towards her. A moment later, he recoiled at the sound of another gunshot, spinning around to see a bullet hole in the wall not six inches from one of his sibling's heads. "What the-?"

Julius was practically clinging to Winston in an effort to keep himself upright, with the planet supporting the nation's upper body, but he'd managed to drag himself up into a sitting position, and one hand held a pistol he'd withdrawn from his uniform. He aimed it at Ezekiel next, his hand trembling but steady enough to make it clear he'd missed deliberately.

"You-!" Ezekiel snarled. "How dare you shoot at one of them!"

"You're not the only one who smuggles weapons into a negotiation. You threatened me and mine," Julius rasped, blood trickling from his mouth as he spoke. "You'll have your war."

For a long moment, the two of them stared each other down, and Akiko could see the true power behind the Union of Allied Planets at last, rivaled by the hatred and determination of Shadow. Finally, the moment was shattered when Ezekiel drew back with a derisive snort and gave a curt nod. "You'll regret it," he said venomously and turned on his heel, stalking out of the room. A moment later, the Border planets followed, eyeing the Core planets and the Alliance with varying degrees of suspicion or newfound hatred.

As soon as they had gone, Julius lost his relatively steady stance. His eyes unfocused, then closed, and he curled in on himself with a moan, dropping into unconsciousness. As Winston clutched at him and Akiko reflexively grabbed one of his hands, Joanna hurried forward. "This isn't a safe place," she said worriedly, crouching down to rest two fingers on Julius's neck and search for his pulse. From the expression on her face, it wasn't good. "I can better treat him on the ship. We need to go."

"On it," Winston said and lifted Julius clear off the ground with little difficulty. The nation, normally so strong, somehow looked fragile now, convulsing every now and then as his inhuman bull of a heart fought to continue beating.

Akiko stayed close as Joanna led the way and Winston carried their brother out of the room. It was frightening, to see him hurt so. He couldn't die, of course; none of them could, not in this way. But Julius never displayed weakness of any sort if he could help it, and to see him like this... Akiko bit her lip in worry and pity.

She knew he would be fine. But he wasn't fine now, and she just wished that the bullet had struck anywhere else, so that he could heal with much less difficulty and pain.

It was a stroke of pure luck that, when Akiko sent forth a tracking wave out of desperation rather than any belief that it would work, she picked up on their signal within five minutes. It turned out that they'd been trying to contact her.

"How did you know to call?" she asked, childishly happy to see their faces; there was something reassuring about them, the technical 'adults' among all the spirits of the star system.

"We were supposed to?" Alfred asked bemusedly. He and Yao were sharing a tiny wavescreen, crowded together in order to see her. "We were on Shadow when the population got extremely jumpy all of a sudden, and we got a bit worried. What's this about a war?"

In as few words as possible, Akiko explained. She didn't give them time to ask any questions about the situation and instead forged ahead with the current problem - the matter of Julius's wound. Normally, their kind healed so quickly and easily, and things like bullets could be extracted, but this one had ricocheted off a rib and had lodged at the edge of the cardiac muscle, his heart only continuing to pump because of his body's resistance to death and subsequent adrenaline. Joanna was afraid to operate; none of them had ever handled a situation like this before, and Akiko was counting on the former nations' experience. "Please tell me that you've dealt with this before," she said fervently.

"Once or twice, probably," Alfred said. "The memory gets fuzzy. Yao's better with this, though... hey!" He uttered an irritated noise of protest as his smaller partner pushed him away from the screen so as to have a better view, and Yao smiled reassuringly at Akiko as Alfred grumbled off-screen.

"I do have a little expertise on this subject," Yao said. "I wouldn't mess with his heart, however. It's the most tricky and delicate organ, and if he hasn't died from it yet, then that kind of operation will most definitely kill him for a little while. Give it a little bit longer and monitor him. He's probably very sick right now, isn't he?"

"How did you know?"

"His body is trying to reject a foreign invader it's never encountered before, so it's throwing out all the defense it can." Yao shook his head with a grimace. "A nation's antibodies are a powerful thing, aru. They'll wreak havoc with him for a little while, but eventually his body is going to realize the source, and his heart will push the bullet out on its own. The minute it clears the muscle, Joanna can go in and get it. Have him monitored at all times; you'll know when the bullet is being pushed out, because it's going to be painful for him. Still... he won't be as weak afterwards as he would be from dying." Yao rolled his eyes. "I imagine he'd prefer pain to being incapacitated."

Akiko nodded gratefully, scribbling down the last of her hasty notes. "Xie xie," she said. "I know how you feel about him."

"Child, there's no real hatred between us and him. Only disagreement." Yao sighed tiredly. "And we're not going to leave you hanging like that. You've never had to deal with a situation like this before."

Alfred appeared on the screen now that the medical talk was over, edging Yao aside as he munched on a muffin. Trust him to have food. "So the talk about war is true?" he asked, swallowing hastily lest he speak with his mouth full in front of her.

"Inevitably," Akiko said. "He's angry and so are they." She gave him a shrewd glance; she knew him well enough to guess what he was thinking - both of them, actually. "I suppose you don't agree?"

"Don't interfere with people who don't want you around. All you'll get is a fight," Alfred said with a shrug. "My history proves that. This will not be quick."

"But they could desperately use the help," Akiko pointed out. "They lack proper technology and supplies, and corruption is rampant. They need a stronger hand."

"The intentions could be as noble as you could ever hope," Alfred returned. "It's still an expansion of power. They're gonna fight back, and I don't blame 'em."

After a moment, Akiko smiled grimly, shaking her head. "I could have told you that," she said, and Alfred sighed.

"Yao is infinitely more helpful than me, no matter what I do," he said sadly and took another bite of muffin. "I can't win with him! And look, now he's lording it over me by trying to get rid of me. Bye! Love you!" Yao finally succeeded in pushing him out of the way, and Alfred disappeared with a little wave.

"We'll check up on you soon," Yao promised, settling back in front of the screen, "in case any complications come up. But they shouldn't - he's stronger than this bai chi by now. Where's Winston?"

"With Julius," Akiko answered, thinking back - Winston had refused to leave their brother's side for anything, not even food.

"Well, both of you be careful, please. And tell Joanna that she did the right thing by waiting." Yao smiled. "Zàijiàn, bǎo bèi."

"Zàijiàn," said Akiko. "Tell Alfred that I love him too."

"I knew it!" came Alfred's voice from somewhere offscreen. "More than him, right?"

Akiko laughed and canceled the wave. She gazed at the black screen, her smile fading, to be replaced by a melancholic expression. Sometimes, she wished they were still around with her and Winston, rather than off in God only knew where. But they'd wandered like that for many years, and she knew that was where they found whatever happiness they could get, in waiting to die.

She didn't begrudge them that.

Rising, she hurried back to the ship's infirmary.


Why, why did he feel so guilty? Why did this eat at him? He hadn't known. He hadn't been a part of it. But then again, he had. His ignorance had contributed to the disaster just as effectively as if he'd truly participated.

I'm sorry, Tearsa.

She'd been so small, so young. He didn't even know if she was alive or dead, though he suspected the latter. There was no way, no way in hell , that a personification could live on through monsters.

I'm so sorry, child.

He hadn't told a soul. He couldn't. Every time he entertained the idea, he froze in fear, the hated fear that kept him weak - fear of judgment, fear that those he'd tell would look on him in disgust and disappointment and know that he was a failure. And then there was the promise they'd extracted from him besides - the promise that if he didn't reveal what they'd done, they'd destroy everything, that nothing of the sort would ever be attempted again. It was the sickest sort of blackmail, but he'd agreed. He was weak like that.

He'd never hated his bosses as much as he did in that moment. But even that was not as much as he'd hated himself.

Julius's eyes shot open.

He blinked several times as his mind took its time catching up with his sudden awareness, as dark memories and self-hatred swirled within, drawn up from his subconscious and caught between waking dreams and sleeping reality. But as his mind reasserted full control, such things gradually faded, and he took note of his surroundings. He was... reclined on the bed in his quarters on the ship; that much became obvious. But how had he gotten there? Something to do with bullets - bullets and his heart struggling to keep him living.

Julius lurched up as he remembered Ezekiel and the fiery pain in his chest, and he pushed Miranda out of his mind with a great effort. The pain wasn't nearly so bad as before, but as he moved, it spiked again. He groaned, bending forward and clutching at the thick bandages that covered his chest. He didn't have a shirt on, so once he managed to straighten, he was able to peel the bandages back. Perhaps impulsive, but he had to see.

He winced at the sight of the purple bruises. That would explain the pain - but the point of entry had all but vanished, and only a tiny scar was left to show for it. And even that was healing quickly enough. Did this mean they'd gotten the bullet out? His heart seemed to be functioning well enough, so of course they had.

Winston had been asleep in an armchair he'd pulled up to the side of the bed, snoring lightly with a book draped over his arm. He awoke suddenly with a snort, flailing slightly, and the book went flying into the air. Julius caught it with an impossibly fast, deft motion, wincing; it hurt, but he was gratified to find that he had his full range of motion and speed. He really did feel surprisingly good for having sustained such damage to his heart.

Julius held the book out to Winston, who peered at him, disoriented from sleep. "You're awake!" the planet exclaimed as he took the book back, shutting it and setting it down by his side. He looked over Julius in concern. "Why did you take your bandages off?"

"I needed to see," Julius answered. "It's fine now, really. I feel much better."

Winston winced in sympathy at the sight of the bruises still covering the area above Julius's heart. "It is most definitely not fine," he said. "But ah, I suppose the bandages aren't very necessary anymore." He gave Julius a relieved grin. "You had us worried there, you know. We were surprised you didn't die."

"I wouldn't let that kill me," Julius said, frowning slightly. As if he'd let Ezekiel win in any matter, now.

"Neither would Yao," Winston said. "You have him to thank for your good condition right now. He's the one who told us the best procedure for getting the bullet out."

Julius's eyes widened. "Yao?" he asked, in some disbelief.

"Akiko managed to contact them. We didn't know what to do, otherwise; Jo didn't know if she should operate directly on your heart or not. But Yao told 'Kiko that would have probably killed you, so she used another method he gave her." Winston was smiling, clearly pleased by this. "And you came through just fine! That's why we brought you back here, out of the infirmary. You're ridiculously strong, I hope you know."

So... Yao had endeavored to assist him. It was surprising, but at the same time... if Akiko had asked for help, neither of the former nations would have turned her down. Julius shook his head and glanced at Winston, grimacing. "How are my bosses reacting?" he asked, wanting a change of subject.

"Oh, you know... calling out the troops, mobilizing for war, raising a big outcry." Winston didn't look very happy about it, and he gave Julius a long look. "You're going to be behind this, aren't you?"

Julius thought back to the hatred in Ezekiel's eyes, the deliberate way in which he'd pulled the gun and later tried to attack Joanna, and his lip curled in anger. "Yes," he growled. "If they won't listen to reason and attack me, then a fight is what they'll have on their hands." He sighed and leaned back in the bed, sinking down into the pillows. "Besides, there's no way to stop the warmongers now. All they need to do is cite an attack on a representative of the Alliance - during a neutral negotiation, no less - and they've got the public on their side."

Winston's face fell a little. "I thought you'd say that," he murmured, and Julius looked at him somewhat curiously.

"Are you... are you with me?" the nation asked hesitantly, afraid of the answer. He knew that Winston didn't like conflict, would rather almost any solution other than war, and he wondered if he actually deserved to have Winston on his side. He didn't want to drag his brother into this. He didn't want to drag any of his siblings into this, but least of all this one.

"Of course!" Winston said firmly. "Always. They hurt you, after all. I can't exactly stand for that, can I?" He grinned cheekily, rather belying the nature of his words. "I'll be with you to the end, I promise."

Julius closed his eyes briefly. "Thank you," he said, and inhibition kept the amount of gratitude he was feeling from being fully expressed in his voice... but Winston understood.

Why would he support you, why would he even want to be around you, you who kill your own people?

Self-loathing was creeping back in the more Julius dwelled on everything, and he just wished he could shut it all out. But he couldn't. It was all he could think about.

Of course, it's too late to go back, you've pissed them off, and now they won't stop until they've destroyed you. You have to destroy them first.

No. No, that wasn't right. He wasn't there to destroy. He was there to help. He had to protect everyone.

"You don't help . You destroy!"

He didn't. He didn't. It wasn't true. He hadn't known about Miranda. He hadn't wanted a war.


The Alliance came to with a start to find Winston gazing at him in concern. "Are you alright?" the planet asked.

He'd sunk deep into dark thought that time, so much that he'd lost touch with his surroundings. He couldn't allow himself to do that, because it would drag him into places he didn't want to go. "I'm fine," he said. "Just a little tired."

Winston believed him, he could tell, because Julius would never divulge even that information unless he was truly tired to the bone. The benefit of being closed all the time was that one could use it quite effectively to lie.

"Then sleep!" said Winston. "Resting will help you heal faster."

Julius didn't think he could sleep. But he nodded, closed his eyes, and pretended that he could, as thoughts he didn't want swirled about in his head and kept him wide awake.

Chapter Text


"Life's a game but it's not fair. I break the rules so I don't care."
"So I keep doing my own thing, walking tall against the rain."
"Victory's within the mile, almost there, don't give up now. Only thing that's on my mind, is who's gonna run this town tonight."
- "Run This Town"; Jay-Z ft. Rihanna

If there was one thing Ezekiel Dalton knew he was damn lucky in, it was that all of his men had come out of the mess relatively unscathed.

His ship was not so fortunate, however. Her smoking remains lay in a crumpled heap before him, and he surveyed the damage with a heavily resigned pair of eyes. God damn those Alliance bastards. This girl had been his pride and joy - well, one of two such girls, and he was mindful of the fact that the second girl was a bit more likely to chew him out for loving the other so much - and now there was hardly a chance of fixing her in this state. In peacetime, maybe, but this was war. He could not afford to spend the time and love and care necessary to bring her back to life.

Ezekiel scowled. To add to the insult, they'd crash landed on his very own planet. Such was irony that he wouldn't be surprised if the field they'd torn a sizable hole into belonged to someone he knew. Regardless of whether he did or not, he made a mental note to return when he could and pay for the damage - these fields were the livelihood of his people, and the situation only made him loathe the Alliance all the more.

It was so quiet, out here planetside, with the late afternoon sun blazing, a strong breeze swaying the golden fields, and the clouds painted yellow-orange... and yet he knew it was still chaos outside of atmo. A battle was raging in space, a fierce fight for control of this very planet - his planet. Him. It was a battle that his side absolutely could not lose. If Shadow was taken, the Alliance would get his hands on the moral heart of the Independent movement, the source of the fiercest resistance. And Shadow himself was determined to keep that from happening, at any cost.

"Listen up, maggots!" he said, turning around to regard the four soldiers who'd been on board with him, his trusted honor guard. Three of them snapped to attention, but the fourth seemed to be preoccupied with something in the sky. Had Ezekiel been a little less focused on coming up with a plan, he might have noticed. "We've gotta get back up there. Now, I can tell ya roughly where we are, and if we head northeast..."


It was Johnson interrupting him. Ezekiel focused a stern gaze on him, raising an eyebrow expectantly, and Johnson ducked his head apologetically. "You might wanna take a look up in the sky, sir," he said. "Looks like we're bein' followed."

Ezekiel's head swiveled up to where Johnson pointed, his gaze coming to rest on the blur steadily growing larger and clearer by the moment, and he uttered a string of nasty Mandarin. They must have known that a high-ranking Independent officer was on board the ship they'd shot down. "Them bastards just don't know when to give up, do they?" he growled. "Anderson, how long d'you think we have 'fore they land?"

With the eye of a professional, his pilot sized up the Alliance ship currently tearing through the atmosphere. "Couple o' minutes," the man at last said with a shrug. "I suggest we haul ass. Where were you sayin' we make for?"

Ezekiel gestured northeast, indicating the forest not half a mile distant, easily visible across the flat fields; his men all turned their heads, making note of the destination. "There's a farmstead-turned-base at the other end of that thing," Ezekiel said. "We make it through, we can get another ship. We can also lose our little friends among the trees." After a moment, he folded his arms, frowning. "Well, what are you waitin' for? Salvage any weapons you can! You got a minute! Hurry!"

The four of them scrambled to do just that, and Ezekiel turned around once more, crouching down as his men climbed into the remains of their ship. Ezekiel patted the twisted metal, grimacing. "Sorry, baby," he whispered; it broke his heart to abandon her so. "I gotta leave you here. You served me well, you did. If I can, I'll come back for ya, 'kay?"

"C'mon, sir, you're the one who said to hurry!" Rayne cheekily called out to him; they were fast, his men, already done, and it had been less than a minute. "Even a temperamental woman like her's gonna forgive ya, don't worry."

"You couldn't possibly understand our relationship, kid," Ezekiel told him, grinning at the young officer, and he took only a moment to look them over. Armed to the teeth, with sheer determination and readiness in their eyes... there was a reason he'd picked them out as his guard. Martin handed Ezekiel the planet's own special gun, a modified Reinhardt machine gun made light and durable, and as Ezekiel slung it across his back, he nodded once, satisfied. He had two pistols and three knives besides, and now he felt truly ready.

"Well, boys," he said. "Fancy a race?"

"Only if the loser has to buy drinks for the rest of the year," Johnson, the most fleet-footed of them, said rather smugly.

"Agreed," Ezekiel said and glanced back once more. The pursuit had entered atmo proper and was now speeding towards them, but there was a good chance they could outrun it. All they had to reach was the trees, and then they could turn the tables on this ambush. "Alright, kiddos... your purses are on the line! Go!"

Every day, Ezekiel found new reasons to hate Alliance scum. Today was no different.

Their pursuit, faster than anticipated, had caught up just as Ezekiel and his men had reached the very edge of the trees, and now it was a fierce firefight in which the Independents were not adequately prepared. There was not enough shelter on the edge of the forest, and they were outnumbered three to one, forced to take cover wherever they could and only hold their enemies back, not pick them off fast enough. Though they'd brought liberal amounts of ammo with them, it was starting to run dangerously low. If they kept going at this rate, they'd be surrounded and captured within the hour, and Ezekiel gritted his teeth at the possibility.

His mind dashed through options. The Alliance ship... the enemy had landed it back out in the fields and completed their pursuit on foot... could it be used? No, it was too far, the enemy too spread out. The trees? Not useful unless they could be cut down, and there was a conspicuous lack of axes among Ezekiel and his men. Rocks? God, this was getting pathetic.

So there was a distinctive lack of options left. But Ezekiel was not ready to give in to defeatist thoughts yet.

"Sir!" Rayne was suddenly beside him, ducking behind the same tree around which Ezekiel had taken shelter. The young officer grinned fiercely, lacking mirth. "Looks like we're in somethin' of a bind."

"I don't need a reminder," Ezekiel huffed, taking a brief moment to reload as Rayne covered their area with an excellent eye. "Unless you're about to start spoutin' brilliance, I suggest you keep yer trap shut with the understatements."

"Let's just say," Rayne took a moment to pick off an Alliance soldier creeping too close, "that I am about to 'spout brilliance', as you put it."

"Spit it out, then!"

"Their ship... at most they left two or three guards... if we can get to it..."

Ezekiel let loose a brief spurt of bullets, driving the nearest attackers back. "You think any of us could make it there alive?"

"I'm small and pretty damn fast, sir. If you guys make a big enough distraction..."

The planet's lips curled in an angry grimace. It was a risky plan; almost too risky. Rayne was young and, more to the point, the kind of young you didn't want to put in danger. But the only other alternative, Ezekiel knew, was surrender or watching his men die and being captured himself. Either alternative was unacceptable. The enemy got their hands on him, they'd win half the battle, and he did not like imagining how furious Cleo would be if he let himself get caught.

"Okay," he said finally, reluctantly. "We'll give it a shot. But so help me, Rayne, if you die..."

"I know, I know... you'll rip me a new one. Much love, sir."

Ezekiel rolled his eyes. "Shut up, ya smartass. I'll need you to signal Johnson... Rayne?"

The young man's face had frozen in his smirk as he jerked forward slightly. His face took on a grimace, then a wide-eyed look of surprise, and Ezekiel cried out in anger and shock as Rayne stumbled forward.

"Rayne!" The planet caught him in an awkward embrace, and when his hands instinctively shot up to support Rayne's back, he felt sticky warmth trickle onto his fingers.

Rayne... he'd been shot in the back.

"God... kid... no...!" Uselessly, Ezekiel tried to stem the flow of blood as his suddenly smoldering eyes darted up to the surrounding forest, catching sight of a gray-blue uniform concealing itself behind a distant tree. Some Alliance bastard had managed to sneak around them, and Ezekiel didn't even have time to go for his gun before the enemy dropped.

It was Johnson who lowered his gun and looked to Ezekiel and Rayne, his expression tight and pained. Ezekiel tore his gaze away and looked down at his bleeding officer, gently easing Rayne to the ground. He couldn't deny it, as much as he wanted to. Rayne wasn't even responsive anymore, and Ezekiel felt a weight settle on his chest.

"I told you not to die, you goddamn idiot!" he snarled, whipping his gun around for a moment and sending out another spray. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Anderson stagger behind greater shelter with a bullet wound to the shoulder, and his rage grew. "You've always been an insubordinate moron! Goddammit, Rayne!"

Johnson went down, still alive but with a bleeding hip. It was only Ezekiel and Martin left standing unscathed, and Ezekiel could taste the bitter tang of surrender. The word was beginning to hound him. Outnumbered. Outgunned. One of his men was already dead. More would follow if he didn't do something soon.

And then a ship appeared in the sky.

It was the Alliance ship, the one that had pursued them. It hovered in the air like some great insect, slowly descending upon the Alliance soldiers at the edge of the forest and sending them scattering lest they be crushed. Ezekiel watched in amazement as the ship was maneuvered smoothly between the scant trees that made up the forest's very outer edge, throwing the Alliance line into complete disarray.

A man jumped out, his brown coat easily identifiable even from a distance. He was wielding intimidatingly large and powerful Alliance-issue weapons with apparent ease, fearlessly exiting the ship and stepping out into the chaos. One sweep of his guns left a trail of dead Alliance soldiers, and Ezekiel snapped himself out of watching the scene. He nodded to Martin, who tossed him one last box of ammo, and a few seconds later he was firing once more, easily picking off the enemy now that they were thrown into disarray from the sudden assault by their own ship. He and Martin drove the Alliance soldiers towards the fire of the stranger, who finished the rest of them off in one fell sweep.

And suddenly, there was silence.

The man was more like a boy. He approached them with a crooked smile on his face, and as the four of them stared, he came to stand before them, at ease even with their scrutiny. He was the lanky sort, with dark hair streaked an odd yellow and a face that, Ezekiel realized, looked too damn close to the Alliance himself.

"Who the hell are you?" Ezekiel demanded, his head practically spinning from restrained grief and the sudden turn of events.

As it turned out, that all paled in comparison to what he heard next.

"Name's Marcus Xiao," the kid said, nodding to them. "But you can also call me the Independent Faction, if you prefer."

Of all the things Ezekiel might have expected to result from the war, this was definitely not one of them.

The Alliance ship was trembling as it broke atmo. Johnson and Anderson were in the small infirmary room, being looked over by Martin, and Rayne's body had been placed safely away, to be brought back to his family whenever possible. Ezekiel felt a lump in his throat at the thought and tried to turn his mind away, to other things. It wasn't hard to focus on something else, however.

Marcus was piloting the ship with ease; Ezekiel had already seen his skill in the one-man attack the kid had performed on the enemy. The planet could hardly believe what he'd just seen and heard, what was even taking place right now, as he sat in the copilot's seat and scrutinized the other.

Another of his kind. The Independent movement given a true voice and name. Their entire cause, living and breathing, who had just so happened to save Ezekiel's ass.

Cleo was going to have a field day with this one.

Ezekiel had too many questions, but there was no time to grill Marcus about the exact details of his existence right now. The kid had a mad plan. It was hasty, risky, had every chance of backfiring, but it was clear that Marcus perfectly understood the dire situation their side was in and had reacted accordingly, with a plan to match the circumstances. He was already proving to be a commander, if one that was more reckless than Ezekiel himself.

Ezekiel liked that. But the kid didn't have his esteem yet.

"Look," he said suddenly, and Marcus gave him a sideways glance, "you'd best be damn sure about this, kid. I don't care that ya are the Independent Faction. This is your test. It's gonna determine whether anyone under you is ever going to give a damn about your orders again." Ezekiel himself felt that, despite Marcus's youth, he couldn't exactly disobey; the soldier inside of him was too aware of the hierarchy here. Still, he wouldn't give authority to Marcus until the kid had earned it.

Marcus grinned, a cocky sort of smile. "I know," he said. "It'll work, trust me. Because if it doesn't... you can kiss your planet goodbye."

Ezekiel scowled at the reminder.

They were clear of atmo now, speeding through the Shadow's neighbor space. They hadn't drifted as far from the battle as Ezekiel had estimated; he could see it now, his lines still holding against the encroaching enemy. The sight riled his blood, and he stood suddenly, stalking over to the wavescreen beside Marcus and flicking it on. He punched in a code and gave it a few seconds.


He recognized the face that answered. "Harrison," Ezekiel said. "Put Cleo on now."

Harrison still looked a bit bemused, mostly likely at answering what had seemed like an incoming enemy wave, only to find one of their own on the other end. But he nodded and disappeared, and a minute later, a much more lovely visage appeared on the screen.

Cleo looked utterly relieved. "Thank God," she murmured, gazing at him as if she'd forgotten what his face looked like. "When you went down... I thought... I wanted to follow, but..."

Ezekiel nodded. She'd taken command in his stead, just as he would have expected her to. And she'd held the line; God, he loved her. "I'm sorry," he said, because he hated causing her worry, and he knew that if she hadn't been so relieved, she probably would have berated him for letting himself get cornered like that. "I don't have a lot of time to explain, but... we've got a plan. Marcus..."

Marcus leaned over, grinning. "Hey," he said, and Cleo frowned.

"This here's our Independent Faction," Ezekiel told her. No time to break it gently.

Her eyes widened in shock as Marcus gave a little wave. "You... you are... how...?" But a moment later, she shook her head clear of confusion, and her eyes hardened. "We'll talk later. What's the plan?"

So practical, Ezekiel thought admiringly.

Marcus explained, keeping it to the point, and Ezekiel almost laughed at the look Cleo gave him when he was done. "Do you even realize how dangerous that is?" she demanded.

"Realize it perfectly, ma'am," Marcus said with another grin of his. "But it's either that... or fight 'em off honestly. Don't quite think our numbers can handle that. Also..." here he paused, his grin deepening, "the ship we're in... never touched base. Alliance doesn't know it landed planetside."

It was their biggest advantage. Those who'd previously been in command of the ship had made a mistake in not informing their superiors before making direct contact with their enemy, and that was what Ezekiel, Marcus, and this entire, insane strategy was banking on.

Cleo's eyes narrowed, and the faintest of smiles graced her features. "I see," the personification of Hera said softly. "Well, then... I'll spread the news and send my best."

Ezekiel smiled in return. That was his girl.

"Mr. Chou, sir! If I could have a moment..."

"What?" the Alliance asked irritably, turning his attention from the holographic battle scene to the wavescreen on the wall. Those commanders present also did the same, and the man on the other end, who ran the docking station, swallowed a bit nervously.

"One of our ships is approaching under heavy Independent fire. They are carrying many wounded, including a Brigadier General. They also have captured several of the enemy, among them what appears to be a very important officer. They are requesting landing and protection." The man nodded to Julius. "I need your authorization."

"Do they have the proper identification?"

"Yes, sir."

"Let them through," Julius said distractedly and turned back to the projected scene, which was broadcasting real-time. He didn't need these distractions right now; he was so close to breaking enemy lines, and that was the very first step to ending this war. The battle was turning into a huge headache for him, very literally, and he was already annoyed enough with the commanders he was working with at the moment. Julius prided himself on being patient, but one could only take so much arguing.

For the next several minutes, he was utterly focused on the battle, directing his troops as calmly as if the field was a mere chessboard. But that calm was not to last.

An alarm began to blare. Julius's head shot up, and he muttered an oath, his hand automatically sliding to the holster on his belt. "What now?"

The wavescreen flickered to life once more. There was a grim soldier on other end, whose lapels identified him as a Lieutenant Colonel and whom Julius instinctively knew as Lieutenant Colonel James McCarthy. "What's happening?" Clayton, one of Julius's generals, demanded of the man.

"The Independents," McCarthy said. "They've infiltrated the ship and taken hold of key areas, as well as hostages. We are defending the gunroom, but it can't hold for long."

Julius swore again as his generals muttered amongst themselves in anger and surprise. The ship... the earlier wave... goddammit! The Alliance knew exactly how they'd managed to infiltrate; he'd let them. "Can you tell me specific locations?"

"They've taken over the docking station and the entire lower floor, and they're currently spreading through the second and third floors. They're attacking the gunroom and first-level barracks as we speak."

They'd spread too far. Taking the ship back would not be easy, but Julius would be damned if he'd let them get any further. He nodded. "Thank you, soldier. Hold them as long as possible."

"We will," McCarthy said grimly and canceled the wave.

Julius wasted no time. "Clayton, the second-level barracks. Get to them, start sending out reinforcements to all parts of the ship, including here. Marion, you get to the bridge, and you don't let them in. Ferriday, you remain here, and when reinforcements get here, you hold it." As he was speaking, he was moving, his fingers finding the hidden pad on the wall. One touch opened the weapons compartment, and he took what he could carry and conceal, leaving the rest for his generals.

"What are you going to do?" Ferriday asked, as Julius strode toward the door.

"I'm going to fight," Julius answered and left without a backward glance.

It was quiet in the halls. Far too quiet to be normal, and Julius crept carefully, thinking rapidly. He was calculating possible outcomes, but he couldn't be sure with the scant knowledge he had now. He'd have to find the enemy first and engage them, get an idea of their numbers and positions, and then he could act more surely. Right now, he had to depend on his generals and his men.

He'd made it to the third floor without encountering anyone, and now he could hear the sounds of battle. He followed them, and that was when an arm encircled his neck.

It tightened with inhuman strength, yanking him backwards, and his mind automatically slipped into cold survival mode. He allowed himself to be carried back, gathering the momentum and multiplying it tenfold with his own strength. His elbow slammed into the gut of his attacker, and he felt the grip loosen just enough. Julius twisted out of it, adrenaline guiding his movements as his eyes trailed behind his impossibly fast motions. He'd grabbed an arm and twisted it, slamming a body to the ground before he could even see who it was, and then all he saw was a foot heading for his face.

He jerked back out of its range, and his attacker jumped up, swinging with the motion. Julius crouched low in defensive posture, scowling, and what he finally saw was a bizarre inverse mirror of himself.

"Whew!" said the boy. "You are so much better n' I thought. That really hurt."

Julius was staring. His attacker was a brown-coated teenager, whose face was close enough in resemblance to Julius's own to stir recognition. Even his hair was similar, if one only switched the colors. The sight stirred an uneasy, sinking feeling in Julius's stomach, and his scowl deepened.

"Who are you?" he asked. Even though the feeling was growing. Even though he had an idea. Even though he was hoping he was dead wrong.

"Well, y'see... my name's Marcus Xiao. But I'm a little bit more than that, ain't I? I'm your enemy." The boy gave Julius an unpleasant grin. "I'm also known as the Independent Faction."


Julius hadn't thought it was possible. He hadn't thought the Independents were nearly unified enough for this to occur. But he knew it was true. His kind could instinctively recognize each other, and now that the boy had told him, there was no denying it. Add that to the fact that Marcus gave off the same impression as Julius's erstwhile predecessors, and the Alliance realized he had a big problem on his hands.

"I'm overjoyed," he said dryly, his shock perfectly hidden behind a stony mask.

"Thought you'd be," Marcus retorted. "Your little warship's nearly taken. I just came to make sure you couldn't slip away."

Julius snorted, unimpressed. "You really think you can take me prisoner?" he asked. "Cute." His hand darted back, slipping the sword out of the sheath on his back, and he slashed it forward expertly. Marcus only avoided having his chest sliced open because he was fast. He jumped back, glaring.

"Too close," he said, retreating a little, getting out of the narrow space. "You're more of a fighter n' I thought."

"What did you expect?" Julius pursued him to the end of the hall, which opened into a wide stairwell and receiving area, complete with an uninhibited view of space.

Marcus smiled again, backing up to one of the benches by the wall. "I expected a coward who'd hide behind his men," he said, reaching down. "Since that seems to be your battle style. But maybe you're a bit more aggressive than that." He tore the bench from its foundations, hefting it with a little difficulty. "Ah, well," he panted. "I'll just have to adjust."

He hurled the bench at Julius, who narrowed his eyes. He dropped his sword and caught the projectile in midair, swinging it and sending it hurtling back at Marcus, who ducked. "I am much stronger than you," Julius spat out, bending down to pick up his sword once more. "You should have come a little more prepared." His hand slid to his holster.

"Oh, I did," Marcus said, straightening. "I was just waiting for him to show up."

Julius froze at the click. "Drop it," growled a familiar voice, a voice that made him grit his teeth. He let his hand fall to his side and turned his head, seeing Ezekiel emerge from the hall, training a gun on him. "That too," the planet said, nodding down, and Julius reluctantly let go of his sword once more.

Ezekiel gave him a tight grin. "This ship," he said, "is no longer in your hands. Unless you wanna get shot again, you'd best surrender quietly."

"Ooh," said Marcus, snidely. "You're gonna have to tell me about that sometime. It sounds hilarious."

"Don't taunt when you haven't won," a female voice told him, and Julius looked back at the stairwell. Another planet was approaching, also holding a pistol on him, and he dimly recognized her. Hera. Cleo. She blocked the other exit, eyeing him impassively. "Surrender," she said. "You'll only get hurt if you don't."

Julius looked back at Marcus, scowling. "This is how you play," he snarled. "Dirty."

"Just like you," Marcus returned. "Superior numbers, right?"

Julius looked between the three of them. They weren't approaching any further; they feared his strength and what he could do with it. Julius briefly wondered why Ezekiel didn't just shoot him again, but the planet seemed relatively calm right now. Almost triumphant. He didn't think Julius could best three of them. None of them thought so. They wanted to rub it in.

How wrong they were.

Julius let himself become cold, focused. His gaze kept shifting, from one to the other, and he tensed. Drew their attention. Kept their eyes on his roving face. "Don't underestimate me," he said quietly. "I'm done holding back."

Marcus snorted. "You call that holding back?"

Julius smiled a little. "Yes."

He closed his eyes, withdrew his hand from his pocket, and dropped a flash bomb.

"Goddamn bastard, stabbing at me like that! Who does he think he is?"

Cleo paused in her bandaging of Ezekiel's wound to roll her eyes and give him a look. "You did shoot him," she reminded him, and Ezekiel shrugged, still looking furious.


From his position at the head of the bridge, Marcus chuckled. He liked these people - his siblings, he realized. He knew them instinctively as his own, and that was strange. Though he didn't show it, he was still reeling from the events of today, a lot less calm than he seemed. He'd been in a state of almost perpetual confusion that clashed with his sudden knowledge of, well... everything. He'd only just woken up and yet... he knew practically everything there was to know about this war. The parts of his head that weren't quite adjusted to life yet were stuffed with information. It was a dizzying effect.

Still... he hadn't let that stop him from achieving this victory.

Well, almost victory, anyway. The Alliance warship had been taken, and that had turned the tide of the battle in the Independents' favor. They'd won, against all odds. But it hadn't been complete, and that rankled at him. The Alliance himself, Julius, was a sneaky bastard. The flash bomb had allowed him to escape them - he'd stabbed Ezekiel in the side on his way out, which Marcus grudgingly admitted was impressive for being unable to see - and by the time they'd recovered from it, he was gone. He'd taken a pod, taken several Alliance hostages out of the Independents' grasp, and slipped away. He'd even issued an order of retreat to those ships out in the battlefield, allowing many would-be prisoners and better technology to slip right out of Independent hands.

He was dangerously capable and already a thorn in Marcus's side, and Marcus scowled just thinking about him.

"Stop whining. See, it's already starting to heal." Cleo stood, pulling away from her ministrations. "You'll be fine in an hour."

Ezekiel huffed, obviously still insulted by the fact that Julius had gotten past him by dealing such an injury. He patted down the bandages, and his eyes softened somewhat; he smiled at Cleo. "Thanks for taking care of it," he said. "What would I do without ya?"

"You'd be hopeless," she told him, returning the expression and touching his cheek.

Marcus sighed. That had been obvious from the get-go. "Get a room," he said, shaking his head, and the two planets pulled away to glance at him.

"You," said Ezekiel, and Marcus found them standing before him, eyeing him appraisingly.

"Yeah?" he asked challengingly.

A moment later, Ezekiel broke into a grin as Cleo smiled. "Welcome to the family, kid," Ezekiel said, and Marcus's eyes widened somewhat.

Family... he liked that word. His calm, confident expression, that had carried him through most of the day, wavered a bit, and he found that he didn't know what to say. The words just weren't in his brain.

"Thanks," he managed to get out, and he winced at how weak it sounded.

But the planets didn't seem to mind. "There's a couple more out in the field right now that are itching to meet you," Cleo told him. "They'll be here soon. And as for the rest... they're out and about, defending certain places. We'll get to 'em eventually."

"Them?" Marcus asked.

"Your siblings," Cleo clarified.

Siblings. Marcus knew of them, of course, knew of each one of them in detail. But it hadn't quite registered in his mind that they all were his siblings... until now.

He couldn't quite place words to it, but he liked that a lot.

He looked around at the bridge, empty of anyone save the three of them. This huge Alliance warship was in Independent hands. The Alliance was in retreat. Marcus was alive and in command of a people who may have lacked overwhelming numbers and superior technology but more than made up for it in spirit alone. Marcus had a cause, had a people. He had a family.

He grinned. "I can't wait to meet 'em."

Chapter Text

"Do you know what's worth fighting for, when it's not worth dying for?"
"Does the pain weigh out the pride, and you look for a place to hide?"
"And your thoughts have taken their toll, when your mind breaks the spirit of your soul."
- "21 Guns"; Green Day

"This is by far the dumbest plan you've ever had, Alfred."

The perpetrator of said dumb idea, on the ship's controls, gave his friend an exasperated look; even in an emergency, Yao still found time to be stuck-up. "Would you stop saying that?" Alfred demanded. "I know it ain't brilliant, but it'll work, trust me!"

"I never said it wouldn't." Yao took a cursory glance at the radar, but it was still quiet. "It's just dumb enough to be completely unexpected, and that's the only thing I have faith in at the moment." His eyes lifted from the radar to roam around the tiny bridge, dubiously eyeing the peeling walls and exposed cables - most of which, Alfred had to admit, were not supposed to be seen by any eyes other than a mechanic's. "What I don't have faith in is this thing that stands between us and frozen death. I hope you realize that we are in a flying hovel."

Alfred scowled; the ship may have been a piece of junk, but it was his piece of junk. "It's the best I could get on short notice, kay? Besides, you know this thing is virtually untraceable because it's so crappy," he insisted, then in a fit of annoyance grumbled venomously, "I wish we would have found out about this sooner."

Yao became grave. His eyes found the radar once more, studying it, waiting for any hint of their destination while making sure that every signal they had was blasting at full rate; the so-called ship they'd obtained truly was difficult to pick up on any radar, thanks to its small size and lack of technological advancement, but they needed for it to be detected this time. "We need to stay in the loop," he agreed, quiet anger lacing his tone. "We could have gotten him out weeks ago."

Unmistakable worry flashed across Alfred's face; his hands tightened reflexively on the controls. God, why hadn't Julius told them anything? Oh, right. They weren't exactly on the best of terms at the moment. Still... how dare he keep this from them? "You think he's okay?"

Yao didn't appear to think so. "If he's not," the smaller man said softly, in the kind of tone that wise men knew to run from, "someone is going to suffer, and I'm going to make sure of it."

"Just leave some for me," Alfred said grimly.

A moment later, a little dot appeared on the radar, just where it was supposed to be. Alfred steered for it, and almost instantly, the wavescreen flickered to life. It, along with the radar, was one of the few things Alfred had personally made sure was in top working order - it was the first and vital step of his plan. "You've got three seconds to identify yourself before ya get blown to pieces," a very familiar voice said.

"Rambo! They've got you on wave duty now?" Alfred grinned down at the screen as Yao rose from the copilot's seat and peered over Alfred's shoulder. The face of the Independent Faction gazed back at them, an uncanny inverse of the former nations' successor and too close to their own faces.

He had one eyebrow raised in surprise, and he leaned back in his seat with a snort. "Wasn't expectin' the visit," Marcus said. "What gives?"

And so the first step commenced. "We're ahead of Alliance," Alfred said, scowling. "They've got your coordinates, and they're headed this way big time. Thought you might want to know."

Marcus's casual air vanished. His eyes darkened, and he muttered a string of nasty Mandarin. He frowned at them through the screen. "What is that you're in, some kind of scrawny junk pod?" he asked.

Alfred looked affronted. "It's a fine piece of quality equipment, and it's a ship! You'll hurt its feelings, meanie." He sensed Yao's eyeroll as clearly as he saw Marcus's, and inwardly he smiled to himself.

"Docking station will be ready in two seconds," Marcus said. "Get ready to land." Unsurprisingly, he ended the wave without another word, and Alfred let out an explosive breath.

"Phase one, complete," he said in satisfaction.

"Don't say such ridiculous things."

"Stop criticizing me! I'll get a complex!" Alfred wanted desperately to continue the lighthearted direction of the conversation, but as he maneuvered the ship closer and closer, he found that it was impossible. "You know," he said after a moment, "I'd feel bad doing this... if it were any other circumstance."

Yao looked straight ahead now, watching as their destination grew nearer. "So would I," he said at last. "Betraying his trust is not an easy thing."

Alfred shook his head and sighed, maneuvering his flying hovel towards the massive, stolen warship that served as the constantly roving headquarters of the Independent Faction.

As soon as they'd disembarked and entered the ship proper, they were met by Marcus and a few men - humans, Alfred noted in satisfaction; that made it much easier than planets would have been. The whole ship seemed to be abuzz with the news that the Alliance was approaching - the place had an agitated air. Marcus clapped their hands in thanks, welcoming them in. "Now, what's this about Alliance?" he asked, trading his smile for a scowl.

"An entire goddamned fleet," Alfred explained, relishing the chance to tell a story. "A fast one, too. They got wind of your location, and they're on their way as we speak. We've got no way of tellin' how far behind us they are, either. You might want to turn tail and run. Now."

Marcus's eyes flashed in rage; even thinking about the Alliance tended to get him riled up. "I'm not runnin' anywhere," he snapped. "How the ruttin' hell did they get our coordinates?"

Now came a delicate part. Alfred and Yao exchanged a glance for effect, looking identically grim. "Inside information," Yao said at last, giving Marcus a grave look. "We only found out about this because we intercepted a wave, and it seems like they got the coordinates from this very ship. You have a traitor on your hands, Marcus."

"Never!" Marcus barked at once. "These are my people! They don't turn traitor."

The trick was to ease the idea into his mind, let him arrive at the right conclusion on his own. "Apparently they do," Alfred said, very seriously. "They said, and I quote, 'Our informant is on the very ship. He's quite eager for us to arrive.'" He gave Marcus a hard look. "There's someone on this ship feeding information to your enemies, kid. Think long and hard on who that might be before you make a move."

Marcus's eyes were blazing. He'd thought about it, alright, and thank God he was impulsive. His thoughts proved to be in the direction the nations had hoped when he growled, "Oh, I know who did this." He'd turned murderous. "I know exactly who did this."

They didn't even need a name. He'd taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker, and it wouldn't be necessary to resort to any other means. Now, Alfred thought, don't wait to interrogate him. Do it now.

Marcus suddenly gave them a sharp glance, folding his arms and regarding them appraisingly. "How loyal are you to this cause?" he asked.

Alfred rolled his eyes. "D'you have to ask? After all we've done for your people? You know we don't get along with the Alliance, and you know I have a soft spot for causes of the sort."

"What's this about?" Yao asked curiously.

Marcus studied them closely. He was right to be suspicious, but he didn't have the advantage of great age or experience, as they did; they knew for a fact that he was rather in awe of them for it, which played to their advantage. "I've got that damned Julius's brother here. Londinium," he said slowly, watching them with a hawk's intensity, as if gauging their reactions. Luckily, they were miles ahead of his information.

Alfred raised an eyebrow. "Good advantage, that," was his answer. "You could use 'im if they catch up to you."

They were lucky, very lucky, that Marcus was so young and knew little of their true relationship with the Alliance and the planets under his rule. "Just what I was thinkin'," he said, looking vaguely surprised and impressed. He turned abruptly to one of the men at his side. "Tell Andy to get this thing turned around and moving. Just rovin' for now, until I deal with our little mole, and keep an eye out for Alliance. Hurry!" As the man rushed to obey, Marcus looked back at the nations. "You guys hangin' around?"

"Have you seen the state of our ship?" Yao asked dryly. "We'll leave when it's had time to recover."

Marcus rolled his eyes at Alfred's hurt-puppy look. "Well, you're welcome to." His eyes narrowed, hardened. "I need to deal with my guest right now. You're welcome to help." He snorted. "You probably know more about gettin' info outta people, the experience you have."

Alfred gave him a grin, and he was so practiced that it didn't appear even remotely fake. "Well, I could teach ya a thing or two..."

It was a customary thing, checking up on their former charges as the war dragged on; they had every right and reason to be worried. And on one occasion, it was clear within moments that Akiko was distressed about something; immediately, they demanded to know what was wrong.

Her worried eyes bored into theirs through the screen. "They took Winston," she said, and there was no need to specify who 'they' was. "They've had him for three months, and Julius hasn't been able to find him... I... I'm just so worried about him. Marcus hates Julius. There's no telling what he's doing to Winnie because of it."

The former nations' eyes flickered briefly to meet, each hardening in a matter of moments as their surprise faded. "Akiko," Yao said suddenly, turning back to face her. "Tell us everything you can."

Akiko did. It wasn't much. When she had finished, she looked at them almost desperately. "I know you've been assisting the Independents," she said. "I know we're on different sides of this. But can you get him back? Because if you can..."

"Do you even have to ask?" Yao interrupted. "If we haven't made this clear before, then let me say it now: we would kill for the two of you. Without hesitation. We have the means. We'll get him back."

Akiko sighed gratefully. "Thank you. Thank you so much. I can give you anything you need..."

"No," said Alfred. "No help. Julius could track it, and I'll be damned if I'm turning the Independent movement over to him."

Akiko closed her eyes briefly. "That could end this war."

"I'd rather not end it at the expense of a boy and a people whose trust we're already going to betray a thousand times over by doing this," Yao said.

"We can only suspend conscience so much, y'know," Alfred added dryly. "We're selfish like that."

Akiko hesitated only a moment longer. "Then I'll respect that," she said grimly. "I won't tell him about this. But in return, you have to promise me that you'll get Winnie back no matter what."

"Even if it kills us," Alfred said solemnly. "Which would actually be quite a relief."

Akiko's gaze softened. "Not to me," she said sadly.

Alfred was rather surprised that they hadn't had to improvise or fall back on a harder method, yet.

Due to their lack of resources, they had only the technology they could get their hands on, which amounted to that raggedy little ship they'd arrived in. They'd done the rest on sheer trickery alone, and apparently, that still had some merit in this utterly technical age. Alfred might have even triumphed about it, had the situation been not quite so grim.

The brig was sparse and cold, lit by the glow of sickly white lights sporadically placed here and there. The light gave Alfred the beginnings of a headache the moment they entered, and he couldn't imagine staying down here longer than a day.

It was only Marcus and two other men, neither of them a real threat to the former nations. Alfred could hardly believe their luck there, but he wasn't questioning it. He and Yao merely followed them down the narrow hall, until Marcus stopped at a cell and opened it, stepping inside. Alfred was the last to enter, and his eyes scanned the enclosed area, adjusting to the dark atmosphere.

A figure was huddled at the far end, barely distinguishable until one of the men flicked on a single light. The sudden glow illuminated Winston's pale, bruised face, missing his glasses, and it was all Alfred could do to contain the sudden growl of rage that bubbled up from inside him. Winston was curled up in the corner of the cell. His arms were bound behind him, and from what Alfred could see, one of them was definitely not set right - he knew too much about how their kind healed, and he could tell that the arm had been broken and then forced to heal in the wrong position. Alfred very nearly blew his cover just thinking about that. There were half-healed bruises and cuts that dotted Winston's visible skin, and the bloodstained, tattered state of his clothes told Alfred too much about previous treatment now healed over. And that was to say nothing of the look in his eyes, which Alfred knew would haunt him as he was sure only a parent could be haunted.

Winston didn't even know it was them. Without his glasses, he couldn't see far, and he must have thought they were just extra guards; the two human men had taken up positions in the cell, mostly there for intimidation and not because Winston posed any real threat to their leader. The planet's eyes widened in fear as Marcus stalked towards him, and Alfred gritted his teeth as Marcus grabbed Winston by the remains of his shirt, lifted him, and slammed him up against the wall. Winston's face seized in pain, and Alfred's fists curled as he took an involuntary step forward.

Yao casually stepped into his path, halting Alfred's momentary lapse in sense. Alfred nodded slightly in apology and moved instead to the right, nearer to the larger of Marcus's two lackeys. Yao continued to move forward nonchalantly, his movements so deceptively subtle and skilled that no one noticed.

"You sent for them!" Marcus growled, glaring at Winston. "You little bastard... you sent for the Alliance!"

"I didn't," Winston said, his voice wavering. He was attempting to return the glare, but it was clear that he was exhausted and scared. "H-How could I have done that?"

Marcus struck him across the face, hard enough that the sound echoed in the small space. Alfred was starting to see red; by God, he may have supported what was becoming a lost cause, but that did not give anyone the right to lay a finger on people he cared about, especially not on a kid he'd raised. C'mon, Yao, what are you waiting for?

"You're an intelligent brat, ain't ya?" Marcus said harshly. "You found a way to contact them, and you gave 'em our coordinates! Admit it!"

"I swear, I d-didn't..."

The next punch was to the stomach. As Marcus let go and Winston doubled over, nearly losing his footing thanks to his bound arms, Alfred saw the planet's eyes dart across the cell, his fleeting gaze begging desperately for help, for anyone to confirm that he'd never done such a thing. Alfred looked furiously to Yao, who was much closer to his target now, and saw the signal.

He didn't even stop to think. He attacked.

Only two... pssh, he could take them out in his sleep. A swift and powerful kick to the temple knocked the larger one out in an instant, and Alfred immediately rounded on the other one, letting a feral and frustrated growl escape him. The remaining lackey looked stunned at the rapid turn of events, at Alfred's speed, and Alfred didn't give him time to process. The former nation rushed the man and knocked him out with a good, solid punch. Way too easy.

Yao was already locked in combat with Marcus, who was hissing obscenities. Alfred edged around the battle, figuring it wasn't wise to interfere in such a fierce exchange of blows, and he hurried to Winston's side. The planet had sunk down against the wall, trembling, and he looked up at Alfred with his mouth hanging slightly open as he squinted a bit. "A-Alfred? W-When did you... what?"

However, when Alfred knelt down beside him, Winston flinched away, and Alfred's eyes narrowed in concern. "Hey," he said. "It's alright. I'm not gonna hurt you."

"I k-know," Winston muttered, looking away. "S-sorry."

Alfred reached into his right boot, slipping the concealed knife out of its hiding place. He raised it slowly, carefully watching Winston's reaction, and though the planet stiffened at the sight of the weapon, he bravely remained still as Alfred cut through the ropes binding his hands, the nation being careful of the badly healed arm. Alfred took note of Winston's raw, bloodied wrists and gritted his teeth again, offering his former charge help in standing. Winston was trembling so badly that he had to lean on Alfred in order to keep his feet, and Alfred was sure to be as gentle as possible in lifting him, trying to avoid jostling the hurt arm, conscious of how much being touched seemed to frighten the planet.

Jesus Christ, it put Alfred in a killing mood.

Yao had trapped Marcus into a headlock and had wrestled him to the ground. As Alfred turned around, he surveyed the situation with widened eyes. "Damn," he said; Marcus was still struggling with enormous strength, swearing violently at them. "Strong, he is."

"You have no idea," Yao growled, fighting to restrain and search Marcus for anything that could be used to sound an alarm; he withdrew a transmitter, pocketing it. "I- ack!"

Marcus twisted with enormous effort, wrenching himself out of Yao's hands and throwing the smaller man back. The Independent Faction jumped up and spun around, lunging forward. In his rage, he had eyes only for Yao, and his hands wrapped around Yao's throat, driving him into the wall. He began to squeeze with a strength to rival Alfred's as Yao reflexively choked and struggled for air.

Once again, Alfred didn't allow himself to think, only let anger propel his actions. He was still using one hand to support Winston, but the other hand darted into his coat and withdrew a loaded pistol. He flicked the safety off and aimed with a master's eye, firing in the same moment that Yao's legs shot out and expertly struck Marcus in the chest. The two powerful impacts in both back and front tossed Marcus to the ground, and he groaned where he lay, stunned, unable to move.

"You shot me," he said to Alfred in disbelief, gasping, paling. "You... fucking shot me!"

"That's because you pissed me off," Alfred growled. "You'll heal."

"I thought you were on our side!" Marcus seemed angry and adrenaline-pumped enough to get up regardless of the wounds he'd sustained, and Alfred raised the gun once more, dead serious.

"If I shoot you between the eyes, you won't recover so fast," the nation warned. "I'd reconsider attacking, if I were you."

"You motherfucking traitors!"

Alfred felt Winston instinctively recoil; Marcus's anger was truly something to behold. He seemed almost beyond words, murderous and ready for blood even with a bullet in his back, and Alfred edged around him, gritting his teeth. He hated this. He hated this entire situation, but more than that he was angry. He'd have no qualms about shooting Marcus again if the young nation tried anything.

Yao's eyes were cold as he retreated to Alfred's side, rubbing his neck and seeming insulted by the attack. "This has nothing to do with sides," he said. "This is about family, and you've made the mistake of laying a hand on ours. Now, we'll be leaving, and if you try to stop us, we'll lay this entire ship to waste." A bluff, but they knew Marcus couldn't be sure of anything when it came to them right now; he'd already seen their strength, was already aware of the betrayal they were willing to commit.

"My family!" Marcus choked out, spitting blood and rage as the nations and the injured planet turned to go. "My siblings have to suffer! And his don't? I can't visit the same on his side? God..." his breathing came raggedly, and he had to pause, his chest heaving, "... Shadow... they killed Zeke. They killed him!" The raw pain in his voice made Alfred's stomach churn. "I can't avenge my family? How is that fair!"

Yao turned his head, glaring. "I am thousands of years older than you, child," he said coldly. "Don't presume to lecture me on fairness. There is no such thing in war."

They once more turned to go, and Alfred guided the shaking planet to the cell door, following Yao. He paused for a moment, looking back at Marcus, who had finally stopped moving, the injury beginning to overwhelm him. "It's more than you deserve right now," he said, "but I didn't hit your spinal cord. I didn't even hit near a vital. You'll be fine soon enough. And there's no Alliance fleet coming. In fact, the closest one is chasin' a phantom signal. You're welcome, though you might want to land planetside again if you want to keep them off your tail."

He saw Marcus's eyes glittering in the dimness of the cell, but he had no way of telling what the boy may have been thinking - and nor did he want to know.

He was done with him and with it all.

Yao shut the cell door behind them, locking it.

The good thing about the brig was that it was deep within the ship, virtually soundproof - a rather foolish design flaw. They got out with relatively little trouble, thanks to the belief that the Alliance was truly coming and the fact that Marcus could not move enough to even try to raise an alarm. They encountered very few individuals, and those they did come across found themselves promptly knocked out by Yao. And Alfred used his amiable personality to full effect in distracting the guy on duty at the docking station, who was quite grateful for the company, it seemed.

As such, they left the warship behind with no trouble at all.

The blackness of open space only managed to piss Alfred off even more.

It was a little-known fact that, despite his love of ships, he hated space. He, who'd once reveled in the openness of Earth's skies, in the endless expanse of his rolling grasslands, in flight, hated everything about that black, never-ending emptiness. It wasn't freedom. It wasn't anything. It was just there, a claustrophobic vacuum that represented every bit of loss he'd felt in the past five hundred years. And right now, it wasn't helping his mood.

He was clenching the little ship's controls so tightly that his knuckles were white, uttering the occasional swear under his breath, and he didn't let up until he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"How is he?" Alfred asked, without looking back.

He heard Yao sigh. "I had to re-break and reset his arm. It had healed in the wrong position, damn them. And there was a piece of metal in his shoulder that I had to dig out. But his body is doing the rest." The smaller man fell silent for a moment; clearly, he was not revealing everything, but it was nothing that Alfred wanted to hear. "He's not saying much. I thought you might have a better chance."

There was no answer from the irate pilot.

"Alfred," Yao said gently, "you're strangling the controls. Is that any way to fly a ship?"

"It is when you're pissed!" Alfred burst out and stood up with a huff, abandoning the pilot's seat. Yao quickly slid into it and made sure the ship was still on course, then tossed a glance back at Alfred, giving him a stern look.

"I only want you with him because you can cheer anyone up," Yao said sternly. "But not if you're acting like that. Calm down, or I will hit you."

"Oh, I'm so scared," Alfred said as he exited the bridge, with much less anger in his tone now. "Yao's gonna hit me. Like that hasn't happened a thousand times before."

Yao shook his head and let the ghost of a smile cross his face, before he concentrated on guiding the ship to their destination and watching vigilantly for any sign of pursuit.

Alfred found Winston in one of the ship's other three rooms - the 'sleeping quarters'. The planet had sat himself down on one of the 'beds' (Alfred was rather dubious about what it was actually intended to be) with his knees drawn up to his chest, as he pulled at the makeshift sling Yao had made for him. It came off just as Alfred entered the room, and Alfred frowned in concern.

"Hey, what're you doing?" the former nation asked. "Don't you need that?"

Winston shook his head. "It's too constricting," he murmured. "It's healing, anyway."

Alfred decided to take his word for it. There was no way he was pushing anything on the kid, not with that look in Winston's eyes that made Alfred want to punch things. He hated both Marcus and Julius in that moment, for dragging kids into war when they themselves were nothing more than children.

"How ya feelin'?" Alfred asked, trying to be cheery; his arms were full of food he'd brought along for the trip.

"Better," Winston said unconvincingly; it was so very unlike him that Alfred felt uneasy. Winston was rubbing his wrists over and over, and Alfred noted in concern that they were still red and scabbed over, bleeding in certain places.

"Don't do that," Alfred said as gently as possible, depositing his load on the corner of the bed opposite Winston and taking a few steps forward. "You gotta let it heal." He reached out instinctively to inspect the wounds, and Winston flinched away.

A moment later, the planet looked mortified, ducking his head; his voice trembled, and he lost some of the eerie calmness he'd possessed a moment before. "I'm sorry... it's... it's not you, it's..."

"It's alright. I get it," Alfred said heavily. "Believe me, I get it." Instead, he took a seat beside Winston, far enough away to put the planet at ease. "You hungry? I brought everything, just in case."

"No thanks," Winston said quietly, not looking at him.

"You sure?" Alfred asked, rather worried. Their kind didn't technically need food, but still. "Did they feed you at all?"

"I..." Winston's face was suddenly, curiously scrunched up, and he choked on whatever he was about to say.

Alfred cursed himself for an insensitive fool, feeling his stomach twist in pity and anger. He should have shot Marcus a second time, on principle. He sighed. "I'm not going to touch you," he said. "But, you know... I'm always available for hugs, should you feel so inclined." His eyes softened. "You can let it all out now. You're safe, Winnie."

Winston seemed to be wrestling with himself, an internal battle between whatever had been done to him and his natural instinct for closeness. The latter won out, perhaps because it was him initiating the touch, for once, and he moved sideways a little, leaning forward into Alfred's shoulder and hiding his face. Quiet sobs shook his body, and Alfred felt his throat constrict.

"It's alright," he said soothingly, meaninglessly. Hesitating a little, he laid a gentle hand on Winston's back; the planet jumped, but did not pull away, and Alfred simply let his hand rest there, a steady source of comfort. His other hand came around to run through Winston's hair, and it was then that he realized something he hadn't quite registered before, what with everything else that was wrong.

His hair. They'd cut his gorram hair.

Yao felt it when Alfred returned, heard his partner's quiet footsteps as the other entered the bridge. "He's sleeping," came Alfred's voice, and he collapsed into the copilot's chair with a heavy sigh, closing his eyes, tilting his head back, and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Yao, I really want to kill things right now."

"I know," Yao said quietly. Rarely did he ever see Alfred this angry, and he knew enough of Alfred's true anger to know that the younger man was controlling it very well.

"Can I please punch Julius when we get to him? I need to take this out on something."

"In front of Winston? I think not."

Alfred sighed. "True. Goddammit, Yao, how do you stay so calm?"

"Mainly by having centuries more maturity than you," Yao said dryly. "It is over now, Alfred. You're not going to help him by getting angry." Yao himself was angrier than he cared to admit, but he didn't let it rule him. "Just concentrate on the task at hand, and that is getting him to safety. In fact..." Yao peered down at the radar, nodding, "I believe we've reached our second destination."

He could see it - the transport ship they'd paid off to bring them to and then wait for them in this general vicinity. As much as Alfred may have defended it, neither of them trusted their little ship to get them safely into Alliance territory, and this provided a much faster way of getting there. Once aboard, they could pull all the rank they wanted; now, any usage of their connection to the Alliance would not bring Julius down on the heads of the Independents.

Yao should have felt good about that. They'd snatched a prisoner away from the Independents single-handedly and in the process managed to protect the same people they'd been betraying. Surely that had to count for something.

It probably did. That didn't meant it felt good.

In yet another uncanny reverse, the nations found themselves entering a second warship that served as a major headquarters. Only this one was located on the edge of Alliance lines, the head of a massive fleet, and it housed the Alliance High Command.

It really was impressive, what tugging a few strings could accomplish. They were admitted with all haste into the warship's inner quarters, and only a combination of Alfred's extremely threatening glare and Yao's intimidating aura got rid of the contingent of guards that insisted on accompanying them. Alfred could see how the presence of so many people distressed Winston; the planet seemed utterly determined to prove himself fine, but he'd always been terrible at lying and keeping secrets, and it was painfully obvious that being surrounded by soldiers freaked him out. He seemed to calm down somewhat once the unnecessary greeting party had left, but Alfred kept a close eye on him all the same.

They were seated in one of those classy rooms meant to entertain guests and put them at ease; there were 'windows' on the walls, which displayed whatever scene was desired by whomever was occupying the room. Today, the seamless screens were fixed on mountains, distant things located beyond lush, rolling hills and forests; it looked impressively real. Alfred was idly wondering if that was the room's default when he noticed that Winston was doing it again.

"Winnie, stop," he said patiently; Winston's constant rubbing of his wrists had kept them from properly healing, the only part of him that hadn't mostly recovered by now. Well... Alfred wasn't too sure about his mind, but he took comfort in the fact that Winston hadn't let it stop him from trying to act normally. Or maybe that was actually a cause for concern - Alfred had never seen him try to hide anything serious before. "They're never gonna heal if you keep doin' that."

"I know," Winston said, biting his lip. "Sorry."

"Look," Yao said gently. "Draw your mind away from it, and focus on something else. Like breathing. Concentrate on slow breaths, and measure them."

It was clear that Winston was trying, but after a few moments, he gave up with a frustrated sigh, avoiding both of their gazes. "I can't," he said. "I just can't. I'm n-nervous."

"About what?" Alfred asked with a frown.

Winston ducked his head, looking ashamed. He was still determinedly avoiding eye contact, and he seemed to have trouble forming the right words. "What... what will he think?" he finally whispered, hardly audible.

"He... Julius?" Alfred asked incredulously. "Think about what? Why would that even matter?"

Yao intervened with a little more tact, looking concerned. "You're worried about what he'll think of you?"

Winston gave a small nod.

"Child, there's no reason for you to be ashamed of anything, and if Julius has anything decent to him, he won't think less of you for this." Yao looked slightly perturbed at having to answer such a question, but before Winston could even properly react, one of the doors opened swiftly.

The Alliance himself was in the doorway and stopped in what was obviously mid-run as three pairs of eyes turned on him. He had eyes only for Winston, of course, and a mixed expression of utter relief and guilt crossed his face. He was frozen for a moment, and Alfred could tell that he was torn between running forward and running away. He settled for a brisk walk, trying and failing to maintain a strict level of composure, and he finally gave up on that losing battle as his pace increased.

"Winnie," he said, his voice laced with so much tempered grief that Alfred couldn't help but feel sorry for him, though Julius had not given the slightest indication that he even acknowledged their presence. Julius strode forward quickly as Winston immediately got to his feet, but as the nation made as if to hug his brother, the planet instinctively drew back.

Julius did the same at once, understanding. Even as Winston tried to stammer out an apology, the Alliance shook his head, smiling sadly. "It's fine," he said. "Welcome back, Winston." His smile faded, to be replaced by a pained expression, and he bowed his head low. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that I didn't find you, xiong di. I tried. But I failed you, and for that..." he stopped suddenly, and his eloquent manner faded; all he could finish with was a whispered, "... I'm sorry."

Winston's eyes were glistening. "Jules," he said. "Please don't... don't apologize. It's okay, r-really. I'm just... glad to be back."

Julius smiled at him again, clearly resisting the urge to at least touch his brother's arm, to perform some act of comfort that was normal. Instead, he reached into the breast pocket of his uniform and pulled out a pair of glasses, holding them out to the planet. "Here."

Winston took them with hands that just barely shook; it was clear he was making every effort to appear strong, and Alfred was still unnerved by it. The planet gingerly slipped the glasses onto his face, blinking in surprise at the sudden sharpness, and Alfred wondered how long it had been since he'd seen clearly, if Marcus had sent the glasses to Julius as a taunt.

Julius looked away for a moment, closing his eyes and inhaling sharply. Then his eyes opened, and he turned to the two other nations, formality draping over him like a blanket. He inclined his head to them, growing stiff. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you for saving him. If I could repay you..."

... and stop being in debt to them as fast as possible, was probably somewhere along the lines of what he was thinking, though he didn't finish the sentence. "No, thanks," Alfred said. "We don't want anything, because obviously we didn't do it for you." There was a lot more he wanted to say, but he didn't. He wasn't going to upset Winston right now. Instead, he and Yao also stood, their movements smoothly in unison. "And we're only making things awkward here, so we should probably take our leave soon. Winston..." Alfred turned to the planet, smiling, "we'll check up on you later. Be sure to eat a lot, 'kay?"

"For once, I agree with him," Yao added. "Food is good. And remember the breathing."

Winston smiled in return, a small but appreciative one. "I will," he promised quietly.

Julius softly cleared his throat. "I've got Akiko on a wave right now," he told Winston. "She very much wants to see you."

The look in Winston's eyes was somewhat relieving to the other three; he clearly shared the sentiment. "Where?"

Julius gestured to the door through which he'd entered. "Down the hall, to the right. It'll be the open door."

Winston nodded, then looked back to the former nations. "Thank you," he blurted out. "I… haven't said it yet. Thank you. So much. You were amazing."

"You're welcome," Yao returned warmly. "Go see 'Kiko." Alfred gave a big grin, and Winston nodded to the both of them before exiting the room, leaving the three nations quite alone with each other.

Yao was eyeing Julius coolly. "Is there something you want to say?"

Julius gave them a searching look, narrowing his eyes. It was the first real confrontation they'd had in a long time, and none of them had quite expected circumstances like these. "There's nothing," the Alliance finally said, his tone clipped. "I'm not going to ask you how or where, because you won't answer. Since you offer nothing further to me, I'm only going to politely ask you to leave."

"Well, you never change," Alfred said grumpily, "always telling us to go when we're already on our way. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you didn't want us around." His fists clenched tightly; God, he was so angry right now. Angry with everyone in the world save three people, and he had to take it out somewhere. He was going to go insane, otherwise.

So when he stepped forward as if to sweep past Julius, he whipped his arm back and punched the Alliance clean in the face.

Julius staggered back, catching onto a chair so as not to lose his footing; Alfred may not have been a 'nation' anymore in the strictest sense, but that didn't mean he wasn't strong. "Alfred," Yao said disapprovingly, and he didn't sound very disapproving at all. "I told you not to."

Alfred shook his hand out. "Yeah, well, there's only us three," he said. "And I feel so much better."

He honestly expected retaliation; he almost welcomed it. But Julius only pulled himself upright, letting out a long, frustrated breath. He glared at them, wiping at his mouth; his hand came away with a smudge of blood. "You-" he began, but Alfred was not about to let him start.

"You'd best listen, boy," he growled, because if he didn't say it then he'd probably explode from residual anger. "This war shouldn't have happened. Damn it, Julius... you killed a planet! Our own kind!" Alfred hardly failed to notice how the Alliance's eyes smoldered at the reminder. "Is that really what you want? That isn't how you're supposed to go about taking care of the 'verse!"

"You're dragging family and children into this war." Yao spoke up now. "Ones you're supposed to look after. You're very lucky that something worse hasn't happened."

For a moment, Julius looked so angry that Alfred fully expected retaliation to come at last. But a moment later, the young nation's expression calmed somewhat; he now looked at them coldly, without feeling. "In case you've forgotten," he snapped, "I am also a child. This entire 'verse is a child compared to the two of you. And if you'd done your duty in raising it, then maybe it wouldn't be in the state it's in!"

Without another word, he turned and stalked out of the room; he was mindful enough not to slam the door, though Alfred could tell he wanted to. No doubt he would have pretended it was their faces, too. Alfred winced, not liking the long silence that followed this. "Ouch," he said at last, stealing a glance at Yao, who looked no less pained. "... Y'know, buddy... I hate it when a little brat like him is right."

"I don't need a reminder from you as well," Yao said crossly, refusing to look at him, but the smaller man deflated almost at once, his shoulders drooping. "I can never manage to do these things right," he muttered moodily, barely audible. But Alfred heard all the same. "You'd think I was old enough to learn... to learn from mistakes."

"Humanity will never learn from its mistakes," Alfred said with a shrug, stepping past one of the chairs to lay a comforting hand on his partner's shoulder. "So we're kinda stuck that way too, I guess. So technically, it isn't our fault. Am I right?" He had a cheeky grin, a mischievous tone, because he didn't like to see Yao fall into melancholy, and even if Julius had been right, Alfred wanted to punch him again for it. Though he suspected that Yao had been feeling this way for quite some time, since before they found Winston, at least. Which meant Alfred should just go back and punch Marcus. But even then, it still went back to Julius and thus back to the former nations. And that was the root of the problem.

Alfred couldn't help but think that if they'd stuck around and actually tried to help, hadn't been quite so ready to give up on everything so fast... then things would indeed be different. He'd seen the decline of what had promised to be great enlightenment. He'd seen the adverse affects it had on the kid - paranoia and increasing aggressiveness were side-effects of a government slowly failing to stick to its morals, and he knew it was getting worse. As much as he may have disliked being around the young nation, he knew it wasn't just the kid's fault. He was subject to the whims of humans, as they all were.

And they hadn't been there to teach him how to withstand it.

Yao had chosen to ignore him, and that simply would not do. Alfred slung an arm over the smaller man's shoulder, grinning at the glare this invoked. "Come on, cheer up," Alfred said, tugging Yao towards the door opposite the one Julius and Winston had exited through, the one that would eventually lead them towards the ship that waited to transport them away from here. "We did a good thing this week, and I managed to deck that little bastard in the face. So smile, Yao! Like this."

He demonstrated, and Yao was clearly finding it a little more difficult to ignore him. "Enough," Yao said, his mouth twitching as he looked away from Alfred. "Don't make light of the situation."

"But it's like, natural instinct for me. C'mon, buddy, just pull your mouth back a little bit, like so..." Alfred kept up his cheesy grin, and Yao looked down at the ground as he bit his lip, shaking his head and refusing to give in.

"Ugh," said Alfred, removing his arm with a sigh, "you're so stubborn, old man."

"You have no right to be calling me stubborn. Or old!" Yao paused in mid-step, looked Alfred full in the face, and gave him a very deliberate smile before forging on ahead, his pace quickening.

"Oh, sure... now you oblige!" Alfred called, jogging to keep up. "Sorry to break it to ya, but you're every bit a grumpy old man!"

"I am not!"

And those they passed stopped in wonder to watch the two incredibly out-of-place strangers walk past, bickering like children.

Chapter Text

"God bless us everyone, we're a broken people living under loaded gun."
"Will we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns for the sins of our hands, the sins of our tongues, the sins of our fathers, the sins of our young?"
"Lift me up, let me go."
- "The Catalyst"; Linkin Park

They took him to a tent that had been pitched at the very edge of the holding camp; it made no secret of being official, flying Alliance colors at its top and reeking of pristine professionalism. Malcolm Reynolds hated the sight of it, but he'd long since stopped resisting. He allowed himself to be led, gritting his teeth as he passed within its confines, and all but one of the guards who'd brought him this far stopped at the entrance, retreating.

They were arrogant in their confidence, but it was justified. There was nothing he could do to them, nothing he could do that would make a difference anymore.

He sat at a single table inside, one of the scarce accessories of the makeshift room. The place wasn't what he'd half-expected - there were no operating tables, no chains hanging from temporary walls, nothing that suggested what being interrogated entailed. Those who'd been previously been questioned hadn't come back, and an irrationally prominent part of him wondered if these Alliance bastards were just holding out on him, lulling him into a false sense of security; he wouldn't put it past these damned people. He sat there on edge, eyeing the front flap and waiting impatiently after the single guard had exited the tent.

"Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds?"

Mal's head whipped around to the back of the room to see a man emerging from deeper within the tent. The man was tall, with oddly colored blonde hair, and his face stirred uneasy recognition in Mal that the Browncoat could not place. The man wore the colors of an Alliance colonel, but no other insignia of rank or station, and Mal couldn't help but think, suspiciously, that this man was more than a colonel. There was something in his presence that just bothered Mal, something that wasn't right. It smelled too much of authority.

"What's it to ya?" Mal asked, hostility bleeding through his tone.

"I only need to ask you a few important questions." The official took a seat in the one chair across from Mal, setting down the sleek computer pad cradled in one arm. He didn't seem of the mood to reciprocate the aggression; in fact, he only looked wearied, with darkened circles under his eyes. "Then you'll be free to go."

Mal scowled at this statement, unimpressed and unconvinced. Why the hell would he trust something like that? Or trust anything the representative of his massive, bloodsucking enemy said? "Yeah... to go straight into an unmarked grave, maybe," he said icily. He couldn't shake his suspicion, the strange feeling beginning to plague him. Something was up here. Something was wrong.

The man gave him an even glance. Only a slight furrow of his brow marked annoyance. "No. Free to go."

One Month Earlier

Serenity Valley reeked of death.

This wasn't the glorious battle that a hopeful soldier might have imagined, had such a thing as a hopeful soldier even existed anymore, this far into the war. This was turning into carnage - the ground littered with bodies and wreckage, the rusty smell of blood permeating the air. The sky was constantly overcast, as if nature itself reflected the fleeting struggles of men, and though this battle hadn't yet neared the bloodiest, it was nonetheless becoming infused with the kind of grim atmosphere that accompanied only the greatest and most terrible of conflicts, the legacy of which in distant history consisted of Gettysburg and Taiping and their like.

But Browncoats were made of far sterner stuff than any credit had previously attributed to them, and there was at least one hopeful soldier among them, who had not yet yielded to the desperation beginning to infect his men. And the numbers of his men were growing steadily; officers were dying left and right, a situation that might have threatened to throw the entire defense into chaos had it not been for the actions of Malcolm Reynolds and his second-in-command, Zoe Alleyne. Sensible or not, such actions were unorthodox, that in any military organization reminiscent of their enemy's would have automatically cost them their ranks, but there was little else to be done in the matter.

The line would fall apart without being commanded. And if holding back the enemy meant taking that gorram command, then Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds was damn well going to do it.

"How's it lookin'?" Mal capped the canteen; he hadn't caught his breath since the last skirmish, but he was careful not to waste a drop. Water was mighty scarce at the moment, and he'd taken only what he needed to give himself a little more strength.

Zoe shook her head, her lips drawn into a thin line that made her face look even more forbidding than usual. "Lieutenant Colonel Harding just took a bullet to the head. His men are requesting to join under your command."

"Damn," Mal swore softly, working out the mental calculations. How many would that ultimately give him? Close to two thousand, by now? No sergeant was meant to lead that many men; it was damn near impossible, even for someone who actually had the gorram experience. But there was that old cliché about desperate times and some shit like that, and all Mal knew was that he had to. Because no one else would. Because he was one of the only ones here still capable of cracking a smile.

He wondered just how fake that smile was starting to appear. But no - he couldn't think like that. The reinforcements would come. They just needed time, and he was going to give them all the time they could ask for. "They're gonna make me king of this huāngliáng place soon," he muttered, setting the canteen down and letting his gaze make a sweep of the sheltered area where the Browncoats had set up their defense. It happened to be their makeshift camp as well. They'd lost enough ground to be driven back nearly to their refuge, and though he hated to do it, Mal was considering a calculated retreat, just to move their wounded and rations further from the enemy.

"Let's just hope it's not king of the dead," Zoe muttered.

"Now, don't be goin' gloomy on me," Mal told her, shaking his head. "I need you right now."

"I know that, sir. But let's stay realistic."

"There wasn't nothin' realistic about that victory in Shadow's space." Mal pointedly ignored his own mention of his home planet, since then rendered nearly destroyed. But it was only a setback - a setback, his conscious mind insisted to his troubled and unconvinced subconscious. "And that was our best. We gained ground then - we'll do it now."

Zoe gave him one of those looks of her. "That was three years ago."

"Three years of experience fightin' these bastards," Mal said with a confident shrug. "All we've gotta do it hold this place and drive 'em off. We're more 'n capable of doing so."

He was glad when Zoe didn't bring up the fact that they'd been losing ground. Instead, she uttered a small, professional sigh and nodded. "It's been mighty quiet lately," she observed. "I imagine their next attack will be soon. And we've got the manpower to launch a strong counteroffensive."

"Just what I was thi-" Mal cut off abruptly at the sounds of shouting - and not from the front of the camp, where the Alliance had been making their assault. With his eyes widening, his mind running through all manner of unfortunate possibilities, Mal swore and snatched up the rifle set carefully near his hand, charging out from underneath the pavilion with Zoe.

The sight that greeted them caused them to stop dead in increasingly glad amazement. Instead of enemies, Mal saw familiar brown coats adorning new faces, men less tired and weary and battle-worn than his. They were pouring in from the rear of the camp, and if his estimates were close to accurate, then they numbered at least a hundred.

By no means a particularly strong force or even one that was capable of changing much, but it did him good to see his men so heartened by this arrival.

"Oi!" A dark-haired boy who bore no distinct sign of rank was approaching; he might have been any other soldier, but for the deference showed him by the newcomers and the way in which he carried himself. He didn't look to be in the best of health, almost haggard in his appearance, but his eyes were shining with fire. He trotted up to Mal and Zoe, nodding and extending his hand. "Your boys tell me you're in charge around here."

Mal returned the nod and the shake, as did Zoe, inconspicuously sizing up the newcomer. "I seem to be findin' myself in that position, yes."

The kid - almost a young man, though he couldn't be older than nineteen or twenty - gave him a disconcertingly scrutinizing look. "I'm curious to know how it happened, Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds," he said, and Mal raised an eyebrow.

"You know me?"

"It's my business to know," the kid said with a shrug. "Like I know how this here's Zoe Alleyne, Corporal." He grinned. His face said he was used to grinning, but this one was fierce and tinged with war. "But I hold ya at a disadvantage, don't I? Name's Marcus Xiao. For all intents and purposes, I'm the highest-ranking individual here." As he said this, he flashed a small ID.

The name was familiar. Mal had heard it mentioned in high circles before, among Independent generals, and that, coupled with Marcus's obvious authority over the newly arrived soldiers, was enough to know that the kid spoke the truth. Casting aside the fact that Marcus was, in fact, a kid, Mal glanced at the reinforcements, and Zoe spoke his mind before he could.

"How did you get here?" she asked, indicating the way they'd come - from directly behind the camp, which should have been impossible for ally and enemy alike, what with the way they were nestled into the valley. "Must've been quite a difficult journey."

"Oh, believe me - I know this land well," another voice chimed in. A woman strode towards them, coming to stand at Marcus's side and nodding to Zoe and Mal. She looked just as fatigued and battle-weary as Marcus - perhaps even more so, but no less determined. "Too well. I can get ya anywhere that ain't directly through enemy lines." She then nodded to Marcus. "That's everyone."

"Thanks, Cleo," the kid said and returned his attention to the other two with a smile. "Clotilde Klein," he said, indicating the girl. "The reason we can dance circles around those Alliance bastards when we're on our own land." He folded his arms, losing some of his casual air. "Now, you can't be thinkin' of us as actual reinforcements. Those guys are still takin' their gorram time in gettin' their asses here. The men I brought are more like guerrilla fighters than anythin' else. We're here to push the enemy back... get 'em off your tails and regain a little ground. Would've been here sooner, but..." He shook his head at the memory, scowling. "Got cut off right when the battle began and been harassing them from the fringes of the valley ever since. Until Cleo here found us a way through. We figured you could use a little extra push against their line."

Mal nodded in assent. Didn't matter what they were - if they could help, if they could restore some of his men's morale, then he'd gladly welcome them. "Anythin' you can do, you do it," he said fervently. "We're behind you."

Marcus nodded in satisfaction. "I'm countin' on it," he said. "I assume most of my officers are dead?"

Curiously, Mal noted the way he said 'my' officers. "All that were in this part of the valley," he answered grimly. "'Cept for me. Got nearly fifty units here."

"I see," Marcus said quietly, his eyes narrowing. "Well... since you've been doin' a pretty good job of managing things here, why change it? I might be takin' a few of your soldiers, make things easier on you, but... Malcolm Reynolds, from now on, you're officially in charge here. These are your men. And if anyone has objections," Marcus snorted, "they can kiss my pretty ass."

Mal grinned - a real one, because it was hard not to like this kid. He hardly failed to acknowledge the responsibility placed on him, now made official, but he, too, had been heartened by this sudden arrival.

"Of course," Marcus continued, "that means you need to hold this valley no matter what. I'm trustin' you with that."

It was Mal's turn to give a snort. "Whaddya take me for? It'll hold."

Marcus smiled tightly. "Good," he said. "Now, before we act, I need a briefing. I'll-"

And like before, there was an interruption. The scouts' warnings began to blare, this time from the front. The enemy was approaching, might have already begun their attack, and Mal felt his blood beginning to roil in anticipation.

"Maybe not," Marcus said with a shrug. "Well, now I get to see the kind of fighters you are. I'll bet the lady can kick your ass, Reynolds."

"Don't tempt her," Mal said, chuckling, as Zoe cracked a small smile; even she was charmed by this smooth-talking teen.

"Oh, I know - I speak from experience." Marcus gave Cleo a sideways grin, and she rolled her eyes, shaking her head.

At a nod from Mal, Zoe was already off, issuing powerful orders to the Browncoats scrambling to respond to the alarm. They began to organize with rapidity born of necessity, and Mal took it upon himself to briefly inform the newcomers of the enemy's style of attack.

"Ooh, I'm so gonna break that," Marcus said, looking pissed. "Damned cowards, drawing it out." He shrugged the gun off his back, slipping ammo out of one of the pouches on his belt. "Well - you guys ready or what?"

Mal had no time to reflect on the strangeness of the authority that rested in someone so young. A moment later, they were off, to confront their enemy's attack, to fight it off, to win.

They would win. With these small reinforcements, they could hold and push back against the tidal wave threatening to overwhelm them. The guys in the 82nd Airborne Division would arrive and break the increasing Alliance stranglehold on this planet. They'd slowly drive the invaders out, because there simply was no other option.

They would win, because they had to.

Mal didn't answer at first. Surely that didn't mean...? "Hùnzhàng," he snorted.

"Whether or not you choose to believe me has no bearing on anything," was the man's reply, and he gave a nearly inaudible sigh. "My name is Julius Chou. Simply put, I represent the Alliance, but I ask that it not affect your answer. As I said, this is important. And I've already done too many of these interviews, so please don't waste my time."

"Well, get on with it," Mal growled, struck by the sudden urge to hurt the man. Maybe the word 'Alliance' got him riled, but he was painfully aware of the lack of guards. This man, Julius, obviously did not fear him in the slightest and was plainly showing it. Mal was not about to make yet another hopeless attempt. He was done with that kind of fighting.

Julius's fingers brushed across the surface of the pad, and he slid the device towards Mal. "Have you seen this man?" the official asked.

Mal picked up the pad, frowning down at the image on the screen. At once, his anger and hostility evaporated, replaced by sheer surprise.

That face... he'd seen it so recently, yet so long ago... he'd seen it...


One Week Earlier

Mal could not figure out which had become worse: the sting of abandonment or the increasingly rancid smell of death.

His stomach was in a near-constant state of hunger. Rations were dwindling, and he'd turned down more than his share for another soldier who needed it more. His mind was beginning to go numb with it all, constantly overwhelmed by what he was surrounded with. He was watching his men, barely four hundred now, die for no reason other than things that could have - should have - easily been avoided. The valley had become a place of stagnation. Everything stank of death.

Everything. Mal was sure he was going to go insane from it.

"Come on, soldier! Don't give up on me!"

But the soldier was no longer responding to Zoe's ministrations or her increasingly frustrated voiced, and finally, when it became clear that he was gone, she gave up, lowering the man's shirt to hide the ravages of infection that had spread from his formerly simply stomach wound.

Medicine would have saved him. Even the most basic of antibacterial salves could have ensured his survival. But they had none left. They didn't even have a proper medic anymore.

"Another one gone," Zoe murmured tiredly, a dull edge creeping into her tone. She was wiping flecks of blood from her face. "How many is that now?"

Mal didn't want to know. He didn't want to think about it, because there was absolutely nothing he could do. He was tired of watching his men die from things that had only been a problem in more primitive times. This was the twenty-sixth century, damn it all!

Mal's eyes wandered to one of Zoe's other "patients", who thankfully still breathed. Cleo was unconscious and had been for a few days now. It was strange - she'd sustained mysterious wounds that had not yet started to heal, and nothing they had tried would wake her up. Neither Zoe nor Mal could figure it out. However, Marcus had told them not to dwell on it, and their questions were met by stubborn silence or evasion.

Marcus was on the other side of Zoe's patient's cot, staring down at the body of the soldier with his hands clenched and his eyes narrowed. It didn't take a great judge of character to see how angry, frustrated, and despairing the boy had been becoming; he looked even worse than Cleo did, gaunt and ill and bearing similar wounds that would not start to heal. But the stubborn bastard had refused treatment by Zoe or any of the remaining emergency field medics; he kept insisting that nothing could be done, with much the same evasiveness as with Cleo.

A growl of frustration escaped Marcus, and he turned abruptly away from the dead soldier. "I'm going out," he growled, stalking past Mal as he headed for the exit.

"Marcus!" Zoe called after him, but he did not heed her words and disappeared from the tent.

"I'll go after him," Mal said, shaking his head tiredly. "You okay here?"

Zoe gave a small, dry laugh. "As well as I can be, given the circumstances," she replied with a nod, and she indicated the exit. "Look after him."

Mal followed the kid. Outside the shabby pitched tent, the air was darkening with evening. There was very little movement to be seen. Most men were too exhausted or hurt or hungry to walk. The only real tents left were being used to shelter the seriously wounded, and the men were using whatever they could to protect themselves from the encroaching chill of evening, huddled in blankets and coats and against rock formations and each other. Mal could see movement here and there, those in charge of rations handing them out, and he increased his pace. He could do without his share one more time.

The air of waiting permeated the camp, enough to make him feel ill with it. It was always waiting. Waiting for help that never came and now, waiting for something to be done. Anything to be done. He'd once believed that something like this wasn't possible, at least for his side... that no commanders would leave their men like this, stranded and without help. But he'd become utterly numb to it now.

Marcus was making for the edge of the camp, outside the perimeter of stagnant death. In the distance was the no-less-death-ridden Alliance camp. They, too, had been abandoned here, to wait out a negotiated surrender. They hadn't even attempted to bring the neighboring Independents under their control; they couldn't spare the energy to.

Mal's melancholy thoughts turned to alarm when Marcus suddenly stumbled, pitching forward as his legs seemed to give out.

"Shit." Mal ran the last few meters separating them and grabbed the boy underneath the arm. "This is why you should eat, ya damn moron." Marcus had broken his fall with his hands and now rested unsteadily on them, looking dizzied. There were barely noticeable tear tracks on his face, which Mal tactfully ignored. He made as if to lift Marcus, with a mind to bring him back to camp and to Zoe, but the boy resisted his efforts, and Mal was forced to reluctantly ease him to the ground, helping him to sit.

"Ain't that," the kid muttered. "'Sides, you're one to talk... hypocrite." He was determinedly looking away from Mal, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground. His breathing was unsteady and quickened, and listening to it, Mal felt his sense of foreboding grow.

The kid didn't just look injured. He looked sick. Deathly. Like a gust of wind could blow him away. Such a change had been wrought in the mere month since Marcus had arrived. It had only gotten noticeably worse in the days since the unofficial end of the battle.

"Then we're both hypocrites," Mal said, frustrating creeping into his voice. "Dammit, Marcus... you need to be treated."

"Too late for that," Marcus muttered. He coughed then, a wet, hacking sound that boded about as well as his words. "I'm... sorry."

Mal shook his head in confusion, slowly crouching down to be at eye level with the boy. "For what?"

Marcus coughed again, and the sound became a dry, trembling laugh. "Too many things," he muttered, shaking his head tiredly. He lifted his head, raising his eyes to meet Mal's. "Hey... you willin' to stand in for a shepherd... for me?"

The words brought with them a sick feeling to Mal's stomach. "I'm not much for God anymore," he answered, because there was no way he was going to acknowledge what Marcus had just said. No way he was going to accept the implication.

"I wouldn't be, either," Marcus said, closing his eyes briefly, "but... I kinda have to believe in somethin' right about now."

The feeling in Mal's stomach got worse. "No," he growled. "C'mon, let me bring you back to Zoe. You're not gonna die, you gorram idiot." He reached forward as if to grab Marcus and lift him, but the kid feebly punched his hands away.

"S'too late for me," Marcus said, and he dropped his head, but not before Mal saw his eyes beginning to water. Marcus was putting great effort into not letting emotion show, but he spoke up again in a trembling tone of voice. "Y'know... I wish I had a little more time. I don't wanna go. Actually..." he laughed again, and the sound had become quietly hysterical, "I'm pretty damn scared of going! Me!" His shoulders were shaking now. "I... feel like I've failed everyone. And now here I am, complainin' about it to you. Pathetic, really."

Somehow, watching this was worse than anything Mal had seen over the past few weeks. This, more than any of that, struck at him in a way that sucked any and all hope from him. It was painful, to see the kid like this. It was almost as if Marcus had come to represent hope, fighting unto the very last and insisting on fighting even when everything was over. But now…

Mal reached forward again, but this time, he caught the swaying Marcus lest the kid should fall and pulled him into a one-armed embrace. He wasn't much one for displays of affection, but he wasn't going to let Marcus die without it. He owed his too-young commander that much.

Marcus was looking up at him in surprise. "You didn't fail," Mal growled to him. "Dammit, Marcus... you think this is your fault?"

"More or less," Marcus muttered, coughing the words out.

"Well, it ain't. So don't give me that crap. Now, we're gonna get you back to the tent, and Zoe's gonna take care of you, and you're not gonna give up, y'hear?"

Marcus smiled a little, tiredly, and with such a defeated look in his eyes that Mal could feel himself beginning to panic internally. "You take care of Cleo for me," the boy said. "Make sure she gets out of this."

"Marcus," Mal said in protest, about to tell him to take care of her himself, but Marcus was shaking his head.

"No," he said softly, and there was now a faraway look coming into his gaze. "The cause is dead, Malcolm Reynolds. But thanks... for fightin' for me... all the same."

The light left his eyes. He leaned back in the crook of Mal's arm with a sigh and let his eyes slide shut, and Mal could not feel life in him anymore. Mal gazed down at the body in his arms, still warm in the imitation of life, and felt a hole beginning to eat away at his chest.

Dead. No. That was impossible. In the month that Mal had known the kid, followed the kid, Marcus was the sheer opposite of death. He'd been hope, even when there really wasn't any left. He was a whirlwind of determination and spirit. And now...

"Damn," Mal muttered, feeling his eyes beginning to burn, although nothing would come. He looked down at Marcus's still, pale, and bruised face, and he shook his head vehemently. "Dammit, kid!"

After a moment, he roused himself enough to tighten his grip on Marcus's body, almost angrily. The kid deserved a proper burial, no matter how much he would have argued against it. Mal was not about to toss him into some mass grave with the others, and to distract himself from the grief trying to overtake him, Mal tried to work out a good place to start digging.

And then he was staring in shock, because Marcus's body faded.

It disappeared in his arms, slowly vanishing, and Mal was left holding nothing but air. His mind, already steeped in grief, was now frozen in sheer horror, and he gazed down at his empty arms to find them shaking. What...? What the hell...?

Numbly, he moved his arms and closed his eyes, as if expecting to find that it was only his mind playing tricks on him, driven mad by war.

But there was nothing there. Marcus was gone.

The cause is dead...

A chill ran down Mal's spine, and he gazed dazedly at the place where Marcus's body had once been, hardly able to comprehend what had just happened.

"What is it?" Mal heard Julius ask, but no longer was Mal listening. His fingers had tightened on the device as the memory sprang to his mind, the memory that sent a familiar chill down his spine, and he shook his head violently, returning to reality.

"Nope," he said, pushing the device back to Julius, because he was not crazy, and he didn't need any Alliance bastards locking him up for it. "Never seen 'im."

Julius gave him a very laconic look, refusing to take the pad back. "You've gone pale," he said shortly. "Your hands are shaking, and the truth is in your eyes. What happened?"

Mal could not summon up his earlier hostility. All he could feel now was uneasiness, and the memories that had forced their way to the forefront of his mind were demanding an explanation. The Alliance was looking for Marcus. Maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe they could explain.

Hardly aware of the irony of turning to his enemies for reassurance that he wasn't mad, Mal felt the words slipping out before he could stop them. "He's dead. I... watched 'im die. He... his body... it faded. It jus' disappeared! What the hell?" He couldn't shake the image, watched Marcus fade away in his mind's eye, and he shook his head again, as if to clear it from his head. Then he fixed a desperate glare on Julius. "What's goin' on? Who was he?"

One Week Earlier

Zoe was eating a small portion of rations when Mal returned to the medic tent.

Her stomach wasn't the most welcoming to food at the moment, but she knew her own limits, and she knew when it was necessary to sustain herself. She'd gone long enough without eating that if she waited any longer, she wouldn't be able to function at all, but the food gave her no satisfaction even as it partially filled her. There was no enjoyment to be had in eating, not today. Not for a while had there been.

Mal was out of breath and pale; it looked as if he'd run back to the tent and as if he'd seen something that truly frightened him. Zoe immediately set her rations down, rising to her feet. "What happened?" she asked at once. "Where's Marcus?"

But there didn't seem to be any emergency, because Mal didn't answer at once. In fact, it took him several moments to register the question, and at last he shook his head, closing his eyes as a deadened, bleak look stole across his features.

"He's... dead," Mal muttered.

Zoe's felt her breath catch in her throat. Dead? What? It had been plain to see that Marcus was wounded and ill, but with the way he rejected her help, she'd taken it to mean that he could handle it. That it wasn't life-threatening. She'd never expected him to ignore his condition to the point that it killed him...

She closed her eyes, feeling an odd sort of melancholy take hold of her heart, and silently she wished Marcus well, if there was indeed such a thing as an afterlife. After a moment, she looked back to Mal, who was still pale and unnerved. "Did... something else happen?" she asked. Mal was used to death, and though she'd seen his optimism and hope crushed almost beyond recognition, he was a soldier to whom death was no stranger. But it may have been that Marcus affected him differently. She knew he'd taken a liking to the kid.

Once again, it seemed to take Mal several seconds to register her question. He had the strangest expression on his face, somewhere between shock and grief, and slowly, he shook his head. "Nothin'," he murmured. He took a few steps forward, towards the cot where Cleo lay, and he looked down at the unconscious woman. "Just needed to see livin' people."

Without another word, Mal left the tent once more, and Zoe gazed after him with a frown, feeling uneasiness steal into her mind.

Julius had become grave, and it was impossible to read what was in his eyes. He didn't answer and instead looked down at Marcus's image on the screen, his gaze slowly hardening. Mal waited for an explanation, for anything, his own gaze shifting between the still image and the man before him.

Now that he thought about it... there was a similarity between them. Mal frowned, looking up and down and comparing what he saw. It was kind of creepy, actually; they were... they were like mirrors, only inverted.

"I'd advise you to forget about it," Julius said abruptly, picking up the device and standing. "Forget anything related to this man. In fact, forget about me and this meeting."

"What?" Mal demanded, hardly able to believe what he was hearing. The reaction that Julius had... Mal wasn't crazy. Something was definitely up. Some freakish government experiment or something, a tale that belonged in a novel, but it still meant Mal wasn't going mad. He couldn't be, because Julius was obviously hiding something. "You expect me to ignore it? A man don't jus' forget somethin' like that! You owe me an explanation!"

"I owe you nothing," Julius said, and he'd become cold, dark blue eyes regarding Mal coolly. "Take my advice, Sergeant. It's in your best interests to forget. These aren't affairs you want to get mixed up in." He pushed his chair in, nodding. "Thank you for your help. You're free to go now. I have men who will see to it that you get transport to wherever you need."

One Day Earlier

... Raymond Pettifer, Elias Raimer, Malcolm Reynolds, Alesha Richards...

The list of captured Independents was too small. As Julius skimmed through the entire thing once, twice, three times, just to be sure, he took note of two things.

That it should have been longer, much longer. How many men had truly been lost?

And that the name he was looking for was not there.

Julius swore under his breath. As if Marcus wasn't already a pain in his ass. Now the Independent Faction was missing, and the Independent planets were accusing Julius of either kidnapping or killing him. If Julius was truly honest with himself, he couldn't blame them, but he was not in the mood, and the incident was beginning to tick him off mightily. He'd done no such thing, and so he was putting considerable effort into finding Marcus.

Even though he had the sinking feeling that he wouldn't.

Julius looked back at the screen, eyeing the list again. Some of his bosses were pushing to make an example of the captured soldiers, but he'd put his foot down on that, refusing to budge. He was achingly tired of violence and killing, and the mere thought of such a thing made him sick. In addition, such actions wouldn't help to make peace with those Independents still fighting, even if the war was all but over and they would be defeated anyway.

"Mr. Chou."

Julius looked up from the computer to see his aide, Ronald, poking his head through the door. "You have visitors, sir," the young man said, his demeanor as serious as ever. Despite being only newly appointed, he was a very capable individual, and Julius gave him a small, appreciative smile.

"Who?" the nation asked.

"The only thing they said was that they were family members," Ronald told him. "Shall I let them in?"

Julius nodded. Family... he needed to see them. God, did he ever need to see them. As Ronald disappeared, Julius rose from his seat, taking a glance around his office situated in the warship. It was a mess, which was merely a reflection of its owner. He didn't know how long it had been since he'd properly slept, but he spent the next few moments trying to make himself at least appear as if he wasn't a wreck. He didn't need them worrying over him.

When he heard the door once more, he looked up, and a scowl immediately took up residence.

Definitely not who he'd been expecting. "Why and how are you here?" he asked coldly, folding his arms, and Alfred gave him a deliberate eyeroll.

"We're nations," he replied. "Former or not, we don't need to be returning a planet in order to pull some strings."

It wasn't hard to see that Alfred looked almost sullen, and while Yao was more serene, he, too, looked rather uncomfortable. It was unlike them enough that Julius frowned suspiciously as the two of them came to an uneasy halt before him. "And why?" he finally asked.

They looked almost... reluctant. But Yao met his gaze calmly enough and somehow managed to make it seem as if Julius was not, in fact, several inches taller than him. "There is a rumor," Yao said, "that the Alliance plans to make an example out of the Independents who continued fighting in Serenity Valley..."

"No," Julius said shortly, almost bitterly, cutting off whatever Yao could have possibly said further. "I won't allow it. I am not a complete monster, whatever word may be to the contrary."

Alfred stuck his hands in his pockets and looked not-quite-directly at Julius. He, on the other hand, seemed very irritated by the height difference right now. "We never insinuated that," he said grudgingly. "Actually, we figured as much."

There was an automatic, acid response on Julius's tongue, and he swallowed it in surprise. He found that he had no reply to that and settled for eyeing them suspiciously. "Then why are you here?"

Alfred gave a shrug, really not meeting his eyes now. "Business," he said vaguely, then muttered, "How are you feeling?"

It was all Julius could do not to gape. Astonishment flooded his brain as he tried to process exactly what it was that Alfred had just said. But Alfred couldn't have said it, because that implied concern, and why in the 'verse would they be concerned about him? In his shock, Julius's answer came out much harsher and indeed nothing like he'd intended. "It's none of your business," he ended up snapping.

Alfred scowled. "Well-" he began heatedly, and that was as far as he got before Yao interrupted calmly.

"No," the smaller man said, giving his partner a warning glance. "Julius is right. We have no right to that question if he doesn't want it." Yao's eyes darted behind Julius to the computer screen still displaying the list that the Alliance had been scouring, and he nodded to it. "They are your best bet."

"What are you talking about?" Julius asked warily, frowning.

"You want to find Marcus, do you not?" Julius didn't even bother to ask how Yao knew that. "He was in Serenity Valley - there's no doubt about it. But he never came out. Someone on that list will have the greatest chance of knowing what happened to him. Ask them."

Julius was still frowning, but it was more in thought than anything - eyeing his predecessors and trying to gauge their intentions. "What makes you think I'm looking?" he asked at length.

"It's an educated guess, aru," Yao said with a shrug.

"And what makes you so sure of Marcus's last location?"

Yao smiled then, a dry, unamused expression. "Neither side seems to like us very much," he said, "but that doesn't mean we can't use either for our own ends."

The silence that followed this statement could have almost been physically grasped. Finally, Alfred sighed, never one to enjoy any kind of prolonged quiet. "We'd best leave," he said, "since we're only makin' things awkward. See ya, kid."

It was nearly eerie, how they turned in unison, their movements almost perfectly matched. Julius opened his mouth and nearly choked on his own words. How the hell was he supposed to respond to something like this? But he remembered the last time he'd confronted them, and although it was enough to stir unpleasant feelings, he recalled what he hadn't said then - at least, not with the kind of sincerity that was warranted.

"Thank you."

They looked back, still moving nearly in sync, and neither expression on their faces was exactly readable. "You're welcome," they said. And left, just like that.

Julius stared at the door in wonder, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Trying to make sense of their motives. To make sure he truly didn't do anything to the captured soldiers? To check up on him, unlikely as it sounded? To give him advice, just as strangely? Or was it all three?

It didn't make any sense. When had the change been wrought to begin with?

Once again, their last confrontation was brought to mind, and he shook his head to clear it. No - right now, it was best not to dwell on it. He'd only give himself a worse headache, and he didn't need more confusion at this point. Setting the matter aside but heeding their words, for once, Julius looked back at the list on the screen and gazed at it thoughtfully.

Mal gritted his teeth as Julius swept away. Damned Alliance officials and their arrogance, hiding their little secrets as if they had a right to. "Wait!" Mal called, and Julius paused before exiting to the further recesses of the tent.

"I don't want to repeat myself again," said the man, sounding annoyed.

Mal scowled. "S'not that," he said grudgingly, because it was clear that there was no way he was getting anything out of the bastard anyway. "He... he asked me to make sure that woman was okay. Cleo. The redheaded officer who..."

"I know who she is," Julius said quietly. "You don't need to worry. She is safe and being cared for."

Mal's eyes narrowed. "You sure about that?"

He was pushing buttons now. Julius's mouth drew into a thin line, and he spared a brief glare for Mal. "Do you just assume that your enemies are collectively monsters?" he asked.

"With you people? I can never tell."

"And that's an attitude typical of you people," Julius snapped. "Try thinking for yourself." With that statement, he left abruptly, and a few moments later, another man, most likely an assistant or an aide, stepped out.

Mal hardly heard what the man was saying. He was trying to make sense of what had just happened, and of course, he didn't come away with much understanding.

The past few days had been nearly incomprehensible in terms of what he knew and believed. Everything had been shaken. Everything... even his gorram belief that human beings stayed nice, cold corpses when they died. He'd half-feared that his mind, in trying to wrap itself around too much loss and grief and pain and shock, had just cracked, but even the shaky reassurance that it hadn't did very little to help his case.

No, there was nothing to be done to help a case like him - not by his own side, not by the enemy's, and not by God.

He decided then and there, upon the loss, the death, and being subjected to confinement and release by the hated enemy, that he was done with it all.

Chapter Text

"We live a dying dream, if you know what I mean. It's all that I've ever known."
"Time will kiss the world goodbye, falling down on all that I've ever known."
"I tried to talk with God, to no avail - calling Him in, and out of nowhere, said, 'If You won't save me, please don't waste my time.'"
- "Falling Down"; Oasis

It was a bar that Alfred and Yao had frequented more than once in the past few years, enough that the faces of the regulars and the barkeep had become comfortingly familiar. The area was known for remaining peaceful and carefully neutral even in times of war, a reason why the former nations had often found themselves there, but things had changed when war was over. There was little destruction or disruption to be found in the area, and people had flocked there in great numbers, among them the new veterans of that bloody conflict. And like all soldiers of the losing side, the war seemed to follow them home.

"... and then I punched him in the nose, right before he could make away clean with the money." Wearing a ceaseless grin, Alfred was describing the scene with great relish to the barkeep herself, a woman by the name of Laura - in her late forties, but still quite the figure. "Like this... hey, Yao, can I use you as a demonstration?"

"You may not," Yao replied coolly and scooted his stool further away, tugging his drink with him. Laura smirked as she leaned on the counter.

With a sigh, Alfred did his best to demonstrate using the air as his victim. "Like so. It was extremely heroic, too. Right, Yao?"

"Not really."

"You suck, dude."

Yao did not grace this with a response, and Alfred shook his head, turning back to the smiling Laura once more. "Anyway," he said pointedly, "I got the money back to the lady, who was very grateful and all. The local authorities even gave me a reward." Then he scowled. "It was a pathetic amount. Totally not worth all the trouble I went to. But alas," he sighed dramatically, "such is the life of a hero. Never appreciated."

Yao snorted something unintelligible into his drink, and it was Alfred's turn to ignore him. Laura looked between them in amusement. "A thrilling tale," she told Alfred, her tone reassuring. "Very heroic."

"Thank you, milady," Alfred replied gallantly. "At least someone appreciates it." He stretched out his left arm in an attempt to poke Yao in the side with his elbow, but the distance proved to be too great, and he nearly slipped off his stool. With an embarrassed oath, he righted himself, but not without sending his drink sloshing around in its mug... and spilling a quarter of it onto the countertop. Yao snickered to himself.

Chuckling, Laura reached under the counter and withdrew a cleaning cloth. "I've got it," she assured Alfred, who had turned red. "No worries. But I'm curious..." She ran the cloth over the spill. "D'you do that kinda thing often?" She glanced between them in interest. "Sounds to me like the two of you travel a lot. What are you - just a couple of guys roamin' around, helping people?"

"Not just people," Alfred said, after a moment's thought. "We like to help ourselves, too."

Laura smiled, then excused herself for a moment to attend to a patron who'd shuffled up for more beer. Alfred took another sip of his own drink, the first of the night, thinking about nothing and everything all at once. It was a nice night to be out. Still early, more peaceful than it had been lately, a good time to relax and pretend like the 'verse wasn't still in some form of chaos.

Well, you know... at least in theory.

The nations stiffened nearly in unison, as the atmosphere of the place suddenly shifted and grew tense. Alfred's eyes flicked over to meet Yao's, and they casually pushed their drinks to the side, casting gazes over their shoulders to survey the bar proper.

The air could have been sliced with a knife, such was its thickness, but only half the patrons had realized it. At least until all hell broke loose.

"Aw, man," Alfred groaned as the first punch was thrown, and then limbs and people were flying. "I was really lookin' forward to peace and quiet, too."

One didn't have to listen to the drunken shouts to know what had sparked the fight. The war may have been officially over, but it still raged on in some people's hearts and minds; bitter hatred and loathing was not lost between either side. And as before, the losing side was still outnumbered - Alliance people were everywhere nowadays.

"Gorram soldiers!" Laura cried, fairly running from the storeroom. Her eyes were flashing at the chaos that had broken out in her bar. "Why can't they leave their business elsewhere!" She looked furious, but her gaze found the former nations and lost some of its anger, instead posing a question. "Mind pullin' some heroics right now? Of all nights, my bruiser's late on this one."

"Of course, sweetheart." With a nod, Alfred rose to his feet, and Yao followed suit with a sigh. By this time, the situation had already shifted again; many of the brawlers had fled, and it was less of a scuffle and more of an unbalanced attack on the remaining few and former Browncoats - which, as Alfred's quick inspection revealed, was down to one. A lone man pinned between Alliance supporters, with a rather beefy and heavily drunk guy in his face.

Alfred and Yao had only taken a few steps forward when the beefy guy reeled back as if struck, wheezing out a few choice swears. "You little...!" was as much as his rage allowed him to say before he drew back a fist, and Alfred decided that now was a good time to step up the pace a little. He wasn't going to stand for an unfair fight, especially when all it amounted to was kicking a man when he already down.

"Enough," Yao snapped, just as Alfred latched on to the guy's wrist - the effect was, in Alfred's none-too-humble opinion, quite cool. Bless Yao and his timing. The burly fellow glanced back with hazy eyes, jerking his arm experimentally. There was not a chance in hell of him pulling free; Alfred knew just how easily he could snap every bone in the guy's wrist, and he let that show on his face.

"Stay out o' this!" the man growled.

With a casual tug, Alfred jerked the guy back. The man stumbled, most of his weight supported only by Alfred's grip on his wrist, as the nation loomed over him and tried not to think of how satisfying it would be to teach this guy some manners, drunk or not. "You tellin' me what to do?" he demanded. "Bad idea. Now get out." With a look of disgust, he released the fellow and watch him run away, muttering under his breath, with his metaphorical tail between his legs.

"You too," Alfred heard Yao say, as the younger nation returned to glaring daggers at the rest of the miscreants. "Everyone, out."

The smart ones scampered, releasing their captive Browncoat as they did. A few of stupider ones hesitated, until Yao insinuated, in his native language, what fucking with his patience entailed. Alfred had to resist the urge to laugh. You knew the older nation was pissed when his language became less than eloquent.

That had been much too easy, but Alfred would gladly take credit for it all the same. Grinning, he bowed for the rest of the patrons who set up a cheer, widening his grin in response to Yao's eyeroll. The older nation assisted the remaining Browncoat in getting to his feet; the man was a little drunk, Alfred estimated, and no doubt just as guilty for the fight, but it wasn't as if either nation had the inclination to rebuke him for it.

"You didn't... you didn't have to do that," the man muttered.

"We didn't do it for you," Yao told him. Always to the point, he was.

"Laura over there asked us step in and to break it up," Alfred explained, glancing back. The barkeep stood behind the counter, giving the Browncoat an evil eye that made Alfred shiver. However, she nodded gratefully to the nations and returned to her business... but not before shooting the Browncoat one last dirty look.

The man's face was going through an extraordinary range - foggy confusion was prominent, but also pain and nausea. "Sorry, but I gotta... I'm about to..." He took a few stumbling steps to the door, and Alfred sighed, hastily following and grabbing him by the arm.

"Hold it in, man," Alfred said and helped him to the door.

Night had well and truly settled, and the air was rather chilly. Heedless of the cold, the man stumbled down the steps and to the ground, throwing up as soon as he hit solid earth. Hesitating on the bar's porch, Alfred pulled his jacket tighter as he settled into a lean, his back finding the first support it could. Yao exited behind him, shaking his head disapprovingly, but it was obvious that he was just feigning indifference; he could no more hide the fact that he was desperate for a distraction than Alfred could. The older nation hopped up on the porch's railing, settling himself delicately, and cast a glance over to Alfred, one eyebrow raised. "You always have to interfere," Yao murmured.

Alfred shrugged uncomfortably and shoved his hands into his pockets, glancing at the Browncoat, who had now eased to simple coughing. The younger nation couldn't help it. It pained him to see the losing side of the war so thoroughly crushed... and not just because their fight had reminded him of his own origins as a nation. So what if he had a soft spot for righteous rebellion?

With a groan, the man straightened himself into an awkward sitting position and glanced back up at them, glaring hazily. "You guys got anythin' better to do than watch a man spit his guts out on the ground?" he asked hoarsely.

Well, he was obviously feeling a bit better. There was an undeniable level of snark in the question. "Would you believe us if we said no?" Alfred returned.

The man was still peering up at them with bleary eyes, and his face was registering a level of puzzlement that didn't seem to have alcoholic origins. "Do I know you?" he asked at length.

That's interesting, Alfred thought, intrigued, and a glance confirmed that Yao was on the same mental track. Alfred certainly didn't recall this man's face in his memory, and yet he would have been able to had they ever met in the past - the nation had just enough of a connection left with the people of the 'verse to be certain of that. But it wasn't the first time a human they'd never met had asked that question of them. Some humans seemed to be more in tune with the connection between a nation and its people. Those kinds of humans, somewhere deep within their subconscious, knew exactly what a nation was... even if the information might never consciously register.

"So you're one of those," Yao murmured, dropping all pretense of disinterest.

Alfred hopped down the steps of the porch and offered the man a hand. "Name's Alfred," he said cheerily. "Alfred F. Jones, and don't ask me what the 'F' stands for, 'cause I'm not quite sure myself." It was a little too painful, too sensitive, to think of it as 'Franklin' anymore. But Alfred had always been partial to 'Fuck Yeah' when that became a thing. Maybe he should start springing that on people, just to see their reactions.

After a moment, the man accepted the help, and Alfred pulled him to his feet, noting the firm grip when the man shook his hand. "Malcolm Reynolds," the man said. "Thanks."

The face may not have been familiar, but the name was. Alfred knew he'd seen it somewhere and spent a second searching his memory. Serenity Valley... Julius... that little upstart's computer. Malcolm Reynolds had been a soldier in Serenity Valley... no wonder he was drinking. What had he been? A captain? Sergeant? Something. Alfred couldn't quite remember the rank that had been attached to the name.

In response to Reynolds's questioning look, Yao dipped his head in a nod and offered his own name, in the silly backwards style of the Chinese. "Wang Yao." His head cocked slightly, in thought. "You're a Browncoat, aru?" It was an unnecessary question as far as verbal answers went, but Yao wasn't looking for the verbal, now, was he?

"Obviously," Reynolds said darkly, scowling. "What's it to ya?"

He'd go right back to drinking if they let him, Alfred estimated, with another glance at Yao. They shrugged in unison, and Yao hopped off the railing, taking his usual place at Alfred's side. Alfred, meanwhile, scrutinized Reynolds for a moment, thinking hard. He couldn't just leave the guy here like he was. The man had despair written all over him; Alfred couldn't fault him for it, but neither could he leave him to dwell in it. It wasn't in the nation's nature.

"What?" Reynolds asked irritably, and Alfred realized that more than a few seconds had passed.

He smiled, sad and encouraging all at once. "We'll be lettin' you get on your way, then," he said, but he wasn't going to leave without offering this man something a bit more solid to hold to. "And you'd better remember something, Malcolm Reynolds... take to the skies if you have to, do what you gotta do, but don't be wastin' your life by drinking away your problems, 'kay? You haven't got it as bad as you think, trust me."

No... it could be much worse. That fact was something either nation could wholeheartedly attest to.

"What?" Reynolds asked again, but this time in surprise. He was gazing at them, taken aback, and Alfred figured the impression had been made thoroughly enough.

"Well, see ya!" he said with a wave and turned on his heel, his hands finding their comfortable resting place in his pockets. As he strolled away from the bar, he heard Yao murmur something to Reynolds in Mandarin... wishing him good luck. But Alfred willed himself not to look back.

A few moments later, Yao caught up to him, and Alfred felt the older nation's shoulder bump companionably against his. "Always trying to be heroically mysterious," observed Yao, amused.

"It leaves a better impression in their heads," Alfred said knowledgeably. His feet were following the dirt road back to the cheap motel at which they'd set up, because he honestly didn't feel like drinking anymore; Yao didn't argue. "Hey," the younger nation said, breaking into the comfortable silence. "Yao. Where d'you wanna go after this?"

The thoughtful little smile slid off of Yao's face, and for a moment, his countenance darkened. "I'm not sure," he said, consciously smoothing his expression. "Where would you like to go?"

"Don't start that," Alfred said with a half-hearted chuckle, but his good humor slipped away just as quickly as it had come. "Honestly, buddy... I don't know, either."

There was a restlessness in his body, in his mind. The war had shaken up the comfortable routine that he and Yao had settled into for the past several decades, and they were finding it impossible to reclaim. Their help was rendered practically unnecessary in the war's aftermath, now; the cleanup effort was winding down and nearly complete, helped along tremendously by well-meaning Alliance programs - of whose origin Alfred had an inkling. Lately, the two of them never stayed in one place for more than a few weeks. They hardly stayed in the same motel or inn or house for more than a few days. And no place they visited seemed to satisfy them even a little bit.

It was, Alfred reflected darkly, as if his inner self was crying out for home and refusing any substitute. I miss you, Earth.

The unbidden thought sprang into his mind too suddenly, before he could rein it in and control it. The word he had forbidden to himself scratched at a wound that would never heal, and it bled sluggishly for a few moments. Damn it all.

Yao's hand came to rest comfortingly on his shoulder. "How about we go somewhere with lots of food?" he suggested, his tone tempting. "A Core world, for instance." He grinned. "I'm sure Winston and Akiko would love to feed us."

The bleeding stopped. Alfred nodded slowly, a smile spreading across his face. "Yeah," he agreed. "I'd like to see them." More than like to... he practically needed to see them at this point, outside the context of war and purpose, of anything. He neither needed nor wanted a reason to visit, even though a good enough reason was currently tugging at the ache that resided in his chest.

"Then I'll put in a call to Akiko as soon as we get to some proper technology," Yao promised, and Alfred gave him a grateful grin, contenting himself with thoughts of his living and breathing family.

It took Malcolm Reynolds less time than he expected to find Zoe.

They'd kept up contact after the war had ended; not a great deal of contact like a gorram couple or something, but enough to let Mal know that Zoe was just fine, doing her Dust Devilin' and generally being more useful than Mal's current pathetic state. Once, he might have joined her. Once, he would have welcomed the chance to keep fighting, even if it was just to let the Alliance know that the Browncoats were not truly beaten.

But that once was no more, and honestly, Mal felt as close to truly beaten as his trampled pride would allow him to feel.

However, when he contacted Zoe again, there was nothing secretive about her location. In fact, she just straight up told him where she was, and she turned out to be on Hera, of all places. She'd been helping with the last of the cleanup, and Mal found her in a newly built inn that housed a few people he recognized as Dust Devils. Not hiding, not disguised - out in the open.

"I'm lookin' for Zoe Alleyne," Mal told the clerk, who looked over him disinterestedly.

"She said you'd be showin' up soon," the clerk said. "Room 102. It'll be open."

It was on the first floor. Mal almost entered without knocking, a force of habit, but he remembered just in time to bring his hand to the wood to let her know he was there. After a moment, the door swung open, and he saw his former second-in-command standing in the doorway, eyeing him coolly.

Then she slapped him.

"Ow!" he cried, clapping a hand to his stinging cheek. Damn, but she had an arm and a half on her. "The hell, Zoe?"

She shrugged. "Just makin' sure."

When she stepped aside, he entered the room warily. "Of what?" he asked sourly, even though he was perfectly aware of deserving the slap. Deserved a bit more, too, but hopefully Zoe would hold off on that until he could set things straight.

"That you're not drunk." Zoe gave him a brief once-over. "You're not, are you?"

He shook his head, casting his eyes about the room and taking a few steps forward. It was what he'd expect from her - plain, simple, and efficient, although there were some very interesting papers laying on the bed, where he presumed she'd been flipping through them. They looked like applications or letters or some such official things.

Zoe closed the door behind her, and with a resolute sigh, Mal turned around to face her. "I'm sorry," he said at once. Best to get it out now, before he chickened out. "For everything lately. I'm Exhibit A of the perfect idiot."

Zoe's eyes widened briefly, and she seemed to be thoroughly searching his face. After a moment, she nodded, much to his relief. "That you are," she agreed. "But I'll believe it." Her gaze turned curious, and she folded her arms, her feet sliding into a soldier's rest position. "What knocked some sense into you?"

"Well, it wasn't your fist," Mal said ruefully, absently rubbing his cheek. "It was... somethin' weird, actually. Someone weird. There were these two guys, and... eh, well, they helped me out a bit. Made me realize I could be dead or maimed or somethin' worse than what I've got now."

Zoe frowned, and Mal couldn't tell if she was skeptical, impressed, still angry with him, or a mixture of all three. "And what are you going to do about it, then?" she asked evenly.

"Well..." And here Mal trailed off, thinking.

Take to the skies if you have to, do what you gotta do, but don't be wastin' your life by drinking away your problems, 'kay? You haven't got it as bad as you think, trust me.

"You wanna buy a ship?" Mal asked abruptly.

Now Zoe seemed truly surprised, but Mal continued before she could respond. "This way, you won't have to sign up with official strangers," he said, indicating the papers that rested on the bed. "It'll be our own ship, where we won't have to take orders from no one. We'll do our own thing... outside Alliance."

He'd given this some serious thought, ever since that night at the bar, and he figured it could work. He hadn't wasted all of his money on booze, thank the cruel Lord, and with whatever Zoe had... well, he figured they could swing it. Enough to get off the ground and start some real business.

"Outside Alliance," Zoe murmured. "You want us to become crooks."

"I prefer to think of it as selective and sometimes shady business folks." Mal gave her a keen glance. "Be a thorn in the side of the Alliance, all sneaky-like. Dust Devils disbanded, huh?" He'd heard rumors about the death of one of the group, a leader who'd put them together - it was a death that had been praised heavily by Alliance propaganda. Near as he could figure, that was why it had been so easy to find Zoe... and why she was doing cleanup and looking for new employment.

Zoe didn't answer, though her face became steely for a moment. Mal waited, hardly breathing, for her response.

"You find us a ship and get us a crew," Zoe said at last, "and I'll take to callin' you 'sir' again."

Mal grinned in relief. He'd known he could count on this girl, even when he himself couldn't be counted on. "Jus' leave it to me," he said. "Though, uh... if you've got any money on you, I wouldn't be adverse to acceptin' donations..."

Zoe rolled her eyes. "You haven't changed," she said, though it was clear that she was smiling, too.

As she went to unearth the money she had hidden around, so that they could find out how much they had between them, Mal thought about the future. His old life was gone now - dead with his men, with Marcus, with Serenity Valley, and with the cause. The rest of his life wouldn't be easy - Lord, no - but this was a start. A start in something he'd never embraced before, but it was something.

And 'something' was all he could ask for, at this point.

Chapter Text


"All the other kids with the pumped up kicks better run, better run, outrun my gun."
"All the other kids with the pumped up kicks better run, better run, faster than my bullet."
- "Pumped Up Kicks"; Foster The People

Occasionally, Yao was of the opinion that Alfred took to playing cowboy a little too much sometimes.

This was one of those times. While the older nation could appreciate the sentiment of helping settlers, especially ones struggling on such an inhospitable place as Whitefall, there was a time and place to back off, and Patience had made it abundantly clear that they were welcome to leave, with an unspoken but strong emphasis on 'soon'. Frontier folk, as Alfred had so charmingly called them, were a tough lot and not the most inclined to graciously accept anything approaching charity - and Patience even less inclined to take kindly to any intrusion on what she perceived as her territory by people she knew she could not control.

Her name was certainly misleading, and Yao had already made it equally clear that he would not jump on her every order.

He supposed the only reason she hadn't kicked them out of her town - and indeed, completely off the moon - was because of Alfred's more endearing qualities. The younger nation certainly had a way with people; even a hardened old lady with eyes, hair, and personality of steel had some difficulty in resisting the irresistible charisma that was Alfred F. Jones, and she'd grudgingly put up with their - or rather, Alfred's - continued interference. Which, of course, allowed Alfred to fully embrace the kind of cowboy lifestyle he thrilled in.

It wasn't that Yao minded hard work, not at all. However, one could only do so much to carve civilization out of such a place, and as far as his admittedly quite acute judgment could discern, a rather abysmal job was all that had been accomplished, even after all these years. He was set on heading out with the next supply ship, scheduled to arrive today; the next would not come for many, many months. But Yao's insistent reminder that there was only one definite avenue of escape left for the foreseeable future didn't seem to be making much of an impression on Alfred - though, of course, there was always the possibility that the younger nation was being stubborn on purpose.

This moon's star seemed more akin to a furnace than anything else, baking the moon and its inhabitants in the kind of way that made Yao long for even a small stream to duck his head in. A small sip from the canteen tucked into the pack on his back didn't help matters much, and he was reduced to wiping the sweat off his face every few minutes, searching vigorously for any centimeter of shade that could be found. Of which there was, sadly, none. The area was pretty barren and rocky, and Yao was quite sure that the scouting mission was a hopeless venture; as if any living thing besides lizards would be lurking here.

"There's nothing here," he said crossly.

"There might be," Alfred replied, shading his eyes with a hand and scanning the horizon. Yao followed his gaze to look longingly at the cluster of trees in the distance; not particularly thick, but trees meant water that he could possibly dive in. "You never know."

"You can say that until we drop dead of heat exhaustion," Yao snapped. "What's really going on here?" Oh, he had an idea; lately, Alfred had become even more restless than normal, and Yao knew exactly how frontier life seemed to ease that for him.

But Alfred was avoiding his gaze, keeping his eyes locked in the distance. "If there's a possibility that Whitefall's personification has finally decided to wake up, then we gotta search a bit, right?" he said stubbornly. "You know how they tend to pop up in nature, though Lord knows why."

Yao doubted that this area even counted as nature; it was nothing but brownish-yellow rock. He folded his arms, leveling a stern gaze at his partner. "You and I both know Whitefall won't be waking up any time soon," he said. "This place is barely making it along as it is." Searching out an implausible child in this place was just the latest of Alfred's schemes to help the moon along, and Yao suspected it had more to do with his restlessness than with any actual belief that they'd find Whitefall. "Alfred... I know-"

But Yao cut off at the alarmed expression on Alfred's face; the younger nation was looking up now, above the horizon, and Yao's eyes darted to follow. There was a commotion in the atmosphere - two ships, with one flying steadily and hovering uncertainly near another, larger one, which happened to be careening down in a nearly uncontrolled flight towards the ground, trailing smoke that couldn't be good.

"The supply ship," Alfred said, muttering a curse. "And... that's a Firefly. Huh. Haven't seen one of those in a while."

Yao took his word for it; ships were not the older nation's strong point, and Alfred's eyesight was eagle-sharp compared to pretty much everyone else. "That's not going to be a nice landing," he observed, and both of them winced as the supply ship collided ungracefully with the trees Yao had been eyeing earlier. Even from their distance, the distant clattering could be heard, a terrible din of crunching and smashing. Yao dearly hoped that everyone and everything inside was intact; a lot was riding on that ship.

As the Firefly made a smoother landing near it, Alfred jogged to where they'd tethered their horses to a small outcropping, Yao following at a slower pace. "Maybe we won't be getting off this moon tomorrow," Alfred said rather sheepishly once he'd mounted, and Yao shot him a glare over his mare's back before hoisting himself up. So he had just been acting stubborn; typical, really, but Yao wasn't looking forward to waiting an unnecessary number of months for the next supply ship. Perhaps they could book passage on that Firefly, though their funds were dangerously low; Patience wasn't exactly free with her money, even if it was well-earned, and pestering her too much was something Yao did not like to do.

The ride was a nice change. It stirred up a little breeze that felt wonderful on Yao's face, and by the time they neared the site of the crash, his mood had fractionally improved for the better... though it soured a bit upon viewing the wreckage. Up close, the damage seemed overwhelming: trees splintered and some even ripped up by their scraggly roots, the ground furrowed and torn up, the ship itself still smoking and bent in places that should not have such angles. Yao was no expert, but he didn't think the thing was going to be getting off the ground any time soon.

It seemed that the entire crew had been evacuated already, as there was a crowd milling about in some confusion. One man seemed particularly upset, insisting over and over again how he didn't know what had gone wrong, that everything had been working perfectly a moment before, to a young man who looked as if he'd rather be anywhere else at that point. A moment later, a sharp command of "Bester!" from within the ship's loading zone caused the young man's head to whip around, and the nations reacted much the same as they reached the edge of the crowd, having dismounted and tied their horses to the nearest untouched tree - the voice was familiar.

And none other than Malcolm Reynolds emerged from the lazily drifting smoke, laboring under the burden of some of the rescued cargo. It took Yao a moment to place his face, though only a moment; a nation's memory was vastly better than a human's, particularly when it came to people, and it had only been about a year, after all. The man certainly was different, now; no longer a drooping, drunken figure, he had a certain authority to him that was undeniable, and the haunted look... well, if not gone, then definitely buried deep. "Get in here," Reynolds told Bester, jerking his head over his shoulder. "Figure out what went wrong, since your little friend there is such a wreck."

Bester nodded. "Right-o, Captain." He gave the other man, probably the supply ship's mechanic, an apologetic shrug before obeying. Reynolds muttered something to him as he passed, and Bester nodded again before disappearing into the ship's depths.

Beside Yao, Alfred gave a short laugh and stepped forward. "I see you took my advice!" he called out, and Reynolds, noticing them, had only a brief moment to look astonished before the cargo box he was carrying nearly slipped from his grip. With an oath in Mandarin, he let it ease to the ground with the other stacked boxes, giving it an unobtrusive vengeful kick for good measure.

"I see why you wanted the heavier box," observed the blond and mustached man who followed him, carrying a lighter load.

"Can it, Wash," Reynolds said and glanced back as Alfred and Yao stepped around the crowd to the space set aside for the cargo. "What are you guys, stalkers or something?"

"We were here first," Alfred said good-naturedly, and the two of them shook hands. "Good to see you again." Even though their first and only meeting had been about ten minutes or so, give or take five. But Alfred was the kind of person who made friends instantly. Yao shook the man's hand next, giving him a pleasant nod.

The blond man set his own box down and straightened. "Friends of yours?" he asked Reynolds, eyeing the nations curiously.

"After a fashion," Reynolds answered. "Alfred and Yao, I think it was?" When he received a confirming nod, he continued. "This here's Wash, my pilot. Got a ship, like you said," he added to Alfred.

Alfred nodded, his eyes gleaming excitedly. "I saw. A Firefly, right?"

"You like ships?" Wash asked, smiling at Alfred's blatantly obvious enthusiasm.

"Love 'em," the younger nation affirmed.

"Please don't get him started," Yao added, with a long-suffering sigh. Too late; with the apparent lack of injury and/or immediate danger, Alfred seemed to have temporarily forgotten about the wreck and instead launched a question full of technobabble, which even Wash seemed to have difficulty following. Shaking his head, Yao turned to Reynolds and offered an apologetic smile. "What happened here?"

Reynolds shrugged. "Don't rightly know. We came across 'em a little ways outside atmo, flashing emergency signals like crazy. Somethin' in their engines was givin' out, and whatever Bester did held 'em long enough to break atmo without burnin' up, but..." He nodded to the wreckage. "Well, you can see how long that lasted."

Yao grimaced, just as a woman approached, sporting a sawed-off shotgun as if she did so every day. "There's a party approachin' from the town over the ridge," she informed Reynolds. "They're armed."

"That'll be Patience," Yao said. Of course the crash would have been seen from Anorah; Whitefall's main settlement wasn't far, and the supply ship had been bringing its cargo there to begin with. This prompted a questioning look from the woman.

"This is Yao," Reynolds said by way of explanation. "Old friend. Yao, this is Zoe, my right-hand woman."

Yao and Zoe exchanged a nod, but there wasn't time for further pleasantries. The party, on horseback, could be seen from here now, topping the ridge on which the small gathering of trees stood. Patience was indeed at their head, looking like a rugged frontier queen, and the general movement around the ship partially ceased as the group approached.

Patience pulled to a halt first, the rest of her entourage following suit. After a moment of scrutinizing the damage, she dismounted and took a few steps forward, holding her gun in the same kind of deceptively casual manner as Zoe. "Where's my supplies?" she asked brusquely, eyeing Reynolds suspiciously.

"It's all right here, Patience!" It was Alfred who answered, waving from his and Wash's position near the gathered cargo. He indicated it with a dramatic flourish, then stepped forward himself, to Yao's side.

"Ship was already experiencing trouble when we found her," Reynolds called out to Patience. "We didn't touch 'er."

It was obviously what Patience was thinking, from the way she was glaring at the unfamiliar crewmembers. She narrowed her eyes, and when she next spoke, the suspicion hadn't left her voice. "Who're you?" she asked Reynolds.

"Name's Malcolm Reynolds," the man answered cautiously. "I'm captain of that Firefly over yonder. You?"

Patience snorted. "Most folks know me as Patience. I run this area." And it was a claim few were willing to dispute. Anorah unofficially belonged to Patience, and as the supplies ran through that town first, Patience was the one who distributed them to the other settlements of Whitefall. As such, she was establishing a growing control over the moon, unsanctioned though it was.

The old woman, apparently losing interest in Reynolds, turned to her men and ordered a few of them to run back to the settlement, to get off-roaders to transport the supplies into town. "Now, wait just a moment," Reynolds said suddenly, drawing Patience's attention the men ran off. "You wouldn't even have these supplies if it weren't for us. We helped get this thing to land, y'see. So I think we're entitled to share, just a little bit."

In answer, Patience gave him a derisive laugh. "Share?" she asked. "Somethin' tells me you were lurking up there just lookin' for somethin' to scavenge."

Reynolds placed a hand over his heart. "That's real hurtful, y'know. And I don't think you should be throwin' such accusations around, seein' as that you don't seem to be a designated Alliance official." As if to confirm these words, Yao saw the man who was probably the supply ship's captain shift a little guiltily; technically, supplies should only be delivered to Alliance-assigned administrators, of which there seemed to be a distinct lack in Anorah.

"Then I suppose we're standin' on even ground," Patience returned. "Got no love for the Alliance, do ya?"

"No, ma'am, I don't," Reynolds affirmed. "So maybe we can reach an agreement."

Or maybe not. Yao very nearly spoke up then, to warn Reynolds of Patience's legendary stinginess, but Patience displayed that before he could point it out.

"The people need these supplies," she said dismissively. "And I'm not inclined to hand some over to those who can obviously afford to get off this little rock. Unless you're plannin' on livin' here, I suggest you leave while my mood is good."

It seemed that Reynolds was equally stubborn, because he didn't take this advice; Yao could see Zoe's hands tighten reflexively on her gun in response to the glare Patience was now sending them. Just then, Bester emerged from the yawning opening of the loading zone, shaking his head. "Dunno what went wrong, Captain. But the engine's a sorry mess." He gave Reynolds a significant nod, then noticed the new additions to the crowd and tried to look casual while edging away.

Reynolds sighed and met Patience's gaze unflinchingly. "Well, then... don't wanna be takin' away the people's supplies, now, do we? But I still think some compensation is in order. How's about we just take a couple o' parts for our own ship? We're in somethin' of a tight spot with that, ourselves."

"That's too bad," Patience said, in a way that was most definitely a negative. "Seems like you should treat your ship a little better."

Reynolds's easy manner was dropping; Yao could tell that this, unlike the supplies, was something he really did need immediately. The man's eyes narrowed. "We could've just let your supplies flounder up there," he said flatly. "Would've been easy takin'."

"And then you would've had Alliance on your ass," Patience said. "This way, you get to walk away as heroes. And that's all you're gettin'."

"You are a very ungrateful old lady," Reynolds observed, planting his feet a little more firmly. It was clear that he was not going to budge. "We've got a right."

"Patience," Alfred interjected, trying for reasonable. He, like Yao, could feel the growing tension becoming almost palpable. "They did help. And it isn't your ship to begin with."

"It's on my territory," Patience replied shortly, glancing at him in annoyance. "Stay outta this, boy."

Reynolds huffed. "Listen to the kid, Patience. Ain't your ship, but I'm sure its captain would be more likely to oblige." He turned to the man in question, who looked alarmed at suddenly being injected into the argument.

"Don't bring me into this," he said hastily.

Reynolds scowled. "You're welcome for saving your ass, then."

Patience ignored the man completely. "You're outnumbered, Reynolds," she said, unusually calm, and as if to emphasize this, the rest of her men shifted forward threateningly, though no weapons had been overtly drawn. Yao could sense Zoe do the same. "Don't push me."

"Listen to her," Yao muttered to Reynolds; when Patience got too calm, things got bad. Her anger and lack of her namesake were not explosive, but quiet. "Just walk away."

"My ship needs it," Reynolds shot back, then looked over at Patience, his eyes gleaming in defiance. "I'm asking nicely, y'know. And I'm not leaving 'til I get what I need."

Patience shrugged, and there was something decidedly final in the motion. "Well... I told ya not to push me." Her movement was deceptively quick; her hand merely twitched, and Reynolds staggered back with the bang that accompanied this, his hand flying down to the blood beginning to stain his right thigh.

As the area devolved into panic, Yao moved just as fast, trusting Alfred to do the same. Damn Patience and her temper; she was far too trigger-happy for her age, though Yao hadn't expected her to outright shoot him! Then again, he'd never seen anyone challenge her to this extent, in the time he and Alfred had been there. Apparently, she didn't like it.

"Don't!" he snapped at Zoe, who'd furiously raised her weapon to return fire. The situation couldn't be made worse; it had to be contained, because the character of Patience's men meant it'd become a bloodbath otherwise. "You need to get back to your ship now." He took a moment to assess the situation. Bester hung back uncertainly, eyes wide, but Wash had run forward to support Reynolds, who looked more pissed off than pained; the wound wasn't life-threatening. Alfred had run forward to get a handle on the other side of the dilemma, speaking quickly to Patience while placing himself deliberately between her and the source of her anger. She hesitated because of this, glaring at him, but Yao could tell that Alfred was working his apparently youthful magic to full capacity.

Zoe had made the same assessment with equal speed, and she didn't fire, though she kept her gun leveled toward those of Patience's men doing the exact same thing. "You'd better know what you're doing," she told Yao, backing up to where the rest of her crew had gathered. Outnumbered indeed; four of them versus at least ten men on Patience's side, plus the crew of the supply ship - though they seemed to be decidedly neutral in the situation, having beat a hasty retreat to a safe distance.

Yao sighed; he and Alfred would have to even the odds a little bit, he supposed, though he was dearly hoping it wouldn't come to a fight. His hopes, it seemed, were rather well-founded. Alfred took a step back from Patience, hands raised in a gesture of peace, his voice calm. "They're leaving," he assured Patience. "You've definitely made your point."

With a long look, first at Alfred and then at Reynolds's crew, Patience lowered her weapon. "Get off my moon, then," she growled.

Well, Yao reflected, as he hurried toward Wash and Reynolds... the problem of leaving no longer seemed to be an issue. He didn't think Reynolds or any of his crew would complain about Yao and Alfred tagging along at this point. It was just lucky that they carried their scant belongings with them at all times.

"Let's go," the older nation said shortly, sliding his arm under one of Reynolds's; Wash had the other one. Yao threw a glance over his shoulder to make sure Alfred was behind them, watching their backs with Zoe, and, reassured of this, helped Reynolds to stumble along towards the Firefly looming nearby.

"I'm beginnin' to think I owe you guys a little too much," Reynolds grunted, as they neared the ship.

"Just get us off this moon, and we'll call it even," Yao returned, and the six of them passed within the confines of the ship.

"It'll hold," Bester said without an overt amount of confidence, eyeing the whirling engine, "... I think."

It seemed that the kid, on Reynolds's orders, had swiped a few small and vitally necessary parts from the supply ship - nothing big that couldn't be concealed, but hopefully the ship would be able to limp to Athens. Alfred's knowledge of the Firefly class was far from complete, and he was no mechanic, but between himself, Bester, and Wash... well, it had better hold. Or else they were all royally screwed.

"Guess I'd better make sure we're still on course for Athens," Wash said, as they exited the engine room. "And that the captain survived. Big, scary wound like that, you just never know."

Alfred smiled. Reynolds had still been fully lucid when they'd gotten him into the ship's infirmary - and none-too-happy about being there. The bullet, according to Yao, had grazed the outer muscle and fortunately not gotten lodged in the leg itself - for all her temper, Patience knew what she was doing. Muscle damage was a possibility, and the danger of blood loss remained, but between Yao and Zoe, the captain should be alright. That was the most Alfred had gotten out of him before Yao had shooed the rest of them out of there, leaving only the older nation and Zoe to patch up the captain.

And speaking of that... "He'll be fine," Zoe informed them, having already emerged from the infirmary as they approached. "Barely a scratch."

"A scratch!" came Reynolds's voice from within the room. Alfred could see him heaving himself off the medical chair, despite Yao's protests. "That was way too much poking for a scratch! I was startin' to think you wanted to stab me, Zoe."

"There wouldn't have been a need if you hadn't gotten yourself shot," Zoe told him disapprovingly.

"I do believe it was a crazy old lady pullin' the trigger, not me." Reynolds exited the infirmary as well, huffing a little and on a crutch, but otherwise he didn't look too bad. This was not enough for Yao, though, as the older nation came up right behind him, scowling.

"You should be resting for a few more hours, at least," Yao said crossly. "You'll make it worse!"

Reynolds tried to wave him away. "It's fine," he said airily. "Got more important things to worry about." He directed a glance at Bester. "Am I to assume that, because we seem to be movin' at a steady pace, the engine is at least not collapsing on us?"

Bester shrugged, scratching his head absently. "I figure it'll take us to Athens, but no further. We need to get some new parts, Captain."

"I know, I know," Reynolds muttered. "Damn it all." He gave Yao an apologetic look, shaking his head. "'Fraid I can't pay you for your help. We're kinda strapped for cash at the moment."

"Passage to Athens is thanks enough," Yao said, still frowning at him. "But I might take that back if you don't rest." His arms were folded, and though he was rather slight, he made an imposing figure nonetheless, much to the amusement of everyone save Reynolds.

"Why do I get the feelin' that he'll drug me if I don't?" the captain muttered to Alfred, eyeing Yao warily.

"Probably because he will," Alfred replied, grinning. "Yao's motherly, you see. In a ferocious way."

The older nation gave them both an evil eye, which reinforced this notion, and Reynolds, whose face did look rather pale and tired despite his bravado, wisely decided to comply... as long as someone brought him some liquor first.

Zoe took it upon herself to bring the nations to the guest quarters of the ship, which were humble but nice enough. Alfred felt right at home, honestly, with the simplicity of the abode and the whirring of the ship beneath him. He was eager to explore every inch of the place and was on the verge of asking before Zoe should leave, but the woman had hesitated after ascertaining that yes, they would need two beds, and briefly explaining the way things ran on the ship.

"Something else you want to add?" Yao prompted her.

Zoe gave a little sigh and faced them directly, inclining her head in what was a moment later revealed to be a gesture of gratitude. "Thank you," she said simply.

"Aw, don't mention it," Alfred said breezily; it was hardly like they needed to be thanked for stepping in when the situation had so clearly needed it, but Zoe shook her head.

"Me 'n Mal were comrades during the war," she said, almost thoughtfully. "And after the war, I was a Dust Devil until that ended. But Mal... well, he drank his sorrows away, at least 'til he came to his senses. All he'd tell me was that he'd met two strange guys, outta nowhere, who talked the sense back into 'im. And the captain doesn't have many 'old friends' - at least, not ones he treats like you two. I'd say he actually likes you fellas. Or at least owes you somethin'." Zoe smiled. "All I'm sayin' is, thanks. For whatever you did for 'im."

Well, that was certainly unexpected and accurate. Alfred chuckled delightedly. "I can see why you're his right-hand woman."

"I'm right, aren't I." It wasn't a question.

"Spot on." Yao nodded. "Most impressive. But there's no need to thank us, really."

Zoe dipped her head. "I'll keep that in mind, then. Dinner's in another three hours, but if you want anything, kitchen's open." She turned to go, stepping out of the room, but Alfred surged forward all of a sudden.

"Wait!" he said. "Um... is it okay if I like, explore the ship, maybe?" He'd slipped into his asking-a-favor mode, looking at once eager and pitifully humble, with just a hint of puppy eyes.

Zoe looked faintly amused. "Not exactly our habit to let guests wander the ship," she said.

"But I know my way around ships," Alfred said cajolingly. "It's just been a while since I've been in a Firefly. It's exciting."

Zoe gave him a long look, and Alfred made himself appear appropriately contrite, aware of Yao's own amusement with him. "You did say that there wasn't a need for thanks," the woman said at last, completely straight-faced.

"Yao said that!" Alfred was quick to affirm. "You should know that I prefer to be rewarded. With tours and such."

A little smirk broke through Zoe's poker-face. She nodded once. "I'll have Bester give you a tour," she said.

Probably to make sure nothing got broken, but Alfred could live with that. He beamed gratefully at Zoe, and she left shaking her head.

The flight to Athens wasn't long - just over a day, at the careful pace Wash put them at, to go easy on the engine - but Yao found himself enjoying it immensely.

There was an enclosed quality about Serenity - not stifling or restricting, but an aura that made one feel as if the rest of the world couldn't quite get in. It was, quite frankly, a rather homey feel, in every sense of the word. Alfred's ability to make friends instantly factored into this - after making the usual flashy spectacle of himself on Bester's tour (to the mechanic's admiration), he proceeded to form some sort of bond with Wash that later had Yao finding the two of them exclaiming over action figures together. With a dignified roll of his eyes, Yao had found more normal company with Zoe, and between the two of them, they'd managed to make Mal, as he insisted on being called, rest for far longer than he would have otherwise.

By the time they were approaching Athens, Yao was a bit loath to leave, if only because he'd settled into a far more comfortable atmosphere in several long hours (and with far more pleasant people) than he'd been able to establish during the months on Whitefall. And it seemed that he wasn't the only one with this sentiment.

"You could join my crew," Mal proposed abruptly, when it was himself, Yao, and Wash on the bridge - the other three were in the engine room, carefully watching over the limping engine in case it needed assistance in landing them. Through the bridgescreen, Athens loomed, blocking out all view of the space around it.

Yao glanced at the captain in some astonishment. "Pardon?"

Mal shrugged, adjusting the crutch he still leaned on, as per Yao's very stern orders. "I figure I owe you guys somethin'. And we could use a medic," here he nodded to Yao, "and a... diplomat or bruiser, whichever Alfred prefers."

Yao snorted at 'diplomat' - Alfred certainly had overwhelming amounts of charm and had diffused the situation on Whitefall admirably, but 'bruiser' seemed to fit him a mite better. "I'm no medic," the older nation said. "I know a great deal about healing, true, but I'm not a reliable replacement for a doctor."

"What self-respecting doctor would travel with the likes of us, though?" Mal said. "Between you and Zoe, we could do just fine." He paused a moment, frowning. "We don't offer much in the way of wealth or nothin', but I seem to recall you mentionin' earlier that you don't have a home. That is, if you don't mind puttin' up with folks on the shadier side of the law."

"If nothing else, we offer entertainment," Wash added sagely, his eyes fixed on his work, guiding Serenity towards Athens's atmosphere. "Think of all the shenanigans we could get into."

Yao smiled, reluctantly pleased by the offer. Mal had certainly seemed to pull together his crew from a mixed bunch, so Yao couldn't claim to be surprised, but... "Thank you," he said. "But my comrade and I... we keep to ourselves, for certain reasons."

Mal nodded, and though he wasn't the easiest to read, Yao got the impression that he was rather disappointed. "I can respect that. Well, the offer will still stand, so long as we're flyin'. And if you ever need anythin'..."

"Then I know who to contact," Yao finished. "Assuming we're on the same side of the 'verse. We do tend to travel, you know." A thought came to him, then, sudden and blooming rapidly as Serenity began to tremble beneath them. "In fact... once we land, I may need to send a wave."

Racine had been one of Athens's biggest port cities, but it could no longer be termed quite so. Biggest salvage yard hit closer to the mark; the war had torn the planet up, situated, as it had been, in a virtual tug-of-war between the two sides. Alliance firebombing had left its mark everywhere, but that didn't stop Racine from being bustling nonetheless. Alfred eyed the docks spread out before them with a hesitant look; Yao's little call had temporarily saved them the trouble of having to obtain a salvage license to even land here or else just sneak in, but that didn't mean he trusted Serenity's crew to not cause trouble now that they were safely planetside. He liked them and all, but it didn't take a genius to notice that they were not quite legal in everything they did.

"You guys should reconsider Mal's offer," Wash told him, blinking against the bright sunlight as he approached.

"Maybe one day," Alfred said, with a noncommittal shrug. Much as he'd enjoyed the ship and its crew, it wasn't worth it. It never was.

Wash didn't look convinced by this, and Alfred didn't blame him. It was a pathetic lie, really. "Look," the younger nation said, deciding that a change of subject was in order. He wasn't as great as Yao at explaining it in a way that wasn't a lie. "Before we go... I need to tell you something important."

Wash raised an eyebrow.

"Shave the 'stache, dude," Alfred told him seriously. "You want her to look twice at you, it's gotta go."

The pilot fairly spluttered at this. "Why would a moustache matter?" he asked indignantly.

"Because chicks dig a guy with no facial hair," Alfred explained, in a rather worldly manner. "Unless said guy can pull off the whole 'ruggedly sexy' routine, and sorry, but you don't seem the type."

Wash seemed to wrestle with indecision for a moment, and finally, his shoulders deflated a little. "You really think it'll work?" he asked. "I mean, I do get the feeling that she avoids me sometimes. But is it really because of the 'stache?"

"Probably," Alfred said wisely. "I mean, it's like its own little being, taking over your face." He hoisted his belongings over his shoulder and snickered at Wash's expression as Yao called impatiently for him to hurry his rear up. "Good luck with that."

"Yeah, well, you too. You know, with whatever you guys do."

Alfred threw a little wave over his shoulder to Wash and to Bester, who was emerging from the ship's depths, and stepped fully into the sunlight, strolling over to where Yao, Zoe, and Mal stood - or rather, Mal leaned, grimacing and swearing every time he was forced to adjust his weight on the crutch. As Alfred approached, Yao was asking how long Serenity would be in port, and it was an unsure shrug that Mal offered. "Depends on how long it takes to fix up our engine."

And also on how legal their methods, Alfred knew, but considering the pitiful state of the engine, that would still give them a little while. Yao merely nodded, and Alfred poked Mal in the arm, deftly turning the conversation lest a 'why?' be added to Mal's statement. "You should probably get yourself a better mechanic," he said confidentially.

"It's not like they come in stock," Mal said, rather exasperated. "Bester's been managin', and that's good enough for me." He sighed. "We'll think of somethin' with this engine."

"I'm sure you will," Yao said serenely. "I wish you all the luck with that, Captain. And you, Zoe, with handling him."

Mal looked properly wounded by this statement as Zoe smiled. "Oh, I can manage well enough," she said. "I just hope you can handle yours."

Alfred had the grace to look abashed.

The nations left them there, with a few more goodbyes, and Alfred couldn't help but cast glances over his shoulder until the crowds blocked his view. To the untrained eye, he and Yao were moving aimlessly through the throng, but there was a certain destination in mind.

"So Homer's actually in town," Alfred eventually said. "That's a stroke of luck."

"I thought he might be," Yao said with a nod. "Racine's certainly been busy lately, and the new governor is located here. It saves us the trouble of having to go through the governor and unnecessary questions. Homer will better understand."

Alfred smiled fondly, though the expression was tinged with sadness. With the regular traveling he and Yao did, they managed to visit most of the planets in the 'verse - their children, of sorts - often enough. However, it had been a while - since the end of the war, actually - since they'd visited Athens and Homer O'Rourke, Athens's personification... and though neither of them said it, they both knew that the kid could probably use the company.

Of course, it was a little awkward showing up out of the blue and asking for money, but Yao had been right - Homer did understand.

"It's not for us," Yao said. "Some friends were a great help to us, and they've hit upon hard times themselves. But as you know, we don't exactly carry all that much with us." It also helped that the money would come directly from the Alliance treasury - it was money that, by default, was owed to the nations as per their status and money that they generally scorned. But neither Alfred nor Yao had any problems taking it for others, particularly not others who most probably did not have the Alliance's interests at heart. All the nations needed was an official go-between, and Homer seemed more than happy to fill that role.

"Of course," he said, and his quiet voice was genuinely willing. "I'll wire for it right away. Who should I send it to?"

"Oh, just have it sent here," Alfred said, sipping at his drink with the expression of one who has long missed such things. "Hard cash is better, and we'll make sure it gets to our friends."

A quick word with a footman had the man scurrying off to secure the right amount, in addition to an official salvage license, and Yao, satisfied that the matter was out of the way at present, took a moment to appreciate the scene. The governor's mansion was a modest place by Core standards, but it was nonetheless grand and comfortable, constructed in an area that had been heavily remodeled since the firebombing. The three of them sat on a balcony overlooking a decorative pond and expansive backyard, and Alfred was flicking bits of biscuit over the edge to the koi fish below, chuckling as they all darted to grab the pieces.

"How are things here?" Yao asked of the nervous young planet, his voice smooth and conversational.

"Oh, you know - the same," Homer replied; his one good eye was focused on his glass, the other eye obscured by an eyepatch. "I've been here for the past few weeks, overseeing the salvage business. They've been needing someone capable to keep an eye on it, and I'm good with that sort of thing, so..." He trailed off, biting his lip. "It's pretty quiet, though."

And by 'quiet', Yao knew he meant 'lonely'.

"Well," the older nation said, smiling, "I'm sure we could liven things up a bit, if you wouldn't mind Alfred's obnoxious attitude invading your home."

"I'm a terrible person," Alfred confessed with a twinkle in his eyes.

Homer seemed to brighten hopefully, fixing his eye on the two of them. "You're staying?"

"For a little while, if you'll have us," said Alfred. "Yao is mad that I made him play cowboy, so it's probably best we spend some time among civilization, with family."

The planet nodded. "You're welcome to stay as long as you like," he said quietly, with a small smile. It rather hurt, Yao reflected, to see how happy this made him; the war hadn't been easy on anyone, but it had been particularly cruel to this boy. His scars told the story all too clearly.

Yao knew Alfred was thinking the same thing by the particularly vicious angle at which the younger nation surreptitiously flicked the rest of his biscuit to the waiting koi below.

"'Scuse me, you Captain Reynolds of Serenity?"

A shabbily dressed young man had come running before Mal could even take two limping steps out from under the shadow of his ship; the kid now stood panting before him, and Mal gave him a suspicious once-over. "... Who's interested?"

The boy held out a small, white, and unmarked envelope. "Delivery for you, sir."

Mal could feel Zoe behind him now, looking curiously over his shoulder. "From who?"

"Old friends," the boy answered. He pressed the envelope into Mal's hands and took off immediately, melting into the crowd with the speed of someone with long practice. The envelope was unusually heavy and fat, weighing against Mal's palms with all the curiosity that it entailed.

"Old friends?" Zoe asked knowingly, coming around as Mal fiddled with the flap.

He opened it and immediately swore. Zoe bent closer for a look and leaned back with honest surprise written over her face; Mal's expression was probably a mirror, although a moment later, he scowled, pulling out a single strip of paper from within the envelope. This should be enough to cover our room and board, it read. "Those filthy hun dan," Mal muttered. "What are they tryin' to do, stagger me with debt?"

"Sir, I don't think you should question this," Zoe said pragmatically. "They don't seem the type to cash in on debts, and looks to me like that's enough to satisfy all of the engine's demands."

"There's even a gorram license!" Mal cried, pulling out the plastic chip and waving it before Zoe's face. To compound things, it was under his alias, the name of Serenity's previous captain. "They're tryin' to make a respectable man outta me!"

"Don't think they'll get very far in that endeavor," Zoe said, deadpan, gently lifting the envelope from Mal. "But it's almost like you've got yourself some guardian angels, sir. Don't complain."

"I don't appreciate charity," Mal said sulkily, but then he was chuckling, almost unwillingly. He sighed. "But ship and crew come first, so I can't complain, gorramit." His fingers closed around the license. "Might as well go get myself registered, see what this city offers by way of spare parts." He nodded to the envelope, now in Zoe's hands. "See how much it is altogether, how much pay we can pull from it."

"And if the others ask?" Zoe called, as Mal strode down the dock and cast his eyes about for a registration station.

"Tell 'em angels brought it," Mal called back, as if it was obvious. Angels. Yeah, right - though he supposed that those two mysterious not-quite-strangers were the closest he was ever going to get to that in his life.

Chapter Text


 "Run fast for your mother and fast for your father. Run for your children, for your sisters and brothers."
"Leave all your love and your longing behind you. Can't carry it with you if you want to survive."

- "Dog Days Are Over"; Florence + the Machine

Even though Alfred had planned this day with due care and diligence, going so far as to take extra pains to appear completely nonchalant in his efforts so as not to arouse suspicion, things hadn't quite turned out as he'd hoped, suffice to say.

And that may or may not have been something of an understatement. A massive one.

"I - Alfred?" Malcolm Reynolds said in astonishment, upon confrontation with a very sweaty and out-of-breath Alfred who had just run through the door. The man took a look at Yao, who was behind Alfred and who managed to display a look of surprise, dawning realization, and anger all at once, and Annette, who hung behind them and just looked baffled. "Yao? What in the gorram hell are you doing here?"

'Here' being a chapel. The chapel, in which a very important even was occurring today, right now, and oh, Alfred wanted to smack himself in the face. He hadn't actually considered what he was doing until he was here, and now... "Uh," he said, because that was all he was really capable of saying with roughly five minutes to explain a rather tangled situation that was about to get dangerous.

"Is this a wedding?" Annette asked in alarm, peering past Mal to the distant altar and the figures moving near it, visible through the half-closed door that separated the chapel proper from the foyer in which they stood. "We need to get out of here!"

Yao was the quickest on the uptake, because he lacked only one piece of the puzzle and had figured it out with his customary insight. Gently but firmly, he grabbed Alfred by the shoulders and turned him; Alfred was unresisting, with a sheepish look plastered across his face as he gazed down at the older nation. "You knew," Yao said. It wasn't a question. "Did you arrange to casually show up here after the race?"

"I wasn't planning on being attacked," Alfred said defensively.

"Then why did we run here?"

"I don't know! I didn't think! I panicked!"

"You're too old to be panicking!"

"Look, I hate to interrupt," Mal cut in, with a tone that suggested otherwise. He looked between the three of them with narrowed eyes and shared a brief 'I don't know you but I don't get it either' glance with Annette. "But what's this about being attacked, and do I have to shoot someone? 'Cause Zoe might just give us the cold shoulder for the rest of our mortal lives if we ruin her day."

With a deep breath and a visible effort to calm down, Yao shook his head, taking hold of both Alfred and Annette and tugging them back out the door, which Annette had propped open with her foot. "We can handle it," he said firmly. "Don't worry. I take it that the wedding hasn't actually started yet? Don't let us ruin it."

And they bustled out of there before Mal could even get a word in edgewise.

"Who was that?" Annette asked, as the large wooden door swung shut behind them. The personification of Persephone fixed Alfred with a stern glance; normally quite amiable, she was feeling the pressure of the crisis, and Alfred was confronted by two accusing gazes.

"Friend of ours," Alfred said with a sigh. "Look, I didn't expect things to go this badly. You're the one who wanted to race anyway!" he shot back at Annette, who did not look apologetic.

"They're not technically illegal, alright?" she said. "I didn't know the gangs would be out today. They usually aren't, not at midday."

Yao continued to pull them away from the chapel, and his eyes swept the road that led up to it. Sensing the tension that suddenly filled his comrade, Alfred glanced up and down the road as well and realized that it was deserted. Completely. He knew this part of the city was quiet, as it was a poorer district, but this... this was unnatural. And sure enough, Yao came to an abrupt halt as a number of figures emerged at a distance down the road - eight or nine, Alfred thought, though he couldn't be sure while they stuck to the shadows. He could see their weapons, though.

"Damn," Alfred muttered, wishing heartily that he hadn't automatically taken the turn that had led them straight to the chapel. Occasionally it was healthy to think before acting, as his brain had automatically guided him here, the destination already prominent in his mind. But no matter what, they couldn't let Wash and Zoe's wedding be disrupted, and they definitely couldn't let a firefight erupt right outside the chapel. Grimly, he drew his own handgun and busied himself loading it; he hadn't even had time to arm himself in the chaos. "Alright, which way do we go?" he asked, turning to Annette and deciding to yield the leadership to someone else. This city was a part of her, and she knew it better than anyone.

"Around the chapel and to the left will take us further into the business part of the district," Annette said rapidly. "Easier to lose them in the alleys, maybe pick them off from there." She, too, was armed with a gun, and Yao was fingering the new throwing knives he had acquired a few months ago. A right little team they made, and under normal circumstances they could have taken on a dozen men with relatively little trouble. But they'd been subjected to surprise fire before the race had even ended, forced to take cover in the nearby district wherein the chapel of interest lay, and this place was not ideal for taking down part of a heavily armed street gang. Particularly not when one wanted to avoid causing a disturbance.

It had all started when Alfred had suggested paying a visit to Persephone - mostly because he'd learned, quite accidentally, about a certain wedding taking place soon. The grapevine was spontaneous and occasionally rewarding like that. Alfred hadn't told Yao about that particular detail; he'd wanted it to be a surprise, though not in the way it had turned out. When Annette had suggested entering one of the underground street races, Alfred had suggested the location, knowing full well where the wedding was taking place. He'd even eagerly volunteered himself and Yao as Annette's pit crew, deciding that it was going be a truly grand day.

Unfortunately, none of them had been immediately aware of the presence of several street gangs at the race, whose gambling, Annette had told them, was the reason the police generally weren't too fond of street racing. (Though it was easy to see from the gleam in her eyes that Annette loved it no matter what.) Apparently the gangs rarely moved about in broad daylight or bet on midday races. But there was a first time for everything, Alfred thought darkly, and it figured that they'd pick today to get bold. The gang had also gotten pissy because Annette had been steadily pulling ahead and metaphorically kicking their asses, which Alfred had to admit had been awesome.

You know, until they'd started getting shot at the minute Annette had pulled over for a pit stop.

"Was that who I think it was?"

Mal, who had been staring, nonplussed, at the door that had only recently swung shut, turned around. Zoe stood there, and it still took Mal a moment to adjust to the sight of his second-in-command in anything other than practical space wear or even a uniform. He himself was sporting an uncomfortably formal outfit, and as for Zoe, her dress was silver and downright shiny, in every sense of the word.

"Yeah," Mal answered. "I think they're in some kinda trouble. I also think they may have showed up here on purpose, but I don't think they meant to bring trouble. Least as I can figure. It was very unclear." And unclear may have been an understatement. He'd met many cryptic people before, but those two took the cake.

"Trouble being?" Zoe asked, taking it in stride with merely an arch of an eyebrow.

Mal grinned. Cryptic or not, he owed them a favor, and he'd be damned if he didn't repay it. "You up for a little mayhem before gettin' hitched?"

Zoe returned the smile, and hers had a wicked edge. "Wouldn't be a proper wedding without it."

Around the chapel and left it was. Alfred tensed, nodding to Yao; the smaller nation and the planet would go first, and Alfred would cover them. The men were more than halfway down the street, almost within firing range, and Alfred cast them a dirty look as Yao and Annette hurried past him.

Yao almost immediately recoiled, swearing, before he'd taken more than ten steps, shoving Annette back as a bullet whizzed past from the direction they'd been intending to take. How many were there, and how in the name of all that was good had they managed to spread so fast? They were like ants! Muttering under his breath, Alfred pulled his companions back into the shadows of the chapel's arches, which provided momentary cover. It also caused the approaching men to hesitate; they were less inclined to cause trouble where it could draw the Alliance down on them. That wouldn't stop them if Alfred and his friends ran, though.

Well, they were screwed. And by that, Alfred meant that the only safe getaway was through the chapel. Oh, he was sure it was full of bolt-holes - most churches were - but that meant drawing a firefight directly into Wash and Zoe's wedding. Alfred didn't think it was possible to feel more like an idiot than he did in this moment, and he was on the verge of considering a charge directly into the gang's ranks. He was a nation, after all; he could take 'em, and the wounds would heal in time.

And then the chapel's double-door entrance burst open.

"Y'know, it's really weird how you guys keep showin' up outta the blue," Mal commented as he stepped out, armed to the teeth. Trust Serenity's crew to have an arsenal with them at a wedding, Alfred thought with a grin. "Bit creepy, to be honest. And what the hell'd you do to rile up a gang so badly?"

"They don't like being beaten fairly out of their bets," Annette said frankly.

Mal tipped an imaginary hat to her. "Malcolm Reynolds. You run with these two?"

"Occasionally," the planet said with a smile. "Annette Ingram. I didn't know they were in the habit of making friends, though."

"I am very friendly," Alfred said with dignity; the accusation of otherwise following 'creepy' was a bit too much. "But those guys aren't."

Mal cast a disdainful eye in the direction of the gang members, who were fanning out to form a semi-circle around the church. "They'll back off if we outnumber 'em," he said confidently.

"And do we?" Yao asked pointedly.

"Probably not," Mal admitted, lowering his voice. "It's a small-ish wedding party. The trick's to make 'em think there's more. Don't worry, the bridal couple's taking care of that."

Alfred winced at the mention. "Are they mad?"

"I wouldn't say that," Mal answered with a chuckle. "The excitement is usually s'pposed to start after the wedding, as I'm told, but we'll just have to make sure the after-party is quiet."

"I'll personally see to that," Alfred said fervently. Ruining the wedding of people he kind of liked could go down as one of his more stupid blunders, but as long as they weren't upset... "Um, so, what's the-"

He was cut off by Mal suddenly pushing him behind one of the chapel's support pillars and was saved the trouble of having to ask by a hail of bullets coming from either side of the chapel... and on top of it, just as a few men stumbled away from the sides, towards their fellows. The gang members who had formed a semi-circle around the church were suddenly scrambling madly back, and any shots they may have released in the direction of the four in front of the chapel were deterred by the fact that the chapel's pillars provided excellent cover.

As if on cue, the gunfire ceased for a moment, after the men had been driven back several paces, not one of them hurt.

"That's right!" a fierce female voice bellowed from somewhere above. "You stay the hell away from my church, y'hear? I mean it!" One more shot sounded, as if in warning, and Alfred watched in satisfaction as the gang members edged away. He had to wonder what they saw and why it made them wary, but apparently it did the trick. Even the dirty glare the leader of the men sent their way didn't bother him; Alfred resisted the urge to grin cheekily back and instead opted for a stern glare. Best not to antagonize them any more.

Zoe and Wash emerged from either side of the chapel, each wielding a shotgun, which looked almost ludicrous with their formal wear. Almost. It may have actually looked a little impressive, too, and Alfred offered them a sheepish wave as they approached.

"You guys sure know how to throw a before-party," Wash said good-naturedly, handing his shotgun off to Mal, who took it with a shake of his head. "I can't wait to see what's in store for later."

"There may even be explosions involved," Yao said, deadpan.

Alfred flushed. "I'm sorry," he said to the bridal couple, as sincerely as possible. "I didn't mean to accidentally almost start a gun fight at your wedding."

"Well, you could say that makes us official outlaws," Zoe mused, and she offered Alfred a reassuring smile. "No need for the kicked puppy look. We're not mad."

"I'm really glad," Alfred said, still dripping with sincerity. "I just, ah... hope it doesn't bring the law down on us or anything." The only thing worse than bringing a fight to a wedding was bringing the cops. But now that he thought about it, Annette could probably explain things away smoothly...

"If it does, Mariah will handle it," Wash said confidently. He lifted his head in explanation, indicating the roof. "The Shepherd. I wouldn't mess with her even if I was a grand Alliance official."

Alfred's eyes widened in awe. The general image of Shepherds painted them as gentle people, but the voice on the roof had sounded anything but. Today was turning out to be more interesting than ever, and already his embarrassment was being replaced by sheer enthusiasm.

Yao could tell, judging by his amused chuckle. "You'll have to introduce us," he said. "I suppose you don't mind us crashing your wedding?"

"Not at all," said Zoe. "Seeing as that you already did."

Yao made the proper introductions for Annette as they headed back into the chapel, where a woman in simple Shepherd garb was ordering around several boys and girls carrying weapons, who stashed them away in various hidden places. It was a slightly alarming sight, and Alfred laughed outright. "I see how you guys managed to scare those suckers off," he said in admiration.

Mariah cast a glance his way. "There is something intimidating about a small army of altar children," she said wryly.

There was something familiar about her face, and it took Alfred a moment to place the fact that she bore a small resemblance to Zoe.

He later learned that they were cousins. He also learned that most of the children who assisted Mariah with the chapel's upkeep and services were homeless, and he, Yao, and Annette co-conspired in slipping a rather large amount of money, most of what they were carrying on them, into the church's collection box without being seen... though Alfred could swear that Mariah noticed anyway.

The wedding wasn't a particularly grand affair, but Alfred liked that. It was simple and practical, but had a touch of both Wash and Zoe's own personal flairs. It made Alfred's heart squeeze joyfully to see them looking so happy; he'd always loved weddings, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd attended one.

And that was to say nothing of the after-party, most of which Alfred could only vaguely remember later.

Alfred was feeling pleasantly tipsy as he stood with his back to the bar and watched Bester unsuccessfully try to flirt with Annette. The two were so unmatched that Alfred almost felt sorry for the kid. Almost. It actually made him irrationally irritated, as well - he couldn't help it that Annette was somewhere in between daughter and little sister, to him. But she was a fully capable woman, and so it wouldn't be wise to step in. She'd give him an earful later for it if he did, that was for sure.

They were in one of the best taverns in Persephone - and one of its most well-kept secrets. It hadn't originally been the destination of the after-party; that had been one of the official Eavesdown races, but when Wash had expressed a sudden disinterest in attending, everyone had agreed. And that was when Annette had offered to get them into King's Bar - a rather clandestine place that was almost impossible to get into without connections. Of course Annette had been there many times; she was an adventurer at heart, Alfred thought fondly.

The reason for King's Bar's mysterious ways was no doubt the semi-legal but lavishly extravagant goings on that took place there at half the price they normally would have - including the very fine liquor Alfred was currently downing, which he knew was generally set at a mind-bogglingly high price. Compared to that, it was cheap here... and even cheaper, because Annette got them all discounts.

Alfred idly contemplated the smuggling that must have gone into obtaining it and turned his attention to the dance floor, where Yao had intercepted for a dance with Zoe and Wash had been stolen by Mariah. Alfred smiled to himself as he watched and presently felt someone settle at his right.

"You guys have a thing for bars, huh?" Mal said.

Alfred grinned. "Best place to meet interesting people," he answered. "And to pretend that everything's perfectly fine."

"That seems to be the way of things," Mal agreed, almost moodily.

Alfred glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. "What's eating you?" the nation asked. "You've been acting weird since the wedding."

Mal looked at him incredulously. "Oh, and you know me well enough to call that?"

"I'd like to think you aren't a heartless bastard," Alfred returned. "And only that kinda person would be unhappy at his own friends' wedding."

Mal snorted. "You are too damn perceptive, you know that?"

"Be glad you're not talking to Yao. He could mentally dissect you with his eyes closed."

Mal was silent, and so Alfred followed suit. He wasn't going to push the issue. Mal was right; Alfred didn't know him well enough to call anything, but, well... no one ever said Alfred wasn't nosy. And greatly perceptive, when it suited him. It was just a matter of self-control, which Alfred didn't always bother to use. He did now, though, and was rewarded when Mal broached the silence after a few minutes.

"You want the truth?" the captain asked, sighing. "... I didn't want 'em gettin' married."

Alfred frowned. "Why not?" he asked curiously. They were so great together, though Alfred was a romantic at heart and would have thought so about practically anyone. But it was obvious with Zoe and Wash.

Mal swirled his drink around, staring into it. "I didn't want the dynamics on the ship changin'," he admitted after a moment, almost shamefully. "When that happens, it's rarely ever for the good. Thought it might ruin things, y'know."

Control issues, Alfred thought. Most definitely. But he merely nodded in understanding and didn't say anything, instead taking a sip of his drink.

Mal continued to peer down at his own, scowling. "I can't believe I just told you that."

"Alcohol: the universal tongue-loosener," Alfred said cheerfully. "Also, people find it easy to be honest with me because of my childlike demeanor and open personality."

Mal raised an eyebrow.

"I told you Yao was good at mental dissection."

Mal gave a reluctant laugh. "You're dangerously self-aware, you are."

"My kind of life, you learn to be." Alfred shifted his gaze over the rest of the bar; though he wasn't looking directly at the captain, he could feel Mal eyeing him. The nation hoped he hadn't just been a little too honest; he didn't feel like he could effectively fend off curiosity with a glass of liquor under his belt.

"Sounds like it's hard," Mal commented.

Alfred shrugged in answer. "Meh."

"Might be a bit easier with friends at your back," Mal said casually.

Alfred took another sip. "Where are you heading with this?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"The crew's always been a little shorthanded." Mal was still dancing around the subject, but at least this was direct.

Alfred shook his head. "You don't want us on your crew. We tend to attract mayhem."

Mal huffed out another laugh. "I noticed. You think we don't?"

"Stop derailing my excuses," Alfred said petulantly. "It's complicated, and I don't have Yao's gift for words, and I'm starting to get drunk."

Mal shrugged. "A simple 'no' would do just fine."

Alfred sighed. He hadn't meant to come across sounding like an ass. "Sorry," he muttered. "It's a tempting offer. It's just..." He trailed off, trying to think past the buzzing in his head. He waved his hand in a vaguely explanatory manner. "I don't know. It's a better idea for me 'n Yao to keep to ourselves."

Mal gave him a nod and didn't press the issue. They lapsed back into silence, only now Alfred felt awkward. His explanation made no sense, he knew, because how in the hell was he supposed to explain it? He couldn't, not without the whole truth, and that was something that would get them laughed right off this planet.

"Hey," Mal said, as he turned around and set his empty glass on the bar, motioning for a refill. "... D'you really think I'm a heartless bastard?"

It took Alfred several moments to remember where the question was coming from. "... You didn't try to stop the wedding, did you?"

Mal shook his head.

"Then no," Alfred continued. "You're just you."

Mal rolled his eyes and nodded to the bartender in thanks before sweeping his refilled drink back up. "That's reassuring," he said darkly.

"It's not a bad thing," Alfred protested.

"And how would you know?"

"You're the one who said I was perceptive," Alfred returned, with a maddeningly cheerful grin. Mal looked like he wanted to be annoyed, but after a moment, he merely sighed and slumped back against the bar, shaking his head.

"Here's to being ourselves," Alfred said, lifting his glass.

Mal raised his. "For all the good that's ever done us," he added, voice thick with sarcasm.

They drank.


"But food, Yao." Alfred's eyes were on the farmer's market. The glorious, glorious farmer's market, which covered the town square and extended into the streets beyond. It was the town's biggest semi-annual event, which meant that people from all over the little moon were drawn to it. Namie was Calurnam's hub, so to speak – calling it a "capital" seemed a little overstated, but nonetheless, it was the best place to find anything on the little moon. Including passage off the moon.

That was their real reason for being here today, but Alfred couldn't take his eyes off of the many displays of wares. Most of it was food, as Calurnam's inhabitants weren't prone to luxury, and delicious food it looked. Yao, naturally, was more resistant to the allure, but Alfred had already decided that he was going to explore. "Come on," he said pleadingly. "Just for a little bit."

Yao rolled his eyes. "You say a little bit, but you'll keep us here for hours."

"A teensy bit. Very tiny. I just want to get some food." Alfred put on his best puppy eyes.

Yao sighed, and Alfred could tell he was trying not to laugh. "Fine," he said. "We meet back here in one hour. One. I'll look for any ships willing to take passengers." He stuck a finger in Alfred's face. "One hour."

"I heard you the first time," Alfred said, offering a mock salute, "because I'm not a deaf old man. Like someone I could mention."

Yao threw a wave over his shoulder as he left, and it may or may not have been giving Alfred the bird as well. Chuckling, Alfred turned to the farmer's market, rubbing his hands in anticipatory glee. There was so much to see and potentially buy, and Alfred was acutely conscious of the fact that Yao would yell at him if he wasted over an hour wandering the place. He'd have to restrain himself.

He started with the purely organic foods first, one of the largest sections of the market – homegrown vegetables and fruits, mainly, which to Alfred was just as appetizing as anything else the market offered. There was something about homegrown foods that he'd learned to truly appreciate in the past few hundred years, and he walked happily down the crowded rows. Well, to be entirely honest, his appreciation for vegetables was more symbolic than anything, and he found himself gravitating towards the fruit. The citrus was practically calling his name, but Alfred reached for the strawberries first. They were in season here on Calurnam, thank God; it had been too long since he'd had fresh strawberries.

"Mmm, they're so beautiful, aren't they?"

Alfred found himself jostling elbows with a smiling young woman who was carrying a basket half-filled with various other fruits; both of them had reached for the strawberries at the same time. He grinned at her, letting her go first. "Sure are," he agreed. "Haven't seen 'em look this red in forever."

The woman indicated which strawberries she wanted, and the man behind the stall began putting them into a bag. "Forever?" the girl asked teasingly. "You don't look that old."

Alfred tapped his nose conspiratorially. "I found the secret to eternal youth," he confessed in a stage whisper; the joke was not without a pang, but he pushed it aside. He was rewarded with the girl's giggle.

"You'll have to tell me all about that," she said. "Name's Kaylee Frye. Nice to meet'cha!"

Alfred bowed gallantly... or tried to, as the area was far too crowded to manage it successfully. The awkward sweeping of his limbs brought forth another giggle from Kaylee, and he grinned. "Alfred Jones, at your service. Well, Miss Kaylee, I think they're selling the alcohol all the way on the other side of this place, so asking to buy you a drink would be silly. But maybe you'd let me buy you these strawberries instead?"

Kaylee laughed outright. "Sure, if ya want to. It would save money, and that would make the captain happy."

"Is your captain stingy?" Alfred asked, as he added his own strawberries to the order.

"The stingiest," Kaylee said, accepting the bag that the farmer handed her. "I haven't even been workin' for him long, and already gettin' him to replace ship parts is like pullin' teeth."

"You're a mechanic?" Alfred asked brightly. He grabbed his own bag after handing the farmer the money, nodded thanks to the man, and used his greater body mass to maneuver a path through the crowd for Kaylee.

She nodded, hefting her basket. "Machines 'n me, we get along." Kaylee looked curiously at Alfred. "Are you?"

Alfred shook his head, chuckling. "Not really, though I know a few things. I'm..." but he paused, unsure of how to continue, "well, I do a lot of things. Jack of all trades, really."

They carried on a casual, easy conversation as they made their way through the crowd, stopping at the citrus and the vegetable stands. Alfred was enjoying himself immensely; surrounded by food and chattering, talking to a pretty girl who knew more about machines than most people... it was easy to pretend that life was simple and normal. Plus, it was hard to find anyone who talked about engines like Kaylee did. Lord, he could learn a lot from this girl, given the time.

But time was a fickle thing. As Alfred and Kaylee strolled through the baked goods section of the market, Kaylee paused mid-sentence and reached into her pocket, pulling out a buzzing transmitter. She glanced at it and frowned. "Well, that's not good," she muttered.

"What?" Alfred asked curiously.

Swiftly, Kaylee re-pocketed the transmitter and smiled at Alfred. "Small emergency with my crew," she said apologetically. "'Fraid I gotta be getting back to my ship now."

"You need any help?" Alfred offered. "Like I said, jack of all trades. If it's a problem with your ship, I've worked on most kinds before."

"Nah, we're good," Kaylee replied, still rather regretful. "She's an old model – a Firefly. Takes special handlin'... and it's not really her that's the problem. Thanks, though. It was nice talkin' to you!"

"Yeah," Alfred said, trying to conceal his sadness. Ordinarily, he would have asked for a contact number, perhaps, but – that's not how we do things. "Nice to meet you!" He summoned up a smile and waved as Kaylee darted into the crowd, and it wasn't until she'd vanished that the word Firefly actually registered in Alfred's brain. He pulled up short, frowning. No… it couldn't be. That would… well, that would just be weird. Surely there were still several Firefly-class ships in use, no matter how old the model was. It was just a coincidence.

He looked down at the bags of food he'd bought. He'd spent enough money to probably tick Yao off – never mind that they were set for a while, with this haul, provided they employed some kind of cooling unit – and the hour was almost up. It couldn't hurt to check it out, could it? After all, if Kaylee and her crew had some kind of trouble, Alfred felt duty-bound to at least have his assistance on hand; that was what he liked to do, help people. And if he helped them, maybe they'd be grateful enough to give him and Yao passage off the moon at a reduced fee. Saving money, now there was something Yao would appreciate.

Alfred pushed his way through the crowd, following the path Kaylee had taken.

The yelling and mayhem should have tipped him off, really.

Alfred was at the edge of Namie's docks – a pretty ramshackle place by any standards and not likely to be bustling on most days, but today it was swarming with police and spectators. They were blocking access to most of the ships, aggressively demanding IDs and searching people, and Alfred wondered if this was the emergency Kaylee had meant. He didn't see any sign of her, though it was hard to keep track of anyone in all the commotion.

He jumped when someone grabbed his arm. "It's me, bai chi," Yao said, tugging him away from the edge of the crowds. "Listen – we need to cause a distraction."


Yao sighed. "You are not going to believe who I ran into."

Alfred could hazard a guess. He didn't know whether to laugh or shake his head in amazement. Maybe it was a different kind of crazy coincidence, after all. "Let me guess – it had something to do with a certain Firefly?"

Yao's eyes widened. "How did you-?"

"I met a girl," Alfred said.

Yao rolled his eyes. "Of course you did," he said, not pressing for further explanation. "They've gotten themselves into trouble again."

Alfred glanced around at the crowds, the cops. "I'll say. What is it, theft?"

"Something like that."

"And we're gonna help 'em out."

Yao shrugged. "I like them."

Alfred grinned. He took another look around, thinking, and an idea came to mind almost immediately. It probably wasn't the best idea, but he was on short notice, and it was definitely the fastest. "Hey, Yao," he said casually. "Feeling official today?"

Yao gave him a suspicious look. "What are you suggesting?" he asked, though to judge by his tone, he'd already guessed.

"Haven't pulled rank in a while, have we?" Alfred said.

"Alfred, you know this will get back to the top…"

Alfred shrugged. "We lay low for a while, they'll let it go. Not like there isn't a precedent."

Yao let out a low, reluctant laugh, his eyes scanning over the crowd. "Well," he said, "I don't have any better ideas."

"You know where they are?"

The older nation nodded. "You'll do the distracting, then?"

Alfred smiled broadly. "Just call me Mr. Politician." He shoved the bags of food he'd bought into Yao's arms; he'd look a bit ridiculous, trying to impose authority with hands full of food. "Here. Guard it with your life."

Yao rolled his eyes and slipped away, blending into the crowds. Alfred fished around in his knapsack and finally withdrew an old ID. It hadn't been used in some time, but he was pretty sure these things didn't need renewal, anyway. Drawing himself up, recalling exactly what he was, Alfred pushed through the crowd, towards a thoroughly irritated man whose coat bars marked him out as a police captain. Luckily, police captains on little moons did not tend to have overblown ideas of importance, and the ranking was well below anyone who might be resistant to Alfred's nudging.

"Excuse me," Alfred said sternly, when he had approached. The captain was surrounded by a group of men and women to whom he was issuing orders, but the force of Alfred's voice caused them all to halt.

The captain looked him up and down and scowled. "Who the hell are you?"

Alfred produced his ID, using a small sleight of hand trick to make it flourish – no one had ever said he wasn't dramatic. The captain took it, frowning, and showed no recognition. Alfred resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Come on," he said. "Don't you have one of those scanner things?"

He was pretty sure that people in positions of authority did not say 'scanner things', but how could he know what the damn things were called anymore? New technological models of everything came out every few years, it was hard to keep up. To his satisfaction, however, the captain withdrew a palm-sized scanner and flashed the card over it. It dinged, and the captain's eyes widened at the information that flashed up. "I… I'm sorry, I didn't know, sir," he said, looking up. "You…" but he fell silent.

Alfred knew he probably looked more like a dirty cowboy than anything. He waved his hand dismissively; the card would only show his level of security and governmental clearance, which did not indicate what he was. "It's fine," he said breezily. "I'm not in the best state, I know. Anyway, am I to assume that this commotion is about the recent theft?"

The captain nodded. "The perpetrators will be caught soon, I can assure you," he said. "No one is leaving this city without proper clearance."

"Then you're out of luck," Alfred said grimly. "The perps aren't in the city anymore. You really think they'd be so incautious as to leave their ship here?" Incautious. What a word. God, sometimes he loved being official.

The captain frowned. "We've been reliably informed that they'd be leaving by this route."

"Informed," Alfred said, and after a swift moment of intense thought, he decided to take a gamble. He lowered his voice. "And you think underworld informants are reliable?"

It paid off. The captain was still frowning, but he sounded hesitant. "He… he's been in our pay for some time now. He's never failed us."

Alfred shook his head, grimacing; well, that explained why the alarms had been raised. Serenity's crew had trusted the wrong person, probably. "Then I'm sorry to say he's finally duped you. Probably got offered a better amount. Can't trust these types, you know – they're shifty. You'd best round up your men, get 'em to the Black Hills. That's where your perps have stored their ship. They're headed there right now."

"But…" the captain said, "how do you know?"

"My partner just saw them!" Alfred said impatiently. "They're wanted criminals. He recognized them right away."

The captain looked torn, and Alfred resisted the urge to sigh in frustration. Finally, after looking down at his scanner once more, perhaps reassuring himself of the high level of Alfred's clearance, the captain nodded. "Alright," he said. "We'll head out for the Hills. Start assembling everyone!" he barked at the nearest individuals, who leapt into action. Then the captain looked at Alfred again. "Will you be coming?"

Alfred shook his head. "I'll stay here, help calm this place down. My partner will find you when you get outside city limits. His name's Yao."

It was amazing what a little authority could do. Within minutes, the crowds at the docks were dispersing as the cops did, having lost interest now that an arrest wasn't imminent and was instead some hot and dusty miles away. A few extra men remained on duty to watch out for suspicious figures, as the rest of the police force headed out for the hills – the security would not return to normal for a while yet. But Alfred was confident that he could charm the police that remained long enough for Serenity's crew to sneak onto their ship - he figured he had about ten minutes before the police captain realized that something was wrong and came thundering back.

And that was when Alfred saw Kaylee's brightly colored clothes. She stood next to the three cops still monitoring the area, talking animatedly to one of them and describing her "problem." The other two were listening instead of paying proper attention to their surroundings, and Alfred fought back a grin. He'd only known her for an hour, and it didn't surprise him in the least.

"I'm sorry, miss." The cop Kaylee was addressing sounded truly apologetic, as Alfred approached. "I'm afraid we can't help you with that. But if you go down to the station and file an official theft claim, someone will be able to help you track it down."

"Oh, but that'll take forever," Kaylee said, sounding truly disappointed. "Who knows where it'll be by the time we start lookin'?"

"There you are!" Alfred said glibly, and Kaylee turned to look at him, her eyes widening. The three cops sprang into a salute – word had traveled fast throughout the small police force, and Alfred gave them a nod. He then offered a grin to Kaylee. "I've been looking for you all day!"

She got over her surprise quickly, and Alfred knew that Yao had mentioned him in some way. Casting an astute glance at the policemen's obvious respect for Alfred, Kaylee returned the grin. It was dazzling, before a frown took its place. "Oh, honey," she said plaintively. "There's just been thievery all 'round today. Someone took my jewelry!" It was a dramatic performance, perfect for a girlfriend who had just lost her jewels; Alfred wanted to applaud.

The cop that Kaylee had been talking to look startled. "She's with you?" he asked and then belatedly remembered himself. "No disrespect meant, sir, ma'am. If we had known..."

Alfred cast a lazy arm around Kaylee's shoulders and waved a hand dismissively. "It's fine, it's fine. I'll get people on it right away, you just keep doing your jobs. I'll take the lady to get some rest on our ship there. You've probably had quite the day, huh, sweetheart?" he asked Kaylee, trying very hard not to smile again.

Kaylee placed a hand to her head theatrically. "It's been so awful," she said mournfully. "Oh, what am I going to do?" She kept lamenting as they moved away from the cops, until they were safely out of earshot, and then she began to snort in utter amusement.

Alfred bit his lip to contain his own laughter. "Not yet," he said. "Wait 'til we're inside." They were coming up to Serenity, now. Her cargo bay loading deck was wide open, and it closed swiftly behind them as soon as they'd entered. Finally, Alfred couldn't take it anymore. He began to laugh, separating from Kaylee as she nearly doubled over with mirth; Alfred had to find support against the nearest ATV himself.

"That was beautiful," Kaylee said, in between giggles, and she looked at Alfred curiously. "Who even are you?"

"Friend of your stingy captain, oddly enough," Alfred replied. Serenity was already rumbling beneath his feet, beginning her take off.

"Hey," said a familiar, indignant voice. "Who are you callin' stingy?"

Alfred turned to see Mal approaching, accompanied by Yao and Zoe. "Her words, not mine," he said, pointing at Kaylee.

"Only 'cause it's true, cap'n," Kaylee said matter-of-factly, not even bothering to deny it.

Mal sighed, shaking his head, but he was smiling. "That was some stunt you guys pulled," he said, looking between Yao and Alfred. "I'd like to know how."

"Friends in high places," Alfred replied. "Well, not really friends. More like acquaintances. If that. Favors owed, really." Which wasn't exactly true, but he didn't feel like trying to explain his and Yao's unique position in terms that didn't give them away - he'd had enough of being official for a while. "Still, you might wanna avoid this area of space for the next few months. I kinda pulled some trickery."

"Well, you fit right in here," Zoe said with a snort.

Alfred grinned and then looked at Yao, his smile widening. "You see? I found us a ship."

"You did nothing of the sort," Yao said flatly. "I'm the one who found them."

That was true, but it was all just semantics anyway. "Well, I found Kaylee, and we totally kicked ass out there." Alfred winked at Kaylee, who started laughing again, covering her mouth. "And either I'm going mad, or you weren't here last time."

"I fired Bester so I could hire her," Mal said. "She's a damn good mechanic."

Kaylee smiled brightly and nodded - no modesty there, and Alfred decided that he liked her immensely.

Mal was far too generous about allowing them passage on his ship, and Yao knew that he was stubbornly trying to pay them back for Whitefall and Athens, even though Yao insisted that he owed them nothing. The captain only took a little of the money that they offered, and Yao had to wheedle him into letting them help around the ship to pay for the rest, after they'd figured out a destination – a week's journey before they split. The nation only succeeded in this last bargain by pointing out how happy it would make Alfred to actually be able to work on a Firefly.

Indeed, listening to Alfred and Kaylee talk was a challenge in and of itself. It was for lack of trying, of course – spacecraft had never held Yao's interest for long. He eventually gave up trying to pay attention to the jargon they traded, and instead he just smiled when he saw them together. Between Wash and Kaylee, Alfred had found two kindred souls, and it was actually kind of endearing to witness.

Even though Yao knew it would make it that much harder for Alfred to tear himself away from the place.

Yao himself was finding distance harder and harder to maintain, lately – he could never quite ignore the yearning for the company of others. That wasn't to say that he was tired of Alfred's company – no, he didn't think he could ever grow tired of the stubborn bai chi. But neither of them could deny the fact that isolation took a greater toll with every year, every decade.

Sometimes, it was hard to tell whether isolation or loss was worse.

On the fourth day of the journey, Yao walked into Serenity's dining room to find Kaylee and Alfred painting.

Yao halted in the doorway, staring at the brightly colored flower pattern as the smell of fresh paint washed over him. "Hey, Yao!" Alfred said brightly. There was pink paint splattered across his cheek and staining parts of his clothes, but he was beaming. Kaylee gave Yao a cheerful wave, and Yao's smile contained a laugh.

"The captain is okay with this?" he asked, stepping into the dining room.

"Oh, I'm sure he won't mind," Kaylee said airily, which was neither a yes nor a no. "I figure that since we all eat here, this place could do with a little more cheer. I wanted it to be a surprise."

Personally, Yao found it rather cute, but he didn't think said captain was much inclined to appreciate sunny floral patterns or people painting on his ship without permission. "You're right about cheer," he said diplomatically, heading into the small kitchen area to grab some of last night's dinner.

Zoe and Wash were only a few seconds behind him, laughing about something together. They pulled up short upon entering, just as Yao had. There was a moment of silence as they took in the newly brightened dining room and then... "Wow," said Wash, his eyes following the designs. "What's the occasion?"

Yao looked at Zoe as Kaylee gave much the same answer as before. The woman seemed surprised, at first, but that soon faded into amusement. She shook her head as she walked forward, Wash trailing behind her to examine the paintings more closely. Zoe met Yao's eyes as he left the kitchen and she entered, and Yao leaned over for a moment.

"Is it okay?" he muttered.

Zoe nodded, smiling. "It's fine. Mal will get used to it."

And Yao had only just sat down at the table, watching Kaylee and Alfred pick up their supplies, when the captain himself entered. He, too, paused in the doorway, his eyes going wide for a moment. "What-" he began, the beginnings of a scowl taking up residence on his face. He then took in the poorly hidden smiles of Yao, Zoe, and Wash, coupled with the absolutely happy expressions of Kaylee and Alfred... and focused on the latter, obviously wrestling with himself for a good long moment.

"D'you like it, Cap'n?" Kaylee asked eagerly. "I wanted to surprise you."

Mal visibly deflated under the weight of her happy voice. His eyes swept over the designs, and his expression softened somewhat, though he still didn't look too enthused by it. "It's fine, Kaylee," he said with a sigh. "It's... nice. Just... ask me next time, 'fore you redecorate my ship."

Kaylee nodded, and she and Alfred exchanged a high-five as Mal moved into the dining room. The captain walked past Yao right after this, and so Yao was the only one who heard his deep, quiet sigh. The nation casually covered his smile as he looked down at his food, listening to Alfred's happy voice without really hearing what his fellow nation was saying.

And Yao thought, for a moment, that perhaps traveling with a crew, with human company, would not be so bad, could not be worse than isolation.

If only.

Chapter Text

"If the world's at large, why should I remain?"
"We'll float on, maybe would you understand?"
"The World At Large"; Modest Mouse

There was a tranquility to House Madrassa that Akiko loved. It bore a quiet dignity and gave the impression that nothing could disturb its well-ordered solemnity. It seemed to stand outside of time – certainly nothing had changed since Roshni Mehra had entered as a girl. And speaking of Roshni… Akiko grinned when her old friend entered the waiting parlor. Roshni looked much older than the last time Akiko had seen her; humans aged so quickly, but Akiko quelled the sadness that arose at the sight. The woman was as beautiful as ever, and she had not lost any of her poise. However, that poise vanished as Roshni returned the grin, morphing from Companion and House Priestess to normal human being.

"Oh, it's been too long," Roshni said, as Akiko stood. The two of them embraced, and Akiko couldn't stop smiling. It really had been too long. It was all too easy to get caught up in all of her responsibilities, in looking after her siblings – enough that other friends were sometimes neglected. And Akiko could understand why her predecessors refused to settle down and let themselves get attached to anything again; it was hard to push away thoughts of how old Roshni looked now, compared to before. Roshni pulled back, regarding Akiko with a thoughtful look. "What's the occasion?"

"I was in the neighborhood," Akiko replied. "Mediating guild negotiations, that sort of thing." House Madrassa was located in the most high-class section of Lu'Weng's guild district. Of course, high-class meant that a fair amount of pigheaded stubbornness was sure to follow, and among Akiko's many responsibilities, acting as a fair and impartial voice in a political disagreement was not uncommon. "And I realized just how long it's been."

She turned to look at the woman who had entered behind Roshni. "This," said Roshni, "is Inara Serra, a candidate to replace me when age finishes catching up to me. Inara, this is Akiko Sakai. She's a highly respect diplomat." Roshni gave Akiko the briefest of grins. She knew what Akiko really was – Roshni's father had been one of the highest-ranking politicians on Sihnon, privy to several government secrets, and Roshni had grown up in the political center of the planet. Akiko had known her since Roshni had been a little girl, youngest of five children, longing to escape the confines of her father's deeply-entrenched governmental life. House Madrassa had provided that, and it had been Akiko who'd encouraged the girl to follow her passions.

Inara smiled and dipped her head, offering her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

Akiko clasped her hand for a moment, returning the nod. "Likewise." She had to admit, she was curious about any potential successor of which Roshni approved; after all, it was most likely the reason the woman had brought Inara along to greet Akiko. Roshni knew how to play a political game as well as the best government officials – if she'd purposefully asked Inara to accompany her to meet with someone of Akiko's rank, it was tantamount to offering her explicit blessing. And it made Akiko wonder.

"Come," Roshni said loftily, with a wave of her hand. "This is no place to entertain someone."

They walked through the halls of House Madrassa. It was soothingly calm and beautiful, lit so that it seemed like soft morning daylight illuminated every corner. Artful tapestries covered the walls, and the place smelled faintly of citrus blossoms. Akiko knew she could easily lose herself here – the place was steeped in tradition and culture, and she thought back to when she used to occasionally teach classes to the aspiring Companions here, back when Roshni had newly been made House Priestess. Why had she ever stopped?

The House Priestess led them outside, into Madrassa's gardens. The smell of citrus was stronger here, and it had a relaxing effect on Akiko, who uttered a faint, contented sigh. She needed to relax; she was sure there were knots in back of her neck from dealing with stiff-necked guild leaders. Maybe that was another reason why she'd been compelled to visit, after having been away for so long – the need for the tranquility that a place like this offered. The years in between had been long and taxing; things were stable now, but it was a tentative peace. Little irritations, like stubborn guilds, made old stresses resurface.

And relax Akiko did. Roshni was a master conversationalist, able to talk about anything and everything, and sitting in the midst of Madrassa's gardens chatting with her and Inara was a wonderful balm. She learned about House Madrassa's internal changes in the last several years, about the latest scandals that Companions were privy to, about Inara's career so far. Akiko had been right – Roshni favored Inara highly, and it showed. And Akiko could see why – Inara had the same quiet dignity that House Madrassa itself did. It was different from Roshni, whose dignity was direct and spirited, a dignity that commanded attention. But neither was better than the other. Just different.

"Oh," sighed Roshni, about an hour later, when a young girl came running from the main house, "what is it now?"

"Saiya needs you," the girl said, unfazed by the House Priestess's apparent irritation. "Mani's been with that boy again. We think she's, well…" The girl fell silent, suddenly mindful of the other company.

Roshni sighed deeply. "Very well," she said. "Thank you, Priya. I'll be along."

Priya nodded and scampered back to the main house. Shaking her head, Roshni offered an apologetic smile to Akiko, rising to her feet from the bench on which she'd been seated. "Unlike most positions of leadership, this one actually requires work," she said, deadpan.

"Do you want me to handle it?" Inara asked, half-rising herself.

Roshni carelessly waved a hand. "No, no – you stay. Talk to 'Kiko. I shouldn't be too long. I'm sorry, truly." This last was offered to Akiko, who shook her head.

"It's fine," she said gently. "Do what you need to do."

After Roshni had departed, Akiko turned to Inara, tilting her head in curiosity. "Is that a common problem?" she asked. She honestly couldn't recall if it had been, during her time teaching here.

Inara smiled, rather ruefully. "Not as common as you'd think," she said. "The rules are very clear, and most of the students respect them."

Akiko nodded thoughtfully. She looked keenly at Inara, while trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, and thought a moment before speaking again. "I suppose you'll have plenty of chances to deal with that, if you take over after Roshni," she said lightly, in jest.

There it was. Inara chuckled, but there was something… off, about the reaction. Like her heart wasn't entirely in it. "It's not something to look forward to," she said.

She was distancing herself from the idea, Akiko estimated. There was no 'I' in that vague statement. Once again, Akiko paused significantly before continuing. She couldn't deny that she found the woman interesting. After all, Roshni would not approve of just anyone as a potential successor, and it seemed strange to Akiko that said successor seemed very subtly reluctant about the whole thing. And so Akiko forged on recklessly.

"Are you looking forward to taking over, if you're chosen?" she asked boldly.

Inara's eyes widened in surprise. She lost her careful composure, briefly, and Akiko saw that she was entirely right about the reluctance. Inara swiftly tried to cover it up, but it was too late. The woman sighed, her shoulders deflating a little.

"You're very intuitive," Inara said to Akiko, almost accusing, almost admiring.

Akiko smiled grimly. "I have to be."

"Is it obvious?" Inara asked, letting out a frustrated breath.

"Maybe only to me," Akiko said. After all, she had an advantage – she was intimately connected to her people, and she knew that something was wrong. She knew it for sure, now that she let herself investigate the sensation. "You'll have to let Roshni down gently. She thinks very highly of you, I can tell."

Inara frowned. "What makes you think I'm going to let her down?"

You're dying, Akiko wanted to say, but of course she couldn't. It would lead to questions of how she knew that, and Akiko couldn't very well answer because I can sense it. Out of courtesy, she usually refrained from using those senses when in the company of friends and friendly acquaintances, but she'd given in this time. It was some kind of illness, she knew that much. Instead, Akiko merely said, "You're right about me intuitive. I know something is wrong. Most people would be thrilled to be so close that kind of position."

Inara sighed, looking down at the ground. It was the first time she'd broken eye contact to that degree. Absently, she ran a hand across the fine-grained wood of the bench. "It's an honor," she said. "Make no mistake about that. I value Roshni's good opinion very much. But…" she trailed off, not looking up.

"But?" Akiko prompted gently.

"I… I want to see the world," Inara admitted. "If I became House Priestess… I'd be tied down here. I wouldn't be able to- to travel like I want to. And I don't want to spend the rest of my life stuck in one place."

She wasn't admitting her illness, and Akiko didn't blame her. Things of that nature were intensely personal, and Akiko's heart went out to the woman. She wanted to help. What she really wanted was to take the illness away – no one deserved to go through that. But even for a living planet such as herself, some things were impossible. So Akiko settled for offering the best advice she knew… the same advice she'd given to Roshni, all those years ago.

"You should follow your heart," she said gently. "Don't waste your life on something that makes you unhappy. It goes by so fast," it was with a pang that Akiko pushed Roshni's aged face out of her mind again, "and before you know it, what you wanted and what you loved is gone."

Inara finally looked up, rather wonderingly, at Akiko. She opened her mouth as if to speak, closed it, and paused for a few moments before trying again. "You're right," she said, as if having come upon a sudden realization. "I don't know what I was thinking… trying to convince myself to go through with it." She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully, still gazing at Akiko. "I see why you're a diplomat," she said at last, almost impressed, and then she laughed, sounding freer than she had since they'd met. "How long have we known each other?"

"Oh, an hour and a half is plenty enough time to get to know someone," Akiko said, smiling.

She could see that Inara was still hesitant. The wheels were turning in the woman's mind, truly considering the option to opt out. To leave. To travel. Akiko wished her all the best in whatever she ended up choosing. Honestly, it broke her heart to consider Inara's illness – death seemed to be on Akiko's mind today, and by the time she left, bidding both Roshni and Inara a warm farewell and promising to keep in touch this time, her heart was heavy.

Planets and nations, they had greater permanence. They could survive almost anything, except the absolute dissolution of everything that made up their souls, and they lasted – sometimes for millennia, Akiko knew, thinking fondly of Yao.

But humans… humans were fragile. The slightest misstep could kill a human.

Akiko returned to her home thinking mournfully of lost love and time stealing friendship away, and she understood very, very well why her fathers never settled down.

"I'm just sayin' – it's a little creepy, is all." Wash grinned down at the wavescreen and the two faces displayed on it. It hadn't been that much of a surprise, honestly, to receive an incoming wave from Alfred and Yao. They had a habit of showing up out of the blue. It was a good thing Mal – and everyone else – liked them; Wash certainly wished they'd hang around more. But they kept their distance, those two.

"As creepy as your late mustache?" Alfred asked, smirking.

Wash made a face. "Everyone's gotta rag on the 'stache."

"It will not be missed," Alfred said frankly. "Look, this time, it actually took some work to find you guys. We really gotta establish a better mode of communication."

"You said you got a job for us?"

Yao nodded. "Unless you'd rather not make some cash," he said, completely straight-faced.

Wash admired his sarcastic abilities. He chuckled. "I'd get fired if I turned that down. The job… is it legal? Illegal? Questionable?"

"Morally in the right," Alfred said confidently.

"Legally?" Yao added, with a shrug. "Not so much."

"Ooh, my favorite." Wash reached for the intercom button. "Give me a sec." Clearing his throat, he pressed the button and spoke. "Hello, hello, this is your pilot speaking. Would the captain please come up to the bridge to see if he could find it in his heart to accept a morally upstanding but legally questionable job opportunity? We all know how he hates breaking the law, but still…"

He had regaled Alfred and Yao with the short tale of how he and Zoe had taken a private vacation on Paquin some time ago, only for that vacation to go terribly but somewhat romantically awry, when Mal arrived.

"Suffice to say, I think this ship might be cursed," Wash said, thinking back fondly on the event. Danger could really be romantic, sometimes – all those heightened emotions. "Those who live in it can't do anything normal without something going wrong."

Alfred was grinning. "Aw, but where's the fun in normal?"

"Wash," said Mal's voice, and Wash turned to see the captain entering the bridge, "I cannot believe you are propositioning me to commit crime. Just who do you think I am?" He came up behind Wash, looked at the wavescreen, and shook his head, letting out an audible sigh. "I shoulda known."

Both men in the screen waved cheekily.

Mal folded his arms. "What d'ya got for us?"

"Oh, we just want to rob a rich scumbag," Alfred said casually.

Wash raised an eyebrow. He hadn't thought they were that willing to engage in the less-than-legal. "Wow. Ambitious."

"Thank you," Alfred said graciously. "It was my idea."

"And it was a terrible idea, until I cleaned it up," Yao said smoothly. He clasped his hands together, resting his head on the tips of his fingers. "What do you know about Maximus Lund?"

Mal thought about it a moment. "Can't say I've heard of 'im."

"Wait a minute," Wash said. The name sounded familiar, as if he'd read it somewhere. He tapped a finger on the control panel, thinking. "Isn't he that guy? The one who's been restarting a bunch of casino chains on Santo?" Business on that planet had been heavily disrupted by the war and was not picking back up easily, or so Wash had read… somewhere. Maybe from a newspaper on Paquin.

Yao nodded. "He's an up-and-coming businessman. New money, I guess you could say. Of course, he's gotten most of his funds from scamming innocent people."

"He musta done somethin' pretty bad, for you two to want to get involved," Mal said shrewdly. "Did he scam a bunch of old ladies?"

"An orphanage, actually," Alfred said darkly. "They're about to go under, now."

There was a moment of silence. "Let's get him," Wash said, already enthused about the prospect.

Mal, too, looked more than willing, but he raised a hand. "Wait," he said firmly. "First, tell me about the plan."

Yao laid it out in clipped, precise detail, with Alfred offering helpful interjections every now and then. By the time they had finished, Wash was impressed – they knew their stuff, and it was as careful a plan as it was daring. It was doable, too, with a little cleverness, and the robbery itself was unlikely to cause a big fuss. Lund's money wasn't legally obtained in the strictest sense, and if he was smart, he wouldn't want the Alliance investigating anything to do with it.

"Ordinarily we'd handle something like this on our own," Alfred added, at the end. "But it's a little more than a two-man job. You guys up for it?"

Wash looked up at Mal, who had a crooked half-grin on his face. "How rich did you say this guy was?" the captain asked.

Yao smiled wickedly. "Very."

"Then, gentlemen," said Mal, "I feel that we are honor-bound to indulge ourselves in crime, heinous though it may be. What say you?"

"Hear, hear." Wash cracked his knuckles. He wasn't much of an action man himself, but he was the getaway driver, which in his personal opinion was way cooler. And there was something so satisfying about the idea of stealing from an grade-A wáng bā dàn. "When do we start?"

They agreed to meet on Santo in four days, on its second-largest island – Nero, where one of Lund's tertiary mansions was located. He had several vaults, but it was there that he kept the vault with the largest amount of money, being notoriously distrustful of state-run banks and unwilling to commit his money to credit. And of course, there'd be no tracers on it – Lund would have made sure of that. Which meant that he was one of the few rich bastards in the 'verse who kept his money entirely physical and untraceable and there for the taking, if one was up to the challenge.

"Dude, we're Robin Hood now," Alfred said, practically bouncing on his feet as he and Yao approached Serenity, which had been landed in the small docks-town of Yalen. "Or Zorro. Both."

"Are you going to wear a black cape and mask?" Yao asked pointedly. "Because I am not."

Alfred offered him a cheeky grin. "You sure? You'd look dashing, y'know, for that party."

"You know what?" Yao said. "I'll wear that if you wear Robin Hood's tights."

"I cannot believe you remember that movie," Alfred said, in utter delight. He had a particular love for the pop culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century – before everything had gone wrong, before it had all changed irrevocably. Of course, he'd ended up showing Yao as much of it as the older nation could tolerate, particularly after the number of Earth-That-Was nations had dropped to just two. "What's it been, a hundred years?"

"A hundred and ten," Yao said, with a thoughtful look on his face.

Alfred couldn't comment on or even react much to the fact that Yao even remembered the exact number of years, as they had come abreast of Serenity, and Mal was descending to meet them. But the younger nation smiled fondly when Yao's back was to him, his wistful thoughts resting briefly on time and what it did to them. Absently, he rubbed his aching chest.

"This," said Mal, gesturing to the woman who emerged from one of the shuttles, "is Inara Serra, the only respectable person on this ship."

"Excuse you, I'm here," Alfred said. "That makes two of us. Sorry, Yao."

Yao rolled his eyes as Alfred grandly introduced himself to Inara. Alfred's default state was natural flirt, but Inara didn't appear to mind. She laughed, introducing herself as a Companion, which Yao had already guessed. Her style of dress was simple and elegant, far removed from the rugged getup of the rest of the crew, and she had that air about her. It made him think of Sihnon, of Akiko, and suddenly he wanted to go back sooner rather than later.

"Wang Yao," he said, bowing his head to Inara when she turned to him. "Hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ."

"Tóng yàng dì," Inara replied, with a gracious smile. She looked back at Mal. "Are we meeting in the dining room?"

He nodded, clearing his throat. "Yeah." Yao had seen the faint irritation that had crossed the captain's face when Alfred had flirtatiously introduced himself, and it was all the older nation could do not to laugh. "Five minutes."

Inara nodded and excused herself briefly, re-entering the shuttle. The three men moved on, heading for the dining room. Along the way, they stopped near the crew quarters, and Mal banged a fist on one of the doors. "Jayne!" he barked, and several moments later, the door opened. A man peered up at them, scowling. "Dining room. Three minutes," Mal told him, and he stepped away from the door, gesturing for Alfred and Yao to follow.

"Job's not 'til tomorrow," Jayne's voice drifted out of his room, irritated.

"And we're hashing things through one more time," Mal called back. "We've got everyone now. Come on."

There was much mumbled groaning, as the man climbed out of his room, and then Jayne fell into step behind them, rubbing his face. "This here's Jayne Cobb," Mal said, as they moved toward the dining room. "The least respectable person on this ship."

Jayne shrugged. "Can't argue with that." He eyed Yao and Alfred appraisingly, narrowing his eyes. "You two the ones who brought us the job?"

Alfred nodded, offering a hand. "Name's Alfred Jones," he said with a grin, and they shook. There seemed to be some sizing up going on between them, and Yao resisted the urge to roll his eyes again. He had to try doubly hard at that when it was his turn to shake hands with Jayne and introduce himself; the man seemed distinctly less impressed with Yao than with Alfred, particularly when Yao refused to give in to the posturing. Great, just what he needed. More macho.

Wash, Zoe, and Kaylee were already in the dining room. Alfred and Kaylee immediately hugged, as if they'd been friends forever but hadn't seen each other in a long time – no surprises there. Yao greeted Zoe and Wash warmly as Inara entered the room, and there was some shuffling around as the nations finished their greetings and everyone tried to find a seat. Finally, they were all gathered around the dining table, while Mal stood at its head and cleared his throat again.

"Right," he said. "So… plan's the same as ever. Just got one or two minor adjustments to propose. Yao, you got the invitation to Lund's gala?" When Yao nodded, Mal gestured to Inara. "Invitations are usually plus one, right? Inara's agreed to go with you, if it is."

Yao offered a smile to Inara, before looking back at Mal with a raised eyebrow. "How did you know that most invitations come with plus ones?" he asked slyly.

"I know things," Mal said indignantly.

"I told him," Inara said.

"And she knows more things," the captain admitted. "We figure she can give you some more legitimacy."

Inara smiled at Yao. "I'm good at that," she said. "Mal told me you've been traveling for a while, and I know it's hard to keep in the social loop if you're always moving…"

"And you can tell me who everyone is so I don't end up looking like a fool," Yao concluded, satisfied. Having a Companion with him would help immensely – his objective was to get close to Lund, to keep tabs on him, make sure he didn't leave early, and stall the man if necessary, and that would require social navigating that Yao had not truly performed in decades. Inara, on the other hand, would no doubt have a repertoire of skills. And they would need every skill possible to keep Lund from leaving early to check on his beloved wealth, if it came to that – the man was obsessive about monitoring his vaults when he was on Santo. "Good idea."

They discussed the plan in-depth, making sure that each person knew their role. Yao and Inara, of course, would be in the city of Edmao on the largest island, Belfast, the primary point of construction for Lund's casino chains – Lund was hosting a gala there for the social elite, in the first casino he'd constructed. It hadn't been that difficult to obtain an invitation, really – it had been a matter of Yao entering Santo officially, with his proper ID, and he had received the invitation within the day. Meanwhile, Alfred, Mal, Zoe, and Jayne would be at the mansion on Nero, completing the break-in itself, whereas Wash and Kaylee would man Serenity – or the getaway car, as Wash called it.

"You sure we can pull off this break-in successfully?" Zoe, always the pragmatist, asked. "Lund's security is top-of-the-line."

"He's a paranoid bastard," Alfred said. "And you wanna know the best part about that? He doesn't let any guards stay near the place. Thinks they'll be tempted to skim off the top if they're near the money. They're stationed about half a mile away, supposed to come running if the alarms trip. The mansion itself is protected by computers." He grinned widely, obviously savoring the idea. "And it's so very easy to confuse computers. Even top-of-the-line ones."

Well, it was easy if you had a technological genius for a protégé who was in the habit of giving you gifts because he missed you. Yao and Alfred didn't carry much with them, but they never gave away a gift from Winston or Akiko. And Winston's gifts, well… they were usually of the technological sort and surprisingly geared towards illegality, when one thought about it. Clearly that had not been Winston's intention; he just liked things that were cool and extremely useful. But Yao had no doubt that Winston would be 100% behind robbing a man who robbed orphans, anyway.

"And you're sure you can confuse them?" Zoe asked.

Alfred nodded confidently, his eyes gleaming.

It was nighttime on Santo, and Alfred couldn't sleep. He didn't really need it anyway, not right now, and so he followed the same routine he always did when he couldn't fall asleep and was annoying Yao as a result. He made his way to the kitchen. He was surprised to find Inara there, making herself a pot of tea. She jumped when she heard him approaching, turning rapidly, and then she laughed at herself. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't expect anyone else to be up."

"Sorry for scaring you," Alfred said with a chuckle. He nodded towards the tea. "Can't sleep either?"

Inara smiled ruefully, and she pulled out two cups. "I've never really done something like this before," she confessed. "I mean, I knew what I was signing up for, when I started traveling with this crew, but… I've never really participated before."

Alfred sat down at the dinner table, as Inara carried over the teapot and the cups. "What's a Companion doing on a ship like this?" he asked interestedly. He'd been wondering about that ever since she'd introduced herself as such, and he was practically dying of curiosity by this point. Mal had already explained why he wanted someone like Inara aboard – as he'd said during their discussion, she was a source of legitimacy. But Alfred wanted to know Inara's motivations.

Inara poured the tea. Her smiled was a little distant, as if remembering. "I wanted to travel," she said finally, handing Alfred a cup. "I wanted to go beyond the Core, too. Just… to get away from it all, I suppose."

Oh, Alfred could understand that motivation perfectly. He took a sip of the tea – ashwagandha, he thought; Yao would be proud of him – and nodded. "I feel that," he said. "I used to live there, a long time ago."

Inara sat down across from him and regarded him thoughtfully; she didn't seem surprised. "Is that how you and your friend were able to get an invitation?"

Alfred nearly choked on his next sip. "Ooh, you're a sharp one," he said, delighted.

Inara smiled again. "You look like you're from the Rim, but… you don't quite fit with that assumption." She sounded nearly as curious as Alfred had been.

He shrugged, gulping down some more tea. "It's kind of a long story," he said. But he didn't mind talking about it in vague terms to Inara – she was extraordinarily easy to talk to, he was discovering. "There was a… familial falling out, I guess you could say. We left, me 'n Yao. To travel, like you."

"Was the issue ever resolved?" Inara asked, though her tone indicated that he didn't have to answer if he didn't want to.

"Eh, not really. Not yet." It felt strange, tacking on a 'yet' at the end. He and Yao were selfish old men, he reflected morosely. It was easier to keep doing what they were doing, maintaining the status quo and avoiding, rather than take the necessary steps to rectify that little problem.

Inara nodded sympathetically and tactfully changed the subject. "Where have you traveled?"

Pushing unwanted thoughts out of his mind, Alfred grinned. "Oh, everywhere," he said, enthused.

They ended up trading stories long into the night.

It was nighttime on Santo, and Yao couldn't sleep. He should have expected that, really. Between Alfred's incessant twitching (until Yao had told him to go do something), thoughts of tomorrow, and Yao's lack of need for sleep at present, he got up and left the passenger quarters soon after Alfred. He didn't know where he was going, honestly – he was familiar with the ship by now, and so he let his feet carry him where they willed.

His ears directed him, though, because as soon as he'd passed the infirmary, he heard distant rustling. Frowning, he pushed forward towards the cargo bay and found Jayne within, doing sit-ups. The man paused in mid-movement, looking up at Yao. "No way in hell this woke you up," Jayne said disbelievingly. "No one sleeps that light."

Yao chuckled. "I was already awake."

"Oh. Good."

There were small dumbbells on the floor next to Jayne; Yao could see crude workout equipment stacked against the walls. "Are you planning on using any of those soon?" he asked, indicating the equipment. He hadn't really known what his purpose for wandering the ship might be, but now he'd found it. Physical exertion was calming, good for the brain and the body – maybe it would help settle him.

Jayne snorted. He sat up fully, glancing at the equipment. "You wanna use 'em?"

Yao scowled at the man's tone. "And what's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, you're kinda… dainty."

Yao heaved a very world-weary sigh. He was thousands of years old, he was stronger than any mortal, and he did not have to listen to this. He folded his arms, gazing intently at Jayne. "Fine," he said. "Arm wrestle with me, then."

Jayne laughed outright. "I don't think you wanna go up against this," he said, flexing one of his arms as if that was supposed to impress Yao.

Posturing. Honestly. Yao shrugged. "If you're too scared, then I'll just go somewhere else… and tell everyone in the morning."

Jayne frowned, climbing to his feet. "Now wait just a gorram minute," he said. "I ain't scared."

"You could have fooled me," Yao said innocently.

Giving Yao a look, as if he couldn't quite figure the nation out, Jayne crossed over to the workout equipment and dragged out an exercise bench with a wide, flat top. He pulled it in between himself and Yao. "Okay," he said, sitting down on one side. "Let's wrestle, pretty boy."

Trying to keep a straight face, Yao seated himself on the floor across from Jayne and placed an elbow on the bench, into position. Jayne did the same, grabbed his hand, counted down, and pushed.

Nothing happened.

Yao watched with amusement as Jayne strained to gain some leeway. The man was strong, there was no doubt about that, but Yao had an utterly unfair advantage. Not that he was going to reveal that little fact, however. Jayne looked angrily bewildered now, as he put his most of his weight behind his pushing – and yet he couldn't overcome Yao's strength.

Finally, Yao took pity on him and brought Jayne's hand down firmly, with little effort. Jayne fell back, eyes wide. "How in the gorram hell?" he demanded, looking at Yao in equal parts frustration, anger, disbelief, and admiration. "You're a stick!"

Yao grinned wolfishly. "One of the most important rules of combat," he said. "Never judge your opponent by their appearance."

"Yeah, I'll remember that one," Jayne said incredulously. He looked at Yao with new respect and also a fair bit of challenge, as if he still didn't quite believe it. "Best two outta three?"

While Yao still found posturing to be ridiculous, he had to admit that it was a little fun. There was no harm in being ridiculous, every now and then. He lifted a hand, smirking. "Bring it."

Fúcánglóng glittered.

The casino was a testament to the absolute excess of the 'verse's rich. No expense had been spared to create its extravagance, to impress the social elite paying it a visit, and it left a sour taste in Yao's mouth. It wasn't until Inara spoke that he realized that his feelings were showing plainly in his face and body language.

"You're not going to make any friends with a scowl like that," Inara said, leaning to whisper.

Yao forced himself to relax, loosening his hold on Inara's arm. She was right, of course, but he hadn't truly remembered just how much he'd grown to dislike displays like this until he'd set foot in it. He was beginning to envy Alfred's role in this endeavor – more dangerous, but much less socially complicated and irritating. It had been so long since Yao had worn formal clothes; his outfit was of a traditional Chinese style, very much influenced by trends on Sihnon, and while it was more comfortable than a suit, it still didn't feel right compared to his usual, casual clothing. To make matters worse, there were even flashing lights in the entrance hall, and they were already beginning to give him a headache. From what Yao could see of it, the gala seemed to be a bizarre mix of a formal event and a rave, or at least, that was the best way he could describe it. Lund was clearly trying to reach to as many types of people as he could, and it was honestly hard to tell if the result was pathetic or impressive. Both, maybe.

"Have I mentioned how glad I am that you're here?" Yao told Inara. Coming to this alone would have been maddening.

Inara smiled in understanding. "If it makes you feel any better," she said, "I'm not much of a fan of events like this, either. Too obnoxious for my tastes."

Oh, Yao liked her.

He gave their invitation to the man checking in each guest, and they passed into the casino proper. Once within, music pulsed all around them, making it impossible to whisper. The casino was reasonably packed – Lund had not been stingy with the number of invitations he was willing to send out. Speaking of Lund, Yao wondered how in the hell they were supposed to get close to him in this madness. Most of the people here were as big of leeches as Lund himself – they'd be doing whatever it took to ingratiate themselves to him, and Yao was not looking forward to fighting that particular tidal wave.

"It looks like I'm one of the only Companions here," Inara observed, scanning the crowd. "That might make our job a little easier."

That was true. Companions frequented the Core worlds, mainly – they were not rare on Border worlds, but they were uncommon enough that the appearance of one was sometimes enough to cause a stir. Yao finally spotted Lund – halfway across the wide expanse of the casino's main room, seated at the largest table, and surrounded by a sizable group of people – and smiled grimly. "There he is," Yao said, pointing. "Shall we?"

Inara nodded and tucked her arm more securely into his. "To battle, then," she said lightly.

Alfred had boasted that he'd be able to confuse Lund's computers, but that was easier said than done, even with the gadgets he and Yao had acquired from Winston. Lund was paranoid enough to not want people near his riches, but he wasn't stupid, either, and he'd spared no technological expense to protect his vaults. He'd also fed misinformation to the grapevine about where his money was located; current rumors had it in several underwater facilities, which of course was ridiculous – he wasn't that rich, not with the money he was dumping on his casinos. Still, it had taken a fair amount of digging and shifty use of status before the nations had been able to unearth the truth… and this particular mansion of Lund's was still the most heavily protected place for miles.

"This is gonna be really delicate," Alfred said, for the fifth or sixth time. "These computers are designed to reset the system every ten minutes in a shifting pattern, so even the smallest screw-up will doom us." The mansion had everything – an army of cameras and sensors set to trigger a series of both fatal and non-fatal traps that would, at the very least, seriously injure any potential thief, as well as raise every screeching alarm possible.

"Yeah, we know," Mal said, with a patience that sounded like it was wearing thin. "You done yet?"

"Almost." Alfred was focused on the main component of his end of the break-in – a small, tablet-like gadget that could deviously maintain a feed of information on loop for up to thirty minutes. It was meant to streamline and compartmentalize data usage like never before; this stuff wasn't on the markets yet, as it could make data input and output ridiculously cheap, and companies that provided data services didn't like that. However, the gadget worked just as well for confounding a computer system, as Alfred had discovered a long time ago after some experimentation. Of course, the fluctuations of Lund's computers meant that they only had ten minutes before the security reset, which meant that Alfred also had to find the blind spots (which wouldn't last long) and direct Mal, Jayne, and Zoe to them before each set of ten minutes was up. He had Winston's advanced signal scanner for that; it was meant to make spaceflight navigation safer, and therefore it could only reveal the roving security layout. Lund had one of those systems in which the cameras and scans were constantly moving; this created a lot of little blind spots that winked in and out of existence extraordinarily fast, rather than permanent ones, and was supposed to make hiding much harder – unless one happened to have a data streamer that could take advantage of them just as quickly. However, Alfred had to calculate the best blind spots himself, and he'd been at it for an hour already, tracking the patterns.

"Okay!" he said, five minutes later, and ignored Jayne's grumpy mutter of finally. "Remember, you have to do everything I say to the letter, or it'll spot you and raise hell."

"We know," Zoe said, patting his shoulder. "Relax."

"I am relaxed," Alfred said. "Why would you say I'm not relaxed?" Of course, he was pointedly ignoring the fact that his foot had been tapping incessantly since they'd arrived at the rear of Lund's mansion. "You guys ready?"

"Only for the past sixty minutes," said Mal, hefting the bags meant for the money and passing some to Zoe and Jayne – five for each person, able to carry a sizable amount and be strapped to a person's clothing. "This is nice, old-fashioned-like. Didn't know rich people still did solid cash."

"They do if they're as paranoid as this guy," Alfred said. "Alright, hacking the security system now." It was a fancy way of saying that he was pressing a button and letting the data-thingy do its work. "Give it a minute."

"Where'd ya get that thing, anyway?" Jayne asked, peering at it. "Sure seems mighty handy."

Alfred smiled. "I know a genius," he said – a genius who knew how much Alfred enjoyed entertainment in the form of movies and the like. He looked down at the data streamer and nodded. "Okay, go."

The three others took off through the trees, leaving Alfred sitting on the ATV with a knot of excited apprehension in his stomach. He turned on the heat layer of the signal scanner and watched as Mal, Zoe, and Jayne's heat signatures were added to the map of the area spread out before him on the screen. He zoomed in to follow them and tensed when they reached the outside gate of the mansion. But the data streamer proved itself; the security feed remained the same as it had been a minute ago when the streamer had sneakily latched on to the system. It would keep assessing the same loop, devoid of life and movement, for the next nine minutes.

"Please go as fast as possible," Alfred said fervently, into the small microphone attached to his collar. It would be tricky, navigating the blind spots and continually resetting the streamer every few minutes; he'd have to be as precise as possible, and the less times he had to do it, the better. He wished he could trade places with Yao, now.

"Alfred?" came Mal's voice, though his earpiece.


"Shut up."

Alfred nodded to the nighttime around him. "Duly noted."

"Ah! You are Mr. Wang, are you not?"

Maximus Lund looked average. You would not be able to tell, from appearance alone, how much of a wáng bā dàn he really was. The only hint was his needlessly extravagant clothing and affected accent. He had a formal way of speaking that grated on Yao's ears; it didn't sound natural, coming from this man.

The sea of people surrounding Lund had parted for them, with Inara's help, and upon catching sight of them, Lund had risen to greet them. Yao offered him a smile and nodded. "Thank you for the invitation," he said.

Lund waved his gratitude away. "It is an honor to have such a high-ranking official present at my humble event," he said, and Yao wanted to roll his eyes. Lund glanced at Inara, his attention caught by her, and his smile widened. "And who is this lovely lady?"

"May I present Inara Serra?" Yao said. Inara smiled graciously and offered her hand; Lund caught it and bowed over it.

"What a blessing, to have a Companion grace us with her presence," Lund said. "Come, you must both sit with us! I want to hear all about how it's been at the Core lately."

As they took a seat at Lund's table, Yao was suddenly even more grateful that Inara had come. He hadn't visited the Core in ages, and it wasn't like he paid any particular attention to the sort of thing Lund was interested in – the social and political games people played there. However, Inara had given him a brief run-down before they'd come, in case the conversation turned that way, and like clockwork, it had. From that, Yao knew enough to make it seem like he was truly a part of the conversation; if there was one thing he was good at, it was manipulating words to present whatever image he wanted others to see.

His heart jumped into his throat every time Lund checked one of his devices – waiting for the sign that Lund was aware that he was being robbed, that the alarms had been rung. But Lund showed no change of facial expression or body language, and he never once excused himself. As the conversation wore on, turning to business (which Yao was eminently more familiar and comfortable with), Yao waited for the signal from Inara; Wash and Kaylee were supposed to send a message when the rest of the crew was safely back on Serenity. One of Inara's earrings was actually a transmitter, and occasionally, Yao saw her rubbing it absently – the only sign that she was as anxious as he was.

"Are we sure Lund isn't actually a dragon?" Mal's voice scratched through Alfred's earpiece.

"What?" Alfred asked distractedly. It had taken two rounds of resets to get the three thieves to the vaults, where they'd successfully entered the password. It changed every three days, and only Lund and two guards were allowed to know it. Luckily, Lund did not like to associate with people he considered lower-class, and so he sent the password to said guards through an encrypted cyber message. Obtaining that had required the services of an actual hacker, which hadn't been cheap – but Alfred was expected a big payoff, anyway.

"This place is huge… looks like a dragon's cave," Zoe said, with a snort of disbelief.

"Piles of money," Mal said. "On tables. One for each bag, I bet."

"I could roll it in," Jayne said hungrily.

"Just go," Alfred said, strained. It was a strange turn of events that he was being the mature one, for once, but his nerves were at their wit's end.

He had to split his attention when the first round of bags were filled and Jayne brought them out – seeking out the most opportune blind spots in the vaults and near Jayne's position, and then telling the three of them where to move for a few seconds while he reset the data streamer. This time, it only took one round, now that Jayne was familiar with the layout of the place. The man reached Alfred again before the next reset, and Alfred only had to focus on the vaults while Jayne dumped the money into trailer attached to the ATV.

A beep caught Alfred's attention; the signal scanner had picked up on another heat signature, coming around the mansion in a wide arc. "Oh, no," Alfred whispered, looking up and peering through the trees. "No, no, no. You people do not make rounds. You stay in your stupid little guard house!"

"What's happening?" Mal demanded.

"Two guards, rounding the house," Alfred said. "I don't think they've seen us yet." They would, though; they'd hidden the ATV only from the mansion itself, with the cover of trees and undergrowth. Behind them was relatively open, flat land, dotted only by tall grass. Alfred looked at his countdown – seven minutes. "I'll be right back," he said into the microphone. "You guys keep filling your bags and stay where you are." Then looked at Jayne, who'd hesitated near the trailer. "Wanna help me knock some suckers out?"

Jayne grinned. "I was hopin' we'd get to."

The two of them moved silently and as quickly as they dared. Alfred could see the guards clearly now in the moonlight, patrolling at a distance. He'd known nothing about any rounds they made; all of his and Yao's sources had said that the guards stayed within the guard house. Obviously their rounds were a secret that Lund had taken great pains to keep – the better to surprise unsuspecting thieves – but it didn't matter. Alfred had a handy little signal scanner.

He and Jayne dropped low into a patch of tall grass, waiting. The two guards were approaching, shining lights ahead of them, and Alfred heard one of them come abruptly to a halt. "Hey," said the man, "is that-?"

Alfred exchanged a look with Jayne, and the two of them leapt into action. The trick was to incapacitate the guards before they could make a sound or raise an alarm. Therefore, Alfred punched the nearest one in the face before the man could make more than a surprised oomph and watched in satisfaction as the man toppled over, unconscious. Jayne, meanwhile, had grabbed the other one by the neck; the man tried to call out, but didn't have the air for it, and instead grasped wildly at a communicator on his belt. But Jayne hit him over the head with the butt of his pistol, and the guard crumpled.

"You knocked 'im cold with one punch!" Jayne said incredulously, panting and staring at Alfred.

Alfred shrugged. "I'm just that good," he said. "Keep an eye on 'em." He indicated the now-unconscious guards and then ran madly back towards the ATV. While running, he glanced at the area around the mansion, did a rough calculation of the trajectory the guards would have made on their round, and tried to estimate how long it would be before someone realized that they weren't showing up or checking in or whatever.

"You guys need to be done in fifteen minutes, tops," Alfred said to Mal and Zoe. Once near the ATV, he lunged for the data streamer and began seeking out the best blind spot, studying the screen intensely. "Also, both of you move to Mal's left, near that corner there."

"We're gonna need a mite longer than that," Mal said, amidst the shuffling that Alfred could also hear – dragging bags with them. "Sure you can't stall or somethin'?"

"How, exactly, am I supposed to do that?" Alfred demanded. "I don't know how long their rounds are!" He manipulated the data streamer's screen, as Lund's computer system fluxed once more; the streamer, connected to the security system, picked up on signals that did not include Mal and Zoe, safe as they were in a blind spot that only lasted six seconds, and exponentially increased them and held them steady again. "Okay, you can move. Just… hurry. Get whatever money you can and leave the rest."

They were meant to fill all of Zoe's bags, and then she would carry them out while Mal started to work on his. The routine was to be repeated on whatever money was left, with Jayne heading back in when Zoe emerged, but now there was no time.

"S'ppose we'd better starting stuffing our pockets, sir," Zoe said.

"You got all the bags filled?" Alfred asked in surprise.

"'Course we did," Mal said. "We don't mess around."

"Well, you've got thirteen minutes."

Alfred heard more shuffling. "There's not too much left," Mal observed. "Lund's more of a big-money kinda guy. Keeps 'em in the thousands rather than hundreds."

Alfred bit his lip and waited; his foot was tapping anxiously again. He'd give them three minutes before he told them to get out of there, if they didn't leave before then. Then he heard Jayne's voice through his earpiece, uncertain. "Uh," the man said. "There's a red blinky thing on this guy's communicator."

"What is it?" Alfred asked, resisting the urge to groan. Had he miscalculated the time?

"I think someone's tryna call 'im."

"Answer it," Mal ordered.

"You sure, Cap'n?" Zoe asked dubiously.

"They'll get suspicious anyway. Might as well try," Mal said. "Jayne, answer it."

Alfred could hear Jayne fumbling for a moment. Then the man spoke, making his voice a little more gruff than normal. "Yeah?" The rest of them couldn't hear the other side of the conversation, and it was nerve-racking. "No, s'fine," Jayne said, with a slight cough. "Jus' got spooked by a rabbit, is all. Started chasin' it down afore we realized what it was." More silence, and then… "Yeah, we'll be there in 'bout five minutes. Sorry for causin' a stir."

There were another few moments of silence, and then Jayne let out an explosive sigh. "Gorramit, I did not sign up for impersonatin' no one," he said, sounding relieved. "They'll be changin' rounds in five, six minutes. We gotta go."

Alfred nearly fell off of the ATV in relief.

"Jayne," said Mal, sounding impressed, "that was amazing."

Lund was in the middle of a self-righteous monologue about his exploitative business achievements (which included foreclosing on several families who had not been able to meet rent once) when Yao noticed that Inara perked up slightly, touching her earring again. At almost the exact same time, Lund stopped in the middle of his speech and pulled out a buzzing communicator, glancing at the screen. A scowl took up residence on his face, and he clenched the communicator tightly before looking up, smoothing his expression.

"Is everything alright?" Yao asked in concern. Inara gave him an almost imperceptible nod and brushed her hair back a certain way, indicating that their end was fine. Yao almost wilted in relief, thankful that the others were safe and that he wouldn't have to listen to this enormous asshole continue jabbering.

"A small problem," Lund said, standing up. "Nothing to worry about." He gave a sweeping, apologetic bow to the table. "Forgive me for leaving so early, but this must be attended to. But please, stay and enjoy yourselves! The party goes on for several hours yet." He smiled once more and then left in a hurry, and it was all Yao could do to keep from smirking in triumph.

To avoid suspicion, he and Inara stayed at the table a while longer, chatting with some of the other people there; they were all as unsavory as Lund himself, and Yao wished that it was possible to punch at least some of them in the face. Eventually, he'd had enough, and he placed a hand over Inara's. "How about a dance?" he said, and his message was clear: let's get the hell out of here.

Inara smiled and nodded. They bid farewell and headed towards the dance floor, which was situated on the opposite side of the main room. Yao waited until the crowds had closed in behind them, hiding them from the view of the table they'd just left, and then stopped and rubbed his forehead. Aspirin. He needed aspirin.

"We don't have to stay, do we?" he asked; if it was the polite thing to do, then damn politeness, he was old and he was leaving.

Inara laughed, taking his arm; they angled around the dance floor instead. "Absolutely not," she said.

It wasn't until they'd finally made it outside that she spoke again. It was now possible to hear without raising one's voice, although Yao's ears were ringing. He and Inara headed for the row of casino taxis waiting to ferry the mostly drunk partygoers away, and Inara leaned in again. "High-ranking official?" she asked softly, curiously.

Yao sighed. More than aspirin, he needed a drink. He hadn't dared to indulge in any alcohol while Lund was around, in case he and Inara needed to spring into action, and now he wished he had. "That was a long time ago," he said quietly. "A different life."

Inara nodded and didn't pry any further, for which Yao was grateful. He didn't feel like trying to offer a fake explanation for why Lund had regarded him so highly; lying was often a necessity, but lying to Inara would feel… dirty.

Lying to anyone he liked, even though it was a common occurrence nowadays, left a bad aftertaste.

It was a sizable sum of money, a little over a million. Of course, they'd already agreed that a large portion of it would go to the orphanage that Lund had scammed – it needed to be moved off of Santo, away from Lund's influence and control, and Alfred and Yao had already arranged for Salem, Santo's personification, to see it done with the money they sent him. Jayne, of course, grumbled about giving away their hard-earned cash, but the rest of the crew was all too happy to honor the arrangement. There was just something about orphans.

Another chunk of the money would have to go to repairs that Serenity needed; it seemed that the ship was always in need of fixing, with something or the other, and Kaylee made sure that she kept repeating increasingly dire warnings to Mal so that he'd listen.

It still left a good amount, which was divided evenly among the crew. Alfred and Yao turned down their share, however, taking only enough to cover the services of the hacker they'd hired a few days ago.

Mal scowled at them over lunch. "Oh, come on," he said. "I run a fair ship. You brought us the job, you made it possible, you take your damn share."

"Don't want it," Alfred said cheerfully, unwavering in the face of Mal's persistence. "All we wanted was to stick it to that bastard."

"You keep it with your crew," Yao said evenly. "Money runs out fast, and not all jobs are as lucrative as this one."

Mal folded his arms with a huff. "You could be my crew," he said.

Alfred froze with a fork halfway to his mouth, and Yao frowned, releasing the cup he'd been about to lift. Everyone else in the room had tuned in to the conversation now, interest piqued.

"You know that we can't," Yao said quietly, annoyed. Mal had asked them the same question in relative privacy before. Having it sprung upon them with almost everyone present was different, made it harder to turn down.

"Why not?" Kaylee asked, sounding genuinely disappointed.

Especially with Kaylee present. Both Yao and Alfred determinedly avoided looking directly at her, and Yao sighed. "We have our reasons," he said. It wasn't even a real answer, but it was the only one he was going to offer. At the same time, he desperately wanted to accept, and he could see it in Alfred's eyes – his partner wanted nothing more than to keep friends. But that was impossible, because no matter what, their friends would die one day. They always did, and it was something that one could go through only a certain amount of times before it wasn't worth it anymore – before it hurt too much.

Inara came to their rescue before anyone could press them further. "I'm sure they're good reasons," she said, and Yao flashed her a grateful look. "We should respect that." This was addressed to the rest of the crew, who relented, though Yao could see a dozen questions on their faces.

Particularly on Mal's face; he was regarding them intently. Yao knew that the captain was curious about them, intensely curious. He had been ever since they'd had their chance encounter at the bar several years ago. And Mal was not the type to give up on something like this, as long as they were around – Yao knew that they would inevitably be questioned again.

But the captain dropped the subject for now.

Yao suddenly wished that they were on Persephone, where the crew had agreed to drop him and Alfred off in a few days. Not that he wanted to be away from these people, no – and therein lay the problem. He and Alfred were starting to get dangerously close again, and it just wasn't worth it.

It never was.

Chapter Text

"Across the sky, there is a place where the starships fly in a perfect formation and the sun shines in the color blue – a world apart, like me and you."
"Now raise your hands and look to the sky and realize that this is not the last goodbye."
- "Last Goodbye"; I Will Never Be The Same

Daylight was baking Constance, and Mal was dripping sweat and panting as he lugged one of the boxes up the ramp into Serenity's cargo bay. Let it never be said that honest work was any less taxing than work of the more dishonest sort – his back was beginning to ache, and his attitude towards the star of this particular system was decidedly sour. He set the box down with the others, exhaling an explosive sigh, and turned to look at the other crew members engaged in the same activity, clustered around the delivery truck.

Despite the fact that it was midday and the heat was damn near unbearable, the docks were bustling. Mal's eyes automatically scanned the crowds; it was an old habit of his, born of days spent soldiering, and he had never bothered to break it, useful as it could be. It wasn't like he was expecting to see anything of note, subconsciously or otherwise, but something caught his gaze and made his eyes double back – two familiar figures, the taller one expertly shoving through the mass of people to make way for the shorter one.

Mal grinned, heading back down the ramp as Alfred and Yao finally pushed their way through the thickest part of the crowd. Zoe looked up as Mal approached, followed his gaze, and smiled as well, as Alfred waved cheerily at them. "You lost?" Zoe called.

"Oh, hopelessly," Alfred shouted back, over the general din of the docks. "Thank God you fine people are here to rescue us."

Wash and Jayne both returned the wave and called out greetings, while Book eyed the newcomers curiously. "We found you in the registrar's list," Yao said to Mal, as he and Alfred came abreast of the delivery truck. "Are you doing respectable work now?"

"Thievin' don't always pay the bills," Mal answered, shaking hands with them.

"We've taken on supply transport now," Wash added in a strained voice, struggling under a load. "It's very stimulating. Mind helping with these boxes?"

"No thanks," Alfred said with a wink. "As fun as that sounds." He glanced at Mal. "We were wondering if you had in your hearts to give us a lift."

Mal took a moment to look them over. They were the same as ever – a little travel-worn, with only the bags on their backs for luggage, save for a small box tucked under Alfred's arm that bore a food market stamp. As usual, Mal couldn't get much just from looking at them. Even their appearances were oddly secretive, giving away nothing other than the fact that they were obviously travelers. "I dunno," Mal said with a mock sigh, as if internally weighing some great debate. "Zoe? Would it be responsible of me to let these vagabonds onto our highly respectable ship?"

"Absolutely not," Zoe answered, grinning at Alfred and Yao. "Welcome aboard."

"Is that food?" Jayne asked, eyeing the box that Alfred was holding.

"Yes, for Kaylee," Alfred said pointedly, transferring the box into the crook of his other arm. "No touching."

Book set down the box he'd been in the process of lifting and came forward, smiling in greeting. "I don't believe we've met before," he said to the newcomers.

"This here's Shepherd Book," Mal explained. "He's on my crew now."

"A Shepherd?" Yao echoed in surprise; his head tilted in curiosity as he gazed at Book. "I didn't know Shepherds doubled as thieves."

"We generally don't," Book said dryly. "Half the time, I don't even know what I'm doing here. But I do try to bring some measure of morality to the lawlessness of this ship." He smiled and shook both Alfred's and Yao's hands in turn. "Are you friends of the Captain?"

Mal could tell that both men were curious about Book's presence on Serenity – as curious as Mal himself was about the two of them. He watched as they introduced themselves and chatted with the Shepherd and the others, pitching in to help with the boxes as naturally as if they did so every day. They got along so easily with the crew, and once again Mal found himself wondering why they steadfastly refused his offer of joining. They'd only ever given him vague excuses, and while Mal could respect a person's right to privacy, he couldn't deny that his need to know was burning. There had to be a deeper reason – after all, it wasn't just anyone who could get along with him and his crew as if they belonged there.

He shoved the matter to another part of his mind when he realized that Zoe was looking at him. "You're staring," she informed him.

"I'm thinkin'," he said.

"Don't hurt yourself," she advised, and Mal gave her a halfhearted glare.

It turned out that Serenity would be departing that evening, after Mal finalized dealings with the seller who needed his supplies transported to a buyer on Calliope. Yao was glad that he and Alfred had managed to catch the crew before they left; of course, on a planet like this, they could have easily joined up with any number of passenger vessels, but it was much more pleasant with friends. It had been a nice surprise to find Serenity on the dock registrar's list of ships willing to take passengers. It had been a long time since they'd seen the ship and her crew, and a lot had happened since then, to judge by the additional number of crew members.

By the time the crew had finished loading the cargo bay and the last of the supply boxes were stored securely, Inara and Kaylee emerged together from Serenity's depths. "Well, this is a surprise!" Kaylee said delightedly, bouncing down the steps as Inara descended more calmly behind her. Alfred gave them both a theatrical bow and presented his box to Kaylee with a flourish.

"A gift for the beautiful lady, from her two humble servants," he said gallantly, and Inara smiled and shook her head.

"Aw, you shouldn't've," Kaylee said with a wide grin, accepting the box and opening it. Inside were some of the reddest, freshest strawberries that Alfred and Yao had been able to find on short notice. Kaylee's eyes lit up at the sight, and she looked up with a wide smile. "Oh, you," she said, looking between Alfred and Yao. "You know how to make a girl's day." She leaned forward to kiss Alfred on the cheek with a one-armed hug, then crossed the distance to Yao to do the same for him.

Yao smiled. "Be careful, though. Jayne's been eyeing that box since the moment we walked up."

"Oi," Jayne said defensively. "I ain't gonna steal 'em. Leastways not with so many witnesses."

Kaylee took pity on him and offered him a strawberry. As she passed a few more around to the others, Inara came forward to greet nations. "Were you just in the area?" she asked inquiringly.

"Well," Alfred said somewhat guiltily, drawing out the syllable in his reluctance, "we weren't planning on leaving this place so early, but... stuff happened, y'know."

Inara arched an eyebrow at him knowingly and turned to Yao.

"He was hustling pool," Yao clarified. "Like the ruffian he is. The man he was hustling turned out to be the owner of the inn we were staying at."

"He kicked us out," Alfred admitted. "And I guess he's really influential in the town or something, 'cause none of the other inns we tried would let us in after that."

Wash snorted. "Wow," he said, completely deadpan. "What a shock. Guys, I hate to break it to you," he turned to the rest of the crew, "but I fear we have a pair of criminals among us. Don't anybody panic."

"Excuse you," Yao said, dignified. "I had nothing to do with it."

"Oh, but y'know what they say," Mal said, coming up behind him, "birds of a feather 'n all that. Tainted by association. Listen," he directed this at the crew, "I'm headin' to finish the deal with the client. This ship better be rarin' to go by the time I get back."

Zoe stepped up, folding her arms. "Take Jayne with you," she said.

Mal frowned. "This is a completely legal transaction. I don't need backup."

"Never hurts to be careful." Zoe narrowed her eyes at him, and their stare down barely lasted a few seconds.

"Fine," Mal said with a sigh. "But we're turnin' into a bunch of paranoid bastards, we are. Jayne, c'mon. And you can only bring one handgun. No other weapons. We don't need to spook the guy."

Jayne groaned. "Aw, c'mon."

"I mean it."

Grumbling, Jayne handed two pistols and two knives to Zoe. When she gazed at him expectantly, he sighed and handed over a grenade. Yao had to fight back laughter.

When Mal and Jayne had departed, the crew scattered to their respective duties, following Zoe's orders. Watching them and their smooth interactions, Yao felt a strange sort of satisfaction, and he tried to ignore it. He knew what it was, this contentment, and it was dangerous. He and Alfred were only here for passage and some friendly interaction, nothing more.

"Inara, Shepherd," Zoe said, turning to them, "would you mind introducing these two," she gestured to Alfred and Yao, "to Simon and River?"

The Companion and the Shepherd nodded, and with a farewell, Zoe headed off to another part of the ship, leaving the four alone in the cargo bay. Inara turned to the nations with a soft smile. "Simon and River joined the crew at the same time that Shepherd Book did," she said, gesturing to the man. "And, well…" she hesitated, as if trying to find the right words, "River is... different. Just as a warning."

"How so?" Alfred asked.

Inara looked at Book, still hesitant, and the man cleared his throat. "I don't really think it's our story to tell," the Shepherd said diplomatically. "She isn't... quite right in the head, and we'll leave it at that. Just treat her normally. With compassion. Even if she talks or behaves oddly."

Yao exchanged a look with Alfred and nodded. "Of course," he said, his curiosity piqued once again.

"Earth and quintessence," was the first thing River Tam said upon meeting the nations, gazing at them with a cocked head and a very interested expression. "That's what you were born from, isn't it?"

Yao felt his breath catch in his throat, as an old, familiar ache leapt to the forefront of his mind. It had never left, not really, but over the years he'd gotten better at suppressing it. Not right now, however – River's words were like the key to a leaky dam, and for a moment, Yao struggled to breathe.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw much the same reaction in Alfred. The younger nation had gone stiff, eyes widening ever so slightly, as his breathing quickened. But it was only for a moment, and Yao quashed his own reaction viciously, keenly aware of the fact that Inara's eyes had come to rest on him.

"Sorry," Simon said hastily, gently taking River's arm. "She says things like that sometimes, she doesn't mean anything by it."

Yao wasn't so sure, because River was gazing at them with eyes that seemed to know, and indeed, when he looked at her, he got a strong sense of difference. It was not so much the way Inara had meant 'different' as it was the kind of sense that Yao got from humans who were very, very aware. It wasn't a common occurrence, but every so often, he and Alfred came across a human who, on some instinctive level, knew what they were. He was almost positive that Mal was that kind of person, albeit totally unaware of it on a conscious level. But River... well, either her words were a fluke, or she had a lot more awareness than the captain did. And to judge by the sensation in Yao's mind, he was inclined to suspect the latter.

A brief glance exchanged with Alfred told Yao that his partner had arrived at a similar conclusion, but neither of them acted on it. They couldn't, not at the moment. Not, at least, until one of them got a chance to talk to River alone.

"It's alright," Alfred said. He grinned at River. "That's a pretty interesting notion, there."

River returned his smile and tugged herself out of Simon's grasp. She circled Alfred, appraising him, then did the same to Yao. She tilted her head once more as she regarded Yao and reached forward to latch on to his arm. "I like this one," she said. "A lot."

Yao fought back a grimace. For such a small girl, she had a lot of strength. Alfred snickered at Yao's expression.

Simon hurried forward. "Come on, River, let's not scare the nice men," he said, pulling her away from Yao and flashing the nation an apologetic look. "Or break their arms."

"I wouldn't do that," River told him, as if it were obvious. She looked back at the nations in interest. "So you'll be traveling with us?"

"For a few days, yes," Yao answered, studying her with just as much interest. The urge to talk freely with her was strong, but he restrained it for now. He was nothing if not patient.

River nodded in satisfaction. "Good," she said and then, apparently, lost interest in them for the time being.

"Sorry," Simon said again in a low voice; he'd accompanied them to the room where Alfred and Yao would be staying, assuring River that he'd be back soon.

"Hey," Alfred said reassuringly, as he and Yao dropped their bags on their respective beds. "You don't need to apologize. So she's a bit odd; so what? We've seen worse. Much worse." He smiled. "I like her."

Simon nodded gratefully, though he didn't appear to relax very much. "So... what did you say you did, again?" he asked curiously. The question was posed casually, but Yao got the sense that he and Alfred were being vetted.

"We didn't," Yao answered, regarding the young man as closely and inconspicuously as possible. "We do a lot of traveling and odd jobs and such."

"Jacks of all trades, really," Alfred supplemented helpfully.

Inara's hand came to rest briefly on Simon's arm, something that Yao didn't fail to miss. "They're pretty handy in a tight situation," she said. "Remind us to tell you about a robbery job they brought for the crew." Though she sounded amused when she said this, it seemed to Yao that there was something like reassurance in her words, meant only for Simon. What that could be about, he could only guess, but he didn't have time to dwell on it much. After a few minutes of more casual chatting, from which Yao still got the impression that Simon was trying his best to read them, both Simon and Inara excused themselves... Simon to River and Inara to her shuttle.

That left the nations with Book, which didn't help to abate Yao's curiosity. Even a Companion's presence aboard this ship was easier to understand, or, at least, it was in Inara's case.

"Are you hungry?" Book asked.

"Food sounds great," Alfred answered with enthusiasm, never one to turn down an offer. He and Yao fell into step on either side of Book as the three of them left the guest quarters, heading for the kitchen.

Yao cast a sideways glance at Book, unable to resist voicing his curiosity, even if he suspected that it wouldn't pan out. "So..." he said, "what reasons does a Shepherd have for being on a ship like this?"

Book appeared to contemplate this question. "That depends," he said at last, looking between the two nations with a small smile. "What does 'traveling and odd jobs' entail?"

Yao chuckled. The counter-question didn't surprise him; he of all people could understand dodging around questions and not wishing to disclose information. "Fair enough," he acknowledged.

"Although, to be honest," Alfred said, "it's exactly what it sounds like. We could tell you a few tales," he added with a laugh.

Yao watched as Book zeroed in on the fact that Alfred was the kind of person who relished in sharing stories. "I wouldn't mind hearing them," the Shepherd said. "I used to travel somewhat, in my younger days."

Of course, Alfred didn't actually fall for this diversion, but he met Yao's eyes with a small grin and then asked whether Book preferred tales full of dashing heroism or mysterious intrigue. As the younger nation launched into full storyteller mode, Yao reflected on the fact that Serenity had acquired some particularly unusual inhabitants since the last time the nations had seen her.

Calliope was smaller than the kind of destination that either nation had in mind. They had a vague idea of making their meandering way back in the direction of the Border and the Core, having recently spent more than enough time on the Rim. "Oh, any old Border world will do," Alfred said over dinner, when Mal questioned them as to where they were headed. "We're not picky."

Mal arched an eyebrow at them. "You two are the most low-maintenance people I've ever met," he said, and Yao knew that he and Alfred weren't the only people on this ship who were intensely curious about something.

"Comes with the territory," Alfred said, helping himself to mashed potatoes. "Or from not having any territory, really."

"Seems kinda excitin'," said Kaylee, eyes alight with thought. "I mean, long as you got someone to share it with, it don't sound like a bad life at all."

Yao smiled at her. It was freeing, certainly, and in circumstances like his and Alfred's, it was the best they could ask for. They had done and seen much, and in a place as large and vibrant as the 'verse they'd made their own, there was no shortage of distractions. But still... there was always that lurking loneliness, that sense of not belonging anywhere, and it was never more pronounced than in situations like this. It wasn't often that he and Alfred sat down to a meal with so many people in a place as homey as this. As Yao listened to the chatter and watched Alfred talk animatedly to everyone, he found himself bitterly cursing immortality.

"You don't have to be lonely," said River, who had taken a seat next to Yao. His eyes widened, and he stared at her. "It's not a requirement," she continued, in a matter-of-fact tone. "It's something you decided for yourself."

She knew what Yao had been thinking. She knew things that he had not spoken out loud to another soul save for Alfred and the planets. It only took Yao a moment to get over his astonishment; he'd sensed that there was something very different about her before, and he was utterly convinced of it now. "And how would you know that?" he asked lightly, carefully watching her face as his heart pounded.

River grinned at him. It made her look younger. "I just do."

There were too many people around for Yao to probe any further, and now he was impatient. But it was a good feeling, an anticipatory one, and it banished the melancholy he'd been sinking into. After a moment, he returned the grin and let the matter drop.

As it turned out, finding a time and place to talk to River alone was more than a little difficult.

The trip to deliver the supplies wasn't that long, as Constance and Calliope were in the same star system, and Yao quickly learned that Simon was extremely protective of his sister. The young doctor hardly ever let her out of his sight, and it was clear that he didn't trust the nations at all. Oh, he was perfectly friendly and welcoming, but he was guarded, too. There was something that he was concealing, and Yao knew it concerned River. Neither Yao nor Alfred got a chance to speak to River alone before they landed on Calliope, though not for lack of trying.

Despite that particular setback, it was a pleasant trip. Alfred spent much of his time in the engine room with Kaylee or on the bridge with Wash; the younger nation seemed determined to unearth as many of the ship's secrets as he could every time they flew with it. Yao, meanwhile, found himself in an odd routine. Jayne didn't seem to mind when Yao borrowed his workout equipment, and to Yao's surprise, he wasn't the only extra person who used it.

"I find exercise to be stimulating for the mind," Book explained, when Yao found both him and Jayne in the cargo bay.

Yao tried to exercise regularly for the same reason. It wasn't like he needed it, as a normal human would, but it relaxed his mind more than anything save meditation could. "Try telling that to Alfred," Yao said with a snort. His partner was far lazier when it came to that sort of thing. "I can never get him to do this with me."

Jayne let the barbells down with a huff and lifted his head to stare at Yao incredulously. "You're kiddin'," he said. "There's no way that guy doesn't work out."

Yao shrugged. "He is an enigma," he said, trying not to smile. He imagined telling them that Alfred got his strength from being something other than human and found it even harder to contain a grin. "Mind if I join?"

Jayne and Book were the last people Yao expected to find enjoying something together, and the sight of it amused him. It also gave him a chance to talk with the Shepherd more, and it didn't take long for their conversation to gain momentum. Book was well-learned; he seemed to enjoy debate and lengthy discussion, and Yao didn't even realize just how deep they'd gotten until he heard an audible groan from Jayne, who was only half paying attention.

"I don't even think y'all are talkin' English anymore," Jayne said grumpily.

Book turned his head away to hide a smile, and Yao took hold of the conversation and steered it towards something a little more down to earth. He found that he quite liked working out with the two of them. Jayne was still determined to defeat him at a contest of strength at least once, and though Book excused himself from these competitions, citing his age, he looked on with great amusement. Yao, of course, always won.

By the time Calliope was in sight, both Yao and Alfred had once again settled into the rhythm of the ship, and both of them were keenly aware of the fact that they were doing nothing to stop themselves. It didn't matter, Yao told himself. It wasn't like they were staying on permanently, and they deserved a little contentment like this, every once in a while. It didn't matter that Mal accepted it without question when they volunteered to help deliver the supplies to the buyer, as easily as if they were a part of his crew, and that they often took on duties in the ship without being prompted. As long as they could tear themselves away in the end, it didn't matter how much they enjoyed it.

A faint feeling of unease settled in Mal's stomach when they arrived at the meet point – it was deserted and quiet at the moment, with no sign of the buyer they were delivering the supplies to, and though there was no rational reason to be concerned, Mal's instincts were stirring nonetheless. Maybe it was the general atmosphere that this little moon had taken on since he'd last been here, which had been a brief stop a few years ago. He vaguely remembered the impression of open hospitality, the kind that people who romanticized frontier life thought these sorts of places contained, despite the fact that few of them did. He didn't get that impression now. Not a single person on the streets had looked their way.

The meet point was outside of the little town near which Serenity had landed, in a flat area covered with short grass and trees that were spread out too thinly to be considered a forest – more of a tiny wood, really. It was the kind of place in which things could go very badly in a short amount of time, before anyone in the town could notice a disturbance and investigate. Mal noted this grimly, then frowned and tried to shake himself of thoughts like that. Even if this place had become less hospitable over the years, that didn't mean that this job was going to go wrong. It was a legal business transaction, not a scam or heist that they were pulling. He really had to start signing them up for normal jobs more often; looking over his shoulder and worrying was tiresome, and he was far too used to it.

Still, he loosened his gun in its holster, not really listening as the others chatted casually.

"Saylor did say noon, didn't he?" Zoe asked finally, looking at Mal. It was now ten minutes past the rendezvous time, and Mal was beginning to reconsider his earlier idea of taking on more legal jobs. At least with illegal ones, you had a reason to be jumpy.

Mal nodded, casting his eyes around the area. With illegal jobs, he didn't experience this kind of indecision, either.

"Maybe he's just late?" Alfred suggested.

Mal might have agreed with that, had he not had the sense that this moon was no longer as safe as it had once been. "We'll give it five more minutes 'fore going back to the ship," he said at last. "And make sure your weapons are ready, just in case."

Three minutes later, he ended up deeply wishing that they'd just gone back to the ship immediately.

Yao suddenly and noticeably stiffened; Mal glanced at him and saw the alarm on the man's face, which sealed the deal for Mal even before Yao said, "We need to leave now." A moment later, they all heard the unmistakable crack of a gun, and a bullet whizzed through the air somewhere that was too close for comfort.

"Shit," Mal muttered, as he caught sight of several heavily armed men approaching through the trees. It was clear that the first bullet was not a warning shot when two more joined it – one struck the ATV that Yao was sitting on, inches from him, and the other only missed Jayne because he'd moved a second before. These people meant murder, and Mal didn't like the odds of trying to escape on the ATVs with their backs fully exposed to a hail of bullets. There wasn't any time to even get on the ATVs; their attackers were too close.

Shelter behind the two ATVs, return fire. As a plan, it sucked, but it was the best they could do with seconds to spare. Zoe, Alfred, and Yao were already ducking behind the ATVs – Alfred having dragged Yao down after the second bullet had hit – and Jayne was sprinting in their direction. He and Mal had been the farthest from the ATVs, and Mal followed Jayne, blood pounding in his ears, expecting to be hit at any moment.

He didn't know exactly what happened; all he knew was that he saw Jayne diving down behind the ATVs, and suddenly a powerful force hit crashed into Mal. It was enough to arrest his momentum and send him careening backwards; he landed painfully on his back, and something heavy landed halfway on top of him. Dizzy, winded, and more than a little stunned, it took Mal a few moments to realize that Alfred was on top of him.

Mal heard Alfred try to suck in a breath, and the blond man's body seemed to seize up; his breath turned into a ragged, wet cough, and he rolled off of Mal, curling in on himself with a groan of pain. In a flash of panic, during which time seemed to slow down to a crawl, Mal sat up, heedless of the fact that it was likely to get him shot, and looked down at Alfred and the bleeding bullet wound in Alfred's chest, aghast. For a moment, his brain refused to accept it, but the nearness of the still-present danger didn't allow him to indulge in denial for long. "No!" Mal snarled. Shock, anger, and horror bled into his voice and caused it to crack ever so slightly, and time accelerated back to its normal speed. "You idiot!" Because Alfred had taken that bullet for him, had somehow managed to push him out of the way in time, and now there was blood pouring out of his chest.

Not caring if it made him a target, Mal attempted to put pressure on the wound just as he heard a wordless cry of rage, and he looked up to see Yao halfway across the distance to their attackers, when a second before the man had been behind the ATVs. Mal watched, astonished, as Yao covered the remaining distance at a speed that was inhumanly fast. He had a long knife in each hand, and he took advantage of the surprise that his sudden, impossibly fast charge had caused by fluidly taking down two of the gunmen. He moved better than any professional martial artist Mal had ever seen – as lithe and graceful and deadly as a snake.

There were gunshots from their side, now – though Zoe and Jayne looked just as stunned as Mal, they'd risen from their crouched positions and were firing back now that Yao had the attackers thoroughly distracted. The opposing side devolved into madness quickly – some turned their guns on Yao, but were either picked off by Zoe and Jayne or zeroed in on with eerie accuracy by Yao. He seemed to know exactly when he was in excess danger and corrected it faster than Mal could follow, who was watching slack-jawed while still trying to stem the bleeding.

The remaining gunmen soon fled, and Mal could hear their terrified shouting as he turned his full attention back to Alfred, who was fighting a losing battle with unconsciousness. "Come on," Mal muttered, trying not to think about how ashen Alfred's face already was. "Come on! You ain't dyin' on me."

He heard the ATVs rev up, then heard footsteps. Mal looked up to see Zoe, her face set in emergency battlefield medic mode, and Jayne, whose eyes were wide, approaching rapidly. A moment later, Yao dropped to his knees beside Alfred, his face more pale and scared than Mal could ever remember it looking. Mal removed his hands to let Yao examine the wound, and his stomach dropped when Yao's face darkened and then hardened with considerable effort.

"Back to the ship," Yao said shortly. Without wasting a moment, the four of them managed to lift Alfred, carry him to the ATVs, and place him in one of the trailers without jostling him too much. Alfred was somewhere in between waking and unconsciousness, but when they put him down on top of the supply boxes, his eyes suddenly opened wide, gaining a little clarity… only for his face to twist in pain. He started coughing again, this time spitting blood, and Yao vaulted into the trailer, grabbing Alfred's shoulders and forcing him back down when it seemed like Alfred wanted to curl up in agony.

"You have to stay still and flat, xiǎo lǎohǔ," Yao said desperately, but Mal didn't think Alfred could hear him anymore. Climbing into the trailer with the two of them, Mal signaled for Zoe and Jayne to take off, and the ATVs sped back towards the town. The sudden movement seemed to cause Alfred more pain, and a weak, ragged whisper escaped him.

"... Hurts, Yao."

Yao's voice was shaking, and his eyes were wet. "I know," he said despairingly, applying pressure once more.

Mal felt nauseatingly useless, sitting there and watching someone slowly die because of him. "Is there anything I can do?"

Yao shook his head, not taking his eyes off of Alfred.

It took a few minutes to get back to Serenity; both Zoe and Jayne were pushing the ATVs to their limit, but it was still a few minutes too long. By the time they pulled into the cargo bay, Alfred had lost consciousness completely, though he was still breathing. It was a mad rush to get him to the infirmary – Zoe ran for Simon while Mal, Yao, and Jayne lifted Alfred out of the trailer, and Inara came running up to them. She skidded to a halt when she saw Alfred, her eyes widening in horror as they carried him past her towards the infirmary, moving as quickly as possible.

"What happened?" Inara demanded, following them.

"Don't know," Mal grunted, and it was true – he still had no idea what that attack had been or why this perfectly legal job had gone so wrong. He didn't have time to think about it right now. He let Jayne and Yao carry Alfred through the infirmary door and turned to Inara. "I need you to tell Wash to stay on the bridge in case we need to get the hell out of dodge. Someone attacked us, and I don't know if they're gonna want another go."

Inara nodded, taking one last worried look at Alfred before hurrying off. Mal heard running footsteps, and Simon came into view, sprinting at full tilt. Kaylee was right behind him, and Mal caught her shoulders as Simon hurried into the infirmary.

"There's nothing you can do," Mal told her; the less people inside the infirmary to crowd Simon, the better. Kaylee looked horrified, and she covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes watering. Mal kept a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it. "Simon'll be able to fix him right up, you'll see," he said reassuringly, but the words were hollow.

He didn't know if he believed it.

When Alfred had lost consciousness completely, Yao had known with terrifying certainty that he wouldn't make it.

Truthfully, he'd known it the minute he'd noticed that Alfred was reacting to the injury like... well, like a fairly normal human. Their kind was designed to survive what humans could not, but even they had their limits, and Alfred and Yao's limits had grown considerably over the past few centuries. They were weakening over time, slowly but steadily... not enough to die like the other nations of Earth-That-Was, not yet, but enough that wounds that ordinarily wouldn't have killed them had a greater chance of doing just that.

And Yao knew. He could feel it, feel Alfred's life slipping away, even as he steadfastly tried to deny it. Maybe Simon would be able to do something, he thought over and over again, but as Yao watched Simon extract the bullet - the boy's face pale and growing more and more despairing, as if he knew it was impossible – Yao almost wanted to tell him to stop. To spare him the misplaced guilt of not being able to save a patient.

But no, it would be more than a little inconvenient for Alfred to wake up with a bullet inside of him. And it was only by imagining Alfred's reaction to that kind of situation that Yao stopped himself from breaking down, as he felt the last of Alfred's life slip away. He wanted to reach out, to physically stop it, but he remained rigid, staring down at Alfred as his partner's chest ceased movement. Yao felt it – a ragged, shooting pain through his own chest and an overwhelming sense of emptiness, as if something vital had been snatched away permanently. Though the rational part of his mind knew that this was only temporary, that Alfred would revive with time, a greater part wanted to panic. To grab Alfred's shoulders and shake him and demand and beg that he come back. To sob with the acute sense of empty loneliness that was already tearing through him with terrifying speed.

"He's dead," Simon whispered, taking a half-step back from the operating chair with a wide-eyed look of horror on his face.

Yao only stared, his hands trembling with the sheer effort of holding back the tide of emotion. It wasn't rational, he told himself over and over again, bracing himself against it. It was a side-effect of the fact that he and Alfred were connected far more than any two nations should ever be; it was just a reaction to that connection being temporarily severed. It wasn't rational because he knew that Alfred would come back to him soon enough, and yet it hurt so much. Oh, it felt like he was being swallowed by misery, and it was all he could do not to lose control right then and there, and...

Distantly, Yao was aware of Simon still staring down at Alfred, still holding the bloody bullet – resigned to the fact that it hadn't been possible to save him and yet still shocked. Yao tried to look up at him, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from Alfred. He couldn't think straight. He felt like he was drowning in his own emotions, his own sense of loss, and he could barely breathe. "Yao?" Kaylee's voice was small and shaking, with tears in her voice, and it snapped Yao back into some semblance of reality. Reason won out, and he gripped it firmly, using Kaylee's voice as an anchor. There were other people present. The crew.

The crew. How was he supposed to explain this to them? For a wild moment, Yao considered taking Alfred and leaving the ship, finding some private place to wait out however long it took for Alfred to revive. But no – it would take all of Yao's energy just to face the others, locked in battle as he was with the draining sensation of Alfred's absence. Reality itself seemed to be bent around Yao's unmoving partner, straining to restore him; Yao didn't think he could fight against that force long enough to bring Alfred anywhere. He also didn't think Alfred would forgive him for running from friends – because friends they were, however much the nations had tried to avoid it. Running meant that they would have to keep running. Besides, it would be cruel to let Mal think that Alfred had died because of him, to let Simon think that he'd lost a patient on the operating table.

That left the truth, and Yao had to bite back a hysterical laugh. There were few things as convincing as a dead man reviving; he didn't think swallowing the concept of nations personified would be too far of a leap, after that. But the idea of letting the truth get out as messily as this, of letting go of lies and concealment in favor of open honesty, was almost frightening. What would these humans think? They would not be able to look at him and Alfred in the same way, that was for sure, and the thought left a sour taste in Yao's mouth.

It took a great deal of effort to lift his head to look at them, to fight through the fog of misery that threatened to drown him if he gave it an inch of leeway, but he managed. He saw Simon still standing there, face twisted in guilt. He saw Mal, Kaylee, Jayne, and Inara just outside the infirmary, in various states of shocked grief.

"I need to be alone," Yao said, almost inaudibly. They heard him clearly enough, however; dead silence filled the infirmary. Yao determinedly avoided their eyes, especially Kaylee's – that is, until he realized that everyone was hesitating. Briefly, he sought out Mal and met his gaze, silently pleading.

Mal nodded. "Clear out," he said harshly, though there was no real fire behind the words. He looked haunted; though he was clearly trying to contain himself, there were cracks in his façade, and Yao could see the guilt roiling beneath. Not for much longer, Yao thought, turning back to Alfred.

A moment later, he realized that Simon was not moving. The boy seemed rooted to the spot, and when Yao looked up once more, he saw anguish in Simon's face.

"I'm sorry," Simon whispered, staring down at Alfred. "I... I tried, but..."

"Don't," Yao said, perhaps more severely than he intended. "Don't blame yourself. You did everything you could. This is not your fault."

As Yao spoke, he sensed more than saw River poke her head through the doorway; he turned his head to watch her slip into the infirmary and grasp Simon's hand, stroking it.

"It will be alright, Simon," River said soothingly. She met Yao's gaze unflinchingly, seeming unaffected by the morose atmosphere that had descended upon everyone else, and Yao got the distinct impression that she knew. "Come." River tugged on Simon's hand, and he followed her silently out of the infirmary, looking back with guilt written across his face.

It would indeed be cruel to run.

Yao found a rickety stool in one of the infirmary's closets, pulled it up next to the operating table, and sat. He dropped his head into hands that still shook, sighing deeply and struggling to maintain composure. Even alone as he was, he refused to lose control; losing it meant fully embracing that horrible, soul-deep sensation of being utterly alone in the universe, and he would not bend to that. No, when the two of them went, it would be together, or else the 'verse would just have to be stuck with them for the rest of eternity. That was what he told himself, over and over again. Alfred would not stay dead because the two of them were intrinsically connected, and since Yao was still here, it meant that Alfred would come back. The 'verse wasn't finished with them.

And it would be expending energy to bring Alfred back, too, though sluggishly. When a nation's physical body died, the time took to revive it depended on how strong that nation was – not so much physically as politically. Alfred and Yao were essentially relics, alive only by virtue of how deeply their cultures and identities were imprinted on the 'verse that they had created, but the civilization that had emerged from humanity's desperate flight from Earth-That-Was wasn't really theirs anymore. It belonged to their children, now – to Julius, most of all. The 'verse would spare no time or effort in reviving him, Yao thought rather bitterly, but Alfred and Yao would only be a reluctant afterthought. There was no telling how much time it would take or the effect that it would have on the land and the people, though Yao took some small comfort from the likelihood that it would not damage anyone or anything too badly. The energy expended to revive someone like the Alliance himself would have devastating consequences, but for half-forgotten beings such as themselves… it would not nearly be so bad.

Yao wondered if any of their children would feel it, if enough of a connection even existed there anymore. He wondered how long it would take for Alfred to come back to him. He wondered how he and Alfred were going to explain everything to the crew. He wondered a great many things, as he sat there and clutched Alfred's hand as if it was a lifeline, and he sighed again. It was hard to breathe through the heavy emptiness that sat on his chest, and the sigh was almost choked as it left him. "Why do you do these things to me, xiǎo lǎohǔ?"

In another part of the 'verse, Julius Chou halted in mid-sentence, his breath catching in his throat as a horrible sensation swept through him - a harrowing, dizzying sense of loss that burned in his chest. He'd felt it a few times before, and it was not an experience he'd wanted to repeat. Though it was different this time, more muted and distant and less painful, he knew it for what it was immediately – one of his family members had died.

And he knew who it was. This was different from losing one of his siblings – this was losing a predecessor, and the sensation leapt through him like a cold knife. Before he remembered that he wasn't supposed to care, the loss cut Julius sharply, and the breath that had gotten stuck in his throat had a hard time coming out. I don't care, he told himself savagely, pushing the feeling away. It's not like he's permanently dead, anyway.

All the same, he wondered what situation could have gotten Alfred killed, how bad it had been. Alfred had an overwhelming tendency to risk his life for other people, and it was probably something along those lines. No doubt Yao would have trounced whoever the perpetrator was, by now. It wasn't likely to be a situation out of their control, Julius told himself.

"Uh... Mr. Chou? Are you alright?"

With a start, Julius realized that everyone in the room was staring at him, and he remembered that he was in the middle of a state meeting. He nodded, trying to pull himself together and wondering just how much unguarded emotion had crossed his face. That wasn't good, particularly not in a room full of what essentially amounted to vultures. "I'm fine," he said coolly, because showing overt amounts of weakness in front of these people was like asking them to pounce. He resumed his previous speech without any explanation for his abrupt stop, but his attention was no longer on the topic at hand.

He wondered if Akiko or Winston or any of the others knew... and if they didn't, he debated the merits of telling them. They would certainly want to know. But despite the differences that Julius and his predecessors had, it was extraordinarily easy to get into their heads and consider what they would do in this situation. Alfred and Yao would not want any of their children to know and to worry, and that, at least, was something Julius could understand perfectly.

He decided to keep it to himself, should it turn out that he was the only one aware of it. There was no need to upset his siblings when Alfred would be fine soon enough. This way, no one had to worry, as it wasn't like Julius cared.

After he'd snapped at someone a third time, the men and women present at the meeting tread very carefully around him for the rest of the day.

Mal had told Wash to get them away from Calliope; anywhere would do, anywhere that wasn't that damn moon. They'd have to bring the supplies back to Saylor eventually - unless he'd set them up, but Mal didn't think so. More likely, Calliope had become like many other sparsely inhabited moons and planets so far from the Core - inhospitable and full of infighting. If Mal had to guess, he'd say that Saylor's buyer was dead, probably in some kind of power struggle, and Serenity's crew had been unfortunate enough to be associated with him. But that was only a guess. They'd have to settle for contacting Saylor first and trying to sort out the whole mess, but Mal was in no mood to do that. He wasn't in a mood to do anything.

"Is he still in the infirmary?" Wash asked quietly as he came into the dining room, having checked up on the bridge – he'd set Serenity to gentle drifting some time ago.

Mal knew he meant Yao, who had refused to leave Alfred's side. It had been several hours now. Mal nodded.

"We shouldn't push him," Inara advised, her voice catching slightly. "He needs time to grieve."

Mal looked around at the others present in the room. Wash sat down and leaned against Zoe, sighing. Across from them, Inara was sitting beside Simon, who was staring at the table clutching an untouched mug of tea. He hadn't talked much at all. River was in the kitchen, examining things – she was the only one who didn't seem very perturbed, and Mal envied her.

Kaylee had gone into her room and hadn't come out. Jayne had been working out in the cargo bay for at least two hours now. Book had left the room a few minutes ago, without a word.

A pall seemed to have come over Mal's crew, over the entire damn ship. Alfred had been the second cheeriest person Mal knew, after Kaylee. He could brighten a room by merely entering it, and now, it seemed, he could darken a ship with his absence. Mal also felt physically miserable – his eyes itched, his throat ached, and his head felt thick and stuffy. Wash had started coughing not too long ago, and Mal wondered if they hadn't managed to pick up and spread around a cold as well. Because that was just what they gorram needed.

Mal rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes. "I shoulda just gotten us out of there," he muttered. "I knew something felt wrong, but I didn't…"

He trailed off. He could feel everyone looking at him. It was the first time he'd spoken about the incident, besides explaining it for those who hadn't been there.

"You can't blame yourself," Zoe said. She had put an arm around Wash's shoulders, and her face looked very drawn and tired.

"But I knew it, the moment we got there," Mal said. "And I didn't act on it. And then Alfred went and took a gorram bullet for me."

It was his job to protect his crew. It didn't matter that Alfred and Yao kept refusing him – he still considered them a part of his crew, and now he'd gone and gotten one of them killed. How was he supposed to face Yao after this? He and Inara had tried to get Yao to leave the infirmary a few hours ago and come eat something, but Yao had declined, asking them to leave. He hadn't met either of their gazes.

No one spoke. Wash coughed again, but that was the only sound that broke the silence apart from River's faint humming. Mal was used to her eccentricities by now, but it was still a little unnerving to see how unaffected she was.

And yet, he wished he could share it. He felt tired and empty, as though he was being drained, and he couldn't stop replaying the scene over and over in his mind. Every time he tried to think about something else, the guilt festering within him would grow stronger, and as if it were some kind of twisted punishment he was inflicting on himself, he would again start reflecting on what had happened and what he could have done differently.

The silence that filled the dining room continued unbroken for a long time.

Yao heard someone enter the infirmary – Book, he thought, as the man softly cleared his throat to announce his presence. Yao didn't look up. He didn't want to have to interact with anyone for an extended period of time, because it was all he could do to keep fighting off the awful sensation of Alfred's absence and he didn't feel like fending off awkward questions just yet. He didn't know how long he could keep stalling.

"Do you need anything?" Book asked, sounding concerned.

Yao shook his head. "No, thank you." His voice was still shaking, even hours later. He couldn't control that.

Book came to stand near him, but kept a respectful distance. "I've seen much grief in my lifetime," he said, somewhat hesitantly. "And I know that the tendency to want to shoulder it alone is strong, for some people."

Yao smiled faintly and looked up at Book at last. "I've seen my fair share, too," he said. "Enough for many lifetimes." He knew that Book was trying to help, but it wasn't the kind of help Yao needed. He wasn't grieving Alfred – he didn't need to. No, he was waiting and attempting to fend off a sensation worse than grief, and that wasn't something that anyone could help him with. The only thing keeping him sane was the knowledge that it would end.

"That doesn't mean you should have to deal with it alone," Book said.

Yao felt a sense of gratitude towards the man. They hardly knew each other, and yet here Book was, offering to help him mourn a loss. Yao supposed that was the Shepherd in him. "I know," Yao said. "Maybe I'll rejoin the living tomorrow." And maybe Alfred would have done the same, by then. Please.

"Alright," Book said gently, knowing when to back off. "But if you need to talk, I can listen."

When Book had gone, Yao turned back to Alfred and, like he had done a thousand times already, silently begged for him to wake up. It had already been hours, and every minute more made it feel as if Yao's soul was crumbling, barely holding on to itself. It was growing worse and worse, and with it came the strongest sense of loss that Yao had felt in a long, long time. It was the loss of Earth-That-Was, of their fellow nations, and it tore through him mercilessly, making every breath difficult. He tried not to think about Kiku and the rest, but it was about as effective as trying to stop a leaky dam with a tissue. Memories filled his mind and taunted him and made his chest ache with the pain of it, and above it all was the haunting sense of Alfred's absence, like a gaping wound in Yao's very existence.

Mal hadn't thought it was possible to feel worse than he already did.

It had been almost a full day since Alfred's death, and Mal was seriously beginning to worry about Yao. The man had taken one meal several hours ago – more to placate Inara than because he was actually hungry, Mal suspected – but he hadn't left the infirmary yet. He hadn't let them touch Alfred's body, and when Zoe had tentatively asked him where he wanted to bury Alfred, Yao had dodged the question. Eventually, they'd had to leave him alone; his stubborn and increasingly sharp-tempered resistance to their advances was impossible to push through, and Mal felt too guilty to press the issue, besides. But they couldn't let him sit in there forever.

"I'll do it," Mal said, more harshly than he intended, and the others' whispers fell silent. He, Zoe, Inara, and Book had been discussing how to approach Yao; they kept their voices low, so as not to disturb Kaylee with the subject. Inara had managed to coax Kaylee out of her room some time ago, and the girl was currently eating rather listlessly at the kitchen table, her eyes red-rimmed. Next to her, Wash and Jayne were arguing the specifics of a comical story involving one of Jayne's taller tales. The motivation behind it was transparent to everyone, but Mal was gratified to see that it seemed to be working, somewhat – Kaylee was listening, and the the corners of her mouth would occasionally turn upward.

"It's my fault," Mal continued. "So I'll talk to him." He wasn't exactly keen on facing Yao alone, but he had to – for his own sake as well as Yao's.

Inara looked doubtful. "Are you sure?" she asked. "You're not exactly... well, sensitive."

"Maybe he doesn't need sensitive," Mal said. He was well aware of the fact that Inara and Book were far more suited to the task than he was, but it didn't matter. He had to face the person who'd cared about Alfred the most, and if Yao needed to yell at him or punch him in order to get some catharsis, then so be it. Hell, it wasn't like Mal would stop him. "Look.. I'll try. If it doesn't work, then you two can step in."

He ignored the looks they were giving him. His intentions were about as transparent as Wash and Jayne's, but he wasn't going to elaborate any further.

"I say we let him try," Zoe said at last, glancing away from him to Inara and Book.

"Perhaps it would be for the best," Book said, whose look was far too knowing for Mal's comfort.

After giving it another moment's thought, Inara nodded somewhat reluctantly in assent, her face tight with concern, and Mal found himself heading to the infirmary. His stomach churned more and more unpleasantly with every step. It was one thing to volunteer out of some twisted need to take responsibility and quite another thing to actually face the prospect of confronting someone who had every reason to hate him now. What the hell was he supposed to say? 'I'm sorry' seemed horribly inadequate, 'please feel free to punch me in the face' was too pathetic, and 'it doesn't matter how upset you are, you can't just waste away in this room' had a level of insensitivity that would likely earn him death glares from Inara for weeks, even if it was what Yao needed to hear. Mal's throat tightened as he neared the infirmary, and he realized that he did not want to see Alfred's body again. Even facing Yao seemed easier than that. But he steeled himself and continued, thinking hard about what he was going to say.

Yao had been staring dully at the wall for some time, trying not to think about anything, when he felt Alfred's hand twitch. He jumped, and the sensation of a dead weight on his chest vanished as completely as if it had never been there in the first place. He felt them reconnect, felt Alfred's life returning as surely as if had returned to Yao himself. It was a heady sensation, almost dizzying in its magnitude, and a powerful sense of relief swept through Yao; emotion clogged his throat, and his eyes stung. Alfred twitched again, hand closing tightly around Yao's, and then it was wrenched away as he sat up violently, sucking in desperate breaths. His entire body shook as he coughed and gasped, and Yao jumped off of the stool, grabbed one of his arms, and rubbed his back, murmuring soothing nothings in Mandarin.

"God," Alfred rasped, casting a sideways glance at Yao with a half-hearted grin as soon as he had reassured himself that he could indeed breathe. "I feel horrible."

Yao had never been so glad to see that stupid smile. "You idiot," he said fiercely, pulling Alfred into as tight of a hug as he dared. The tension in Alfred's frame was palpable; though he was trying to be lighthearted, it was obvious that he was shaken up and weak. Yao was determined to not let go until he felt Alfred relax somewhat.

The younger nation buried his head in Yao's shoulder, sighing. "Sorry," Alfred muttered, after several moments of silence. "Sorry. I couldn't let him get hurt. Better us than any of them."

"I know," Yao said quietly. "I would have done the same, in your position."

"I didn't mean to scare you."

"I know," Yao murmured. After a few moments, he pulled back reluctantly, though he kept a hand on Alfred's arm to reassure himself of the younger nation's solid warmth. "I forgive you."

Alfred smiled weakly, though it faded almost as soon as it appeared. He suddenly looked nervous. "Did you tell them anything?"

"How could I, without proof?" Yao asked, with a shake of his head. "It was hard enough to avoid telling them what I wanted to do with your body. It's been twenty-four hours." He smiled without humor, thinking of the misplaced concern that had been directed towards him. "They must think I've lost reason, by now."

"Well, they're gonna be in for a shock," Alfred said lightly. He looked down at his bandaged chest, grimacing. "Oh, that hurts." He moved his arms and legs experimentally, stiff and without vigor, as Yao watched rather anxiously. "Everything hurts. What's the point of immortality if it hurts like hell to come back? This is some bullshit, I tell ya."

Yao couldn't help it; he smiled happily as relief once again swept through him. Alfred coming back had been inevitable, but that hadn't stopped Yao from imagining the worst case scenario over and over again. It was actually a little terrifying to know how dependent he'd become on Alfred's companionship, because the thought of walking this world without him filled Yao with a deep, nameless despair. He could no longer imagine life without his idiot partner's energy and spirit, and nothing, nothing scared him more than the thought of being the very last nation of Earth-That-Was.

"Don't laugh at my pain," Alfred said indignantly, with a crooked smile of his own.

"I'll laugh at whatever I want," Yao replied. "I'm an old man, remember?"

Alfred smirked, but it was followed by a melancholy sigh. "We both are. I am feeling it right now."

The effects of death were always debilitating to a nation's body, and Yao looked Alfred over in concern. He could see that Alfred's hands had not stopped trembling. "I need to know," Yao said shortly, in a voice that meant business. "I need to know how bad it is. If you lie, it'll only make me worry more. So don't you dare try to hide anything, because you're a terrible liar."

Alfred heard the gravity in his words and didn't try to joke his way through it. He frowned thoughtfully, moving his limbs one by one without trying to move himself from his sitting position. "It just... aches. My whole body. And it feels... weak. Really weak." A note of disgust had entered his voice; Alfred hated feeling powerless. "Like I'm getting over the worst case of pneumonia you've ever seen. I don't think I could walk right now, if I tried."

Yao nodded. He'd expected as much, but he was grateful for Alfred's honesty. Getting the younger nation to admit any sort of pain or weakness was a chore at times, but perhaps Alfred was mindful of the fact that he'd already put Yao through enough for a while.

"It'll take some time before you're back to normal," Yao warned. Alfred was already aware of that, but Yao felt the need to reinforce it out loud. The real work would be keeping Alfred in a resting state for longer than a day or so. "And you're not to move from this spot until I say you can," Yao added threateningly, fixing Alfred with his most powerful and effective glare.

"Okay, okay... Jesus, Yao," Alfred said hastily. "I get it. You know, you could probably kill plants and small animals with that look."

Yao snorted in amusement, which ruined the effect of his glare, and Alfred grinned in triumph. Watching him, Yao was overcome with that indescribable relief again. The memory of what it felt like to have his partner ripped away was still vivid and as fresh as an open wound, even if he felt wonderfully whole again, and he leaned forward suddenly, wrapping his arms around Alfred in another hug, careful not to jostle him too much.

"Sorry," Alfred said again, his voice uncharacteristically quiet.

Both of them stiffened when they heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Yao let go of Alfred and exchanged a wordless look of apprehension with him. The idea that the truth was going to come spilling out in the next minute had a tinge of unreality to it, and Yao's stomach clenched in anticipation. While waiting for Alfred to revive, he'd thought about how to explain, of course, but every option he'd considered had seemed... inadequate. And there was always the chance that they wouldn't be believed, at least about the nation thing. Yao had tried not to think about that possibility. Knowing that the crew already thought him a little unbalanced by his "grief" had not been pleasant to think about; he had to wonder what they'd thought when they'd seen how he'd cleaned and bandaged Alfred's wound. It had been necessary, of course, for someone who was not going to stay dead, but they didn't know that. And even when they saw that Alfred was alive and well... would it be enough?

"Here we go," Alfred murmured, looking towards the infirmary door.

Mal came into view and stopped dead.