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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Maya. Post-BDM. Hermione and Inara are kidnapped, and Mal has to do the impossible to save them. PART I OF II
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1759 RATING: 0 SERIES: FIREFLY
New Melbourne. Stopover point for all the major planets that side of the system.
New Melbourne. Home to some of the most beautiful ocean views and pristine sandy beaches.
New Melbourne. Where every single inhabitant on the planet was involved in fish or fish-related activities.
And as soon as Serenity settled into her docking bay for a two day layover giving Kaylee a chance to buy and install a new – or rather secondhand – air scrubber, everyone knew why New Melbourne was a place people visited, not moved to. Not unless they had lost their sense of smell …
Jayne was bored. Everyone else, it seemed, had found something to do off-ship, but he didn’t have the money to go drinking, nor the inclination any more to go whoring, so he volunteered to stay behind.
River looked at him. “I thought we could just go for a walk,” she said.
Her eyes made him feel lost again. “Maybe later, darlin’,” he said, pulling her into his arms as they stood in the cargo bay. “You come back for me. ‘Sides, stinks of fish.”
“It’s New Melbourne. What did you think it would smell like?”
“You know what I think of fish.” His eyes narrowed as he glanced at Hank. “And you ain't to even consider it.”
The pilot gave him an aggrieved look, but didn’t comment.
River smiled. “I only have a few things to do. Some pretties to buy.” Her smile grew wider, and he knew exactly what pretties she was talking about. He remembered the last ones he’d virtually shredded in his haste to make love to her. He grinned.
“Well, if’n you do, make sure the ship’s locked up,” Mal ordered. “Don’t want to come back and find everything gone.”
“What’d anyone want to steal on board this?” Jayne asked, waving his hand around.
Mal ignored him. He knew the big man was bored, not having had anything to shoot at for a while, so was just trying to make an argument. He clapped his hands together instead. “So, we all ready?”
Hank nodded. “Zoe’n me are taking the little one here to the beach. Let him feel real sand.” He grinned down at his son lying in the sling around his chest.
“His name’s Ben,” Zoe pointed out. “Benjamin Malcolm Hoban Mills.”
“I know. I just ain’t got used to it yet.”
“It’s been three months.”
“You sure about the Benjamin part? I mean, I’d be just as happy with –”
“No. He wouldn’t. And Hoban’s fine as a middle name, but I’m not saddling my son with it as a first name.”
“He might like it.”
“He won’t get the chance to find out.” Zoe stroked the dark curls away from her son’s coffee-coloured forehead.
“Still don’t get why you didn’t give him Jayne as a middle name,” the big man said, squeezing River a little more tightly. “Never did me no harm.”
“I think it’s time to go,” Hank said quickly. “I think LW wants to go paddling.” He took Zoe’s hand and led her out into the New Melbourne sun.
“LW?” Mal asked Freya softly.
“Zoe said he’s been calling Ben that for a week or so. I think it’s the first time he’s done it in public, though.”
“What does it mean?”
“He’s a strange man,” Mal replied, shaking his head slightly.
“I think Wash would have approved.”
“Don’t mean he ain’t strange. And I'm surprised Zoe’s letting him get away with it.”
“I think she’s biding her time.”
He put his hand on the slight thickening at her waist. “So, thought any more about the name Daisy?”
“No, you haven’t, or no, over your dead body?”
“How about over yours?”
“What’s wrong with Daisy? That was my aunt’s name. She used to give me toffee when I was about four. Sometimes couldn’t talk for days, my jaw seemed that wired shut.” They walked out into the open air, Ethan sitting on Mal‘s hip, listening intently to their conversation. “Have some fond memories of that aunt.”
“Then what about -”
“And not that either.”
“You don’t know what I’m gonna say yet.”
“Want to bet?”
“Sometimes, being married to a psychic …” Their voices trailed away.
Kaylee scampered out of the common area, Simon and Bethany following, Hope in an identical sling around the young doctor’s chest. “Oh, have they gone already?”
“Just left,” River said. “I’m still here.”
The young mechanic smiled. “Good. You coming with us? I gotta look for that filter unit.”
River saw her brother’s eyes roll, and hid a smile. “Only if we can go to the store too. I have some purchases to make.”
“Sure,” Kaylee nodded. “Wouldn’t mind taking a look at some bits for Bethany myself. And get Hope something pretty.” She smiled at her baby girls.
“Can’t we just go to the park?” Simon asked.
“After.” She led the way out of the cargo bay.
Simon sighed and followed, Bethany skipping along next to him, Fiddler on his lead.
“Bye, Uncle Jayne,” she called.
“See ya later, short stub.” Jayne looked into River’s eyes. “Sure you wanna go? We got the whole ship to ourselves.”
She kissed him, her tongue slipping between his lips to touch and fence with his. As she drew back she smiled. “I won’t be long.” One last kiss and she hurried after the others.
Jayne sighed. “Might as well go clean Vera,” he said to himself, squeezing the bridge of his nose, trying to clear the headache he‘d had for a week now.
“That’s pretty,” Freya said, holding onto Ethan’s hand and looking into a store window.
“What?” Mal came close behind her, his body heat touching hers.
“The brooch. The one with the amber and silver mount.”
“Oh.” Mal tried to look impressed. “Yeah. Pretty.”
She elbowed him gently in the stomach. “Well, I think it is.”
“You want it?” He looked down at her. “Didn’t think you were into such fripperies.”
“I'm not.” She smiled at him. “Unless it’s the charm bracelet you gave me. Or my necklace.” She fingered the silver Firefly at her throat. “No, I was thinking about Inara’s birthday.”
“Frey, that woman’s got more jewellery than I can shake a stick at.”
“Now you know that’s not entirely true anymore. She sold a lot of it when she was going looking for her son, and I don’t think she’s replaced hardly any.” She leaned into him a little. “I just thought it would be rather nice.”
He sighed. “Am I going to be buying it?”
“I just said it looked pretty.”
“And that means …?”
“That it’s pretty. And something to bear in mind.”
“Then I don’t get to be poor today?”
“What, big feller?” Mal looked down at his son.
Mal laughed and went down onto his heels. “It’s not that long since breakfast.”
Mal glanced up at his wife. “You sure he’s not Simon’s? Only I seem to recall Bethany being hungry all the time.”
“He’s a growing boy, and Simon and I were careful.”
He grinned, standing up. “One day I might be believing you about things like that.”
“Oh? And when would that be?” She stepped closer to him, inhaling his scent of soap and leather and finding it soothing.
“When hell freezes over.”
“Well, it is getting a little cold –“
Mal pulled her into him and kissed her just to shut her up. Well, maybe not just for that.
“Daddy?” Ethan said, tugging on his pants leg. “Hungry.”
Mal looked down at his son. “When’s he gonna get a bit more … talky? You know, using verbs and the like? I mean, I know he understands most of what we say, but shouldn’t he be making up proper sentences?”
Freya laughed. Up until recently it had been her worrying Ethan was advancing quickly enough, and now Mal was guilty of it too. “I think he gets his message across okay.”
“Oh, I wasn’t saying that. Just –”
Ben’s eyes were wide. He still couldn’t see that well, but it was enough to know that in front of him was an expanse of water so much bigger than his bath, and beneath his bottom was something gritty that smelled odd. He patted experimentally. Seemed to give a bit, too. This could take some getting used to.
“So are you going to marry me?” Hank asked, leaning back onto one elbow.
“Why do you want to get married?” Zoe asked, wiping at the drool on Ben’s chin. “Aren’t we okay as we are?” She shifted her son a little so he was leaning in the crook of her leg and unable to roll over backwards.
“Well, Mal’s been giving me those looks again, and Jayne made some comment about us living in sin and never getting into heaven and … I just want to marry you. I want to be able to say that you’re my wife.”
He stared at her. “Okay?”
“Okay. Only you’d better do something about it now, or I might change my mind.”
He jumped to his feet. “Well, I did happen to see a chapel on our way here …”
She lay back, her dark hair a magnificent contrast to the yellow sand. “Don’t you want the whole crew to be there?”
Squatting down he gazed into her eyes. “I want to marry you. Now. This minute. We can do something later for everyone else, but … please?”
“I'm not dressed for a wedding.”
“You look beautiful,” he assured her, looking her up and down, the soft brown top, her pants and boots. “Perfect wedding apparel.”
She laughed. “You’re crazy.”
“For you. Crazy for you.” He touched her cheek. “Well? What do you say?”
“The captain’ll be mad if we don’t invite him.”
Hank looked around the beach. “Is he here? I mean, if we come across him on the way, he can be a witness, but … Zoe, I don’t want you to change your mind.”
She sat up, her hand cupping his face. “I won’t. I've said yes. I will marry you. Not here, not in a place that smells so much of fish that I want to throw up half the time. But I will marry you. Soon.”
“Then I can make arrangements?” He sat back down again, scuttling as close as he could.
“Somewhere nice. Green.”
“Definitely not fishy.”
“Boros, maybe? Like Mal and Freya?”
“Maybe. Although somewhere different could be nice too.”
“Have to tell Inara. Make Mal swing by and pick her up. She’d be livid if she wasn't there.”
“And if we’d gone with your original plan she wouldn’t have been.”
“That’s different. It would have been our secret.”
“And you’d’ve like it that way?”
Hank managed to look like a little boy. “Well, it might have been fun.”
“It will be. With our family there.”
“I guess.” He reached down and tugged off his boot, pulling the sock with it.
“What are you doing?”
“Well, in celebration of this remarkable day, I'm going paddling.” The other boot followed, and he rolled the legs of his pants up.
Zoe laughed. “Paddling?”
“With my son.”
“And what happens if you fall in?”
“Then you’ll come and rescue me, like always.” He grinned and stood up, lifting Ben into his arms. “Come on, LW. Time for you to see what the ocean feels like.”
Zoe watched as they walked down to the water’s edge, and her fiancé dipped a toe in. Apparently finding it satisfactory, he waded in until the water was above his ankles.
“No,” she said to herself. “You’re the one who rescued me.”
Kaylee jumped up the ramp and ran through the bay towards their quarters. Hurrying into Bethany’s room she grabbed a clean pair of panties and a little dress.
“What’re you doing back here?” Jayne asked, leaning in the doorway.
Kaylee turned to stare at him. “Oh, you made me jump.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare ya. Thought you were out.”
“We were. We are,” Kaylee amended quickly. “Only Bethany had a slight accident.”
“What’d she do?”
“We were having a break after buying the new filter, and Bethie knocked a whole jug of orange squash over herself.”
Jayne smiled. “Messy?”
“Very. Simon’s trying to clean her up a little, but I said I’d come back, get a change of clothes.” She looked at the big man. “You okay?” He had faint lines across his forehead, and a dent between his eyebrows.
“Just a headache,” he said, waving it away. “Ain’t nothing.”
“You should get Simon to look at it. Give you something.” She smiled at him as she walked past, back towards the cargo bay.
He followed her. “Ain’t that bad.”
“Is that why you didn’t want to come with us?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Bit.” He looked at her, how she’d become a really lovely woman in the years since they’d first met. It reminded him of what he’d wanted to talk to her about. “Kaylee …”
Her pocket began to buzz. “Hang on,” she said, pulling a small square out of her coverall.
“What’s that?” Jayne asked.
“Rigged it so we’d know if there was an urgent wave.” She shrugged and smiled. “Just an idea I had, but it never …”
“You gonna see who it is?”
She bit her lip. “Maybe I should. I mean, this was set to pick up really important stuff, you know, marked as top priority, and with the Cap not here …”
He smiled, despite the ache in his head. “Better go see then.”
She grinned and scampered up the stairs. He followed at a slower pace, and as he reached the bridge she had already activated the vid. It flared into life.
“Kaylee?” Inara’s face was white, even on the screen.
“’Nara? What is it?”
“Oh, thank Buddha. Where’s Mal?”
“He’s out. We’re on New Melbourne, and it’s –“
“You need to find him. Now.”
“What is it?” Kaylee asked again, getting more than just concerned.
“It’s Hermione. She’s disappeared.”
Mal glared into the screen. “What do you mean, disappeared?”
“She went riding. Yesterday.”
“’Nara, there’s four feet of snow –“
“There was a thaw. A lot of it had gone. And she knew she wasn't supposed to, but … everyone was arguing, being cooped up so much, and … I think it got too much for her.” She took a calming breath. “Mrs Boden said she took some food and a flask with her, and said she’d be back for dinner. Mrs Boden just thought she was going for a walk, to read by the lake … then we found one of the horses had gone too.”
“Of course!” There was anger in her tone. “Did you think we wouldn’t?”
Mal took a deep breath and pushed his own raging concern back down. “I know you did.”
“That’s why I waited, not calling you last night. I hoped … run tse de fuo tzoo … I hoped she’d be back by morning, but … Oh, Mal, I …” She almost broke down, there and then, in front of him. “I'm so worried. There was a heavy frost last night, and if she’s hurt …” She closed her eyes, attempting to take back control. “Mr Boden is still out there with the search party. But there’s so many places she could have hidden when it got dark …”
“What about the horse? You found that?”
“Then she could be riding back into the corral as we speak.”
Inara glanced off screen, probably out of the window. “She isn’t.”
“We’re heading for you now. It’ll still take a while, so soon as you hear anything, you wave, dong mah?”
“Of course I will. And thank you.”
“Ain't no need to thank me. That little girl is my responsibility.”
“And mine. And I've failed.”
“She ain't dead yet, Inara. And we’ll be there soon as we can.” Without waiting for her to respond he switched the vid off.
Freya put her hand on his shoulder. “Mal …”
“Call ‘em all back,” he said, standing quickly. “And get Serenity ready to go. I don’t know if you’re rubbing off on me, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” He shook his head and walked off the bridge.
Freya sat down and began the pre-flight sequence, admitting to herself that she knew what he meant.
Kaylee hadn’t told Bethany why they were leaving so quickly, but she’d picked it up easily enough. As Serenity took off, Hank back at the helm, she was sitting on her bed, holding her Ethan doll.
“Are you trying to find her?” Freya asked softly from the doorway.
Bethany nodded, afraid she was going to be told off. “’Es.”
“It’s okay. Your Auntie River and me are looking too.”
Bethie looked puzzled. “Fuzzy.”
Freya sat down on the edge of the bed. “That’s all I get too. As if she isn’t really there.”
“I don’t know, Bethie,” Freya admitted. “Maybe she’s hurt, or asleep, or … unconscious.”
“She’s my friend.”
“I know, honey.” She stroked the little girl’s long brown hair. “We’ll find her. You know that. Your Uncle Mal won’t let anything happen to her.”
Mal leaned into the engine room, seeing his mechanic lying under the furthest piece of machinery. “The air scrubber gonna stay in one piece?”
Kaylee wasn’t surprised to hear his voice. “We should be okay for a while, Cap. Maybe five days.” She rolled out on her platform and looked up at him. “Any longer’n we’re gonna have to land so I can take the environmental controls apart to fix in the new one.”
“Three days to Lazarus, then God knows where. Might need more time, mei-mei.”
“If I can run the EC at half, maybe lower the temp a few degrees, ‘specially at night … might make it nearer six.”
“Do it. I think we can put up with it being a mite cold for a while.”
“Air might get a bit thick after a while.”
“Wasn’t planning on doing anything more strenuous than breathing, Kaylee.”
“I was thinking more of the children.”
“Then we put them in one of the shuttles soon as it gets anywhere close to bad. They’ve got their own controls. And Frey can sleep in there with them. Ain't having her inconvenienced, not in her condition.”
She smiled at him. “Always looking out for us, captain.”
“Well, I wasn’t looking hard enough this time.” He managed a lift to his lips but it was half-hearted, and there was a tension in his shoulders as he walked back towards the bridge.
“I'm not hungry,” River said, pushing her plate away.
“You’ve gotta eat,” Jayne said, pulling it back. “Ain’t like there’s any kinda alternative here, River.”
“If I was hungry I’d eat,” she pointed out, putting her finger on the edge and sliding it across the old wood. “I'm not, so I won’t.”
“Gorramit, River!” Jayne’s raised voice echoed through the galley. “You damn well eat!” He picked up the plate and slammed it down in front of her. If it had been a china one it would have broken: as it was metal the only damage was the bread skittering off onto the floor.
There was silence from the rest of the crew.
Mal leaned forward. “Jayne, if she don’t want to eat, you can’t –“
“Stay outta this, Mal,” the big man growled, not taking his eyes off the young woman at his side.
“You seem to be forgetting who’s the captain here.” Mal’s voice had lowered a degree.
“Not forgetting. Just saying it ain't any of your business.” He still glared at River.
“Jayne, Mal’s right,” Simon put in, not sure who he felt most concern for, whether it be River for Jayne almost threatening her in front of them, or Jayne who could just end up with a knife in his ribs. “As much as she should eat, it –“
Jayne turned on him, standing up fast and hard. “Wang xiang tai, don’t anyone ever listen?” he shouted. “This ain't your affair!”
“Jayne –“ Mal was about to order him to sit down, but River shook her head very slightly.
She stood up, taking her plate in one hand and picking up the bread from the floor with the other. “Very well,” she said, her voice calm, collected. “But not here.” She walked out of the galley, her dress floating around her bare legs, not even glancing back.
Jayne watched her go, then strode out the other way, his boots ringing on the decking.
“What’s gotten into him?” Hank asked in the ensuing silence. “Not at all like our own cuddly little mercenary at the moment.”
Zoe put her hand on his arm to stop him. “Not right now, dear,” she said.
“No, Hank’s right,” Kaylee said. “What has gotten into him?”
Mal glanced at Freya and she nodded. “Better find out.” He got to his feet and followed the big man. Freya went the other way.
“They checking up on ‘em?” Kaylee asked, looking at Zoe.
“I think so.”
Simon sat still, staring at his own plate. He had the feeling things were not going to get better any time soon.
“Hold up there,” Mal said, hearing the mercenary crashing his weights together as he loaded a barbell. “You care to enlighten me as to what that was all about?”
“Nope.” Jayne laid down on his bench and tightened the straps on his gloves.
“Wasn't a request, Jayne.” Mal walked slowly down the stairs.
“And I ain’t talking. Man’s got to exercise, else he dies.” He lifted the bar, feeling the strain across his biceps, and knew he should have warmed up first.
Mal crossed the bay floor and stood behind him, spotting him, ready to help if he needed it. “Kinda think you’re more like to kill yourself doing this right now.”
Jayne let the bar clatter back into its cradle. “Gorramit, Mal, why can’t you leave me alone?” He sat up, his back to the captain.
“Oh, not much of a reason beyond I’m feeling curious as to why you took it into your head to shout at that little girl.”
“You ain't her father!” Jayne rubbed at his forehead.
“No, I'm not. But you’re her … her lover, and she don’t deserve that.”
Jayne exhaled heavily. “No, I know,” he admitted, slumping a little.
“So why did you?”
“I don’t know, Mal. Just … things on my mind.”
“Mal, they ain't anything to do with you.”
“They are if they stop you doing your job. And the way you were acting just now, I'm not sure I could risk taking you anyplace.”
Jayne stood up. “Look, I’m just worried about the squirt’s friend, okay? Nothing else.” He pulled at one of his gloves. “Now I’d appreciate being given a little alone time.”
Mal stood for a moment longer, then nodded. “Fine. When you’re ready, you know where I am.”
River had cut her food into tiny pieces, picking each one up individually as Freya watched, chewing and swallowing before taking the next.
“You don’t have to,” she said from the doorway.
“Jayne wanted me to eat.”
“Do you do everything Jayne wants?”
“Do you do everything Mal wants?” River countered.
Freya smiled. “No.”
“Good.” River pushed the plate away. “It won’t hurt to go without a meal.”
Freya crossed the shuttle and sat down next to her. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Right. So it’s usual for him to shout at you in front of everyone.”
“It isn’t usual for him to shout at me at all.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’re all on edge, River. The news about Hermione … we’re all worried.”
“I don’t think it’s just that.” She shook her head. “I’ll find out.”
“You could always …” Freya tapped her temple.
“You’re telling me to peek?” River managed to look so shocked that the other woman laughed.
“Okay, maybe not. But this isn’t like him.”
“I will find out.”
“Do you need any help? I mean, I could probably hold him down long enough for you to tie him up …”
River smiled. “Not yet. But I might call on you later, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind. I doubt he’d hit a pregnant woman.”
A corridor, extending into infinity either side, doors evenly spaced all the way along into the darkness. She stands in front of another, this one a single solid grey, almost like a bank of fog held in place by … nothing. No handle, no entry plate, just a gray rectangle flush with the candy striped wallpaper. She reaches forward to touch it, but recoils before her fingers come into contact with it, knowing it will be slimy, the feel of death under her skin, ready to erupt into corruption.
She is unsure what to do, whether to try one of the others, to search for some other way in, but the door in front of her has melted, a thick ooze on the floor that seeps towards her feet. She wants to step back, but she can’t, and it envelops her bare toes, warm and the consistency of newly spilled blood.
She looks up, into the room. Bright white light, white walls and ceiling, stained with splashes of something brown, and she is inside. The smell hits, like a thousand dead animals piled high, and she gags, wanting to be sick but unable to do anything but bite it back. She hears before she sees. The sound of something swishing through the air, cutting the molecules into atoms before slicing wetly into flesh. Whimpers begging forgiveness. Forgiveness only coming at the point of a knife.
Blinded by the light she peers, shielding her face, then it is there, in front of her, lit by the stark white glare.
The whimpers are become screams, pulling and twisting away in the chains hanging from the ceiling, as skin parts and blood flows down perfect pale skin marred by a thousand unimaginable violations.
She can’t see the man committing these atrocities, only the victim, and as she spins in the restraints her face is coming into view …
Freya sat up in bed, sweat streaming down her skin, her throat constricted. For a long moment she just stared into the darkness, trying to will her heart to slow down. She felt like she’d run a mile instead of just had a bad … a really bad dream. She looked down at Mal lying next to her, not wanting to wake him but needing to know he was there, all the same. She put her hand by his lips, his breath soothing her.
Something brushed at her mind, and she heard a soft whimpering close by. Getting up carefully, she walked through into the nursery.
“What is it?” she asked softly, seeing Ethan all hunched up at one end of the bed. She went to sit down, but the look in his blue eyes as he stared at her made her stop and lift the covers away instead. “Oh, honey, it’s all right,” she said, reaching out for him.
As she picked him up he wrapped his arms and legs around her, and she could feel the wetness in his pyjama bottoms.
“Sorry, Momma,” he whispered, hiding his face in her shoulder.
“It’s okay,” she said, just holding him, swinging her body just a little to let him feel the soothing rhythm.
“What’s up?” Mal asked, leaning on the door jamb, rubbing at his face with his other hand.
“Didn’t mean to wake you,” she said, turning so he could see Ethan holding on tightly. She nodded down towards the bed. “He had an accident.”
Mal looked down at the damp patch on the sheet. “Ah.” He crossed to his wife and son and put his arm around them both. “’S okay, big feller. Happens sometimes.”
“It’s been weeks,” Freya murmured.
“And it don’t matter.” He lifted Ethan’s face so he could look into his eyes. “You hear me? It doesn’t matter. Just happens.”
Ethan nodded, but put his head back.
“Any idea what caused it?” Mal asked softly.
“I think he might have picked up on a dream I was having,” Freya said.
“Thought you said he wasn't psychic?”
“He isn’t. But all children can pick up on things sometimes.”
“This gonna happen on a regular basis?”
“I hope not.” For me either, she added directly into his mind.
Was it really that bad?
They heard the hatch open.
“What is it, River?”
The young woman descended the ladder, an armful of fresh bedding held against her. “I thought this might be needed.”
Frey nodded. “Thanks.”
River walked into the nursery, totally unmindful of the naked state of the two adults. “Do you want me to do it?” she asked, stripping the wet sheets off the bed.
“No, I think he can sleep with us tonight,” Mal said. “But thanks.”
“He’s drifted off already,” Freya confirmed, feeling the weight of him on her hip.
“Then I’ll just take these to the laundry and go back to bed.” River bundled up the linen.
“River –“ Mal began, wanting to know why she was up, but she interrupted.
“Yes. I saw it too. And I think Bethie did as well. She’s in with Kaylee and Simon.”
“I'm sorry,” Freya said.
“Not your fault. It came from out there.” She looked towards the bulkhead, her eyes seeming to see a lot further than the hull of the ship.
“You saying it was real?” Mal asked.
River shrugged. “Or a fear it would be.” She turned her dark eyes on him. “I don’t know.” Heading for the ladder, she began to climb. “But it hurt.”
As the hatch closed with a dull thud, Mal looked back at Freya. “What did you see?”
She walked past him to their bed, settling back onto the pillows. “A girl,” she said. “In pain. Bleeding. A man. Hurting her.”
“Girl?” Mal swallowed. “Hermione?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t see her face, just the blood.” She closed her eyes, hugging her son to her.
Mal hurried to her side, holding her. “It’s okay, Frey. It’s okay.”
“I'm not sure it is,” she whispered.
It took them three days to get back to Lazarus, three days of tension during which Jayne and River hardly spoke, Freya was plagued by nightmares every time she managed to sleep, even with the benefit of one of Simon’s hypos, and everyone was wound tighter than a watch spring. The increasingly stale air did nothing to improve matters.
The moment Serenity landed as the sun was setting, Mal ran to the house, Freya, Zoe and Jayne at his heels, and found the news had got no better. In fact, it got a lot worse.
“Why didn’t you wave me?” Mal said, glaring at Inara accusingly. They were standing in her yellow drawing room, and Mal hadn’t even taken the time to get his coat off before launching into Inara.
“I didn’t want to worry you.”
“Want to … woman, you think I ain't worried already?”
“More than you are, then.”
“Two other girls …”
“One from a neighbouring estate, and the other from the town. A bit older than Hermione but still … Oh, Mal, they’re so young.”
“It might be coincidence.”
“I don’t …” Inara took a deep breath. “They found the horse yesterday. The one Hermione was riding. In a ravine about twenty miles from here.”
Mal went pale. “Did they … Was she …”
“No. She wasn't there.” She put her hand on his arm. “It had been shot.”
“The horse. It … they told me it was a mess from the fall, but … someone shot him. Through the head.”
“Wo de tyen, ah.”
“Mal, three girls. If Hermione was taken by force, and the other two …” Inara rolled her hands round each other. “You know what that means.”
Mal shook his head firmly. “No. No, it ain't necessarily the case.”
“I read the Cortex as much as anyone else, Mal. Three girls. All taken at the same time, all later found dead.” Her voice caught.
“It might not be him.”
“The Monster, Mal.”
“I said it might not be him!”
“Can you think of another reason?”
“Mal,” Freya murmured, and he closed his eyes as he tried to calm himself down. Jayne took the opportunity to duck back out of the room.
“I’m sorry, ‘Nara,” Mal said eventually. “I know what you’re saying, but I don’t want it to be him, ‘cause if it is I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding her alive.”
Inara‘s face went white. “Mal …”
“The Alliance have been searching for this psycho for something like three years. And that’s just the ones we’ve heard of. He could’ve been doing this for decades, and just began getting sloppy.” His words were cutting into her. “If they can’t find him …”
“Mal, they haven’t been able to find Simon or River either.”
“Yeah, but that pair ain’t torturing and killing girls across the system.” He strode out, needing to do something, anything to keep from punching the wall.
Zoe looked at Inara. “What landed here in the last few days?” she asked.
“Nothing,” the ex-Companion said. “At least nothing official. I contacted Port Control and they said there’d been no requests for landing clearance in the past week.”
“And those that left?”
“Zoe, do you think I haven’t considered that?” Inara sat down on her sofa. “Nothing’s come or gone. If Hermione has been taken off-world then it’s by something that landed surreptitiously.”
“Well, they’re not going to announce it.” Zoe joined her. “Is there anything you can tell me? Anything that might help us? Perhaps the other families?”
Inara shook her head. “I talked to them as soon as I found out. They’re frantic, of course, but they don’t know anything more than I do. She’s missing. That’s all I know.” Tears began to slip down her cheeks. “Zoe, he’ll never forgive me if anything happens to her.”
Serenity’s first mate didn’t have to even take a second to wonder who she meant. “He won’t forgive himself.” She put her arms around Inara and let her take comfort from the human contact.
Freya stood at the window and looked out at her husband, standing staring into nothing. She turned and slipped out, unnoticed by Inara. Zoe watched her go with unblinking eyes.
“Hank, I’m gonna be needing access to the Cortex for a while from the shuttle,” Jayne said, standing in the doorway to the bridge.
“Sure, no problem.” He looked the big man up and down. “You okay? Only you look kinda … grey.”
“Just make sure I don’t get interrupted, dong mah?” He went back down the steps, his feet heavy.
“Let me know when you’re through,” Hank called, then went back to looking out of the bridge windows.
Mal was staring into the sunset, his eyes not moving.
“It’s not your fault,” she said, stepping closer to him.
“How d’you figure that?” he asked, his voice low, warning. “I brought ‘em here.”
“And I suggested it. Are you going to blame me?”
“Never said I did!” It was a flash of anger, but at least it was something.
“So it’s okay for you to blame yourself, when by extension I was the first cause?”
“Frey …” His voice had lowered further.
“You think nobody else can possibly feel guilty? Only Captain Malcolm Reynolds?” She hadn’t intended to get like this, but seeing him here, taking it all onto his shoulders, was more than she could bear.
“I shouldn’t’ve taken ‘em on at all!” He turned on her, his blue eyes dark in the light, but she knew they were spitting fire. “Had me a choice back on Mead, and I did the wrong thing! Again! And now people’re hurt … maybe dying because of me!”
“We don’t know that, Mal.”
“Three girls, Frey? Three? You know who takes ‘em in threes. Who tortures, rapes and kills ‘em? In threes?”
“And you stand there and say it ain't my fault?”
“We’ll find her, Mal. Everyone’s doing what they can, and we’ll –“
“How?” He took a step towards her, his fists balling. “I ain't got a notion where to even begin looking.”
“And hitting me will help?” She lifted her chin, daring him to even consider it.
“I ain't never hit you!” Now the anger was brighter, more flaring.
She looked down at his hands. “I know.” She gazed back into his eyes. “Don’t start.” She walked away from him into the dusk.
He stared after her, then dropped his head. Damn it, she was right. His fists were clenched so tightly that he could feel his nails digging into his palm.
“Cletus, you owe me.”
The man on the screen scowled. “What, ‘cause you punched me that time?”
“Didn’t shoot ya.”
“Broke my nose.”
“And Marco would’ve killed you stoney dead, you know that. I did you a favour.”
“Jayne, you’re the ‘orneriest son of a bitch I ever met.”
Cletus thought for a moment. “I’ll see. Ain't promising nothing, but I’ll put a few feelers out. See what comes back.”
“I’d be grateful.”
“What makes you think we can find out when the almighty Alliance can’t?”
“’Cause we’re bastards.”
Cletus nodded. “Oh, that we are. But not like that hwoon dahn.”
“Not quite.” He switched the vid off and leaned back, his eyes closed. Taking a breath to try and calm the beating in his skull, he thought back over the markers he’d called in. Done what he could, he knew that. Just didn’t seem enough.
He stiffened as he felt slim, cool hands press against his forehead.
“You can’t do anything more,” River said, standing close enough he could feel her breath in his hair.
“That kid … always thought she was okay. And Bethie sure took to her. But Mal’s right. If’n it is that creep, he’s too gorram good at hiding.” He shook his head. “’N’ it’s more’n likely he’s gonna get away with it again.”
“Someone knows something.” She stroked his skin. “And the people you know keep their ears to the ground.”
“Don’t have far to do that,” Jayne agreed, then grunted as a wave of low grade pain flashed through his head.
“You have to see Simon.”
“I'm fine. Just the air in here.”
She stepped to the side and held out her hand. “Then I think we should go for a walk.”
“You wanna walk with me? After the way I've been treatin’ ya?”
“You’re my Jayne. You’re a man.”
“Ya think that answers it?”
“Freya told me you’d be doing stupid things sometimes.”
He managed a smile. “Yeah, think she’s right about that.”
“Besides, you’re not the only one.”
“Oh? Who’s behaving like a lu zi now?”
The smile widened. “She likely to do him some harm?”
“Can we watch?”
Mal had spent a fruitless half hour searching for Freya, finally telling himself that she’d come home when she wanted, and maybe she should be the one doing the apologising. His inner captain was telling him not to be so yu ai, but he wasn't listening. He took one more look around the passenger dorm then headed up to the kitchen.
Kaylee heard him coming, recognising with a sense of foreboding the heaviness in his steps.
“Cap’n, I think we’d better all sleep in the house tonight.” She stepped out of the engine room and followed Mal into the galley.
“I ain't taking the scrubber apart, ‘cause I know soon as you find out anything you’ll want us to get going, but if I can take it right down, maybe leave the doors open to flush out everything tonight, might give us an extra day.”
“You think I’m gonna figure out where they’ve taken Hermione?”
“Course you will.”
Her belief thinned the darkness surrounding him for a moment. “You always look on the bright side,” he said, shaking his head a little. “How can you do that?”
“I know you. You ain't gonna stop until you find Hermione, and those other girls.”
“Who told –“
“Zoe. She came back for Ben, told us what happened.” She put her hand on his arm. “Ain't your fault.”
He could feel the warmth of her skin through his coat. “You know that ain't gonna help.”
“Oh, I know that. But if people say it often enough, you might actually start considering it’s true.”
“Maybe.” He smiled a little, just a lift to his lips.
“Well, if you’re okay with it, I’ll turn the controls right down. It’ll be cold when we come back on board, but at least the air’ll be clear.”
“Good. Yeah, that’s good.” He watched her head back into her domain, then asked, hesitantly, “Kaylee, have you seen Freya?”
“Nope. Not for a while.” She turned around sharply. “You don’t think –“
“No. I just … if you see her, tell her …” He stopped.
“Tell her what?”
“Nothing. Just that we’ll be sleeping at Inara’s tonight.”
Mrs Boden set up the dining room for them all, laying on a meal that normally would have meant clean plates and good conversation. Not this time, though. No-one quite knew what to say, what to talk about that wouldn’t make things worse than they were. The other Reilly girls had elected to stay in their rooms, which was one blessing, but it didn’t help.
Even Jayne, who usually didn’t let anything phase him when it came to food, couldn’t do more than pick at the meal. At least Freya had turned up, but hadn’t said half a dozen words, nor eaten much either.
“I’ll have to apologise to Mrs Boden,” Inara said finally, sitting back. “I'm sure she can put the leftovers to good use, but …”
“Yeah, sorry, ‘Nara,” Kaylee said, dragging a smile out of nowhere. “Hate to see even bad food go to waste myself, but I guess we’ve all got other things on our minds.”
“Other things,” Mal agreed distantly, watching his wife out of the corner of his eye.
“I think the search parties are scaling down,” Inara went on. “Mr Boden said the authorities told them not to come back tomorrow.”
“I suppose they’ve run out of places to look,” Simon suggested.
“Our local sheriff is a good man, but … he’ll keep looking, asking questions.”
“Might find something,” Kaylee added.
There was a long silence.
“I'm going to put Ethan down,” Freya said, getting up and lifting her son onto her hip. “Can he sleep in with you tonight, Bethie?”
The little girl nodded. “No bad dreams,” she said, but whether that was a command or a statement wasn’t clear.
Freya nodded. “No bad dreams.” She held out her hand. “Do you want to help me get him ready?”
Bethany glanced at her mother, who nodded, then slid from her chair.
“Good idea,” Kaylee agreed. “Good night’s sleep and we maybe can get our heads together and come up with a plan.”
“You think we can do that, little Kaylee?” Mal asked, watching his wife take Ethan out of the room, Bethany holding tight.
“We all know, Cap’n.”
His eyes hardened. “What is it that you think you all know?”
“You and Frey. Come on, it’s pretty plain.”
“Mal, whatever you’ve done you need to apologise,” Inara put in. “She’s pregnant, and this tension isn’t doing her any good.”
“Why can’t it be something she’s done?”
“Because we know you, sir,” Zoe said.
He glared at her, then at the rest of his crew. Eventually he threw his napkin down onto the table. “I'm worried about Hermione, that’s all. And … maybe I did snap at Frey. And I'm going to apologise. Okay?” He dared anyone to disagree.
“No time like the present,” Hank said as cheerfully as he could manage.
“And Inara’s right,” Simon put in. “What with the air on board Serenity, and all of this, I might have to order Freya to take complete bed rest. And you know what that does for her disposition.”
Mal stood up. “Okay, I'm going. But not because of any of you. Dong mah?”
“Course, Cap’n,” Kaylee said. “Never thought it was.”
Freya closed the door of Bethany’s room, having been told in no uncertain terms that she, Bethie, would read Ethan a bedtime story until he fell asleep so there was no need to stay.
As she turned she found Mal standing facing her.
“I … uh … ran you a bath.”
If she was surprised she didn’t show it. “Oh. Thanks.”
“Thought it might be … yeah … relaxing.”
“Okay.” He nodded. “Good.” The nodding continued, reminding her of those Geishas they’d smuggled a couple of times. “I … there’s some of that bath salt in there too. ‘Nara said you … well, that you could use it.”
He nodded again, and turned away.
She sighed, wishing they could just …
“Frey.” He couldn’t look at her.
“Yes?” Her heart started to beat faster.
“I’ve never hit you.”
“I never will.”
“You just make me so …”
“You make me look at myself, and sometimes I don’t like what I see,” he admitted.
“No. Don’t be. Without you my reflection would be black.”
“Can’t have that.”
He turned slowly to face her again, and his eyes were gentle. “I'm sorry, ai ren.”
“My xiao er ke behaviour.”
She felt some of the tension leave her body. “Oh, I wouldn’t say you were being particularly childish.”
“Well, maybe a little bit, perhaps.”
He dropped his head, a smile forming on his lips. “So, we’re not gonna break one of our own rules?”
“Which one is that?”
He looked up from under his eyebrows. “Going to bed mad.”
“It’s not a good idea, you know.”
“Nope. Best we get it all out in the open and dealt with, then we can sleep easy.”
“Out in the open.”
“Yeah. Like you agreeing I'm an idiot and me apologising.”
She gazed at him for a long moment, then walked towards him, into his arms. He kissed her fervently, holding on as if he was drowning.
“Oh, Mal …” she whispered into his mouth.
“Forgiven me?” he asked, looking into her brown eyes.
“How about we both use that bath and I decide after?”
He smiled. “Sounds like a plan.”
“Honey?” Hank sat up in bed, feeling the sheets empty next to him.
“I’m here,” Zoe said. “Just changing Ben.”
He rubbed his eyes and managed to focus. “He okay?”
“He’s fine.” She dropped the soiled nappy into the bucket waiting ready and pulled a wipe from the pack.
“What time is it?”
“About seven. Early. Sun‘s not up yet.”
“Did he sleep all the way through?”
Zoe nodded, smiling. “That he did.”
“Hey, he’s getting better.”
“He’s a good boy.” Zoe slid the clean diaper under her son, humming softly, something Hank didn’t recognise.
“How did you sleep?” he asked.
“Only I seem to recall you having some bad dreams.”
“Sleeping in a different bed does that to me.” She pulled the tapes closed and picked Ben up.
“Yeah. Me too.”
She looked at him. “Bad dreams?”
“Some.” He shook his head. “I hate this waiting. I know I’m not exactly your action type man, but … I need to be doing something.”
“I don’t know. Maybe … maybe figuring out where they might have taken her.”
“Do you think you can?”
“I don’t know.” He pushed the covers back and stood up. “But I know I ain’t gonna be able to get back to sleep.”
“You okay?” Mal asked, looking down into his wife’s eyes as she opened them on him.
“What?” She blinked.
“Only you seemed to be dreaming.”
“Oh.” She lifted a hand and ran it through her hair. “Yes, I think so.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Frey, you’re lying to me again.”
She was about to make a sharp retort, but the love in his eyes made her stop. “Yes. Bad.”
“Frey, I don’t think any of us had any good dreams this time around. It ain’t your fault.”
“I just wish …”
“Yeah.” He tightened his grip on her.
“Do you think it’s worth talking to Badger? I mean, if it was slavers, he might be able to … well, maybe point us in the right direction.”
“Already put in a wave. And to more’n a handful of others.”
His voice sounded so dispirited that she put her hand on his chest and gazed into his blue eyes. “It might not be him.”
“You really think that? Frey, in your heart of hearts, can you honestly tell me you don’t think it’s this Monster who took Hermione?”
“I’m gonna get some breakfast,” he said, letting her go and standing up. “Didn’t exactly eat much last night, and if we’re gonna have any chance of finding that girl, we need to keep our strength up.”
She nodded, wishing he felt as confident as he made himself sound.
Jayne struggled awake, the beeping on the bedside table biting into his brain. He opened his eyes and finally focussed on Kaylee’s Cortex alarm. He’d set it to pick up any messages sent to him, and it looked like someone had responded. Throwing back the covers he dressed quickly, knowing River was awake and watching him.
“Gotta go back to the ship,” he said, pulling his boots on, hearing the sound of movement from other rooms.
“I don’t know. Might just be someone telling me there ain't no news, but …”
He grabbed his jacket, shrugging into it. “You stay in bed. No point in us both getting cold.”
River watched him leave, biting the skin on the side of her thumb.
Bethany felt the house waking up, people moving about, pots and pans in the kitchen being got ready to feed all the guests. She didn’t want food. She didn’t want breakfast. She wanted her friend, and all she could feel was the grey fog and the worry and tension from her family. It hurt. She tried not to peek but it hurt so much she couldn’t stop it. She hugged her green rabbit tightly, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Outside in the clean, frosty air, Jayne took a deep breath. They might not be sleeping on board Serenity, but he still felt like he was fogged up. Glancing around he could see the trees starting to take shape, and realised the sun would soon be up. From the look of the stars overhead it’d probably be one of those days he used to enjoy when he was a kid, all bright and brittle, when the ‘verse was full of possibilities.
Shaking his head he started towards the Firefly, but each step seemed such an effort that he was only half way there before he had to stop, leaning against one of the trees. He closed his eyes, wishing the damn headache would go away long enough so that he could actually get something done. Maybe River was right and he needed to see Simon.
Leaning down he grabbed a handful of the snow that remained, feeling it crunch in his fingers from the frost, and rubbed it across his face. The chill at least woke him up a little, particularly as small bits slithered down his neck and inside his jacket, leaving cold trails down his skin. Quickly running the remains through his hair he shook his head, and stood straight. Qingwa cao de liumang, but he was Jayne Cobb, and he could do this. He strode towards the bulk of the ship.
Inside the air was cold, with little discernible difference, and the lighting had been dimmed to virtually nothing, but he found his way up the stairs to the shuttle, slipping inside and to the small bridge. Lowering his bulk into the chair he activated the Cortex link.
Cletus MacKenzie’s ugly face filled the screen. “Jayne, where the hell’ve you been?”
“Sleeping. What’ve ya got?”
“You didn’t sleep well,” Kaylee said, snuggling against her husband. “Tossing and turning most of the night.”
“I hope Inara’s wrong.”
“Me too. The Cap’n thinks she ain’t.” She shivered. “What makes a man be like that? Want to hurt people, do things like … why’d he wanna?”
“There’s no one reason. Perhaps he was abused as a child. Abused children can turn into abusive adults if they’re not counselled, or the abuse goes unnoticed.”
“But that makes like it ain’t their fault.”
“No-one has to hurt anyone else. There are few really psychotic people in the ‘verse, Kaylee. Those who have no choice. The vast majority don’t have to let their … their dark side out. They do it because they want to, because it gives them pleasure. And unfortunately there are more who know what’s going on but just let it happen.”
“You know about this kinda thing?”
He nodded slowly. “It was part of my rotation in the psychiatric ward. There was a man there who fit the profile exactly. He’d been sexually abused by his own father, his mother knew but did nothing, and he grew up wanting to hurt. He …”
“Go on,” Kaylee urged. “I know you think I can’t take it, but I can.”
“I know, bao bei.” Simon exhaled slowly. “He took it out on little boys. Locked them in a cupboard, kept them hungry and thirsty, assaulted them before … before leaving them to die.”
“But he came in. Gave himself up of his own free will. He made that choice, Kaylee. He knew he was doing wrong, even while he was doing it. And finally a part of him wouldn’t let it happen anymore, and he walked into the local Alliance office and told them what he’d done.”
“Did any of ‘em … the little boys … did they make it?”
Simon’s grip tightened. “Only one. The last. They found the remains of another seven buried in the cellar of his house.”
“That’s terrible.” Kaylee’s voice was barely a whisper. “All those poor children.”
“But my point is, no matter what he did, he knew it was wrong.”
“This Monster don’t. I’m sure of that. With what I’ve been reading, what we’ve all been reading, there ain’t a spark of human compassion in the man.”
“Unfortunately I think you’re right.”
“But I figure that’ll be his downfall.”
“Thinking he can get away with everything. ‘Til someone comes along and puts a bullet in his brainpan.”
“And you really think it might be us?”
“We’ve been up against psychos before,” Kaylee reminded him. “We’ve come through. Bit battered, maybe, but we’ve always come through.”
“Kaylee, this isn’t like Niska. This man, this … Monster … the Alliance have been looking for him for a long time. If he’s intelligent enough to avoid capture, I don’t see how we can find him.”
“Maybe he ain't intelligent so much as lucky.”
He lifted his head to look at her. “What do you mean?”
“Man who does that kinda thing … well, he’s likely to have money. Moving around like he does. And that means he has people working for him, people who know what he is. And everyone one of those is a threat to him, ‘cause all he has to do is not pay ‘em right, or make ‘em feel the smallest bit unappreciated, and they’d be ripe for turning.”
“You mean they’d hand him over to the authorities?”
“Maybe. Or just try blackmailing him.”
“They’d have to be pretty stupid to try that.”
“I don’t think they’ve got that much in the way of brains, otherwise why’d they work for him, knowing what he’s like?”
He was astonished at her insight. Still, he said, “Some people will do anything for money.”
“Yeah, but money don’t make you smart.”
“Bellerophon.” Jayne stomped into the dining room.
“What?” Mal looked up at him from where he was eating breakfast as he and Hank were studying star charts, looking for anything that might give them a clue.
“Bellerophon. Guy there was bragging about taking a girl off a horse.”
Mal stared. “And you know this … how?”
“Called in a lot of favours.” Jayne stared him down. “Got a lot of acquaintances out there, Mal. Kept their ears open. One of ‘em heard something.”
Hank was scrabbling through the maps. “Bellerophon is pretty close right now. Not much more’n two days.”
“How do we know it’s Hermione?” Mal said, not taking his eyes off the big man, noting his pale complexion.
“Guy was drunk, but said she was riding in the snow.”
“Sounds about right.” Mal took a deep breath. “Hank, get Serenity up and ready to go. And tell Kaylee we need our EC back.”
“On it, Mal.” He ran out of the door.
Mal turned back to the big mercenary. “Thanks.”
“Least I could do.” He moved to go.
“You okay?” Mal asked, concerned by the man’s unusual demeanour.
“Just a headache, Mal,” Jayne said quietly. “That’s all.”
“Better get Simon to take a look.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” He shrugged and went back out of the door, pushing past Inara.
“Good morning,” she said, but all she got was a grunt in return as he went up the stairs two at a time. “Is he all right?” She turned to Mal.
“Not sure. Think I might have to have a word with our good doctor about him.” He dragged his eyes back to her, noting the slightly dark circles under her eyes but deciding not to comment. He doubted anyone got a decent night’s sleep. “Might have a lead though, thanks to him.”
“Bellerophon. Someone was bragging about taking a girl. Hank’s already getting Serenity warmed up, and as soon as we’re all on board we’ll be going.”
“Bellerophon? Wasn’t that where -”
“Yes it was, and I ain’t planning on stealing a laser gun this time. Just getting back something precious.”
She felt a small glow inside. He really thought that about a girl he hardly knew, just because she was his responsibility. “You know, I might be able to help. A friend of mine, Anthony Han, lives there. He might be able to find out about this man for you.”
“It’s something to consider, sure enough. But I don’t want him spooking this feller. He leaves, or goes to ground, we might never find him. And this is the only lead we’ve got.” He gathered the star charts. “Better get everyone moving.”
“Mal, wait. I think you should leave the children with Mrs Boden.” Inara lifted her jaw in expectation of an argument.
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked.
“If we’re right, if it is the … the Monster, I don’t think you want them anywhere close. In case they …” She stopped, barely able to imagine the horrors they might see.
“Wasn’t gonna let them off the boat, ‘Nara.”
“That isn’t the point. And if Bethany picks anything up, can you ever –?”
“You’re right, though.”
“You’re right. If we do have to go up against this psychopath, I don’t want to have to be worrying about the kids as well as everyone else. ‘Sides, it’s mean a bit less strain on the air scrubber.”
“Not that much less. I’m coming with you.” Again she waited for him to argue, and again he surprised her.
“Figured you would be. It’ll have to be a guest room, but we can make you almost comfortable.”
“Thank you,” she said sincerely.
“Just get your stuff. I’ll tell the others.”
“Kaylee won’t like it.”
His eyebrows raised. “What, that you’re coming with us?”
“Oh yes, she’s going to be so jealous.” Inara shook her head slightly in exasperation.
“Thought that was Freya’s prerogative.” He smiled. “Bethie’s better off here, and so’re the other kids. Neither Frey nor Zoe are gonna be overjoyed either, but they’ll understand. Be healthier for ‘em too.”
“Mrs Boden will take good care of them.”
“Of course, they might be round like pigs by the time we get back with Hermione,” Inara pointed out. “They do love her cooking.”
“Long as we do get back with Hermione, I don’t think I’m gonna worry that much over it.”
“Don’t want to!” Bethany said, clinging to her mother’s legs. “Want to stay with you!”
Kaylee bent forward and picked her up, her daughter wrapping herself tightly around her. “I don’t want to leave you either, but I have to.”
“Don’t want to!”
“You think this ain’t hard for Auntie Frey? Or Auntie Zoe? They got to leave their babies behind too.”
“No buts, honey.” Kaylee swallowed. “We’re gonna get Hermione back, but we need to know you’re safe. Bethie, if anything happened to you, anything at all, I’d …” She blinked hard, but couldn’t stop a tear slipping down her cheek.
Bethany reached out, wiped it away. “Don’t cry.”
“I don’t want to leave you here, but it’s … Bethie, it’s safer.”
“Want to help.”
“I know. But you’ll be okay here. And you have to look after Ethan for Auntie Frey.”
Bethany sniffed. “I can do that.”
“And Ben’ll need someone to keep him company.”
The little girl nodded. “That too.”
“And your baby sister needs you.”
Bethie wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “Hope.”
“See, I’m counting on you to make sure they’re safe. Make sure Mrs Boden knows how to cook the right food for ‘em, to make sure she don’t try and give Ben solid food yet.”
“Milk and mush.”
“That’s right. See, you’ve got all these responsibilities, and I need to know someone’s in charge who knows what they’re doing.”
“Don’t want you to go.” This time the words were just a whisper.
“Oh, Bethie. Me neither. But it won’t be for long. I promise.”
“Promise.” Kaylee looked into her daughter’s eyes, so like her own, and buried her face in her hair.
Zoe could hear the muttering from the engine room even above the sound of Serenity blasting back out through the atmosphere. As the flames died and the silence of the black returned, she walked through from the galley.
Kaylee was swearing at something, and hitting it hard with her number 4 autoline socket wrench.
“As bad as that?” the first mate asked.
Kaylee looked up. “Filter’s going.”
“No, I mean it’s going. Not just needing replacing. You’re gonna have to tell Mal we’ll be limping into Bellerophon.”
Zoe was surprised. “That bad?”
“I’m coaxing it as it is.” She pushed her hair away from her face with the back of her hand. “Truth is, if we don’t find Hermione on Bellerophon we’re gonna have to stay anyway so I can put the new part in.”
“I’ll tell the Captain.”
“It’s good to have Inara back on board,” Kaylee said, trying to sound cheerful. “Almost makes it seem like old times.”
Zoe understood. “Mal’s right. They’re better off on Lazarus.”
“Oh, hell, I know that,” Kaylee said, sitting down suddenly on the ledge next to the engine. “It’s just …it’s been only a few minutes, and I’m missing my girls something fierce.”
“And I miss Ben. Just not having him in that crib, knowing I can’t go and hold him …” She joined her friend, her face showing the emotion she couldn’t vocalise.
“Bet Freya’s feeling the same way,” Kaylee said, wiping at her cheek with a greasy hand. “You know, I’m kinda surprised the Cap’n didn’t make her stay too. What with being pregnant and all.”
“I think he figured he needed every part of his body to get Hermione back, not just some of it.”
Kaylee managed a smile. “We will, won’t we?”
“We’ll do our best.”
“It’s just … I’m getting the feeling there’s worse to come,” the young mechanic admitted.
Zoe leaned back, feeling the comforting pulse of the Firefly. “I know what you mean.”
Kaylee was right. She knew her girl inside out, and Serenity was hurting, not just because of the strain on the engines of getting to Bellerophon as fast as possible, but the groaning coming from the air scrubber. The heat radiating off it was scary, and she kept the extinguisher close, just in case.
The air quality had dropped dramatically too, even though they’d flushed the ship on Lazarus. But as the clock ticked, everyone began to feel increasingly lethargic, doing the bare minimum outside of the shuttles.
Mal insisted Freya stay put.
“I'm fine,” she said, her hands on her hips.
“I know that. And I want to keep you that way. But Kaylee says the scrubber’s on the fritz anyway now, ready to break down, and the air’s bad. You‘re staying in here.“
“Please, Frey. For me. For our baby.”
“That’s not fair.”
“I don’t care if it’s fair or not. I want you to …” He closed his eyes a moment. “Dammit, Frey, you’re my wife. You’re carrying our baby. You think I don’t want the best for you?”
She closed the gap between them. “I know you do.” She sighed. “I suppose I can cope for a couple of days, as long as you’re with me.”
“Ah, well, that might not be quite …”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
“I got stuff to do. And we’re all taking a spell on the bridge, making sure no-one stays out too long.”
“Hey, it ain't like you’ll be on your own. Inara’ll be coming in there with you, and so’ll Zoe, and Hank.”
“It’s the only way Kaylee can guarantee we’ll get to Bellerophon at all, by putting least amount of pressure on the scrubber.”
“What about Simon and Kaylee?”
“They’ve already moved in with River and Jayne.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’ve got this all planned out.”
“I'm captain, I have to.”
“So we’ll be … sharing … our bed with … Mal, why’re you looking like that?”
“Well, it’s kinda because …”
“Gorramit, Mal, would you mind telling me exactly where you’re going to be in this grand scheme of things come bedtime?”
“On the bridge. Someone has to be.”
“But you just said -”
“It’s my boat, Frey. And I’m gonna need everyone up to strength when we get to Bellerophon.”
“What about you? What about you being up to strength?”
“Put Serenity on autopilot and –“
“It’s been decided, Frey.”
Her eyes hardened. “You’ve decided.”
“Like I said, I'm captain.”
“Mal, the air … and it’ll be cold –“
“Nothing I ain't had to work through before. Besides, might hear something we can use.” She was angry, he could tell. He didn’t need to see the tattoo on her back to know it was radiating fury. “Frey, honey, it’s only for a couple of nights. That’s all. I can live with it for that long.”
“For God’s sake -”
“No, Frey. Not this time. I ain’t gonna apologise for something I need to do. Just … let me do this, okay.”
“You’re not going to do this.”
“You ain’t my lieutenant -”
“Patch the helm controls through to the shuttle. Rig up the Cortex so you get live feed. Then, if you really think you need to stay awake, at least you can do it from there.”
He stared at her. It hadn’t occurred to him … He gave a bark of laughter. “Guess maybe that bad air’s affecting me more than I thought.” He put his hands on her waist. “Okay. You’ve persuaded me.”
“Good.” She relaxed a little.
“See? All you had to do was be reasonable.”
Her eyes went wide and she was about to speak but his lips silenced her.
Jayne’s headache was getting worse. Even in the shuttle with its own atmo cleaner the dull ache was still pounding behind his eyes, making it difficult to focus, while out in the main body of Serenity he could hardly function.
Zoe had thrown together some food, delivering it to shuttle one where everyone had congregated to eat, and it was obvious that he was in trouble.
“You should let me check you over,” Simon said.
“Yes you probably are, but I’m the doctor here. I think you should humour me.”
“Don’t feel like laughing too much.”
“Very droll. Now why don’t we go to the infirmary and I can just -”
“Doc, I said no.” Jayne stood up and nearly fell. He covered it by leaning on the bulkhead and glaring at the younger man. “I don’t need any fixing.” Straightening up he stomped heavily out of the shuttle.
River got to her feet but didn’t follow immediately. She looked at her brother, her own concern showing. “I’ll make him come to the infirmary in the morning.”
“Tonight would be better.”
“I’ll have to work on him.”
“Okay. Just … don’t leave it too long.”
As she drifted silently out, Mal asked, “What’s up with him?”
“Probably nothing a shot of pure oxygen wouldn’t solve.” Simon shrugged, but couldn‘t ignore the nagging feeling between his shoulder blades. “I’m hoping it’s just the tension getting to him.”
“It’s the waiting.”
“We’re all feeling like that, doc.” He shook his head. “Well, I need him fit. We have to go in after Hermione, he has to be one hundred percent.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him in the shuttle. At least I won’t be far away.”
“No, least there’s that.” Mal squeezed his eyes shut.
“A shot of oxygen wouldn’t do you any harm, either,” Simon pointed out. “Or a decent night’s sleep.”
“I’ll sleep when this is over, doctor.” He looked around the table, his gaze ending up back on his wife’s face. “Not ‘til then.”
Hank pummelled the pillow on his temporary bed and laughed.
“What’s gotten into you?” Zoe asked quietly, pulling the cover up to her shoulders.
“I was just thinking … this is probably the first night in a very long time that no-one on board this boat is going to have sex.”
“I doubt anyone is thinking about it.”
“This used to be my shuttle,” Inara put in from the cot set up against the wall. “Although it doesn’t seem like home any more.”
“Musta seen a lot of action,” Hank said, laying back, then grimaced as Zoe kicked him. “Ow!”
“Sorry. Twitch,” his wife explained.
“It has,” Inara said, smiling. “It was a sanctified place of union, where I plied an ancient craft.”
“Thought it was just sex, not … ow! Zoe, can you get that twitch under control?”
“I doubt it.”
“No, Hank, it wasn’t just sex,” Inara laughed. “There was so much more to it. More than anything it was a healing of souls.”
“Yeah, but sex came into it, right?”
“With … um … women too?”
“Sometimes. A Companion chooses her clients, and sometimes I chose women.”
“Wow.” He lay back. “Did … uh … anyone ever watch?”
“Only if they paid extra.”
“Enough,” Zoe said, closing her eyes. “Or you won’t be worrying about sex, ever again.”
“What? Sorry?” Hank looked at her, at the set of her eyebrows. “Did I say something? Am I awake?“ he dissembled. “Must’ve been talking in my sleep. Happens sometimes. Since I was a kid. There are pills for it, you know …”
On the cot set up on the opposite wall, Freya tried to relax. She closed her eyes, wishing she was in her own bed, Mal next to her, their bodies touching, entwined … she shivered and slid into sleep, the voices of the others dying away.
Begging. Pleading. Offering anything, everything, and it being taken with no mercy given. Tears of blood on broken flesh …
Mal sat up on the small bridge of the shuttle. He was staring at the Cortex, checking all the reports, seeing if any bodies had been found. Young, female …
Every so often he’d stiffen, go back, read it again, then relax uneasily. It was a big ‘verse, and people were dying all the time. Not just in their warm, safe beds, but out in the cold, the dark, in pain or in anger, in sorrow or fear. So far not one had fitted Hermione’s description, but that wasn’t much of a consolation. Rereading the reports on the Monster’s previous victims, he knew it would be a miracle if he ever found her in time. He fingered the gold cross on his chest and shivered, not just from the cold.
Hot. Cold. Cutting and cauterising …
Serenity cut through the vacuum, her engine glowing gold behind her. In shuttle two Simon and Kaylee shared the double sleeping bag, and Kaylee pressed herself as hard as possible into her husband’s body.
Screaming, knowing the end was near. So many things, don’t want to remember, searing across a body …
On Lazarus Bethany whimpered and turned over, burrowing down into the bed next to Ethan, her legs drawn up as if she could keep out the dreams.
Please. No more.
In their bed River was restless, tossing and turning as she caught images in her mind, halfway between sleep and waking,
“Jayne?” She woke up, her body tense, wondering what the problem was.
He didn’t move.
“Is there something …” She sat up, looking about the small shuttle, at her brother and Kaylee lying so still. She reached out beyond. Everyone was asleep except Mal, and even he was fitfully dozing on the bridge in the other shuttle. The general anxiety level had dampened a little, so that wasn't … She turned her head. “Jayne.”
He lay with his head turned away from her, his breathing heavy.
“Jayne.” She put her hand on his chest, pushing at him a little. “Jayne.” Then harder. Harder still. “Jayne!” She began to shake him, pulling him up off the bed.
He didn’t respond, just fell back, his head rolling.
“Simon!” she screamed for her brother.
Simon was up and out of the sleeping bag before the cry finished echoing through the shuttle’s interior, grabbing his medical kit.
“Tell me,” he said as he knelt by the bed.
“He won’t … I can’t wake him up!” River was wailing, still pulling at Jayne’s arm.
Simon fixed his stethoscope into his ears, and listened to the big man’s heart, and the labouring of his lungs.
The door opened and Mal ran in, the others following. “Heard the yell, Simon. What is it?”
The doctor held up his hand for silence, then whipped the stethoscope back around his neck, pulling the small torch from inside his bag. He shone it into Jayne’s eyes, noting the dilated pupils and sluggish response.
“Help me get him down to the infirmary,” he finally said, throwing the covers back.
“What about the air?” Zoe said, moving the mercenary’s legs so they hung over the side of the bed.
Mal nodded. “Kaylee, get the scrubbers back up, fast as you can.”
“I know. Just do what you can.” He glanced at his pilot. “Help her.”
Hank nodded and ran out of the shuttle at Kaylee’s heels.
“Jayne …” River whimpered. “I can’t feel him.” She was stroking his head, smoothing the short hair, trying to find him.
Mal lifted the big man up, getting his shoulders under his right arm. Simon took the other side. “Frey,” he said softly, and his wife nodded. Half dragging, half carrying, they got Jayne out of the shuttle.
River scrambled to her feet, finding Freya’s arms around her.
“It’s okay,” the older woman said. “It’s okay.”
In the infirmary the air was finally beginning to clear, Kaylee and Hank rejoining them, but Simon didn’t remove the oxygen mask from Jayne’s face. He was studying the scans he’d taken, comparing them to the man on the medbed.
“It looks like an old injury of some kind. There’s a scar in his hair …” He moved the short hair on the side of Jayne’s head, and Mal could see a thin line.
“Looks like a bullet grazed him. But how can that be causing –
“There’s pressure building.” Simon looked up at his sister. “Did he hit it? At any time in the last week or so?”
“No,” River began, but Kaylee interrupted.
“Yeah. In the engine room. Gave it a hell of a whack when I asked him to move the …” Her face went white. “You mean it was that?”
“When was that?” Simon asked gently.
“Coupla weeks. He yelled, cussed some, but …” She began to shiver as if she was cold. “You saying that it’s ‘cause I asked -”
“No, bao bei,” Simon reassured her quickly. “It might not even have been that.”
Mal gave him a look, which Simon returned, and they both knew it probably was. “So what do we do?” he asked.
Simon took a deep breath. “I need to relieve the pressure otherwise …”
“He doesn’t wake up.”
Simon nodded slowly, and River stiffened in Freya’s arms.
“Can you do it, doc?”
“It’s a fairly simple procedure, considering we’re talking about the human brain here.” He paused. “But all surgeries carry a risk, and we are talking the human brain.”
Mal was suddenly caught by the uncharacteristic hesitancy in the young man‘s eyes. “You done this before?”
“Once. Under supervision.”
“So not on your own.”
“Strictly … no.”
“We’ll be at Bellerophon in less than a day. Can he wait until then? They’ve got a decent –“
“No, Mal.” Simon rarely interrupted anyone, so to do so now was a measure of the predicament. “I don’t think we can. If we delay any longer there’s a risk of brain damage. Possibly a fatal stroke.”
Mal nodded, just the once. “Get ready, then, doc. You need any assistance?”
“You,” Simon said immediately. “And Freya.”
“You got us.”
“But it can’t be in here. Even now the air’s not … we’ll have to rig up something in the shuttle.”
“Won’t that be risky?”
“It can’t be as sterile as I’d like, but we can make a clean room.”
“Can’t we just turn up the purifiers?” Inara asked.
Kaylee spoke up. “What I did, just now …” She swallowed.
“What is it, little Kaylee?” Mal prompted.
“It’s almost gone. We got about an hour then it dies. Can’t do anything more about it.”
Mal glanced at his first mate then back at his mechanic. “We gonna make Bellerophon?”
“We take what we need into the shuttles, don’t leave ‘cause that’d let the bad air in and put more strain on their purifiers … It’ll be hard but we can make it.”
He smiled at her. “Good girl.” He looked around at his crew. “Okay, come on people. We’ve got one hour to do what we need. But this clean room’s the priority.”
Mal looked around. “What?”
“No.” It was River, pushing at Freya’s arms. “Can’t. Won’t let you.”
“Mei-mei, I have to,” Simon said, stepping towards her.
She backed up. “Won’t let you. Not going to cut into his brain. Change him. Take him away from me!” She lunged at him, her fists high.
“River!” Simon grabbed her wrists as Freya caught her around her waist.
“Won’t cut him! Destroy him!” She flailed, pulling one hand free and swinging her elbow, catching Freya in the stomach. She let go, cradling herself.
“Frey!” Mal shouted, even as Zoe darted in with a hypo that she pressed to the young woman’s neck.
“River, if I don’t do this Jayne will die,” Simon said, his face anguished.
“Don’t,” she pleaded, even as the sedative took effect and she collapsed. Hank caught her before she hit the floor.
Mal was at Freya’s side. “Honey?” he asked, bending down to see into her face.
“I’m okay,” she wheezed. “Just winded me a little.”
Simon quickly ran his portable scanner over her belly. “She’s okay,” he assured Mal. “Bruised, probably, but the baby’s fine.”
Mal relaxed just a little. “Good.” He looked at Hank. “Take River to shuttle one. Inara, you stay with her.”
“We’ll set up this clean room in shuttle two.” He stood straight, still concerned with Freya but turning his attention now to the other matter. “What do you need, Simon?”
“Plastic sheets, as many oxygen tanks as we can find, the portable irrigation unit …”
It didn’t take them long, all working flat out, to rig up what Simon described. He laid out the instruments on the tray, and Mal shuddered slightly.
“Drills?” he asked.
“I have to get through his skull. And as it’s likely to be extremely thick …” The young man smiled slightly.
“Simon,” Freya chided, but Mal’s lips lifted.
“I know what you mean, doc.” He looked at the big man lying so still on the improvised medbed. “Ready?”
“About as much as I’ll ever be.”
“Shiny.” Mal ducked out of the plastic room and confronted the rest of his crew. “Kaylee, coddle that purifier. See if you can’t get a bit more out of it. Hank’ll help if he can. But as soon as it goes, you hightail it back to the other shuttle. Don’t want you getting sick too.”
“Yes sir, captain.” Kaylee nodded enthusiastically and ran back out, Hank following a little slower.
“Zoe, get any supplies we might need and divide them between the shuttles. Then you go and help Inara keep River occupied. The way she was, she’s just as likely to try and bust in on us at the most inopportune time.”
“Sir.” She paused.
“What? I forgotten something?”
“I was just thinking … I hated leaving Ben behind on Lazarus, but I’m glad we did.”
Mal nodded. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Me too.”
“Good luck,” Zoe said, then strode out.
“Yeah. Luck.” Mal stood for a moment, then ducked back inside the clean area.
Simon had already shaved a small area of Jayne’s scalp around the old injury, and now stood waiting, Freya next to him.
“Ready?” Mal asked, giving his wife a small smile then turning back to the doctor.
“As I’ll ever be.”
Serenity’s captain picked up a pair of latex gloves, pulling them on with a snap. “What do you want us to do?”
River opened her eyes, staring into the shadows above the bed. This didn’t feel right. Or smell right. The mattress felt wrong, and there was no odour of …
She sat up, swinging her legs off the bed, ignoring the dizziness that threatened to overtake her.
Hands on her shoulders, pressing her back against the bulkhead.
She blinked hard, tried to focus, and realised it was Inara. “Where is he?” she asked, her voice dry, scratchy.
“Simon’s looking after him.”
“Simon?” Her eyes widened. “No!” She jumped to her feet, at the door and opening it before Inara could stop her.
“Whoa! Hey, no!” Hank, just about to let himself in, grabbed her around the waist, pulling her back. “Don’t want to do that, River.”
“River, honey ...” Zoe reached for her, but she squirmed away. Hank groaned as he tried to hold the young woman back, her feet kicking at him, her hands pounding on his back and shoulders.
“River.” Inara put out her hand to touch the girl’s sweat-soaked hair. “River.”
“Stop him. Please.” She was pleading. “I want Jayne the way he is.”
“You think Simon’s going to do to Jayne what they did to you.”
River nodded, tears streaking down her cheeks. “I don’t want him changed.”
“He won’t do that.”
“He’s my Jayne.”
“Oh, sweetie, I know.”
“What’s going on?” Kaylee asked from outside the door.
River saw her friend, her sister, concern radiating from her, and it was too much. She collapsed into Hank’s arms. He lifted her up, carried her back to the cot. She drew her legs up, shivering hard.
“It’s all right,” Inara said, barely vocalising, trying to emulate Freya by sending soothing waves towards the fractured soul in front of her. She sat down, smoothing her hair. “Simon is a good doctor.”
“But he’ll change. Won’t love me. Won’t be Jayne.”
“Of course he will. River, what he’s doing is nothing like what was done to you. I promise.”
“I know, River. I know.”
The young psychic reached out with her mind to see what Simon was doing, and whimpered.
The sound of the small section of skull being removed had been bad enough, putting Mal in mind of a time not that long ago when Simon had used a drill to fix the replacement into Freya’s hip. But seeing the young man push a finger into the wrinkled pink mass that was Jayne’s brain, easing out a large congealed clot, made his stomach churn.
“Simon, that’s an awful lot of blood,” Freya said softly, swallowing herself. Probably not a good time to even consider having morning sickness.
“Yes.” He gently moved a section to one side. “And I think that’s the problem. A tiny blood vessel is leaking.” He probed, feeling the brain tissue slide under his fingertips, checking for any further damage.
“You mean that’s it?” Mal was surprised. “All this just because of -”
“It only takes a slow leak. In fact, I’m glad it is.” He picked up the cauteriser. “If it had been any bigger Jayne would be dead by now.”
“So we could’ve waited for Bellerophon?”
“No. This could have opened up at any time, caused a catastrophic bleed.” The scent of burning filled the plastic room. “Even if he hadn’t died he’d probably have been blind. It’s very close to the cranial nerve.”
Mal looked up into Freya’s eyes and saw his relief mirrored there. “Good job we’ve got ourselves a decent doctor, then,” he murmured.
Simon smiled. “I seem to get a lot of practice.” He put the cauteriser back on the tray. “How’s his blood pressure?”
“Good,” Freya confirmed.
“Then it’s time to close up.”
“That’s it?” Mal asked, watching as Simon fitted the small section of bone back into place like sliding the last piece into a complicated jigsaw puzzle.
“I’ll cement it in, then close up. But yes, that’s pretty much it.”
“And he’ll be okay?”
Simon didn’t answer for a moment, just looked at the captain, his own blue eyes unreadable. “I don’t know, Mal. I’ve done what I can. Unless something untoward happens, he should live.”
“And what River was afraid of, that he wouldn’t be the Jayne she loves.”
“There’s always the risk of personality changes, with any injury involving the brain. But I didn’t remove anything. You saw. As much as I might have been tempted, I didn’t lobotomise him.”
“I’m going to tell her you said that,” Freya put in. “And after you two had been getting along so well.”
The young doctor laughed suddenly. “Please don’t. I have two young children to bring up.” He picked up the cement gun. “Now, if you’d just stabilise the skull while I stick it into place …”
Mal licked his lips and reached forward.
Mal opened a protein bar and watched Freya asleep on River and Jayne’s bed. Her hands were clasped protectively over the slight swell of her belly.
“She okay?” he asked softly. “What with the air … and …”
“Frey’s fine,” Simon said, moving the plastic sheeting to one side and stepping out. “She’s not been exposed too much.” He realised Mal wasn’t convinced. “I’ve been checking her oxygen sats periodically. Honestly. She’s fine.”
Mal nodded. “Good to know.” He glanced up. “It’s … um … just ‘cause she’s pregnant, you know.”
“It’s because you love her,” Simon corrected, smiling slightly.
“Yeah.” He grinned a little. “That too.” He took a bite from the bar and looked beyond the doctor. “How’s our patient?”
“His vitals are good.”
“So why isn’t he awake?”
“I'm not keeping him asleep, Mal. This is a protocoma, following the operation. It was to be expected, but it’s up to him when he wakes up.”
“You sure he‘s gonna?”
“I’m about as sure as I can be. Everything went well, so it’s just a matter of time.”
“Which we ain't got more’n a little of.” Mal watched the big man sleep. “Truth is, I need more info. We’ll be landing on Bellerophon pretty damn soon, but I don’t have enough to lay my hands on that piece of goushi.”
“I can’t help. If I give him a stimulant it might cause more problems. It could force him into a seizure.”
“Not a good thing, I'm guessing.”
“You could say that.”
Mal exhaled heavily. “Well, least he said it was the seedy side of Medusa, and gave me a name. Wochinski.”
“There can’t be too many of them around.”
“Knowing my luck this is their home planet, and they‘re a big family.”
“And the seedy side?”
“Tends to be around the docks.” Mal smiled. “Don’t matter where you are in the ‘verse, Simon. Somehow the underbelly of society seems to congregate round the spaceports.”
“Well, I try.“ He looked at the young doctor. “Seems like we’re gonna have to spread out. Any chance your sister is gonna be any use to us?”
“I doubt it. From what Kaylee was saying a little while ago all she can think about is Jayne.”
“Our own damn psychic and she can’t do two things at once.”
“She’s used to doing a hundred,” Simon pointed out. “Maybe even a thousand. But not right now.”
“Is she okay?” Kaylee asked, pushing her hands tiredly through her hair. She looked over at the young psychic lying on the cot, her face turned towards the bulkhead.
“I’m not sure I can actually answer that about River,” Inara said quietly. “Except for a given quantity.”
“Then mostly okay?”
“She knows the operation went well, and Simon assured her Jayne was satisfactory.”
“Don’t mean much when you can’t see him.”
“The doctor wouldn’t lie,” Zoe pointed out.
“Course not!” Kaylee sounded affronted, and the other women had to smile a little.
There was a beeping from the small bridge, and Hank hurried through. Activating the visual link, he could see a planet getting bigger, and he pulled down the com.
“Mal, we’re coming up on Bellerophon.”
There was a pause before Mal answered. “Can you land Serenity from the shuttle?”
“Probably. Might be a bit bumpy.”
“You likely to crash my ship?”
“Well, I won’t have the control sensitivity I’d normally -”
“Yes or no?”
“Yes, I can land, and no, I probably won’t crash her.”
“Good. See that you don’t or you’re fired.”
“Would this be before or after we get scraped off the spaceport?”
“How about instead of?”
“Then I suggest everyone holds onto something.” Hank grinned. “Just in case.”
Bellerophon, home - as Wash had once put it - to the rich and paranoid, might have been famous for its floaty islands, but those very same islands needed to be serviced, cleaned and repaired, as well as supplied with fresh food and water. That meant towns. Nowhere near the opulence of the grand estates, these still managed to give the impression that they were better than the usual run of the mill places out on the Rim. Medusa, the main town and spaceport, thought itself the best of these.
As Serenity descended towards its designated landing port, Hank could see, off in the distance over the ocean, the sunlight glinting on a hundred specks of silver, like metallic snowflakes. Below, though, was an urban sprawl reaching away towards the horizon.
Despite what he’d warned, Hank settled the Firefly to the ground with little more than a slight jolt, and immediately Kaylee had the door to the shuttle open and was running down the stairs to the cargo bay controls, holding her breath. As she hit the button to lower the ramp, the big inner doors groaned as they slid apart, and she could feel fresh air on her skin. She sighed and took in a breath, then her nose wrinkled. It was going to take a while for the clean stuff to get through the ship, but at least they weren’t all going to suffocate.
River had followed her out, despite Inara’s attempts to hold her back, and she was banging on the door to the other shuttle. Simon opened the door and she rushed in, pushing the plastic to one side to get to Jayne.
“How is he?” she asked, laying her hand on his forehead, skirting the dressing over the side of his scalp.
“The operation went well,” her brother said, following her.
“Doc, you want Jayne back in the infirmary?” Mal asked, picking up his gunbelt and strapping it on.
“Not yet. I’d rather give it an hour or so to make sure the air’s clear.”
“Fair enough. You’ll have to wait ‘til we get back.” He looked at Inara, who had followed the young woman. “Take care of her.”
Simon nodded, putting his hand on his sister’s shoulder, watching as Mal strode out of the shuttle. He turned back to River. “I didn’t hurt him, mei-mei,” he said softly. “I would never hurt him.”
“Shot him before,” she said, taking the big man’s hand in hers.
“That was -”
“But not on the table, under your knife,” River finished.
“I did it to save his life, River.”
“I know. But there is statistical and empirical data showing a significant possibility of personality alteration due to trauma to the cerebral cortex …”
Simon went down onto his heels to look into her face. “I was careful.”
She turned her dark eyes on him. “Guarantee that?”
He wished he could lie to her, but he knew there was no point. “Nothing is guaranteed. But I did my best.”
“Good surgeon. Excellent surgeon. Saved us all.” She went back to studying Jayne’s face. “Saved him.”
“I hope so,” Simon breathed. If he hadn’t, he didn’t know what was going to happen.
Mal hurried down the steps, joining the rest of his crew in the cargo bay.
“Kaylee, how long do you need to replace that purifier?”
The young mechanic rubbed her nose. “At least eighteen hours, Cap’n.”
“Will it be any quicker if Hank stayed? Helped?”
“Nope. It’s a tight squeeze, so he’d only get in my way.” She flashed a grin at the pilot. “No offence.”
“None taken,” Hank replied.
“Okay. That means we’ve got four of us to search a hell of a lot of places.” He turned to Zoe. “You take the north quarter, between Hammond and Union, Hank gets Union to Durbont; Frey, you take Durbont to Marshall, and I’ll take Marshall back to Hammond. You all got coms?” They nodded. “Then use ‘em if you find Wochinski. Don’t try and take him down on your own. Dong mah?”
“We got it, Mal,” Hank said.
“Then move out. We don’t have time to be wasting here.”
Hank turned to Zoe. “You take care,” he said, leaning in for a kiss.
“You too.” She stroked her hand through his untidy brown hair, gazing for a moment into his grey eyes. Then they were off, jogging in different directions.
“You know, for a man who hates violence of any kind, Hank is sure willing to go out and look for it,” Freya said.
“He wants to see Hermione back as much as we do.” Mal put his arm around her. “You gonna be okay?”
She smiled. “Shiny. And ten’ll get you twenty that I find him first.”
Mal grinned. “You’re on.”
Mal hated bar crawls. Even when he was younger, during the war, he didn’t tend to do the rounds of places like his fellow soldiers did. He tended to plant himself, making a chair warm, seeing who came in and out. In fact, that was the reason he’d met Freya in the first place. His pals had decided to move on to another place, and he’d stayed put. If he hadn’t …
He looked up at the name on the holographic window. The Lusty Redhead. He shrugged. Maybe it was another husband of Saffron’s. Pushing open the half doors he walked inside and took a deep breath. Beer, whisky and smoke. It didn’t matter if it was a fancy rock like this, or way out on the furthest edges of the Rim - all bars smelled the same.
Strolling up to the bar he dropped a coin on it. “Sake,” he ordered.
“Sure thing.” The barman put a glass in front of him and poured from a green bottle. The clear liquid looked innocent enough, but it was with great caution that Mal sipped it, barely letting it wet his tongue. He’d already had more than enough beer in the other half a dozen places he’d been to, and he couldn’t allow himself to get drunk.
“New around here, ain’t you?” the barman asked, polishing a glass with a cloth.
“Got in today. I’m looking for a feller called Wochinski,” Mal said, putting the glass down carefully.
“Yeah? What for?”
“Guy I know thought he might be looking for a job. I got me a ship out at the port, and I’m looking for a good man.”
The barman shrugged, picking up another glass to polish. “He’s got a job. Leastways, that‘s how he tells it.”
Mal lifted his head, feeling the adrenalin starting to flow. “Good one?”
“Seems to always have enough money in his pocket to buy a round once in a while. Not that often, but then, that’s Wochinski.”
“Seems like I’ve come to the right place, though.”
“He hangs around. When he’s in town, he’s here most days.”
“He in town at the moment?”
The barman narrowed his eyes. “Why’re you asking all these questions?”
“Like I said, I’m looking for a good man. If Wochinski ain’t available, he might know of someone who is.”
The barman relaxed. “Depends on what you want this here good man for.”
“Oh, you know. Stuff.” He smiled.
“Prob’bly not all legal.”
Mal’s grin got a little wider. “Now, I didn’t say that.”
The barman didn’t notice that his customer’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, guess if it’s like that then Wochinski’s your man.” He looked up. “And your luck’s good too.” He nodded towards the door. “He’s just walked in.”
Mal turned slowly, seeing two men ambling over to a table. The first was tall and lanky, probably rivalling Jayne at least in height, while the second was shorter, stockier, but looked more than capable of handling himself. The both wore guns slung low, tied down.
“Huh.” Mal tossed a coin onto the bar. “Gimme a bottle,” he said.
Halfway across town Freya stopped, her glass halfway to her lips.
“What’s up?” the drunk next to her said. “Ain’t it clean enough?” He put his hand on her backside, stroking down towards her …
In a moment Freya had dropped her glass, grabbed his fingers and twisted them back on themselves. The audible popping of joints made everyone wince.
The drunk gasped, then yelled in pain, holding his hand to his chest.
“They ain’t broken,” Freya said, looking at the barman. “Get him a doctor, though.” She ran out, pulling the com from her pocket as she went.
The barkeep shook his head. “Carmine, when’re you gonna get to recognise trouble when you see it?”
The two men slumped in their chairs, the taller pulling a toothpick from the pot on the table and sticking it between his teeth.
“Gentlemen, let me buy you a drink.”
They looked up, hands tensing near their weapons, but only saw a man with a smile, holding a bottle and three glasses.
“Don’t drink with strangers,” the man with the toothpick said, pushing the bottle away.
“Now, come on,” his companion put in. “Free drinks, I think we can make an exception.”
“And my name’s Harbatkin,” Mal said, lifting the bottle up and flicking the top off with his thumb. “See, now we’re not strangers any more.”
The more friendly seeming of the two leaned forward. “I’m Gary Chen. This here’s Clyde Wochinski.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Mal pulled out a chair. “Mind if I …”
“Sure. Take the weight off your feet.”
Mal poured three glasses of whisky, handing over two of them. “Cheers.”
Chen raised his glass, then nudged his friend. “Come on. No need to be backward.” Wochinski glared at Mal, but took the glass. Chen nodded in approval. “Cheers.”
They drank, and Mal could feel the burn of alcohol down the back of his throat.
“So what brings you to our fair planet, Mr Harbatkin?” Chen asked.
“Looking for men. In fact, the bartender told me you two might be looking for work.”
“What kind of work?” Wochinski asked, leaning back in his chair.
Mal shook his head. “You know, that’s just what the barkeep asked.”
“And what did you say?”
“Not sure I did. But it‘s a little of everything. People want goods, I supply ‘em. Whatever they might be.” Mal leaned forward. “And business is booming. That’s why I’m looking for a couple of good men.”
Wochinski reached for the bottle, pouring another round without even glancing at Mal for permission. “Got jobs.”
“Oh? Who’re you working for?”
The tall man tossed back his whisky. “Why?”
“Just wondered if I knew him. Maybe we could come to some arrangement. As a legitimate businessman, I can always do with widening my client base.” The accent he put on the word legitimate made Chen smile.
“Much as we appreciate the offer, it’s prob’ly the case that our boss wouldn’t be liking strangers.”
“But you know me,” Mal said, waving his hand towards the bottle. “I bought you guys a drink.”
“And asked questions,” Wochinski said.
“Just being sociable.”
Chen put his hand on his friend’s arm. “Like Clyde here says, we’ve got jobs. Well paid, too, so we’re not looking to change.”
“Even if I could guarantee a bigger cut?”
Wochinski pushed his chair back from the table, the legs squealing on the floor. “We said we ain’t interested.”
“Fine, fine,” Mal said, holding up his hands. “I can take a hint. Still, if you change your mind I’m gonna be in port for a few days yet. Or better still, you let me know where I can find you if something comes up -”
The tall man was on his feet and his gun was out of his holster. “I don’t know who you are, mister, but I don’t appreciate people prying into my affairs.”
Chen stood up slowly. “I think it’s better we leave.” He gave Mal a cold smile. “Thanks for the drink, but don’t take this the wrong way. We don’t trust you.”
“Yeah, trust is something earned,” Mal agreed.
“So we’re gonna go. And I’d be real careful to make sure you stay put for a while.” Chen tapped Wochinski on the shoulder and they headed for the door, neither of them taking their eyes off Mal for a moment.
He was ready when it came. A slight tightening of the skin around Wochinski’s mouth and Mal was pushing his chair over, his hand slapping his gun from its holster, aiming and firing even as the first bullet bit through the air where his head had been an instant before.
Wochinski fell, his head snapping back as the bullet smashed through his skull. Chen was fast, his gun seeming to appear in his hand, but Mal was faster. His bullet hit the man in the chest, and he span around to fall on his face.
There was silence in the bar as the gunfire faded, and Mal got to his feet. Swiftly checking the other patrons, making sure none of them were likely to try and take a shot at his back, he crossed the room to Chen, rolling him over. Going down on his knees he looked into the man’s eyes.
“Where is she?” he said, lifting Chen by his shirt. “Where’s the girl? Who do you work for?”
Chen’s mouth worked, his lips moving, but all that came out was a gurgling sound as blood rushed from his throat. His head fell back.
Mal lowered him to the ground just as the half doors swung open, and three men ran into the bar.
“Hold it!“ the man in the middle said. “You are bound by law and ordered to stand down! Drop your weapon!”
Mal stared into the barrels of three rifles, all pointed directly at him. He forced his hand to put his gun down onto the floor. “They shot first, officers,” he said carefully.
The man in the centre, wearing a black duster, didn’t even change expression. “You’re bound for the murders of these two men!”
“They tried to kill me!”
“If that’s the case the judge’ll prob’ly let you go free. But we don’t take kindly to folks shooting each other in our town.” The man produced a pair of restraints from his pocket.
“Hey, now,” the barman began, but he stopped as one of the other men turned, his rifle swinging to point into his chest.
“Do me a favour. Call my ship. Serenity. Tell them,” Mal ground out as the restraints fastened around his wrists behind his back.
“Tell them!” Mal glared at the barman who nodded, heading towards the Cortex link even as the deputies pulled their prisoner out of the door. He wasn’t moving fast enough, though, and one of the men slammed his rifle into Mal’s side.
Freya, in the shadows across the street, heard his gasp of pain, saw him stagger, and her hand was very close to the gun at her hip.
“Don’t,” Zoe warned. “They’ll kill him.”
They watched as he was dragged out of sight.
“We need to follow,” the first mate said, dragging the com from her pocket to contact Hank, and Freya nodded.
“What?” Inara couldn’t believe it, staring at the screen.
“Your captain asked me to call,” the barman said again. “He’s been taken into custody for murder.”
“But he wouldn’t …” Inara tried to control herself. “Where will they have taken him?”
“The local law office. Look, I did what he asked.” The man went to close the connection.
“Who did he kill?”
“Two men. Names of Chen and Wochinski.” The man shook his head. “It was self-defence, so they’re probably gonna let him go soon, ‘less the judge is in one of his moods.”
“He don’t like gunplay. Makes him all anxious about our rep.” He leaned forward. “Just hope he’s feeling generous.” The screen went blank.
Inara sat back, her mouth open, unsure what to do next. If Wochinski really was dead, and Mal killed him, she could only pray that he’d found out where Hermione was before …
Kaylee ran up the bridge steps behind her. “’Nara, the Cap’n’s gone and got himself arrested!” the young mechanic blurted out.
“I … just got a call.” Inara turned in the seat. “But how did you know?”
“Zoe just called on the com.” Kaylee held up the link she’d had in her pocket. “They’re going after him, to the sheriff’s station, but … oh, ‘Nara, what the hell do we do now?”
Inara looked at her and came to a decision. She turned back to the Cortex link. “You’d better go and tell Simon.” She punched in an address.
“Wait, what are you -”
“I told Mal before there was someone who might be able to help. I think it’s time I called in that favour.”
The deputies had put up their rifles, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t armed. As well as their handguns, they each carried batons, weighted heavily along three quarters of their length. Designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain without actually causing bloodloss, as Mal found out.
“I was coming,” he hissed, trying to walk and bend over at the same time, unable to clasp his hands to the affected area, seeing as his wrists were still restrained behind him.
“Then move quicker,” the leader of the deputies said. He’d been the one to wield his baton like he had his rifle.
“What happened to innocent until proved guilty?” Mal asked, knowing he really should keep his mouth shut, but finding it an impossibility. “Ain’t that the way of things?”
“You shot those two men,” the deputy said, tossing the baton from hand to hand.
“Never said I didn’t. But it was self defence.”
“Not for us to decide.“ The deputy smiled, and touched Mal’s side, prompting a stifled groan. “Now get moving.”
“Anthony, thank heavens you’re home,” Inara said, smiling with relief at the image that came up on the screen.
A handsome man, still dark haired although approaching middle age, stared. “Inara? What on earth …”
“I need your help.”
“Where are you?”
“Anthony, please. I need your help.”
The man took a breath. “What is it?”
“I … I don’t think it’s safe to talk over the Cortex.”
Anthony Han tried, unsuccessfully, not to smile. “Why, do you think someone might be listening in?”
Realisation dawned in his dark eyes. “You really mean it.”
“All I can say is that … a friend … two friends of mine are in trouble. One, a young girl … she could be … Anthony, I don’t know who else to turn to.”
Anthony nodded. “Of course I’ll help. Anything you want, Inara, you know that.“ He smiled warmly. “You were lucky to have caught me as I was just on my way out of the door, to go to a business meeting. But why don’t you meet me at the East Hanover Tower? In about an hour?”
“An hour. Yes, that … that would be good.”
He smiled again. “An hour, then. And we can go and have a bite to eat. You look like you could do with some decent food.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to eat, but … thank you, Anthony.”
“Don’t thank me, Inara. It’s what friends are for.” He reached forward and the screen went blank.
“’Nara, I don’t think this is a good idea,” Kaylee said slowly. “We don’t know who he is, or -”
“I know him. I’ve known him for years. Ever since I … well, for a very long time.” She stood up. “I helped him with his daughter not that long ago. And you heard him. He’s more than happy to help.”
“Yeah, but Mal said he didn’t want the Monster spooked.”
“Anthony knows a lot of important people. At the very least he should be able to get Mal out of jail.” She walked past the young mechanic. “I’d better change. I can’t go out looking like this.”
Kaylee watched her walking down the stairs, heading for her temporary quarters, and knew it wasn’t how it sounded. To Inara, looking good was second nature, and to even consider going to see a man and not looking her best would be tantamount to anyone else walking in naked. It still felt wrong, though. Making a decision herself, she sat down in the pilot’s chair and tried Zoe’s com.
“You can get them back when you leave,” the man at the desk said, sliding the units into the desk drawer, along with their weapons.
Zoe and Freya glanced at each other, but nodded.
“Shiny,” Serenity’s first mate said.
“Court will be in session shortly,” the man added, pointing towards large double doors. “Wait in there.” He went back to his paperwork.
The two women stepped away from the desk and walked towards the courtroom, but stopped as the outside door slammed open and Hank ran in.
“We got him back yet?” he asked, leaning on his knees and trying to catch his breath.
“If you are intending to witness the proceedings, you are required to leave your weapons and any communication devices outside the courtroom,” the man at the desk said, looking up, sounding bored.
“Sure.” Hank dumped his gun and com link on the counter “Have you let the others know?” he asked, looking at Zoe.
“Talked to Kaylee. She’s … upset.”
“Not the only one.”
“Did he really kill that Wochinski?”
“Sounds like it,” Zoe confirmed.
“Yeah. Come on. Best we get into the courtroom. Don’t want to miss anything.”
They strode through the double doors, which closed silently behind them.
A buzzing came from the drawer, and the man at the desk slid it open. One of the com units was vibrating slightly, and with a weary hand he switched it off, doing the same to the other two. If it was important, he told himself, they’d call back.
“You shouldn’t be going alone,” Kaylee insisted as Inara walked out to the waiting hover. “I can’t get through to Zoe, or Frey, and I really think you oughtta wait until they get back.”
“There’s no time, Kaylee,” Inara said.
“Then let me come with you.”
Inara smiled slightly. “You have to finish installing that purifier. Mal’s counting on you. If he found out that I’d taken you with me, he’d be livid.”
“Be worse if anything happens to you.”
“I’m only going to meet an old friend, that’s all. With any luck we can get Mal home before dark. And maybe Anthony can help us find Hermione.”
“Kaylee, I’ll be fine.” She smiled, touching the young woman’s cheek with her hand, then climbed into the hover.
Kaylee watched as it lifted onto its cushion of air and sped off. She had an awfully bad feeling about this.
“Has she gone?” Simon asked, walking out into the sunshine.
“I was going to try and talk some sense into her.”
“She wouldn’t’ve listened.” Kaylee still stared into the distance. “River any help?”
“Not so’s you’d notice,” Simon admitted. “I don’t think she can concentrate on anything except for Jayne.”
“Any sign of him waking up yet?”
“I’m scared, Simon,” Kaylee admitted. “Too much is happening, going wrong, and now Inara heading off …”
Simon pulled his wife into his arms. “Where’s she going?”
“East Hanover Tower.”
“It’s a respectable part of the town, at least.”
“That really doesn’t make me feel any better about this.”
“I know, bao bei. I know.”
“How much longer?” Hank asked. “It’s been nearly an hour as it is.”
“Justice sometimes grinds slowly,” Zoe said softly. “Something I’d learned over my long and illustrious -”
“He’s coming,” Freya interrupted, sitting up.
The door to the left opened, and Mal was manhandled through, being pushed to stand in a small area bounded by low wooden walls.
He barely managed to look around, acknowledging with a start of surprise that the three of them were there, when another door behind the dais opened. A man stepped out, dressed in official garb, followed by a woman in a suit. They sat down at the high desk, almost like an altar.
“Court will rise,” the woman said. “This session of the Medusa judiciary court is now open, Judge Leroy Lesserman presiding. We are convened to hear the case against Captain Malcolm Reynolds in the murders of Clyde Wochinski and Gary Chen. You may sit.”
Judge Lesserman opened his leatherbound notebook, made a notation, then looked up at the man in the dock.
“Captain Reynolds. How do you plead?”
The East Hanover Tower wasn’t that tall, not compared to some of the buildings that seemed to literally scrape the sky on some of the more central planets, but it was enough to dwarf the other blocks. Set around a square, this was the heart of the financial district of Medusa, with the West Hanover Tower showing just a little way off.
Inara was waiting, had been for some twenty minutes. After ten she had dismissed the hover, but there was still no sign of Anthony Han. She had garnered some odd looks, but no-one had approached her, put off by her bearing and obvious determination.
She was just considering finding a public vidlink, calling Anthony again, when a voice came from behind her.
She turned, tensing. A muscular man was standing next to her, his black suit immaculate, his shaved head reflecting the sunlight. “Yes?”
“My name is Shiban. I work for Mr Han. He apologises, but he has been unavoidably detained. He does, however, request that you allow me to take you to the house so you can meet him there.”
Inara relaxed a little. “Of course. That would be … thank you.”
“I have a hover nearby. If you’d just follow me …”
“Not guilty, sir,” Mal said, trying to stand to attention.
“Let it be so noted.”
The woman nodded, marking her screen. “So noted.”
The judge looked at Mal. “Well, now,” he said, leaning back in his seat. “Not guilty. An odd plea for a man who admits killing those two.”
“Not that odd, sir. It was self defence.”
“They’re still dead.”
“And I can’t say anyone’s likely to be grieving that much over them, sir.”
“No, probably not. Their records aren’t exactly whiter than white, but then … neither are yours.” He peered down at the screen in front of him. “You were an Independent. Got a medal for Serenity Valley.”
“War’s long over, sir.”
“Some say there’s another heading our way.”
Mal tried not to sigh. “Rumours, sir. That’s about all it is. And they’ve been bandying them around since the Accord was signed.”
The judge smiled slightly. “That they have.” The smile switched off. “But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that two men are dead.”
The Han estate, unlike the majority on Bellerophon, wasn’t built on one of the many self-contained islands floating over the ocean. It had a fine view of the sea, but was firmly settled on the top of the cliff, its foundations going deep into the ground. A long, winding drive led to the front door of the large, three-storey house, and Anthony himself was waiting.
“Inara, my dear,” he said, hurrying out to greet her as she got out of the hover. “How lovely to see you again.”
“Anthony. This is so good of you.” She smiled a little for him.
“Come on. Let’s get you inside. And I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet you myself, but something came up.”
“That’s fine.” She allowed him to lead her into the house, through a large entrance hall and into a well-appointed room with a view out over the ocean.
“You look exhausted,” Anthony said, helping her to a seat then going to the drinks table. “You’d better have something to fortify yourself.”
“I'm fine. But I do need your help.”
“In what way?” He poured two glasses of liqueur and brought them over to her. “Here. Please, it will help.”
She sipped the drink, feeling the warmth spread throughout her body. “Thank you.”
“Now. What is the problem?”
“Justice is swift in these parts, young man.” Judge Lesserman wasn’t unkindly, but he’d seen too many of these sorts of things in his day. “With our … clientele, it has to be.”
“They shot first, sir,” Mal said, standing straighter, even as he favoured his right side. “There are plenty of witnesses in the bar to corroborate that fact.”
“Something that’ll be looked into. But for now I’m locking you up.”
“No! Look, there’s -”
One of the deputies hit him in the side with his baton, catching the same place he had before, probably more by judgement than luck. Mal gasped, going down onto one knee.
“That’s enough.” The judge’s voice cut across the pain. “I will not have that sort of behaviour in my court.”
“Sorry, your honour,” the deputy said, not sounding it in the slightest.
“Do you need a doctor, Captain Reynolds?” the judge asked.
“I … I have my own … medic on board,” Mal managed to say. “I’d be grateful … if you could let him … let him know I could do with … some doctoring.”
“Yes, we can do that.” He nodded to the deputies, who lifted Mal to his feet and manhandled him out of the courtroom.
As they pulled him out of the door, Mal glanced towards the three familiar figures sitting at the back of the room, and wondered just what the hell to do next.
Zoe turned to her fiancé. “Hank, get back to Serenity. Tell Simon we need him. Frey and I will try and get in to see the captain.”
“You sure that’s a good idea, honey?”
“Wochinski might have said something before he died.”
“Yeah, but you going in there …”
“We’ll be fine. You go. Tell Simon to hurry.”
He wasn’t happy, but with a quick kiss to her lips he strode out.
“They took them, Anthony! Three girls. Just made them disappear!”
“Like magic,” he said, his face thoughtful.
“No, not magic. Just men.” Inara couldn’t sit still. “And now my friend is in jail and I still can’t find the girls.” She stood up and began to pace the room. “How could someone do this sort of thing?”
“I thought it was most poetic, myself.”
She span on her heel, staring at him. “What?”
“Taking them from Lazarus. And from you. Believe me, I couldn’t believe my luck when I realised.” He leaned back in the seat.
Mal wanted to pace the floor of the tiny cell, but his ribs hurt too much. Instead he had to content himself with sitting and fuming, and conjuring up imaginative ways to get even with the hwoon dahn who’d done this. Not that it stopped him berating himself over the fact that he was no closer to finding Hermione either.
Time was leaching away, and if Freya’s last dream had been right, someone might already be dead. If it was Hermione, he was going to unleash such hell against the Monster …
The door to the cell block opened.
“Ya got visitors,” the deputy said, standing back.
“Mal.” Simon hurried through, Freya close behind. “Are you badly hurt?”
“Oh, just the usual.” He glared at the deputy who stood by the door, his arms crossed. “You gonna let them in, or do you expect him to work his magic from over there?”
The deputy grinned, baiting the other man. “Well, seems to me I need to check to see if they’re carrying anything they shouldn’t. Like they might be wanting to break you out of here.”
“Since I’m innocent that’d be more than a mite foolish, don’t you think?” Mal pointed out, sitting up and wincing.
“Still need to do my job.” He turned to Simon. “Just stand still.” He quickly frisked him, then glanced into his bag. “You need all this stuff?” he asked, his eyebrows raised.
“It depends on what you did to him.”
“Me? Nothing. Least, nothing that he didn’t deserve.” The deputy laughed, and turned to Freya. “You gonna play nice?”
Freya didn’t answer, just raised her arms.
The deputy smiled, and proceeded to pat her down much more thoroughly.
Mal gritted his teeth, seeing the man stroke his hands up and down the inside of Freya’s legs, around her back, under her breasts …
“You can plainly see she ain’t carrying,” he insisted, anger burning brightly despite the calm look on his wife’s face.
“Gotta make sure.” He ran his fingers across the swell of her belly. “Gotta do my job.” His grin became more of a leer. “Maybe I should do a strip search …”
She turned her head to look at him. “Enough,” she said, her voice low, quiet.
The deputy felt something crawling over his skin, like a thousand needles just touching, ready to thrust and bring forth a multitude of tiny drops of blood. He shuddered and went pale.
“Open the door,” she said softly.
The deputy swallowed, licking dry lips, and stepped forward to activate the lock. The door slid silently open.
In a moment Simon was inside, opening his bag. “Where does it hurt?”
“My ribs.” Mal leaned back and undid his shirt, pulling it away from the tender area. “Frey?”
She was next to him, on her knees. “I’m okay.” She looked down at his chest and took a sharp breath, the hiss audible.
Mal’s skin was already black with broken blood vessels over an area a hand’s length long and two inches wide, sitting over his lower ribs.
“What did this?” Simon asked, immediately filling a hypo with a painkiller and injecting the unmarked skin below with it.
“A rifle at first, but then they were a mite free with their batons,” Mal said, feeling a welcome numbness. He sighed, and at last each breath wasn’t like broken glass. “Where’s Zoe?”
“Outside,” Freya said. “They’d only let two of us in.” She managed a smile. “Why, would you rather it was her here instead of me?”
“I’d rather I wasn’t here at all,” Mal said, then choked as Simon probed his ribs. “Gorramit, I thought that was supposed to stop it hurting?”
Simon ignored the jibe. “I don’t think you’ve broken anything, but until I get you back to Serenity I can’t be sure you’ve not got a few cracks.”
“Sure feels like it.”
“I can strap you up, leave you with some painkillers, but that’s about it. And honestly, you’re probably better off not being bandaged.” Simon reached into his bag and pulled out a small bottle that he handed to Mal.
“If you’re done, out,” the deputy said.
“A few more minutes,” Freya requested.
“Nope. That’s it. You’ve seen him, patched him up. So time’s up.”
She looked at him, and the feeling of needles running across his skin came back. His hand inched towards his gun.
“Frey,” Mal warned softly.
“I hate leaving you here,” she said, turning back to her husband.
“I know. But I need you out there, sorting this out. Get the barkeep to be a witness. And there were a lot of people in that place. Least one of ‘em should be willing to tell the truth.”
“Did he say anything?”
Mal didn’t have to ask who she was talking about. “No.”
“Time. Now.” The deputy was getting annoyed.
“You know, I think I might be needing a lawyer,” Mal said softly, taking her face in his hands.
“Inara probably knows of a few good ones.”
“Yeah, but it’s the law I’d want them to be practised at, not having a Companion.”
“That’s it.” The deputy pushed his baton between them. “Enough. Or I won’t be caring what the judge says.”
“Better go,” Freya murmured. “See you soon.”
“I don’t doubt that, ai ren.” He smiled at her as the door closed, the sound of the lock engaging having a disturbingly final ring to it.
Simon hurried through into the outer office, where Zoe and Hank were waiting.
“How is he?” the first mate asked.
“He’s badly bruised, possibly a cracked rib or two, but he’ll live. At least, if he doesn’t antagonise them anymore than he has already.”
“That could be tricky.”
“That it could.”
“Where’s Frey?” Hank asked.
“She’s trying to persuade them to let her stay, but I doubt she’s going to manage it.”
“She isn’t,” Zoe said, nodding towards the door and Freya coming through it.
“No luck?” Hank wanted to know.
Freya shook her head. “They said in no uncertain terms that I’d have to break the law before I could get back in.”
“And you rejected that out of hand?”
“No, actually I considered it. Briefly.”
“Glad you came to your senses,” Zoe said, going to the desk.
“Mal persuaded me,” Freya admitted.
“You mean …” Hank tapped his forehead.
“We’re leaving now,” Zoe said to the man watching them. “If you could just give us back our gear …”
The man handed over the guns and com units.
“How come they’re switched off?” Hank asked, thumbing his back on. Immediately it began to buzz and he lifted it to his mouth. “What’s up?”
“Hank? Oh, thank God. I didn’t know what to do -”
Zoe took the unit. “What is it, Kaylee?”
“It’s Inara. She’s not come back yet.”
The first mate looked at the others. “Come back? Where did she go?”
“Oh no,” Simon murmured, gripping his bag tightly.
“What?” Inara couldn’t think, couldn’t form the words properly. “What are you saying?”
“Oh, come, come. You’re really not as stupid as all that.” Han smiled. “Surely even you can’t be.”
Inara felt the blood leach from her face. “You’re … you’re the Monster?”
“Such a pathetic title, don’t you think? I’m sure they could have come up with something else if they’d really thought about it.” He sighed. “Still, that’s the Cortex for you. Lowest common denominator, and all that.”
“And now here you are in my web.” He paused. “Now that would have been better. The Spider. A much more apt image. Sitting at the centre of that very web, waiting for those little girls to come close enough to suck them dry.” He saw her glance at the door. “Oh, and I wouldn’t bother trying to run. It’s quite a distance back to the town, and virtually all the land between here and there is mine. I’d find you.” He stood up, taking her arm and leading her back to a chair. “Much better to be comfortable.”
“I can’t believe it.” Inara was finding it hard to breathe. “Not you. I’ve known you for so long … we’re friends.”
“Of course we are. Whatever that means.” He tilted his head a little. “Do you want proof? Do you want to see the rooms where I defile their flesh?”
If Inara could have gone paler she would. “Where’s Hermione?”
“Is that her name? I never did learn it.”
A cold hand clutched at her heart. “Where is she? What have you done with her?”
“Now, I’m not sure that’s quite the thing for a Companion to be asking.” He laughed. “Sorry, ex-Companion. You have no idea how much that entertained me when I found out. All those years spent whoring, and you give it up to be a lady. So droll. And now you’re here. I am doubly blessed.”
Even at the heights of their worst arguments, when Mal used the term whore to hurt, to wound, he had never meant it like this. Compared to the way Anthony rolled it from his lips, Mal’s version had been an endearment.
“I’m not a whore,” she muttered.
“No? I think I remember differently. I was your first, wasn’t I?” Anthony caressed her face, even as she wanted to spit in his. “Do you have any idea how much I paid? To have the honour of deflowering a Companion?” He smiled. “I've tried so often to get that back, that feeling of you under me, that little mew of pain you gave as I took you.”
“I did not.” Her voice was low, steady.
“But you did. I remember distinctly.”
He slapped her hard, his hand leaving a white mark that flushed to bright red as the blood poured back into the bruised skin. “And I say you did. Such a sweet little sound. None of the others have quite matched it.”
She didn’t reach up to touch it, even though it was stinging. Her heart was beating so fast she could only feel the pounding in her chest. “Are you telling me this is all my fault?”
“Fault?” He laughed. “There is not fault. Only my pleasure. And I take that where I wish.” He swept his fingers almost tenderly across the skin above her collar bone. “But you were the catalyst. Each time I took a woman to bed I wanted to hear that cry, that admission that I had total control over you.”
She tried to pull herself together. “I was a Companion. I had the control.”
“Hardly. Always under the eye of the Guild, all those rules and regulations over who you could contract with, take into your bed - a common prostitute has more control than a Companion, my dear. Besides, you’re overlooking the fact that you’re right here.” He leaned forward. “And I have the control now.”
“How did they let you through?” Inara asked, her mind skittering back to that day, the hour of becoming a woman that had seemed so special to her and would now forever be so tainted.
“Money. And position. If those test results they insisted on were perhaps a little on the negative side, a generous donation to the Guild quickly put it back into the positive. Besides, my … inclination wasn’t fully formed then. I was younger. As were you, my dear,” he said in a snide tone that cut into her. “And I was very good at hiding my true tastes, even then.”
“Anthony, people know. They know I’m here. They’ll come looking for me, try to find me …”
“Then I shall have to lay a trail of breadcrumbs for them.” He touched her cheek again, finding the red marks left by his fingers to be somehow fascinating. “Now don’t be so melodramatic, Inara. You know they’re not going to find you. At least, alive.” He smiled. “Nor will they find the other girls. But then, perhaps they’re not going to look that hard. Not with what I’ve done to them.”
“Let them go,” Inara said suddenly, trying to keep the pleading out of her voice. “I’ll stay.“
“Of course you will.”
“No, I mean, by choice. My choice.” She licked dry lips. “There are things I can do … things they’ll never do for you. Have no idea how to.”
“You’d give yourself to me?” He looked her up and down, his eyes stripping her of her clothes. “Totally? Without restriction? For whatever I want?”
“Yes.” There was barely a tremble in the word.
“Not enough, Inara. Willingly is all very well, and could be very entertaining, but unwillingly … fighting me … denying me their pleasure …” He smiled, and she wondered how she had ever thought him handsome. “No. It isn’t anywhere near enough.”
“And Rosette? What about her?”
Han lifted an eyebrow at the mention of his daughter. “What about her?”
“Does she know what you do?”
Anthony scoffed. “Of course not. She wouldn’t be interested. Besides, thanks to you she’s safely married to that boor, and I can indulge my whims.”
“Whims?” She couldn’t help it. Anger spilled out from her. “You call taking girls and … and murdering them a whim?”
“Of course. What would you call it?”
“It is possible my counsellor agreed with you. Probably in the few moments before I slit his throat, but his notes were very revealing.” He laughed. “But this, the fight in you … perhaps you could be an interesting diversion. A little sidetrack, so to speak.”
“And you’ll let them go?”
He shook his head. “No. They’re part of my little family now. Besides, one of them is dead already.”
Inara couldn’t breathe. His off-hand manner, the way he’d mentioned, almost in passing, that he’d already killed one of the girls she’d come to save … “Which one?” she asked, her voice barely audible.
He lifted an eyebrow, much as Mal was liable to do, but this wasn't Mal. Nowhere near him. “You really want to know? Do they mean that much to you?”
“Yes,” she managed to squeeze from her suddenly constricted throat.
For a long moment he gazed at her, then, “No. I don’t think so. Much better for me if you don’t know. Of course, much worse for you. Would you like me to describe for you how she died? What I did to her? How she called for her mother?”
The pleasure on his face was too much. She kicked out, her foot catching Anthony on the knee, forcing him backwards, falling onto his back. Another kick caught him in the side of the head, but he had been rolling away from her, and the force wasn't enough to break his neck. There was no time to look for a weapon to kill him, to defend herself, only a few seconds before he got to his feet and came after her. She ran for the door, dragging it open.
A man stood outside. Shiban. His face was expressionless, dead, and in an instant she knew. This was the one who had stolen the girls, who had orchestrated Hermione‘s disappearance. Something was in his hand.
There was a sudden sting in her neck, and her legs didn’t belong to her. She crumpled to the floor, almost all feeling disappearing from her body. Vaguely aware of hands on her, stripping her clothes, she felt herself lifted up, metal clasping around her wrists as the darkness descended. Her final conscious thought was that at least this might give Mal the time to come and rescue the girls.
It was … odd. A feeling of moving, but he wasn’t. And something on his chest. Not to heavy , just … persistent. He opened his eyes to slits. Odd, that, too. Seemed to be on a boat, surrounded by sails. Been on one of them once. One of those new-fangled ships with sails so fine they could catch the solar wind. Not that he cared about that. Had rich pickings, though. Enough to get drunk for a month. And almost wear out his John Thomas. These sails seemed to be made of plastic, though.
He moved his head, trying to figure out exactly where in diyu he was. Funny. He expected it to hurt somehow, but all he felt was an ache, all kinda fuzzy. Like he’d had one too many Mudder’s Milk.
He tried to focus on whatever was on his chest. Looked like a head. Long dark hair. Seemed familiar, like maybe he should be running his fingers through that hair, making the owner call out his name …
Moved. The head moved. Not much, just as if making itself more comfortable. And a word popped into his mind.
She wasn’t sure she’d heard. That it wasn’t just her imagination giving her what she craved so much. She listened carefully, hearing the heartbeat under her cheek getting stronger.
No. That had to be real. Only one person called her that …
She lifted her head, turned to look at him.
“Oh, Jayne,” she whispered, her heart wanting to burst from the joy at seeing his blue eyes looking right at her. A tear slid down her cheek, followed by another, then a third, until they were dripping off her nose, her chin …
“Hey, what you crying for?” Jayne asked, lifting a hand that seemed to weigh a tonne to wipe them away. “I ain’t dead. Least, not ‘less this is heaven, and I don’t think I’m bound for there. Some place bit hotter, far as I can see.”
“Jayne …” She couldn’t help it. The tears wouldn’t stop, but neither would the huge grin on her face as she reached over and touched his lips, his nose, running fingertips across his forehead, his cheeks. “Jayne.”
“Girl, you keep this up and I’ll be joining you,” he said, managing to smile a little. “What the gorram hell happened about me?”
Her fingers fluttered over the dressing on the side of his head. “Nearly died. Nearly left me. Can’t leave me. Won’t let you.”
“If’n I knew what you were talking about maybe I’d have something to say about it, but …” He coughed. dryly “Got any water in this place?”
She sprang to her feet, holding a bottle to his lips in a moment. “Drink. A little.”
He felt the cool liquid slip down his throat, travelling a long way inside his chest. “Where are we, anyway?” he asked.
“Our shuttle, silly.” She put her hand to his forehead, and suddenly he felt more refreshed than if he’d drunk the whole bottle.
He peered round at the plastic sheets. “Yeah? You been decorating again?”
“Pinks walls and a purple floor,” she said solemnly.
“You know, there’s gonna be a day I come back from a job, and that’s what I’m gonna find, ain’t it?”
“Probably,” she agreed.
“So you gonna tell me what’s been going on?”
“So much to say …”
“We got Bethie’s friend back yet?”
Her face fell. “Not yet.”
“Figured maybe I got shot going in and rescuing her.”
“No.” She fingered the dressing again.
“Better you tell it to me straight, girl.”
“Why didn’t you say something before?” Zoe said, striding towards of Serenity. She’d been silent for a while, but now couldn’t contain the anger building up inside her any longer. “When you joined us.”
“He’s a friend of hers. We had no way of knowing something might happen to her.” Simon was having to do a half-jog to keep up. “I mean, Kaylee was worried that she was going alone, but … she insisted.”
Zoe looked up into the star-filled sky. “We’ll never find sign of her tonight. But maybe that Han knows where she went after seeing him.”
“We need Mal,” Hank put in. “Sorry, honey. I ain’t impugning your leadership skills or anything, but in my experience rich people prefer to talk to captains, not first mates.”
“Hank’s right,” Freya put in. “I’m going back to that bar, see if I can’t persuade the bartender to volunteer the information to the judge.”
“Won’t the deputies be doing that?” Simon asked.
“They ain’t gonna be looking that hard,” Zoe said. “Or that fast. Far as they’re concerned, Mal’s just another itch that they’re gonna enjoy scratching.” She shook her head, seeing the dark bulk of the Firefly coming up. “You’re right, Frey. Best you take Hank and -”
“She’s already gone,” the pilot said, jerking his head over his shoulder to where the woman had disappeared into the night.
“Then you’d better get after her. Keep her out of trouble.”
“Frey?” Hank raised his eyebrows.
Hank nodded and jogged off after the captain’s wife.
“No wonder Mal keeps going on about things not going smooth,” Zoe added, starting up the cargo bay ramp.
River was waiting for them, and without preamble she said, “Simon, he’s awake!” She was almost vibrating with joy.
“He is?” Simon grinned and pulled her into his arms, hugging her tightly. “That’s wonderful!”
“Really.” He leaned back enough to look into her eyes. “Mei-mei, he makes you happy. No matter what else I may think, I want you to be happy.”
Kaylee ran out onto the catwalk and hurried down the stairs. “Jayne‘s awake?” she asked, wiping her hands on her rag.
“Just now,” River confirmed.
“I’d better go check him over,” Simon said. “Probably better if we could get him to the infirmary, then I can take some proper scans.” He smiled as Kaylee hugged them both, leaving grease stains on their clothes.
“How much longer until Serenity’s up and running again?” Zoe asked the young mechanic.
Kaylee let go of her husband and sister, and wiped a hand across her forehead, streaking the grease already there. “’Bout another eight hours. I’ll carry on working, but -”
“No. You get some sleep.” Zoe lifted the young woman’s chin. “You’re tired out as it is, and the captain won’t be too pleased if I let you work yourself into the ground.”
“I’m fine,” Kaylee protested.
“No. Grab some food, then take a few hours downtime. That’s an order.”
“You ain’t Mal, Zoe.”
“No, but I’m in charge while he’s gone.” She softened her tone. “You won’t do anyone any good if you make a mistake in putting that purifier in.”
“Well, no,” Kaylee grudgingly agreed. “But just a couple of hours.”
“Good.” She turned to the doctor. “Simon, you too.”
“Once I’ve got Jayne to the infirmary.”
“Can he walk?”
“Better if he doesn’t. The extra pressure -”
“Then we’ll carry him.”
“Just the two of us?”
Zoe smiled a little. “Why, you got something better you want to do?”
“Hold your horses, I’m coming!” The desk clerk fumbled with the keys. “Do you have any idea what time it is? Getting a man out of a nice doze just when he’s dreaming about … that ain’t the way to do things!” He managed to get the door open. “What do you want?”
A tall woman with short brown hair stepped into the light. “To see Judge Lesserman.”
“Are you kidding me?” The clerk laughed. “He’s tucked up in a nice warm bed right now, and there is no way I’m going to disturb him at this hour.”
Freya glanced over her shoulder at the pink flushing the night sky. “It’s nearly dawn.”
“Well, not nearly enough. Come back in the morning.” He tried to close the door but she was in the way, leaning on it.
“I’ve got proof.”
“Proof of what?” He glared at her. “And get your foot out of the door.”
“That Malcolm Reynolds is innocent.”
“Great. Come back in the morning and I’m sure the judge will be pleased to hear your petition.”
“I’m not going anywhere. And you’re going to call the judge right now.”
“Lady, I value my job. it’s the only one I’ve got. And I’m not going to be doing anything stupid like getting a judge out of bed before daylight.”
“I’ll make a fuss.”
“I’d truly reconsider that,” said a man coming out of the shadows, his hands clasped in front of him. “You have no idea the kind of fuss she can make. It’s pretty nasty. Gruesome, even. And the body parts …”
Freya put her hand on his arm. “Hank, get back to the ship. Tell them I’ll be bringing Mal home soon.”
“You sure?” He looked at her, his grey eyes colourless in the light. “I can stay, be moral support -”
“Go on. I’m sure this gentleman’s about to see sense.” She smiled at him. “I’ll be fine.”
“Okay then.” Hank backed up, but waited on the edge of the light.
The clerk looked from one to the other, trying to figure out what the right, and - to be honest - the less troublesome thing to do was.
“Jim, that you?” Another man stepped out of the darkness, one that at least he thought recognised, and there were shades of maybe another three or four behind him.
The barman from The Lusty Redhead grinned. “Yep, it’s me. Look, Jim, just call the judge. If he says anything just tell him it’s some of his voters out here, and if he wants to get re-elected next year he needs to get his ass down here right now.”
“Dobie, he’s gonna kill me.”
“Now, that ain’t likely. And if he does we’ll string him up too.”
Jayne struggled to get himself onto his elbows, but it showed how weak he truly was when Simon was able to push him back against the pillow with no effort.
“Doc, this is crazy. I coulda walked here,” the big man insisted.
“And possibly given yourself a stroke at the same time. That would just put the icing on the cake, wouldn’t it?”
“It’s an expression,” River said softly.
“Hell, I know that. Just thinking that I feel hungry.”
Simon smiled a little. “That’s good. It means your body is trying to get back to normal.”
“Jayne isn’t normal,” River added.
“I did say trying.”
“Hey, I’m kinda here, ya know.”
“What, all of you?” Hank asked, leaning in from the common area, having just arrived back and heard the voices.
“I could still take you outside and beat the crap out of you,” Jayne warned.
“And it appears he’s still the same fluffy teddy bear we’ve all grown to love,” the pilot said, grinning.
“Where’s Frey?” Zoe asked.
“Getting the Cap. She says she’ll have him home before breakfast.” Hank scratched his head, making his hair stand up even more. “Talking of which, is there any coffee on the go?”
“Probably. It might be a bit strong.”
“How I like it.” He grinned and headed up the stairs.
“Can you keep Jayne under control?” Zoe asked Simon.
“I think I can manage,” the young doctor said dryly.
“I’ll help,” River put in.
“Good.” Zoe followed her fiancé, catching him up at the first turn of the stairs. “So what’s Freya up to?”
“Oh, just talked those witnesses into going to see the judge.”
“She threaten them?”
“No, actually she was very restrained. Most unlike her.”
“I think she’s trying a different approach.”
Hank grinned over his shoulder. “Yeah, well, truth is I don’t think I’d’ve wanted to be around if this one hadn’t worked. She was getting pretty het up.”
“Her husband’s in jail. I’d feel the same way.”
“So when I get thrown inside you’ll come and rescue me?”
“I’d seriously think about it.”
“Now that’s not fair. I’d give up my life for you.”
“And I’ve already said I’ll marry you. Do I have to break you out of jail too?”
“If you loved me you would.”
As they reached the top deck, a beeping noise filtered down the corridor.
“What’s that?” Zoe asked, the sound interrupting them.
“Not sure.” Hank ran to the bridge. “It’s an emergency com signal.”
“No way of knowing. Except it’s …” He turned his head sharply towards her. “I think it might be Inara’s.”
“It’s weak, it’s a long way off, and nobody else is likely to be using this frequency but us, and as nobody’s actually speaking …”
“Can you track it? Figure out where she is?”
“I’m working on it …” He flicked switches and played an arpeggio across the keys. “Yeah. Got it.” He pointed to the screen. “Right there.”
“Get the shuttle prepped. I’ll let Simon and Kaylee know where we’re going.”
Judge Lesserman was not the happiest of men. To be called out of his warm bed, forced halfway across town, and now confronted by half a dozen of the good citizens of Medusa was not doing his ulcer any good.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked yet again.
“Yes, your Honour.” The bartender nodded. “Clyde shot first. No doubt about that. I figure maybe Chen and this man here fired about the same time, but Clyde was definitely the guilty party. This feller wasn’t even threatening them.”
“I see.” The judge rubbed his hand across his face and through his hair. “Well, that pretty much seems cut and dried.” His gaze travelled across the witnesses. “Thank you, gentlemen. You’d better be all getting home now.” He waited until they’d left, then turned to the woman who had been sitting next to them. “Mrs Reynolds.”
Freya stood up. “Yes, sir.”
“Just how did you manage to get those men here at this time of the night?”
“I asked nicely.”
“Hmmn.” He chewed the inside of his lip in thought, then turned once more to the man in the dock. “Captain Reynolds, since we appear to have corroboration that the two decedents did in fact shoot first, I am inclined to let you go.” Judge Lesserman leaned back in his chair. “But killing folk is killing folk, and that’s a fact, no matter how much you want to dress it up in pigtails and call it self-defence.”
“Believe me, sir, I never intended killing either of those men,” Mal asserted.
“Yes, well, that’s as maybe. But you did, and I don’t want you in my town. Medusa has a reputation to keep, Captain. The people we work for expect a certain level of law, and I get the feeling that if you stay around you’re going to be breaking that law, probably quite a bit. So you will leave. Take your ship and get gone from Bellerophon.”
“Sir, I would, but we had to put in for repairs, and as much of a genius as my mechanic is, she ain’t no miracle worker.”
“Maybe a day. Two at the outside.”
“You have twenty-four hours, Captain. Otherwise I’ll be sending these gentlemen to bring you back in front of me for contempt of court. And no amount of sweet talking will keep you out of jail if that occurs.”
“Yes, sir, your Honour.”
Judge Lesserman went to raise his gavel, but paused. “You know, I can’t help feeling there’s more to this than meets the eye. You care to enlighten me?”
Mal gazed at the man in the robes, then shook his head. No matter that he was tempted to tell about what they feared, what they thought they knew, the judge was right. It was the people with money, their clientele that called the shots. A word in the wrong ear and he’d never find Hermione. Or the other girls. “No sir,” he said firmly. “It was just an ordinary misunderstanding between folks.”
“Ordinary …” The judge studied the man in the dock. “Somehow not a word that springs to mind where you’re concerned.” He brought the gavel down on the bench. “Case dismissed.”
Before the sound had even died away Mal was out of the dock and embracing his wife.
“Does this mean I won’t have to be baking you a pie with a file in it?” she asked, closing her eyes to revel in the feeling.
“With your cooking, who could tell?” Mal teased, then took a sharp breath as her arms tightened on him.
“Oh, Mal, I’m sorry.” She let go, putting her hand tenderly on the bruise.
“It’s okay, [i[ai ren,” he assured her, pulling her back into his embrace. “It’s okay.”
Judge Lesserman looked down at the pair of them. “Try and keep him out of trouble, Mrs Reynolds,” he implored.
“I’ll try,” she agreed.
The judge shook his head and left the courtroom.
“You don’t want to be wasting any of that twenty-four hours,” the deputy said, swinging his baton so it smacked into the palm of his hand. “Because if you’re just a minute over that, I’ll be volunteering to come get you.”
“And I’d make sure you were welcomed,” Mal said, letting go of Freya and staring at the man.
“You threatening me?” The baton slapped harder.
“Did I sound like I was?” Mal looked at his wife. “Did I?”
The deputy snorted. “You just be careful. We don’t like your sort around here.”
“No, I got that.” He touched his thigh. “What about my gun?”
“Collect it from the man at the desk on your way out.” The deputy looked him up and down once more, then slid his eyes over Freya. “Be seeing you, Captain Reynolds.” He strolled out, his baton swinging.
“Not if I shoot first,” Mal muttered, then put his arm back around his wife’s waist. “Come on, before I do something stupid.”
“Good idea,” Freya agreed. “Although, talking of doing stupid things …”
“Inara. Time to wake up.” The voice was gentle, soft, and felt familiar. “Come on, sleepyhead. Time to rise and shine.” Her eyelids fluttered, and a smile lifted her lips. “Time for you to fulfil your promise.”
The smile froze. It wasn’t a dream. And that wasn’t her father speaking, or her tutor, or Mal …
A hand touched her bare skin and goosebumps erupted. Her eyes flew open. Anthony Han, a man she thought she knew, a man she trusted, was leaning over her, a look on his face that made her shiver.
“You perform well and maybe I won’t feel the need to hurt those little girls,” he added, his tone silky.
“I … can be whatever you want, Anthony.” She felt sick, and licked dry lips. “Whatever you need.”
“Yes. I can make you feel so -”
He slapped her hard, on the same cheek as before. “No. Not a Companion.” He glared at her. “I can and have had as many of those as I wanted. No. This has to be you, Inara. The real you. When I touch you it won’t be the Companion. It will be the little girl who walked into that Guild House, not the whore who left. You, Inara. Or I’ll slit your throat right now and then spend some time with one of my other playthings.”
She shuddered. She wanted desperately to say there was no real Inara anymore, that she’d been consumed by her profession, that there was nothing to give him, but that wouldn’t help the girls. Dear God, it wouldn’t help Hermione if she was still alive. Instead she nodded. “The real me, Anthony,” she agreed, her hands coming up cover her breasts.
He smiled, and stroked his fingers across her shoulder, a travesty of the ardent lover. “Better. Much better.” He leaned forward and kissed her collar bone. “Now …”
She turned her face away.
to be continued
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