“It’s over. Stand down. It’s over.”
If only this were true. If only life was more like an entertainment holo where time would mark its passage with a gentle montage of grief worked out and healing begun. But time has never been kind to any man, and wasn’t about to change its ways for Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
Instead it moved at its usual pace as the Alliance soldiers bled quietly from the facility- nothing to kill here, move along now. The empty spaces they leave behind fill up with fear and terror leached from clenched hands and paralysed minds, matched by the physical exhalation of six people ceasing to hold their breaths. Now there is time to think, time to relax, time to remember… time that is not wanted or needed. Well then, time for a man to stop pondering and start acting.
“Doc, you think you can convince your sister to put down the weapons and set herself to some useful work? Like helping us walking wounded back to the infirmary so’s you can lay your healing hands?”
Like a good crew they follow his lead, both in purpose and in attitude. Focus on the now, not on the then. Get back to Serenity. Thumbing their noses at time that wants to make them think and weep and count their losses. The slow walk back to the ship. No one from Cyrene to lend aid, only those less badly hurt helping those that can’t even walk unaided. Kaylee supporting the Doc, Jayne carrying the unnervingly helpless Zoe and Inara… Inara’s gentle hands offering comfort and support in ways no one else ever could. And River, little River, flitting all about them. Removing obstacles in their path. Stopping to glare menacingly at Alliance soldiers who appear and disappear in the distance.
Miraculously the infirmary is mostly intact- past experience clearly having taught the Doctor important lessons about securing the precious medical supplies. Shooing Inara away to help the Doc tend to the others, he doesn’t enter the infirmary. Instead he waits outside, leaning on the glass and trying to ignore how still and quiet the ship feels. Watching his crew go about the time-honoured practice of patching themselves up. Easy to slip away in the confusion. Go to the bridge. Set his mind at ease about something.
The Reavers, sensing fresher meat elsewhere, have thankfully left Wash untouched. Untouched. The word skitters around his mind like a bad joke. Of course, he’s seen worse in the war. Far worse. Weren’t no other tool of man’s that could destroy a body like war could. So many different ways to die that you started to think that the whole purpose of life was to be ripped from it. But this rankles more than those, countless though they were. This wasn’t a soldier’s death- wasn’t even a pilot’s death. A pilot should leave this verse as he lives it, battling physics and gravity and air, not landlocked. Not pinned down. Not like this.
Gently he closes Wash’s eyes and leaves the bridge, locking both doors behind him, keying them against anyone’s entrance but his own. His actions mirrored in his soul- grief and fear crammed into a nutshell and swallowed by a roaring sea of rage against the Alliance. If it could manifest itself this rage would swallow the galaxy whole.
Back in the infirmary time still insists on passing at its usual pace. Jayne, apologetic and concentrating fiercely, grapples with tweezers and a needle and thread while he follows the Doc’s orders. Inara cleaning and stitching Zoe’s wounds, aided by Kaylee who now comes to help him stumble to a place to rest. Slowly, painfully, the physical hurt fades. They stem each other’s blood loss, close each other’s wounds, wrap each other in gauze and bandage, and give sleep to them as needs it. Finally only the Doc and he remain, quietly discussing what else needs to be done while Zoe sleeps a deep and dreamless sleep beside them.
He fetches a hacksaw and the med-stretcher while the Doc gathers more gauze and his medical kit. On the bridge, both doors locked behind them, he and the Doc have a highly surreal but practical discussion. Soon after he is sawing away at the monstrous wooden post while the Doc cuts away Wash’s clothing.
Pulling it out is something he never wants to think about again. He thinks he'll hear that sound in his nightmares. At this moment in time his rage could snuff out every star in the universe.
They gingerly lift Wash from the chair and lay him on the stretcher. While the Doc removes the last of the bloody clothing and sponges away the final traces of blood, he thinks about how later- much later- he will come back and dispose of the chair and the extracted stake. Is it morbid to think about things like this? Or just practical? Necessary is nearer the truth. Necessary to think about what has to be done, if only to forestall the maddening and aimless anguish.
Finally they wrap Wash in thick blankets, covering him from shoulder to ankle. Thick blankets wrapped tightly so you don’t have to stare at the chest where it sags unnaturally. Convey him carefully back to the infirmary. Lay him out so that the crew can pay their respects.
Kaylee can barely see him through her tears, kisses him on the forehead and gently strokes his cheek.
Jayne just looks. Stands there for half an hour, just staring. Face unreadable.
River looks older than her years as she lays a hand lightly on his chest and wishes him sweet dreams.
Inara anoints him reverentially with oils and mutters prayers to the gods, prayers of gratitude for his time with them.
Simon pays his respects by burning the bloody remnants of clothing and carefully nursing Zoe over the remaining days.
Zoe’s grieving goes unwitnessed. The verse itself must avert its eyes from the abhorrence of this woman so undone by grief.
And he’s paid his respects by giving them this gift. Much as he longs to, he can’t undo the past. He can’t right these wrongs. But he will be their captain and do what has to be done. He’ll take the time to obliterate the horror on the bridge and give them this: a final memory of Wash that is peaceful, whole, unbloodied and unmarred. A memory that is better.
This is his gift.