BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

KISPEXI2

CHECK MATE: Pairings (21/22)
Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The penultimate chapter. A lot happens and it's a long chapter. Suffice it to say, River has some crazy notions about how to treat a guilt-ridden Mal and Simon gets the wrong end of the stick.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2531    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Firefly belongs to Joss Whedon. And today is the wrap party for “Serenity.” We will all be there in spirit.

* * * * *

CHECK MATE: Pairings.

* * * * *

Wash's blood pressure – already soaring at the prospect of his becoming part of a Reaver's wardrobe – cranks up a notch or two as the pilot stares down at the tiny gun his wife's just handed him. The slight to his manhood is unmistakeable. 'Little man, little gun' as Jayne might have put it. Zoe, Mal, Jayne and even the gorram preacher are toting colossal weapons whereas his has all the potent menace of a shrivelled dick.

Wash has noticed something about the hierarchy on this boat: the more destructive you are, the higher you rate in the pecking order. Being good at something other than killing counts against you. Not having spent a lot of time shooting people, slitting their throats or plain old blowing 'em up Wash has it hard enough, but Simon – who saves lives rather than taking them – ranks lowest of all. Kaylee's probably next, because she fixes things instead of breaking 'em. Then it's him, Wash. In the middle there's Book and River who despite their respective piety and kookiness know one end of a gun from the other. Top end of the scale there's the psychotic Captain. He's maybe not as deadly as Zoe nor as eager for a fight as Jayne, but he's got that whole shoot-first-ask-questions-later thing going on. Plus a tendency for self destruction. Wash grunts and tries not to think about that conversation Zoe and Mal think he didn't overhear. Or about Inara's syringe. Because he'd sure hate to put them in a position where they might have to show him some respect.

He's jolted out of his resentful musings when Serenity is rocked by a powerful shockwave, not once but twice. Wo de ma! The feng le de biao zi de ben er zi are bombarding them with electronic cannon fire! His fantasy of winning a macho pissing contest against Mal will have to wait. Better get his ass in the pilot's seat – his seat – and fast.

“Not fair,” River sighs wearily.

Kaylee looks across at Simon. “It sure ain't,” she agrees sadly, remembering the feel of his skin, the touch of his hand. Sure, she's terrified - but the reason tears are springing to her eyes is she fears she may never know them again.

“Nothing fair about this 'verse, mei-mei,” Mal mutters as he leans over Wash's shoulder, staring out into the endless, meaningless black. “Where are they?”

“Behind us and above, slightly to port. Closing fast.”

Jayne has gone visibly pale. “Then get us movin' faster, dumbass!”

“Bizui!” Mal snaps. “Kaylee, engine room - ma shang. Take the Doc with you. Might be useful. Wash, what options we got speed-wise?”

“None. Magpies've got twice the acceleration of a Firefly. Maybe more, operating without core containment.”

Mal presses his lips together. “We got no advantages?”

“Manoeuvrability. We can fly faster over uneven ground, get deep into valleys.”

Jayne snorts. “Ain't no valleys in the black.” Wash's lack of a snarky comeback is all kinds of troublin'.

“Turn round. Head back to Newhall,” Mal orders, avoiding eye contact with his crew. He got no notion to be debatin' this.

“You protect the man you're with.” River's voice is oddly deep and gruff. “You watch his back. Everyone knows that.”

Jayne wants to find comfort in the fact Mal's got a plan but he don't like the sound of this. “We land, we'll be easy pickin's, Mal. They'll kill every last one of us. You, me ... Kaylee.”

Mal puts a hand on each of the mercenary's shoulders and brushes them off, like he's sprucing him up for some big event. “Ain't gonna land, Jayne,” he says with one of those bewilderingly bright smiles he uses to shut people out before flicking on the comms. “You hear me Kaylee? Get her ready for hard burn.”

“We can't outrun them Mal,” Wash tells him impatiently.

“Smiling first a little smile, as if he knew where magic slept.”

“Shut her up!” Jayne yells.

River continues, unperturbed. “And when all were in to the very last, the door in the moutain-side shut fast.”

Mal shoots her a look of astonishment. That girl spend all her time wanderin' through his brain? He turns back to Wash. “There's a range of hills, just behind the Blue Sun mine. Want you to fly us fast as we can into it ... “ Wash is about to point out the suicidal nature of this plan when Mal continues, “Pull us up at the very last minute. Any luck, they won't have time to change course.”

Wash stares at the Captain. It's a plan, no denying it. But ... “Mal, the town's right in the foothills. All those people ... When that Reaver ship goes down ...”

Kaylee's horrified gasp is loud enough to carry over the comms system. “Don't Newhall have other hills?”

“Even if'n they do, ain't got time to look for 'em,” Mal says firmly. “You get ready for Wash's signal, Kaylee. Wash – do it.”

Wash looks to Zoe, then to the Preacher. Neither contradicts the order. OK, he gets it - this boat's not run by committee, not the ruttin' town hall. He slides the forward drive control into position and activates the stabilizers. “Ready, Kaylee? Open the g-line and give me one hundred per cent fuel feed.”

For a few moments Serenity seems to hover uncertainly, trembling under Wash's skilled hands. He flicks his magic switches – one, two, three – and pushes the steering wheel sharply forward. Given her head, Serenity lurches forward, throwing Jayne against the wall and Book into Mal. Wash looks round at them. “Can't do fast and smooth. Better find somethin' to grab ahold of.”

Zoe's supper threatens to make a reappearance as she struggles to keep her balance. The baby kicking up a storm don't help much either. Another blast of cannon fire makes the ship pitch and roll as if it were on the wild seas of Earth-that-was. Jayne curses under his breath. Book would be praying if it weren't for the irony of asking God's blessing on a strategy that kill many more people than it saves. There's a shudder and creak and it feels like Serenity has just hit a wall. The windows frame red instead of black.

“What the diyu you doin'?” Jayne yells as he's thrown from one handhold to another.

“Re-entry,” Wash explains mildly. “Oughta slow them down a bit too.”

Zoe catches Mal's eye and holds it a while, reading there the unspoken vow to his crew, to her. Knows what this is costing him. Mal don't kill 'less he has to – and even then it cuts deep.

“OK, now for the exciting part,” Wash warns. He doesn't catch the black look Jayne's giving him. Big man's never felt space-sick before and it's makin' him all tetchy an' ill-tempered.

The view through the windows is of land now. Brown dusty tracks cutting through yellow-green fields, turning into grey streaks of tarmac, then broad roads. Occasional houses flashing by seem to coalesce, form bigger clumps as villages, then towns appear. Finally Capital City spreads out under them, stretching back to the mountains beyond.

Mal holds his breath. Time was a situation like this would've had him puttin' his soul in the Lord's hands. Time long past. The mountains go from pale to dark blue as they loom larger. Details appear – scrub, crevasses, jagged peaks. Day turns into night again and the bridge grows dark as the oncoming wall of rock shuts out the sunlight. Mal blinks. His pupils ain't had time to adjust and he can't make out a gorram thing. Just gotta trust Wash to get it done.

It's like takin' a bullet in the gut, Mal decides as he loses his grip on back of the pilot's chair and the air is knocked out of him. He finds himself flying backwards, crashing heavily to the floor. Jayne falls alongside him. They exchange a look of amazed relief.

“We still alive?” the mercenary asks, hardly able to believe it.

“Looks like,” Mal grunts, getting unsteadily back to his feet. “Everyone OK?” He leans into the comms. “Kaylee? How you an' the Doc farin'?”

“We're shiny, Cap'n,” she replies but even over the comms she sounds shaken. Behind her there's the faint sound of retching.

“Nausea induced by sensory mismatch,” River declares. Her smile is calm, if uncomprehending of the others' surprise at her sang froid. “Reeds in the wind do not break.”

Mal gives a bemused little shake of his head and straightens his suspenders. He consults the radar screen for confirmation his plan paid off. The screen blinks back: dangerously high levels of radiation and fire at Capital City.

“Circle back,” he tells Wash.

The pilot is horrified. They have to go back? Count the bodies? See yet again why Mal is top of the food chain? “What for? You wanna gloat over the destruction? That's just sick!”

“Wash, honey...” Zoe begins but it's too late. Mal has grabbed her husband by the front of his gaudy shirt, hauled him from his seat and smacked him hard into a wall. Jayne backs off discreetly. Mal gets right in Wash's face, the dangerous glitter in his eyes making the smaller man freeze. Wash shoots Zoe a plea for support but she drops her eyes to the floor. Might have known she'd side with Mal, her good old army buddy, if forced to choose. He looks back at Mal and for excruciatingly long moments they stare angrily at each other. Then abruptly Mal releases him. “Circle back. I ain't askin'.”

Wash squares his shoulders defiantly but resumes his seat. Alters course, circles back.

“Bring us in lower,” Mal orders.”Get me visual.”

It's a horrifying sight, Zoe has to admit. Them buildin's as're left standin' mostly on fire. People runnin' about randomly, mouths loosin' screams that can't be heard up here in Serenity. She closes her eyes. When she reopens them, Mal is still staring down, almost as if he's memorizing ever detail. Beside him, Wash is struggling to process the scene of devastation. He's a commercial pilot, not a fighter ... and yet ... there's something awfully familiar about all this.

Suddenly Mal turns and without a backward glance descends the stairs.

“Crazy sonofabitch did it!” Jayne grins widely once he's gone and, for emphasis, gives Wash a powerful slap on the back.

“Only because he's psychotic,” Wash snaps. “Only a psychopath would want to go back ...”

“You're wrong,” Book interrupts him. “He went back because he had to. Most men won't take resposibility for their actions. Excuses, denial – it all makes life easier. The Captain's not most men. Had to see. Bear the full weight of it.”

Painful truth plainly stated has a way of silencing folk. Zoe, Wash, Book and Jayne are all kinds of uncomfortable right now.

“Cap'n? You still need me up here?” The sound of Kaylee's voice gives them an excuse to put their embarassement aside.

“No. Job's done,” Zoe tells her. “Get some rest. It's been one hell of a day.”

* * * * *

Mal stares at his reflection and tries to remember a time when worry was not etched deep into every line on his face. When the muscles along his jaw line had not grown tight with clenching and when his eyes still shone with the exuberance of youth. The eyes that stare back haven't changed much in shape or clarity, but the darkness at their centre has grown, echoing his ever-growing emptiness. Spent so much time trying to protect his soft centre, he never noticed it was withering and dying. Soon all that's left will be the empty shell. Leaving him a shadow man in so many ways.

* * * * *

Zoe can tell Wash is angry before he even reaches the bottom of the ladder. The way he's clanging his feet down on the rungs is a sure indication. But she's tired, exhausted by the day's worry and danger. She's got neither the energy nor the patience to be shoring up her husband's fragile ego tonight. In fact, she's sick of doing it. Why does Wash have to interpret her loyalty to Mal as a betrayal? What cause has she ever given him to be jealous of Mal? She married him, didn't she? And much to Mal's displeasure at that. How many times does she have to say it? What does she have to do – beyond bearing his child – to prove that she loves him? She sighs heavily and pulls off a boot.

Haven't their private parties always been exultant, rapturous occasions? And Mal's as bad. Blaming her. Di'n't she beg him to save her from this man she knew was her destiny from the moment she set eyes on him? She all but pleaded with him to save her from the responsibility she knew awaited her, afraid as she was to step out of her subaltern shadows and into the limelight of command.

So what did Mal do about it? He didn't approve. Yeah, like that was going to derail Fate! All it did was make her more sure Wash was her other half, her soul mate. In the enormity of space and time she'd found the one man capable of opening doors she'd locked long, long ago and all Mal could do was sneer? Man had – has – a whole armoury of persuasive techniques at his disposal and he had to opt for a headlong confrontation? Knowing her as well as he did? Tamade hun dan! He couldn't have tried the subtlety of hurt or the promise of flirtation? What about that well worn strategy of push and pull, snarl and smile, punch and protect that she's seen him use to reel in the most resistent of men and women? Inara's ice cool independence melted under it and it's sucking Simon in right now. She, Zoe, would not have been so easily duped but at least Mal could have tried. Gorramit! If she'd wanted to lead, she'd never've picked Mal to follow in the first place.

The Cap'n and her husband are as bad as each other, she concludes, promising herself she'll knock their heads together as soon as she's no longer pregnant. If she can be bothered ...

Wash is in desperate need of some reassurance about his place in Zoe's heart tonight but is too gorram stubborn to ask for it. He longs for Zoe to favour him with the secret sultry smile that tells him everything's OK. That they're OK. But she won't meet his eyes and her brittle, weary movements convey nothing but disappointment in him.

Perhaps Mal was right after all. Perhaps they should never have married. When Zoe accepted his proposal he had to repeat the question, just to make sure she knew what she was agreeing to. Because dark goddesses don't normally wed the wacky little funny man. Little man. Point of interest – petty means little. Is he being petty?

Zoe shakes loose her hair in a torrent of curls that begs to be touched. She peels off her shirt and reveals the opalescent sheen of her skin. Totally naked now, she crosses the room, lithe and glorious despite, or perhaps because of, the growing weight of the child she carries. She slips silently under the covers and Wash starts tearing his clothes off, casting them in all directions in his hurry to join her.

Zoe is irritated by his “I love you, bao bei” as he snuggles up to her because of its entreaty for her to say it back. Rather than get into a fight she says nothing.

“You are so beautiful,” he continues, nuzzling her neck, “I could make love to you forever.”

With another heavy sigh she removes the hand that has found its way to her breast and pointedly lays it on Wash's own chest. “Sorry, sweetcakes,” she says, turning her back on him and fluffing up her pillow, “Not tonight. I'm too gorram tired.”

Wash stares in disbelief at the wall of skin in front of his for several minutes. Didn't he just pull off the kind of aerobatic stunt that used to drive her crazy with lust? The kind of stunt that had her telling Mal to take the helm so's he could rip all her clothes off? Wo de ma! Don't that impress her any more? Is she teasing? Will she relent? No and no, a soft snore tells him. He flips over onto his back and stares up at the ceiling trying to ignore the devil voice in his head that taunts “She wouldn't have been too tired for him. Because he will always come first in her life. He's a real man – a hero in her eyes – in fact, eveything you're not.”

* * * * *

Devoted brother that he is, Simon checks on River every night before retiring to his own bed. He needs to be certain she's safe before he can abandon himself to sleep. And every night she plays her part in the fantasy, lying peaceful and still, looking after her brother even as he cares for her. But most nights she gets up to wander the ship. She wants to get to know her new mother, learn her secrets and memorize every detail lest she be lost too.

If Serenity talks to Kaylee, to River she sings. Her core is music. In repose she hums a deep textured melody whilst her pulsing engine beats time. Her song is like that of the whales which once haunted the endless ocean nights of Earth-that-was. Full of meaning for those who understand. Location, destination, identification. Music and math combined in a higher truth beyond the reach of mere reason.

River is dancing to Serenity's song, hearing nuances and variations that make her smile with recognition. Unable to sleep, Wash emerges from his bunk. He pauses and watches her drop a curtsey to an imaginary audience before raising herself up on tiptoe. One arm curved above her head, the other extended with palm upturned she does a swift pirouette. Three dainty steps -forward, side, back - and another pirouette. She realizes someone is there and stops.

“Whoa,” Wash says, impressed. “Good dance.”

“Triangulation. Getting my bearings. Used to dance a perfect circle, but now can't stop the tangential spinning.” Her face crumples but the distress is fleeting and her smile quickly returns. “No-one travels as far as the man who doesn't know where he's going.”

It's a gorram shame what those Alliance tamade hun dan did to her. Flashes of her brilliant mind still ignite but whatever must she have been like before? Wash isn't a violent man, but if he could get his hands on the bastards who took the flower she was and ripped off the petals, he would ... well, something nasty. Sort of thing Mal might do. A fear ghosts through his mind. What if they ever did this to his child? That thought lends an awful clarity to the 'something nasty'. His mind fills with an image of himself as avenging angel, gleaming sword in hand hacking the heads off people capable of expermenting on children. Then he asks himself if he shouldn't be putting this fantasy into action? Because what kind of man – what kind of father – can pursue a normal life (as much as is possible on a spaceship), knowing that in the dark, hidden corners of the 'verse helpless children are still being tormented the way River was. Or worse.

River's hand on his cheeks brings Wash back from those hidden corners to Serenity. “Flowers need light as well as shelter,” she informs him gently. “Be the sunshine.” The she laughs. “We are who we are. And only Kaylee still lives in the garden.”

* * * * *

Next morning Kaylee wakes up feeling hungry in every way possible. Yesterday Death opened its jaws and snapped at them but they beat it back. Now Life is rumbling, demanding to be fed. She rolls onto her side and gazes at the face on the pillow beside her. Simon's dark lashes flutter as wakefulness stirs and his lips twitch invitingly. She sprinkles a good helping of kisses on them, bringing him to full consciousness. His eyes open, shining blue as a spring morning, close and quickly reopen.

“Mornin', Simon. Sleep well?” She underlines the undisguised invitation in her smile with a slight wriggle of her hips.

“Um. Yes. Yes, thankyou. What time is it?”

Kaylee chuckles low in her throat at his inappropriate politeness. Anyone'd think he ain't never woken up with a girl before. She runs a soft hand down from his chest to where smooth, pale skin meets dark, wiry curls. “Early enough that you don't need to be up yet.” A twinkle. “Well, not out of bed..”

Simon catches the hand as it moves further south and brings it to his mouth, hoping to distract her with a kiss. This is all going too fast for him. Again. Flashback to his school days when he was too stiff with politeness, too gorged on learning, to run properly. The other kids would race ahead, leaving him struggling and panting in their wake. He kisses Kaylee's eager mouth and wishes she would slow down and wait for him.

But now her other hand is seeking him out and he knows she will not be denied. He takes a deep breath and tries to rise to the challenge.

Ten minutes of his best eforts – and hers – and ... nothing.

“I .. I must be tired. You know, with all the worry and ... Sorry, Kaylee. Maybe later.”

She slaps his shoulder playfully. “Definitely later. Now – you hungry? For food, that is?” Another twinkle. Her undemanding cheerfulness prompts a rush of desire in Simon but he doesn't want to risk another failure. Not so soon. Doesn't want her to think he doesn't want her, because he does. Even if it means braving Mal's disapproval. Mal. Another rush of ... something. Something best not dwelt on.

* * * * *

“Di'n't mean to,” Mal slurs, head lolling backwards, eyes rolling around unfocussed and bleary.

“Oh, it was an accident!” Zoe's voice is heavy with sarcasm as she glares down at his sprawled out body. “That's all right then. How much you had?”

“Jus' a li'l one. 'Nara ... she ... wine ... fresh.”

“He's had all of it,” Kaylee tells her, staring at the empty demijohn in horror. “Oh God, Zoe. It was the new batch. Not even diluted yet.”

Zoe raises her eyes to the ceiling in exasperation. “So the Cap'n's poisoned himself? Oh, ain't that just great?”

“I'll get Simon.” And Kaylee rushes off to the infirmary.

Jayne pops his head round the door to the engine room. He surveys Mal's now unconscious body. “My pop always said a man as can't hold his drink ain't a real man at all. Need a hand carryin' him?”

Has he forgotten? Zoe indicates her swollen belly with an emphatic gesture.

“I'll get the Preacher.”

* * * * *

“Empty now. Again,” River diagnoses, gently smoothing Mal's hair away from his face. Simon carefully extracts the plastic tubing from his airway. He hooks a hand under the Captain's left knees and rolls him into the recovery position. “The vomiting seems to have stopped, but better safe than sorry,” he tells the anxious crew who have been here since he first started the lengthy process of flushing the alcohol out of Mal's body. Taking a key from one drawer to unlock another, he pulls out a syringe, fills it with antenebrium and jabs it through the leg of Mal's pants into his thigh. “That should lessen the after-effects, but he's going to feel pretty terrible when he comes to.”

“Good,” Zoe says with some satisfaction. He did this once before and she was so angry with him she prayed he would live so that she could strangle him with her own hands. It was the night after the first time he lost a man under his command. Ben Hickson. Just eighteen years old. Golden blond with the face of a cherub – a boy's face still, not a man's. Mal took losing him hard, so hard Zoe was not surprised he'd tried to drink himself to death. But she was so made at him for running out on her, she'd forced two fingers down his throat so hard he cou'n't speak for a week. Made him puke till there was nothing but muscle spasms left in him.

Simon's gentle ministrations are in stark contrast to the brutal remedies she employed all those years ago. The young doctor's eyes shimmer with concern and pity, whereas she's sure hers burnt with contempt for Mal's cowardice. Simon nurses where she rough-handled and empathizes where she sneered.

Zoe's eyes follow Simon's hand as he rubs the injection site and he flushes slightly when he sees her looking at him.

“No need to be so gorram gentle with him,” she says impatiently. “He ain't a little girl.”

Simon starts. For an instant he looks .... what? Guilty? Zoe shakes herself. She's the one who ought to be feelin' guilty. Cap'n di'n't mean to do it last time and in her heart she knows this time ain't no different.

“If he'd have let me give him a smoother in the first place none of this would've happened,” Simon mutters to himself.

* * * * *

Book's lids feel heavy and his eyes are starting to close.

“You hit me again, Preacher?”

The Shepherd's eyes fly open and one corner of his mouth lifts. “No son. This you did yourself. How're you feelin'.”

“Like the biggest dumb wang da ban in the 'verse. I am a bad man.”

“We're all bad men, son. That's why we need faith, something to believe in.”

“You tryin' to enlist me? Want me to join your church?”

“Heaven forbid!”

“Wha's wrong? You an' God had a fallin' out?”

“Not me and God. Me and the Abbey. It's a long story. Let's just say, I'm an Independent too now.”

Mal cocks his head to one side as he puzzles on that and pushes himself into a sitting position. He swings his legs round, trying to ignore the way the room is rotating.

“Don't think you should be getting' up without the Doctor's say-so,” Books tells him.

“Huh. Well, like you, I'm independent . Spent too much gorram time in here already.”

From the doorway, Simon sighs. “You need to rest Mal. Your sys...”

Mal is on his feet but the rotations have gathered speed. His legs buckle. Simon rushes over to provide support. “OK, you don't have to stay in the infirmary,” he bargains, “But you do have to stay in your bunk.” And he gives Mal his best stern face.

“You – Doctor -,” Mal says with a sudden wicked grin as he taps a forefinger against Simon's chest, “Are always wantin' to get me into bed.”

Simon huffs and Mal chuckles. He'd forgotten what fun there was in baiting his medic.

* * * * *

“Mal - you don't have to die alone.” At first he thinks it's another nightmare, but the hand on his shoulder is real enough. As is the laughter that follows. “Just when I think I've got you figured out.”

“River? That you?” Mal demands groggily. “Why're you in my bunk?”

Another laugh. “Because it's manly and impulsive.”

“OK,” he says carefully, “Why don't you be a good girl and go back to your brother?”

“Can't,” she pouts, “He's having sexual intercourse with Kaylee. Again.”

“Wha'?!” He snaps on the light and does a double-take. River is standing before him, hair piled in dark curls on top of her head and dressed in Inara's red satin dress. He glowers at her. “This ain't funny.”

“Can't just leave you here. Simon found mebroken. Sticks me together with needles and love. Found you broken. I can be her. Fix you.” River explains, taking his face between her hands. Her voice drops a pitch or two and takes on Inara's confidence. “You want me. I prefer something with a few miles on it.”

He ain't forgotten the way she kissed him before. Like she'd mapped the contours of his desire and learnt them by heart. The devil comes in many forms, Mal's Momma used to warn. This him here tonight? “No.” He pulls away from her touch.

River raises her eyebrows in an exact imitation of Inara's expression. “Mal, if you're being a gentleman, I may die of shock!”

“Yeah,” he grunts. “You an' me both.”

River slips the robe from her shoulders and lets it pool to the floor, leaving her totally naked. “One of the benefits about not being puritanical about sex is not being embarassed ... You should look into it.” And she sits down next to him, all doe eyes and white skin.

“Whoa! Flesh!” He looks quickly away and manages to keep his eyes averted. It's all the opportunity she needs. A quick stab into his upper arm and the smoother is in. His head whips round and he stares at the needle. “You ...” The growl turns into a purr as he slumps back against the pillow.

“Time to go to sleep,” River smiles down at him like a mother over her sleeping child. She takes the syringe and lays it carefully on the table. Then she climbs over Mal and insinuates herself between his warm, inert body and the bulkhead. She kisses his cheek. “When you live with strength, you get tied to it.”

* * * * *

Another day of feeling second best, of being pushed to the side as Zoe frets about Mal. Wash has had enough. He's decided to do it. Change the balance of power. Upset the food chain.

Serenity's night lights provide all the illumination he needs. Doesn't want to be drawing attention to himself by putting on full power lighting. He moves swiftly the the drawer that he knows Simon keeps locked. It has to be there. He pulls the drawer above it open to its full extent and forces a hand through the narrow gap. He gropes around blindly, feeling for the low narrow box and swearing at the metal runners which slice skin from his knuckles. Ha! There it is. The angle is difficult to negotiate but Wash has rarely been so determined. Finally the box is his.

He decides it's best to use the syringe here in the infirmary. And quickly. The longer he hesitates, the more likely it is someone will discover him with it. Or he will lose his nerve.

Good thing Simon explained how it's done. He taps the syringe and checks for air bubbles. Clear. Then he balls his left hand into a fist, squeezing and releasing it rhythmically until a vein stands proud on his inner elbow. He wasn't joking about being squeamish. He lines the needle up but has to look away as it penetrates the skin. With a shaking thumb he depresses the plunger, imagining the serum mixing with his life's blood.

At first he feels nothing, other than a little foolish. Then there's a sensation like time is slipping and he's standing still. Kind of like how he feels the day after a night of trying to match Jayne drink for drink. Shrill ringing fills his ears and his balance dissolves so that standing is no longer an option. His knees fold of their own volition and he slides down against the medicine cabinet. OK, so this was a dumb idea. A really dumb idea. A Jayne-class dumb idea. He wonders if he might die ...

Half an hour later he wishes he could

* * * * *

“Wash! Bao bei! You're scaring me.” Zoe doesn't use the 's' word lightly in respect to herself. But her husband – her stupid, jealous, wacky, precious husband – is squatting on the infirmary floor, face hidden behind his hands and rocking like a traumatized child.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God!”

With difficulty she crouches down beside him, eyes brimming with worry and love. “Wash – please tell me. What's wrong?”

“Can't.”

“You can. I'm your wife. I love you. I will always love you.”

He peeks at her between his fingers. “You will?” Hopeful, but not convinced.

“We're having a baby, Wash. Please ...”

“I'd have killed you,” he whispers hoarsely, “If I'd had the chance.”

Jayne, who'd stumbled across the pilot during an exhaustive search for any alcohol that Mal might have failed to drink, gives a snort of derision. “You might've tried, little man, but she could wup your ass anyday.”

Zoe's silencing glare is met with a surly twist of the mercenary's lips.

“I bombed them. During the war.” Wash is crying now.

The words don't make any sense. Zoe can't process them at all. Absurdly, all she can think is how strange it is she's never noticed a particular freckle on Wash's forehead before.

“I bombed them,” he repeats miserably.

Now the words do make sense, try as she might to stop them. “You were in Serenity Valley?” she asks slowly, now hardly recoginizing her own voice.

Wash turns bleak, pleading eyes on her. “No. Thank God for that at least. But I was Alliance, Zoe. I ... I fought for the gorram Alliance!”

* * * * *

He thinks the insistent knocking is River demanding entry with her customary poor timing. Kaylee teases him by mimicking his frustrated expression as he pulls on his pants and opens the door. But instead of River, Zoe is standing there.

“It's Wash,” she says quietly, allaying his fears. “Think he might appreciate a smoother.”

“I'll be right there.”

Zoe's solemn eyes fall on Kaylee. The mechanic gives her a girly little wave from the bed and the corner of Zoe's mouth turns imperceptibly upwards.

* * * * *

Having something concrete to do helps a little but Simon still feels hot and flustered. He grimaces as he relives the moment the door opened, exposing him to Zoe's knowing gaze. Much as he tries not to, he can't help but rerun the scenario through his mind only this time the door opens on Mal. The image is so vivid it provokes an interesting physiological response. Simon manages to go hot and cold at the same time. Hot with embarassment and cold with guilt. As if his being with Kaylee is a betrayal of the deepening understanding between himself and Mal.

How would Mal react? Simon's hand move automatically to his lip and jaw in anticipation of the imagined punch. Yes, a punch would probably ensue.

He checks Wash's vitals and pronounces his physical condition within normal parameters. His blood pressure is perhaps a little high, but the problem responds quickly to the intravenous administration of an antihypertensive. Simon is intrigued by the efficacy of the drug Wash took. The pilot appears to have total recall of an entire previous existence whilst retaining the persona he has inhabited for the past six years. His psychological integrity is uncompromised, despite understandable feelings of guilt and insecurity. Simon wishes he had access to all the data regarding the experiment that so successfully transformed Tao Collins into Hoban (merciful Buddha – what a name!) Washburne and on the serum which equally successfully brought him back. On the intellectual level alone it would be exciting ... but on the emotional level it's thrilling. What might this mean for River? Simon tries not to believe he's on the verge of finding a cure for her.

Jayne is beginning to see the funny side. “Let's see ... Wash here – or Tao as I guess we should be callin' him – was Alliance. An' Zoe an' Mal was Browncoats.” He grins. “ I imagine this is gonna get interestin' when Mal finds out.”

“He already knows,” Zoe admits in a low tone. “Monty kinda told us.”

Simon's mouth falls open. So Mal has been carrying this too? Pretending he doesn't know Wash was once his enemy? Struggling with the realization that he not only gave that enemy a job but also saw him married to his closest friend? On top of all his other problems? No wonder his judgement's been rendered fuzzy. Despair has been spiralling under him for months - years - on end. It's hardly surprising he's losing the will to fight it.

Wash makes a strange noise, somewhere between a sob and a groan. “He knows?” he repeats, bleak eyes on Zoe as he shakes his head in disbelief. “I ... I thought ... thought I was on your side. A Browncoat hero, not this. Thought he was jealous of me 'cos I was a bigger hero than him.” The inescapable truth that he is a little man – a petty man – is a hard one to face. Mal's insane and he's damn well been trying to save him again. Keep him from breaking under the strain of his inglorious past. Take it all on himself, just like with Niska. Well, this time Wash ain't gonna let him. If Mal's losing the ability to crawl, Wash will carry him. Won't leave him behind.

Psychology was not Simon's best subject at MedAcad but he remembers enough to know the healing power of hope, of having a purpose. It's surely not a bad thing his interests and Mal's are intersecting? If Wash can just .... “How much do you remember?” he asks the pilot bluntly. “Of what they did to you?”

“Not much. I was in this hospital - high tech, all the latest gizmos. There was a man... and a woman. Blue gloves. Goslings. Talk of an award ...”

Simon pushes down the excitement that bubbles up at the mention of blue gloves. “Where was this hospital?”

Wash froms with the effort of trying to dredge up the memory. He's just about to give up when ... “Greenleaf! It was Greenleaf. But ... “ He wants to ask what Simon's planning but then it dawns on him. “You think they'll have a cure for her?”

Simon smiles and shrugs. “Maybe. If we're lucky. But I think Mal will want to try. Or at least, I hope he will.”

Wash nods. It's all kinds of appropriate. The two fellas at the bottom of the pile, the ones who know how to do constructive stuff, helping the Captain to his feet again. And maybe, just maybe, helpin' Mal help River will wash away the past.

* * * * *

As he descends the ladder into Mal's bunk, he feels the same kind of exileration he experienced on discovering a new way to prevent myocardial infarction in trauma patients. He's sure offering Mal a new goal in life will produce the same warm glow of satisfaction.

Then he sees her. River. Ironic. It turns out the disaster scenario is not Mal discovering him in bed with Kaylee but this.

The physiological response is the same. Hot, then cold. Hot with anger. The one man he thought he could trust has violated that trust in the most hideous way. How could he? How dare he? Mal might make the rules on this ship but there are universal laws of decent, appropriate behaviour that even he has no right to break. And not taking to bed with a girl as damaged and vulnerable as his sister is one of them.

Cold because he chose her.

Simon can scarely think. A maelstrom of rage, pain, disillusionment, loss and jealousy makes his palms clammy and beads of sweat appear on his forehead. His pulse races and he struggles to breathe. It feels like he's being choked. There's not enough air. It feels like the walls are closing in and the room is turning into a box. A coffin. And someone is nailing down the lid.

He gasps for oxygen as he goes back up the ladder. He can't just leave. He has to deal with this. Explain things to Mal. Make him listen. A bitter laugh escapes Simon's tight throat. How in the 'verse does he think he'll achieve that?

Mal's sarcastic grin flashes before his eyes and mocking words taunt him. “You rich kids! Think your life is the the only one that matters. Don't push me, boy. Lily-white and pasty all over!” In Simon's imagination Mal fires the words at him like bullets from a gun.

A gun.

The only time Simon has even seen Mal forced to hold his tongue was at gunpoint.

Suddenly it's easier to breathe.

* * * * *

COMMENTS

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 3:21 AM

RELFEXIVE


Aaaiiieee!!

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 3:51 AM

JEBBYPAL


OMG.....hope simon doesn't do anything too stupid!

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 7:09 AM

ARTSHIPS


All along you've provided novel motivations behind our heroes' behavior, and you were no less thourough and belieavable this time. The logical culmination is deliciously ominous. No less than the one-chapter-to-go thing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 8:26 AM

AMDOBELL


Well this is one rollercoaster of a bed of nails and no mistake! Poor Mal. Everybody seems to be reading him wrong except the Preacher, the one person he don't want to read him at all. Good gorram, what in the nine hells you gonna put the man through next? Very shiny, but naughty naughty River. Who would have thought such a lot of mischief could be hidden in such a little package? Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 8:59 AM

GUILDSISTER


Oh good golly gosh! I'm going to be rereading this to process the fine points (of which there were *many*), but my initial lump reaction was "Wow!"

The psychological interplay of the characters and their reactions was splendid and worked so well against the action framework you used to stress them. Pacing, excellent.

Wonderful.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 10:17 PM

GUILDSISTER


Okay... the fine points:

Right off the top, Wash with the little gun/shriveled dick comparison--funny and a touch tragic all at once.

Then his assessment of the ship's pecking order. First rate.

The jealousy play between Mal/Zoe/Wash (obviously) appealed to me ;-)

Zoe chastising Simon for being too gentle with the captain was amusing, and in character terms intriguing and probably right on.

“You – Doctor -,” Mal says with a sudden wicked grin as he taps a forefinger against Simon's chest, “Are always wantin' to get me into bed.” --LOL moment of slash homage.

I liked Wash's decision scene about the syringe and would have like even more of his reaction (hopefully in the next part).

River with Mal was all kinds of creepifying but I loved the way you pulled all the old lines in. Worked very well.

Friday, August 27, 2004 6:29 PM

GUILDSISTER


...and then there's the took-me-three-times-through to get it, spot on, had to be intentional, double entendre, choice of words:
"pecking order"
following 'collosal weapons' and 'shrivelled dick'. ROTFLMAO!

If that was not intentional and I just have a smutty mind, *please* don't tell me!


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