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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
TITLE: Serenity Now: All The Difference - Part 4
AUTHOR: The Irish Cowgirl
PAIRING: Mal/River, Kaylee/Simon, Jayne/OC
SPOILERS: Post-BDM, also spoilers for "Serenity Now," "SN: After The Storm," "SN: Nightmares," "SN: The Thin Line," "SN: A New Life," "SN: The Means To An End," & "SN: Onus"
NOTES: Mal, River and crew take on a passengers as a favor to an old acquaintance, but soon begin to question their motives when they find out that one of them may be a mole, and their greatest nemesis is on their heels. Feedback is greatly appreciated!
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 749 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
"I know you're there," she said, smiling a little to the side as she slid the controls back into place and turned them over to their fixed position. Hitting a few buttons on the control panel to lock on to their coordinates, River turned the pilot's seat around to see Mal standing in the airlock between the corridor stairs and the bridge, staring out into the stars. He hadn't yet responded. "Mal?" she asked gently.
This seemed to startle him from space. He shook his head slightly, fixing his eyes on hers. "Hm? What?"
"I know you're there," River repeated, tilting her head to the side as she examined his distant expression. "Do you know you're there?"
Mal was already walking across the room to the copilot's station, and when he reached it, he sat down and rested one worn boot on the edge of the panel. "Yeah, albatross. Jus'... jus' sortin' things out, I suppose." He closed his eyes and reached out, rubbing away the soreness he had received during their jaunt, the soreness that now ran the length of his long leg. River leaned over in her chair, pulling the hem of her blue dress over her knees, then resting her elbows on them as she closed her hands together. She watched him in silence for a few moments, resisting the urge to probe into his mind, to find out what troubled him.
This was one of the agreements they had come to in the last few months. Mal had made his need for space clear, both in the physical and mental sense. And River, wanting to mend their fences in whatever way she could, had acquiesced to what she had assumed would be a small task: stay out of Mal's mind unless expressly invited. Mal wanted his thoughts to himself, and River could understand why.
But she missed his mind, more than she had foreseen she would. Mal's mind was so sharp, so precise. His thoughts were so clear and focused. He knew what he wanted, what he had to do to get it, and what path to take with it once it was in his grasp. His brain had always been a wonderful respite from River's own, where things were often much more confusing and abstract. Whenever her memories had overwhelmed her, or her reality began to bend and twist the way it sometimes did, she had always found respite in Mal's solid and practical mind. Now that the option was no longer available to her, she felt all the more confused about what was to come.
Yet however tempting the notion of simply reading his thoughts were just now, she resisted, instead waiting patiently for him to speak. At last, he opened his eyes and found hers. "Okay. Things sorted. How's our bearing?"
River muffled the sigh that rose from her chest, disappointed that Mal had not chosen to share his concerns with her, and flitted her fingers across the screen of the navsat. "Fine. Our course for Willowsrun is set. It should take approximately six days to reach it." She raised her eyes to see Mal's look of surprise. River rarely used the word "approximately" when describing their course. "There's an Alliance starship planning to do a surprise run across the Sparrow quadrant. I may have to navigate around them," she continued, explaining the delay.
"Gotcha," Mal nodded, tucking this piece of information away. Just one more potential for complication. "Any chatter durin' takeoff?"
The young woman shook her head. "Nothing on the official channels, nothing on the unofficial waves. The troops following you didn't see which ship you boarded, though they did assume you were off-world by now."
Mal nodded, bringing their flight plan up on his navsat screen. "Rightly so. Boys did give us a run for our platinum."
River watched him checking her work and scowled, a little insulted that he felt the need to do so. And though she refused to admit it to herself, she was sort of hoping that Mal might have thanked or complimented her again on her help during the escape. It had felt nice to be appreciated the first time around, even if she knew it was only because Mal had let his guard down a little, due to the sticky situation he had just escaped. But as he closed the flight plan, not another world on the subject escaped his mouth, and River's secret hopes were dashed. She cleared her throat, hoping to restart the conversation. "Everyone settled in?"
The captain swung his leg down off the control panel, testing the sore knee before putting his full weight on it and standing. "Should be by now. Left 'em with Cara t'show 'em their cabins." He started out of the cockpit, leaving River behind. "Day we had, bettin' those kids are gonna have no trouble gettin' to sleep tonight."
"Man, I'm never going to get to sleep tonight," Palmer whined, setting his rucksack on the small table in his cabin and unzipping it from the top. He looked back at the pregnant woman who was leaning against his door frame and jostling a pillow down into a pillowcase. "That engine's so gorramn loud!"
The woman smiled and made to reply, but a pounding from the cabin next to his interrupted her. "Palmer, watch ya mouth!" Nye exclaimed through their common wall.
Cara smirked a bit as the boy in front of her rolled his eyes, then she let out a short whistle, capturing the kid's attention. He turned, as she tossed him his freshly made up pillow. "You get used to it, kid. It actually ain't so bad down here." She crossed the room to the dresser and opened the topmost drawer. "It's louder up in my shuttle."
Palmer set the pillow at the head of his bed and reached into his rucksack, pulling out a neatly folded pile of clothes. He passed it to Cara, and she set it in the drawer. "You get a whole shuttle? All to yourself?"
She accepted the next pile of clothes, marveling at the care the young teen had taken in folding each article before she set it away. "Yeah, well, I take up a lot of room nowadays," she said, patting her giant belly and eliciting a snicker from the boy.
Next door, Christopher helped Nye fold the boy's clothes before setting them into a chest of drawers similar to Palmer's. After chastising Palmer, the teen looked back at his chaperone, continuing their conversation. "Gotta hand it to these folk. They wasn't half bad back there."
The man drew his eyes away from the open door and nodded in reply. "Yes, they seem to make a pretty good team, this crew." After placing the young man's shirt in the drawer, he snuck another glance towards the part of the corridor that was visible, then cleared his throat and rose to his feet. "I think I'll check on Eenie."
"Yeah," Nye nodded, waiting until Christopher had left the room before simply stuffing the rest of his bunched-up clothing into the drawers, not bothering to finish the folding. He had other things on his mind right now. "Good team." Glancing up towards the door that Christopher had just exited, he quietly closed the drawer and stood, walking over to the threshold. He slid the door closed on it's runners, then glanced over at the comm screen on the wall. "Okay," he whispered to himself, placing his palm over the face of the controls. "Let's see what you got to say."
Unaware of his young companion's activities, Christopher ventured into the hallway, and seeing it empty, moved across the hall to Enida's cabin. As he neared, his view through the open door widened to see Enida fast asleep on her bed, exhausted from the excitement of the day. He stepped into the room, attempting for the moment to ignore the person on the other side of the room, the woman putting the little girl's things onto the shelves that lined one corner of the small room. Though he could feel her stiffen as he entered just as he did, he pushed it from his mind as he walked over to check on the youngest of their party, tucking her blanket up and over her shoulder.
At last, he turned to find the woman laboring to ignore his presence in the room as well. He watched her for a moment, felt her avoiding his gaze, before he spoke. "Zoe?"
The first mate took a deep breath before she replied, her eyes never leaving her task. "Yeah?" she said, as casually as her voice could manage.
"We're going to have to talk about this sometime."
She shook her head, but could not prevent the terse reply from escaping her mouth, defending her from the reality of the situation. "Well, after dinner, I'll dig up my datebook an' pencil you in, Mr. DuFresne." Before he could continue the conversation, before he could make her feel even more uneasy than she already did, she stood and left the room, needing to be as far away from him right now as the ship's walls would allow her to be.
Oh, this is just the last thing that I need, she thought as she rounded the stairs at the end of the corridor, making her way up towards the galley. The last thing I expected. She made a mental note to ball River out later for failing to warn her of the uncomfortable situation she now found herself in. Perhaps, if River had given her the heads up, she might have been able to prepare herself with seeing Christopher standing in that cargo bay, looking up at her as though he had seen a ghost.
Reaching the upper corridor, she could not help but think that the description wasn't altogether misplaced. The way she had disappeared the morning after she had had sex with Christopher, perhaps the man had wondered if she wasn't somewhat ghostly. Or ghastly. She was more than a little ashamed of her behavior that morning, but when she woke up next to that strange man, and the realization of what she had done the night before had hit her, she had not been ready to deal with it. It was too much, and she had needed to get out.
And now, she was paying for that decision. Her memory sparked with something Mal had once said to Badger about "the wheel," how it never stopped turning. Well, if she had been karma incarnate, she couldn't have thought of a better way to bite herself in the ass: six days stuck on the ship with the one night stand she had left without explanation.
But as she spotted Mal approaching from the bridge, she had to give it up to the original karma once again. It seemed that no one could take their place in the job of making her uncomfortable. This was yet another conversation she would have preferred to avoid.
"Everyone set?" Mal asked as he made his way down the stairs from the cockpit.
"Yes, sir," she replied. "Cara's jus' helpin' get their things settled."
"Shiny. River says we were all clear comin' out of atmo," Mal continued, a little louder than usual. Immediately, Zoe saw that the captain was using one of his diversionary tactics. In the case that someone wandered into their conversation, they would assume the two were simply chit chatting about their game plan. As soon as the captain neared her, he dropped his voice to a very low whisper. "Wanna tell me what the hell that was all about?"
Dreading the ensuing conversation more than words could say, Zoe initially opted to play dumb. "What's that, sir?"
"Don't give me that, Zoe," Mal said, subtly pointing in the general direction of the cargo bay. "Minute you an' DuFresne saw each other down there, looked like you'd both seen the dead dancing in the gorramn streets." Taking a deep breath, and allowing her to do the same, he continued. "Now, I don't like secrets on my ship, as a rule. But I hate 'em when you're the one keepin' 'em from me. So I'll ask again: what in the 'verse is happenin' on my boat?"
Zoe breathed slowly through her nose, staring Mal right in the eyes. For a moment, she considered lying, but Mal knew her too well. So instead, she scanned the corridor for people, then reached out and took Mal's arm, steering him into the shadows. He followed, his yyes never leaving her face. Quick, like a band-aid, she thought. "You recall that tousle we had with the Reavers a few months back?"
"Right 'round the same time as my birthday?" Mal asked, and she nodded to confirm. The captain huffed out a breath and nodded once, the memory hitting him hard. It had been a brutal fight. Cara had lost a wing in that battle, Kaylee had lost the uppermost layers of skin on her shoulders, and Zoe had nearly lost her life. "Ain't like to forget."
"Nearly did me in," Zoe said, shaking her head. "What the doc tells it, bleedin' was so bad, I nearly slipped off more'n a few times." She watched as Mal grit his teeth, not liking to have to relive the experience of watching his best friend cling to life. "You never did tell them, did you?"
Mal's eyes slowly rose to meet hers, surprised by the turn of subject. The loss of Zoe's unborn child was something they never ever spoke of, at Zoe's request. "No, I never did." He narrowed his eyes at her, beginning to see where this was going, yet unwilling to believe. "Zoe, what's that got to do-"
"Typically takes two people to make one of those, sir," Zoe said, casting her eyes toward the ceiling. "And as my shiny luck would have it, the other half of that equation just walked 'board Serenity, pretty as you please."
"Shen sheng ye su bing sheng dan lao ren," Mal exclaimed, his stunned eyes going wide at the revelation. He didn't realize how loud he was becoming until Zoe gestured for him to lower his tone, which he did, to a rather harsh whisper. "You mean he's the ruttin' father?"
Zoe shrugged, shifting her weight to the opposite foot uneasily. "What're the odds, huh?"
Mal still seemed to stunned by her connection to Christopher to hear her. His face was vacant for a moment, and Zoe knew the look well: he was working things out in his mind. At last, he replied. "I don't like this, Zoe."
"I understand, sir. But I can keep-"
"No, that ain't what I mean," he interrupted. "Anything 'bout that pick-up seem odd to you?"
The first mate tilted her head, not quite following his train of thought. "Odd, sir?"
"Those Alliance brass? I noticed 'em fall in behind us the minute we had those kids split up. I'm guessin' they knew 'xactly where those kids were, but they didn't seem to make a move 'til we was all together," Mal said. Zoe folded her arms across her chest, nodded as she took this into consideration. "And jus' now, River tells me that they knew we was takin' the kids off-world. So it begs the question-"
"Why only have men in the marketplace? Why wasn't there a company at the docks?" Zoe supplied, finishing his sentence for him. Mal looked at her expectantly, as if she was going to answer her own rhetorical question. "Can't say," she added.
"And now, addin' your rather unlikely predicament into the mix..." At her look of warning, Mal left it at that. "Something's felt queer 'bout this job since day one, Zoe. Ever since we got that call. An' I ain't likin' the turns it's takin' us for already."
"I'm more than willin' to agree with you there, sir," she commented dryly.
Mal started towards the end of the corridor, in the direction of the stairs, trusting her to follow him. Which, of course, she did. "If there's one thing I've learned from cartin' River 'round this 'verse, it's that a man oughtta know exactly what he's consented to smuggle. Get on the comm, call everyone to the cargo bay, passengers and crew. We're gonna have us a little Come-To-Jesus."
"Would you be Jesus in this scenario, sir?" Zoe said with a smirk.
Mal headed off in the direction of the stairs. "Mood I'm in 'bout now, I leanin' more towards the side of Old Testament, wrath of God."
The first mate lifted her hand to press the button that would open all channels, then paused, whipping her head around to catch Mal before he was out of earshot. "Sir?"
The captain's head appeared around the corner. "Yeah?"
"My lips are sealed, Zoe," he replied, nodding. "That's one problem you're gonna need to handle your own self. A problem I expect you to handle your own self." With that, he started down the stairs again and out of sight.
"Lucky me," she muttered, pressing the comm button. "All hands and passengers to the cargo bay. Immediately."
A few moments later, Simon was attempting to help a very stiff-looking Jayne up the stairs from the common area. The mercenary's lower back had been badly bruised during their escape, and had left his mobility impaired. But as soon as they were in view of Mal and Zoe, who waited in the bay for the others to arrive, the larger man pushed Simon away, adjusting the coldpack he held to his lumbar region as he sidled over to sit on one of the pallets of supplies.
Simon rolled his eyes a moment. What had he been expecting from Jayne? A thanks? As he continued into the open space, he called over to the captain and first mate. "What's going on?"
"Yeah," a voice called from the catwalks, and all four raised their eyes to see River and Kaylee making their way down from the upper decks. Kaylee smiled brightly until she saw the troubled looks on Mal and Zoe's faces. "Something wrong?"
Mal and Zoe looked at each other quickly before Zoe replied. "Remains to be seen, Kaylee."
Kaylee looked over at River as they continued down the stairs. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Mal thinks he's Jesus," the young woman replied, her eyes never leaving the captain's. "Or God." Kaylee gave her an odd look, then shrugged as she reached the foot of the stairway, continuing over to stand beside her fiance. River, however, remained on the very last step. These are turbulent seas, she thought as she stared at the floor of the cargo bay. I dare not risk a shipwreck.
Just then, voices could be heard once again from the stairway of the common area. The crew looked over past the weight bench to see Cara being helped over the threshold into the bay by Palmer, with Nye and Christopher, who was holding what appeared to be a very sleepy Enida, behind them.
"What happened to you?" Cara called over to Jayne, seeing the coldpack he still held to his lower back. The mercenary smiled at his girlfriend as she thanked Palmer and crossed towards him. "Ain't you generally the pain in other folk's asses?"
"Generally," Jayne replied with a smirk. "Whatcha gettin' at, Tubby?" He smiled as Cara socked him gently in the arm, and responded by lifting the same arm and draping it across her shoulders as she turned to face the loose circle of people in the room.
Glancing around at the gallery of faces as he entered, Christopher noted the looks of the two people he had not met. The first was a young man who, like Kaylee, had a vaguely familiar quality about him, yet one that Christopher couldn't quite place in his memory. The second person, however, was unmistakable: River Tam. As he stared at her, slightly stunned to see the grassroots heroine in the flesh, she turned to meet his gaze. Started, Christopher quickly turned his eyes to Zoe instead. "Is there some sort of problem? Something we should know about?"
Seeing that all the current occupants of the ship had arrived, and that their attention was on the impromptu meeting, Mal took a deep breath. "Funny, we was gonna ask you the very same thing, Mr. DuFresne."
Christopher raised his eyebrows at Mal, feeling the stare of every person in the room suddenly move to him. "I beg your pardon?"
"Well, maybe not funny ha-ha," Mal continued in a biting tone, one that the crew recognized as trouble.
"Capt'n wants to ask ya'll a few questions," Zoe supplied, speaking directly to Christopher for the first time since their earlier encounter. His gaze turned back to hers, and he could clearly read the expression of her face, the expression that was telling him that their personal problem was not the main item on the agenda. Christopher didn't know if this was a relief or not.
"Yeah. Specifically," The captain strode towards the four passengers slowly, folding his arms across his chest and straightening his back. "As to the nature of your troubles with the Alliance."
Christopher exchanged a quick glance with the boys before answering. "I was under the impression that Master Rahjiong had explained-"
"Oh, he gave us an idea. One that we was hopin' you'd elaborate on." Mal turned his head slightly, now addressing Nye. "For our own edification."
Nye stared at the man a moment, wearing the same hard face he had been since the morning began. A face that said in every line that despite the day's escapade, he didn't trust the man before him any further than he could throw him. After a moment of silence so thick it could have been cut with a knife, the teen spoke, distrust hanging from every syllable. "An' sayin' we refuse?"
Mal quirked an eyebrow at the young man. "If'n that's the case," He snuck a pointed glance over at River, taking her mildly aback. "We got ways of findin' out." As he turned back to the boy, he missed the deep frown that crept across River's face in reaction to what he had said.
"Really?" Nye replied, a patronizing smile spreading across his lips. "Well, as threatenin' as you might believe that is, I'm gonna hafta refuse, Mr. Capt'n, sir." He glanced around the room at the other crew members, who were regarding him with concern now. All with the exception of River, who seemed to have a more ponderous look on her face. Sadly curious, if such a thing existed. "Any issues we got with the Alliance is jus' that: ours. Don't see no point in makin' it otherwise."
Like some sort of bizarre verbal tennis match, all eyes tracked over to Mal for the next volley. The captain stood tall, steadily growing angrier with each word. "That's summat of an inadvisable position there, son." The teen met his glare defiantly as the Capt'n closed in another step, his hackles rising as he seethed on. "I'd hate to have to-"
Nye's back was braced, and his hands closed into fists at the man's approach. "What? Sick your reader on me? I'm quakin'."
Suddenly, the fighters of the crew were on their feet, Jayne included. Kaylee and Simon whipped their heads towards the boy, stiffening instantly. Palmer and Christopher both took a step back, surprised by the abrupt action from the men and women in the room. Only River appeared to keep her cool. One thought coursed through the minds of the habitants of Serenity, but it was Jayne who spoke it aloud. "Now, how'd you know that?!" He looked at River. "How'd he know that?!"
Formalities gone, Mal growled at the young man. "Jayne raises an interestin' question." Slowly, the captain's hand crept towards his pistol. "'Cause I don't recall anyone mentionin'-"
"Captain, please," Christopher said, bravely stepping between the man and the teen, hoping to diffuse the situation. "I think I can explain that."
"Mista DuFresne!" Nye exclaimed.
The older man turned and gestured to him to calm down, which he did not. "Captain Reynolds, we've all seen Ms. Tam's broadwave. It certainly gave some indication of her abilities. I'm sure that Nye here was just-"
"No," a calm voice said from the stairs, and all eyes turned to River, still standing slightly above the fray. She met Mal's eyes. "That's a lie. He's protecting him."
"Protectin' him from what?" Mal replied. River flicked her gaze to Mal's hand, and his own followed to where his palm was resting on his gun. He hadn't even realized it was there. The man grit his teeth and nodded, realizing what River was trying to say.
As soon as the Captain had removed his fingers from the gun, River gave the Jayne his answer, turning her head to face the mercenary. "He asked her."
"What?" Jayne snapped back, his glare whipping back and forth between River and Nye. "What's that s'pposed to mean?"
Simon was easing his way towards his sister quietly, readying himself to defend her if it came to that. Some habits were hard to break. "Asked who, mei mei?"
River looked down at him and smiled as his intentions. "Serenity."
Jayne was still lost. "What's she yakking on?"
"Sweetie, shut up a tick," Cara added flatly, beginning to see where River was going with this. Sensing her understanding of the subject, River turned her eyes over to meet the woman's questioning face and nodded, confirming her suspicions. Cara took a deep breath and bobbed her head once, glancing back at Nye.
Mal watched the exchange in silence, lowering the volume of his voice. "Thinkin' the rest of us might need some clarification, Riv."
But River had focused on Nye once again, finally stepping down from the last stair onto the cargo bay floor. She padded lightly across the grates, and the young man turned to face her as she approached, seeming to examine his face as she did. At last, she stood before him in silence, reaching out for his hand. He furrowed his brow, but allowed her to take it and lift it towards her own face.
Mal frowned deeply at the action, and he could hear Zoe shift her hand to her own holster. Glancing back, he could see her watching the strange young man carefully, glancing away for only a moment to catch his eyes. Mal pursed his lips, then turned his head again to continue watching River, deciding to let Zoe stay cautious. He'd rather have someone's hand on their gun, should things go awry.
River continued to examine the young man's palm as he watched her do so, obviously disquieted despite his earlier hubris. Never looking up at his face, River spoke at last. "She told you many things. Didn't tell you everything, though."
Nye looked exceptionally uncomfortable, but it was worth noting, not altogether without understanding. "Ma'am?"
"Hmm," River hummed, flipping the teen's hand palm-up and sliding her own hand over the skin of the underside of his forearm. Mal bristled anew at the sight, but she was not interested with his discomfort right now. "They never really go away, do they?" She brought her face in close to his arm, and Nye's body hummed at her proximity with both uncertainty and... something else. Something he could not define. "Can't see them any more, but you can still feel them." At last, her eyes rose to meet his. "Just like I do."
Jayne's moment of patience had come and gone. "Girl, would you quit feelin' the kid up and jus' tell us what you're talkin' 'bout?" Mal, who had been growing equally uncomfortable at River's caressing of Nye's hand and arm was inclined to agree with the man, but he flashed him a hard glance all the same.
"She's talkin' 'bout the Academy," a very small voice said, and every set of eyes but River's shot to the source. The little girl leaning against Christopher's shoulder had turned her head and watched the young woman's examination of Nye, and sensing the true meaning of her words as young children often could, she had spelled it out for the others. "You're talkin' 'bout the needles. Ain'tcha?"
River nodded, releasing Nye's arm. As the young man's stare met hers, she saw understanding, even sympathy, in his eyes. As her gaze drifted over Palmer's and Enida's faces as well, she saw more of the same.
Mal watched the silent conversation, finally deciphering its meaning. "That's what this is?" Nye turned to face him, the young man appearing considerably less hostile than he had previously. The boy didn't need to reply; Mal could read it all over his face. "Rahjiong said them's at the Academy was after ya." His stance softened, and he approached the passengers again. "He jus' didn't say it was to get ya back."
Nye nodded, staring at his toes. "I was tryin' t'get to Willowsrun, 'bout six months back, when they nabbed me. Had me two months 'fore I made it out."
Simon, having had a some experience in this area, curiously asked the next question. "How?" At Nye's glance, he clarified. "How did you escape?"
Nye could not hide the affection and gratitude in his voice as he replied. "Palmer," he said, and the other teen looked at him and smiled slightly. "And Eenie."
The girl grinned at him as Christopher set her down on her own two feet. "You helped, too."
"Yeah, but how?" Kaylee inquired, stepping towards the closing circle. It was as if the people in the cargo bay sensed the delicacy of the subject: their circle was growing smaller and their tones were becoming ever softer. "Simon says it's like bustin' outta a max-sec prison."
"They're potentials," Cara supplied, Jayne leaning on her a little as she led him towards the closing ring of people. "Potential students. They've got abilities, right?"
"Mean they're freaks, like River?" Jayne asked, eyeing the children with a new level of uncertainty.
Kaylee scowled at him, seeing the hurt look on little Enida's face. "No, means they're special."
Pulling the coldpack from behind his back and squishing it in his hand, Jayne rolled his eyes, his point so obviously missed. "Yeah, right, but they're readers an' all is what I'm sayin'."
River shook her head. "Like me, just not like me."
Palmer bobbed his head once. "Nye's close. He's a tech-path." At the looks of confusion from some of the others, he continued. "A technopathic. He can talk to machines. That's how he knew about you," he finished, gesturing towards River.
Simon nodded and slid his hands into his front pockets, one of the first to understand. "River's medical records. Her scans. They're in the ship's computer."
"You went through our computer?" Mal asked, folding his arms and eyeing the young man, who shrugged. The captain hurumphed, but was quick to understand. Put in a strange situation himself, he would do anything he could to increase his knowledge of the people around him. His eyes fell to Palmer. "And you?"
Palmer smiled, then looked at the coldpack in Jayne's grip. Suddenly, the object pulled from the mercenary's grasp, whipping across the space into Palmer's waiting hand. "Hey!" Jayne exclaimed, backing away from the demonstration, not liking in the least that he had been involved.
Palmer grinned at him, then tossed the coldpack into the air, where it hovered six inches above his open palm as though the gravity had been turned off. "I'm a telekinetic," the boy said, obviously enjoying the impressed and awed stares of the group standing around him.
"Show-off," Nye grumbled.
Zoe looked up from the display, unfazed, and caught Christopher's eye. "And the lil' one?"
Touching the top of the child's head, the man replied. "Enida's a healer."
Mal nodded, everything becoming a little bit clearer in his mind. "All fine traits for potential Alliance assassins. I can see why you were tapped."
Palmer let the coldpack float back down to his hand, then tossed it back to Jayne, who quickly handed it over to Cara, not wanting to touch the thing anymore. "I was at the Academy for nearly two years before Nye came. They've taken to using our kind of people for their soldier programs. Used to be they'd take any kid with a high I.Q., but since..." He trailed off, seeing River's curious face. "Well, since they found you, they've likened to folks like us for the military experiments."
"Makes sense," Zoe said, looking at Mal. "Why jus' build a perfect soldier when you can build a super-soldier?" Palmer smiled at her words, seeming to take them as a compliment.
"So how'd you make the break?" Kaylee asked, looking at the three kids,
"Eenie, or rather Enida, Nye and I were in one of the processing rooms," Palmer said, looking at her as he replied. "Enida subdued the guards, Nye disabled the security systems, and I took out anyone who got in our way. We stole a shuttle and took it to Boros, went underground."
"That's where I found them," Christopher added.
"Mista DuFresne promised to get us to Willowsrun, waved Masta Rahjiong for us." Nye looked at Mal, who was listening intently to every detail of their tale. "Masta Rahjiong called you. Seemed to think you might have some 'xperience with our predicament."
Mal nodded, the last pieces of the puzzle falling into place. His eyes met River's across the circle. "We might at that."
After dinner, the crew and passengers had spread out across the ship. Most had gone for their bunks, but a few had wandered off to accomplish other tasks, or to socialize like Cara. As the woman stepped out of the med bay, where she had been chatting with Simon, her eyes caught Nye emerging from the dorm lavatory with a small sack of toiletries, on loan from Christopher, in his hands. She hailed him with a smile. "Get some rest, kid."
"Yeah, thanks," Nye said, watching her head towards the stairs that led for the cargo bay. Turning towards his room, he drew a sharp breath, then turned back quickly. "Cara, right?"
Cara paused and descended the few steps she had already mounted, approaching the young man with a kind smile. "Yeah?"
Nye glanced back towards the dorm rooms, then brought his eyes back to meet hers again. "This man, Capt'n Reynolds-"
The woman sighed and nodded knowingly. She threw an arm around the boy and led him towards his room as she spoke. "Musta been tough, watchin' out for your and yours with the Alliance breathin' down your necks. I heard 'nough stories outta River an' Simon t'know how they can trail them that break free of that place. I understand, kid."
Reaching his room and opening the door, Nye lifted his head to face her. "You do?"
"Better'n you know. But Mal and the crew," She smirked, lifting her eyes towards the ceiling. "They're solid folk. They say they'll get you somewheres, they will. An' they'll protect you like hell if'n you'll let 'em." She crinkled her eyes as her hand slid over her full belly. "They did me."
Nye's eye widened, and he drew back his face in surprise. "You? You're-"
"A bona-fide graduate of Willowsrun Temple. Met plenty of folk like yourself, let's not mention bein' one myself. So, I do know how it can be, livin' on the lamb 'cause of whatcha are." She clapped her hand over the boy's shoulder. "We'll getcha there, kid. You have my word on that."
This seemed to placate the young man for the moment. He nodded once, reaching up towards the handle of his sliding door. "G'night, miss."
Diploma, store it. Capture from their wedding day, store it. Birth license, store it.
Zoe mentally checked off the items she was packing away. For some reason the others had been unaware of, she had retreated from the dinner table to her bunk as quickly as possible, and had busied herself by continuing to store Wash's things in the crates she had scattered about. It kept her mind off... other things for the moment, and she was welcome to the distraction.
It seemed, though, that she was escaping one strange place only to dive into another. It had been far too long, she had left his belongings out far too long after his death. She knew what she was doing was right, but she couldn't help but wonder at the sensation all the same.
It wasn't pain, not really. In the past few months, she had begun to move away from the pain. Oddly enough, it reminded her of Serenity Valley. Of the way she had languished in pain for years after that horrible campaign, unable to pull herself away from the misery and rage she felt at watching her fellow men and women die. People had always said that it would fade with time, but as time went on, it never did. So she had walked around, battle-scarred inside and out, pretending to want to live, pretending to be alive.
It had been Wash who had saved her from that pain. And now, for the first time since she had lost him too, she had finally begun to feel as though she was still here, as though she had not died on Mr. Universe's moon when he did. As though she could stop pretending to be okay, because she actually felt it. She had survived Serenity Valley, and she would survive this, too.
Just then, a soft knocking sounded from her door, and she heard the compression of the door sliding flush with the ladder. Walking towards the now-open hatch, Zoe peered up to see who was there.
She looked up, and found Christopher standing there.
Taking and deep breath and slowly releasing it, she lowered her head and turned back into the bunk. "Come in." She heard the man climb down the ladder behind her, and she set the plastic Godzilla toy in her hands into the crate on her bed. Once he had found footing on the floor of her bunk, she turned, tucking her hands into the back pockets of her pants.
Christopher stood there, staring at her face with wonder, much in the same way he had when he had first seen her. Much in the same way he had all through dinner, until she had cleared her throat to alert him of his obviousness. "Zoe."
"Yeah, you keep sayin' that," Zoe replied, breaking her gaze away from his as she turned and reached up, plucking a few knickknacks from the top shelf over her bed and turning them over in her hands, deciding whether they stayed or went.
"Well, forgive me," Christopher said. "But I feel as though I still need to convince myself that it's actually you."
Zoe set one of the items in her hand back on the shelf, choosing to box the other, a capture of Wash and his roommate from flight school on their graduation day. "It is. In the flesh." She immediately flinched at her choice of words, darting her eyes up to Christopher's from where she bent over the crate before her.
After a moment, the man cracked a smile and chuckled, and much to her own surprise, Zoe did the same. Keeping his grin, Christopher glanced around at the assorted boxes scattered around the room. "What's all this?" he asked, moving to sit on the bed, then pausing at the last second. "Oh, sorry, may I?"
"Yeah, go ahead," Zoe said, and he settled at the edge, watching her as she straightened, pulling a few more items off the shelf to examine. "Jus' some stuff I'm packin' away. Been... been meanin' to do it for awhile."
Christopher nodded, glancing into the box he sat beside. Pulling a framed capture from the top of the crate, he could see Zoe and a red-haired man sitting next to each other in what he assumed to be the cockpit of the Firefly, smiling. "Who's this?"
Zoe set all of the books in her hands into the box before her and circled the bed, looking down at the capture. "My husband."
"Your-" Christopher said, his eyes darting up to meet hers. "Your husband?"
She gently took the picture from him, sliding the edges of her thumbs over the frame. "Wash. He's deceased."
"I see." Christopher said, watching as she pursed her lips and nodded. "I'm sorry."
Zoe raised her eyes to meet his own. "You a Reaver?" He tilted his head and furrowed his brow, then slowly shook his head. "Then you ain't got nothin' to be sorry for." She sat beside him, staring at the photo a moment longer before setting it back into its box face-down. "Anyway, it was a while ago. Few years. It's long past."
"Still, I..." He drifted off, not sure what to say. Instead, he sat beside her in silence a moment, scratching his fingers through the short dirty blonde hair at the back of his head. "He must have been quite a man," he said at last.
She looked over at him curiously. "Why do you say that?"
He turned his head, fixing his eyes upon hers. "You married him."
Zoe raised her eyebrows, never expecting such praise. After all, this was the man she had walked out on in the dawning hours without so much as a farewell. "He was. But it had nothin' t'do with me."
Christopher turned towards her, bringing one knee up to rest on the bed so that he could face her fully. "Zoe, I-"
"No," she interrupted softly, holding up one hand. "I'm sorry. What I did t'ya, walkin' out like that, it wasn't right. An' I apologize."
He watched her face a moment. It was hard and impassive, but something in her voice told him that she was being sincere. He nodded. "I accept your apology." She nodded once, seeming to think that the matter had been handled, and rose to her feet until he reached out an hand and caught her arm. "But-" She turned her face, looking back at him. "I would like an explanation."
"An explanation?" she asked, genuinely puzzled.
Christopher let go her arm. "If it's not too much trouble."
Zoe crossed her arms over her chest uncomfortably. "An' if it is?"
"Zoe, that night," Christopher said, shaking his head. "And I realize how cliche this sounds, but it was one of the best nights of my life. And then, poof! I wake up the next morning, and this amazing woman I was lucky enough to have chosen me, she's gone. And I don't know why."
The first mate strode away from him quickly, resuming her work. "'Amazin' woman?' Ain't that goin' a bit far?"
"No," he replied, standing. "Zoe, from the moment I saw you-"
"Would you-" she said, turning around, only to find him standing very close to her. The scent of ocean salt and island lilies was still in his hair, and it suddenly wafted over her, awakening memories she had not realized the had. She backed away a few steps, needing for there to be distance between them. "Would you stop sayin' my name like that?"
Seeing her reaction, Christopher's face faltered, and he took a step back as well. "Alright." He stared at his shoes a moment, giving Zoe a respite from his hungry eyes. "I'm sorry, I just... I just wanted to know, that's all."
"It was a mistake," Zoe continued quickly, still spooked by his previous earnest. "It was a stupid, drunken mistake, that's all. Now, can we just forget about it?"
If he had not been looking down, Zoe might have seen the hurt in Christopher's eyes. He had always suspected that it had been him that Zoe had run from that morning. After all, they had both been drinking a bit, and things can often look quite different by the light of day. "Absolutely. Absolutely, we can." With that, he headed towards the ladder, seeking his retreat.
Zoe almost stopped him, but her voice could not force its way past her throat. She simply watched as he disappeared through the open hatch, then turned and looked at the boxes of memories that sat before her. From one of them, Wash's Godzilla was staring up at her with it's red plastic eyes.
She reached over and grabbed the lid of the box, hiding it from sight.
"His name is Nietzsche," River said, holding the teddy bear out to the little girl. Enida paused a moment, examining the stuffed toy with her eyes before accepting it. She turned the brown bear over in her hands delicately, sensing how important it was to the woman seated on her bed.
"He's yours?" Enida asked, her chocolate-brown eyes turning up to River's.
She nodded, stroking a hand across the bear's ears. "He was. Giving him to you, since you lost yours." Enida looked at her in surprise and gratitude. "I know he's not a dog, but..."
Enida hugged the bear to her chest, feeling the comfort of the fabric against her chin. "No, he's shiny." She petted the bear's belly, running her small fingers over one of the stuffed arms. "I'll take real good care of him, Miss River."
"I know you will." She mentally said goodbye to her childhood friend. "Be happier with you, anyway. Didn't like it on the shelf in my room."
The little girl snuggled deeper into the pillow on her bed, looking up at the young woman's round face as she fought back the sleep that was ready to claim her. "You were really there? The scary place?"
River's eyes were distant for a moment upon hearing the young girl's words. She could see Enida's memories of the Academy as well as she could her own. Bright lights and cold tables, needles and scalpels and men in blue coats. "Yes," she said sadly, pushing the girl's memories away along with her own. "But I got out. Like you."
"An' you been to Willarun?" the child asked, the lids of her eyes sagging as sleep started to overtake her.
"Willowsrun," River corrected, gleaning the little girl's concerns. "Beautiful there. No one will hurt you there." She stroked a gentle hand over the girl's black hair, so dark like her own, and could almost feel the way the Alliance had violated the child's mind as they had hers. "You're safe."
Enida had already drifted off to sleep, resuming the nap she had been roused from earlier. River rose from her seat on the girl's bed, smoothing out her blue skirt. "How is she?" A voice asked from behind her.
River turned to answer, crossing the room towards the open door and Christopher behind it. He looked weary and sad, and River immediately knew why. "Tired. Long journey." She exited the room and slid the door shut behind her, then brought her face up to meet the man's eyes. "And she's sick."
The man's eyebrows lifted, concerned. "Sick?"
"They ate from garbage before you found them. She's got a worm in her belly. Simon will fix it in the morning." she replied softly, so as not to wake the child in the room behind her. The dorm walls and doors were so thin, conversations tended carry through them like air.
Christopher looked past her at the closed door. "That's why she wasn't gaining any weight. I was trying..." He looked down at the girl before him with a kind smile. "You're really as good as they say you are." She titled her head to the side, uncomprehending. "Your clairvoyance."
River shrugged humbly. "I see things. That's it." She smiled up at him one last time, then started towards the end of the hallway. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Miss Tam," Christopher replied, heading into his own cabin after returning her smile.
River pulled her shrug around her a little more tightly, heading out towards the cargo bay. She tapped her fingers across the glass of the infirmary as she passed it, waving goodnight to Simon as she headed towards the upper decks. She never could sleep well on a job, so she had decided to head towards the bridge and check on the Alliance ship she had been tracking.
Miss Tam, she thought warmly, climbing the stairs into the cargo bay and continuing up the catwalk stairs. Not many people called her that, but she liked it when they did. It was a term of respect, it meant the person who said it was displaying the respect they had for you. For so long, River had been nothing but a weapon, or a broken child. But the name Miss Tam meant she was a person, a woman. She liked it when people saw her that way. When they thought to show her respect, not just for what she could do, but who she was.
As she reached the lower catwalk and felt him coming, she remembered why she treasured that respect so.
"River," Mal said, stepping off the stair and coming towards her. "I was jus' comin' t'see you."
"You were," River confirmed coldly, stepping past him. "I have work to do."
Mal watched her pass, somewhat taken aback by her icy tone. "River?"
She stopped and turned, folding her arms. "Yes, captain?"
He furrowed his brow, coming in close and dropping his voice to a whisper. "What's wrong with you?"
"Little weary of that question, Mal," River said, digging her bare toes into the grates of the catwalk to conceal her feelings. "Many things wrong with me. But I am the smallest of your worries, so you should ignore me." She gripped her upper arm hard and turned her eyes down, grumbling the last words.
"Okay, albatross, I'm gonna need ya to catch me up," Mal said, shaking his head, disoriented by the unfamiliar territory she had led him into. "What d'ya mean, 'the smallest of my worries'?"
River shut her eyes tightly, trying to force through the information she had collated. "Alliance acts strangely, not as they should, it's putting you ill. You've dealt with Academy before, don't like how they move, like black sharks, invisible in space. Can't sleep, just keep moving until they die." She had yet to admit it, but the thought troubled her as well. She had not been able to perceive the intentions of Alliance further than getting the children back, but she sensed something else afoot, just as Mal did. "And Zoe. And Christopher. They concern you. Another distraction."
Mal took a step back, crossing his arms and squaring his jaw. When River opened her eyes, she saw mistrust on his face. And when he spoke, it was in the short, clipped tones that signified the level of displeasure he seemed to save for her alone. "River, I believe I asked you not to go rootin' 'bout my brain unasked!" he snapped harshly, his icy blue eyes piercing through her own.
That was the last straw. "A ya, yao wo, Mal!" she hissed, fury exploding from her eyes, causing Mal took take a step back further. "I didn't root! I'm not just one thing! I am many." She advanced toward him, her fists clenched at her sides. "I have ears, AND eyes. I know you, and I know Zoe. Seen her fears, can't be ignored. They called to me the minute she saw him." She did not need to explain who. "And the Alliance? I know the Academy, too. I know what they do, how they operate, better than you can even dream. For God's sake, Mal, I'm a fucking genius! Think I can't work the problem, see what doesn't fit?!"
"Calm down, River," Mal said stoically, beginning to see her point, yet not quite ready to concede it.
"No! You think the only way I can possibly know things are when I read them. Then get mad at me when I do," she scowled at him, "unless it can be of use to you. Unless you're running from Alliance, or want to threaten teenage boys. Very useful then." At this, Mal frowned, seeing where the better portion of her anger was coming from. But there was no stopping River now. "But not the rest of the time. Not when you don't feel like it. Treat it like something I can turn on and off." She slapped the backs of her hands against her thighs, completely exasperated. "Well, I can't, Mal. You can't just use me, then put me away in a box until you use me again."
Mal sighed, trying to calm her before she woke up the whole ship. "I'm not using you, River."
She barely heard him, still caught up in her tirade. A dam had burst inside her. She was tired of playing nice, playing by his rules and his rules alone. She had been told what to do and who she was for so long, and this was the end of it. "If you want to use my brain, have to use all of it. Sick of this, Mal. Sick of being carted out to save your neck. Sick of bailing you out when YOU SCREW UP!"
At the last three words, Mal's ears perked, and he stiffened angrily. River glared at him, shooting daggers from her eyes and breathing hard as she finished, not backing down for a second. Taking a deep breath and craning his neck to the side to still his ferocity, he replied with quiet and deadly rage. "You make a good point, River." He let a moment of silence pass, still trying to reign in the furious beast that was burrowing up from his chest. "You make a good point. I got a lotta troubles to concern myself with right now. I don't have time for this gos se." With that, he turned and went back the way he had come, climbing the catwalk stairs and disappearing from sight in the upper decks.
River stood there a moment, still fuming. Spikes of anger shot through her brain. She had been concealing the hurt and insult she had been feeling over the last few months, how she felt about the way Mal had been utilizing her. She had been so willing to understand his needs, so willing to compromise her desires to suit him. But in the last month, he had stopped giving back.
Stalking over to the outer edge of the catwalk and gripping her fingers around the rail, she snorted hot breath through her nose, glaring out at the empty cargo bay. At first, he had kept talking, but he had stopped listening. She had been able to deal with that. But now, he had stopped talking, too. He had told her that they were making their relationship stronger, that they were becoming closer, he had said this with his words. But his body kept pushing her further and further away. He had grown comfortable without her, and like before they had been together, he would not let her in. And now? Now he had gone back to looking at her the way he once had: a tool at his disposal, and nothing more.
The rage swam fast through her mind, obscuring all other thought. That was it, she thought. She was through. If he wanted a tool, that's what he would have. A pilot and a fighter, that's all. No more romance, no more allowing him to confide in her during the night and then block her out during the day. River's anger took control of her whole brain then, and she made the decision to cut Mal out of her life once and for all.
She was so wrapped up in fury, so consumed with vehemence, she never heard the club swing through the air and connect with the back of her head. She only saw the world spin for a moment, then go black.
Hearing a crash from the cargo bay, Simon darted up in surprise, then scowled. Jayne was probably lifting weights again. Sometimes Simon thought he might just be clanging the barbell against the frame of the weight bench as loud as he could just to annoy the doctor, to disrupt his work as the mercenary seemed so fond of doing.
Simon crossed the medbay, setting away some of the last of his inventory in one of the white drawers that lined the room. He would have to remember to tell Mal that he had to pick up more Vermalicin the next time they were planetside. His stock was running rather low at present. Turning around and picking up the clipboard he had left on the exam table, he checked off Vermalicin on his list, writing in the number of CC's he had in stock.
Seeing the next medication on the list, Heptidine, he circled around the table and pulled the stool over to the cabinets on the far side of the infirmary. Stepping up and kneeling on the seat of his stool, he checked the top of the cabinet, raising his eyes from the clipboard to the highest shelf of the cabinet. Seeing that his supply matched his inventory list, he set the clipboard on the counter and moved to get down.
His eyes flickered out the short window that faced the cargo bay, and for a moment, he was surprised to find the weight bench empty. For a split second, he looked down again, ready to continue back to the floor. Then his eyes shot up, and he pressed one of his hands against the window, leaning in close. What he saw on the other side made his blood run cold.
Leaping down from the stool and sending it clattering to the floor, he ran to the infirmary doors and hung a hard right, racing up the stairs. As he passed the weight bench and came out into the bay, what he feared he had seen was confirmed.
River was laying sprawled on the grates, unconscious, blood pouring from a wound to her head.
Simon's body acted for him, rushing to his sister's side and lifting her with strength he didn't know he had. As he raced back towards the infirmary, his racing mind could only form three words, and they escaped from his lungs, bellowing up through his throat and echoing through the metal walls of the ship.
"CAPTAIN! COME QUICK!"
Thursday, May 29, 2008 3:20 PM
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