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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
TITLE: Serenity Now: All The Difference - Part 5
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: 786 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Kaylee thought she heard something, and her slumbering eyes winked open. She yawned and scratched at her temple, looking over towards the other side of the bed and finding it empty. Simon must still be workin' on his inventory, she thought, rolling to her side and stretching her feet towards the side of the bed. Easing herself into a seating position, she hissed a little as her bare feet hit the cold metal floor of the cabin she shared with her fiance.
Fumbling her toes across the floor, she found her pink flip flips and wiggled them onto her feet. She didn't know quite what she had heard from the cargo bay, but she knew Serenity well enough to know that it was not one of her normal tics. On land, Kaylee could sleep through a herd of cattle stampeding through her bedroom, but in the sky? She was constantly on alert, something that could mean the difference between life and death out here in the black.
As she slid her sandaled feet through the legs of her coveralls and pulled her arms through the sleeves, she listened hard again. The first noise had been like a bump... no, like a metallic clang. But it had been soft, too, like when someone would drop a bag on the floor. It might be nothing, but she was always happier safe than sorry. She zipped up her coveralls, yawning, and started towards the door.
That's when she heard Simon's scream.
"CAPTAIN! COME QUICK!"
Immediately, Kaylee's ears perked and her heart lept to her throat. As well as she knew her Serenity, that's how well she knew her beau. And right now, she could hear the panic in Simon's voice. Raw, sheer panic.
She rushed through the door, sprinting into the corridor towards the cargo bay from where his voice had come. As the common room came into view, she could see Simon rushing into the med bay, carrying something limp and heavy. Kaylee followed the gray streak of his sweatshirt, grabbing the door frame of the infirmary to stop herself. "What's wrong?!" she gasped.
"Get Mal!" Simon commanded quickly, and as he circled around the medical table, laying out the bundle in his arms. In a moment, Kaylee saw three things, each frightening her further: that is was a person, that it was River, and that Simon's shirt sleeves were covered in blood. River's blood. For a moment, Kaylee could only stare as Simon rushed around the table, gathering supplies. Then his eyes flitted up to his fiancee where she stood in the threshold, numb with shock. "Kaylee, please! GET MAL!"
Kaylee's eyes snapped up to meet Simon's, and she was off in a flash. She darted to the right, making for the stairs that led to the galley. As she rounded through the corner that led into the dining area and dashed around the wooden table, she caught a glimpse of Mal and Zoe, both peeking their heads out of their bunks. Simon's urgent words guiding her, she made for them as they climbed out into the upper corridor. "What's wrong?" Mal said quickly, hearing Simon's earlier cry and seeing the panic on his mechanic's face. "What happened?"
"River's hurt," Kaylee gasped, sweat pouring from her brow.
Zoe's hand immediately went to the gun at her side. "What?"
The mechanic grabbed Mal by the arm, pulling him back towards the stairs. "I don't know, I don't know. I think..." She paused to catch her breath. "I think she's bleeding." Her words came as a tumble, as though she still didn't quite grasp the syllables that were pouring out her mouth. "I think she's bleeding."
Mal felt his body go cold, as though every vessel of blood froze in his veins. It was as though his whole world went blue, an icy blue that covered the walls and the ceiling and each molecule in the air. But he could feel his heart beating hard in his chest, and suddenly there was a drop of sweat sliding down his temple. He looked down and found he was running, running down the stairs and towards the infirmary. He could hear Zoe's boots and Kaylee's flip flops behind him, and he realized that he had already left them behind.
As he descended the stairs, he looked left, his eyes searching through the window of the med bay. As he took the stairs as quickly as his knees would allow, he could see River come into view. First her legs, sprawled on the table. Then her body, motionless. Then her head, eyes closed and mouth slightly open. He could see Simon, working furiously about her head. Then Simon's hands and arms and the floor, and the bright red splashes of River's blood that covered each.
"Simon!" Mal gasped loudly as he burst into the room, circling the table and coming to the doctor's side. He pressed his hand over Simon's own where the young man held gauze to his sister's head. Simon, trusting Mal's triage skills, immediately let the gauze go, rushing to his table and grabbing scissors and cleansing pads. Mal continued, absently stroking a few tendrils of River's long hair from her still face. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Simon said, nodding to Kaylee as the woman followed him to the basin. He began scrubbing his hands as she pulled up his sleeves and tucked them in over themselves, keeping them out of the way. As Simon dried his hands and pulled on a clean pair of gloves, Kaylee grabbed the floor tray and rolled it over to side so that he could put his tools on it. In a detached sort of way, both Mal and Simon noted this, slightly impressed at the strides she had made in conquering her fear during stressful situations. But neither could spend too much time on this thought. Not while River lay injured before them.
As Zoe stood in the doorway, watching the flurried ballet of the other three rushing around the unconscious River, she could hear the sound of hurried footsteps coming from the cargo bay. Looking out the door, she saw Jayne helping Cara through and down the stairs. While Jayne watched the stairs below their feet, Cara's eyes stayed fixed on the body she could see on the table through the windows. "What the hell is goin' on? S'that River?"
Zoe didn't bother to reply. Cara could see the answer with her own eyes, just as plainly as they all could. After a moment, it was Kaylee who spoke, hurried and distracted as she assisted Simon. "Simon found her like this."
"I heard a clatter on the floor of the cargo bay-" Simon began.
Kaylee interjected, tossing a fresh suture pack to Simon. "Me too."
"What in the ruttin' 'verse happened?" Jayne asked the first mate, guiding Cara towards the door so she could keep an eye on her friend. "Did she fall?"
Zoe opened her mouth to say that she did not know, but just then, her attention was drawn to the right, and she saw movement in the corner of her eye. The passengers were waking. "Sir," she said calmly, the voice of reason through the hectic storm.
Mal did not hear her. He was staring at his River's face, left clear by the hair he had brushed to the side. He was still holding a mess of gauze to her head as Simon readied a suture needle with his forceps. He could feel Kaylee, somewhere by his side, cutting some of River's long hair to allow the doctor access to the wound. We'll probably need t'shave 'round it soon, Mal thought somewhere in the logical part of his brain, so's the doc can stitch her up proper. Something in Mal's head was trying to tell him that, if only to tell him to step away so that Kaylee and Simon could continue their work.
But whatever part of his brain was trying to contact him, to urge his hands out of the way, he could not hear it. All he could see was River's preternaturally still face. It was like it wasn't her. It was like looking at a frozen capture, or a painting. She had been so alive, so clearly conscious just an hour ago, raving at him with harsh words and hurt feelings. He had seen the fury on her face and the pain in her eyes. She had been real, had been the fiery and emotional River he knew and loved.
And now, it was like looking at a ghost of the girl. Her lips were mute, her cheeks pale. The lids of her eyes were half-open, but he saw none of the conviction and intelligence he was so used to seeing there, even when it was turned against him. Her body lay sprawled and graceless on the table.
Later, he would realize that this was his first indication that something was terribly wrong. River had a great many qualities that made her undeniably unique, but one that constantly impressed Mal was her grace. River knew her own body in a way that most people could only dream of. She made art out of simple movement. She moved through and across space as though she floated through the very air. Yes, River commanded the movement of her body the way that Wash had commanded the movement of Serenity: precisely, effortlessly and perfectly.
That's what made the hair stand on the back of Mal's neck now, even if he didn't quite see it then. What Jayne had suggested was next to impossible. River never fell. Not when they had been running for their lives, not when she had been injured or in the heat of battle. In all the years Mal had known the young woman, he had never once known her to take a misstep. "Sir?" he heard again, and realized that Zoe was speaking to him. Looking up, he saw that she was thinking it, too.
The voice of his friend roused him from his thoughts, and he nodded at her. His mind immediately began weighing all the information, prioritizing the issues at hand. His eyes snapped up to catch Cara's worried face. "Quigley." The woman immediately looked up at the sound of his voice. When Mal used her last name, it was time to pay attention. "Wash your hands and get a fresh pair of gloves. You're takin' Kaylee's place here."
As Cara nodded and moved to the sink to comply, Kaylee handed the clippers to Simon, then looked up towards Mal as the doctor began shaving the hair around the injured area of River's head. "Capt'n?" The question wasn't skeptical; she was simply wondering what her orders were. Kaylee had learned over the years that Mal knew what he was doing when he ordered people about, and she knew Cara had assisted Simon in the infirmary before. So if he was pulling her River's bedside, then there was important work to be done.
"River was trackin' an Alliance ship crossin' the Sparrow quadrant, thought we might hafta alter course. Get up to the bridge, find her work, an' monitor it best you can. Get on the horn if you see sumthin' needs attention, dong ma?" Mal commanded, easing the hand holding the gauze around River's head away so that Simon had access to River's quickly swelling head.
Kaylee nodded in response, wiping River's blood on her coveralls as she left the room. As she turned the corner and ascended the stairs, she finally let two tears of panic squeeze through her eyes. Damn, she thought, quickly wiping them away. Almost made it this time. I almost made it without crying.
Never seeing Kaylee's moment of weakness, or perhaps not letting it distract him if he had, Mal continued. "Jayne, I want ya to head up to the catwalks. If River did fall," he continued, checking Simon's face. The young man nodded, reaffirming what he had seen. "That's where she woulda fallen from. Look 'round, see if you find anythin' suspicious." As a fellow tracker, Mal knew that if whoever or whatever had happened to River had left a trace behind, Jayne would find it.
Jayne nodded, and though Mal had not told him to, he pulled his gun as he went. If something had gotten the best of River, Jayne didn't want the same thing to catch him with his pants down. He looked over his shoulder as he went, catching Cara's eyes briefly through the window of the med bay as he did. She silently nodded and flashed him a worried smile, thinking the same thing he was.
Lastly, Mal turned his attention to his first mate. "Zoe." But he did not need to say a word more. Zoe had already pulled her gun as soon as he spoke her name, and turned towards the guest cabins. The passengers were filtering out into the corridor now, having heard the commotion. Enida, rubbing sleep from her eyes, moved to take Palmer's hand as the teen moved into the hallway, trying to see what all the fuss was in the infirmary. Christopher pulled a hand through his bed-flattened blonde hair and met Nye's tired eyes, both shrugging as they silently questioned each other. All eyes turned toward Zoe as she approached, holding her mare's leg in both hands.
Mal watched the quiet conversation through the windows, trusting Zoe not to say any more than she needed to, trusting her to watch for clues as to what may have just happened in the cargo bay. After all, if there was one thing that the whole crew had understood by now, it was this: River had not fallen. She could not have fallen. Something else had happened out there. And the only person, or people, who could know for sure what had happened was the very person who had taken her down.
Mal frowned, pulling his hands away as Simon began to stitch the open wound to River's hand. Circling around the table to give the doc and Cara room to work, he pulled his eyes away from the newcomers and Zoe, turning his gaze down to his young pilot's lovely face. He reached out and dragged a knuckle gently across the smooth skin of her upper arm.
What could've taken you down, albatross? Mal thought, letting his eyes wander back up to the gathering in the passenger hallway. Or who?
"Mal?" Simon asked again. The young doctor had approached Mal where he sat in the corner of the infirmary to tell him that his work was done. He looked at the captain's distant eyes a moment, then reached out and laid a hand on the on the older man's shoulder. "Mal?"
Mal looked up. Had he fallen asleep? Was he dreaming? He didn't remember. Seeing Simon standing before him, still in shirtsleeves and holding some supplies, he pushed it away. "What's the word, doc?" he asked, letting his eyes wander over to the woman lying on the operating table. "How is she?"
Simon sighed wearily, following Mal's gaze to his sleeping sister. "Still out. I sutured her head and set her arm." As Mal's confused glance, he elaborated. "It was broken. In the fall, most likely."
Looking at River once again, Mal could see now that her left arm was in one of Simon's makeshift casts. He could see Cara standing above her, cleaning up the rubbish from Simon's work. She looked worried, and that worried Mal. If Cara was ever concerned, she didn't show it in front of others. "She gonna wake up soon?" the captain asked, looking back up at the doctor.
Simon always hated that question. He had no way of knowing when somebody would regain consciousness, and yet people always seemed to ask him that, as if he had a direct link into a damaged brain. He shook his head and shrugged. "Maybe. Hopefully."
Mal nodded, rising to his feet and looking around. "Well, we ain't got time to wait." He stepped towards River's bedside, resting his hand briefly over hers before he headed towards the door.
Simon made to follow him, then paused, looking back at his sister. Cara saw his hesitation. "Go on, doc. I'll keep her company." Seeing the uncertainty in his eyes, Cara took hold of the hem of her loose blouse, lifting it slightly to reveal a portion of her pregnant belly, as well as what she hid beneath its curve: her Winchester pistol, tucked into the waist of her maternity pants. Simon raised his eyebrows a moment, then nodded, following Mal into the common room.
"Captain, what happened?" the doctor could hear Christopher ask as he joined the captain's side. Zoe was still there, having followed Mal's silent order earlier to stand guard over the passengers.
"Excellent question," Mal replied, standing at attention beside Zoe. She was leaning a little more casually against the wall, but her eyes and face were all business. Christopher had tried to question her earlier, but she had remained cold and distant, and whether it was because of their earlier encounter or the situation at hand, he had not been sure.
Palmer cleared his throat. He did this often, to avoid being forgotten when the "grown-ups" crowded together. "How's River, Doctor Tam?"
Simon looked over at the boy. "Her injuries are bad, but she's been stabilized. She's still unconscious."
"Will she be okay?" Enida asked, slightly hiding behind Palmer's pant leg.
The doctor paused a moment, sneaking a glance to Mal, knowing well enough to take his cues from the older man in regards to how much information to provide the strangers. Mal nodded, just a bit, and Simon looked back at the little girl, answering her in the same clinical tone he used for everyone else. "Her prognosis is good." At the little girl's confused stare, he smiled and elaborated. "We hope so, Enida."
Nye opened his mouth to continue the questioning, but this time, he was wise enough to look to Mal for the answer. "What d'y'all think happened ta her?"
Mal shook his head. "We're tryin' to work that out now, kid." The way he had phrased it and the tone in his voice made it seem as though he were conveying all he knew, but looking at his face, Zoe knew better. He was keeping the truth from these outsiders, and she knew full well why. "An' until we do, I'm gonna ask ya'll to stay in your cabins." At the immediate looks of surprise that the passengers gave him, he tried to ease the idea upon them. "Jus' for the time bein', ya understand."
"What?" Nye immediately asked.
"Sorry, son," Zoe said, raising to a more attentive position the minute the climate in the group changed. She stood stock still at Mal's side, trying to avoid Christopher's gaze as she spoke. "But the capt'n's right. 'Til we're sure what happened to River, we'd like to give the ship a good goin' over. Best to do that without children runnin' underfoot."
Nye scoffed, looking at Christopher as though he were pleading his case. "That's bull. They think we did this. That's why they're holin' us up."
Zoe shook her head to the side once. "Not necessarily." At this, even Mal looked her way. What was she talking about? Sensing the questioning looks on all of the eyes around her, the first mate continued. "We think it's possible someone snuck onboard. That the case, we want to have ya safe an' snug in your rooms 'til we flush 'em out. We'll post a man out here to watch over you, keep ya'll safe."
If the strangers had not been before them at this very moment, Mal would have whistled, he was so impressed. Zoe had not only thought of a perfectly reasonable explanation for their guests to stay sequestered in their rooms, but had even thought up a good reason for them to be under guard. Honestly, the only thing Mal found wrong with the plan was that even he found it plausible, which only concerned him more. What if River's attacker was someone still hiding aboard, unseen and unknown? It was a option he had not even considered until now, and now it was another trouble raging upon his mind.
Clearing his mind of his worries for the moment, he looked up, wondering if the others had bought it. Palmer and Christopher seemed to accept the possibility that Zoe had set forth, and little Enida had hidden a touch further behind Palmer's pant leg, as though the sky itself may reach out to attack her. Nye, however, did not appear convinced.
Mal wondered for a moment if he would have to try to convince the boy further, but at last Nye sighed. "Okay, fine. Ain't sayin' I believe you, but..." He shifted gears for a moment. "Can we visit each other at least? I mean, Enida..."
"Don't see how that'd be a problem," Mal said, nodding and trying to offer a comforting smile. "S'long as you keep your doors open for the visits. You folks got every right to watch out for your own." And I've got every right to watch out for mine, Mal thought as the teen nodded.
"For now, might be best if you retire to your own cabins, try to get some more rest," Zoe suggested, and though her tone was light, the look on her face indicated that it was far from a suggestion. She looked at Mal and lowered her voice. "I'll take first watch."
Sensing Jayne approaching from behind them, Mal nodded. He looked at the passengers, tilting his head towards their rooms. "We'll let ya'll know when we've got some developments." As the boys headed to their rooms and Christopher took Enida into hers, Mal turned to Simon. "Can you go...?"
"Yes," Simon said, shaking himself from his thoughts, the very ones that had wrapped up Mal's brain earlier, as well as some he had not considered until now. "Yes, I'll keep an eye on her." He turned and headed towards the infirmary.
Mal stopped him with a word. "Simon?" The young doctor turned and looked at the captain wearily. "Ya still keep a pistol in the med bay, right?" Simon nodded, knowing exactly what Mal was thinking. The older man nodded. "Keep it on ya, in your belt or sommat. Let's not-"
"I understand," Simon replied. Sensing the man's concern, he hushed his tone. "I'll watch over her."
"'Course," Mal replied, nodding once more. "'Course you will. Well, jus'... jus' get on the comm or call Zoe if there's trouble." With that, Simon nodded and entered the med bay, relieving Cara from her post. As the woman wandered into the common room, Mal looked over at Jayne. "Anythin'?"
Jayne shook his head, careful to keep his voice low. "Not 'less she tripped herself on thin air. Nothin' up there says accident."
"How 'bout foul play?" Cara asked, easing into the conversation behind Jayne.
"I found-" Jayne began, but paused as Zoe held up a hand. A split second later, Christopher emerged from Enida's room and shut the door behind him. He looked at the cluster of people at the far end of the hallway, curiosity written on his face. "Keep movin', pretty boy," Jayne spat at the man.
Christopher looked a little surprised at the man's brusqueness, and his eyes drifted to Zoe. She stared at him a moment, and then reenforced Jayne's command by directing him towards his cabin with a brisk shake of her head. Sensing that his was not a welcome presence in the conversation, Christopher nodded and slunk into his cabin, shutting the door behind him.
As soon as the man was safely out of earshot, Jayne continued his earlier comment. "I found some blood up on the lower catwalk. Means she was bleedin' a'fore she hit the deck."
"Only injury was the primary," Cara added, having attended River at Simon's side earlier. "If she was bleedin' up on the catwalk, then sumthin'... someone hit her up there." At the nods of the others, she ventured her guess even further. "Means she was attacked, an' guessin' from the placement of the wound, I'd wager from behind." She lowered her head a moment, rubbing her aching and tired head.
"Yeah, I reckon," Jayne nodded, reaching over to rub the back of Cara's neck. "But who in the 'verse could get the drop on that girl? What with her bein' all weirdly an' all." At his words, Zoe and Mal inadvertently glanced behind them at the passenger dorms. Proving himself not to be completely unobservant, Jayne noted this and inhaled. "Maybe somefolk wise in the ways of weirdliness?" he suggested.
Seeing where the conversation was headed and not liking it a bit, Cara quickly grew defensive of the young passengers. "Hey now, let's jus' cool our engines here," she said. "What are ya tryin' to say?"
"Come'n, Cara," Jayne scoffed, doing nothing to calm her indignantly. "River goes all bumpy in the cranium the same day these freaks come 'board? Please, tell me ya don't look at that an' think 'coincidence'?" he spat sarcastically.
Seeing the angry look in her eyes as she turned to reply, Jayne regretted his words, or got the distinct feeling that Cara was going to make him regret them later that night. Maybe she had only just met these young people, but she was well versed in their plight. The fear of those born into a 'verse that was not prepared for them. Those born so different that even the hodgepodge group of misfits called humanity could hardly accept them into their midst. Yes, she knew of the hardship they had to live through. She had lived it herself. "I ain't stupid. An' I ain't gonna say it don't strike me as suspicious. But maybe we could consider a few other possibilities a'fore jumpin' three CHILDREN, guns blazin'."
Sensing the air around the conversation moving towards nasty, Mal looked to Zoe, hoping her calm demeanor might tone things down a bit. "We ain't doin' that jus' yet, Cara," the first mate added quietly, doing just as Mal had silently asked her to do. "We's jus' ruminatin' here." Seeing sincerity in her voice, the woman nodded tersely, accepting that.
Nodding, Mal pressed on, expanding on Zoe's previous train of thought. "You said sumthin' earlier," he said, getting the first mate's attention. "'Bout the possibility of a uninvited guest onboard."
Zoe shrugged. "It ain't outta the realm of likelihood." Jayne and Cara, hearing this theory for the first time, had to admit its validity. "Might even explain why the brass didn't feel a need to post men 'round the docks."
Mal sighed as he wandered towards the nearest comm. "Jus' what we need. A mole." He hit the button to connect to the bridge. "Kaylee, what's the word?"
Up in the cockpit, Kaylee's eyes never left the screen as she reached up for the handheld speaker. Bring the talkie to her mouth, she replied. "Looks like the Alliance ship River was tracking is slowin' up. The I.A.V. Markerhart, by the by. Could be they're changin' course," she said, hope in her voice.
And always the pessimist, Mal replied with contempt in his. "Or could be they're parkin' there a spell. Means course correction for us, if'n that's the case." He inhaled sharply, resigning himself to this contingency. "Okay, jus' keep your eyes on her, will ya?"
"'Aye-aye, Cap," Kaylee's electronic voice replied. After a pause, she added a worried, "How's our girl?"
Mal closed his eyes, then instantly regretted it, seeing only more of River's still and bleeding form behind his lids. "Still out, mei mei. Call down to Simon, in the med bay. He'll give ya the full report."
"Okay," she said, trying to conceal the concern in her voice. With that, the comm clicked out, and Mal knew that she was doing as he had advised.
Turning back towards the others, who had followed him, Mal took a deep breath as he formulated a plan. "Right. Zoe, you keep a close eye on our guests." Seeing the look in his first mate's eyes, he knew that she understood the unspoken meaning of the order: Watch them, but also watch out for them. Zoe silently turned, dragging the orange chair from the common area and setting into place at the head of the dorm corridor. Pulling her mare's leg, she took her seat and laid the gun across her knees, ready for action if necessary.
Mal turned to Jayne and Cara. A man could practically see the lines of tension running between the two. "Jayne, you an' I'll do a sweep. Check the ship, nose to tail. Anyplace a stowaway might hide."
Jayne nodded, once more pulling his gun to prepare for the task. "Start at the bridge?"
"Good. I'll start back here, meetcha in the middle. We'll do a double pass. You check my work, I'll check yours."
With that, Jayne flashed a look towards Cara, who ignored him, still peeved about his earlier condemnation of her kind. Grumbling to himself, he turned away and headed up the stairs and out of sight.
Cara finally looked up at Mal, knowing that her earlier scolding of Jayne might have done a bit of damage to Mal's belief in her objectiveness. "An' me?"
Mal looked at her, his eyes zeroing in on a few spots of blood on Cara's blouse, left from where she had assisted Simon in his lifesaving efforts on River. He looked at her face, trying to avoid the splashes of red. "I'd like ya to head to the infirmary, keep an eye on River. Help the doc if'n ya can."
Cara nodded resolutely, thinking she had indeed been sidelined. "Understood."
"No, I don't think ya do," Mal said, leaning in and dropping his voice. "Whomsoever took a chunk outta our River's skull? Possible they might try an' finish the job. I'm trustin' you an' Simon to make sure that ain't gonna happen." He caught Cara's eyes in his, imparting the seriousness of what he said next. "No matter who might come callin'."
The woman looked up into his eyes, weighing his obvious concern for River with her sense of injustice at the slight to the children so much like her. Finally, she replied. "Yes, sir." With that, she turned tail and headed towards the infirmary, ready to take her position.
Mal followed, heading towards the cargo bay. Glancing over his shoulder, he caught Zoe's eyes, and she gave him a nod as if to say she had things covered on her end. Looking ahead, he passed the infirmary quickly, trying not to look inside at the sight he knew waited there. Perhaps if he didn't look, he could pretend that none of this was happening. That his young, beautiful pilot was not lying inside that room, viciously bludgeoned to the point of unconsciousness.
As he mounted the stairs to the bay and crossed over the blast doors, he paused, and could not stop himself from looking back. And through the small window to the med bay, he could indeed see her there. Lying on that damn table, a frighteningly lifeless look on her lovely face.
He dared not speak to the crew what had happened just previous to her fall, the argument that had sent him storming off to his deck. Could he have prevented this? If he hadn't left in a tiff like a child, had he stayed a moment and tried to placate her, listened to her hurt voice as she cried for acknowledgment and attempted to hear her out. Maybe, if he had done all that, he could have saved her from her attacker.
She had probably been enraged when he left, been distracted by all the rage she seemed to have been feeling. That's probably how her attacker had been able to sneak up on her, while her mind was torrid with emotion. Mal had left her vulnerable, and had done it with a decidedly unfriendly aboard, whether he had known of that presence or not.
And now, there she lay, helpless and injured and gone from reality. No one, not even their brilliant doctor, knowing if and when she would regain her senses. Her captain and lover's last words to her ones of anger. And Mal knew it was all his fault.
Turning back towards the cargo bay, he closed his eyes. I'm sorry, River, he thought as he headed toward the far end of the space, leaning down to check one of the smuggling compartments near the floor. I'm sorry. But I will make this right.
Cara sat in the pilot's seat of her shuttle, one hand over her belly as she stared out the windows. When the shuttle was docked, a few of the windows were always left unobscured by the inner hull of Serenity, and so occupants of the shuttle like Cara were afforded a view of the stars when Serenity was in space.
Cara had been told that the whore, or rather Companion, who had previously occupied her shuttle had covered these windows with silk and velvet curtains, hiding them. For the life of her, she could not understand why. This was one of the best ways to peer into the black from the little Firefly. She could see things here that could be spied nowhere else on the ship. She could watch stars, planets, even whole astral bodies pass her by as they went on their way. She could fade away here, just becoming a part of this verse, pretending to forget the thing she had once been.
There were not many mirrors on Serenity, and Cara rarely gave much of a glance to the ones that were. But during the times she did, she still found herself a little surprised to see her reflection. For over twenty years of her life, she had gotten so used to looking into a reflective surface and seeing a monster. To seeing the long, batlike wings that had been growing from joints between her shoulders for most of her life.
Oh sure, occasionally they had come in useful, such as when Serenity's grav thrust had failed, and she had been able to use her unique appendages to power her way through space. But for those few moments of good, she would have traded everything else those wings had brought her. The way her parents had disowned her. The abuse of the "men of God" her father had brought in to purge the demons they had thought to be inside her. The fear she had felt from just living in this world, fear that she would be found out and a fresh new hell would be heaped down upon her. The way even friends and lovers like Jayne had spied her wings surreptitiously, seeing a creature where they would have otherwise seen a girl.
When she had found out she was pregnant, Cara had resolved to remove her wings, one of which had been rendered useless in a Reaver fight by that time. Perhaps she could learn to live with what fate had given her, but she would not ask her unborn child to suffer through it with her. No, her baby would be brought into the world to live a normal life. By a normal mother.
Kaylee had once asked her what she thought of the baby being born like her, having abilities or physical attributes that were outside the norm. And Cara had replied honestly: she would love her child no matter who or what she was. But what she had not said was that she hoped, vehemently, that the baby would not have to share her mother's burden. In all the ways the kid could turn out to be like Jayne, the single way that Cara wished most for was that one.
Hearing the door to the shuttle slide open, Cara turned the chair slightly, eyeing the hulking form that entered. "Hey," she said quietly.
Jayne looked up, surprised on two counts. Number one, that the shuttle was not empty, and number two, that Cara was not angry. "Hey. Thought you'd still be in the medbay."
Swaying the chair back and forth as she spoke, she watched as Jayne stripped off his dirty shirt and tossed it into a corner. "Mal came by on his second pass and relieved me. Said he'd keep watch on Riv when he was done with inspection." She rose from her seat and approached one of the compartments where Jayne stored his clothes. Reaching in, she picked out a fresh shirt and tossed it to him. "How'd that go, by the way?"
Jayne exhaled angrily as he forced his head through the shirt and pulled it over his chest. Thinking over the last few hours that he and Mal had spent checking the ship over top to bottom, irritation practically seethed through his pores. "I'll say one 'un. When I find the bastard what knocked that wool-brain out an' forced me t'drag my ass 'cross the ship for hours, lookin' in every damn nook an' cranny a SMUGGLIN' ship got onboard it, he's gonna wish his mama'd never thought t'spead her gorram legs."
Cara chuckled a little, reaching back into the compartment and pulling out a clean pair of socks, knowing what Jayne would want next. Sure enough, the mercenary sat down on the bed they shared and began to remove his boots. "I take it ya'll didn't find nothin' then."
"That would be affirm," Jayne said as he finished kicking off his boots. Removing his sweaty old socks and sending them flying into the pile of dirty laundry with his shirt, he accepted the clean pair that Cara handed him as she sat beside him. He looked down to put the new pair on, but flitted his eyes to her face as he did. Given her earlier reaction to the notion, he knew she wasn't going to like what came next. "Hate t'say it, but..."
"Yeah, I know," Cara said sadly, dropping her eyes to floor as if she could peer straight through it to the passenger dorms. "Our guests are lookin' to be the more likely culprit." Looking over at her lover, she softened her tone. "I owe ya an apology. I shouldn'ta gone off like I did."
Jayne looked up, pausing his task for the moment. "No, ya shouldn'ta. Had no call t'get all mussed. I was speakin' the plain truth." He was unrelenting, and Cara had to appreciate his honesty. Jayne wasn't often upfront regarding his feelings.
"Well, I apologize," she said, tentatively sliding an arm around his broad shoulders.
"Well, I accept," Jayne said as he finished tying one of his boots, lifting his face with a smile, then darting forward to kiss her neck and growling a bit as he did. This elicited a husky giggle from the woman as she softly slugged his shoulder. Grinning and pecking her on the nose, Jayne went back to work, lacing up his other boot. "'Sides, I don't get why you was so tetchy. I mean, I get your soft spot for freaks an' all-"
Cara let slide the derogatory word he chose, instead addressing the issue at hand. "Ya don't understand, Jayne. Folk like us spend our whole lives with people turnin' on us at first sign of danger. Hell, all ya'll save Simon an' River near 'bout turned me out when ya found out what I was. An' River? I seem t'remember a story involvin' a pantry an' a pair of handcuffs when she whacked out on Beaumonde." She looked out across the shuttle. "I s'pose I jus' felt bad, them bein' the target at first blush.
Jayne finished tying the boot and looked over at her. "Yeah, but ya gotta admit, it's lookin' like a right probability now." Cara nodded sadly in reply, conceding his point. "'Sides, you ain't really 'folk like us' no more, kiddo."
She looked at him, shaking her head. "No, Jayne. I may look a mite different now, all de-wingified and whatnot, but I'll always be what I was." She cast her eyes down at her belly, smoothing her palm across it. "An' let's face facts. You an' I might be thrust back in that world once this 'un arrives."
"Whaddaya mean?" Jayne looked confused.
Cara cocked her head to the side in disbelief. Had this not occurred to him? "Come'n, Jayne. You ever considered that the baby might someday take after her mother in more ways than eye color an' love of whiskey?"
Jayne nodded. "Ah. Honest? No, that hadn'ta been a concern o' mine, 'til now." Thinking it over but a moment, he shrugged. "Well, I reckon we'll jus' hafta deal with that as soon as HE gets here." He smirked at Cara, and she rolled her eyes at the ongoing friendly argument they'd had over the baby's gender. "Don't see much sense in fussin' 'til that happens."
"I guess," the woman replied, though she did not share his nonchalance. "I s'pose I'd jus' feel a mite better if Simon did have that ultrasound. Then maybe we could have a look our own selves."
"Ultrasound?" Jayne huffed, casting his eyes towards the ceiling as he stood, tucking in his shirt. "Come'n! Doc said baby ain't but size of a bread roll. What'd ya expect t'see on a lump of skin that big?"
"Jayne!" Cara said, tossing a pillow at him as they both laughed. "Didn't you listen to that encyclopedia thing Simon gave us? Baby's already got arms an' legs an' a head by now."
"Okay, so it's a bread roll with arms an' legs an' such," he said, twisting up his face. "Don't see what could make a person get all squished up over that. It's like when ya talk to the thing." He mockingly shuddered. "Or sing. I mean, it ain't like the thing can hear you."
As much as it irritated her, Cara couldn't deny that. Simon's encyclopedia had told her that the baby likely would not develop ears for another month or so. "Okay, but... Maybe she can... feel me." At his disdainful glance, she folded her arms and softened her tone. "I jus' want HER to know I love HER. While she's in the makin', I mean."
"Yeah, well, the way I see it," he began, causing Cara to sigh. Good things never followed those four words. "My part in makin' the kid's all done." He leaned over and braced his hands on the bed, kissing her softly. "I done put the bun the in the oven, honeycakes. Now all I gotta do is wait for you t'finish bakin' it."
Cara shook her head in exasperation, then took his chin in her hands and kissed him. Jayne took this form of scolding to be considerably better than the first. As soon as he was through receiving his punishment, he straightened and turned towards the door. "Alright. 'Nuff of this. Zoe's waiting for me t'relieve her."
"Go on," Cara said. "I'm gonna try an' get some sleep." Rolling over on the bed, she crawled up to the pillows, snuggling into them. "Hey, Jayne?"
"Yeah?" he said, turning. He found her face a great deal sadder when he did.
"Check on River for me, would ya? On your way down?"
Jayne squared his jaw. He had grown to tolerate River over the last few years, especially after the girl had helped him liberate Cara from Badger when the man had used her as bait to take out the crew of Serenity. But due to a few incidents, such as when River sliced him open with a butcher's knife, or when she smacked him in the face with a serving tray, or when she cold-cocked him on the skull with a soup can, he wasn't quite ready to make her his friend. Still, he knew his girlfriend cared for River deeply. "Alright. Get some sleep, kiddo. I'll be up when my shift is done."
"See ya then," she replied, a sleepy smile on her face as Jayne closed the blast door behind him. Snuggling her head into the red fleece pillows, she watched as he slipped out of sight.
After a long while, Cara could feel herself drift into the realm where a she could no longer tell if she were sleeping or awake. The world seemed a mite blurrier here, and the room was filled with black shadows, illuminated only by the starlight that crept through the few windows. Opening her eyes a bit, she could see the bright dots of of distant stars through her fuzzy vision, meaning she had rolled over in her sleep.
Hearing soft footsteps in the room, Cara smiled. Jayne had returned, and was trying not to wake her as he approached the bed. Knowing how painstakingly difficult it was for him to move quietly, she thought she'd save him the effort. So she turned her head slightly, clearing the saliva from her dormant mouth to whisper to him. "Hey, baby. Back so soon?"
As she turned, however, she could see a shadowy form, approaching too quickly and quietly at once to be Jayne. Indeed, this figure was thinner and shorter than the mercenary. And through the haze of her sleep, she could see the figure holding a short club in one hand.
Still struggling to wake, Cara flattened to her back on the bed, her eyes snapping open with shock. Trying to will her brain to reconnect to its limbs, she struggled to throw the blanket off her body, to free herself so that she might be able to defend against her oncoming attacker. Moving to leap from the bed, she forgot for a moment the swell of her pregnant belly, and simply rolled around, trying to scoot away from the shadowy figure.
In the moment it took for this mystery figure to reach her beside and pull back the club, the face of Cara's terror became illuminated by the very starlight of the room she had come to love. Upon seeing the crazed eyes of this terrible soul, the pregnant woman's eyes widened. And before the club struck her head, she had time to whisper only one word.
Mal sat in the infirmary, on the stool Simon had been using to count inventory but a few hours ago. And yet sitting here, watching River's chest rise and fall with the slow and steady rhythm of sleep, if felt like a million years had passed. A million years, and they were no closer to knowing who or what had attacked his fair pilot.
Jayne had left a few moments ago, having checked on River's status at the request of his lady. The prognosis Simon had provided him with was the same it had been a few hours ago: River was unconscious, yet thankfully not comatose. Simon's stitches had dramatically slowed her bleeding, and a decent-sized goose egg had begun growing around the point of impact. But further than that, there was no telling.
Simon, having nothing more to do for his sister, had returned to taking his inventory, if only to pass the time. Anything to take his mind off of the worry. He would have thought that having Mal there would distract him from his work, but the captain was so silent and still, that every once in a while, Simon would turn from the cabinets he was working in and be surprised to find him still in the room.
And once again, the young doctor turned about and found Mal on the infirmary stool, the man's feet up on the rungs and his elbows on his knees. His hands knotted together and his chin resting atop them, he stared at River through vacant eyes. Simon sighed and placed his clipboard on the counter, pushing his fingers through his cropped black hair. "You should get some sleep, Mal," the doctor said, causing Mal's eyes to focus and look up to the young man. "There's nothing more we can do for her right now."
Clearing his throat and swallowing, Mal lowered his hands, resting one on the gun at his side. "Naw, Simon. Ain't true." At the other man's quizzical look, he continued. "I can watch her over. That's sumthin', an' I intend to do it."
Simon pursed his lips and nodded, understanding. After all, wasn't that the reason he had chosen to stay up and complete his inventory, rather than drag himself off to his cabin to get the sleep he was starting to sorely need? Knowing there was no talking Mal out of his plan, Simon pulled the other stool to the opposite side of River's bed and sat.
The moment had an eerie familiarity to it. He and Mal had played this scene once before, in these very same positions: sitting across River's slumbering body as they kept watch over her. That was after she had been tortured by the man under Ezekial Butler's employ, a particular kind of psycho by the name of Shane. She had been worked over, badly beaten, and exhausted from fighting for her life.
On that night, Mal had implored Simon to take River away from this life, and Simon had refused. For a moment, Simon could not help but regret that refusal. Perhaps if he had taken her away she would not be lying here, dead to the world. But Simon had refused, arguing that if he brought River away, there would be no way to prevent her from coming back. Because she loved this life, she loved Serenity, and most of all, she loved Mal.
But things change.
"What were you fighting about?" Simon asked, breaking the deadly calm of the room.
Mal looked up from River's face, confused, either having not heard what Simon said or uncomprehending of his meaning. "Hmm?"
"Before," Simon said, and his eyes took on the quietly protective quality they sometimes had when the subject of discussion turned to his sister. "I heard you arguing in the catwalks. What were you fighting about?"
Mal straightened, lowering his feet to the floor. He preferred to have stable ground under his feet while he answered this particular question. "You heard that, huh?" Mal asked, stiffening defensively.
"We live in a giant metal box, Mal," Simon said with scorn. "Conversations tend to carry. Particularly when shouting is involved."
The captain twisted up his face, not only because he had not given any thought to whether or not River could be heard while they were fighting, but also because he had a distaste for discussing the topic of he and River's with Simon relationship altogether. "Your sister was goin' to town on me 'bout summat or the other."
"Yes, Mal," Simon said wearily. "I gathered. Would you mind being a little more specific?"
Growing increasingly angry, Mal grit his teeth. "She was upset. Felt I wasn't appreciatin' her or somesuch. Felt I was abusin' her abilities, an' was bein' too harsh in judgin' her for pokin' 'round my head unasked."
Simon's jaw dropped open as he snorted arrogantly. He shook his head. "And you were... contesting this?" the doctor replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.
"What are you on 'bout?" Mal snapped, then quickly remembered to lower his voice, for the very reason Simon had brought up earlier. "I love River. Ya know that."
"Really? Do I?" Simon leaned in, lowering his voice dangerously. "You remember you told Kaylee to call down here earlier?" Mal nodded brusquely. "Do you know what the first thing I asked her was?"
Mal looked puzzled, which also made him look angry. "What?" he hissed back.
"Where you were when she found you."
At this, Mal straightened, and his eyes went wide. It was like Simon had punched him in the face. "Are you sayin'..." He shook his head in disbelief. "You honestly believed that I would - that I COULD - ever do something like this to River?"
Simon sneered, unashamed. "I did until Kaylee told me you had been in your bunk. That there hadn't been enough time."
"YOU TOLD KAY-" Mal began, stopping himself short. He could see Simon was right about the echo. "You told Kaylee you thought I did this?" Mal did not like the thought of that. Perhaps if she heard it from anyone else, Kaylee would readily deny that Mal would be capable of such an act. But hearing it from Simon, from the man she trusted and loved? He knew that his young mechanic, the girl who was like a little sister to him, would never look at him the same way again.
"No, Mal," Simon said, and he could sense Mal's relief from across the operating table. "I was able to make the calculations myself."
Mal leaned back, feeling deflated. After a moment of silence, Mal looked down. The goose-egg on River's head was nearly the size of a real egg by now. Simon and Cara had cleaned the blood from her forehead and scalp, but Mal could still smell it in the room, and his sharp eyes could see dried flecks that they had missed clinging to the roots of her long dark hair. And that stillness, the horrible stillness of her face. It haunted him more with every passing moment. "Simon, maybe River and I have been havin' problems. Ain't ashamed t'say that. But I could never - NEVER - do such a thing to her." He looked up into the other man's eyes. "I'd die first, an' I'd do it by my own hand. An' that's the gorramn truth."
Simon held his eyes a moment longer, searching for sincerity. And he found it. Taking a deep breath, he leaned back, reaching out to grasp his sister's arm, then move his hand down to cover hers. "I don't know, Mal. The way you've been treating her lately..."
And again, Mal found himself confused by Simon's words. "Wha? What way?"
The doctor looked up sadly, shaking his head. "Don't you realize?" Mal peered at him sideways, and Simon could see that the captain truly was in the dark regarding his behavior. Huffing a breath out, he reached his free hand out, gesturing. "You, you ignore her completely. You never speak to her around us. You," Simon laughed darkly, belaying not even an ounce of good humor over the subject. "You never stay in the same room with her longer than a minute."
Mal shook his head. "That's crazy ta-"
"I've timed it!" Simon raved. "And I know about your little late-night meetings. And I know that whatever you're trying to accomplish with them? You're failing. Because every single day, every SINGLE day, I watch River growing sadder, more despondent. I watch her wandering around looking like someone's killed her puppy. And I'm rutting tired of it."
Well, if Mal what had felt earlier was like Simon had punched him in the face, then this was like doctor had replaced the fist with a hammer. The captain opened his mouth, but no words would come out. Much to Simon's surprise as well as his own, he could not think of an argument. In fact, as the words of a protective and observant brother sunk in, Mal could not deny the truth in them.
My God, Mal thought. The kid's right. His mind was moving at breakneck speed as the last few months of his interaction with River shot past his eyes. And upon revisiting these moments, Mal found that Simon wasn't only on the right path, he had reached the end of the road and set up shop. He had been pushing River away. He had been ignoring her. And as much as it pained him all the more to admit, he had been slowly breaking her heart.
Looking down at the young woman before him, Mal felt like making good on his earlier threat of suicide. How could he have been so blind? How could he have treated River to badly? He had told her they were making their relationship stronger. And now, looking at it through a new set of eyes? He saw what his aim had unconsciously been. He was simply pushing her away.
And he knew why. Because the further she was, the safer was his heart. River had broken his trust in her, and it was scorched Mal deep in his soul. He had been betrayed by so many, the thought of River doing it once again was something that truly scared him. So his words had promised her healing, but his mind had slowly started to back him away. Started to build that wall, that stupid wall that River always used in her metaphors.
But had that been wrong? Mal wondered. She broke my trust twice. She used my private thoughts to manipulate me, twice. So was it wrong to err on the side of caution, thinking it might not be wise to trust her a third time?
He still loved her. Of that, he had no doubt. But there were only so many times Mal could allow himself to let pain be brought upon him. So perhaps he had been mistreating River these past few months. And for all that he was ashamed of his methods, he could not be ashamed of his intentions.
And though he had wronged her, River had wronged him first. And his heart wanted to forgive her, but maybe his actions, the way he was unintentionally distancing himself from her, maybe that was just his head trying to tell him that it couldn't be.
"Mal? MAL?" a voice was saying. Stirring himself, he looked up, and realized that Simon was standing again with his back turned, having resumed his inventory. He was looking toward the door, and Mal followed his eyes. Jayne was there, leaning through the door, looking tired. "Damn Capt'n, wake up, wouldya? It's your ruttin' shift."
"What?" Mal asked, looking up. How much time had he spent, staring at River's face and wallowing in his shame and hurt? Had two hours passed already? Looking at Simon, he found the doctor going about his work as though nothing was amiss.
"Your shift!" I been sittin' on my keister for three hours, not t'mention combin' the ship for two hours a'fore that. Ya don't mind, I'd like t'get some ruttin' sleep 'fore I get it in my head to dump these kids in the damn airlock an' flush 'em into space, leave this whole mess behind us."
Mal raised his eyebrows. If Jayne was this cranky, the requisite amount of time had most probably passed. "Right," Mal said, rising to his feet. "Right. Well, go on then." As the mercenary nodded and began to move away, Mal added, "The sleep thing. Not the airlock thing."
"Ha ha," Jayne snarked as he moved to climb the stairs to the cargo bay.
Simon watched him go a moment, then turned to Mal, resting the clipboard on his chest as he folded his arms. It had been nearly an hour since his words had stunned Mal into silence, and Simon had to say that he was a little proud of himself. Mal stood at the threshold of the infirmary a moment, casting a glance at the passenger dorms a moment before he looked back towards the doctor. Pulling his gun in preparation for his shift, he searched for what to say. "Simon, I-"
Suddenly, River's still form became quite the opposite. She began convulsing wildly on the table, her eyes squeezing shut, her arms flailing out, her chest shaking with ragged coughs. Simon immediately dropped his clipboard and rushed to her side, trying to hold her broken arm against the table and strap it into place before she shattered her cast. Mal holstered his gun and tore to her other side, cupping her head with his palm to stop her from popping her sutures or braining herself on the table. His panicked eyes shot to Simon. "What the hell's happening?"
Simon did not answer.
Because he could not answer.
Jayne slid open the door, trying and failing to do it quietly. He could see Cara's dark form on the bed, peacefully sleeping with her back to him. He always tried to come in as silently was as humanly possible for him while she was asleep, never wanting to wake her. Not only out of kindness, to whom Cara was the only person on the ship he dared to show, but because Cara was an absolute terror if she was woken from a sound sleep, and Jayne believed in self-preservation.
Removing his belt, he laid the weapons-laden strap of leather across a chair. Hearing his knife slip from its sheath and clatter to the floor, he winced and shot his eyes to the bed. But Cara didn't move, and he was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Crossing the room and sitting on the bed, Jayne removed his boots, setting them by the bed in case he should have to wake in a hurry.
He looked over his shoulder, smiling slightly at Cara's still face where the starlight illuminated her. Stretching out his legs, he lay down, first on his back and then on his side, spooning up against the slumbering woman. He relaxed his head against their pillows, smoothing a calloused hand over the her round belly and feeling her breathe slowly beneath it. Bringing his palm back up to her arm, he slid his rough fingers across her scarred bicep and shoulder, placing a soft kiss on her neck as he reached her chin. At last, he trailed his knuckles lightly over the side of her face, then gently pushed through her wild brown curls with his palm.
And that was when he knew something was wrong.
He felt something like liquid run on his fingers, and he raised himself up on one elbow, holding his opposite hand up into the light. Indeed, they were shining with some sort of wet substance that clung to his skin. Something that smelled of iron.
Sitting bolt upright, he reached out with his opposite hand and pounded the light switch on the wall. Immediately, his hand came fully into view, and he could see that the his fingers were bright red, smeared with blood. But more than that, Jayne could see past the blood on his hand to the pool of the same that had spread across Cara's pillow.
Reaching out, Jayne quickly rolled the woman over on her back. "Cara?!" he asked, genuine fear in his voice. The moment her face was turned towards him, he could see that she was not sleeping. No, her eyes were parted ever so slightly, rolled back so that only the whites showed through the slits between her dark lashes. Jayne rolled to his knees, shaking her slightly, trying to rouse her. "Cara, kiddo?! CARA?!"
He launched himself out off the mattress, tripping over his own boots as he shot to the opposite side of the bed. Kneeling beside her, he resumed his shaking. "Come'n, baby. Wake up, huh? Wake up!" He could no longer recognize his voice through the panic. His hands were roaming over her, looking for other injuries, signs of life, clues as to what had happened, anything. "Come'n, you can do it, now. Wake up, wake up, WAKE UP!"
He continued like this for a few minutes, unable to shake this horrible fear as it closed in around him. "Come'n, sweetie. Please. Wake up."
But she did not.
Monday, August 18, 2008 12:23 AM
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