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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Maya. Post-BDM. Mal is trying to save Inara and Hermione from the Monster. PART II OF II
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1575 RATING: 0 SERIES: FIREFLY
Mal strode towards Serenity, Freya beside him, noting one of his shuttles wasn’t in place.
“Inara back yet?” he demanded as he climbed the ramp into the cargo bay.
Kaylee had been waiting for them, and shook her head. “They’re still out looking.”
“They take a shuttle?”
“Hank picked up a signal from a com, and they went to see.”
“They figured it was probably Inara’s, but there’s … I don’t know … they haven’t called yet.”
He could see the worry dousing her normally bright spirit. With a sigh he pulled her into his arms. “It’s okay, mei-mei. It wasn‘t your fault.”
“Yes it was! I could’ve stopped her, made her stay, done something to -”
“Like what? Little Kaylee, much as I’d like to have seen you tie the woman down, somehow I don’t think you’ve got it in you.”
She held on tightly. “She went to see someone she thought might be able to help. Guy called Anthony Han. An old friend, she said. Got influence, might be able to … she thought he could get you out of jail at least.”
“Yeah, she spoke to me about him. And I told her no. When exactly did she go?”
“Yesterday. ‘Bout three.”
“You tried calling him?”
“Zoe did. Last night. They said he was out. Business meeting.”
“Inara?” Freya asked.
“The man didn’t know. And I’ve been trying again this morning, but now they’re saying he’s busy, can‘t be disturbed.”
Mal looked down into her worried brown eyes. “At least she took a com with her. That was being sensible.” He tried to smile for her. “Not like Inara at all.”
“That ain’t fair, Cap’n!”
“No, I know. And I’m sorry.”
“No, it‘s … I know you‘re just trying to cheer me up, but if Inara‘s not there …” Tears began to roll down her cheeks.
“Shh, it’s okay, Kaylee,” Mal said, pulling her back to his shoulder. “She’ll be fine. I know it.” He gave her one more squeeze then said, “How’s my ship? Ready to fly yet?”
Kaylee pulled back, wiping her face on her sleeve. “Not quite. Still got me more work to do, but she’s getting there.”
“Then you get me Han on the vid, then you’d better be getting back to it, don’t you think?”
She sniffed hard. “Won’t be but a moment. Maybe they’ll be so fed up of me calling all these times they’ll put me through just to get rid of me.” She managed a grin and scurried off up the stairs.
Mal waited for her to disappear through the door before he ground out quietly, “Da-shiong bao-jah-shr duh la doo-tze.” More’n half a day. Inara could be dead or dying by now. Hell, it only took a moment to be either. He looked at Freya, seeing the self same thoughts on her face as in his mind, and headed towards the bridge and the Cortex link.
“I’m sorry, captain,” Anthony Han said, concern on his handsome face. “She never showed up for our meeting. I admit I was late - my other appointment ran over - but I waited for over an hour then came back here in case there had been a misunderstanding.”
“And you never thought to check?”
“I was in business meetings until the early hours. And I assumed someone on your ship would let me know if she hadn’t returned.”
“Really? I shall have words with my staff.” He leaned a little closer to the screen. “Do you think something has honestly happened to her?”
Mal went to speak but paused, then shrugged. “Mr Han, with that woman anything is possible. Including the possibility that she found a likelier mark and went home with him.” He heard a sharp intake of breath from behind him, but ignored it.
“Would you like me to send my men out, to search the estate, just in case she came here? I mean, I was perfectly specific, that I’d meet her at the West Hanover Tower -”
“West?” Kaylee interrupted, unable to hold her tongue. “You said East.”
“My dear girl, I said West. Most clearly. I can assure you …” His voice faltered. “No. I’m sure I said … I certainly meant West. Are you sure I … maybe I did. It’s so easy to … perhaps all along she was waiting in the wrong place.”
“I am so sorry. Look, this is all my fault. I can put together a search party, if you’d like. Perhaps she decided to make her way to the house. Except there are some treacherous paths around here, and -”
“Probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, just to put my mind at rest. She’ll probably come wandering home, her tail between her legs. But if you could at least make sure she ain’t lying in a ditch somewhere …”
Han nodded. “Of course. I’ll keep you informed.” The screen went blank.
“Cap …” Kaylee was amazed at his apparent about-face over Inara’s safety, but he didn’t respond. Instead he turned to Freya.
“Well? Why’d I lie to him?” He’d felt her put her hand on his shoulder as Han spoke, squeezing gently.
“Because he was lying in the first place.”
“He knows where she is?”
“Yes.” Her face was pale, drawn.
“He was laughing. Full of triumph at what he’d done.” She shuddered a little.
“Someone’s dead, Mal.”
She nodded. “I could taste it.”
“I don’t … don’t think so. There was … something when you were talking about her, satisfaction of some kind, but not … no, I think she‘s alive.”
“Then … Hermione?”
“Mal, I don’t know. Just a death.”
The com buzzed again. “Yeah,” Mal said into the handlink.
Zoe‘s voice filled the bridge. “Sir, we’ve found Inara’s comunit.”
There was a pause. “No, sir. Just the unit. There’s nothing out here except sand and scrub. It looks as if it was brought here deliberately.”
The tendons in Mal’s neck tightened. “You sure?”
“Yes, sir. There’s no sign of anything else.”
“Then get back here.”
“Do you have a plan, sir?”
“Still working on that.” He hung the handset back up and looked at Freya. “How sure are you? About Han?”
“I don’t want to be.”
“’Cause you are aware of what you’re saying.”
Freya exhaled heavily. “I don’t know, Mal.”
“That he’s the Monster.”
“It could be coincidence,” Kaylee suggested. “Maybe Inara’s just been mugged or something, and they tossed the com ‘cause it wasn’t worth anything to ‘em, and she‘s waiting at a Fed station right now.” But even she didn’t sound like she believed it.
“No,” Freya said firmly. “He’s got Inara, one way or the other.”
“And the other girls? Gut feeling, Frey. What does it tell you?” Mal asked, his hands gripping the armrests.
For a long moment she didn’t answer, then … “Yes. I can’t give you specifics, but the feelings coming off him, the … the enjoyment … Yes.”
“Then that’s good enough for me. Where does he live?”
Kaylee scampered across to the co-pilot’s seat, drawing up information from the Cortex. “Got it. An estate ‘bout an hour outside of town.”
“Plenty. Looks like a main house, half a dozen outbuildings, stables, plus something that looks like a winery -”
“Too much to search,” Mal said bitterly.
Freya moved forward. “I might be able to … if I got close enough …”
He gazed at her. “Inside,” he repeated.
“It’s the only way.”
There was silence for a moment. “You think he fell for it?”
“Me neither. But we might just have wrong-footed him enough to buy Inara and Hermione a little time.”
“Might not be enough.”
“We just gotta hope, Frey.” He shook his head. “Right now I wish that big wangu chunren was back on his feet.”
“Even with Jayne Han could have a small army inside. And it’s likely he’ll be expecting us.”
Mal took a deep breath and held it, before exhaling hard. “Looks like I don’t have a choice, then.” He looked at his young mechanic. “Kaylee, get back to work. Might need my ship sooner than later.”
“Sure thing, Cap’n.” She headed for the door then paused. “You think she’s still okay? Inara, I mean. And … and the other girls, a’course.”
“You just worry on getting Serenity space-worthy,” Mal said softly. “Let me deal with the rest.”
Kaylee nodded, then ran down the steps.
“You’re going to call?” Freya asked.
“Like I said. Don’t seem to have a choice.” Mal reached forward.
“That was your friends, Inara,” Han said, closing the door quietly and looking at the woman on the bed. “They think they’re being so clever. That they know. They don’t. And even if they try they can’t get in.” He kicked off his soft shoes. “No-one is coming, Inara. Best that you get used to that fact. Be less … painful to you.” He pushed the robe off his shoulders. “Now, where were we?”
Inara curled into a ball and whimpered.
Durren Haymer hadn’t changed. He still looked like a mild-mannered businessman, and not the cold, calculating Alliance scientist Saffron had made him out to be. He probably fell between the two, but right now he was confused.
“This is unexpected,” he said. “When I was told someone wanted to speak to me about the Lassiter, you were the last person I imagined to see.”
“I conjure I am.” Mal didn’t smile.
“Is Yolanda still with you?”
Yo-Saff-Bridge … “She never was with me.”
“She said you were her husband.”
“Along with maybe a thousand other guys. But she’s not the reason I called.”
“No.” Haymer couldn’t help it. “Do you know where she is?”
“Last time I saw her was back on Boros coupla years ago, when she tried to … well, let’s just say she made my wedding night interesting.”
Haymer nodded as if he understood completely. “And your wife didn’t kill her?”
“I think it crossed her mind.”
“Your bride must be a singular woman.”
Mal didn’t even glance at Freya sitting next to him in the co-pilot‘s seat. “That she is. Look, much as it’s fine discussing old times, I need to … well, I have a favour to ask.”
“You mentioned the Lassiter.”
“That ain't the favour. That’s the payment.”
“I need help. If you can oblige me, I’ll undertake to get the Lassiter back for you from wherever – whoever has it now.”
Haymer’s expression didn’t change. “I see. This must be a big favour.”
“I need information. And … and men, if you can see your way.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because the Monster is living here on your world.” Mal saw Haymer’s head go back.
“The Monster. The one the Cortex has been full of. Kills young women …”
“Not just kills. What he does to them before he … Yeah, that one.”
“And you say he’s on Bellerophon?” Haymer shook his head. “I can’t believe that.”
“Fact is, you probably know him.”
The look on Haymer’s face was the same one he had when he realised Saffron … Yolanda was robbing him, a mixture of pity and disbelief. “You’re joking.”
“Wish I was.”
“Can you prove it?”
“He’s taken a girl I'm responsible for, as well as one of my friends. If you want a piece of paper saying he’s gonna kill them, I don’t have it. Just the sure knowledge that, if you don’t help, next time I see them it’ll be in a morgue.”
“That isn’t enough to get the Federals involved -”
“Wasn’t planning on doing it. That’d be a sure way of getting them killed.”
Haymer stared through the screen. “So you plan to … what? Frontal assault?”
“I’d kinda like to avoid that if I can, but maybe there’s a back door … Look, I know the last time we met - the only time - I wasn’t exactly making a good impression. But there’s people’s lives at stake here.” Mal sighed. “Any help right now’d be good.”
The older man didn’t speak for a moment., just looked at Mal as if he was trying to assess the likelihood of this criminal telling the truth. “I have to consider,” he said finally. “I can get back to you?”
“Just hit recall.”
Haymer nodded, just once, and the screen went blank.
Freya looked at Mal, who shrugged.
“Not sure,” he said to her unspoken query. “I never took the man to be one likely to turn us in without thinking about it first, but then that’s only on a meeting of a few minutes.”
“Yet you trust him.”
“At this juncture I’d trust the devil himself if he could come up with the goods.”
“This is taking too long,” Mal said, pacing the bridge, glancing down towards the galley where Hank and Zoe were sitting, then further towards the engine room. “It’s been almost an hour. The girls could … they could be dead by now.”
“No. They’re not.” Freya shifted slightly in the co-pilot’s seat, feeling more than a little uncomfortable, her back aching. “He’s enjoying himself. Knowing that you suspect him, but also aware you can’t do anything about him.”
“Yeah, well, he’s gonna find that’s not entirely true.”
“And if Haymer doesn’t come up with anything? Then what?”
“I …“ Mal suddenly punched the wall, and Freya was out of her seat the next moment, taking his hand in hers.
“You do that any more and you won’t be in a position to go after anyone,” she said softly, examining the broken skin.
“Don’t hurt much, Frey,” Mal murmured.
“You’re lying to a psychic?”
“That ain’t doing us much good right now, though, is it?”
Freya stepped back, letting go of his hand as she felt his bitter words wound her. “I’m trying, Mal.”
Guilt flooded through him, and he tugged her into his arms. “I’m sorry. Please, Frey, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’ve said that, and I didn’t mean it. All this, all the not being able to do anything … it’s got me all turned around.”
Her arms encircled him, holding him tightly. “We’ll get them back, Mal.”
He rested his chin on the top of her head, and sighed heavily. “Surely wish I could believe that, ai ren.”
The com buzzed, and Freya glanced at the console. “Haymer,” she said.
He nodded and let her go, activating the screen as he sat down in the pilot’s chair, hearing his first mate and pilot running along the corridor and up the stairs. Haymer‘s mild face appeared.
Mal spoke first. “Did you come to a decision as to the fact that I’m telling the truth?”
“Honestly, no.” Haymer paused. “But I equally can’t see why you would lie about something like this.” His eyes were troubled. “And I’ve been speaking to some friends.”
Mal sat forward. “Can I enquire as to the nature of that friendship?”
“I’m afraid not. But they are usually reliable. Except in this case they’re being remarkably … skittish.”
“They won’t confirm anything. Or deny it, for that matter.”
“Doesn’t that tell you something?”
Haymer didn’t speak again for a long moment, and Mal began to feel more than a little uncomfortable. “Look, I don’t have time to be waiting on your predicament. Got one of my own to be seeing to,” he finally said.
“I appreciate that.” Haymer sighed. “And I will help as much as I can. But I can’t give you men. I live here.”
Mal understood. “Then what can you give me?”
Haymer moved closer to the screen. “Han has state of the art security, but once you’re inside, there’s minimal staff.” He almost seemed embarrassed. “I’ve been to functions at his house. We’re a tight-knit community of murderers.” He gathered himself. “I always wondered why he doesn’t have more people around, but if you’re right, he couldn’t risk anyone he didn’t trust being privy to his secret.”
“Still have to get inside.”
The other man nodded. “There’s a way. It won’t be easy, but there’s a tunnel leads directly into the cellars of the house.”
“How do you –“
“I actually considered buying that estate when I first came here, before I decided on this one.”
“Floaty island wasn't your first choice?”
“I am well aware of how people think of us. Rich and paranoid. In most cases that’s true.”
“And in yours?”
“Definitely. But I still have the plans of the house.”
“Won’t he have sealed it off, if his security is as good as you say?”
“He may not have bothered. In fact, he may not even be aware …The entrance is almost inaccessible, but if you’re determined –“
“– then it’s not impossible. I’m sending you the schematics.”
Freya nodded. “Got them.”
Mal looked back at the screen. “Thanks. And I’ll be in touch about the Lassiter. You tell me who has it, and I –“
“There’s no need. The Lassiter is even now back in my study.”
“It is worth a great deal of money, and the insurance company was more than willing to pay a percentage to get it back.” He smiled. “The security around it is a lot tighter now, though, I should warn you.”
“Ain't coming after it again.”
“That’s good to know.” Haymer nodded, one professional to another. “Good luck, Captain Reynolds.”
Mal’s jaw dropped. “How do you know who I –“
“Did you think I wouldn’t find out who tried to rob me?” He smiled. “In fact, who succeeded in doing so? It wasn't that hard to work it out. And after Miranda …”
“And you still want to help.”
“If this man is the Monster, he needs to be dealt with. And although I can’t offer you anything else, at least I can do this.” He paused. “And if you do happen to come across Yolanda in your wanderings, I would be grateful if you could let me know.”
“You still want her? Even after the last time when she kicked you in the head?”
“Broke my jaw, actually. But yes. I still love her, you see.”
“I’ll keep my eye out for her. And thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Captain.” Haymer nodded and switched off the screen.
“Sir?” Zoe asked. “You’ve got a plan?”
“Well, I was figuring on flying by the seat of my pants, but … yeah.” He looked from one to the other of his crew. “Get kitted up. See if Jayne’ll let you borrow Vera - I think we might need her firepower. And grenades. Lots of grenades.”
Zoe nodded. “And River?”
“Ask her. But if her mind isn’t on the job …”
“I’ll talk to her.” His first mate strode off the bridge.
“Hank, go tell Simon to get his bag together. If Inara’s hurt we might need his expertise.”
“On it.” He ran out after his fiancé.
Freya stepped closer to him. “I wish Jayne was coming.”
“Me too, xin gan. Me too.” He looked into her face. “Time to get ready.”
“They’re going, ain’t they?” Jayne asked, watching Zoe leave the common area.
“Yes.” River stepped back into the infirmary.
“So why ain’t you ready?”
She dropped her head. “Told Zoe I wasn’t going.”
“Not … why?”
Her hair fell in front of her face. “You need me.”
He reached up, pulled her dark tresses to one side. “You look at me, girl.”
She looked up slowly. “You need me. Simon has to go, but you -”
“You’re crazy, moonbrain, but you’ve never been stupid before.” He shook his head. “’Cept that brother of yours’d have a fit if I tried, I’d be strapping my gun on right now.”
“You can’t.” She ran her fingertips over the dressing, barely touching it.
“Which means you gotta,” he said softly. “They need you.”
“But you need me too.”
“And I’ll still be here when ya get back. Ain't goin’ anywhere, River. ‘N’ if I could I’d be out there with ya, holding your coat. But you need to make sure they come home, dong mah?”
“Then you’d better grab your gun. ‘Cause I reckon the Cap’s gonna be in trouble if you don’t.”
In the shuttle Zoe stacked the weapons, making sure the grenades were secure. She looked up as Hank stepped inside.
“Simon’s on his way,” he said, settling his own gunbelt warily. “You know, I’m glad LW is safe back on Lazarus. I wouldn’t want –“
“His name’s Ben.”
Hank looked at her. “What?”
“Our son’s name is Ben.”
“I know.” He was confused.
“Then stop calling him LW.”
“But I –“
She was suddenly crowding him, pushing him against the wall. “Wash is dead. I buried him. Ben is our son – your son. And I'm not going to marry you until you stop calling your son ‘Little Wash’.”
“But I thought –“
“No, you didn’t.” Her face relaxed a little, and he wondered if maybe she wasn't going to shoot him after all. “If anything maybe we should have called him Hank Junior.” She reached out and touched his cheek. “I loved Wash. With all my heart. And I wish to God that harpoon had missed. But it didn’t, and it took him from me.” She saw his eyes tighten. “But you taught me how to love again. Gave me the inclination to believe there was life again. And now you’ve given me a son. But he’s your son, not Wash’s. I made that decision a long time ago. Don’t go making me regret it.”
He stared into her eyes, seeing nothing but the truth there. “I'm sorry. I thought it was what you wanted.”
“I want you.”
“Okay, I see that now.”
She shook her head slightly, one side of her mouth lifting. “It’s taken you this long?”
“Well, no-one ever said I was the sharpest pencil in the box.”
“And they never said you weren’t.”
“I'm just stupid, Zoe. Can’t help that. I've got this kinda blind spot when it comes to you, and it stops me from seeing straight.”
“Then we’ll get you glasses.”
“Don’t know that’ll help.”
“Then I’ll keep you going in the right direction.” She stroked her thumb across his lip. “So what’s our son’s name?”
Hank smiled. “Ben.”
“Can’t help it if I sometimes slip, though.”
“I’ll pick you up.”
“So you two are getting married?” Simon asked from the doorway.
“You caught eavesdropping from the Cap?” Hank asked, his eyes still locked with Zoe’s.
“I’m actually not surprised he does it. It’s amazing what you get to hear. Are you?”
Zoe nodded. “I think I said yes.”
“Only think?” Hank complained. “I told you we shoulda gone to that chapel and got it done when I first asked.”
“I said yes,” she confirmed.
“Good. Least now I got a witness.”
“Congratulations.” The young doctor stepped inside and put his bag down. “Another wedding.”
“Your sister and Jayne maybe next,” Hank said, heading for the small bridge.
“I want to come!” Kaylee protested, following Mal along the corridor away from the bunks, Freya behind them both. “Inara’s my friend, and -”
“I know she is,” Mal said. “But you’re staying.”
“’N’ I’ve been getting better with guns. Been practicing with River -”
He stopped and she almost ran into him. “Kaylee, you’re staying. I have to have Serenity up and running soon as, and that means a purifier that works and ain’t gonna blow up on me. And that means you stay.”
“But what if you run into security, locks and the like?”
“Then we’ll deal.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “Please, Kaylee.”
“Why ain’t you ordering me to stay?” she asked, her eyes suspiciously bright.
“’Cause I’m asking instead.”
“Gorram it, Cap’n.”
He knew she’d seen reason, if not sense, and his lips curved a little. “That’s my girl,” he said, turning her towards the engine room. “Better get busy.”
She sighed heavily but let him push her gently along. “You get yourselves killed, don’t you come running to me for help,” she called over her shoulder, stepping down into the galley.
“She’s right, you know,” Freya said softly. “If we do find electronic -”
Mal turned to her. “Not taking her. It’s bad enough as it is that I have to lead my crew into God knows what, but I can’t … she’ll be safer on Serenity.”
“You’re thinking if we get caught she might end up …” Freya didn’t finish.
“Stop reading my thoughts, woman,” Mal said brusquely, heading down the stairs.
“I don’t need to. I was thinking the same.”
“Then we’re on the same page. At least I won’t have to be worrying about her too.” He stepped onto the catwalk and paused. He turned to look at his wife behind him. “Frey, in fact I think you should -”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You even finish that sentence and you’re gonna find yourself flat on your back.”
Mal took a deep breath. “Bao bei, it’s going to be a hard climb. And in your condition -
She slapped him. Not hard, just a palm across his cheek, but it stung. He didn’t touch it, didn’t want to feel the heat in his skin.
He gazed at her. “Better?” he asked. “’N’ I guess maybe I deserved it after that thing I said before.”
“Oh, Mal …” She shook her head. “I’m sorry. But you make me so -”
“I’m worried about you. And at least this time I didn’t ask Simon to dope you.”
“I know.” She looked at the red mark on his face and felt ashamed. “But I have to. You’re going to need everyone you’ve got, especially since it looks like River’s not going.”
“Frey, anything happens to you, I … I meant it when I said I couldn’t survive without you.”
She looked into his eyes, their blueness just for her. “Mal, I have to come. For Inara.”
“You think you can find her? That she’s still alive?”
Freya nodded slowly. “I can taste her. And there’s no death to that. Not yet.”
“But there will be?”
“He’s not going to let her go, Mal. You know that.” She reached up, rested her hand on the redness that was fading. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Should expect things like this once in a while, you being hormonal and all.”
“You expect me to hit you?”
“Well, I’d rather you didn’t, but then this is kinda exceptional.”
She smiled a little. “What, us going in mob-handed to rescue Inara? I think it’s happened once or twice before.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing she’s got her own place now, after all.” He pulled her into his arms, wrapping her in them. “Keeps her out of trouble.”
“Sir?” Zoe stood in the doorway to the shuttle. “We’re ready.”
Mal looked across at her. “Good.” He let Freya go and they headed for the shuttle. “Still wish River -”
“I’m here,” said the young psychic, crossing the catwalk towards them. She had her bandoleers strapped over her chest, and her pistol at her hip.
“You coming, albatross?” Mal asked, surprised.
“Jayne told me to.”
Mal smiled. “Good to have you.”
Simon stepped out of the shuttle. “If River’s going, I think I should stay with Jayne. He might need -”
His sister put her hand on his arm. “You have to come.”
“What? Why?” He looked down at the gun he wore. “You know I’m pretty useless in a fight -”
“I wouldn’t say that, doctor,” Mal put in.
“And you’ll be needed,” River added cryptically.
“’Sides, Kaylee’s staying. She’s got work to do, get us ready to fly.” He straightened. “If push comes to shove she can perform a heroic rescue.”
“Kaylee?” Simon didn’t look convinced.
“C’mon, doc,” Mal said, putting his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Ship’s locked up tight, and we need to get going. Got to bring home our family.”
Hank landed the shuttle on a spur of beach, above the high tide line but close enough to where they needed to be so it wasn’t too much of a hike.
“Han shouldn’t be able to see us from down here,” he said, stepping into the main body of the shuttle and watching everyone make their final preparations. “Not unless he walks right to the edge of the cliff.”
“Would solve all our problems if he did that and fell over, wouldn’t it,” Mal said, adjusting the straps on his backpack.
“Unlikely,” River responded.
Mal smiled. “Conjure you’re right on that score, little one.” He looked around. “Ready?”
There was general nodding, and he opened the door. Immediately the smell of the ocean filled the small ship.
River closed her eyes for a moment and breathed deeply, letting it flow through her, then she was outside, her soft shoes barely making an impression on the sand.
“Looks like it’s time to go,” Mal said, following her. “Last one out lock up.”
Ten minutes later and they were standing looking up the cliff face, just grazed with ledges.
“Have to be a gorram mountain goat to get up there,” Mal muttered.
“Why can’t we use the shuttle?” Simon asked. “Fly us in close enough and we’d be able to step across.”
“Too many cross-winds,” Freya explained. “Unpredictable. They could easily push us into the cliff itself, especially with the tide coming in.” She glanced at the water moving swiftly across the mud towards them. “And talking of which …”
Hank inexpertly finished fastening his harness, and looked up unhappily.
“You okay?” Zoe asked quietly.
“You know I have this thing about confined spaces …” He bit his lip.
“Well, let’s just say I get a bit queasy.”
“You’re a pilot.”
“You keep saying that, but it really don’t make any difference.”
“You’ll be fine,” Simon said, attaching his rope to Hank’s waist. “Follow me and do exactly what I do.”
“And if that includes falling off, screaming, and tossing my brains all over the rocks?”
“Probably not a good idea.”
“Then I’ll try.” He looked the young man up and down, at the surprisingly relaxed expression on his face. “You’ve done this kinda thing before?”
Simon nodded, tugging once more on his harness. “Med school. I used to go climbing at weekends.”
“Then I’m your shadow.”
Mal took a deep breath and released it slowly. “We good to go, people?”
“We’re ready, captain,” River said, and started climbing.
Mal watched for a moment as she seemed to almost glide up the rockface, and shook his head. “For a woman who wasn’t gonna come in the first place, she sure don’t want to get left behind,” he murmured, and followed her, Freya only a few feet behind, a smile lifting her hips.
Zoe put her hand on Hank’s arm. “I’ll be right with you, baby.”
He smiled uncertainly, then flexed his fingers. “Good. Fine. Shiny.”
“You think they’re there yet?” Kaylee asked, looking worriedly into the infirmary.
“Prob’ly,” Jayne said. “They’ll be okay, girl.”
“The Cap’s got out of more hassles like this than most, and he knows what he’s doing.” She tried to smile. “Can’t help being scared for ‘em, though.”
“You’re worried about the doc.”
“Yeah,” Kaylee admitted.
“It’s okay to be. He’s your husband.”
“You worried about River?”
“Nah.” Jayne lay back. “She really knows what she’s doing.”
As she climbed River felt the wind whipping her hair about her face, and, despite what they were doing and why they were doing it, she felt happy. This was what she was meant to be, using the skills that had been forced onto her to save others. To save family.
She looked up, seeing the opening only a few feet ahead. “Almost there,“ she called, and speeded up.
“That ain’t fair,” Hank muttered, watching her disappear into the mouth of the cave. “How come she makes it look so gorram easy?”
He risked a look below. The ocean had come in and was crashing against the rocks, and he was almost sure he could feel spray on his cheeks. For a split second he wished he’d done what Simon suggested, and piloted the shuttle so close that they could just step over. Then a gust of wind almost tore him from the cliff face, and he gripped even tighter, imagining the shuttle dashed into the waves below.
“Come on, honey,” Zoe said next to him. “Just a couple more feet.”
“I can’t.” His eyes were tight shut.
“Just move one hand. Just one. Come on, baby.”
Her soft voice, encouraging him without berating him, had him moving before he knew it, and suddenly hands had hold of him, hauling him up. He lay on his back, gasping.
“Thanks,” he managed to say.
Mal looked down at his pilot and shook his head. “Don’t have time to be lying around getting a suntan, Hank.”
“I am never gonna do that again,” Hank muttered, glaring up at him.
“You think it was a walk in the park for the rest of us?” Mal didn’t look away. “Well, most of us.”
Zoe settled Vera across her chest. “Sir, I think we’re ready.”
“Okay.” Mal pulled a torch from his pack. “So far so good. We keep together, don’t lose sight.” He glanced at Freya who nodded. “Move out, people.”
The windblown sand underfoot gave way to rock, and as they walked Hank said quietly, “Makes you wonder what this was used for.”
“Smuggling, maybe,” Zoe said, bringing up the rear. “Or an escape route.”
They turned a corner, heading up an incline, and suddenly the only light came from the bobbing spots of the torches.
“Wu de mah,” the pilot muttered.
“Breathe, Hank,” Zoe added.
“Yeah. Right.” He wiped the sudden sweat from his forehead.
“Hold,” Mal called softly, shining his torch at the wall.
Zoe hurried forward. “Sir?”
“Sensor beams,” he whispered, then wondered why. The light played on half a dozen emitters in the wall.
Zoe shone hers on the other side. The corresponding emitters winked back. “Control box?”
Mal shook his head. “Must be linked into the main grid. Although …” He leaned closer. “They don’t look none too new. This one actually looks corroded.”
“Doesn’t mean they don’t work.”
River leaned forward and swept a handful of dust from the floor. Stepping between Mal and Zoe, she tossed it high, the particles glittering in the torchlight.
“What the …” Mal took an involuntary step backwards, then smiled as the dust was illuminated by a beam from the top emitters only.
“The sea air isn’t conducive to long term exposure for electronic equipment,” River explained.
Mal glared at her. “Next time you plan to do that, you tell me first, dong mah?”
She looked unrepentant, but said, “Of course, captain.”
He took a deep breath then wished he hadn’t as the dust tickled his nose. “Well, come on. This ain’t exactly conducive to my sinuses either.” He stifled a sneeze and ducked under the remaining beam emitter.
“Brat …” Simon murmured at his sister as he walked past her, copying the captain.
“Boob,” she responded.
The incline of the tunnel increased, and in places there were large stones fallen, almost blocking the way, but they managed to clamber past. It could have been an hour, or it could have been forever, but finally they reached a door, heavy steel, its edges set deep into the rock.
“Hank,” Mal called.
The pilot shimmied out of his backpack and pulled a portable sensor from inside, running it over the metal. “Nothing nasty internally that I can see, but the hinges and the lock are each linked to the security grid.”
“Likely to be as old as the emitters downstairs?”
Hank shrugged. “No way of knowing. Better we take it that if we break any of them then someone knows we’re coming.”
“Then we don’t touch them.” Mal studied the door. “Frey, hand me the -” He felt something in his fingers and looked down. She had already given him the sticky gun. He lifted his head and smiled at her. “Thanks.”
Turning back he lifted the sticky gun, using it to draw a line barely an inch away from each of the hinges and the lock, before clipping the power pack to the door with its magnetic seal. As Zoe attached looped suction pads, he activated the acid, watching it eat into the metal. There was a hissing sound, and a distinctive perfume filled the cave, smelling like decay. Everyone tried hard not to breathe.
The hissing stopped and Mal took hold of two of the suction loops, Zoe the others. They pulled, groaning with the effort as muscles stood out on arms. But the section came free, falling towards them. Heaving mightily, they manhandled the metal to lean against the wall. Simon quickly sprayed the opening with a neutralising agent, then they all looked through the gap.
Bottles, in a rack, filled the space beyond.
“Wine cellar,” Mal muttered, and he started lifting them from their cradles, passing them to Freya and the others to stack behind them.
“He has good taste,” Freya breathed, noting some of the labels.
Mal glanced sharply back at her, but carried on.
Suddenly there was the sound of glass smashing on stone, and the smell of wine joined that of the rank odour of the acid.
“Sorry,” Hank whispered. “It slipped.”
Mal closed his eyes and listened.
“No-one heard,” River said quietly in his ear. “No-one down here.”
“You sure, albatross? Hate to come out in the middle of something.”
“Wine cellar. Lowest level. No-one here,” she confirmed.
“Hope you’re right.”
Mal went back to emptying the rack, and within minutes was able to slide it away from the hole, stepping through into the cellar. He paused, listening again, then motioned for the others to join him.
“Door’s here, sir. Ordinary lock,” Zoe called from his left.
“I can deal with that,” Freya said, and went down onto her heels, pulling a roll of fabric from her pocket. Several pieces of bent wire later, the door opened silently, its hinges well oiled.
“You’re really gonna have to tell me where you learned how to do that,” Mal murmured, but he stepped past her into the corridor. He looked up and down the length of it, but there was no sign of life. He looked at his wife, then at River. “You feel anyone?”
Both psychics seemed to unfocus, then Freya nodded. “Inara’s here. High up.”
“Can you get to her?”
“I think so.”
“What about the girls?”
“I can’t be sure. There are too many … I can’t be sure.” She looked annoyed with herself, adding, “But we have to hurry.”
“Then we do this the old-fashioned way.” He stood straight. “Simon, you and your sister take the first floor. Frey and I’ll take the second. Zoe, you and Hank work your way up from here.”
“Don’t use your coms ‘less you have to. Someone might be listening in. But if you get into trouble, holler.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” Hank said fervently. “Won’t need any com to hear me screaming for help.”
Some of the things she’d done, things he’d ordered her to do, she’d done in the past. Others she would never have considered. With the pain, the violations … she felt empty - used up. Then, as she lay on the bed, letting him finish, she realised. It was because she’d been paid before. Her choice. She’d said yes, allowed certain things to happen because she was a Companion. Because it was her job. Now, though, the pain she was in was because he forced her to acquiesce, to submit. There was no grace, no delicacy about it. This was the base and raw sex that being a Companion had always prettied up, made acceptable. She wrapped her arms about herself.
Anthony slid his heavy robe back on and fastened it securely..
“You’re a whore, Inara, nothing less.” He looked at her, lying shivering on the bare bed like a piece of meat he was considering buying. “But then, all women are. Just flesh. And such sinful flesh at that.”
“Anthony, tell me. Please. Which girl …” The words caught in her throat but she had nothing left to lose.
“Which girl I killed?” He smiled at her. “Possibly even here? In this room?”
She tried not to look around, to concentrate on his face, but couldn’t help wondering if there were stains on the walls, even the ceiling, beneath the rich hangings. “Please.”
“She died screaming, Inara.” He ran his hand down her naked flank, as if counting the bruises, and she shuddered. He seemed pleased with the result. “Screaming, until the blood bubbled in her throat.”
Inara swallowed, almost able to taste it herself. “If you tell me, I’ll -”
“You’re trying to make bargains with me?” He laughed. “A whore trying to tell me what to do?”
“No, I –“
He hit her, all the power of his arm as the back of his hand swept across her cheek, the ring on his finger digging into her flesh and sending a spray of blood over the sheet.
“You have nothing I want anymore,” he said, his voice low, dangerous. “Nothing.”
She clutched at the wound. “I could take her place.” She could hardly say it but had to try. “Die in her stead.”
He laughed again. “You’re too old, Inara. When you were young, when I first had you, maybe then. But now …” He looked her up and down, his eyes seeming to burn into her skin. “You could never be what I wanted, I see that now. And such a pity.” He stepped back. “But you’re worth nothing more to me. Just a few hours pleasant diversion before I get back to them. And when I have something that is worthless, I deal with it like I would any other trash.” He turned from her, the ultimate insult, not even looking to see if his words had affected her. Walking away, he didn’t even glance back as Shiban opened the door for his master, closing it again after him, but staying on the inside. He approached the bed, and Inara tried to scramble away from the lust in his eyes and the small knife he withdrew from his pocket.
They split up from the stairs, Hank and Zoe working their way slowly through the rooms on the lower ground floor.
“Where is everyone?” the pilot murmured as they closed the last of the doors. “Doesn’t this place have staff?”
“According to Haymer, not that many.” They headed for the stairs and the next level. “Just be happy we’ve not had to shoot anyone so far.”
“Oh, I am. Don’t get me wrong. Coward that I am, I’m all for the not shooting people thing.”
Zoe glanced back at him from her position a few steps higher. “You ain’t a coward. And I wish you’d stop saying you are.”
“But I am. Right now I’m wishing I was back on Serenity with Kaylee.”
“So am I,” Zoe admitted, earning a surprised look from her fiancé. “I’d rather be almost anywhere else. You think any of us want to be here?”
“No, no, I guess not. But you and Mal are always so … so sure of what you’re doing …”
“We might do what we do, maybe even take pleasure from breaking the law, but … this ain’t pleasurable, Hank. Only fools would find where we are enjoyable, and you’re no fool.” She stopped at the next doorway. “Now, can we stop having this conversation for a while? Got work to do.”
“No, fine, that’s … stopping right now.”
Zoe nodded and opened the door, coming out into the back of the large hallway. More than half a dozen other doors led off, and she could just see the base of the stairs that swung up over them. Her Mare’s Leg in her hand, she moved forward, stepping as quietly as possible, eyes moving all the time. Hank followed, gripping his own gun tightly.
He looked up at the height of the room, going all the way to the roof, saying softly, “How come they don’t –“
He didn’t get any further. A bullet to his chest span him around and he fell, a surprised look on his face.
Han studied himself in the mirror. He had showered and shaved, and now felt refreshed and ready for his next conquest. In his new bronze-coloured suit he felt strong, invincible. It was a beautiful cut, designed to be comfortable for the hours this would take, but still look good even when splashed with fluids. Running his hands down the lapels, he wondered how long it would take before he felt the need to change again, before the blood began to grow tacky …
The intercom buzzed. “Sir, we have visitors.”
“At least two. We have them pinned down in the main corridor.”
“Then deal with them. And have the rest of the men search the house,” he added absently.
Han stood straight, pulling his jacket into place. He smiled, his reflection copying him precisely. Inara had certainly wetted his appetite, despite her shortcomings, and he felt his heartbeat increasing as he considered what he was going to do, imagining the terrified look on the girl’s face …
Mal heard the gunfire, and swore under his breath. No point in being quiet now. “Go the other way,” he said to Freya, pointing towards the corner of the corridor that seemed to run around the exterior wall of the entire house. She nodded and moved away, her feet silent on the deep carpet.
He sighed, hating to see her going, but knowing there was no time otherwise to try and save them. If he could. He turned to the next door, trying the handle.
Kaylee sniffed, wiping her eyes again on her sleeve. She knew she had to do this work. Get her baby up and running again as soon as she could, get her ready in case. God, there couldn’t be an ‘in case’. She didn’t know how to fly Serenity, couldn’t land her if she did. That took someone like Frey, or Hank, or River, or the Cap’n … any of ‘em except her. She felt so useless.
Simon had no idea where he was. River had scampered off, telling him to keep to this corridor, that he would be needed, but she hadn’t told him who by, or why. Gunshots seemed to reverberate through the walls, and he held his own gun in his slightly sweaty palm. He’d killed in the past, much to his regret, but what he was, above all, was a doctor, and that meant saving lives, not taking them. If only he knew there was someone still alive enough to save.
She couldn’t stop him. No matter how she fought, the knife making cuts on her arms and hands, she couldn’t stop him. Sobbing as he forced himself into her, she scratched his face, breaking nails on his cheek, but he hit her, his fist connecting with her jaw even as he continued to plough inside her.
Men in the corridor, running towards her. She could smell their sweat as they carried their rifles, ready to extinguish life. Taking only a moment, she seemed to fly up the wall, holding onto the light fitting, tight against the ceiling.
They ran past and she dropped behind them, landing on the balls of her feet, already springing again as they began to turn, to raise their weapons and fire at her. She caught one immediately with her foot, breaking his neck with an audible snap. Then she leaped into a forward roll, coming up under the gun of a second, kicking it high just as he pulled the trigger, the bullet burying itself under his chin.
The third was young, his cheeks barely touched with beard growth, but the look in his face as he lunged at her was ancient, murderous. Thrusting into his face with the flat of her hand, she broke his nose and drove the cartilage deep into his forebrain. He dropped like a stone.
She stood still, looking down at the bodies, not even breathing hard. Then without a second thought she opened the door next to her and went inside.
Close. Very close. Freya could feel Inara, feel her terror, and it was making it difficult to move, to think, but she homed in on it, finally hearing noises from a room ahead, that resolved into screams of pain, of anger. She ran forward.
He’d had gone down. One moment he was standing there, looking mystified, the next he was on the ground, his face turned away. And she could do nothing, just fire back at the men who were stopping her getting to the man she loved, and the rounds from her Mare‘s Leg weren‘t doing enough. She pulled Vera round, aiming and firing, feeling the recoil in her shoulder, but firing again. Someone screamed, a long drawn out sound that ended in bubbling.
Still not fast enough. Hank was laying there, not moving, and she needed to … She reached behind her, tugging a grenade from her belt. Twisting the top, she counted to three then tossed it high, only waiting to watch it fall behind the men still firing before ducking down. She felt the vibration of it tearing the air apart a fraction of a second before the noise and concussion ripped pictures from the walls. Waiting only a moment, she crossed the hall at a run, going down onto her knees.
“Baby?” she said, rolling Hank over, expecting to see blood, or worse.
“Ni meiyou … muqin de xiao … gou,” he whispered, trying to breathe.
She ripped his shirt open, seeing the armour underneath. It was dented, and shiny white metal gleamed just above his heart.
“You think I’m … I’m that fong luh?” he croaked. “You think I’m not … planning on see LW again?” His face fell. “Sorry. Ben.”
She couldn’t care. “You wore the armour.”
“Course … I did.”
“Then you can call Ben what you like.” She helped him sit up. “We need to get moving. There’s going to be more.”
“That’s okay,” he wheezed. “I’ll follow you.”
Mal opened the door, then wished to God that he hadn’t. His jaw set so tightly he thought the bone might just break, he stepped back, closing it carefully behind him. If that had been Freya’s dream, that she’d seen what was being done, he understood why she’d woken from it in tears, crying out …and their son had picked up on it. If anything he clenched his teeth tighter. Time to end this, once and for all.
The screaming was coming from behind this door, and Freya tried the handle. It was locked, but a single bullet took care of that and she kicked it open.
A man on the bed, leaning over someone, someone fighting, trying to hold him back, to keep him from attacking the intruder at the door. Inara.
The ex-Companion’s eyes caught hers, and there was such fear in them, and pain from the small knife cuts on her breasts that still oozed, but still she tried to stop him from drawing his gun.
The man hit her, a fist to the jaw, even as Freya brought her gun to aim at him. The blow stunned Inara, giving the man time to roll off the bed away from her so the bullet merely skimmed the edge of his shoulder instead of going into his head.
Freya didn’t wait to see what he did. She was already dropping to the ground, and under the thin sheet hanging haphazardly from the mattress she could see his legs as he reached for his own weapon. She fired twice, shattering the bones in his calves.
He yelled and fell, clutching at the wounds.
She jumped to her feet, running around the bed towards him. Despite the agony he’d managed to pull his gun from its holster, and without a second thought she put another bullet into his wrist. She reached down and plucked the weapon from his grasp, tossing it into the far corner of the room. His hand clutched spasmodically as blood pumped from the severed artery.
Freya didn‘t wait to watch him die. She turned to the woman on the bed. “Inara. Inara!”
She didn’t want to wake up. It meant acknowledging the pain racing through her, the agony in her body.
“Damn it, Inara. You open your eyes and look at me!” Freya shook her friend, trying to get some response. “I know you’re alive! Gorramit, look at me!”
She had to. Had to do what that voice commanded. Had to obey. She opened her eyes, saw someone over her, and she cringed back. “No, please,” she murmured.
“It’s me, ‘Nara. It’s Frey.” She tugged the other woman towards her, then felt a sudden pain in her belly, and instinctively she hit out. Somehow the man had managed to crawl to the bed, and had lunged at her with his knife. Now that knife clattered away, and he fell back, clutching at his shattered wrist. She touched the wound, her fingers coming away red. It hurt, but didn’t seem life threatening. Gritting her teeth she turned back to Inara.
“Come on,” she said, pulling the woman to the edge of the bed. “We have to go.”
“Cold,” Inara managed to say.
“We’ll find you something.” She got her shoulder under Inara’s arm and tried to get her to her feet. “Come on, ‘Nara. You gotta help. I can’t do this without you helping.” She made Inara stand, half carrying her out of the room. “Dammit, woman, you keep doing this you’re gonna have to lose some weight,” she muttered.
River could feel the pain that filled the house, and it set her teeth on edge and made her fingers curl. She laid the trail carefully from the fireplace to the window, under the heavy silk curtains, back around the room, using paper torn from books. There were empty holes all over the shelves like gaps in a prize-fighter’s mouth.
It was almost sad, she considered, knowing all this would be nothing but ashes very soon, but this was the way it had to be. Everything in the house was tainted, smelling of blood and screams, steeped in pain and death.
She looked down at the book in her hand. It was so old the title had faded on the leather binding, but inside it still clearly read Dracula. Her eyes hardened. The story of a man who lived off others, feeding, killing, taking what he wanted and not caring about anyone. She tossed it into the fireplace, pulling others off the shelf to land in a heap in the centre of the room. Just words, fiction that paled into insignificance next to the real horrors in the ‘verse.
Something caught her mental attention. Time to be going. She was needed elsewhere. Turning to the fire controls she switched on the flames, and immediately the old paper caught, a dry sound whispering dying words as the pages burned. The fire licked along the trail, to the curtains, and the sound became a roar as it sucked into the carpet.
River smiled. She backed out of the room, leaving the door open so the fire could begin the cleansing.
Another door, and another, opening onto empty rooms that made his mouth taste like ash. If he didn’t find her, couldn’t bring at least one of them home …
A man appeared ahead, and Mal ducked down, feeling the bullet tear across his head before he heard the sound of the gunfire. Ignoring the burn it caused, he lifted his pistol, firing twice. The man staggered back, his body convulsing twice before lying still.
Mal touched the graze, feeling blood running down his forehead. He wiped it away with the back of his hand, smearing it on his skin, then rubbed it dry on his pants.
One more room to try …
A bedroom. And a wardrobe, with what looked like women’s clothes inside. Freya let out a sigh of relief as she helped Inara inside, lowering her to the bed.
“Just getting you something to put on,” she said softly.
Inara whispered something.
“What?” Freya bent down to hear. “’Nara?”
“I don’t …”
In answer Inara held out her hands, a criss cross of cuts across her palms and forearms where she’d tried to fight the man off, all still a bleeding mess.
“Wuh de mah.”
“Okay. But we don’t have time to –“
“Okay.” She looked around, seeing a bathroom through an open door. She hurried through, coming back with a towel that she’d dampened under the faucet. “I’ll just get you a little tidier, okay?”
Inara nodded and let her hands fall into her lap.
Freya’s eyes followed and she swallowed. There was blood on Inara’s thighs, and … She wished she’d finished off that piece of gou shi personally.
Smoke. Han paused with his hand on the door. He could smell smoke. Something was on fire. He hurried back to his room, annoyed beyond measure that he had been interrupted.
He fisted the intercom. “What’s going on?”
There was crackling, almost as if the flames had got into the system, then a man’s voice.
“Sir, there are more of them than we realised. I’ve already got five men down, and I can’t raise -”
“Then call the Alliance.”
“Sir, I tried. The main link is out. I can’t get through -”
“Then you’ll have to deal with it yourself!” Han’s voice cut through the static. “What the hell do I pay you for?”
Hank leaned back on the wall, the Cortex junction box open next to him. A dozen fibre cables hung from inside, and a dozen more inside were fused together.
“At least they won’t be calling for reinforcement quite yet,” the pilot explained.
Zoe smiled at him. “That’s my man,” she said softly.
He grinned at her, then pushed off from the wall. “Do you smell smoke?”
“Frey …” Simon hurried down the corridor, seeing Freya supporting Inara as they came out of the stairwell.
“Thought I’d find you here,” she said as he helped take Inara’s weight, all the while visually checking the semi-conscious woman, noting the torn pieces of sheet wrapped around her hands.
“Did he clean her up?” he asked, his eyebrows raising in surprise at the makeshift bandages.
“No, I did.” Freya looked into his face. “Simon, you need to know something …”
The young doctor interrupted, his voice even more urgent. “Frey, you’re bleeding too.”
She glanced down at her shirt, and the stain that was growing. “It’s nothing.”
“I need to –“
“Simon.” She fixed him with her dark eyes. “You need to see to Inara. And there’s something I have to tell you …”
River felt oddly liberated. Walking through the house, trailing a burning swathe of red silk curtain, she could feel the heat behind her, smell the smoke, hear the flames devouring all they touched …
Soon. All be done soon.
Mal ran to the last door. If she wasn’t here … He kicked it open, staring into the dark before finding the light switch with his hand and bathing it in brightness. For a long moment he thought the room was empty.
“Hermione?” he asked softly, afraid they’d taken her already.
“Uncle Mal?” Just a small voice, hidden behind the bed. “Uncle Mal?” Hermione peered up at him, blinking hard in the sudden light. “Oh, Uncle Mal!” She reached out and he gathered her up into his arms, holding her tightly against his chest.
“It’s okay, Hermione.” He cradled her head. “What is it that Bethie calls you? Noni? Well, I'm here, Noni. Ain't going anywhere.”
“I heard … I heard …” Her face screwed up and she covered her ears, as if she could still hear the screaming.
Mal’s face tightened. He’d gone into that room, seen what was left … he wasn't going to go back. No-one was. “It’s okay, Noni. Shh. It’s okay.” She lay against him, sobbing. “Do you know where the other girl is?”
She nodded. ”Over there.”
He turned, and saw a tiny figure hunched in the corner. Quickly carrying Hermione out into the corridor he set her down. “I want you to stay here. Just for a moment, all right? I’m gonna get her and be right back. You’ll still be able to see me, okay?” He lifted her chin. “Okay?”
“O … okay.”
“Good girl.” He smiled for her, then hurried back into the room, swinging the other girl into his arms. She didn’t move, didn’t speak, just lay there, her head on his shoulder. Returning to Hermione he said, “Can you walk, Noni?”
She stared at him. “I …”
“Your friend here can’t. I’m gonna have to carry her. You have to walk for me, Noni.”
Hermione swallowed. “Yes. Yes, Uncle Mal, I can walk.”
“Good girl.” He nodded approvingly. “That’s my good girl.”
“Uncle Mal, is something on fire?” she asked.
He sniffed the air. “Sure smells like it. So we make good time, okay?”
With the girl held tightly against his chest, they quickly gained the stairwell, heading down. It took only a minute before Mal stepped into the main hallway, raising his eyebrows at the devastation caused by at least one grenade.
He turned, seeing Zoe lower her Mare’s Leg.
“Trust you didn’t almost shoot me there,” he commented.
“Only almost, sir.”
“He okay?” he demanded, seeing Hank leaning against the wall.
“I’m shiny, Cap. Just a little bruised,” his pilot insisted.
“Then take Hermione and …” He paused, realising he didn’t know the other girl’s name. “Take the girls back to the shuttle then bring it here.”
Hank paled even more. “Down the cliff?”
“Out the front door. Take one of the hovers.”
“Where are you going to be?” Zoe asked, taking the girl from his arms.
“Freya and Simon are still in here.”
“Then I should -”
“Get them to the shuttle first. Then come looking for me.”
“Sir – ”
Mal just looked at her. She straightened.
Hank put his arm around Hermione. “Come on, kid. Uncle Hank’ll take care of you.”
“Okay.” She was shivering fit to bust, and he made a mental note to get out the emergency blankets as soon as they got back to the shuttle. A thought occurred to him. “By the way, River’s still around too,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “And someone’s set fire to the house. Think they might be connected?”
“Wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
“Arsonist as well as homicidal maniac?” Zoe suggested.
“Well, one way or the other I’ll try not to shoot her,” Mal said.
“I’m sure Jayne would be happy about that, sir.”
He gave a tight smile and jogged off towards the stairs, towards the sound of the fire gaining increasing hold.
His house. His house. They came into his home, disrupted it, stopped him from taking his pleasure, and now they were burning his house! Han was outraged, and took it out on the bodies lying in the corridor, kicking them, getting blood on his shoes.
He took a deep breath. No. There was a way out of this. There always was.
Mal ran up the stairs to the top floor, hurrying into a second corridor. Movement to his right and he almost fired, releasing the pressure on the trigger only at the last moment. “Dammit, River, you trying to get yourself killed?”
The young woman smiled at him. “You wouldn’t have hit me.”
“You wanna bet on that?” He shook his head. “And did you set that fire?” He pointed to the smoke behind her, feeling it already rasping in his throat, beginning to tear up his eyes.
“Wasn’t what I asked.”
“Flames to brighten the day.”
“You stop that right now,” Mal ordered, pointing at her. “From now on, when you’re talking to me, we don’t have any more of this … crazy talk. Or I won’t give you away when you finally decide to make an honest man of my mercenary.”
She smiled wider. “Yes, I set the fire. This house needs to be cleansed and the ground sewn with salt to prevent him rising again.”
“River, we gotta find him and kill him before we can do that.”
“And that fire’s closer. Your brother and my wife are still here somewhere, River. And Inara. If we don’t –”
“They’re safe. Already heading down to the ground the other way.”
Mal closed his eyes briefly and offered a quick prayer. “Well, then, that’s good,” he said finally. “But we still have to get out of here.”
“He’s close,” she repeated. Very, very …
An arm snaked out and slid around her neck, and she felt the thin chill of a blade against her skin.
“Stand very still or I’ll slit your throat,” a voice breathed in her ear. “Drop the gun.”
Mal felt his heart turn to a block of ice, and one part of his mind wondered if he could fire before the burst of arterial blood spattered across the wall. Then he saw River wink, very slowly.
“Drop the gun!”
She did as she was told, hearing it fall to the floor with one part of her brain as she calculated thirty seven different options with another.
“You too,” Han ordered.
Mal let his gun slip from his fingers. “You’re the Monster.”
Han shrugged. “That’s what they say.”
“You’re gonna die.”
“I don’t think so. Not if you don’t want to see if I can cut this pretty head from these smooth shoulders.” Han smiled. “It’s such a pity,” he went on, almost regretfully. “You look like you’d have given me so much pleasure. But there’s no time. You’re going to be my ticket out of here.”
“I don’t think so,” River said.
“Don’t argue with me.” The knife drew a fine line of blood.
“And I wasn’t.”
She looked deep into his mind, pulling every memory, every touch of his hand on bloodied flesh, and turned them inside out, pushing them back into his mind, and he staggered in shock, the blade dropping from his fingers. She turned, kicked him in the stomach, then punched him in the neck. He slid down, hands scrabbling at his throat.
Mal ducked down, picking up his gun and aiming.
“No!” River said quickly, holding up her hand.
“Get out of the way,” he ordered, tensing his trigger finger.
“No. Better like this.”
In answer she tugged open a door, one Mal remembered all too well from only a few minutes before. “Help me,” she said, trying to lift Han to his feet.
Mal shook his head, but got the man up, still dragging air painfully into his lungs.
Standing in front of him, River lifted his chin, staring into his eyes. “This is for all of those you have killed. All of those who cried and screamed and begged and pleaded … retribution.”
He focused on her, his lips moving, but no sound managed to get past the constriction in his throat.
She pushed him into the room, seeing only the twisted form on the bloodstained mattress before slamming the door and locking it.
“River …” Mal shook his head. “That ain’t gonna -”
“No-one is coming for him. Except for the fire.“ She glanced down the corridor, seeing the flames beginning to touch the ceiling. “He’ll know. That he’s alone. And he’ll feel all the levels of hell as he falls.”
Mal stared at her. “River, a fire ain’t … it’s a bad way to go. A bullet’s more –”
“Humane? Yes. But he doesn’t deserve that.” She put her hand on his arm. “This is my decision. I saw. Freya saw. Bethany saw. Even Ethan saw. You didn’t.”
“I did. I saw that girl in there.”
“Then multiply by a thousand. Maybe more.” She squeezed gently. “He’s been doing this for a long time. This isn’t like the men I killed on Ibis. There has to be punishment, not just execution.”
“Time to go home, Mal.” She tugged his sleeve. “Or it’ll be too late for us as well.”
“We’re gonna talk about this some more, you know,” he promised, following her back to the stairs. “A lot.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” she said, dancing down the steps.
The Monster sat up, feeling the ache in his body become bearable, the inhalation of air finally being less of an effort. He looked around. Familiar, at least. Very familiar.
The body on the bed next to him called his name. Except it couldn’t. But something else whispered at the bottom of the door.
He stood up, staring at the ruined flesh, the face that could no longer see, and wondered if they thought this was some kind of reckoning for him. To be in a room with his creation. With what he had taken so long and so much pleasure to do. He almost laughed. As if he could be frightened of …
The whispering at the door became a shout, tugging at the air in the room. Approaching it he tried the handle but it was locked. He yelled through the bruises for someone to come and let him out, but no-one was listening. No-one …
Mal ran outside into the fresh air, River already at the shuttle some hundred yards in front of him. He looked up at the house, then ducked as windows blew out, glass glittering to the lawn around him. He ran forward, shedding fragments as he went until he was out of range. Above him flames licked at the broken casements, fed by the new oxygen.
They couldn’t do that to him, couldn’t … He tried the handle again, but it burned, blistering his skin even as he tugged it away. Looking down he could see smoke, like the grey hair of old ladies lifted in the breeze. He could feel the heat as the flames scurried through the old wood, the sumptuous furnishings, until they came knocking at the door.
“Justice,” River breathed, standing next to him.
“You sure about that?” he said as quietly.
“Oh yes.” She turned and headed back to the shuttle.
The door burned quickly, but even before it had been consumed the fire was inside, in the floor, the wallpaper, the bed … The flames made the body of the girl seem to dance, almost lifting her up as if she was coming for him, to make him join in the macabre waltz, to wrap him in her broken arms and make him move to the music of the fire within her. Then it flared up, wrapping her form in its embrace, hiding what he’d done from view.
“We need to go, Mal,” Hank said, coming up behind him. “Someone’s gonna see the smoke, and I’m not sure I disabled the autofire alarm.”
“Can you fly?”
Hank nodded, easing the body armour again. “I can fly.”
“Then get her into the air.”
The heat was unbearable, and the flames were licking at his feet. As his flesh crisped and bubbled, as the agony spliced through him, he realised once and for all how much he’d caused to the girls he’d killed. A scream, partly from pain and mostly from anger and frustration, ripped out of his blistered throat, and as his eyes boiled he felt the floor beneath him give way, and he fell forever into hell.
Mal stepped on board his shuttle, closing the door and feeling it take off immediately. He looked around the small space, seeing the two girls and Inara, huddled together, Simon down on his knees, apparently doing some minor first aid until they could get back to the ship. Freya was perched on the seat along the wall, holding her hand to her side. She smiled at him.
“You okay?” he asked, sitting next to her.
He looked down, then realised her shirt was wet. “What the …” He tugged her hand away. “No, you’re not. Simon –” he called, his heart in his mouth.
“It’s okay. He’s put a dressing on it. Look.” She lifted her shirt, showing the white emergency patch high on the soft swell of her belly.
“What the hell happened?” he asked, touching it gingerly.
“Someone didn’t want to be a good boy and die,” she said.
“But the baby –”
“Is fine,” Simon interrupted. “It looks a lot worse than it is. It sliced the skin more than anything.”
“Sliced the …”
“Another scar,” Freya joked.
“Yeah.” Mal swallowed, aware once again just how close he’d come to losing her.
“Sir.” Zoe looked out from the small bridge.
Mal glanced at Freya. “You gonna be okay for a minute?”
“For a minute,” she agreed.
“I’ll look after her, captain,” River said, sliding in the other side.
“You do that, albatross.” Mal stood up, shaking his head. “Honestly. I leave you alone two minutes and you end up being …” He grumbled his way to the bridge. “What is it, Zoe?”
“Just thought you’d like to take one last look before we head back.” She nodded out of the window.
They were circling the Han estate, and Mal watched smoke rise from the house as flames broke through the roof. “Right. Yes. Good.”
“River seems to have been very … efficient.”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t set fire to Serenity.”
“Not without telling everyone first.”
“I’ll remind her.” He sighed. “Take us home, Hank.”
“Yes sir,” the pilot said, turning the yoke and heading away from the burning house.
Mal leaned on the bulkhead. “How, Zoe?” he asked. “How’d one man get to be so evil?”
“I don’t know, sir,” she admitted.
“Least Reavers don’t have the choice. What was done to them … But this, killing, hurting girls like he did …”
“There’s evil in this ‘verse, sir,” his first mate said softly. “You and me, we know this. Seen too much to think otherwise.”
“I just …”
“Wonder whether it could be you?”
He looked at her in surprise. “Is that what I'm thinking?”
“Captain … Mal … if you live to be a million you will never be like him.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“As sure as the little boy back on Lazarus is my son. Yes.”
His lips twitched. “That much.”
“That much.” She put her hand on his shoulder, giving her immense strength to him. “That much.”
The shuttle docked back on the Firefly, and Hank turned off the power as the locking mechanism drew them in close.
“Good to be home,” Freya said softly, looking at her husband.
“Sure is. And I’m beginning to think that maybe –” Mal stopped. He’d opened the door to find Kaylee waiting for him. “What –“
“They arrived five minutes ago, and won’t leave,” she said, looking over the catwalk. “Sorry, Cap’n.”
Mal looked down into the cargo bay and sighed. The deputy with the heavy hand was standing staring up at him, accompanied by three of his cronies.
“That’s okay, mei-mei.” He walked tiredly down the stairs towards the men. “We’re going. But it was sure nice of you to come see us off.”
The deputy stepped forward, his baton swinging at his belt. “You’re over time.”
Mal shrugged. “Can only be a few minutes.”
“More’n an hour.”
“’N’ that means you’re coming with me to see the judge.”
“You know, I don’t think I am.”
“Oh, I’m so glad you said that.” The deputy grinned.
Mal sighed. “Truth is, the day I’ve had, I really could do without this.”
“Ain’t that a shame.”
“Enough,” Freya said, walking down the stairs behind her husband. “We’re going. And so are you.”
“I’m gonna enjoy this,” the deputy said, pulling the baton free. “Resisting arrest, obstructing an officer in the performance of his duties …” His grin widened. “Oh, I am really gonna enjoy this.” He swung the baton towards her.
“Frey –” Mal stepped forward, afraid for her, afraid for their baby, but it was too late.
Freya stepped under the swing and rammed her fist into the deputy’s solar plexus. His eyes bulged as he tried to breathe, and his grip on the baton faltered. She grabbed it, completing the movement by flipping it in her hand and slamming the weighted end against his ribs. Mal almost winced at the sickening sound. The man tried to yell but still couldn’t get any air, and he fell to the floor gulping like a fish ready to be gutted.
It had all happened so quickly that the other men barely had time to register the fight at all, but now they began to draw their guns.
“You wanna be rethinking that move,” growled a voice from the back of the cargo bay. There was the sound of a safety being conspicuously removed.
Everyone looked round. Jayne stood – well, leaned in the doorway to the common area, Betsy in his hand.
Mal smiled. He knew he hadn’t reloaded, suspected Zoe hadn’t either, and as Freya was busy with the deputy this could have gotten real messy.
“My big friend’s right,” he said, taking a step forward. “Now, I don’t really want to be cleaning up blood and entrails, since I’m captain and I don’t do that kinda thing. But your pal here was in the wrong, attacking a pregnant woman like that, and I’m pretty sure you all know it. So I’d be obliged if you pick him up from where he’s rolling around moaning and cluttering up my cargo bay, and leave. Just as I’m about to.”
The men looked at each other, at the man with the gun, at the others now standing on the catwalk above them, and decided discretion was, after all, the better part of valour. They pulled their colleague none too gently to his feet and staggered out.
Mal hit the close button on the control panel and the doors slid to. “Kaylee, we up and running?” he asked, looking up at her.
“All set. Purifier’s working fine.”
“Good girl.” He turned to his pilot. “Hank, if you can fly something a bit bigger than a shuttle, you get us out of here.”
“I can fly. Even if I have to do it with my feet.”
“Rather you didn’t.”
The pilot hurried to the bridge.
“Where’d you get that?” Mal asked his mercenary curiously, nodding towards the firearm.
“Kaylee got her for me.”
“Like I said, she’s a good girl. But I’d’ve thought Vera –”
“Hell, you had her with you,” Jayne interrupted. “And I hope she’s okay. ‘Sides,” he admitted awkwardly, “I doubt I could even lift her right now.”
“And you shouldn’t be up at all,” Simon said, hurrying down the stairs. “Didn’t you listen to a word I said?”
“Thought you kinda needed me, doc.” He looked round at River as she slid in next to him. “Hey, moonbrain,” he said, smiling at her even as she got her shoulder under his arm.
“You’re bleeding,” he said.
She wiped at the cut on her neck. “Battle wound,” she said. “It will heal.”
Simon sighed. “Come on. Help me get him back to the infirmary. Then I’d better stitch that cut on Freya.”
“Good,” Mal said approvingly. “About time. But what about the girls? And Inara?” he added, glancing up at the shuttle.
“I’ve told them to stay where they are for the moment. I’ll need to complete my examinations, but I think that might be better in the shuttle. At least for the time being.”
Mal nodded, feeling Serenity powering up. “Well, you tell us whatever you need.”
It was a subdued trip back to Lazarus. Jayne stayed in the infirmary so that Inara, Hermione and the other girl – whose name turned out to be Trianne – could use his and River’s shuttle, since it was set up as a home anyway and afforded more privacy. As much as he told her not to, River stayed with him, sleeping on the counter. Secretly, though, he appreciated such devotion.
Mostly people just kept to their partners.
Hank, despite bruising that had turned all the colours of the rainbow on his chest, stayed on the bridge, shaving time off the trip wherever he could. Zoe was with him, as if by standing at his back or sitting dozing in the co-pilot’s seat she could make the reunion with their son come that much faster.
Simon alternated between his patients and sitting with Kaylee as she worked in the engine room. They would grab a few hours sleep off and on in her hammock, and he got used to finding new grease stains on his clothes. He resolved to buy a pair of his very own coveralls when the opportunity arose as they talked quietly of Bethany and Hope, of wanting to see their children.
In the captain’s cabin Freya stayed put after the first few hours. She’d made sure everyone was okay, then retreated to safety, trying to deal with the emotions of an exhausted crew who couldn’t shield even if they knew how.
“Is it bad?” Mal asked softly, climbing down the ladder after his last inspection round.
“If this is even a tenth of what River felt like when she … after the Academy, no wonder she went a little shen shing bing.” Freya drew her feet up closer under her.
“A little?” He sat next to her, just touching, showing his concern, his support.
She smiled, a twitch of the lips. “Okay, maybe a bit more than a little.”
“Can’t you screen them out?”
She looked into his blue eyes. “Mal –”
“Use me. It ain’t a suggestion, Frey. You need to block them out, and I’m here. Use me.” He put his arm around her. “It’s either that or I go grab a dose of that stuff Simon got ready for Grace.”
Freya thought of the young girl whose abilities had been woken all at once, who she’d come to love before finding her real mother, and gave a snort of laughter. “You mean Heretofen?”
“That’s the watchamacallit.”
The laughter grew. “And feel like I’m in cloud cuckoo land again? No thanks.”
Mal smiled and pulled her over to lie in his lap, the back of her head against his belly. “Then use me.”
For a long moment she said nothing, just lay against him, his fingers playing in the short hair at her neck, then he felt it. Her usual presence, but this time spiky, wandering in his consciousness like an itch that moved every time he went to scratch. Then he felt it recede, and she relaxed.
“That’s better,” he said, stroking her hair. “You need me, you use me. That’s what I’m here for.”
“I thought you were here to upset the Alliance in as many ways possible.”
“And make love to you,” he added. “Yeah, that too.”
She rolled over so she could look up at him. “Mal, I think I should stay on Lazarus for a while. Give Inara time to talk.”
His hand, which had been journeying south to stroke her belly and his child within, paused. “You think she needs to? She seemed pretty well adjusted when I spoke to her. I mean, now she‘s actually talking.”
“That’s in front of the girls. And you. But I can feel her. She’s barely holding it together.” She put her hand on his. “She thought he was a friend. A good man. To have that ripped away from her, to have proof that she couldn’t tell who … what he was … it’s eating her up. Let alone the physical trauma …” She shivered.
“Frey.” One word, just her name, and she was able to control it again. “So you think if you stayed she’d talk?”
“Maybe. I think I have to try.”
It’s the right thing to do, came the thought dropped into both their minds.
“River, you stay outta there,” Mal complained, thinking it hard as well.
“Serves you right, albatross.”
Freya smiled, a true warm smile, the first he’d seen on her lips since all this began. “She cares.”
“River!” His voice as well as his face was exasperated.
There was the distinct impression of muttering, with quite a lot of Chinese in it, but then they were more alone than before.
“So do I have to ask the captain’s permission to take a little time away?”
“Do you want to? I mean, leave Serenity for a few days? We could park, stay for a –”
“It won’t be just a few days, Mal. And Inara won’t talk with everyone else around.”
“Guess not.” He stroked her belly. “How long’re we talking? A couple of weeks?”
His face froze in shock. “Frey, honey, I can’t … no.”
“She needs help.”
“Then we’ll take her to see Dr Yi. Hell, I’ll even pay. But I ain’t losing you for a couple of months.”
“You know she’d never agree. Besides, I have the advantage.”
“You mean you know what happened to her.”
“Why won’t you tell me? I saw the marks, the bruises, those … those cuts.”
“Not mine to tell.”
“She hasn’t said yes, yet,” she said softly, pressing his hand on her belly, her eyes closing to feel him all the better.
Mal looked down at her face, the long lashes on her cheeks, her mouth very slightly open, and felt his blood start to work its way lower down. “Frey, that ain’t the answer to every argument,” he complained, his voice catching.
She opened her hazel eyes. “No, it’s not. But it goes a long way to helping.”
“So if I offered to sleep with Inara …” He felt her hand tighten on his, and suddenly one of the real reasons his wife wanted to stay occurred to him. Gorram it. Now he understood, even if he couldn’t say. “Not that I would,” he added quickly. “Got about all I can handle taking care of you.” He leaned forward and kissed her, gently at first, then with more passion as her hands entangled in his hair, her body lifting towards his.
As Serenity landed back on Lazarus there was already a welcoming party waiting. Bethany was bouncing up and down, the two little dogs on their leads doing their best to trip her up, while Mrs Boden carried Hope. Mr Boden had Ben resting in the crook of one arm, and was holding tightly to Ethan’s hand with the other. In the doorway were crowded the rest of the Reilly girls, wanting to see their sister, but knowing she’d been through a lot.
The ramp lowered, and Bethany couldn’t hold herself together any longer. She ran forward, letting go of the leads, pounding along the path and up into the cargo bay.
“Momma!” she shouted, launching herself at Kaylee.
“Baby!” Kaylee was crying, hugging her daughter tightly as the two dogs barked and wagged their tails madly with excitement. “I swear you’ve grown!”
“Daddy!” Bethie reached out for her father as he came through from the common area, and he walked swiftly to them, putting his arms around them both. “I missed you!”
“Oh, I missed you too, sweetie,” Simon said, his face split by a wide grin.
“Nice as it is to see you three having fun, I think I –“ Mal didn’t get any further as Freya pushed past him and ran out into the cold air. He grinned himself, and followed his wife towards their own child.
“Hey, where’d everybody go?” Hank called from the top of the catwalk. His boots thudded down the stairs.
“Ben’s outside,” Kaylee said, wiping tears from her cheeks.
“That’s … nice.” He stood for a moment, nodding, then took to his own heels.
“Anybody would think that man was a father,” Zoe said, wanting to run herself, but controlling the feeling. Still, she walked a little faster than usual.
River leaned in the doorway, watching the various reunions, and smiled. She’d say hello to everyone later, when the time was right. She turned to head back to Jayne, but heard more footsteps on the catwalk above her. She looked up, surprised, as Inara descended the stairs from the shuttle.
Simon glanced over. “Inara, why don’t you wait for a while?” he said, letting go of his wife and child and walking towards her.
She took a step back from him, then seemed to gather herself, smoothing her long sleeves over the bandages around her arms and hands. “I have things to do, Simon.”
“I'm fine.” She sketched him a smile. “I'm home.”
He didn’t look convinced. “I’ll be over in a little while.”
“Bring the girls with you. Trianne’s parents are on their way over.” She lifted her chin and walked out of the cargo bay.
“She okay?” Kaylee asked softly.
“You think Frey’s gonna be able to help her?”
“I don’t know, Kaylee. I really don’t know.”
Jayne heard the commotion die down, and put his head back on the pillow. Might be a good thing to get the doc to let him go back to the shuttle, ‘cept it probably smelled all female. Worse, if Inara’d been lighting those incense sticks of hers, and she probably had. Meditating, and the like. Perhaps he should leave it for a day. ‘Til he got his strength back. Which seemed to be taking its own sweet time.
He lifted his head again. “Hey there, Bethie.” He grinned. “Ain't you gonna come in and see me?”
“Am I allowed?”
“Short stub, you gotta ask?” He held out his hand.
Bethany pulled the stool over and climbed up quickly, laying her head on his shoulder. “You hurt.”
“Nah. Just a twinge.” He patted the dressing on his head. “Your Pa fixed me up good.”
“Daddy’s a doctor.”
“That he is.”
The little girl fiddled with one of the buttons on his shirt. “Felt it.”
“Didya?” He put his arm around her. “Were you peeking?”
“Worried. ‘Bout you. ‘N’ … ‘n’ Auntie ‘Nara.”
“You saw it coming?”
She shook her head, then half nodded. “Just feelings.”
“And you didn’t tell no-one.”
“Peeking’s bad. And it was a long time ago.”
Jayne sighed. “You know, I figure no-one would’ve minded if you’d said something.”
“Couldn’t stop it.”
“Well, maybe not. But maybe there’ll be a time when you can, and if you don’t say something then someone might get hurt. And I’d kinda not like it to be me.”
“I don’t want it to be you either,” Bethany said, snuggling closer.
“So you feel something like that again, you come tell me. Or Frey. Or, hell, even Mal.” He looked down into her face. “Kinda gives us an idea there might be something we need to do.”
He cuddled her, stroking her arm. “Good girl.”
River watched from the doorway, then said softly, “Bethany, your Momma’s looking for you.”
The little girl went up onto her elbow and looked into Jayne’s blue eyes. “You gonna be okay without me?” she asked.
“I think I’ll manage.”
She grinned, her good humour back, and scrambled to the floor. “See you later, Uncle Jayne.” She ran out.
“Later, short stub,” he called after her.
“She’s not making you too tired, is she?” River asked, taking her place on the stool and wrapping her slender fingers around Jayne’s large hand.
“Nope. Just helping me make a decision or two.”
“Oh? What about?”
“Whether I should take up my calling and go to the Abbey. How does Shepherd Cobb sound to you?”
Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “What?”
“I was just saying, now that I feel that religiosity burning through me, maybe I should do something about it.” He reached over and patted her hand affectionately. “’Course, we’ll have to stop sleeping together. Can’t be doing that if I’m gonna be a Preacher.”
“Jayne …” Then she hit him. Not hard, just on the pad of his upper arm. “Who told you?” she asked.
The big man grinned. “Most everyone. But your bro said you were worried about me changing. Not being the same, sweet, fluffy guy you all know and love.”
“He opened up your brain.”
“Yeah, maybe he did. But it was to save me. And I reckon maybe you oughtta cut him a little slack for doing that.”
“I thought … I was afraid …”
“That I’d stop lovin’ ya?” He disengaged his hand from hers and reached up, cupping her cheek in his palm. “Ain't gonna happen, moonbrain. You’re kinda stuck with me.”
“Long as you’ll have me.”
“That’s a deal.” She smiled, and his heart warmed.
“ … and now onto other news. The ongoing investigation into the death of Anthony Han in a fire at his home on Bellerophon almost ten days ago is being scaled down following the discovery of a suicide message sent to his daughter. Mrs Rosette Han-Emerson, seen here on the left at a charity ball only three months ago, had apparently been too unwell after hearing the news of his death to deal with her correspondence, and in consequence it has only now come to light. Mr Han, a senior Vice President of the Blue Sun Corporation, is reported to have been under considerable stress at the time of the fire, which is no longer being treated as suspicious. Rumours of the discovery of at least one unidentified female in the ruins of the house are being hotly denied by the family and his co-workers, although unofficial sources say he may have been engaging the services of a Companion. A memorial service will be held in the near future. And in the world of sport, Titus Rawlings has completed –”
In her living room Inara cut the feed and turned to Freya. “It’s been all over the Cortex for the last twenty four hours. But a suicide message?”
Freya shook her head. “Not guilty. I’d say it’s someone at Blue Sun not wanting too much investigation to be carried out.” It had been a week since their return, and although life had returned almost to normal, it was definitely only almost.
“Maybe they knew who he was, what he was up to.”
Inara was appalled. “Then why didn’t they stop him?”
“He was too important to them, or maybe he knew too much … I don’t know, Inara. I’m just guessing.”
“Blue Sun again.” Inara shivered as if someone had walked over her grave.
“Fingers in a lot of pies.”
“And the body was of that girl?”
“I imagine so.” Freya moved up a little so Inara could sit next to her on the couch. “We couldn’t bring her back. Not from what Mal said.”
Inara nodded. “I know. I explained it to the family. They can at least start the grieving process, but I don’t know if they will ever be the same.” She began fiddling with the bandages on her hands and arms, a habit she seemed to have acquired.
“And the other girl? Trianne?” Freya asked.
“Her parents have accepted my offer of counselling for her. If we can talk about what happened, what she heard or saw, I should be able to help her.”
“I think she’ll be all right. Neither of them saw much. And she has her sisters. But the trauma of being kidnapped will stay with her a long time. And she‘s waking at night hearing screaming. I don’t see that going for a while.”
“I imagine that’s the case.” Freya looked outside at the fresh smattering of snow, the tail end of the winter, and remembered other nightmares. Bethany and Ethan were playing with Fiddler and Giselle, trying to avoid their gangly legs as they jumped up at them, but occasionally the little girl looked up towards one of the bedroom windows. “What about you?”
“How are you going to cope?”
“I’ll be fine, Frey.” She touched her cheek, the tiny stitches covered by a weave. “Simon has done a wonderful job, and –“
“That wasn't what I was talking about, and you know that. No-one else saw what they did to you, Inara. Only me.” She turned back to the woman in the room. “They raped you.”
Inara’s eyes widened. “I never said –“
“You don’t have to.”
Fury took over. “Damn you, Freya! Stop reading my mind!”
“I’m not, Inara. The evidence was pretty clear.”
Inara stared at her, the memory ripping to the front of her mind of hands gently washing her before bundling her into a heavy robe and helping her outside. “That was you.”
She swallowed. “Have you … have you told anyone? Mal?”
“I told Simon. But no-one else. He had to know. And Simon won’t pass it on. Doctor/patient and all that. But you’re not going to be able to walk away from this as easily.”
“I can cleanse it, Freya. I've been meditating –”
“You need to talk.”
“No, I –“ She shook her head firmly. “I don’t need anyone’s help. Least of all yours.”
“Inara, I know how you feel.”
“How can you?” Inara closed her eyes and almost laughed. “Of course. You looked.”
“No. I said I know how you feel. How it feels.”
Inara’s eyes slammed open and she stared at her. “You mean …”
Freya nodded slowly. “In the camp.”
“The camp …”
“After the war. The first time Mal stopped them, before they ever got a chance to do anything. The first time. He wasn't there the second.”
“Zoe found me. Got me back to the hut, cleaned me up. Got me some … I don’t know where from, or how she did it … but some drugs to stop me getting pregnant, or catching anything.”
Freya laughed softly. “What could happen? Santo wasn't the worst place – that title was reserved for the ones where it was the guards doing the raping. But it was pretty bad. They wouldn’t have done anything. So as soon as I recovered enough I killed them.”
“You …” Inara swallowed.
“I'm not proud of it. But I killed them.”
“Does Mal know?”
“That I killed them? Yes. That they succeeded the second time? No. And you’re not to tell him. He was my first. They couldn’t take that away from me. And it wouldn’t help him to know what happened while he was in the stockade. It would only make him feel he failed me.”
“Didn’t Zoe tell him?”
“I made her promise not to. She’s never broken that promise. And you mustn’t either.”
“Was she there for you?”
Freya nodded slowly. “I think it was that point that started us being friends.”
“I'm glad. That you had someone to talk to.”
“Yeah. Me too. Just like you need someone.”
She still skittered away from it. “I wish I’d killed Anthony.”
“He died a horrible death, Inara.”
“I know, but …”
“It doesn’t help.”
“Not really.” Inara took a deep breath. “Have you ever stopped feeling guilty?”
Freya smiled a little. “No.”
“But why should I? Why should I feel guilty for what he did to me?” Tears burst from her eyes.
Freya gathered her into her arms, letting her cry out. “I don’t know, Inara,” she said, rocking the other woman gently. “It just does. But I’ll stay. As long as you need me.” She held her until the sobs had calmed a little.
“What about … about Mal?”
“How can he? He doesn’t know –“
“No, I don’t,” the man himself said from the doorway. “Frey won’t tell me, and I ain't gonna push.” He came into the room and went down onto his heels in front of her, taking her hand in his. “But I know you need her right now, though I’d be happier if you did it back on Serenity.”
“I'm not leaving, Mal.”
“’Nara, this all happened because you weren't on board! You’re not protected here, and –“
“I'm not leaving.” Her voice strengthened and she stood up from the sofa. “This is my home. Just like Serenity is yours. How would you feel if I told you that you had to leave her because it wasn't safe?”
He straightened up. “It ain't the same.”
“It’s exactly the same.”
Mal looked at Freya for support. “Tell her. Tell her she’s crazy.”
“Well, I could, but I happen to think she’s right.”
Mal’s jaw dropped. “You’re … is this that jealousy again? Afraid I'm suggesting she comes back because –“
“No.” She cut across him, silencing him. “This is Inara’s home. If it were mine I wouldn’t want to leave either. I don’t want to leave Serenity.” She gazed at him. “Would you want to make me because I might get hurt?”
“And if Inara did come back, where would we put the other girls? In a school somewhere, being looked after by God knows who?”
He glared at her, but the fire went out of his eyes. “I know, ai ren. I'm just … I couldn’t do anything to stop this.”
“You did. You came after us,” Inara said, standing tall. “You saved our lives, Mal. And I hope you carry on doing that.”
“I’m kinda hoping you don’t put yourself in that position again.”
“Oh, Mal, so do I,” Inara said fervently. “So do I.”
“Mal, what if …” Freya began.
“What is it, honey?”
“I was just thinking … maybe Jayne should stay too. Just for a while. I mean, he’s still recuperating, and some fresh air would be better than being cooped up.”
“There’s room enough for him,” Inara put in, suddenly much taken with the idea.
Mal looked from one to the other. “I don’t know …”
Freya put her arm around his waist. “Fresh air, a little exercise, good food … he’d be back on his feet in no time.”
“Yeah, but there ain't a doctor around …”
“At least let’s see what Simon has to say,” Inara suggested.
“I'm more concerned with what River’s gonna say if she has to leave him behind.”
“I just think it might be … useful.” Freya looked at him. It would give Inara someone else to look after, Mal, she dropped into his mind. Help her recover quicker.
“Let’s see what the doc says.”
“It’s probably not a bad idea. He’s recovering well, but he’s stubborn. He wants to be up doing things, and that’s only going to make his recovery longer.” Simon glanced through into the infirmary. “I’m not sure what River’s going to say, though.”
“She’s going to say it’s a good idea.” His sister appeared behind him.
“Can you stop doing that?” he asked, somewhat petulantly.
“No.” She smiled. “Jayne needs time to get well. And if I’m around he’ll want to make love to me, and that won’t be good for his blood pressure.”
Simon coloured a little. “Well, no, that wouldn’t be … good.”
“So it’s better he stays. Keeps Freya company.”
“You think she’s gonna have a hard time of it, little one?” Mal asked softly.
“Inara won’t want to talk. To tell of what happened. It will be … difficult.”
“You know I’d park Serenity here for the duration if I could.”
“I know. So does she. But we have a living to make.”
“And Kaylee wants to make sure we have some extra spare parts around,” Simon put in. “For the purifier and such.”
“That girl’d clutter up my engine room with stuff and blame the space monkeys if I’d let her,” Mal smiled.
“I think she’d argue with you over ownership.”
“I can gorram walk!” Jayne protested, lying on the stretcher as they carried him through the trees.
“If only that were true,” Hank said, puffing slightly. “You likely to lose any weight while you’re here?”
“You saying I’m fat?”
“Not fat. I’d never say that.”
“Only the doc’ll tell you … muscle weighs more.”
“Really?” Hank looked sceptical.
“Yeah.” He scratched his nether regions.
“Gorramit, Jayne, you do that and I’m dropping you in the snow,” Mal complained.
Inara had the front door open, ready for them. “We’ve made up a bed in the back drawing room,” she said, stepping out of the way. “So he won’t need to climb stairs.”
“Aw, hell, ‘Nara, I’m fine,” the big man insisted.
“And you’re going to stay that way,” Mal replied. “Not having you falling down the stairs in the middle of the night when no-one can fix you.”
“It just … it ain’t dignified, Mal.”
“Kinda serves you right for not telling anyone.”
“How’d I know it weren’t just a headache?”
“That was for me to determine,” Simon said pointedly. “If you’d come to me sooner, I could have dealt with it without all the fuss.”
“I didn’t fuss!”
“No. You just nearly died,” Mal added. They put the stretcher down on the floor and helped Jayne up onto the bed. “So you’re gonna do what the doctor orders from now on.”
Simon couldn’t stop the twitch to his lips.
Hank picked up the stretcher and looked at the big man lying on the pillows. “Well, better be getting back,” he said. “Get the ship warmed over, ready to fly.”
Mal nodded. “We’ll be along.”
“See you soon, Jayne,” he said, waving a hand as he walked out.
“Are you hungry?” Inara asked.
Jayne looked pleasantly surprised. “Well, maybe I could take a morsel of food.”
“I’ll see what Mrs Boden can whip up for you.”
“Better make sure you’ve got plenty of supplies in,” Mal semi-whispered. “You’re going to need them.”
“There’ve been times when I regretted offering you full run of the kitchen.”
“I ain’t that bad!”
The door opened and River wafted through. “I came to say goodbye,” she said softly, her eyes only on the big man on the bed.
“Then that’s our cue to skedaddle,” Mal said. He herded the others out. “You keep on the good side of Inara, you hear?” he added. “I don’t want to be heading back here only to be told you’ve upset the girls or something.”
Jayne glared at him. “In my weakened condition?”
“In any condition.” Mal closed the door softly, then turned to Inara. “This is good of you.”
“Not at all. I shall enjoy it.”
“What, making him suffer?”
“Now, did I say that?” She smiled and headed towards the door leading to the kitchen.
“Best we be heading back too,” Mal said to the young doctor. “Although I’m glad to see Inara’s looking a lot better.”
“Yes, physically she’s healing well.”
Mal nodded. “You did a good job. And Frey’s gonna keep working on her.”
It was finally time for Serenity to be back off out into the black, and Freya was standing in the hall, holding Ethan. Mal was close, barely a breath between them.
“Now, you be good for your Momma,” he said, one hand on Ethan’s back, the other stroking his face. “Don’t want to be hearing any bad reports about you.”
“Daddy leave?” Ethan’s blue eyes were wide.
“Just for a while.”
“Ethan will be fine, won’t you?” Freya said, putting on a smile. “He’ll have Jayne to annoy, and Giselle to play with, as well as the other girls to mother him. And he can look after me while his Daddy’s away.”
“It ain’t the same.”
“I know.” She looked into Mal’s own blue eyes, seeing such emotion in them that it made her stomach tighten. “We’ll be fine.”
“Yeah.” He sighed heavily. “Better be going.” He looked at his son again. “Be good.”
“’Kay, Daddy.” The little boy looked about to cry.
“I’ll take him,” Mrs Boden said, appearing from the shadows and lifting Ethan into her own arms.
“Thank you,” Freya murmured.
Mal opened the front door, letting a blast of cold air in, and she followed him out into the snow, her arms wrapped tightly about her.
“You go back,” he said. “You’ll freeze.”
He smiled a little, and opened his coat for her. She darted inside and he wrapped it as best he could around the both of them.
“You gonna be okay?” he asked, looking down into her face.
“I’ll be fine.”
“And the little one?”
She pressed her rounding belly against him. “She’ll be fine too.”
“You’re so sure it’s a girl.”
“I know so.”
“Last time you said that to me I ended up in jail,” he pointed out.
“That wasn't me. That was Jayne.” She squeezed his waist. “And you tore my dress.”
“Never did replace it.”
“Well, you can find something nice for me to wear when I get too big for my regular clothes.” She snuggled her face into his chest. “I'm gonna miss you.”
“Oh, God, Frey, me too.” He closed his eyes tight, willing away the images he still saw in his dreams and filling his mind instead with a picture of her, his wife, lying waiting for him in their bed.
“I’ll be home soon,” she whispered, pressing harder against him, seeing the thoughts as clear as if they were written in the snow.
“You’d better. Not sure the crew can take the way I'm liable to be if you’re not there. Particularly with River moping about with Jayne not on board.”
“He needs to recuperate. Take some gentle exercise.”
“Think I won’t be gentle with him?”
“Thanks. Now I won’t be able to get that picture out of my mind for days.”
He smiled. “I aim to please.”
“As soon as I know Inara’s going to be okay, I’ll wave.”
“You’ll wave sooner than that,” he admonished. “Every day. Regular as clockwork. Hank’s been working on extending the range a little, so at least some of the time I should be able to see you, even if I can’t touch you.”
“You’re likely to be in our bunk when I call?” she asked, smiling mischievously.
“Could be. Why?”
“Oh, just an idea or two I had.” She looked up into his face, into the blue eyes that gazed at her so adoringly, at the graze still visible in his hairline. “Take care, Mal. I mean it. Anything dangerous crops up, you get … you get Hank to do it. When I come back I want to see you in one piece.”
He laughed, the rumbling transmitting through into her chest, making her ache for him. “You ordering me around now?”
“Then I guess I’ll have to agree.”
She smiled. “So if I order you around more often, you’ll do that more often too?”
“Nope.” He bent his head down and kissed her, his tongue parting her lips gently. “Don’t push it.” He sighed into her mouth. “And whenever we can we’ll drop back. Even if it’s just for a few hours.”
“Mal, you have work to do. Hopefully.”
“Still gonna do it.”
“Mal, sorry, but we’re ready to go,” Hank called, flapping his arms about to keep warm, his breath a steady stream of mist. He waited only long enough for Mal to nod, then ran back to the Firefly.
“Looks like our time’s up,” Freya said, blinking hard.
“You gonna cry?”
“Not ‘til after you’ve gone. You?”
“I figure I’ll wait until I’m alone tonight.”
They kissed again, hard, bruising this time, having to make the feeling last a long while.
She let him go suddenly. “Stay shiny,” she declared, tears rolling down her cheeks no matter what she’d said. She stepped back from him, out of his arms, feeling the sudden cold biting into her.
“You go on inside,” he said softly, his body complaining already of her loss. “Please.”
“I love you, Mal,” she whispered, but she might as well have shouted it.
“I love you too.” He turned and walked away, his stride lengthening, aware all the time of her eyes on his back. “And go inside!” he called.
She didn’t. She waited until he waved once more from the cargo bay as the doors closed, and Serenity lifted off in a whirl of white snow into the cold blue sky. Only when it became a speck in the heavens, and then disappeared entirely, did she walk slowly back into the house.
“Mrs Reynolds?” Mrs Boden stood in the hall, a tray in her hands. “Miss Inara thought you’d like this.”
Freya sniffed hard, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “What is it?”
“Hot chocolate. And some milk and biscuits for the little one.”
“Is he alright?”
“Master Ethan is playing in the nursery. Miss Inara thought you would like some time alone with him.”
Freya managed a smile. “Yes. Yes, I think that would be fine.”
“This way, then, Mrs Reynolds.” The housekeeper led the way up the stairs, and Freya, her mind still joined to that of her husband, followed.
Inara heard the front door close, and footsteps on the stairs, and sighed. She’d watched them saying goodbye, the love between them, and felt a pang of more than just jealousy.
She so wanted to say, to explain what Mal had told her after they’d brought Jayne to the house …
“I know what happened, ‘Nara,” he said, his hand on her shoulder, feeling her flinch involuntarily. “I know why Frey’s staying.”
“I don’t need a babysitter, Mal.”
“And that ain't the reason.” He sighed softly. “They raped you.”
Inara’s head went up, her eyes blazing. “She had no right –“
“Freya didn’t say a word. ’Nara, whatever you think, I’m not stupid. I can figure it out for myself.“ He squeezed her shoulder. “But you should have told me. You were under my protection, and I needed to know, in case …”
“Simon made sure that wasn't going to happen.”
“That wasn't what I meant.”
They stared at each other for a long moment, then she sat down. “I’m not going to kill myself, Mal. No matter what they did to me, I don’t intend that.”
“Well, that’s good. But I wasn't meaning that either.” He looked down at her. “You do need to talk to someone. Someone who understands.”
“Mal, I said she could stay. That doesn‘t mean I -”
“It nearly happened to her. After the war.” He felt her jerk. “I came across them, trying to … I didn’t realise it was her until I lifted her up, wiped the mud from her face. I’ve always … in the middle of the night I’ve wondered … what if I’d been just a few moments later, or not decided to take some air …”
“You mean they didn’t ….”
He smiled a little. “No. Managed to stop that at least.”
“And if they had?”
Mal looked at her. “Dr Yi asked me that. Whether it would … I told her I didn’t know. But I do. It wouldn’t make me love her any the less, ‘Nara.” The look on his face was proof enough. “She’s so strong, and she wants to be able to help you with that strength.”
“You think I’m too weak to do it by myself?”
“Never said that. But she knows what it’s like to need someone to stand by you when this happens. She had us. Me and Zoe. And now you need her.”
“Mal, I …” She stopped.
She changed what she was going to say. “You’re right. I do need someone to talk to.”
“Good. Just don’t tell her I told you. She’d probably kill me if she knew.”
She wouldn’t. Nor tell him in return. What Freya had told her was in strictest confidence. But maybe while they talked, and Freya helped her, she could return the favour.
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