BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JANE0904

Ebb and Flow
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Next in my series, after CURIOSITY and some fluff. Serenity has a legitimate passenger for a change ... Please let me know what you think as feedback helps the writing process no end!


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2140    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

“Where’s your CO?” the sergeant with the newly arrived group of men asked.

“She’s over there.”

The sergeant looked across at the woman standing a little way off. She was speaking to two of her own men.

“Take two and get up onto the ridge. I need to know what’s going on.”

“Frey? Is that you?” The sergeant stared at her.

“Mal? Mal Reynolds?” Freya Nordstrom laughed. “Ain’t you dead yet?”

“Too pretty to die,” Mal said, hugging the officer and getting some odd looks from her men. His just ignored it.

“Zoe with you?”

“Bringing up the rear.” He stepped back and studied her. “Hey, when did you cut your hair?”

“Coupla months ago. Got fed up with it. Kinda kept getting in the way.”

“I liked it long. But, hey, this looks good too. Makes you look …powerful.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“It’s meant that way.”

“Well, bring your men in. We have some food, but lots to drink.”

“So how do you reckon it’s fairing?” Mal asked, sitting next to Freya at the small fire.

“Badly. I think. But they don’t tell us anything.”

“Even high ups like you?”

“Even me.”

“Any other officers about?”

“No, I think it’s just me. A few sergeants around, like Mac. Like you.”

“Still don’t see how you got to be a lieutenant.”

“Luck. I think I was just the first in line when they said hey you.”

Their dugout rattled as a series of bombs exploded close by, dust filtering down. They waited for the blasts to subside. “This happen a lot?” Mal asked, brushing off his coat.

“They’ve been bombing us for three straight days. You get so you kinda don’t notice it. But they’re getting closer. And we’re getting to be a bigger target every day.”

“So what are your orders?”

“Haven’t had any for a while.”

“So do you have a plan?”

“Oh, I do. And I think it’s time.” She explained what she intended. Mal was shocked.

“Frey, that’s suicide!”

“Not really. Not if we work it right. Besides, who wants to live forever?”

“I do.”

“Well, yeah, me too. But there’s over a thousand good Independents out there who want to live beyond tomorrow.”

“Frey –“

“It’s been decided.” She called to her own sergeant. “Mac, get the men ready. Sergeant Reynolds’ platoon will help us hold the ridge while the men get out. Then we’ll cover their retreat and hightail it out of there ourselves, lickety-split.”

“You know what will happen if they take you?” Mal said quietly. “What they’ve been doing to officers?”

“I've heard tell. I’ll just look to you to see it doesn’t.” ---

Up on the ridge, as a thousand Browncoats snaked through the narrow gap, the small number of soldiers fended off the might of the Alliance. Mal never considered he’d committed murder, and he still didn’t – this was war – but that day and night he lost track of the number of Alliance he killed, nor could keep count of those ended by Freya, Zoe or any of his men. They brought down three skiffs, exploding into white hot shards on the rocky surface, and still the Independents got through.

At one point, while he was reloading for God knew how many times, he noticed Freya’s lips moving as she did the same. He asked, “You praying?”

“Not to your God, no.” She reached out and touched the crucifix hanging at his throat.

“Then whose?”

“Something else. Guess any help would be good at this juncture.”

“To do with your tattoo?”

She nodded, ducking as a spray of enemy fire hit the rock above them. “It’s not good or bad: doesn’t interfere in man’s affairs. But you can draw power from it.”

“Old?”

“Ancient.”

“Then pray they don’t take you. I meant it when I said what they’re doing to officers.”

“Then you won’t let that happen, will you?” She looked at him, her eyes so dark in the gloom as to be black.

“Got my word on that.”

“Thanks. Now let’s get that roller out of commission.” She hefted the missile launcher to her shoulder.

Finally, by nearly dawn, they were through.

“Go,” Freya ordered. “We’ll be right behind you.”

“Zoe, get the men out,” Mal passed on.

"Yes sir.” She glanced back only once, to see Mal not following. He was still firing, standing shoulder to shoulder with Freya, protecting their back, covering their retreat. Her expression didn’t change as she followed her men.

“I told you to go.” Freya took out another soldier.

“Soon as you do.”

“That’s an order, ser – “

An explosion in front of them knocked them to the ground, fragments of rock hurtling everywhere. Mal pushed himself to his feet, unhurt but a ringing in his ears. He looked around, saw two men dead, another holding his arm. And Freya on the ground, and not moving. He dropped to her side. His fingers at her neck he checked her pulse. Weak, but still pumping, although what it was pumping was beginning to pool beneath her. “Tah mah duh.” He yelled over his shoulder. “Mac! Get everyone down now!”

“Is she …”

“No, she ain’t. But we can’t help her.” He dragged an emergency signal from his pack. “They’ll have to.” He struck the end and it ignited, flaring red. Mac nodded and hurried off the ridge.

Mal paused a moment, then tugged the lieutenant braids from Freya’s brown coat, taking any identifying insignia that might let anyone know she was an officer. It was all he could do, all he could give her. One final check and he heard a medevac above, responding to the emergency signal. He touched his lips briefly to hers, then ran, leaping from rock to rock to follow the men they had saved.

“So I spent the next coupla weeks on an Alliance med-ship before being transferred to a holding camp.” Freya sipped her coffee, looking at Simon.

“Did they figure out you were an officer?” he asked.

“Well, I was out of it for a while, but, eventually, yes. But by that time any information I had was out of date, so they pretty much left me alone. Besides, the war was nearly over.”

“Serenity Valley.”

“Mmn.”

“Where Mal lost his faith.”

Freya shook her head. “Well, he didn’t so much lose it as stop trusting. I don’t think he’s stopped believing in God, just doesn’t trust him to do what’s right. And from what I heard of that battle, I’m not really surprised.”

“So what did the Alliance do? To officers?”

Freya put her feet down from the table, looking at him. “Rumour. Gossip. That’s all it was.”

“No, tell me.”

The woman opposite him leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, and he could see she was contemplating what to say, staring into her coffee mug. Then she looked into his face. “If you were injured, the doctors would operate without anaesthetic. Cut on you until you told them everything – anything to make them stop. Or just let you bleed to death. And if you weren’t injured, well, you’d need their services soon enough.” She gazed into his face, young and appalled. “Like I said, Simon, just rumour.”

“Maybe they weren’t as highly principled as you, doctor,” Mal added, stepping into the dining room from the direction of the bridge.

“And it was war,” Freya pointed out. “I’m sure the Independents did some things they aren’t proud of. In fact, I’m pretty damn sure they did.”

“I … I find that hard to believe,” Simon stammered. “Surely even the Alliance …”

“War’s long over, doctor,” Mal said. “But at times like that people tend to justify anything.” He took a tin cup from the cupboard and poured himself a coffee, coming to stand by his crew.

“So we got us a job?” Freya asked, somewhat anxious to change the subject.

“We do.” Mal took a mouthful of coffee. “Pick up on Parth, deliver to Osiris.”

“Don’t we usually smuggle the other way round?”

Mal shook his head. “It’s not smuggling. Live cargo.”

“A passenger?” Freya was surprised. They didn’t often take on fares. “Legit?”

Mal nodded. “Makes something of a change for us, I know.”

“Mal, I don’t know …” Simon suddenly seemed very uneasy. “Osiris … I know a lot of people there, and if they found out …the Alliance haven’t stopped looking for us yet.”

“Not your decision.”

“But – “

“We’re passing close to Bathgate Abbey, aren’t we?” Freya interrupted. She could see Mal’s face tightening, and he could be very stubborn when he chose.

“Close to,” Mal agreed.

Freya looked at Simon. “Why don’t you stop off there? You and River could have a rest.”

Mal lifted his eyebrows. “You know, that’s not a bad idea. You’ve been looking a mite peeked of late.”

“That’s …” Simon paused. “Actually that’s not a bad idea. I should talk it over with River, though.” He stood up and went to pass Mal, but added, “And I’m not looking peeked.”

“No?”

Simon strode out towards the guest quarters.

“You shouldn’t tease him,” Freya admonished, smiling.

Mal sat down opposite her. “Yeah. But it’s funny.” He leaned back in his chair. “So you were talking about the war.”

“Mmn.”

“Why?”

“He asked.”

“You get on well, you and Simon.”

Freya pulled a face. “Oh, please. I’ve had enough of that from Kaylee!”

“She’s a good judge of character.”

Freya leaned forward. “Jealous?”

He mirrored her action. “Maybe.” They were only a few inches apart.

“Good.”

“Good? You know, I’m a mean old man when I get jealous.”

“Ooh, how mean? I could just go a little …” She leaned further, just about to kiss him, when …

“Freya?” It was Inara on the com. “Can you come and help me? I need to …” There was a crash like a gong hitting the floor, then Inara said, “Tzao gao!”

Freya smiled. “Hold that thought,” she said, then briefly touched her lips to his before standing and leaving the dining area.

Mal idly picked up a book from the table, and turned a few pages.

“Taking a break, sir?” Zoe asked, coming down the steps.

“Just having a cup of coffee before going doing … captainy things.” Mal quickly dropped the book. “You seen Hank?”

“Not lately, no, sir. We got a job?”

“We do. With a brief side trip to the Bathgate Abbey.”

“Thinking of taking orders?”

“Ha. Ha.” Mal gave his first mate one of his looks, which slid off her like water off one of those semi-aquatic mammals. “Hopefully when you’ve finished having fun at my expense you’ll let him know I was looking for him. Right now, though, I think I’ll go and try to find someone who appreciates me.” He headed for the engine room.

Zoe smiled. Sometimes it felt good to tease her captain.

“Hey, Zoe.” Hank came in from the other door.

“Hank. Mal’s looking for you.”

“Just came looking for … oh, there it is.” He picked up the book Mal had been glancing through from the table. “I thought I’d lost it.” He looked at the tall woman. “Do you … read? I mean, I'm not suggesting that you can’t, but … you know … for pleasure?”

“I have been known to pick up a book occasionally.”

“I can lend you some, if you like. I’ve got quite a collection in my bunk. Any time you wanted to come take a look … They’re not porn. Most of them. Unless you’re into that sort of thing?” If he could have panted he would have done.

Zoe gazed at him, carefully keeping her face blank. He just wasn’t going to give up, she knew. “Thanks,” she said. “I’ll keep it in mind.” She looked over as Freya came back into the dining room. “What was that crash before?”

Freya laughed. “Inara’s bought this … thing.” She used her hands to indicate something large. “Some kind of metallic mirror. She was trying to get it above the bed, but couldn’t quite manage it.”

“And she asked you to help?”

“Well, I don’t think she could take the comments some of you might be inclined to make.” Unaccountably Freya looked at Hank as she said this.

“Hey, I didn’t say a word,” the man protested.

“Just don’t forget Mal’s looking for you,” Zoe said, heading towards the bunks.

Hank sighed. “Do you think Zoe will ever say yes?” he asked, staring after her.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.” He turned back to the other woman.

“Seriously, I doubt it. But then I doubted Mal and I would ever get together, so, hey, what do I know?”

“How long did it take you two to sleep together?”

Freya, knowing this was not going to sound good, sat back down. “Well, actually, seven hours.” She added quickly, “But between that and the next time was seven years, so don’t read anything into it. Just give her time, and some space. And try not to drool when you see her.”

“Right. Not so much with the drooling.”

Hank was about to say something else, but Mal’s voice came over the com. “Do I actually have a pilot, or am I sufferin’ from space hallucinations?”

Hank smiled an apology and ran out of the dining area towards the bridge.

Freya sat quietly, staring into nothing.

“You really didn’t think you would ever get together, did you?” Inara asked from behind her.

“Really didn’t,” Freya agreed. Her friend came and sat opposite.

“Yet you didn’t give up.”

“I love him.” It was a simple statement, but made all the more poignant by the matter of fact way she said it.

Inara nodded, knowing how she felt. “Why didn’t you carry on sleeping together? I mean after that first time.”

“I’m … I don’t know.” Freya looked surprised at the question, but also a little lost. “I used to think it was because he didn’t enjoy it. I mean, he is a man – it takes a lot for a man not to finish. But I kinda figured he just didn’t find me his type. Leastways, not that way. It didn’t matter much – not then. We didn’t know if we’d live to see out the next week, let along the year or the end of the war. Went our separate ways, but kept running into each other. But …” She paused for a moment, then went on, “Why didn’t you tell him you loved him and you’d stop being a Companion for him?”

Inara was surprised. “Would you?”

“In a heartbeat. I’d die for him.”

Now Inara was shocked. “You can’t mean that.”

“Without a moment’s thought. I love him. I always have. I realised that morning. I woke up just as the sun was coming up – you know, in that light you get just before. I looked at Mal, lying asleep next to me, and I realised I’d fallen in love with him – a man I hadn’t known for twenty-four hours, whose conversation had consisted mainly of his men, his platoon. Yet I loved him.”

“But to die for him?”

“Oh, I know he doesn’t feel the same. He hardly even tells me that he loves me. But I’m in his bed.”

“I didn’t know.”

“No reason you should.” Freya stood up. “This wasn’t a conversation I intended to have. Now, I need to get something from my bunk, then I have to finish dinner.” She walked out, her head high.

“You really don’t tell her you love her?” Inara asked an apparently empty room, but Mal stepped over the sill from the engine room.

“I do.” He seemed almost affronted, then apologetic. “Maybe not often when she’s awake, but …”

“Mal, she’s a woman. She needs it said.”

“It’s just –“ He couldn’t finish.

“Why didn’t you sleep with her again?” Inara asked, it obviously playing on her mind. “Was it because – “

“No!” Mal interrupted. “No, not at all. In fact, more exactly the opposite.” He sat down in Freya’s vacated seat; her heat still seemed to be there. “We were at war. Freya was right – none of us had a notion we expected to survive.” He had obviously been listening for some time. “But that night, she made me feel hopeful. She gave me a reason to want to live, a strength, and it scared me.” It was obviously difficult for him to admit it. “We were already mighty, but she made me feel … complete. And that wasn’t a feeling I was used to. We were at war, a war I thought we could win. I didn’t think I needed … so I kinda pushed it away, ignored it, denied it ever happened. And I wasn’t about to let her get close enough to do it again.”

“You do realise you’re probably the biggest fool in the ‘verse, don’t you?”

Mal nodded reluctantly. “I have come to that conclusion more than once or twice myself, yes.”

“Then tell her, Mal, tell her. All the time.”

“Tell who what?” Freya asked as she came back into the dining area, a small spice container in her hand.

Mal looked guilty. “Um, tell Zoe not to tease Hank.” He flashed an apologetic look at Inara, who just looked disgusted back at him.

“I wouldn’t say she teases him,” Freya said, going behind the counter. “More just ignores him.”

“So where are we off to?” Inara asked brightly. “Somewhere civilised, I hope.”

“Osiris.” Mal stretched in his chair. “Why, thinking of making plans?”

“Someone on this boat has to make an honest living,” she said as she got up, heading back towards her shuttle.

“Hey, this is honest!” Mal called, but she ignored him, passing Simon as he came back in.

“We’ll go the Abbey,” he said without preamble.

“Shiny.”

“But I’d like to take Kaylee with us.”

Mal stood up. “Now, doctor – “

“I think that’s a good idea,” Freya interrupted. “She could do with a rest, a break away from here. With what she’s been through, it’ll be good for her, Mal. And the baby.”

“Well, I … We should only be a few days, so I suppose I could spare her for that time.” Mal crossed his arms. “But if something goes wrong in the meantime?”

“I’m sure between us we can put a lot of things right,” Freya said soothingly. She stood up. “Well, better finish dinner.”

Mal didn’t answer, just glared at her.

“Can I help?” Simon asked. “I mean I stopped you while you were preparing. I feel guilty.”

“Sure.” Freya smiled at him, and Mal felt something akin to a stab of jealousy. Probably not a bad idea to get that young man off his boat for a while, after all. ---

Bathgate Abbey had settled into the foothills as if it had been there for a hundred years. Which it had, give or take a decade. Its warm stone walls radiated calm.

Freya climbed the hill back to Serenity, then paused at the base of the ramp, looking back at the low buildings.

“Want to stay?” Mal asked, stepping into the sunlight and leaning on the open door.

Freya glanced over her shoulder at him. “No.” She returned her gaze to the Abbey. “But it is very peaceful.” She smiled and turned back towards him. “I'm glad you let Kaylee go. It’ll do her a powerful deal of good. Help get her hormones back under control.”

“I know it.”

She walked up the ramp towards him. “River’s already enjoying herself: she’s found they have horses.”

“That girl likes to commune with the beasts,” Mal said, standing straight. “And Simon? How’s the young doctor fairing?”

“Not sure he approves of the accommodations … bit too sparse, even compared to us.” Freya shook her head. “Although the hair shirt is a bit much.”

“Hair …” Mal realised she was making a joke and smiled. “You say things like that with a straight face and people will be beginning to believe you. Come in, I’m closing up.” He hit the com. “Hank, take us out of the world and back on course.”

“On it, Mal.” ---

Parth was a border moon that had actually supported the Alliance, and as such was more like the core planets than its neighbours. Heavily industrial, it also had two cities of large size on the main continent, and a dock that rivalled several of the larger planets.

Hank settled Serenity into her designated space, and a short while after the ramp lowered, and Mal and Jayne walked down to meet the man waiting for them.

“Briggs. So, where’s our passenger?” Mal asked.

“He’s coming. Had one or two little things to do first.” Briggs, short, spare with a perpetual cold, wiped his nose on his large hankie before stuffing it back into his pocket. He handed over a bag. “Half now, the rest on Osiris.”

“Fine.” Mal gave the bag to Jayne, who opened it and started to count.

“Don’t trust me, Mal?” Briggs said in a hurt tone.

“I trust you well enough, Briggs. Jayne, on the other hand …”

“All here,” the big man announced.

“Shiny. So now all we need is our passenger.”

“Here he is.” Briggs pointed to somewhere in the crowd that was passing. A man stepped forward, tall, skin the colour of a polished chestnut, looking like the slight bulk he carried was muscle, not fat. “Captain Reynolds, Jeremiah Smith.”

Mal put his hand out but Smith didn’t take it. “Mr Smith.” He lowered his hand.

“Captain.”

“Welcome on board Serenity.”

They sized each other up, until Smith said, “You’ll have no trouble getting me to Osiris on time?”

“None at all. Straight run.”

“Then I would be glad if we can get going. My man is bringing my luggage.” He clicked his fingers, and a short man, no taller than Briggs, but wiry, hurried out of the crowd, carrying two large suitcases and a back pack.

“Your man?” Mal asked, surprised.

“Will that be a problem?” Smith asked. “I assumed –“

“No problem. We’ve more than enough room.”

“If it’s a case of money –“

“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.” Mal turned to Briggs. “Right?”

“I’ll …” He saw the look in Mal’s eye. “I’ll get something sorted.”

“Good. All set up the other end?”

“All done. They’ll be waiting at the co-ordinates.”

“Then I'm closing up.” Mal followed his passengers inside and hit the com. “Hank, take us out of the world.”

“On it, Mal.”

As the cargo bay door closed Briggs called out, “Good trip.”

Mal held up his hand, then turned back inside. He felt Serenity shudder slightly as her thrusters tilted and blasted from Parth’s surface.

“Captain,” Jeremiah Smith said. “If we can be shown to our rooms, I would like to freshen up.”

“Of course.” Mal looked up to where his first mate was coming down the stairs. “Zoe, show our guests to their quarters.”

“Yes, Captain.” She reached the floor. “This way, gentlemen.”

Mal watched them leave the cargo bay then climbed the metal staircase to join Freya, standing on the overhead gangway. “Seems a respectable sort,” he commented. “But somehow I don’t think he’s going to be the life and soul of this trip.” He leaned on the handrail next to her.

“Who does he say he is?”

“Jeremiah Smith.” He looked at her. “Why? You think he’s lying? He wouldn’t be the first on this boat.”

“Not sure. He reminds me of someone, is all.”

“Is this your instincts, or just a vague recollection? Because if you think he’s going to be trouble I can tell Hank to turn us around and put him back off on Parth.”

Freya looked at him, her gaze somewhat calculating, and it made him feel a mite uncomfortable. “I don’t know, Mal. I just get the feeling Simon was right not wanting to be around at the moment.”

“You think he’s Alliance?” Mal was surprised. Ever since Freya had lost her ability to read intentions, she’d been careful not to let her instincts get too out of control, so this was something of a rarity, and one he was inclined to take notice of.

She shook her head. “Not sure.” She half-smiled. “And we can’t put him back on Parth. We need this job.”

“No change there. So we’ll keep an eye on him.”

“It’s a small ship, Mal. Difficult not to.” She turned to head towards the dining area. “I'm just glad we’re not carrying anything else,” she added over her shoulder. ---

Smith and his companion declined to join them for the evening meal, asking that food be brought to them instead. Mal, not too unhappy over this, as he’d have felt obliged to make his crew mind their p’s and q’s, let Inara take a couple of trays to the guest area.

Smith bowed slightly as he took the food. “Thank you. I am in your debt.”

“You are welcome.”

Smith put the trays onto the small table. “You are a registered Companion?”

“Yes.” Inara smiled at him.

“And yet you live on board this ship.”

“Serenity is my home.” Inara went to leave but Smith stopped her.

“Would you mind … a conversation with someone who has something more of an intellect than many on board would be welcome.”

“I think many of them would surprise you,” Inara pointed out, but didn’t leave. “They may not seem like it, but some of them have had an education.”

“Please, sit.” Smith indicated the bed.

“Thank you.”

“I admit, they are a little rough around the edges. They seem to fit into their life, though. But how did you come to be on board?”

Inara smiled. “I needed a shuttle, and this Firefly appealed to me.”

“Just the Firefly?”

“The people too, I admit. They’ve become like my family.”

“A strange family.”

“Not really.”

“Captain Reynolds seems to be … somewhat prickly.”

Inara laughed, a soft sound in that small room. “Yes, I would have to admit you’re probably right about that. But he is very protective of his crew.”

“And they are very loyal to him?”

“Very. “

“And you? Are you loyal to him?”

Inara stood up. “Mr Smith, the captain is the captain. And I am keeping you from your food.” ---

In the middle of the night Freya sat up suddenly from a disturbed sleep, saying, “Wahng-ba dan duh biao-tze!”

“Wha ... who – huh?” Mal struggled to consciousness. “What is it? We on fire?”

“I remember who he is.”

“Who?”

“Jeremiah Smith.” She looked down at him. “Mal, he is Alliance.”

“Alliance?” Mal was now wide awake.

“Just not ‘in favour’ Alliance.”

“Sorry – it’s too late to be talking in riddles.” He yawned and rubbed a hand through his hair.

“His name isn’t Jeremiah Smith, either. He was a Parliament member, ousted in some coup or other.”

“How come you know this?” He leaned on one elbow to look at her.

“When I was a guest of the Alliance, at the end of the war, he came around the medship. Talking to the patients. Even talked to the few Independents on board. Kept saying that it was good the war was ending, that too many good men had died over a handful of moons.”

“Can’t disagree with that,” Mal said. “Although not sure about the reasoning.”

“He’d been against the war, I remember that. Right from the start. Said the Alliance shouldn’t be so … acquisitional.”

“You mean interfering?”

“Something like. Then I recall seeing on the cortex something about a charge brought against him, racketeering or some such.”

“I think I like this man more and more.”

“Don’t. His rep wasn't good before.” She shook her head in the dark. “He just kind of sat on the fence, I think. Telling whoever what they wanted to hear.”

“Think he’s still that way inclined?” Mal couldn’t see her face, but the small light in the cabin had lit her tattoo, and he gazed at it, captivated as always.

“I’ve no idea. But maybe he’s got friends back in the Alliance, and they want to get him back in.”

“Sounds plausible.” He lifted a hand and ran his fingertips lightly down the flame on her back.

“What are you doing?” she asked, shivering slightly.

“Well, you’ve woken me up now. I'm going to find it real difficult to get back to sleep.”

She smiled in the dark. “Is that all you think about?”

“In this bunk, with you … yeah, often.”

“Well that’s okay then.” She turned and leaned over him, looking into his eyes. “Just so long as it doesn’t interfere with captainy things.”

“Oh, never does that,” he replied putting his hand around her waist and pulling her towards him. ---

“You have a well-stocked infirmary,” Smith said, looking in.

Freya, cleaning a cut she had just inflicted on herself in the cargo bay, looked up at him. “Always does to be prepared.”

“Yet you don’t seem to have a medic.”

“No call for one.” Freya dried off her hand. “Most things we can deal with. Anything else, well, there’s always the Alliance.” She smiled, but there was no humour in her eyes.

“Hmmn.” Smith was non-committal. “Do you need a hand with that?” he asked, pointing to the cut on her palm that was still bleeding.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll put a weave on it, it’ll be okay.”

“But doing it one-handed isn’t going to be so easy.”

She looked at him, then nodded. “All right. It probably would be better.” She took a weave from the drawer and held it out to him.

Very carefully he opened the pack and removed the contents, gently pressing the weave against the cut. She winced a little.

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault. I should be more careful.”

He looked into her face. “Do we know each other?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so. And I’m sure I would remember.” She studied the weave, making sure the edges had adhered properly.

“You don’t trust me,” Smith said.

She gave a half laugh. “I don’t know you.”

“And you don’t intend to.”

“That’s the way of life out here. Just a few days on board then you’re gone. No time to get to know anyone.” She smiled briefly at him. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure,” he replied, watching her walk past him and out back towards the cargo bay. “Lee?” he said quietly, and the small man appeared as if by magic.

“Yes sir?”

“The battle of Dhu Khang. Find all the information on it, will you?”

“Of course, sir. Would you require the truth?”

“Absolutely.”

“Yes sir.” Lee vanished towards their quarters. ---

“I’m just saying it’s something we should think about.” Freya was helping Mal tidy one of the cages.

“Frey, I’m not sure it’s even up to us.” Mal jiggled a flagon. “Almost empty,” he said, putting it to one side.

“Not our decision, no, but you should suggest it.”

“Me?” Mal shook his head. “Oh, no. She’s awful fond of that bunk, and if I start suggesting she move out she could do all sorts of damaging things to me.”

Freya laughed. “You know she wouldn’t do anything like that. She loves her captain.”

Mal stood straight and stared at her. “You recall what she threatened when I told her she had to replace the ventilator in Jayne’s cabin instead of going to the theatre?”

“She didn’t mean it.” Freya thought for a moment. “Well, she probably wouldn’t have done that. Much.”

“Right. Just unscrewed the bunk so when I sat down on it …” He mimed a mighty crash with hand.

“That was a one off. And it was Jayne.”

“You talk to her.” Mal picked up the jug. “And I’m gonna finish this.”

Freya watched him leave the cargo bay, stepping through the infirmary door whistling something. Then she laughed and shook her head, following him.

Smith watched the interchange from the gangwalk above, noting the closeness of the captain and this woman, this Freya Nordstrom.

“Sir,” Lee said, appearing next to him.

“Well?”

Lee handed over a pad. “The battle of Dhu Khang, sir. The authentic version.”

“From whose point of view?” Smith asked. “After all, history is written by the victors.”

“Sir …”

Smith smiled briefly. “Oh, I know you’ve done your best.” He took the pad and began to read. “Ah yes. That was a particularly bloody battle. Possibly the bloodiest until Serenity Valley.” Then his eyebrows raised. “So it is her?”

“Yes sir.”

“This calls her a murderer.”

“But as you said, sir, history …”

“Hmmn.”

“She saved a great many lives, sir. Admittedly, all Independents, but it was just her and a handful of men with her.”

“And you find that appealing?” Smith turned to look at his man.

“No sir. But I think it only right to put these things into their proper perspective.”

“Rather than that as written by the victors?”

“Yes sir. Besides, she was pardoned with the rest.”

“Indeed.” Smith nodded and went back to the pad. “The medical ship Galen. Of course. That’s why she seemed familiar.”

“Is this going to cause a problem, sir?”

“No. No, I don’t think so. But it’s as well to bear it in mind.” ---

“Won’t you join us this evening?” Inara asked.

“I’m not sure I would be welcome, my dear,” Smith said, inclining his head slightly.

“Because you’re Alliance?”

“Ah. I did wonder if she’d told you.” Smith smiled.

“Of course she did. But I don’t think anyone is going to hold it against you. Well, perhaps not too much. But it should make for lively conversation over dinner.”

“Don’t you mean an argument?”

“Mr Smith, it takes two to argue.”

“And you? Would you be taking the opportunity to ask me some probing questions?”

“I think you should know I supported Unification at the time,” Inara said quietly.

“At the time?” He studied her, her poise, her dignity, her calm air of natural authority.

Then she smiled and a little of the real her shone through. “Out here, Mr Smith, things are very different from the Core. Not so simple. I’ve come to see that the Alliance doesn’t do so well out here.” The smile faded. “And sometimes …”

Smith saw the pain and loss cross her beautiful face. “I’m sorry. Whoever he was, I’m sorry.”

Inara shook her head sadly. “They weren’t mine, Mr Smith.”

“They?”

“Do join us,” Inara said, changing the subject quickly. “I’m sure you’d find us an interesting group.”

“I’m sure I would, but …”

“At least think about it. Give us the chance to cross examine you.”

Smith laughed, a deep sound complementing his colouring completely. “I will consider it.”

“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me …” Inara smiled graciously and headed for the door.

“Of course. And … thank you.”

“For what?” Inara asked, surprised.

“Trying to make me feel welcome. I know what your crew really thinks of me.”

“Come and have dinner with us. Find out.” She swept out of the room, leaving just a trace of her freesia perfume. ---

“… so the Companion says ‘That’s the only way to handle it.’” Mal grinned at his own joke, and the others laughed appreciatively.

“You know,” Jayne began, “that’s truer than –” He stopped, looking up at the door.

Mal followed his gaze: Jeremiah Smith and his man, Lee, were standing watching. “Mr Smith. You going to join us?” he asked.

“I was invited.” He nodded slowly towards Inara, who smiled at him.

“And you’re welcome,” Mal said, indicating to the others to move up a little, and giving Inara a hard glance. “Plenty of space at the table.”

Smith and Lee took the seats offered. “Thank you, captain.”

“Help yourself.”

“Thank you.”

Lee filled a plate for his master, then one for himself and everyone went back to eating. There was silence for several minutes.

Smith coughed. “Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea,” he said finally. “I appear to have spoiled the mood.”

“No, just tend to get quiet sometimes when we’re busy with food,” Freya said, lifting another mouthful.

“’Specially if there’s Alliance on board.” Mal gave a half smile.

“I see. And you don’t like the Alliance, Captain.”

“They ain’t given me cause to,” Mal admitted. “Tend to always be getting in a man’s way.”

“Even when the work you are doing is legitimate?”

“Are you suggesting it isn’t?”

Smith laughed. “Captain, I am not stupid. I know the kind of things people like you have to do to keep flying.”

“People like me.” Mal was beginning to bridle, and Freya put her hand on his arm.

“I am not intending any offence, captain. Merely indicating that I understand. When I needed a ship to get me to Osiris, I didn’t want to travel on one of the liners. That would be too … obvious. So Lee found this.” He lifted a hand to indicate Serenity.

“This is my home,” Mal said, his eyes hardening.

“Were you on Parth long?” Inara asked, trying to ease the tension.

Smith turned to her. “It was merely a stopover. I’ve been in many places since I left my home.” He looked back at Mal. “And I was not being disrespectful to yours, captain. The Alliance has made it hard for people to earn an honest living, particularly out in the borders. So if an honest man has to do dishonest things, well, I won’t hold it against him.”

“You really are a politician,” Mal said, shaking his head and smiling ruefully.

“And you are a smuggler, captain. But at the moment, I’m just glad it’s me you’re smuggling.”

Serenity juddered.

“What was that?” Hank asked, feeling the tremor beneath his boots.

Mal nodded at him. “Check it out.”

“Probably just a glitch,” Hank added, getting up and walking towards the bridge.

Freya sat up straight, suddenly not feeling hungry anymore on account of the hairs on the back of her neck raising. ---

Hank stepped up into the bridge, but everything seemed okay. The course was correct, and … wait a minute. Someone had opened the cargo bay door. From the outside. It was there on the screen. “Wu de tyen, ah.”

Maybe it was a glitch. Maybe there was nothing … he jumped down the steps and ran along the corridor to the stairs, needing to see for himself. Slowing down he peered into the cargo bay. “Lao-tyen, boo,” he whispered.

More’n half a dozen men, all armed to the teeth, were standing in the cargo bay, looking around.

Hank tried to blend in with the plating, and slid back along the wall towards the comlink. Pressing the sequence so that only the galley would hear, he spoke quietly. ---

“So you think it’s okay for a man to break the law if that law comes between him and his family surviving?” Zoe asked.

“Laws should not be broken,” Smith said. “But if the situation is so constrained that -”

“Mal,” Hank said urgently, his voice hissing over the com. “We got guests.”

Mal dropped his chopsticks and stood up quickly. “Get back to your quarters,” he ordered Smith, pointing towards the stern of Serenity, and running out of the dining area.

Lee nodded at his master, and led him out, his hand kept close to his chest.

Mal dropped down into his bunk, grabbing his gunbelt. Buckling it swiftly, he picked up Freya’s then climbed back up. She was waiting for him, and Zoe and Jayne appeared a moment later from their rooms. He looked at Freya. ”Up and over.” She nodded and ran towards the inspection hatch. “Jayne, take the other way.”

Jayne was running before Mal had finished, leaping up the steps to the bridge to take the other exit.

Mal looked at Inara. “Stay here, stay hid. Come on,” he said to Zoe.

They hurried to the stairs down in to the cargo bay, hoping to find Hank, but there was no sign. At the entrance to the bay they stopped, Mal taking point and Zoe, as always, at his back. He peered around, then ducked back as several bullets thudded into the wall where his head had been.

Tzao gao!”

“Captain,” shouted a voice from down below. “How nice to meet you.”

“You’re a mite overdressed for just a social visit, all those guns you appear to be carrying,” Mal called, using the entrance to the stairs as cover. “And most folks knock before they come on board.” He peeked round the corner.

“Well, that’s true,” the leader of the raiders called from behind the crate he was using as cover. “But we weren’t intending to stay long. Just so’s we can do a trade.” He nodded down towards the floor and Mal moved enough so he could see.

Hank lay on the decking, blood seeping from an ugly wound on the side of his head.

“We don’t want him,” the leader continued. “Our quarry is Mr Smith. That’s all. You hand him over and this man doesn’t have to die.”

“Looks like you might have killed him already,” Mal pointed out.

“Just hit him. Fool tried to warn you.”

“He did warn us. And you’re not getting Smith.” He paused a moment then asked, “How did you get on board my boat?”

“Proximity alarms can be bypassed, captain. And exterior airlocks opened.”

“Well, y’all can just go out the same way.”

One of the raiders fired, the bullet embedding itself in the plating next to Hank’s head.

“Gorramit,” Mal shouted. “Stop shooting my boat!”

The leader laughed. “We won’t damage your ship any more, captain. The next one goes in his head.”

Mal felt Zoe stir next to him. “Sir …”

“I know.” He glanced at her. “Ain’t gonna let that happen.” He called out again. “So we turn Smith over to you, and you just leave?”

“We go. That’s it. No-one needs to get hurt. Anymore than they have already.”

“Hell, you can shoot him if you like,” Mal called out. “He’s only my pilot. I can get another easy as blinking. And he‘s an annoying son of a bitch.”

“Now why don’t I believe you?” ---

The hatch led into an inspection tunnel between the inner and outer hull, dark and very cold, but big enough for Freya to scurry through on her hands and knees. At some point she felt the weave come away from the palm of her hand, but she ignored it, carrying on along the very top of Serenity.

At the end there was an identical ladder which she climbed down, taking her time, making sure no-one was waiting for her. She dropped down into the space at the very end of the guest quarters. She moved forward, her gun ready, but she was too late. Lee lay on his front, not moving. Not dead, she discovered, checking his pulse, just out of it for a while. She sighed. He never had been any good at close quarter combat. Not his forte at all. She looked up. ---

“Zeke.”

Zeke looked up, then smiled. “Well, don’t look like we have to negotiate any longer,” he called. “We found what we were looking for.”

His man had hold of Jeremiah Smith, his gun pressed hard into the other man’s neck.

“Then get off my ship,” Mal said loudly.

“Well, that ain’t quite how this is going to end,” Zeke said.

“No, I guess it ain’t,” Mal murmured, then looked around startled as a gunshot boomed below him. He grinned at Zoe. “I’d know that gun anywhere.”

The man holding Smith staggered forward before falling, taking Smith with him to the floor.

“Stay down,” Freya said behind him.

Mal used the moment to move out from cover and drop from the catwalk behind one of the cages, hearing bullets careening off the walls. “If’n I don’t get shot, I’ll be very surprised,” he muttered to himself, then heard Zoe open up with her mare’s leg from above. “Good girl,” he added, moving along the wall to try and get a clear shot at the boss.

Jayne appeared at the lower door, firing over the railing and taking one of the raiders in the chest. The others dropped back into hiding, but he moved forward. “That ain’t gonna save ya,” he mumbled, seeing Freya appear in the doorway to the infirmary. “Don’t you shoot me now, you hear?” he called, then ducked as someone tried to do just that. He rolled forward, springing to his feet, right behind another of the raiders.

Jayne took a bead on the man swinging around to aim at him, then with a grin pulled the trigger.

It jammed! His gorram gun jammed! For a split second he wished he’d brought Vera, despite Mal’s protestations about her being able to breach the hull, but all thoughts were quickly washed out of his brain by the sudden agony in his leg. But the other guy was about to fire again, and using sheer instinct he moved forward, closing the distance between them so fast that it startled his assailant, and hit him with the gun.

“Airlock!” Freya shouted, and Jayne nodded, picking him up and using him like a shield to cross the bay before tossing the unconscious man into the gap between the inner and outer doors.

Freya moved forward, trying to get to Hank to pull him out of the line of fire. He was coming to, groaning sightly, and it would only take the idiot trying to get to his feet to get himself shot.

Mal looked around the stack, seeing what she was doing, then saw Zeke raise his head, aiming his gun. Mal couldn’t get a clear shot, so without thinking he ran forward, ducking low, taking Freya on the fly and pushing her to one side. The double pain in his chest was sudden, unexpected in its intensity, and he slid to the floor.

“Mal!” Inara shouted from the upper doorway.

Freya rolled, looking back, and saw Mal go down, heard Inara scream. Then a red fog descended on her mind, and with no regard for her own person she launched herself across the crates, taking Zeke to the ground. They fell and Freya realised her gun was gone from her hand, slipping away on the blood from the reopened cut on her palm. That didn’t overly concern her – she wanted to kill this man herself. Springing to her feet she kicked him in the stomach, causing him to double over, his breath whooshing from his lungs. She took hold of him and threw him bodily into the airlock, following it with a foot behind his knee, forcing him to the floor.

Jayne, understanding what she was doing, grabbed Hank and pushed him to one side, hearing Zoe’s gun firing all the time. “Get us moving, little man,” he grunted.

Hank, staring at him blearily, nodded.

Jayne then moved to help Freya, ignoring the pain in his leg, and continued to use his gun as a club, catching the man about to plug Zoe alongside his head, spinning him around. The big merc shoved him with his shoulder into the gap between the airlock doors to join his friends. Immediately Freya sprinted to the controls and slammed her hand on the button, holding it there to cause an emergency lockdown. The inner doors hissed closed hard and fast, the metal thud echoing around the cargo bay. She then pressed the other switch. Jayne saw Zeke’s face appear at the small window, head the warning voice say the exterior door was opening, then the face disappeared. He didn’t look to see what had happened – he knew.

The last man from the raiding party tossed his gun out. “Don’t shoot!” he called, standing up with his hands high.

Inara ran down the stairs, dropping to the floor next to Mal. He looked up at her, his blue eyes filled with pain.

“Mal, hold on!” she said, trying to stem the flow of blood with her hands.

“’Nara …” Mal forced out, wanting to ask her to get Freya, that hers wasn’t the last face he wanted to see as he left this ‘verse, but unable to say another word. All he could feel was the pain in his chest as he slid into blackness.

Hank pulled himself unsteadily up to the bridge and powered up Serenity, bringing her systems back on line fast as he could. He heard someone behind him, half-turned, expecting to meet a bullet coming the other way, but it was Freya.

“Take ‘em out.” she ordered, and he nodded, moving Serenity around so they could see the raiders’ vessel.

“Hold on,” Hank said, throwing power into the Firefly’s boosters. She leaped forward, closing the distance in a moment, and at the last second Hank pulled her up so her stronger underbelly caught the other ship. There was a grinding noise, and Freya was nearly thrown off her feet.

Freya caught sight of the marauding vessel spinning off into the black, its aft thruster damaged and useless. She couldn’t see the corpses, but knew they were around as well. She watched Hank setting a course quickly then ran out of the bridge to the bay. She pulled up on the gantry, looking down. Inara was kneeling by Mal, who lay very still. Jayne was leaning against one of the crates, one of the raiders’ guns in his hand, investigating the wound in his leg with the other, while Zoe had the last remaining raider up against a bulkhead. Freya, feeling an anger inside that burned white hot, descended the stairs to the floor, passing Mal and Inara with only a look on her way to Jeremiah Smith. She drew her gun as she approached him, pointing it squarely in his face.

“What is it they think you know, or have?” she growled at him, the sound of the safety clicking off very loud. “You brought this down on us – why do they want you so bad?”

“Freya, please put the gun down, or I shall be forced to shoot you,” Lee said from behind her.

She didn’t move. “You think you can fire before I do?”

“You’ll still be dead.”

“So will he.”

The sound of two other guns cocking filled the cargo bay, and Lee risked a glance sideways. Zoe and Jayne had their weapons trained on him.

Smith looked into Freya’s face, saw the determination there, and shook his head slightly. “Lee, put the gun away.”

Lee hesitated only a moment, then did as he was told, sliding the pistol back inside his jacket. Zoe moved hers back so that it was on the raider, and Jayne went back to examining his leg, although somewhat reluctantly.

Freya put her own gun back in its holster. “So …” she said, breathing deep.

“I can’t tell you. It really is none of your –”

In a blur of movement she stepped forward, slamming Smith back against the wall, her fists full of the front of his jacket. “I just put three men out into space – you think I’d have qualms over doing the same to you?”

“Freya, Mal’s badly hurt,” Inara broke in. She stood up and looked across the bay. “He needs a doctor!”

“Well, we ain’t got one,” Jayne said, pouring alcohol from his flask across the bullet wound, then tensing as the fire bit deep.

“No. But he does,” Freya replied unexpectedly. She glared at Smith. “I know who you are. And I know you never travel anywhere without your personal, private physician. Whatever else he is, Lee is a doctor. Isn’t he?”

Smith gazed, expressionless, into her face, seeing the absolute certainly of his own death if he refused to help. He also saw the struggle she had to control it. Finally he said, “Lee, help them.”

Freya let go of his jacket and stepped back. “Zoe, you’d better tie that one up, stick him somewhere safe. Hank,” she called to the pilot standing on the catwalk. “Get the stretcher.”

Between them they got Mal into the infirmary, settling him onto the bed. Only then, as they removed the stretcher, did Freya allow herself to look closely at Mal, the blood soaking his shirt from the gunshot wounds. Hank grabbed a swab before muttering something about checking their course, but she ignored him as he headed for the bridge.

“You’ll have to assist,” Lee said, stepping into the infirmary.

“Whatever you need,” Freya replied, stroking Mal’s sweat-soaked hair from his forehead. ---

“There’s nothing more I can do until he stabilises.”

“Will he?” Inara asked.

“I'm not a Shepherd, I don’t have a direct line –”

“Yes you are,” Freya interrupted.

The small man glanced at her then dropped his head, apparently merely stripping the gloves from his hands. “That was a long time ago.”

“Not so long as I don’t remember it,” Freya pointed out. Inara looked at her sharply, aware of some other subtext going on in this conversation, but her friend wasn't about to enlighten her. Instead she let go of Mal’s hand, placing it carefully on his chest. “And it’s about time there was some straight talking done.”

“Hey, what about my leg?” Jayne asked from the other bed where he was slouched.

“Patch him up,” Freya ordered on her way out of the door. “Don’t worry – I’m not going to kill your boss.” The others got out of her way as she strode to the guest quarters.

Jeremiah Smith was sitting on his bunk, a book in his hands, reading. “Is the captain going to survive?” he asked without looking up as Freya appeared in the doorway.

“Your man’s done good work,” she acknowledged. “It’s up to Mal now.”

“Captain Reynolds is strong: as strong as his crew is loyal.” Smith put the book down and looked at her. “I'm sure he’ll be fine.”

“So why do they want you dead?” Freya asked without further preamble.

“Perhaps you should ask them.”

Freya glanced at Zoe, who shook her head. “He’s not high enough up the food chain to be sure, but he thinks they were just hired to kill Mr Smith here, no questions asked. They were paid a lot, though – and told to mop up any problems.” She didn’t need to elaborate.

“Perhaps one of those you put out of the airlock might have known,” Smith said softly.

Freya felt the knot of anger tightening inside her, but outside she was icy calm. “Kinda leaves it to you, doesn’t it?”

Smith gazed at her, his skin glowing in the warm light. Then he sighed. “You are right, of course. I'm not Jeremiah Smith, although one of my ancestors was. And I am going to Osiris with a very specific agenda in mind, one which, I'm afraid, I don’t intend to share with you, no matter what you do. But I will say that this agenda could decrease the Alliance’s influence over the outer planets, give a shade more autonomy to that area you call home.” He looked from one to the other of them. “I am not unaware several of you fought in the war. Captain Reynolds has a fascinating history – one of the reasons I determined to use this craft.” He looked directly at Freya. “As is yours. And the details of Miranda are not unknown to me.”

He stood up. “I am not on your side, Miss Nordstrom, but neither am I your enemy. The war is long over, and I intend to merely loosen the reins a little.” He took a step closer to her. “But there are many men out there who don‘t want the reins loosened at all, who would rather we simply came in with all of our ships and wiped you out of the system.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “These men would kill me just to stop my voice. And they would kill you without a moment’s hesitation, as if they were stepping on a bug.” He smiled a little. “And now I think I’d like to see Lee’s handiwork. If you don’t mind.” He walked past her, through the knot of the rest of the crew.

“You believe him?” Zoe asked.

Freya shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. But my instinct …” She shook her head. “I think the sooner we get him to Osiris the better.”

“And Mal?”

“He’s right. Mal’s recovered from worse than this.” Freya looked into Zoe’s dark eyes. “You’re first mate, Zo. What do you think?”

Zoe half-smiled. “You seem to be doing okay as acting-captain.”

Freya was appalled. “I didn’t mean to –”

“No, I know. But I agree with you anyway.” She called over her shoulder. “Hank, we set for Osiris?”

“Sure are, Zoe.”

“You okay to drive?”

Hank touched the dressing on his head. “I’m fine, Zoe,” feeling it was worth getting hit just to hear her be a little bit concerned about him.

“How fast can you get us there?”

“Well, I put in a roundabout route, just in case there were any other ships waiting out there for us, but if you want it more direct –”

“We do.”

“Then three days at burn – we’ve got enough fuel.”

“Get it set, Hank.”

“On it, Zoe.” ---

“Out,” said Lee.

“I’m not leaving.” Freya shook her head. She didn’t even look up at the other man, just kept gazing at Mal, lying so still under the blanket, only the slight rise and fall of his chest saying he was alive at all.

“You have to rest.”

“Ain't gonna rest until he’s okay.”

“Freya, I‘m in charge here at the moment. You have to do what I say.”

Now she glanced at him, and he was taken aback by the anger in her eyes. “You think I’m going to go anywhere while he lies here? Like this?” She pointed to the bandage wrapped around his chest. “Two bullets he took, Lee. Two. Both meant for me. You think I won’t go without a little sleep to stay by his side?”

Lee sighed. “All right. I'm not going to fight you.” He turned to his case and removed a hypo.

“Good.” She went back to watching Mal.

“But at least let me give you a pick-me-up. Otherwise you’ll fall down.”

“I don’t know, Lee –” she began, but the hiss of the hypo against her neck stopped her short. “Thanks. I …” She swayed a little then looked up at him. “Oh, you jan-doh duh ee-kwai-ro …”

“Hey, you!” Lee called to the big mercenary lurking outside the infirmary.

“What?” Jayne asked.

“Catch.”

Jayne moved forward as Freya fell backwards, scooping her into his arms. “You dope her?” he asked.

“Mmn. She wouldn’t rest.” Lee cleared the stuff from the other bed. “Put her down here.”

Jayne carefully laid the woman onto the bed. “Don’t think I wanna be in your shoes when she wakes up,” he noted. “No matter how brave you are.”

“I’ll deal with that when the time arrives. Right now, I have your Captain to worry about.”

“He gonna be okay?” Jayne asked, looking askance at Mal. “They were a couple of bad ones he took.”

“Yes. I don’t know if he’ll be okay,” Lee said. “But I've done what I can. It’s just a waiting game now.”

Jayne nodded, then glanced at Freya again as he went out. “She is really gonna hate your guts when she comes round.”

“I can handle her.”

“You know, somehow I get the feeling you can.” ---

Mal opened his eyes. Which he was pretty surprised at, considering he thought he was dead. But unless heaven looked suspiciously like his infirmary, he probably wasn’t. Unless this was hell.

“Captain?”

He turned his head, focusing on the dark face of his first mate. “Zoe?”

She smiled. “How are you feeling, sir?” she asked.

“Like someone’s sitting on my chest. Can you ask them to move?”

“That will be because you got shot, sir,” Zoe explained.

“Again?”

“It does seem to be something of a habit.”

“Everyone else okay?” Mal looked past her to see Inara, Jayne and Hank in the doorway, the latter grinning with relief.

“Fine, sir. Even Smith.”

“So where’s Frey?” Zoe nodded towards the other bed and he moved his head to see Freya on her back, her eyes closed. “Is she okay?” he asked, concern making him try to sit up, but the pain in his chest insisting he stay put.

“She’s fine too, sir,” Zoe assured him. “Lee sedated her, is all.”

“He did what?” For a moment Mal thought he was dreaming. “Sedated her?”

“Yes sir. She wouldn’t rest.”

“He’s a brave man.”

“That’s what I said,” Jayne put in.

“How long have I …”

“Nearly a day, sir.”

Lee moved into his line of sight. “And you still need to get some rest too. You’re starting to heal, but not that fast.”

“Did you …” Mal managed to indicate his chest.

“That I did. At Miss Nordstrom’s insistence.” Lee injected a hypo into the drip running into Mal’s left arm. “And I am insisting that you sleep.”

The liquid was cold and numbing as it flowed into him, and the soft darkness was opening up again. “Well, Zoe, looks like you have the ship …” Mal mumbled as he drifted off.

“I’ll take good care of her, sir,” she promised. ---

Mal was standing, conspicuously armed, just inside as the ramp lowered. Jayne was square behind him, his arms full of Vera, while Zoe was next to her captain. Freya leaned on the wall, apparently nonchalantly inspecting her nails: nevertheless her other hand was near her gun.

“Captain Reynolds, I presume. And Mr Smith?” the man on the ground asked.

“Just coming,“ Mal nodded, hoping the sweat on his face wasn't showing too much in the dusky gloom. “And the rest of our fee.”

“Of course.” The man took a pouch from his pocket and tossed it to Mal, but Zoe moved fast and plucked it from the air.

She checked the contents. “All there, captain.”

“Were there any problems during the journey?” the man asked.

“Is there likely to have been?” Mal asked in return.

“No, no, captain. Not likely.”

“But still you asked. As it happens we did have something of an interesting trip.” Mal studied the man in front of him. “Although Mr Smith is fine.”

“Is it anything we should worry about?” the man asked.

“Depends on if you have any guns about.”

“Which he has,” Freya said unexpectedly. She pushed off from the bulkhead. “At least four men out in the shadows.”

The man in front of them looked surprised. “Five, actually.”

“I did say at least four.”

Mal smiled slightly. “You should be fine then. Although I would take it as a kindness if you could take another one off our hands.”

Jayne reached around the door and pulled the raider to the front. He didn’t look happy, and his face was purpled by bruises. Jayne saw the look the contact made and said, “He got fractious.” He pushed the raider down the ramp so hard the man fell into the dirt on his knees. He decided to stay there.

“And this is?” the man asked.

“A result of our interesting trip. I doubt he can tell you anything, particularly since we asked –” he glanced at Jayne for some reason “– but you might have more luck.”

“And you expect me to do what with him?”

“Ain’t my problem. We’ve been paid – he’s yours now.” He didn’t turn as Jeremiah Smith and his man, Lee, crossed the cargo bay behind him.

The man outside straightened, just a little. “Sir. My hover is just a short distance away. Everything is prepared.”

“Thank you.” Smith turned to Mal. This time he held out his hand, and shook Mal’s firmly. “I wish to extend my thanks to you and your crew also. Your reputation is quite justified.”

Mal looked at him, his polished chestnut face hiding a serious strength of character. “I won’t expect to see you again,” he said. “You’ve brought a deal of trouble on me and mine, and I don’t take kindly to that.”

“I understand. And I hope I will never need to travel by such a …circuitous method again.” He gave a small smile then turned away, walking down the ramp to join his ally.

Lee paused. “Captain, I trust my work is satisfactory.” He glanced down at Mal’s belly.

“Seems to be.”

“And you have made a friend – well, at least an acquaintance – in the Alliance.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel all warm and cuddly.”

“No, no, of course not.” Lee went to follow his master then paused. He looked into Freya’s face. “You always had the luck of the devil,” he said quietly.

“Not the only one,” Freya responded, equally quiet.

Lee nodded then walked away.

Mal heard the exchange and would have looked over his shoulder at her but it hurt too much. Instead he said, somewhat tiredly, “Zoe, get us the hell out of here.”

“Yes sir.” She hit the button to close up, then headed for the bridge, Jayne following to put Vera back to bed.

“You need a hand getting back to the infirmary?” Freya asked.

“Nope. But you can help me back to my bunk.”

She came and stood close to him. “And how do you intend to get down the ladder?” she asked.

“Ah. Good point. I guess infirmary it is.” He put one arm around her shoulders, leaning on her quite heavily.

“You had to be the strong type, didn’t you?” Freya muttered as they headed across the cargo bay floor.

“I just wanted to make sure they got off my boat.”

“So you start bleeding again. Good plan.”

Mal tentatively touched the area of the wound, and his fingertips came away red. “So maybe it wasn't such a great idea. Infirmary?”

“Absolutely. I’m going to change that dressing, then you’re going to sleep. Zoe’s in charge, we’re picking up fuel then heading back to Bathgate to get Kaylee, Simon and River.”

“Have to say I’ll be pleased to have our own medic back on board,” Mal agreed. “That Lee did good work, but I wouldn’t trust him.”

“No, neither would I.”

As Mal hitched himself painfully onto the medbed in the infirmary, he looked at Freya speculatively. “Is there something you want to tell me about him?”

“Who?” Freya busied herself in a cupboard, getting fresh dressings out.

“Lee. I heard that little exchange … you know him from somewhere?” He lay back carefully.

“I know his type, yes.” She turned to face him, undoing his shirt to expose the bandage.

“That’s not an answer.”

“It’s about all you’re going to get, Mal. I know lots of people, some even here on this ship.”

“You didn’t mention it before.”

“Didn’t seem to be important. And I didn’t really want Smith to know.”

“Why? Wouldn’t he like it?”

“Not from what Lee used to do before.”

“Doctoring?”

“And then some. Now lie still.” She peeled the old dressing from the wound that was bleeding, and Mal winced.

“Ouch.” He tried to see.

“Lie still!” She cleaned the area with a swab and applied a new dressing.

“You ain’t going to tell me, are you?” Mal asked, looked up into her face.

She shook her head. “Some things are best unsaid. It wasn't important, and doesn’t have any bearing on things today.”

“Meaning he wasn't any kind of romantic in your life.”

“Him?” She stared into his eyes, her lips twitching. “I have never, in my entire existence, been that desperate.”

“Good.” Mal smiled. “Didn’t think he was your type.”

“And what would that be?”

“Tall, dark and incredibly pretty.”

“Oh, you wish.”

Hank’s voice interrupted them over the com. “Mal, I’ve got a wave from Simon. He says River’s pitching a fit to bust saying you’ve been hurt. Wants to know what they can do about it.”

Freya grinned at Mal and crossed to the com. “Hank, tell Simon we’re on our way, and just to be packed and ready to go. How long to Bathgate?”

“’Bout a day.”

“So they get to go riding again.”

“How’s Mal?”

Freya looked across at the man himself, attempting to do up the buttons on his shirt. “He’ll live.”

“Great. Hate to have to find a new job right now.” Hank laughed and closed the link.

“I should hope I’ll live,” Mal said.

“Just make sure you keep on doing it.”

“Hey, hadn’t intended anything else. We’re going to live forever, remember?” He smiled.

“Absolutely. Now close your eyes and get some sleep.”

He did as he was told, then immediately opened them again. “I’d fall asleep faster if you were lying next to me.”

“That really would be pushing your luck. Besides, the bed’s only big enough for one.”

“Then you could lie –”

“Go to sleep!”

“Yes, sir, lieutenant,” Mal grinned, loving how easy it was to wind her up.

COMMENTS

Wednesday, October 18, 2006 7:26 AM

TAMSIBLING


Cool story, although I'm sorry you didn't give us any insight into Simon, Kaylee and River's time at the Abbey.

Great stories you've been telling! I can't wait to read more.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006 6:24 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Ya know...the supposed building of tension via Freya and Mal's confessions to Inara, the appearance of Smith and the mercs hired to smoke him, Mal's sacrifice and near-death moment and the eventual wrap-up was mighty fine writing. 'Specially since it seems like all that exposition and character development led to naught. But I get the feeling it will play a part later on down the road;)

BEB

Saturday, August 15, 2009 10:59 AM

MAINEAXE


Doctor Lee + Freya = Academy

This is good stuff!!! Only took me a couple years to get here..:(


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OTHER FANFICS BY AUTHOR

Monied Individual - Part XIX
“His name’s Jayne?”

“What’s wrong with that?” the ex-mercenary demanded from the doorway.

“Nothing, nothing! I just … I don’t think I’ve ever met a man … anyone else by that name.”

“Yeah, he’s a mystery to all of us,” Mal said. “Even his wife.”

[Maya. Post-BDM. Hank's not out of the woods yet, and Mal has a conversation. Enjoy!]


Monied Individual - Part XVIII
Jayne had told him a story once, about being on the hunt for someone who owed him something or other. He’d waited for his target for three hours in four inches of slush as the temperature dropped, and had grinned when he’d admitted to Hank that he’d had to break his feet free from the ice when he’d finished.
[Maya. Post-BDM. The Fosters show their true colours, Jayne attempts a rescue, and the others may be too late.]


Snow at Christmas
She’d seen his memories of his Ma, the Christmases when he was a boy on Shadow, even a faint echo of one before his Pa died, all still there, not diminished by his burning, glowing celebrations of now with Freya.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A seasonal one-off - enjoy!]


Monied Individual - Part XVII
Jayne hadn’t waited, but planted a foot by the lock. The door was old, the wood solid, but little could stand against a determined Cobb boot with his full weight behind it. It burst open.


[Maya. Post-BDM. The search for Hank continues. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XVI
He slammed the door behind him, making the plates rattle on the sideboard. “It’s okay, girl, I ain't gonna hurt you.” The cook, as tradition dictated, plump and rosy cheeked with her arms covered to the elbows in flour, but with a gypsy voluptuousness, picked up a rolling pin.

[Maya. Post-BDM. Kaylee finds the problem with Serenity, and Jayne starts his quest. Read, enjoy, review!]



Monied Individual - Part XV
“Did we …” “We did.” “Why?” As she raised an eyebrow at him he went on quickly, “I mean, we got a comfy bunk, not that far away. Is there any particular reason we’re in here instead?” “You don’t remember?” He concentrated for a moment, and the activities of a few hours previously burst onto him like a sunbeam. “Oh, right,” he acknowledged happily.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A little with each Serenity couple, but something goes bang. Read, enjoy, review!]



“Did we …” “We did.” “Why?” As she raised an eyebrow at him he went on quickly, “I mean, we got a comfy bunk, not that far away. Is there any particular reason we’re in here instead?” “You don’t remember?” He concentrated for a moment, and the activities of a few hours previously burst onto him like a sunbeam. “Oh, right,” he acknowledged happily.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A little with each Serenity couple, but something goes bang. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XIV
This wasn’t how an ex-companion did things. Perhaps she’d been hanging around a certain Firefly captain for too long. He listened at keyholes as if it were a competitive sport.

[Maya. Post-BDM. The crew go to the Spring Lights Procession, Mal gives some good news, and Sir Warwick puts in another cameo. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XIII
“It’s a family tradition, Mal.” Eugenia patted his hand. “No matter who marries into us, whatever their name, the moment they say ‘I do’ they become Rostovs. So you are Malcolm Rostov. It has a fine ring to it, don’t you think?”

[Maya. Post-BDM. A chapter of Mal and Freya, and a small revelation from Eugenia Rostov. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XII
Hank had to shake his head. In this day and age, when the entire output of every quill, pen and two-fingered monkey thumping on a keyboard was available on the Cortex, this statement of wealth and power was way over the top. He loved the feel of paper himself, turning the pages to get to the next twist, scanning the print to try and guess the next turn, but even his collection wouldn’t fill more than a shelf here.

[Maya. Post-BDM. Hank thinks about Zoe, Zoe thinks about Hank, while Freya and Mal have lunch. Read, enjoy, review!]