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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Maya. Post-BDM. On Persephone Freya is sick, and on Serenity so's Kaylee. Part II of II
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1580 RATING: 0 SERIES: FIREFLY
“Can you get through it? Find some way?”
The pilot was running experienced fingers over the controls. “I don’t know, Mal. Maybe. If I can bounce the signal somehow –“
“Do it. Whatever you need.”
“I’ll get right on it. Could maybe use Kaylee to help.”
“Get her if you do.”
“Mal –“ Hank turned concerned eyes on his captain. “They don’t put a quarantine order on a planet without good reason.”
“Sickness,” River said, having ghosted up the steps.
“You can see it, little one?” Mal asked.
She nodded, her face pale. “Lots of people. Sick. Dying.”
Mal swallowed. “Frey?”
“You dreamed right.”
It was the last thing he wanted her to say, even though he expected it. Closing his eyes briefly to try and regain some control, he swallowed hard, and glanced back at Hank. “Start work. And get us to Persephone soon as you can.” He looked at River. “Can you … look to Ethan? He’s likely to be picking up on this.”
“I will.” She ran silently back down into the corridor and climbed down the ladder into the captain’s bunk.
Hank had already input new co-ordinates, and the stars were swirling past the window. “Full burn?” he asked.
“Can Kaylee drop those safeguards again?” Mal asked. “Like she did before? When Ethan –“
“We can get more out of her, Mal. She’s been working on making sure we can without blowing us up.”
“She’s a good girl.”
“That she is.”
“What’s going on?” Simon asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes as he stepped onto the bridge. “Bethie’s in a state, keeps saying something’s wrong.”
Mal span on his heel. “Those records Hank found. Have you got anywhere?”
“Well, no, not yet. I haven’t had a chance to –“
“Frey’s sick. Back on Persephone. They’ve quarantined the whole gorram planet.”
Hank turned up the volume.
“…first and only warning. Persephone has been placed under quarantine by Federal order. All vessels are ordered to stay at least 20,000 kilometres distant until further notice. Any vessel approaching the planet without proper authorisation will be fired upon. This is the first and only –“
“Wuh de mah.” Simon stared at Mal.
“Just get me Dillon.” Mal strode off the bridge, passing Zoe on her way up the steps. She’d probably heard the noise and wondered what the commotion was, but he couldn’t speak to her. Didn’t even look at her.
As he went he heard Hank calling Kaylee, telling her to get her ass into the engine room. Then Zoe’s voice, asking what was going on. But he couldn’t be there, not just waiting.
Pausing outside his bunk for only a moment, he turned down the stairs towards the cargo bay. Probably not a good idea to be around his son, if he really was picking up on things. River would be able to distract Ethan better, and Mal was grateful. He couldn’t really be doing with worrying about the boy right now. Especially since he was being consumed with fear over his mother. He could feel it, like a hard stone in his belly, alternately freezing and burning.
As he reached the bay, he was glad to see it was empty. No-one to offer platitudes or ask how he was, what they could do, if there was any way they could help. He couldn’t take that. Not now. Not yet. Not knowing … He began to pace.
Everything that had happened over the last year seemed to roll down onto him, from what Wing did to Freya, and Ethan nearly dying, then Han taking Hermione and Inara, let alone the slings and arrows of normal life on board the Firefly. So many obstacles they’d overcome, got through. Survived. And now this. And he wasn't there.
He stared at the bulkhead in front of him, and smashed his fist into it, letting the pain cut through him. Again, and again.
“Mal.” Hank’s voice over the com, just one word.
Dragging his handkerchief from his pocket, Mal wrapped it round his bruised and bleeding knuckles, and ran up the stairs.
“Hank?” Mal realised the doctor had gone, probably to the infirmary, and he knew he’d stay there until he had the answer. Praying it was the right answer. Zoe stood back, silent.
The pilot turned to look at him. “It’s not pretty, and I don’t know how long it’ll last, but I’ve piggy-backed our signal onto the quarantine message, and … well, you’ve got maybe two minutes. Probably less.”
“Then we won’t chat. Get him.”
Hank nodded, dialling up.
There was a long delay, then the screen crackled into life.
“Mal?” Somehow the older man didn’t seem surprised.
“Dillon. How’s –“
“She’s sick. Very sick. My doctors have seen her but … how did you get through?”
“I got good people.” Mal was holding onto the console so hard he expected to see indentations in the metal. “What do they say?”
“It’s … whatever’s been knocking people out. That’s why the quarantine. You know about that?”
“It’s all we could get. Dillon, is she …” He couldn’t finish.
“She’s holding her own.”
“And the baby?”
Dillon’s face, even over the static, was set. “They’re good doctors, Mal.”
“That wasn't what I asked.”
“You need to be here.”
Mal’s heart seemed to stop beating, suddenly crashing from the racing it had been doing ever since he’d heard the broadcast. “We’re coming.”
“But you won’t … the … get shot down … have …” The signal was dying, wavering, just one or two odd words getting through.
“Safe … vaccine … trying … get …” He was gone and there was only white noise.
“Sorry, Mal. Told you it wouldn’t last long. But … vaccine?” Hank asked.
“I don’t know. Sounds like they know what it is. Can you try and find anything else out?”
“I’ll get on it.” Hank glanced at Mal’s hand. “Better get that seen to,” he added.
Mal looked down, realised blood was dripping onto the decking. “Guess.”
“You won’t do her any good if you let that get infected. And you’re making a mess.” He didn’t ask how it happened. Didn’t need to. “Besides, you ain't gonna make Serenity go any faster by looking over my shoulder.” His eyes darted to Zoe, standing solid just inside the doorway.
“He’s right, Mal.” Her use of his given name made him look up.
Mal stared at her, then nodded, just once. “You hear any more, you call me.” It wasn't a request.
“I’ll be in the infirmary.”
Dillon looked down at the woman in the bed, tossing on damp sheets, her hair stuck to her head with sweat.
“Sir.” Callum walked up quietly behind him.
“I don’t know if he heard,” Dillon said. “But knowing Malcolm Reynolds he’s almost destroying his ship to get back here to her.”
“You haven’t broken anything,” Simon said, putting the scanner away. “But you’re very bruised.”
“Just bind it up.”
“I'm going to give you some antibiotics as well. I imagine the wall of the cargo bay isn’t the most hygienic of places.”
“How did you –“
“We heard, Mal. We all heard.” He busied himself with a hypo.
“Dillon said something about a vaccine,” Mal said quietly, trying to maintain an icy semblance of calm.
“Vaccine? That suggests it’s something they know about.” The young man nodded, exhaling heavily. “It gives me a starting point.”
“Hank’s searching too. He’ll send down anything he finds.”
“Good.” The young man injected Mal, then turned to pick up a bowl. “Mal, I know you won’t mean to, but don’t be hard on Kaylee. She wasn't sleeping very well as it is, and now the worry … she’s doing her best to get as much speed out of Serenity as possible.”
“She may think she’s a superwoman, but she isn’t. She’s my wife.” He put a slight emphasis on the word my.
“I said I know.” Mal’s voice had dropped down to the lower level that everyone knew not to mess with.
“Well, good.” Simon started to clean the wounds.
Mal ignored the sharp stabs of pain, just waiting in silence until he’d finished.
Wrapping the abused extremity in a bandage, Simon added, “And try not to bend it. Or put any strain on it.”
Flexing his fingers, Mal nodded and walked out.
Simon watched him leave, and shook his head. As much as he admired the captain’s devotion to his wife, there were times when he wished it wasn't quite so … total. Turning back to the information Hank had managed to get for him before, he continued with his research, the deep line between his eyebrows getting more pronounced as he read.
Jayne had cleaned the blood off the wall in the cargo bay, wiping it down until there was no sign Mal had nearly broken his hand on it. Carrying the bowl up to the kitchen, he threw away the soiled water and washed it out, drying it carefully before putting it back in the cupboard. Every action was precise, measured, just like he was when he was hunting a wild animal, or tracking a man. No movement was wasted.
He felt her enter the galley behind him
“How’s Ethan?” he asked, keeping his voice soft, almost as if he was in church, drying his hands as he turned to look at her.
“Asleep. At last.” River stretched. “Bethany’s in with him too.”
“Short stub okay?”
“She knows what’s going on, Jayne. I don’t think there’s any stretch of the imagination that could let her be called okay.”
“I know that.” He placed the towel carefully on the counter. “Just wanted to know she’s … well, that there ain't anything I can do to make it better.”
“Not at the moment.” She sighed. “She loves Freya.”
“Hell, we all do, moonbrain. Like I know you do.”
She nodded sadly, then glanced towards the bridge, but only Hank and Zoe were visible. “Where’s Mal?”
“Shuttle one.” He peered at her. “Can’t you feel him?”
“Too tired to try.” She pushed her hair away from her face. “Too many nightmares.”
“Yeah.” He pulled a chair out from the table, the legs squealing on the deck, and dumped his body into it, his neat movements of a few moments before gone. “I’d’a thought he’d want to be in with Ethan. In their bunk.”
“He can’t. Not yet. Not knowing how she is, the scent of her would kill him.”
He pulled her onto his lap, and she moulded to him, her arms linking around his neck. “Ya know I feel the same way ‘bout you, don’t ya?”
She nodded, and touched the bullet hanging at his neck, then the one at her own throat. “More than reciprocated,” she murmured.
They sat quietly for a few minutes, using each other for strength. “She gonna be okay?” he finally asked.
“Heaven and earth …” River breathed.
“Yeah. Figured.” Jayne held her tighter. Yeah, that’d be the way. Mal was gonna move heaven and earth to try and make sure she was okay.
Inside shuttle one Mal sat on the small bridge, staring out at the stars, but he didn’t see them. Shipboard romances. Divided loyalties. Not doing what he should to protect his crew. All these thoughts and more were spinning around inside his head, cannoning off each other, maybe knocking one out occasionally, but it slunk back, its tail between its legs. And every thought was tinged with the taste of her. Shouldn’t have taken her on board. Then he wouldn’t be feeling like this, be so afraid he’d never see her again. Never talk to her again. Never tell her he loved her again.
And yet. And yet. That was the terrible part. The and yet. Not knowing. Fearing the worst, but not knowing if it was the worst, or there was something out there that would knock that worst into a cocked hat.
And they were relying on him. Believing he would know what to do, planning and plotting, his strength holding them together to get through, his leadership leading them out of the darkness. But what strength and leadership? What if he gave up? Zoe could lead them, but would they follow? Hank, sure. Into the fires of hell and out the other side. Simon … Simon had said something about Kaylee, but he couldn’t remember what. But they’d follow Zoe. And if Simon went then so would River, and that meant Jayne, and … He shook his head. Where had this train of thought started?
“Frey, you die on me and I’ll never forgive you,” he muttered, all the while fingering the gold cross on his chest, praying that he would be in time, that she’d be okay.
He didn’t know if he dozed, or just slid into a stupor, but suddenly Simon’s voice was on the com.
“Mal. I think I’ve got something.”
“It’s a virus. It appears to be a mutated CMV with an added –”
“Doc.” Zoe’s voice interrupted him.
The adults were all there, in the infirmary or just outside. Mal stood like he was made out of marble, watching as Simon brought up an image of … something on the screen, all pretty colours that meant nothing to anyone else. Except perhaps River, who was close to Jayne, holding his hand tightly.
“Sorry.” Simon began again. “First of all, it’s not natural. It’s been bioengineered. I can’t get too much data on it as it’s classified –”
“Still working on that problem, doc,” Hank added quickly.
“Thanks. But I have found out –“
“You mean someone made this?” Kaylee couldn’t believe it. “They put this together just to kill people?” She wiped her forehead, swallowing back a thrust of nausea at the thought that someone could do this deliberate.
“Not everyone,” Simon explained. “The way it’s designed, it has an inbuilt …” He stopped, realising virtually no-one was going to understand what he would have said. “The virus has a maximum lifespan. A point at which it dies. We’ve already reached that.”
“What does that mean?” Zoe asked.
“There won’t be any new cases. If someone isn’t sick now, then they won’t get sick.”
“Then why the quarantine?” Hank wanted to know.
Jayne growled, deep in his throat. “’Cause they don’t want anyone to know what’s going on. If this was made, was grown somewhere, then how in diyu did it get out?”
Everyone looked at him, most expressions containing surprise, except for River’s, which was tinged with pride.
“Doc?” Zoe again.
“Jayne’s right. It was either an accident or released deliberately, possibly as an act of terrorism, but this didn’t just happen. I imagine the quarantine was imposed so they could cover it up. Control it.”
“Ya mean let them die as weren‘t useful.” Jayne shook his head. “Gorram Alliance.”
“Perhaps. Indications are, however, that it becomes more virulent as it reaches that point.”
“Doc, you don’t say what you mean, I am liable to shoot you.” These were Mal’s first words since he got to the infirmary, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he meant every one.
Simon nodded. “Breed has been sick a while, which means he was probably infected in the first wave. But he’s still alive. Freya’s …” His lips clamped together of their own accord.
“Freya’s only just got sick. Which is why she’s worse off,” Mal finished.
“Yes.” He looked at his captain, his grey skin, shadows already building under his eyes. “But Dillon was right. There is a vaccine. Well, an antiviral, really. It has an almost 100 percent success rate, even in the later stages.”
“Dillon said something about that. You think he gave it to Frey?” Hank asked, looking from Zoe to Simon.
“I hope not.” Everyone’s eyes went back to the doctor.
Mal pushed himself straight. “You wanna rephrase that?”
“This vaccine … there’s evidence it can affect unborn children.” Simon had no expression on his face, an indication of the very deep turmoil he was feeling. “There’s a chance it could cause her to abort.”
Mal swallowed. “How much of a chance?”
“About forty percent.”
“And if you don’t use it?” Zoe asked, knowing her Captain and friend wasn't going to be able to.
“She’ll probably abort anyway, but … there’s a much higher risk of … Zoe, without the vaccine, even if Freya survives, she could be left with serious brain damage.”
Mal wasn’t sure he could stand. He turned to lean on the counter, his damaged fist pressing into the metal.
“Ain't there something we can do?” Kaylee asked quietly.
“Just get me there,” Mal ground out.
She nodded, stepping close to him to lay a hand briefly on his hunched shoulder, just letting him know they were with him, then she was gone, running back to her engine room.
“I’ll see if I can shave anything. Even minutes,” Hank added, following her out and going the other way.
A child began to howl above them, the sound filtering down the staircase and lifting the hair on every single neck.
“That’s Ethan,” River breathed, about to go to him, but Mal turned, stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“No. He’s my son, and it’s his momma.”
She nodded, trying to give him her strength as Freya often did, her eyes dark and soulful. “He needs you,” she said softly. “Both of you.”
“I know, zi nu.” He smiled slightly at her, and walked out of the infirmary.
Simon blinked. It was the first time he’d heard the captain call River his daughter. He probably wasn't even aware he had.
River turned her big eyes on him. He knew.
Her brother nodded slowly.
“Do you think Dillon gave it to Freya?” Hank asked quietly, his words falling into the silence like the tolling of the high towered clock on the roof of the Osiris Capital Building that could be heard from a mile distant. “He did say something about getting the vaccine.”
Simon looked at his sister for guidance.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, her brow creasing in concentration. “There’s so much anxiety emanating from that planet that I can’t … it’s difficult to filter all of that out and just see one person.” She didn’t even mention the almost overwhelming emotion right here on this ship.
“Even Frey?” Jayne squeezed her hand.
“Even her.” She bit her lip. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay, mei-mei,” Simon said, putting his hand on her arm and rubbing the skin.
“But she’s still alive. I know that much.”
“Then that’s good.” Zoe spoke firmly. “That’s more’n a lot of people know.” She glanced out of the infirmary. “Does Mal know?”
Simon was shocked. “You think he believes –“
“No,” River interrupted. “He knows she’s alive.”
“You mean he’s talking to her?”
“No. But he’d know if she died.” She tapped her chest, level with her heart. “Here. He would feel the loss as if this were ripped out of him.”
They knew she was right. Anyone looking at him would be able to tell.
Zoe took a deep breath, not wanting to imagine what her captain … her friend was going through. “You really think the Alliance knew what was happening here? That they did this on purpose?”
Simon finally let his anger, but it wasn't directed at them. “There’s no way they didn’t know what this was. Any half-way decent doctor could do what I did, so there’s no excuse for what they did. If they’d just administered the antiviral when this first started, they could have saved so many lives –“
“Like I said, doc, that ain't what it was for.” Jayne was adamant. “And much as I hate to say it, they might not’ve been ready.”
“But they knew,” River added, looking into his face. “They had it ready.”
Jayne glanced at Simon, his brows drawn down. “That right?”
“It’s difficult to make, especially in large amounts, so … yes.” He sighed heavily. “And it takes about a month to prepare. This epidemic has been going for three weeks, so they had it on hand.”
“Tian ni gu you xing guan xi yi jiao tang shu.”
“For once, Jayne, I think I agree with you.”
“Better see if you can find anything else out about it, doctor,” Zoe said.
“I’ll help,” River added, letting go of Jayne’s hand.
“Thanks.” Simon smiled at his sister, grateful for her support.
Zoe nodded and strode out of the infirmary. Jayne followed, catching up with her in the cargo bay.
“When we get there, they ain't gonna let us land, are they?” the big man asked.
“I doubt it,” Zoe agreed.
“So what’s the Cap planning?”
“I’m not sure he’s actually got that far. I think he’s more or less on autopilot right now.”
Jayne’s face darkened. “That’s the kinda thing gets a man killed.”
“Not intentionally, Jayne,” Zoe pointed out, then headed up the stairs towards the bridge.
He watched her backside disappearing through the doorway, then stomped across to his weights bench. Might as well get something done, he thought to himself. Gorram folk, he added, laying back and lifting the bar down onto his chest. Make ya care for ‘em, then they do this to ya.
River, watching him in her mind as Simon prepared to delve deeper, nodded in agreement.
For a long while Mal leaned on the bulkhead above his bunk, hearing Ethan’s cries turn to sobs, tearing at his already battered and bruised heart. Then he closed his eyes, all the better to pray.
God, please don’t let her die. I know I've asked you before, but don’t make that a one time deal. If it ain't for me, make it for the little boy down there, and the little girl his Momma’s carrying. We just got reacquainted, you and me. Don’t make me regret it.
He almost laughed at the way he’d just threatened God. Not that he cared. He’d make a deal with anyone or anything to make sure she got home safely.
“Mal?” Hank called from the bridge. “You okay?”
He stood straight, and looked along the corridor. “Oh, peachy.”
Zoe rounded the stairs and stopped next to him. “We’ll take care of things up here, sir. You go see to your boy.”
Mal gazed at her, his blue eyes dark. “I'm gonna need you on this, Zo,” he said. “Don’t know what we’ll be doing, or how we’re gonna do it, but I need you by my side.”
He nodded. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, sir.”
He stepped down the open hatchway.
“Hey, what’s all the fussing, big feller?” he asked, climbing down the ladder and hurrying through into the nursery.
“Mama,” Ethan said, hiccupping as he tried to contain the sobs that were wracking his small frame.
“Oh, I know, Ethan.” He sat down on the bed and gathered his son into his arms.
“I'm sorry, Uncle Mal,” Bethany said, tears in her own eyes. “I tried to make him stop, but –“
“That’s okay.” He managed a smile for her. “You go on, now. I think your own Momma might need some of your TLC.”
Bethie nodded. She stepped closer, laying her hand on Ethan’s head. “She’ll be okay,” she murmured, leaning forward to put a kiss on his hair, then ran to the ladder and was gone.
“Mama be okay?” Ethan asked from the depths of his father’s chest.
“Sure she will. Your Mama’s strong. Stronger’n me.”
“Daddy’s strong.” The little boy put his hand on Mal’s arm. “Muscles.”
“Ain't that kinda strong I mean.” He stroked his son’s hair. “Kinda strength your Mama has comes from inside. From who she is.” He stared into the corner of the nursery. “Way stronger’n me.”
“I want Mama home,” Ethan whispered, laying his cheek on Mal’s shirt, his tears soaking into the cotton.
Mal blinked hard. “Me too, Ethan. Me too.”
“Any luck?” Dillon asked as Callum jumped from the hover.
“No sir. Nothing. And I tried all my usual contacts.”
“I think this has to be unusual ones now, Callum.”
“Yes sir.” The man glanced up at the windows above. “Freya?”
“She’s fighting it.” Dillon shook his head. “Every step.”
“And Captain Reynolds?”
Dillon didn’t answer for a moment, then patted his friend and servant on the shoulder. “Better get back out before curfew,” he said. “Try some of those unusual contacts.”
Persephone was showing large in the bridge window, and Serenity’s power had just gone down. Under the dim red glow of the emergency lights Hank fiddled maniacally with the switches, swearing with extreme invention.
“It ain't me, Hank!” Kaylee said over the com, somewhat frantic.
He was about to respond when he realised a message was flashing. Flicking it on, a bored voice filled the bridge.
“Warning. This planet is under Alliance quarantine. Your engines have been shut down. Restart and reverse course or await further instructions.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake.” He lifted down the internal com. “No, I know,” he said tiredly to the mechanic. “Looks like we’ve got as far as we’re going.”
“You want me to restart?”
“Yeah. But just keep up idling.”
Hank hung the handset back up and sighed heavily. “Better get Mal,” he said to Zoe.
“I'm here. What happened?” Mal was jumping onto the bridge, and by the sound of it the others weren’t far behind.
“Seems like they’re pretty positive they don’t want us to land. We got caught by an EMP web. We’re down, but …” He paused as the lights came back on. “Nothing broken.”
Mal stared out of the window at the cruiser coming around the horizon. He was almost glad to see it, as he’d fallen asleep with Ethan in his arms, and dreamed of Freya lying cold in a coffin, having to bury her on Prom. He’d woken up just as the first clods of earth hit the wood.
Hank nodded, then stopped. “Looks like they’ve pre-empted you.”
A face appeared on the vid, a youngish man, wearing lieutenant pips and a slightly weary expression. “Unidentified Firefly, this planet is under quarantine, and you are required by –“
Mal leaned down so he could be seen clearly, and interrupted. “I'm Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. I need to talk to your commanding officer.”
The man on the screen shook his head. “He isn’t available. You’ll just have to make do with me.”
“Then you have to give me permission to land.”
The officer shook his head. “That isn’t possible. Under the quarantine regulations, only official Alliance vessels may enter Persephone air space.”
“We came from here not much more than a day ago – surely you can make an exception in this case?”
“I can’t. The rules are very clear. And you’re lucky: if you’d stayed your ship would probably have been impounded, possibly ordered destroyed.”
“My wife’s down there! She’s seven months pregnant, sick –“
“Then you have my commiserations. But we can’t let you land.”
“Then at least … can you get some vaccine to her? She’s staying with a friend, Dillon Malfrey. If I could just talk to him, tell him it’s on its way –“
“I'm sorry, Captain, but there’s nothing I can do to help. All the doses of vaccine have been allocated to those persons most at risk.”
“You mean those with the money.” Mal tried to bite the words back but they’d already been spoken.
The officer didn’t take offence. “I can’t comment.”
“Then you tell me what the cao I'm supposed to do?” He thumped his fist onto the console, only aware that it was the one he’d already almost broken when the pain radiated up his arm. He ignored it, concentrating on the man on the screen.
“I understand, and I wish I could assist you, but you can’t land and we have no vaccine to give you.” He looked as if he’d have preferred to say something else, but there was nothing he could do. He straightened. “Captain Reynolds, you are required by Alliance Directive 186 slash QA dashT7983 to remove your vessel from orbit. Failure to comply will result in your vessel being fired upon.” His face took on the sympathetic look again. “I am truly sorry, Captain.”
The screen went blank.
For a long moment no-one spoke, the tension so thick it could’ve been eaten with a spoon. Then Mal stood straight. “Prep the shuttle.”
“What?” Hank stared at him.
“I’m taking the shuttle down. Even if they don’t give me any vaccine, maybe I can … I’ll be with her anyway.”
“Dillon might already have given it to her, sir,” Zoe said softly.
“Maybe. But this waiting around is killing me.” He looked her in the eyes, willing her to understand. “Have to do this, Zo.”
“Mal, this is crazy! They’ll shoot you down!” Hank’s face had gone white.
“Happens maybe they won’t see me. Single shuttle, coming in under their radar …”
“And when you’re nothing but a cloud of debris?”
Mal turned to his pilot. “Well, then you can say I told you so.”
“Shouldn’t one of us come with you?” Simon asked, stepping forward. “Freya might need me to –“
“Sorry, but Dillon’s like to have a whole army of doctors looking after her. So the answer is still no."
“Then take Jayne,” Hank insisted. “Or … or River. Zoe. Hell, even me.”
“Mal, this is suicide!”
Mal turned on the pilot. “Ain't that a good enough reason not to take anyone with me? I have to get down there. You know that. But I’m not putting anyone else at risk.”
“Then you’re insane.”
“Got that right,” Jayne muttered.
“I think we agreed on that some time back.”
Hank turned to his fiancée. “Zoe, talk some sense into him!”
“I haven’t managed to yet.”
Mal smiled, one sided though it was. “There are lots of times you’ve talked me out of things.”
“Would I be able to now?”
“Pretty much not.”
Zoe nodded and walked off the bridge.
“See?” Mal said to Hank, as if he’d won a major point. “It’s easy. Head towards the planet, then do a U-turn and drop the shuttle. I’ll use the impetus to slip through the EMP net, stay powered down until you’ve pulled back beyond the demarcation line, then you can … I don’t know, wave your arms around, jump up and down, something to get their attention. Then when they’re looking at you and not me, I’ll slide right past them.”
“They’ll shoot,” River said softly.
“Not necessarily, albatross.” Mal headed out of the door, the others trailing after him. “They’re more here to stop people leaving, not landing.” He felt more focused now he had something to do.
“That’s not what their message says,” Hank pointed out.
“They’re just playing the boogeyman.”
“That Fed wasn’t playing. Not from what I could see.”
“Then maybe I’ll be finding out which one of us is right.” He stepped onto the catwalk and strode towards the shuttle.
“Mal, wait,” Hank called. “If you’re going to give in to the madness, then you’re gonna need this.” He held out a com unit.
“Thought they wouldn’t work?” Mal took it, noted the extra wires that made it look something of a mess.
“They don’t. Not normally.” Hank shrugged. “Kaylee came up with it. It’s basically a two way radio, on a single width frequency. If we have to move much further out, then you won’t be able to contact us, but it should be okay. ‘Til they figure it out, then it’ll only be the work of a moment to jam it.”
“So emergencies only.”
“And you don’t think this is an emergency?”
“I think you’re crazy. Certifiable. Total looney tunes. But that’s just my opinion.”
Mal put his hand on the pilot’s shoulder. “Thanks for that vote of confidence.”
“Just … bring her back, okay?”
“I plan on it.”
Mal stepped into the shuttle, then realised someone was already there.
“Get out, Zoe.”
She stood up from the bench. “No, sir. I'm going with you.”
“No, you ain’t.”
“You said you needed me by your side. Well, that’s kinda difficult if your side is down on the planet and mine’s up here. So I'm coming.”
“Could keelhaul you.”
They stared at each other, then Mal nodded. “Get her ready to fly.”
“Already done, sir.”
“You know if we do get down, there ain't no way they’re gonna let us back up.”
“We’ll be planetside for the duration of the quarantine.”
“I do understand that, sir.”
“What about Ben?”
“Hank will just have to have some quality time with him. I'm coming.” She walked to the small bridge.
Mal smiled a little, and closed the shuttle door. “You told him?”
“I’m thinking he’ll figure it out.”
Mal winced. “Really don’t want to be in your shoes when we get back.”
“Just so long as we do get back, I think he’ll forgive me.”
Hank spoke into the com. “Kaylee, you ready? It’ll be a standing start.”
“Ready,” she called. “Soon as you are.”
“’Kay. Here goes.” His hand pausing over the switch for just a moment, he punched down, and Serenity leaped forward. The planet seemed to loom at them, then he flicked another button and the Firefly rocked slightly. Immediately powering back he turned the steering column hard to port, and for a brief moment he caught sight of the shuttle skimming past. Then the stars were filling the black once more.
A light was flashing. Someone wanted him.
“Firefly Serenity, you have broken quarantine regulations and approached Persephone. Explain yourself.” The man on the screen wasn't the lieutenant they’d dealt with before. This one didn’t seem to have any redeeming features at all.
“Engine malfunction,” Hank explained, bringing Serenity back into a higher position above the planet. “That EMP net of yours did something funny to the electrics. Starting her back up caused a fuel flux and it –“
“You’re lucky we don’t want to fill out the paperwork,” the officer said. “We could have blown you out of the sky.”
“Kinda glad you didn’t.”
“If you attempt to enter the atmosphere we will fire.”
“I understand.” Hank watched as the officer cut the feed, and the screen turned to static. He breathed out, closing his eyes.
“Lucky,” Simon said from his position at the back of the bridge.
“Think they got away okay?”
“They’re powering up their engines,” River put in, sitting on the steps outside.
“And?” Hank asked.
“No-one’s chasing them yet.”
“Hey, where’s Zoe?” Jayne asked, standing in the corridor. “Kinda thought she’d be here, wanting to make sure we didn’t do something stupid like running away.” He was only almost joking.
Hank didn’t look round. “With the Cap.”
Simon’s jaw dropped. “You mean she’s –“
“But she didn’t say anything.”
“No. But that’s my Zoe.” Hank stared at the profile of the planet, the sun setting behind the curve of the world. Ain't wishing you good luck, he thought. Just you make sure you don’t get dead.
Kaylee felt the shuttle disengage, and the sharp turn, then Serenity powered down. She smiled, somewhat shakily, and patted the engine housing.
“That’s my girl,” she murmured, finally allowing herself to sit down on the ledge next to the compression coil. The heartbeat of the Firefly soothed her, and she leaned her head back onto the cool metal, wiping her skin of the sweat that had sprung up.
Just a few moments, she told herself, then she’d go to the infirmary and get Simon to give her a painkiller for the headache that had been niggling all day, and finally flared up about the time the EMP web had knocked out the engine. She’d had to ignore it. There were other things to go, more important things, like making sure the Cap got down to Persephone so he could take care of Freya.
Closing her eyes, she managed a smile. He surely cared about her. Even love wasn’t really a strong enough word for what they shared. She believed he would march through the gates of hell itself to bring her back, if it came to it, although what he actually planned to do on Persephone she wasn’t quite sure. For that matter she wasn’t sure he knew.
She took a calming breath. Just sit for a moment. Feel the steady beat of Serenity at her back. Just for a moment.
“… and the troll looked out from under the bridge at the goat going clip-clop across, and said …” Bethany’s voice faded away and she looked up from the book she was reading to Ethan, Hope and Ben, staring into the shadows in the corner of her bedroom.
“Beth‘ny?” Ethan asked, sitting up, his eyes following hers. “Auntie Kaylee?”
“Momma,” the little girl breathed, putting the book down slowly.
“Hurts,” he whimpered quietly, not knowing where it was coming from. “Sleepy.”
“Stay here,” Bethany said, concentrating elsewhere. “You look after the others.” She slid from the bed and opened the door. For a moment she paused, her face puzzled, then she stepped out, closing it behind her.
She ignored Ethan’s voice, but walked up the stairs towards the engine room, each footstep hesitant, as if she was listening all the time.
“Momma?” She looked into Serenity’s soul, saw her mother lying on the decking. “Momma?”
She crossed to her, looking down into her face, her brown hair lying across her closed eyes.
“Momma!” Bethany leaned down, tugging on her arm, trying to wake her up, but Kaylee didn‘t move. “Daddy!“ the little girl screamed at the top of her lungs.
Zoe dropped the shuttle through the night into a gap between two piles of containers, and shut down the engine.
“Anyone notice?” Mal asked.
“No-one followed us, but I imagine someone’s seen us come down. There’s nothing else in the sky.” She glanced out at the darkness. “Must be under curfew.”
“Probably.” He picked up his coat and shrugged it on. “Best not delay then.”
Zoe nodded, locking off all systems and standing up. “Sir, I don’t like the idea of going around without my gun.”
“There’s gonna be Feds out there, Zo. They see two armed people walking the streets after curfew, they’re gonna shoot first and not bother asking questions.” He opened the door. “I feel the same way, but I don’t see we have a choice.”
“No, sir.” She followed him out, walking past him so he could close and set the lock. “I borrowed one of Jayne’s knives, though.”
He glanced at her over his shoulder “He let you?”
“He doesn’t know.”
“You’re getting sneaky in your old age.”
“I imagine that’s so. And I‘m not old.”
“No more you are.“ Mal turned, looked out at the Docks, as quiet as he’d ever seen it. “Come on. Better not be hanging about looking suspicious.”
Simon carried Kaylee down to the infirmary, the others at his heels.
“I’m sorry, Simon!” River was inconsolable. “I didn’t see. I should have seen but I didn’t.”
“That’s okay, mei-mei,” her brother said, but it was automatic. He laid his wife on the medbed, attaching sensors to her skin and finger, eyes, mind, body only for her.
Jayne looked at Hank. “Better call the Cap back, don’t you think?”
“He’s already landed,” River said faintly. “He can’t get back.”
“He’ll wanna know, won’t he?”
Hank shook his head. “It’ll worry him even more. Let him deal with Freya. We’ll deal with this.”
Simon didn’t looked up. “By getting out of my infirmary. Now.”
River nodded and swung Bethany up onto her hip. “You heard my brother. Out.” She herded the others back into the common area.
“There must be something we can do. Right?” Jayne glanced into the infirmary, then looked back at River. “I mean, it’s this virus, ain’t it?”
“I think so.” River felt Bethany trembling against her.
“Only if Kaylee’s only just gone down with it, then I guess it’s like the doc says and -”
“We need the vaccine,” Hank said, heading up the stairs. “I’m gonna talk to the cruiser again. They must have some.”
“Think he can do any good?” Jayne murmured.
River shook her head. “I don’t know. He might.”
River didn’t answer, just leaned far enough forward so that she could put Bethany’s feet back onto the floor. “Bethie, I need you to be strong and brave for me. Ethan and the others still need looking after.” She looked into the little girl’s frightened eyes. “Will you do that for me?”
Bethany shook her head. “Want to stay with Momma.”
“I know. But you’ll only be just along there. You’ll be the first to know when she’s feeling better. Please?”
Bethany twisted her hands in her dress, then nodded. “’Kay.”
“Good girl. You make sure they’re safe.”
“’Kay.” She scurried off, glancing over her shoulder towards where her mother lay all the way.
Jayne waited until she was out of earshot. “It’ll be bad, girl,” he said softly.
“I know.” River looked at him a moment, then stepped back into the infirmary. “Is it?”
Simon nodded, staring down at his wife on the bed. “Yes. And it’s the most virulent form. She doesn’t … she doesn’t have … Why didn’t she tell me? Why?” He couldn’t continue. His legs gave way and he would have fallen but for Jayne’s sudden strong arms about him.
“Whoa, there, doc. Can’t have you fainting and knocking yourself out. Then who’d Kaylee have to fix her?” the big man said, easing him back onto the stool River pulled out from under the counter.
“I can’t fix her,” he whispered, his face white. “I don’t have the vaccine.”
“Then I’ll get it,” River said, running out of the infirmary and up the stairs.
Jayne and Simon stared after her.
“Sir, I think we’ve been seen.”
“You think?” Mal was running, hearing the footsteps of the Alliance patrol pounding along behind him.
“Well, you did ask.” She felt naked without her gun, and even the comforting presence of Jayne’s knife in its sheath on the back of her belt wasn’t enough.
“Remind me not to, next time.” He caught sight of a slightly darker opening ahead, a mere increase in the shadows of the night, but pausing only a moment to make sure the Feds were actually in sight, he pulled Zoe inside.
It wasn’t even an alleyway, just a dip between buildings, but the inky black promised a hiding spot. He turned his face from the street, in case his pale skin caught any ambient light, and stood immobile between his first mate and any possible bullets.
They heard the footsteps getting louder, then in a flash they’d passed by, half a dozen men in Alliance uniforms.
Zoe opened her eyes. “They’re going to come back, soon as they realise.”
“Then we’d better not be here when they do.” Mal stepped to the entrance, checked the street up and down, then headed back the way they’d come, taking a side road and starting to run again. “Fun, ain’t it?” he called to Zoe over his shoulder.
“Oh, shiny, sir,” she said, keeping up stride for stride, matching his cynicism with her own.
Bethany sat down on the bed next to Ethan and looked down at her sister. She’d never minded before about being able to peek. It was something she’d always done, and it came like breathing or talking. Just did it. But now, now she felt jealous of Hope, lying there, asleep, not knowing what was going on, how her mother was.
“Beth’ny?” Ethan snuggled up to her on his hands and knees. “Auntie Kaylee?”
She looked into his face, at the blue eyes gazing at her hopefully. “Momma’s not well,” she said softly.
“I know. Like Mama.” He chewed on his thumb. “Feel it.”
“Not nice, is it?”
“Want me to show you how not to?”
He scrambled to a sitting position. “Yes.”
“’Kay.” She took one of his hands, holding it tightly. “Like this.”
His eyes widened as he felt something odd, not being able to put into words how she was inside his mind, showing him how to put his nursery blocks into one row, then building another on top, and another …
Mal pounded on the door to Dillon‘s house. “Come on,” he panted. “Come on.”
Finally it opened, gold light spilling into the dark. “Yes?”
He didn’t recognise the man standing silhouetted, but he was past caring about the niceties. “Where is she?” Mal demanded.
Alliance Officers pounded up behind them, grabbing at their arms. “You are bound by law!” one of them ground out, struggling to keep hold of their detainees. “By the power vested in the security forces under the current emergency, you are hereby charged with –”
“What’s going on?” Dillon Malfrey demanded, walking up behind his butler. “Mal?” His jaw dropped. “Zoe?”
“Dillon, where is she?” Mal’s face was anguished, trying desperately to get free.
“Upstairs.” He looked at the officers. “Let him go. Let them both go.”
“Mr Malfrey, sir, they are bound under the –”
“No, they‘re not. This is … this is my brother and his wife, and as such are highly unlikely to be the people you’re looking for.”
“They broke quarantine,” the officer insisted, wanting to arrest somebody. “Came down in a shuttle -”
“Did you see this? Did you see my brother leave a shuttle?”
Mal wondered idly whether Dillon was likely to let this Fed finish a single sentence, but he just let him deal with it. Rank, after all, had its privileges. So long as Zoe didn’t do anything crazy like pull that knife of hers.
“Well, no … but they were running –”
“Because our sister is sick.”
The officer stepped back. “The virus?”
“Yes. She’s very unwell, and I called Malcolm here from his home, and if you don’t let him go up to see her it may be too late.”
“But if I could just see some identification –”
Dillon glared. “Are you accusing me of lying?”
“No, sir, of course not … but I –”
“What is your name? And that of your superior officer? I’m sure he won’t be pleased to find out that you have been harassing innocent citizens going about their private business, even at a time like this. And please be aware I shall be doing exactly that.”
The officer stared, about to argue, but finally decided suicide was not an option. He nodded at his men who let go. “Mr Malfrey.” He clicked his heels and nodded before striding off into the darkness, the others following.
“Dillon, is she really …” Mal couldn’t finish the sentence, glancing at Zoe, barely able to breathe.
“Come inside. Before they come back.” Dillon hustled them into the hall.
“Dillon, please! Is Freya –”
“She’s holding her own. I had to say that to make that man go away.”
Mal closed his eyes briefly and began to breathe again. “Thank God.”
“And what the hell are you doing here?” Dillon was suddenly filled with anger. “Breaking quarantine, running from the law … are you trying to get arrested?”
“I’m trying to see my wife.” He straightened up. “Where is she?”
“Upstairs. Mal …”
“I need to see her.”
“I have to talk to you.”
The older man stared, seeing the aching despair in Mal’s heart, and nodded. “This way.”
River ran up the steps to the bridge. “Well?”
Hank’s face was like thunder. “They wouldn’t even talk to me. I got the move back or we’ll blow you to smithereens message, and that was it.”
“Then we have no choice.” She leaned forward, checking some co-ordinates then punching in a Cortex address.
“What’re you doing?”
“Calling for help.”
“River, I told you, they won’t talk to us.”
A face appeared on the screen. “This is the private vessel Columbine. What can we do for you?”
River moved closer. “I want to speak to Alex Rostov.”
Dillon and Zoe watched silently from by the door as Mal cradled his wife in his arms, just talking quietly, words that didn’t have much meaning, but just letting her know he was there, even if she showed no signs of consciousness. Eventually he laid her back on the pillow, lost among the white linen sheets, and smoothed her hair.
“Ain't gonna let you go ahead of me, darlin’,” he promised. “You know that’s a fact. Shi bu fan hui.” He leaned forward. “And you know I keep ‘em.”
He stood up, turning to Dillon. “It’s clear you ain’t given her the vaccine, so tell me,” he said simply.
“The vaccine … I could only get one dose, Mal. I didn’t know Freya was sick, and I … the doctors gave it to Breed.”
“There has to be more.”
Even Dillon recognised the signs of a man on the edge. “There is no more.”
Mal advanced on him, forcing him to step back. “This is a rutting planet! You saying there wasn’t enough for all those sick?”
“There was a lot more. But an entire shipment was stolen… it never got to the distribution point. Callum’s been out, searching, and he says … it’s being offered on the black market.”
“Do you think I haven’t been trying?” Dillon’s face was red, and his anger and shame were warring with each other in his eyes. “If I’d know Frey was ill, if she’d told me –“
“You’d still have given it to Breed.”
Dillon stared at Mal, open-mouthed. “I –“
“He’s your partner.” Mal understood, even though every fibre of his being was wishing he didn’t, that he could hit this man for what he’d done. “The man you love.”
“I'm sorry, Mal.”
“Don’t be. Not yet.”
“Callum’s been out, looking for some more. He thought he had a lead, but the hwoon dahn wouldn’t play ball. I authorised any sum, but he kept asking for more.” Dillon glanced at Zoe. “I’m not convinced the weasel had any at all.”
Mal‘s eyes narrowed. “Does that weasel go by the name of Badger?”
The surprise on Dillon‘s face would, at any other time, have been funny. “He does.”
“Just the kinda thing he’d be involved in,” Mal murmured, almost to himself but looking at his first mate. “Making money off sick folks.”
“Could be, sir,” Zoe said softly.
He nodded slowly. “Then maybe we should pay him a visit.”
“What about the curfew?” Dillon wished the words back as he said them, particularly at the expression of contempt on Mal’s face. “Then I'm coming with you.”
Mal half-smiled. “Saves me from asking. Though I’d feel safer with more.”
“Don’t worry. Callum has more uses than just driving.”
“Ain’t got no guns, though.”
“Oh, I think I can help you with that.”
Alex Rostov appeared on the screen, a somewhat wary look on his face. “Yes?” he said. “You wanted to speak to me?”
“Mr Rostov, my name is River Cobb.“ She heard Hank’s sharp intake of breath but ignored him. “I crew on the Firefly Serenity. I believe you met our captain at a party recently.” She spoke quickly in case he recognised her and he might say something untoward. There could be other listeners.
The wariness turned to surprise. “Yes. Yes, I did. And how is Captain Reynolds?”
“Slightly indisposed.” River smiled a little. “That’s why he isn’t making this call himself.”
“I understand.” It was clear he didn’t, but he nodded anyway. “And what is it that you need?”
“One of our crew is sick. I presume you have heard about the quarantine on Persephone?”
“Yes. I did. It appears we only managed to leave in time ourselves … but you mean one of your friends is ill with this … disease?”
“Our mechanic. But we can’t get any vaccine for her.”
The sympathy on the man’s face was clear enough. “I see. And I’m sorry. And this indisposition of the Captain. Is it –?”
“He’s on Persephone. With his wife.” She wondered how much to say, but it was obvious Alex had already jumped to the right conclusions.
“Dear God.” His face paled. “Can I help?”
River exhaled with relief. “Not with the Captain at this time, but as I said, we can’t get the vaccine for our mechanic. Can you –?”
“What’s the name of the Alliance vessel enforcing the quarantine?”
“Leave it with me.” He paused. “Do you want us to come back? We can turn around -”
“I’m not sure there’s time.”
He swallowed. “I understand.”
“Just get us the vaccine for our mechanic.”
“I’ll get back to you shortly.”
“Thank you,” River said honestly.
“It’s the least I can do.” The screen returned to static.
Hank switched it off, then turned in his seat and stared at the young woman. “You are amazing,” he said with utmost sincerity.
“Got to save Kaylee.” River dropped into the seat next to him. “The captain would never forgive us if we didn’t.”
Badger sat back in his chair, his derby at a rakish angle on his head, and smiled. A very small part of him admitted that he was ge an guan huo, but the rest of him said it wasn’t gloating. And others misfortunes always left someone better off. Reading the figures on his personal account just showed him it was his turn. Already he’d made a nice healthy profit, and it was growing all the time.
“’Ere, Dermott, get that girl from Macey’s,” he called. “The redhead. I fancy some games.”
There was no response.
“Dermott.” Badger began to get annoyed. “Now stop doing whatever it is you’re doing, and go do what I tell you.”
The little man got to his feet, grumbling. “What the ‘ell do I pay you for?” he muttered. “Only I don’t think I’m gonna be paying you much longer.” He reached the doorway. “Dermott, shake it off! I ain’t gonna tell you …” He stopped, then backed up into the room. “What the …”
Mal walked in, a pistol aimed squarely between Badger’s somewhat bloodshot and bulging eyes. “You’ve got something I need.”
To Badger’s credit he didn’t do anything more than act belligerent. “What the ‘ell’s going on ‘ere, Reynolds? Why ain‘t you making that delivery to Boros?”
“The vaccine. Where is it?”
“You come barging into my place, waving a gun around, and you expect me to just stand ‘ere and let you take what you want?” He sneered. “I got men all over the gaff!”
“Not at the moment.” Dillon stepped into the light behind Mal, a shotgun in his hands. “They’re being … entertained.”
Badger stared at the newcomer, something about him very familiar. “Who’re you?”
“A friend,” Mal said. “And I don’t have time to play. Where’s the vaccine?”
The little man recovered enough to turn his back on Mal and return to his desk, sitting down and adjusting his chair before lifting his gaze to the captain of Serenity. “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Reynolds.”
“Oh, I think you do.” Mal closed the gap, his gun not wavering an inch. “I think you stole – or had stole – a whole shipment of the vaccine that’s the only treatment for this virus. And I think you’re selling it to those that can afford to buy it.”
“What if I am?” Badger leaned forwards, his forearms on the table top. “Man’s got to make a living,”
“Off other people dying.”
“Happens all the time.”
“You’re a vulture.”
“Yeah, but I’m gonna be a rich vulture.” He sat back again, one hand sliding under the desk. Suddenly a knife was sticking in the old wood only a couple of inches from his chest, the blade still vibrating, and Badger was staring at it in shock.
“Don’t even think about drawing that gun,” Zoe said, coming in from the side door. “Or I’ll bury that someplace you won’t have time to remove it.”
There was silence for a moment, then Badger pulled his empty hands into view and placed them either side of the knife. “Good aim,” he managed to say, an odd touch of appreciation in his voice.
“Now, where were we?” Mal said. “Oh, yeah. The vaccine.”
“You think I’m gonna give you some now? When you’ve been threatening my very person?” Badger spat over the side of the desk. “You can twist for it.”
Mal’s finger tightened on the trigger.
“Don’t,” Dillon said softly. “He’s Freya’s only hope.”
“Freya?” Badger’s eyes narrowed. “What about ‘er?”
“She’s sick.” Mal spoke very quietly, his control icy. “She’s dying. And you’re going to give me that vaccine.”
“It’s for ‘er? Why didn’t you just say that? ‘Stead of going through all this palaver?” Badger got to his feet, very slowly, not trusting Mal’s trigger finger in the slightest.
“Because I know you.”
“Obviously not well enough.” He moved towards a filing cabinet in the corner of the room.
“Hold it,” Zoe said softly.
“There ain’t no guns in there, little girl.” Badger glanced at her. “I ain’t that stupid.”
“Just let me –”
“No.” Mal’s voice stopped him dead. “Zoe.”
She nodded, crossing behind him to the cabinet.
“Middle drawer,” Badger supplied. “At the back.”
The drawer squealed a little as she pulled it open, but she found a metal box towards the rear, the Alliance flag prominent on the lid. She opened it. “Sir.”
Mal glanced quickly over. Inside, nestled in grey foam, were eleven metal phials and one empty slot. “That it?” he asked.
“That’s it,” Badger confirmed.
“Your own stash?”
“Gotta be ready for anything.”
“Don’t wanna get sick, do I?” The little man settled his coat more securely on his shoulders. “Wouldn’t be able to spend any of my ill-gotten gains then, would I?”
Mal exhaled, releasing some of the tension in his hand. He clicked the safety back on. “Take one,” he ordered to Zoe.
“Sir?” She looked slightly confused.
“Take one and leave the rest.”
Dillon stepped forward as Zoe slid one of the phials inside her waistcoat. “We’re not going to –”
“No. We’ve got what we need.”
“What about the others? We could –”
Badger watched them, his brows drawn together, watching Zoe tug the knife from the table top and replace it in the sheath at her waist. “You ain’t taking the lot?”
“Got what we came for.” Mal holstered his gun. “Time to go.”
Dillon tried again. “But we could –”
“You know who else is sick?” Mal turned on him. “Who else to give this to?”
“There must be someone.”
“And you’re going to decide which poor ten bastards get it?”
“Callum could … there must be some way of …”
Badger had had enough. “’Ere, take the bleedin’ lot,” he said, thrusting the box into Zoe’s hands. “Can’t stand people arguing. ‘Specially if there’s no chance of gunplay to make it interestin’. And there’s plenty more where that came from.”
Mal looked at him, then nodded. Just once. “Thanks.”
“Yeah, well, tell Freya to come and thank me ‘erself, when she’s up and about again.” He coughed slightly, embarrassed that they might think he was getting soft. “And my men? ‘M I gonna have to get me some fresh blood?”
“No,” Dillon said. “They’re just tied up.”
“Load’a useless shuimu chunshi,” Badger muttered. He watched Dillon and Zoe back out of the door, then looked at Mal. “Don’t think I ain’t gonna hold this against you, Reynolds.”
“Never figured you wouldn’t.” Mal smiled tightly. “Oh, and a word of advice, just to put us back in your good books. Better sell the rest of that vaccine pretty sharp.”
“You ain’t never been in my good books. And why would I want to do that, when the price keeps going up?”
“Because it’s going end up being useless to you.”
Badger‘s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Just making a suggestion.” Mal inclined his head slightly and disappeared in a swirl of brown leather.
“Ezri san zhi jiao mao lu.” Badger went back to his chair and sat down heavily, pondering on what that hwoon dahn had said.
After a few minutes there was a great deal of noise outside, and his men came in, brandishing their weapons.
“Put ‘em away,” he ordered, his tone resigned. “Great load of use you were, weren’t you? I coulda been lying here in a pool of blood – my own – and you wouldn’t’ve got a single shot off.”
“Sorry, boss.” There was a general murmur of apologies and looks of shamefacedness.
“So you gorram should be.” He sat back, lifting his derby from his head. He ran his fingers round the brim, then rubbed the crown with the sleeve of his jacket. Putting it carefully back in place, he looked at Dermott. “Get that redhead from Macey’s. And the blonde. I need cheering up.”
“You told him.” Dillon watched as his house came into view.
They hadn’t spoken all the way back from the docks, but now Dillon had to know.
Mal shrugged. “Insurance.”
“Badger getting too uppity.”
“But he’ll make more money out of it.”
“Not sure he will.”
“I don’t understand.”
Zoe leaned forward. “Badger might come over all altruistic and sell the remaining vaccine off quickly. Which means the price goes down, and a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to afford it will actually live. And if he doesn’t, he gets left with something that costs him money. Either way, next time we deal with him, we’re in the position of having tried to warn him.”
“You’ll deal with him again?” Dillon was appalled.
“We do business,” Mal said as the hover drew up. “’Sides, there’s always the possibility that the Feds might find out about his part in it to look forward to.”
“I’ve been out of this game for too long,“ Dillon muttered.
“You’re gonna have to tell me about that some time.” Mal smiled briefly, then opened the door.
Dillon nodded towards the metal phial in Mal’s hand. “You know what might happen? Giving that to Freya?”
Mal nodded. “Simon told me.” He wasn’t ever likely to forget.
“And you’re willing –”
“I have to.“ He glanced at Zoe, seeing understanding on her dark face, before he looked back at the other man. “There ain’t no choice about this. I’ll lose her if I don’t. Can’t do that.”
“I know, but –”
“Dillon, it’s okay. This ain’t your responsibility. It’s mine.” He climbed out of the hover and strode purposefully towards the house.
“He loves her so much.”
“That he does,” Zoe said quietly, following her captain.
Dillon nodded. “I know how he feels,” he muttered.
“Firefly Serenity.” The voice coming over the com was the bored one from earlier. “Hold position ready for docking.”
Hank glanced at River. “Does this sound good?”
“Do we have a choice?”
“Not really. They’re pulling us in.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Do you think Alex got through?”
“I think we’re likely to be finding out.”
The cruiser was getting bigger in the window, filling the bridge with its green light. Larger and larger, until the individual plates were visible, then there was a clank and a slight groan as Serenity was held fast.
“Better open the door,” Jayne said from behind them, checking the clip in Betsy.
“No guns,” River said quickly.
“Aw, hell, they’re gonna be armed!”
“I don’t think Simon will be pleased if he has to tend to a bullet wound as well as looking after Kaylee.”
“No guns,” Jayne agreed reluctantly. “But you’re staying here.”
“No, I –”
“River, for once you do what you’re told.” He spoke firmly. “It looks like they’re gonna search the ship, you hide.”
“Ain’t gonna tell you again.” He headed off towards the cargo bay.
“Jayne’s right,” Hank said softly. “There’s still a price on your head.” He smiled slightly and slid past her down the steps.
“Won’t stop Simon being there,” she murmured. “Juh jen sh guh kwai luh duh jean jan,” she added with feeling.
Jayne tugged the outer door open then stood back as half a dozen Alliance soldiers poured through the airlock, their guns at the ready. Keeping the three men covered, they spread out.
“Who’s in charge?” one asked, gesturing with his stun rifle.
“Um, that’d be me,” Hank said, stepping forward, his hands in plain sight.
“You have powerful friends.” An Alliance officer came up behind his men, and Hank recognised him as the one Mal had tried to deal with earlier. The one who had seemed more sympathetic.
“That we have.” Hank smiled.
“Powerful enough to order my Commander to release the vaccine.”
“Who to, I wonder?” The officer glanced around the interior of the Firefly, at the men standing waiting, watching. “And where’s Captain Reynolds?”
“He’s … elsewhere.”
The lieutenant raised one eyebrow. “Really.”
“Had to go. Do some business. Someplace. On board, I mean.” Hank was waffling, and he knew it. “The vaccine?”
“So he wasn’t on that shuttle that’s missing from outside.”
“Shuttle? Missing?” Hank spread his hands, managing a faint look of disgust. “Honestly, some people will pinch anything that ain’t nailed down.” He took a step forward, trying not to bounce in his nervousness. “The vaccine?”
The other man studied him for a moment, then nodded, clicking his fingers. A subordinate hurried in behind him and held out a small box. He took it, passing it over. “Here.”
Hank grinned, taking it. “Thanks.” He turned and passed it to Simon, who ran back into the infirmary.
“You know, I hear these Fireflies are very popular with smugglers,” the officer went on.
“Apparently. I understand they have a lot of little hidey-holes. Just perfect for … oh, all sorts of things.”
“Didn’t know that. Never found one myself.” Hank gestured to the crates in the bay. “This is all above board. Got the bill of lading and everything.”
“Oh, I’m not suggesting anything is untoward,” the officer said, a slight chuckle in his voice. “Just making small talk.”
“Small talk. Yes. Right.”
“Like I’m about to ask if your Captain’s wife is feeling better.”
Hank‘s face fell. “I … we don’t know.”
“Then that vaccine wasn’t for her?”
“She’s still on Persephone. We can’t get through to find out.”
“No. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to.”
“I don’t suppose you could … just for a while?”
The officer shook his head. “You got the vaccine because of your … friends. But the rules of quarantine are very strict. My Commander would never allow it.” He seemed genuinely sorry.
“Well, guess I had to ask.”
The officer looked again around the cargo bay, as if his fingers were itching to search. Instead he smiled. “When you find your captain, tell him I was asking after him. And I hope his wife’s health improves.”
“Time to go.” The officer turned on his heel, and without a backward glance strode off Serenity, his men following.
Jayne closed the hatch and thumped hard down on the inner door controls as Hank sank down onto a nearby crate.
“Ga ni niang,” he murmured with feeling.
“Yeah. Better get us detached,” Jayne said, heading for the infirmary.
Hank nodded and stood up.
“There are some good Alliance,” River said from the stairs as she flew down them to follow Jayne.
“Guess there has to be,” Hank agreed. “Guess there really does.”
They’d given Freya the vaccine more than four hours since, and Mal hadn’t left her side. His coat was dropped on the floor by the door, but the food and coffee Callum had brought him was untouched. Zoe sat in the chair by the fire, just being there for him.
“Come on, bao bei,” he whispered as if he and Freya were the only ones in the room. “You’re strong.” He touched her belly. “So’s this little one. Hold on. Stay here. With me.”
The door opened quietly and Dillon entered the room. He glanced at Zoe. “Anything?”
She shook her head, watching Mal stroke Freya’s hand. “Not yet.” There was a pause, then she added, “How’s Breed?”
“Awake again and demanding nourishment.” Dillon couldn’t help the relief in his voice. “He keeps asking for beef tea.”
“Beef tea. He says his mother used to give it to him when he was young. When he’d been poorly.”
“Yeah. My Ma had something similar. Only I don’t think it had anything to do with cows.” She looked at Mal, who hadn’t taken his eyes off Freya’s face. “How long did it take?”
“The beef tea?”
Dillon pulled a chair up next to her. “A couple of hours. ‘Til we knew it was working.”
“It’s been longer.”
“Maybe it’s different for some.”
Freya jerked, just a small spasm that ran through her body and up Mal’s arm. “Frey?” But there was nothing else. He tightened his grip on her hand.
“The doctors said just to wait, didn’t they?” Dillon asked.
“Yeah.” Zoe sighed deeply. “Worst part. Waiting.”
“How can he do that?” Hank asked, staring at Jayne as he sat in the large yellow chair and sharpened his knife on the whetstone.
“He’s waiting,” River explained.
“Yeah, but does he have to do it with a lethal weapon?”
“It’s that or lifting weights, and he wouldn’t be here if he was doing that.”
“You mean he has to keep busy?”
River nodded. “He’s waiting.”
“So’m I.” He glanced into the infirmary, at Simon sitting so still at Kaylee’s side. “What happens if –”
“But if it does.”
“I don’t know.”
“But Jayne’s said how you … well, sometimes see what might be.”
“They’re not set.”
“No, I know that. But can’t you just –” He stopped as River seemed to unfocus, then turned slowly to look into the infirmary.
“Momma?” Bethany walked into the common area, her little dog toy in her hands. “Momma?”
Jayne, closest to her, reached out and swung her onto his lap. “Why ain't you looking after the others, short stub?” he asked gently.
“Want to speak to Momma. Tell her I love her.”
“She knows that, Bethie. Look, why don’t we go back to the nursery and I’ll –”
“No!” The little girl had the stubborn look on her face that everyone knew she’d inherited from her mother. “Want to tell her now.”
“But she’s still asleep.”
“No, she isn’t.”
Jayne stared at her, then looked up and realised River was no longer talking to Hank. She’d stepped into the sickbay and was standing by the medbed, her hand on Simon’s shoulder.
The young man leaned forward. “Kaylee?”
For a long moment there was nothing, then she moved slightly, her head turning.
“Simon?” Her voice was crackly, throaty, but it was Kaylee.
“Bao bei?” Simon leaned forward, and looked into the pair of deep brown eyes that had captured his heart. “Oh, Kaylee …” Tears began to slip down his cheeks.
“Hey, what’s this?” she asked, lifting a somewhat trembling hand to wipe them away. “I ain’t dying am I?”
“No, no, you’re fine.” He sniffed hard. “You’re perfect.”
“Well, I know that.” She coughed. “My mouth is sure dry, though.”
“Let me get you some …” He stopped as a hand slipped a cup into his. He looked up into River’s face. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” River smiled as Simon gave his wife a drink.
“Momma?” Bethany stood at the foot of the bed.
“Hey, sweetie.” Kaylee tried to look down, but she felt too weak as yet. “You’re gonna have to come up here.”
Bethany grinned, pulling another stool close and climbing up, moving along the bed until she could lay with her head on her mother’s shoulder. “Missed you.”
“Oh, honey, I missed you too.” She tousled the girl’s hair, then looked at Simon. “What about Frey? Did the Cap –”
“We don’t know yet,” Simon admitted.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” She settled back. “I’m gonna have a nap, but I know by the time I wake up, we’ll know she’s fine.” Her eyes closed, but there was a smile on her face.
Jayne thumped Hank on the back, making the pilot stagger slightly. “See?” he grinned. “Told ya my moonbrain’d come through.”
“Now we’ve just got to wait for Freya.”
The big man’s grin diminished. “Yeah.”
The fire had died low, and despite trying her best, Zoe had dozed. Suddenly a movement in the room had her wide awake, staring at the bed.
“Frey?” Mal had moved forward, off the chair and onto his knees.
Zoe stood up, crossed the floor.
“Zoe, what is it?” Dillon jerked to consciousness.
They all waited, three sets of breath held.
Then Freya’s eyes opened. She blinked twice then licked her lips.
“Frey?” Mal leaned closer.
“Mal?” she whispered. She turned her head and tried to focus. “Is that … Mal?”
“It’s me, darlin’.” He put his hand against her cheek. “I’m here.”
“Good.” Her eyes closed again as she tried to pull herself together. “Is the baby okay?”
Mal stood up quickly, stepping backward. His face was almost white as he turned to Zoe, then he hurried out of the room, the door closing behind him.
“Mal?” Freya looked up, but he was gone.
Dillon stood open mouthed, staring after him.
The door opened again, but it was one of Dillon’s army of doctors. “Captain Reynolds told me his wife was awake?”
Dillon nodded. “That she is.”
“Then I think it’s time I examined her.”
Zoe squared her shoulders and took the opportunity to follow her captain into the hall.
“Sir, what the tyen shiao duh are you doing?”
“Leave me alone, Zoe.” He was leaning on the bannister, looking down into the large vestibule, trying hard to control his heart rate. That and not throw up over the edge to the floor far below.
“Not gonna do that, sir. Your wife needs you.”
“When she finds out, she ain’t gonna want me in there.”
“Finds out what?”
“What I did.”
“You saved her life.”
He glared at her. “By putting our daughter at risk.”
“You know it was the only way. You told Dillon yourself.”
“That ain’t how she’s gonna see it.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know Frey.”
“Do you really think she’s going to blame you for something that didn’t happen?“
“I blame myself. So’ll she.”
“So you’re not going to go back in there to see your wife?”
Zoe had had enough. For once in their long relationship she felt like shooting him. Throwing her hands up in the air, she said, “I give up. You’re everything that Freya’s ever said, and a lot more.” She strode back into the room and slammed the door.
“Where is he?” Freya asked, feeling too woolly to reach out and find him as the doctor poked and prodded, checking her blood pressure and temperature with his portable scanner.
“Outside,” Zoe said apologetically.
“He won’t come back in.”
“At the risk of repeating myself, why?”
“Because he’s a sha gua chunzi.”
Freya raised her eyebrows. “Really? You’ve only just noticed?”
“Oh, I've had an inkling for a while.”
“Well, Mrs Reynolds, I have to say I think you’ve been very lucky,” the doctor said, smiling at her. “You appear to have come through this unscathed.”
“And my daughter?” She touched her swollen stomach.
“Is fine. Heartbeat is good, and there’s no distress. You should be able to carry her to full term with no problems.” He smiled again and turned to Dillon. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”
“You’re welcome.” He walked out, passing Mal who was lurking in the corridor, trying to see in through the door as it closed without looking as if he was.
“Get him, will you, Dillon?” Freya asked, struggling to lift herself into a more upright position on the bed, finding it difficult not just from the persisting weakness, but the bulk of her child as well.
“If Zoe couldn’t do it –”
“He’ll shoot me.”
“Only a little bit. And you’ve got those nice doctors here to put you together again. Please?”
“If I get killed you’re going to have to tell Breed.”
Dillon glared at her, but did as he was told, the door closing softly.
“What’s wrong with him?” Freya asked Zoe.
“He’s an idiot.”
“It’s not changed in the past thirty seconds.”
“Why? What’s the problem?”
Zoe gazed at her. “The vaccine … he knew what it might do.”
”It can … you might have lost the baby.”
“Oh.” Freya felt a wash of icy fear spread through her. “But the doc just said –”
“You’re okay,” Zoe said quickly.
“Good. But then why’s Mal behaving like this?”
“He took the responsibility of giving it to you.”
The door opened again, and a very reluctant-looking Mal stepped into the room.
“He’s here,” Dillon said, glaring at the man he had hold of by the arm.
“Thanks. Now, out,” Freya said, looking at the other two.
“I don’t think you should –” her friend began, but she cut him off.
“I need to speak to my husband alone.”
He glanced at Zoe. “We’ll only be outside.” He let go of Mal, who rubbed his arm.
“Fine.” She waited until they’d left the room, then looked at her husband. “What’s all this about?”
“Nothing. Well, that’s interesting by itself.” She put her head back. “I’m too tired for this, Mal. What the cao is wrong with you?”
He heard the annoyed tone of her voice, mixed with the need for him, and it cut him to the quick. “Frey, I gave them permission,” he said quietly.
“To kill our daughter.”
She didn’t move. “I see.”
“I told Dillon’s doctors to give you the vaccine, even if … I knew what I was doing, Frey.” He waited for her to shout at him.
“Am I still pregnant?”
His eyebrows raised. “Yes, but –“
“Am I going to stay pregnant?”
“Frey, didn’t you hear what I said?”
“I heard.” She swung her legs off the bed.
“No, no, you get back there right now,” he said, taking a step towards her.
“Are you going to come here?”
“If you won’t come here I'm going to have to come to you. I'm not having this, Mal. You did what you thought was right, and it’s okay.”
“What if it hadn’t been?” he asked, his voice harsh. “What if I’d saved your life but our daughter … our daughter died? Like Alice died?”
“Then I’d probably be killing you about now.” She leaned forward. “But I’m not.” She stood up, swaying.
She tried to focus on him. “Okay, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” Her knees crumpled, and she would have fallen forwards if he hadn’t moved faster, catching her and easing her onto the bed.
“Frey, are you totally out of your fong luh mind?” He shook his head in disbelief, making sure the pillows were behind her head before lifting her legs back. “You’re weak, and you’re pregnant. You gotta take care.”
“Yes, I am. I am pregnant.” She smiled. “Mal, it’s okay.”
He stared at her, then sat down heavily on the bed. “No, it ain’t. I want you to scream and shout at me, for putting our daughter’s life in danger, just so I could keep you.”
“Well, I’m not feeling up to the screaming or shouting quite yet, but if you like I’ll take a rain check.”
“Why’re you being reasonable? I don’t want you to be reasonable. I want anger here.” His brow furrowed. “Why won’t you hit me or something?”
“Fine.” She made a fist and thumped his arm, but it was as light as featherdown. “Happy?”
“No.” He closed his eyes.
“Mal, don’t do this. Dillon told me. If you hadn’t got that vaccine, given it to me, I’d be dead. I know it. So do you.”
“But I could have killed our baby girl.”
“Yes, you could. But there really wasn’t an option. You could have so easily ended up with neither of us.” She squeezed his hand. “Look at me, Mal.”
He did as he was told, his blues eyes wet. “I’m just sorry.”
“Okay. You’re sorry. Fine. Can we just get on with life now?” She sighed. “Please don’t do this to yourself. In the same circumstances, believe me, I would have done the same.”
“You mean if I’d been pregnant?” His lips moved, just a little.
“Definitely.” She shifted in bed slightly. “And I really do intend Simon to make that happen next time.” She shifted again. “I need to pee.”
Now he smiled properly, looking around for a bedpan or something. “I’m sure there’s –”
“Oh, no.” She sat up again. “You’re going to help me.”
“What?” He shook his head. “No way. I’ll get someone to –”
“I am not peeing in a bucket or any other receptacle.” Freya raised her eyebrows. “Now, are you going to help me to the bathroom or not?”
He glared at her, but he knew that look. She was determined, and when his wife was determined, it was about all he could do to just stand by. “Okay,” he finally said. “But I’m coming in with you.”
“Does that turn you on or something? This overpowering desire to watch me pee? Which, by the way, is going to happen pretty soon whether you help me or not.”
He stood up, lifting her to her feet. “You hold onto me, okay?”
“Mal, I thought you realised by now. I’m never letting go.” She grinned. “How’s Kaylee?”
“Kaylee?” He managed to manoeuvre the door to the bathroom open.
“She was sick too.” She stopped, staring into his blue eyes. “Didn’t … didn’t they tell you?”
“I ain’t been in contact since we left Serenity.”
“But I could feel it. Before I … didn’t you know?”
His eyes closed briefly as he remembered his mechanic’s pale face, the fact that she’d been throwing up, the way she … “Wu de mah.”
“Mal, you have to find out.”
He nodded, leaning her against the door jamb and running across the room to his coat. He tugged the jury-rigged com from his pocket, switching it on. For a long moment there was nothing. “Gorram it,” he muttered, fiddling with it. Then there was a slight whistle, and a somewhat distorted but still recognisable voice.
“Hank. Thank God. Kaylee –”
“She’s fine,” his pilot said reassuringly.
“But the vaccine …”
“Got some. River had a brainwave. Called Alex.”
“Alex?” Freya tried to stand up straighter.
“What could he do?”
“Lots, it seems. Got the cruiser to release it to us. She’s fine, Mal. And … and Freya?” Hank’s voice took on a worried tone. “The … the baby?”
“They’re both fine,” Mal said. “Both fine.”
“Mal, that’s great!” It sounded like someone was jumping up and down. “River told us just now, but we … I had to hear it from the horse’s mouth. And Zoe’s okay too?”
“She’s fine. And I ain't a horse.”
“Tell her from me she has a lot of apologising to do.”
“I will. Hank, we ain't gonna be getting back for a while, so you’ve got to be in charge.”
“Me?” His pilot almost yelped.
“You. Get the goods to Boros, then –“
There was a high-pitched squeal from the com unit, causing Mal to almost drop it, then nothing.
“Ouch,” Freya said, relaxing again.
“I think that was it. He said it’d only last a minute or so.”
“Yeah.” Mal dropped the now useless piece of equipment onto his coat and crossed the room back to her, taking her into his arms and pressing as much of himself against her as possible. “They’re okay. They’re all okay.”
“Thanks to Alex.”
“Told you he was a good guy after all.”
“You did.” She smiled, then winced. “Mal, I still need to pee.”
“Well, my pleasures in life keep getting better and better,” he joked, putting his shoulder under her arm. “Ow. Will you stop pinching me?”
They’d made love, slowly, leisurely, knowing from experience that the most comfortable position for Freya this far along in the pregnancy was on her side, supporting the baby with a pillow, while Mal lay behind her. It was languid, it was unhurried, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t deeply passionate and satisfying.
For three weeks Dillon had let them have exclusive use of his summer house by the lake, spending time just being together. Freya had got stronger with each passing day, and the night she’d told Mal she wanted him made him smile so widely he could have lit up the sky. They hardly got out of bed for two days.
Now the quarantine had finally been lifted, and Serenity was heading back. This was their last chance to be just Mal and Freya, without being captain and captain’s wife, and father and mother too. Even though both of them were missing Ethan terribly, this time had just brought them even closer before the imminent birth when neither of them would have much time to sleep, let alone make love.
“I kinda feel guilty,” Mal said, lying back, Freya’s head pillowed on his damp chest, his left arm draped around her.
“Oh? Why’d that be?”
“Leaving Zoe to fend for herself.”
Freya traced circles in the hairs next to Mal’s left nipple. “I hardly think it was like that. You make it sound as if she was on the streets, begging for scraps.”
“Somehow I don’t see Zoe begging for anything. Holding someone up, maybe.”
She laughed, a deep rich sound that communicated itself to him via the baby pressed against his hip. “I can picture that so easily.” She sighed and he could feel her breath on his skin. “But I don’t think you need to worry. Dillon’s pretty fond of her – I imagine he’s been spoiling her rotten.”
“You mean she’s gonna come back all feminine and vulnerable?”
She nipped his skin between her teeth and was rewarded by a small gasp. “She is feminine.”
“Now I know you know that. You’ve looked at her. How gorgeous she is.”
Mal lifted his head and eyed her suspiciously. “There something you want to tell me? This virus turned you sly or something?”
“Absolutely. No female will be safe on board that ship ever again.”
He chuckled. “Can I watch?”
“I’ll sell tickets.” She kissed his nipple. “Anyway, I know you’ve seen past Zoe’s armour. To the woman beneath.”
“That’s a foul rumour put about by certain mercenaries with more time on their hands than they should have, and there’s not a notion of truth to it. Never seen Zoe naked.”
Looking at her sharply, he tapped his fingers on her shoulder. “Don’t be disgusting.”
“So it’s okay for you to suggest I want to take Zoe into my bed, but not for me to suggest you’d like to see your first mate naked.”
“That’s right. I’m captain.”
“You know, that excuse is gonna wear a little thin eventually,” she pointed out.
“Not an excuse. Just the plain and unvarnished truth.” He lay back, but knew she was still gazing at him. “And yes, okay, I know Zoe’s feminine. In a strong kinda way. Hell, I’d have to be six feet under not to notice. But she’s … well, she’s Zoe.”
Freya smiled. “I know. No-one quite like her.”
“Not even close.” He stroked her tattoo. “But then, there ain’t no-one quite like you either.”
“You’re just trying to get me into bed.“
“We’re in bed, Frey.“
“To have sex.”
“Thought we just did.”
“More sex, then.”
“Hell, Frey, honey, that ain’t sex. That was love, pure and simple.”
She lifted her face to look into his eyes, resting her chin on his shoulder. “That’s nice.”
“Thanks. True, too.”
“Anyway, I think Hank’d probably kill you stone dead if you even mentioned you’d considered seeing Zoe naked.”
“No, but I could suggest you did.” She hurried on, seeing him about to start blustering. “But Hank’ll be more interested in making good on his deepest wish soon as she‘s back on board.”
“Don’t tell me. More kids.”
“Does Zoe know about this? I'm guessing not.” He sighed. “Ain’t gonna be able to move on my boat soon enough.”
“Will that be such a bad thing?”
“Guess not. Figure ours’ll be leading the way.” He reached his free hand over and laid it on her stomach, feeling his daughter rolling lazily inside.
Freya smiled, her fingers on his. “I think that’s Bethie’s job.”
“So she and Ethan’ll fight over it.”
“Hey, don’t you have any faith in your son?”
“I think he’ll be a gentleman, like his father.”
Mal shook his head. “I ain’t no gentleman.”
“Well, not on the last half hour’s showing, maybe not.”
He grinned and leaned down, kissing her softly.
“You didn’t tell me.”
Hank stared at the Cortex screen, the image of his wonderful and gorgeous and beautiful and … above all … crazy fiancée in front of him. “How come?”
“Knew you’d know.”
“So that was enough? Leaving me hanging without a word, not knowing if you were alive or dead, or anywhere in between and you say I’d know?”
“Wouldn’t you?” She watched his face carefully, trying not to give away how she felt. She was Zoe, and she didn’t gush or cry or any one of the thousand other things she wanted to do.
“That ain't the point.”
“Did you expect me to leave the captain to face this on his own?”
“He told you he was going to go down alone.”
“And you suggested he take me with him.”
“He said no!”
“So you thought I should obey him?”
“No! I mean … yes … well … gorramit, you usually do!” He was getting angry.
“He needed me.”
“So do I!”
There was a silence, and a moment when this could go either way as they stared at each other.
“I know you do. And I need you.”
“Who comes first?” Hank demanded to know, a hollowness in the pit of his stomach.
She gazed at him, stoicism personified. “Honestly?”
“Yeah.” He swallowed. “Honestly.”
This took his by surprise. “Really?”
“Yes. Our son. And I knew he was going to be safe with you. As much as it’s killing me not to see him, to spend these three weeks without him, I knew he was safe. With you,” she repeated.
“Oh.” He was taken aback. “Yeah. Well. He’s missed his Momma too. Any day now I expect him to say his first words, and I’m pretty much betting they’re gonna be where the diyu is she?”
“If he swears I’ll know who to blame.”
Her lips twitched. “It won’t be long. Then I’ll be home.”
“Few hours. That’s it.” He chewed on the inside of his lip a moment. “So … so who after Ben?”
“You.” Her answer was fast, sure, steady.
“You sure about that?”
“Hank, I’ll kill for you.”
“You’ve killed for the Cap.”
“Then I’d die for you.”
“Don’t want you to do that, either, but I know damn well you’d do it for him too.”
She half-smiled. “Then I’ll live for you.”
He stared at her, then his face broke into a grin. “Hey, guess maybe I do come next.”
“Hey, you people decent?” A voice filtered through the open window.
Mal grinned. “Nah,” he said softly, rolling off the bed and going to lean out of the window. He grinned down at the two men standing by the front door. “Hi.”
Dillon and Breed looked up.
“Are you two going to stay in bed all day?” Dillon asked, a smile on his face.
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Callum tells me you’ve not been doing much else.”
“With a wife like Frey, would you?”
Dillon laughed. “I suppose not. If I were that way inclined.” He nodded towards the door. “So are you going to come down and let us in?”
“Give us two minutes.” He turned back into the room, and saw Freya was already up and was struggling to pull on her pants. He stood for a moment, watching the show. “You know, you ain't gonna do it.”
“Yes I will.”
“No. And even if you do, you’re gonna complain about being uncomfortable all day.”
She stared at him, her hands on her hips, wearing nothing but the recalcitrant trousers. “Then what do you suggest?”
Mal couldn’t help admiring the view, her full breasts and the swell of her belly above the opening. “How about that dress Dillon got you?”
She shook her head. “I can’t, Mal. They’re not my clothes.”
“Why not?” He crossed to the wardrobe and opened it to show a number of items. “Frey, he wanted you to have these fripperies.”
“It’s just …” She came to stand next to him, her body warm against his.
“You don’t like feeling beholden,” he finished for her, putting his arm around her waist.
“They’re your friends, Frey. My friends, too. They’ll be disappointed if you don’t wear ‘em.”
“You think?” She wrinkled her brow. “I mean, they are so pretty.”
“Not as nice as the dress I got you, though.”
She smiled. “Oh, no, not as nice as that.”
He kissed her softly, then let her go to grab his pants. “Come on. Or they’ll start shouting again.”
Ethan sat in the engine room, his eyes watching Kaylee’s every move. Ever since she’d been allowed to get back to her other baby, she’d spent long hours resetting the safeguards and making sure the Firefly’s engine hadn’t been damaged at all in the mad rush to get to Persephone. And Ethan had become her shadow, following her wherever she went. She’d gotten used to him, and she chattered away to him about everything and nothing.
“See, if the manifold pressure builds up too high, she’ll just bust a seal, and that won’t be good. So we tune the inducer to –“
“Is Mama coming home soon?” Ethan asked, interrupting.
She stopped and looked at him. “Sure she is, honey. You know that. Her and your Daddy spoke to you, didn’t they? Just this morning. Soon as the quarantine was lifted.”
The little boy, barely two, tugged on the child-sized suspenders holding his pants up. “Qu’ntine.” His face screwed a little. “How long?”
“Four, maybe five hours. Then she’s gonna be back with you, making you laugh and telling you all the things she’s been up to, and you can tell her –“
“And the baby?” The tugging became harder.
“She’s fine, Ethan.” Kaylee put down her wrench and sat next to the smallest Reynolds. “Your baby sister’s gonna come into this world, and you’re gonna be happy to see her.”
Ethan didn’t look up, just stared down at his feet. “’Spose.”
“Ain’t you looking forward to it?”
He put his head on one side. “Mama won’t want me now. New baby.”
Kaylee sighed. “Now, Ethan, you know that ain't the way. Your Mama loves you, and so does your Daddy.”
“Then why aren’t they here?” He looked up at her, his blue eyes huge, and suspiciously bright. “Don’t want Ethan.”
She swept him into her arms, holding him tightly. “Course they do, Ethan. You’re their son. And if they could’ve, they’d’ve been here weeks since, playing with you and telling you all this.”
“I miss them,” he said softly, holding onto her, tangling his hands in her coverall.
“Oh, honey. I know. I know.”
“You’re looking better than when I last saw you,” Freya said, hugging Breed as they stood in the hallway.
“You too. You’re blooming.”
“Thanks. But I'm missing Ethan.” She glanced at Mal, and knew he was feeling the same.
“Hey, not long,” Breed said. He touched her belly. “Not long to go with this little one either.”
“Nope.” She grinned. “Want to be godfather?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
“Hey,” Mal put in. “What about me?”
“You’re the father. You can’t be godfather as well,” Freya pointed out.
“I mean, how about asking me who’s going to godfather? And Ethan doesn’t have any.”
“Only because he’s not been christened. And he has the whole boat anyway.”
“So will she.” He nodded towards his daughter.
“Oh, come on, Mal,” Breed laughed. “It’s probably the closest Dillon and I will ever get to having kids. I need someone to spoil once in a while.”
“And if he gets to be godfather, I do too,” Dillon said quickly.
“I guess I could let it ride this time.” Mal smiled.
“Good.” Dillon ran his eyes over Freya. “And that suits you.”
She looked down at the soft green dress she was wearing, blossoming around her belly and reaching to just below her knees, and wriggled her bare toes. Not that she could see them. “It’s one of yours.”
“No, I don’t think it would suit my colouring.” He smiled. “And they’re yours. All of them. To take with you.”
“No argument. What else would I do with a lot of maternity clothes?”
“I’ll be giving birth in about a month.”
“Then save them for next time.”
“You think there’s going to be a next time?”
Mal grinned. “Oh, yes,” he said firmly.
She raised her eyebrow at him. “I think we’ll be having a little chat about that.” For some reason she looked pointedly at his flat stomach, then she smiled. “Actually, I think this colour would go with your eyes.”
“In your dreams.”
Dillon laughed, then glanced at Breed, who got the message. “Come on,” he said. “Why don’t we go for a walk? I want you to tell me all sorts of secrets.”
She smiled. “Secrets? Whose?”
“That could take a while.”
“Have you got shoes?”
“My boots. Over there.”
“And a coat. You’ll need a coat.”
“Breed, stop fussing.”
“That’s what I do. Hasn’t Dillon told you?” He smiled, leading her away towards the front door.
“The Cortex is back on line,” Dillon said quietly to Mal.
“Yeah. Got a message from Serenity. They’ll be here this evening to pick us up.” His lips curved. “Frey spent ages talking to Ethan.”
“No, well, maybe I did too.”
Dillon nodded, then said, “So you didn’t check out the rest of the news?”
“Nope.” Mal shook his head. “It’s all twisted anyway.”
Dillon headed towards the study. “I think you’ll want to see this.”
“See what?” Mal followed, curiosity tweaking his interest.
Dillon didn’t answer, just activated the Cortex screen on the wall and dialled up a particular news station.
“… and as you can see justice has been swift.” The voice came up a fraction of a second before the image, and Mal took a sharp breath. Three men swung from a scaffold.
”During interrogation the terrorists revealed that they had planned several more of these biological strikes on other planets, culminating in an attack on Osiris itself.” The picture pulled back to show the Persephone assembly building, and the crowd standing watching. “However, these plans were thwarted by the vigilance of our Federal Officers, and the threat is now over, with minimal loss of life, thanks to the quick supply of the vaccine, and the quarantine has been lifted. There is, apparently, little evidence to support the rumour that these men were linked with the Independent Movement, but officials are keeping an open mind on the matter. Sources have been reported as stating that there is no need for alarm, but to remind all citizens of the Alliance to be on their guard. In an unrelated incident –“
Dillon switched it off. “It’s been broadcast for days,” he said with disgust. “Every ten minutes or so.”
“Terrorists?” Mal said.
“So they say.”
“You don’t believe them.”
“Not particularly.” He crossed the room to throw himself into an armchair. “I did a little digging.”
Mal followed, sitting on the edge of the sofa. “And?”
“At least one of the so-called terrorists was already in jail at the time of the attack.”
“And the others?”
“Out, but … Mal, none of them had the intelligence to pull this off.”
“So the great Alliance is lying again.”
“Seems like it.”
Mal stood up, began pacing the room, ending up by the window. “I reckon that’s what Hank didn’t tell me,” he mused, staring outside, watching Breed and Freya head towards the lake.
“He probably thought … you being an Independent …”
“They were so gorram good at that, weren’t they?” Mal said, shaking his head. “Saying one thing and meaning another. Stating categorically that it wasn’t Browncoats, while implying it was.”
“People won’t believe it, Mal.”
“There’s enough as believe everything they see on that rutting thing.” He turned and looked at the other man. “Why didn’t you want Frey to hear this?”
“Well, in her condition …”
Mal couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up. “You got an odd idea of who Frey is.”
Dillon smiled. “Oh, I know exactly who she is. I've seen her in action before.”
“You’re really gonna have to tell me about that some day.”
“You mean she hasn’t?”
“No.” He pursed his lips slightly. “And that makes me all kinda curious.”
Dillon crossed his legs. “I'm not sure she’d like me to give away all her secrets.”
“You think she’s not giving mine away to Breed right now?”
“Probably.” Dillon’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Do you want me to keep digging? See if there’s anything else I can turn up?”
Mal thought for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Long as you don’t get any trouble calling, I’d appreciate it. If it wasn't those men, and I think I agree with you on that very point, then sounds to me like these were just scapegoats for the Alliance. Maybe the Feds did it on purpose, or maybe it was an accident, but they almost killed my wife. And I kinda like to know why.”
“To stir up feeling against the Independents?”
“Maybe. There’s surely enough who think there’s another war coming, on both sides.”
“I think there’s just as many who’d like there to be,” he answered cryptically. “But, please. If you could. Just keep me up to date with anything you find.”
“Sure thing, Mal.” Dillon stood up. “Now, how about we go and see exactly what Breed and Freya are talking about?”
“My secrets?” Mal asked, smiling at last.
“Hey, mine too,” Dillon asserted. “Don’t forget, she’s known him longer than I have.”
“Seems she’s known a lot of people longer than us, Dillon.”
“Yes, I suppose she has.” He put his arm companionably around the other man’s shoulders. “Let’s go and interrupt, shall we?”
Freya sat on the bed in the ‘maternity suite’, Ethan wrapped around her as much as he could.
“Missed you,” he said, his hands holding firmly to her dress, as if he could physically stop her leaving again.
“Oh, baby, I missed you too.” She kissed the top of his head. “It’s been too long, hasn’t it?”
He nodded. “Too long,” he repeated.
“But I bet everyone has been looking after you.”
Ethan shrugged as well as he could. “S’okay.”
“You mean they haven’t been spoiling you?” She smiled down at him.
“Not the same.”
“I know.” She put her hand up to stroke his hair as he settled his head into her shoulder. “It wasn’t meant to happen, you know that, don’t you?”
“That’s right. I wasn’t well.”
“Felt it. It hurt.” He screwed up his face. “Beth’ny showed me how to stop it.”
Freya looked down into his eyes, replicas of Mal’s. “Really?”
She concentrated, just a little, and was surprised at the strength of the barriers he had put up. There was a hint of numbers and letters amongst it. “Can you lower them?” she asked softly.
“Don’t want to. Hurts.”
“It won’t hurt now. I’m here.”
He shrugged, but she felt a thinning of the obstruction. “Like this?” he asked.
She smiled, touching his cheek. “That’s it. Now build them back up.”
Again there was a suggestion of shapes, like the blocks of wood Jayne had made him to learn his letters from.
“Done it,” he said, and grinned suddenly.
“That’s good,” she said, feeling something relax inside her, something tight she hadn’t noticed before. “Can you keep them in place? Only let them down when you want to?”
He bit his lip. “S’pose.”
“Then do that.”
“It’s not bad?”
“No, honey. It’s not bad. It’s good. It’s very good. And we can take a look another day.”
“‘Kay.” He snuggled up against her, eyeing the bulge at her waist.
“Hey, big guy,” Mal said from the doorway, watching his wife and son with a smile on his face. “Got some of that for me?”
Ethan grinned and rolled off the bed, running to his father to be picked up. “Love Daddy,” he said, hugging him tightly.
“That’s good. ‘Cause you know you and your Momma are the most important things to me.”
“More than Serenity?” Ethan’s eyes were huge.
“Even more than that.”
“More than my sister?”
Mal chuckled. “Yeah, I heard about that. Kaylee told me.”
“What?” Freya asked, enjoying the warmth of seeing her two favourite men together.
“Oh, just that Ethan was worried we wouldn’t love him anymore when his sister arrives.”
Freya managed to get to her feet without too much hassle. She put her arms around the both of them, her belly getting in the way somewhat. “Ethan, you know that’s not the case. We will always love you.”
She smiled. “That’s right,” she agreed, glancing at Mal. “Always.”
Ethan nodded happily.
Hank leaned over the stair rail and peered along the corridor. “Frey, there’s a wave for you.”
“Coming.” She let go and straightened her dress. “We have got to get a link put in down here.”
“I’ll take it under advisement.” Mal smiled and leaned forward, kissing her lips gently. “Better run.”
“Me? Run?” she scoffed. “You try being eight months pregnant and see if you can run.” She walked steadily towards the stairs. “Run. Huh.”
“Mama looks like a whale,” Ethan whispered in Mal’s ear.
“I heard that!” she called, but didn’t turn back.
Mal laughed. “Bethany’s been showing you stuff on the Cortex?”
“Lots of things.”
“Keeping you busy, I’ve no doubt.”
Ethan sighed, the sigh of a little boy whose big sister was a pain. “Busy,” he agreed.
“Well, that’s good. Furthering your educational needs.”
The little boy gave him a look, so like his mother’s Mal had to smile. “Can I sleep with you and Mama tonight?” Ethan asked, his blue eyes fixing his father with their intensity.
“Maybe.” Mal brushed his hair away from his face. “Needs a trim.”
Ethan copied him, doing the same. “Daddy too.”
“Guess maybe I do. Get your Momma to be a production line haircutter, how about that?”
Ethan giggled. “Funny.”
“Yeah, it is.” He put his son down on the floor, keeping hold of his hand. “Now, you gonna help me get your Momma’s and my stuff together? She’s not going to be climbing down any more ladders, not ‘til your sister’s born.”
“Whale.” Ethan giggled again.
Mal laughed. “Yeah. But don’t go saying that to your Momma. She’d as like tan my hide for not telling you off about it.”
“That’s my feller.”
They walked towards the stairs, tiny hand engulfed in a bigger one, just chatting as father and son.
“You took your time,” Hank commented.
“I'm not running!” Freya said loudly.
“What? Never said you should.” The pilot looked confused.
“So who has the over-powering urge to speak to me?”
Hank smiled. “A friend.” He got up from the pilot’s seat and activated the screen.
Alex Rostov appeared and smiled. “Mrs Reynolds.”
Freya sat down in the still warm chair, her lips twitching. “Mr Rostov.”
His grin widened at their formality. “I just wanted to check you were okay.”
“I'm fine,” she assured him. “And you could have taken our pilot’s word for it. I thought we agreed you weren't going to do this.”
“I needed to see you. It’s been a long three weeks.”
She nodded. “That it has.” Leaning forward as far as her belly would allow, she asked, “Where are you?”
“Somewhere near Greenleaf, I think.” At his sister’s look of surprise, he added, “After the funeral Mother didn’t want to stay at home, so we’re travelling for a while.”
“I know. But you know what she’s like.”
“Well, she hasn’t changed that much.”
Freya laughed. “Perhaps not. Is she … is she okay?”
“It’s not like it wasn’t expected, but … no, I don’t think I can say she’s okay. But she will be.”
“I'm glad.” She really was. “But I do have to thank you for what you did for Kaylee.”
“It wasn’t much. Just called in a few favours.”
“I'm sure it was harder than that.”
“The hardest part was not being able to make sure you were okay.”
“I am, Alex.”
“I know.” He moved closer. “Mother doesn’t know. That you were sick. I thought it best not to tell her.”
“You know how she’d worry.”
For a moment Freya wanted to say that she knew no such thing, but they’d made such progress in a short time, and she wasn't going to hurt him. “I know,” she said quietly. Her brow furrowed.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I …” She didn’t know how much to say, how to warn him without making it worse. “Alex, you have two daughters.”
“Yes.” He looked puzzled. “Why?”
“Don’t … don’t let them be tested.”
“Tested? What … you mean the government tests?”
“Just keep them close to you. And … keep an eye on them.”
His face didn’t clear. “Are you suggesting –“
“Not suggesting anything, Alex. Just … mentioning it.”
“I can’t believe –“
“For me, Alex. For what might have been.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment, then nodded. “I will.”
“Good.” She smiled. “You’d better get back to your Mother. She’ll be wondering where you are.”
“She’s with Ellen and the girls.” His gaze softened. “I wish you could’ve met them.”
“Me too. Maybe one day.”
“Maybe. I mean, if you’re out in the borders at the same time we are, perhaps …”
He must have known by the sound of her voice. “I know.” He sat up straighter. “Well, I'm glad you’re better, Mrs Reynolds.”
“Me too.” She grinned for him. “And pass my best onto your Mother, Mr Rostov.”
“I will.” Their eyes locked for a second, then he nodded. “Bye.”
The screen went back to static and Freya turned it off.
“You okay?” Hank asked.
“Only you don’t exactly look okay.”
She turned to him. “Honestly, I'm fine. Just a little tired.”
“Not surprised. Three weeks with the Cap’d tire anyone out.”
Hauling herself to her feet she thumped him on the arm as she went past.
“Ow,” he said. “How come I'm the punching bag for this crew?”
“’Cause Jayne’d be as like to shoot anyone doing it to him,” Mal said from the bottom of the steps.
Mal smiled as Freya joined him in the corridor. “You okay?”
She nodded. “Fine.” She looked around. “Where’s Ethan?”
“Taking a whole load of your stuff to the lower quarters.” He put his hand on her belly. “Where you and I’ll be sleeping for the duration.”
He dipped his head. She didn’t really seem to be paying attention. “You sure you’re okay?”
She looked up into his eyes, the corridor too dark to see their true blue beauty. “I was just thinking … I've laid my demons to rest. Maybe you should too.”
“My demons?” He half-laughed. “What demons do I have?”
“I think we should swing by Shadow.”
He tensed. “Why?”
“To the scorched side. Where your ranch was. I think it’s time for you to say goodbye.”
Alice Reynolds bore down, doing what the midwife was telling her, swearing under and over her breath in Chinese in a fashion that her husband had never heard from her lips before.
“That’s it,” Ma Grimble said. “Keep pushing.”
Ethan held his wife, feeling her muscles trembling as forced his child out into the world. It had been a long, hard time, more’n twenty hours, and she was wet through with sweat, but he held her close, trying to give her all of his considerable strength. “You’re doing great, honey,” he whispered in her ear, looking down to where the other woman was waiting. “You are so beautiful.”
Suddenly there was a sound like … well, he’d never be able to describe it. A whoosh, a slush, a … nothing came close it. Then on top was a baby crying.
“It’s a boy, Ethan,” Ma Grimble said, grinning up at him as she wrapped the squirming pink thing tightly in a blanket.
“A … a boy?” He could barely breathe. “I have a son?”
“Told you,” the midwife said. “Way Alice was carrying, weren't gonna be anything else.”
“A son.” He felt the tears sliding down his cheeks, falling on his wife’s shoulder.
“Carry on the family name.” Cutting the cord quickly, Ma Grimble lifted the bundle up so his mother could take him.
Alice pushed the fabric from the baby’s face, looking down, her own tears falling. “He’s perfect.”
“That he is.”
Ethan reached round, put his hand on the dark hair on his son’s head. “Perfect,” he echoed.
Alice turned just enough so that they could both see and cuddle him. “Looks like you,” she said.
“I ain't red and squally.”
“I bet you were. Once.” She smiled tiredly up at him. “And he’s going to be so handsome.”
“That he is.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Thank you.”
“This. Being my wife. Being in my life.”
“Ethan, I love you. And we’re gonna have so many kids, you’ll wonder what to do with them all.”
“Can’t wait, xin gan.”
“So?” Ma Grimble said, still busy between Alice’s thighs. “What’re you gonna call him?”
“We decided on a name. If it was a boy.” Ethan looked into his wife’s eyes. “If that’s okay with you?”
“I think your Pa would’ve approved,” Alice said, smiling.
“Then it’s settled.” He stroked his son’s head. “Welcome to the world, Malcolm Reynolds.”
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