BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

KISPEXI2

MAKE ME A STONE: Chapter 6: You just learn to live there.
Friday, April 28, 2006

Another job goes less than smoothly. Meanwhile River takes matters into her own hands and Mal has a brainwave. SLASHFIC. SPOILERS for the comics, novelization and movie.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2220    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Series: MAKE ME A STONE Chapter 6: You just learn to live there Author: Kispexi2 Rating: R Warning: Slashfic. Spoilers for the comics, noveliziation and movie

Betaed by the wonderful wedjateye

Earlier chapters of this fic can be found here:

Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five

* * * * *

MAKE ME A STONE: CHAPTER 6 You just learn to live there

Zoe lifts her chin, squares her shoulders and stands to attention. A bit of respect is the least these folk deserve. 'Verse got nothing else to offer them. Not now. Must be nigh on a hundred bodies here - every one of 'em a life cut prematurely short. Such waste, such gorram yu ben de waste.

She darts a look at Mal and sees the memories play out across his face. Young men, pleading with him to end them. Young women, too far gone even for that. And him not able to help them cuz he had no ammo left. None of them did. But Zoe doubts he could've done it even if he had. Mal was too tender-hearted back then. And too honourable to order her to use her knife doing something he couldn't.

Zoe sees Mal's jaw clench and wishes she could lay her hand on his arm and tell him he's got nothing to reproach himself for. That what's done is done and that none of it was his fault. But her touch makes him jump now, makes him feel guilty as all diyu too, so she doesn't. She just stands tall and firm beside him.

Mal feels the bile rise in his throat and fears he might vomit. Feels the old hatred stir. And the old, secret envy. Least these people don't have to fight no more. Not like him. Not like Zoe. Some days, Mal doesn't know how she does it. Not after what those bastards did.

“Sir?”

Zoe's voice brings Mal back from the edge, like it always has. He takes a deep breath and nods once. He can do this.

“Jayne ...”

The mercenary all but starts. Jayne's seen death before - been responsible for a lot of it - but he ain't never seen death on this scale. There are bodies everywhere in this ship, just hanging weightless and light as ghosts. How long've they been here, haunting this place? It makes the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

“All these folk,” he murmurs, eyes travelling from one dessicated face to the next. “Alliance and Independents both.” Each one a person. Somebody's son or daughter who never got to go home. Jayne shudders; he always thought he'd get to go home. His voice drops to a whisper. “Don't seem right..”

Last thing Mal needs right now is for Jayne to start showing a softer side. Always relied on him to be hard and self-serving.

“Let's get this done,” he orders. If it's gotta be done at all, better it were done quickly.

* * * * *

It's never quick. If it were, they wouldn't need to strap her down.

It's slow, agonizingly slow. The instruments buzz impatiently and the wires coil, ready to strike. But each must take its turn. The slim, pitiless needles that always go first, the cold sting of metal spitting venom into her veins, her brain. She tries to hold on, tries to stay River, but she gets confused. The poison peels away her layers one by one leaving her naked, exposed for all to see, but even that is not enough for them. They want to probe further, deeper - in her and through her.

The drill bit vibrates against her temple.

The electrodes watch and wait.

“NO!!!!” River screams, fighting the restraints. She won't wear the crown of thorns again, she won't. She'd rather die.

Terror lends strength. Her bonds yield and are flung aside.

They tumble softly to the floor, nothing now but a pile of sheets and blankets.

River eyes them suspiciously and her head jerks round as she tries to get her bearings. Functional sleeping accommodation with few personal effects. Engine hum. Passenger dorm. On a ship. A midbulk transport, standard radion-accelerator core, classcode 03-K64, "Firefly".

Serenity.

Home.

It was only a nightmare! The Academy is half a 'verse away. River tuts at her own foolishness and laughs out loud. Light-headed with relief, she whirls round and round in triumph until she's too giddy to stand.

But as soon as her hands hit the deckplating, she realizes her error. Some nightmares are real. Her stomach cramps and suddenly it's hard to breathe.

* * * * *

“Airlock established.”

“Prepare to breach.”

* * * * *

There are only so many times Simon can tidy the meticulously organized infirmary and convince himself that it needs doing. He looks about him. Not a weave is out of place, his patient notes are complete and up-to-date and every surface gleams. There's nothing he can do here - and Simon is in desperate need of something to do.

Planetside jobs are bad enough but this one has his gut twisting with terror. He's trying hard not to think about losing Mal to the dark and the emptiness, but the more effort he puts into it, the harder it gets, leaving him twitchy with unemployed adrenaline and consumed by the need to do something.

In the end he finds himself in the cargo bay, slipping twenty-pound plates onto Jayne's barbell. He strips off his vest and shirt and lies supine on the workout bench. He flexes his fingers and grips the bar. Inhales, exhales and lifts. Holds and slowly lowers. Inhales, exhales and lifts. The exercise takes effort, concentration. One set of eight reps and Simon's heart rate increases. A second set and he's panting. By the third his triceps are starting to burn.

“Ought to let someone spot you, son.”

Book. Simon hadn't heard him approach.

“I .. can ...manage,” he huffs and presses the bar up again.

“You sure about that?” The Shepherd sounds doubtful.

“Yes,” Simon insists, breathing hard.

“Ah,” Book murmurs. “You've used this equipment before.”

“Don't tell Jayne,” Simon grits out as he does another rep.

“All the same,” the Shepherd says evenly, as he walks round to stand at the head of the bench, “That's a lot of weight. Might get too much for you.”

Realizing Book isn't going to be put off, Simon grunts his thanks and decides to do two more sets of eight, pushing himself to his limit, to the place where the buzz of adrenaline begins to give way to endorphin-induced calm. But after the next set, his arms are trembling with the strain and by the time he's half-way through the set after that, he's in trouble. He can scarcely lift the bar more than a few inches from his chest. Book intervenes, taking it from his hands, and returns it to the stand.

Simon hauls himself up into a sitting position and wipes the sweat from his face and chest with his shirt.

“Thanks,” he says with a wry glance at the weights. “I really thought I was stronger than that.”

Book nods sympathetically. “We all do, son. We all do.”

* * * * *

Fear clutches at River's throat. They're coming. And there's no-one can save her.

Say it.

“There's no-one can save me,” she whispers.

Her door slides open silently, and her bare feet make no sound.

She knows what she needs and moves quickly. She has to. They're here. No time, no time!

The infirmary is so neat, so ordered and predictable that momentarily it stills her racing thoughts. Everything is exactly where it should be. Safe.

The medicine safe. River doesn't bother looking for a key. She curls her hand into a fist and smashes it edge-on against the glass panel in the door, opening up a vicious mouthful of ravenous glass teeth which tear at her hands and arms as she reaches inside. She scarcely even feels them.

Soon she'll feel nothing at all.

Propofol. Lorazepam. Thiopental. Ketamine. The distribution centre on Aberdeen was well-stocked.

River snatches up the drugs and hurries back to her bunk.

Time to go to sleep and make the nightmares cease.

* * * * *

Emerging from the shower room, Simon is surprised to notice that the infirmary doors are open and the lights on full. He'd excuse himself the oversight more readily if he could convince himself it was entirely due to his concern for Mal's safety, but he's knows that's only half the explanation. The other half is much more disturbing and more than a little pathetic: he spends far too much of his time wondering about what's going on in Mal's mind. Far too much time thinking about Mal, period.

He steps into the infirmary and jumps back as glass crunches under his feet.

Renci Fozu! There's glass all over the floor and the drugs cabinet – the cabinet he always keeps locked – has been smashed open and it's smeared with blood.

Simon's first instinct is to seek out River. She's easy enough to find. Eyes glazed, she's sitting on her bed, staring into space. There are multiple lacerations on her left arm.

And an empty syringe in her hand.

“River, what did you ... Why did you do this?”

No answer. Simon takes the syringe away from his sister and is horrified to discover that there are several bottles lying on the bed beside her. A frantic check reveals that only one is empty. Simon snatches it up and reads the label: ketamine. Which, if not good, is not as bad as it might have been.

“This is anaesthetic, River. This is a lot of anaesthetic. Why-?”

“Because they're here, Simon,” she whispers. “They're here and I don't want to feel it when it happens.”

A chill goes up Simon's spine but he resolutely shakes off the feeling of foreboding. He doesn't have time for vague anxiety. Besides, it's probably only the ketamine that's making her say such things.

He has to find out how bad this is, draw some blood, but when he tries to take River to the infirmary, she shrinks away from him.

“Don't,” she whispers. “Don't make me go in there, Simon.”

He feels for her pulse. It's racing.

“But mei-mei, I have to-”

“NOOOO!!!!!” Her scream is ear-splitting.

“All right, all right,” Simon agrees hastily. “Not the infirmary.”

He has syringes and sterile swipes in the medical bag in his bunk anyway. In a matter of seconds he's back in River's room and pushing up her sleeve to expose her inner elbow.

She doesn't even flinch when the needle goes in. She's slipping away. He's losing her ...

“River!” he says sharply as her eyelids begin to droop. “If you fall asleep I'll have to put you on a monitor. In the infirmary. River - do you understand?”

He eyes snap open again and she scowls at him. “Pianzhi de jiu chayuan!”

The insult makes Simon smile with relief. “I'm going to get the tests started. It shouldn't take long.”

“Six point five seconds with the new model spectrometers,” River informs him, fiddling with the hem of her skirt where the stitching has become unravelled.

“Well, yes, perhaps. But the one in the infirmary will probably take lon-”

“Two minutes, fifteen seconds.”

Simon gathers up the unemptied bottles and drops them into his bag. With a stern reminder to River to stay awake, he heads off to the infirmary where he spends a very long two minutes and fifteen seconds waiting for his test results. When they finally flash up on the computer, Simon frowns and tugs at an earlobe. With such elevated ketamine levels, River should be unconscious by now. Wo de ma - perhaps she is!

Heart hammering, Simon races back to her bunk - only to find his sister pacing the room anxiously and muttering under her breath. She looks up at him.

“More tests,” she says, a statement of fact, rather than a question.

Simon nods and takes her hands in his.

River's brow crinkles and her eyes flash. “Won't go back there!” she vows.

“No, no - you don't have to,” Simon promises her quickly.

He takes another blood sample and, whilst running a second test, gently cleans the cuts on River's arm. She watches the sweep of sterile gauze across her skin without saying a word and doesn't even complain when Simon applies some antiseptic cream, even though he knows it must sting. He'd be happier if she responded to his reassurances that everything will be okay, but her pupils are reactive, she's conscious and breathing and Simon is grateful. Even if finding out how that is even possible is going to take a lot work.

“How would you like to spend some time with Inara?” he asks.

When River merely shrugs in reply, he decides to take the gesture as a 'Yes'.

* * * * *

Inara's packing is almost complete. All that remains for her to do is take down the silk and velvet drapes and clear away the last of the pieces that make - that made, she quickly corrects herself - this place a home.

She picks up the one and only photo that she possesses - a framed one of Mal. It's funny now, but when she was first given it (along with instructions to observe and assess him), she hadn't much liked the look of him. Not that she'd given him a great deal of thought. He was just one of many men whose loyalties and political leanings were under review. For a petty thief and smuggler, he'd been easier to track down than she'd anticipated, although he'd been just as short of coin and as ready to accept a tenant as she'd hoped.

Despite everything, she still smiles at the memory of their first meeting. She'd deliberately worn a provocatively alluring outfit because, after all, men's needs were simple enough. And it had worked. His eyes, the way he stammered and folded his arms across his chest, convinced her of that. But there had been something more to him, something underneath that abrasive exterior.

And everyday since then she'd found herself wanting to know more about him - not as part of her job, but for herself.

Which is why she framed the photo.

And why the layer of cool glass between it and her fingertips has always been a comfort.

Aiya, wo wanle, Mal,” she sighs, “I should have left months ago.”

The shuttle door suddenly opens, and Inara starts. He's impossible. Why can't he ever knock?

“Mal?”

“Inara?”

Oh. Not Mal. Simon. Mal is still out hunting buried treasure. It was stupid of her to have thought otherwise.

“I'm sorry to barge in,” the Doctor apologizes. “It's River. She had an ... episode. I was hoping you could look after her whilst I run some tests.”

“Of course I will,” Inara smiles, pushing something into a drawer. The movement draws Simon's attention to how empty the shuttle has become. Inara has already packed away most of her belongings, all the little trinkets and ornaments that made this shuttle her own. It's clear she really has decided to move on.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with pain.

Simon looks at his sister and then back at Inara.

“You'll hardly know she's here,” he promises, hoping it's true. “She hasn't said a word since-”

“BELLY!” River suddenly shouts, doubling over. “Not yours. Not hers.” She drops to the ground, presses an ear to the floor. “Hers.”

Simon crouches down beside her and tries to persuade her there's nothing to worry about but the dread in River's eyes grows and Simon finds himself remembering Mal's words of a few months ago.

'Girl knows things she shouldn't. Things she couldn't ... I don't think she's just intuitive, Doctor. I think she's a Reader.'

Simon doesn't want to believe it, because if it's true, she's not his little sister any more. She's someone else.

“River?” he asks hopefully. Desperately.

She touches his face, her smile a mix of sorrow and pride. “Still in here, Simon. That's why they have to keep coming.”

Simon gets quickly to his feet again. Inara has already opened the shuttle's comms.

“Kaylee!” she says urgently into the mic. “Meet Simon in the cargo bay. Mashang.”

* * * * *

The wrecked ship is giving Mal an uncomfortableness, a feeling that ain't helped any by Jayne getting tetchy.

“S'pose I shoulda seen this comin',” the big man is saying resentfully as he, Mal and Zoe make their way deeper into the wrecked ship. “Better yet, s'pose you shoulda, Mal.”

Mal ignores him. “Zoe - we where we need to be?”

His second-in-command consults her handheld. “Yes, Sir. Right on top of the coordinates Badger gave you.”

“Right,” Jayne says sourly. “Ain't nothin' here but us an' the dead folk.”

Mal's patience with the mercenary is wearing thin. A sharp rebuke and an order to shut the hell up spring to his lips, but before he can spit them out, someone else speaks.

“Funny ...”

Mal, Zoe and Jayne all spin round together, mouths falling open as one.

“ .... I was thinking the exact same thing.”

“Dobson,” Mal gasps. “What in the good gorram ..?”

Jayne shoots Zoe a look of outrage. “Thought he was s'pposed to be dead?”

Dobson doesn't look at either of them. No, he's only got eyes for Mal. An eye for Mal. What in the name of suoyou de dou shidang is that eerie-ass contraption stuck to his ugly face anyhow?

“Hello, Mal,” the man who oughta be dead says and all but licks his lips. “Drop your guns and we'll make this slow ...”

* * * * *

Kaylee must have been sleeping because Simon hashad time to run another set of tests on River's blood and wonder how it is that his sister can have such resistance to anaesthetics before the mechanic appears in the cargo bay, her hair tousled and cheeks flushed.

She gives him a warm, eager smile. “Hey, Simon. What we doin'?”

He grimaces. “I know it sounds crazy, but River's convinced there's something stuck on Serenity's underside. I think we should check.”

Kaylee frowns. “Don't think we'll find nothin' on Serenity's tum to get greasy over. Ran a full diagnostic last time we docked for more'n a day. ”

But she opens the trapdoor on the cargo bay floor anyway. She knows Simon Tam. He'll only fret if'n she don't take a look-see.

Simon's relief at her reassurance quickly gives way to more uncertainty as he thinks back. “I don't even remember when that was ...”

Kaylee's eyes widen. “Me neither,” she says slowly, “Now that you- ugghhh!”

Simon has no idea how it got there, and for a moment or two he can't quite believe it, but no - there really is a blue-gloved hand wrapped around Kaylee's throat, choking her into silence. A hand which tosses her aside like so much trash. Her head strikes the deckplating with a dull thud and Simon would be worrying about her having a concussion were the man attached to the hand not towering over Kaylee and looking like he has a job to finish.

“Oh God,” Kaylee whispers. “Oh God.”

Most sensible thing I ever heard 'bout God, was that He takes care of them 'as helps themselves.

Trying to ignore the fact that more of Mal's words are running around his head, Simon grabs the nearest thing to hand, which happens to be Jayne's barbell. Yesu, he forgot to remove the weights. The mercenary will kill him if he finds out Simon had been touching his things. Always assuming the menacing figure standing before him doesn't spare Jayne the trouble.

Simon swings the barbell round, using the momentum to lift it level with the intruder's head. It cracks heavily into his temple and he drops like a stone.

The blow makes Kaylee wince in sympathy.

Book must have some sixth sense for knowing when people are in trouble, Simon thinks as he spots the Shepherd hurrying towards them.

“There a problem?” he asks with concern.

Simon indicates the body on the floor.

“Best we tidy that up,” Book says and calmly kneels down to roll the unconscious intruder towards the open trapdoor. A brisk shove is all it takes to drop him through them. A metallic thump confirms Book's assumption that he was not consigning the stranger to the Black, but back to the ship whence he came.

“Kaylee,” Simon orders, “Close the doors!”

The mechanic scrabbles to her feet and, as she hurries to obey, silently amends her list of Simon's virtues. He ain't just shuai and clever - he's real brave too. The kind of man a girl could depend on to take good care of her. Just like the Cap'n.

She beams at the medic but his face remains grim. They'll try again, he knows they will. And he'll have to stop them. If only Mal were here ... But he isn't. And he might not even make it back from that wreck. If Serenity's been boarded, who's to say the Unity hasn't too?

No. Simon can't think about that now. He has to concentrate on the things he can do something about.

“Tell Wash we've got company,” he tells Kaylee. “See if he knows of a way we can keep them out.”

* * * * *

The fact that Mal's staring down the barrel of a gun don't bode specially well for how this is like to go. The fact that Dobson's the one holding the gun's just the frosting on the gorram cake.

“What is it you want, Dobson?” Mal demands.

Dobson smiles. “You,” he says simply, adding, when Mal quirks an eyebrow, “Dead.”

Mal gives a snort of disbelief and shakes his head. “All this time you been trackin' us? The trouble an' resources that must've took? Nah. Got to be more to it than that ...”

Dobson's smile turns into a furious glare. “You tried to kill me!” he yells. “You shot my freaking eye out and dumped me to die. You made me a freak and the only thing I've wanted since is to return the favour.” He raises his pistol a few inches higher to point it into Mal's face. “An eye for an eye.”

“Sounds fair to me,” Jayne observes.

“You were always a freak, Dobson. I just made it plain to see,” Mal sneers, still sure there's more to this than, uh, meets the eye. Must be room for negotiation, surely? Adopting a more reasonable tone, Mal asks, “But say you do it - you kill me - what then?”

Dobson shrugs. “I dunno. I imagine I'll get a hobby or something.”

He flicks the safety off his weapon and Mal finally gets the message that the man ain't in a negotiating frame of mind.

“Zoe,” he orders, eyes fixed unblinking on Dobson, “the second he shoots me, you an' Jayne kill them all.”

Moving faster than a body ought in point two-five grav, Zoe spins to her right and snatches the gun being brandished by one of Dobson's goons right out of his hand. A gentle lob sends it sailing slowly towards Mal's outstretched hand but, before he can catch it, Dobson fires. Right into the shoulder of his own man, sent directly into his line of fire by a hard shove from Zoe. Whilst Jayne wrestles a second goon, Mal seizes the first's pistol and aims it at Dobson.

“Not again ...” are the erstwhile lawman's last words before Mal takes out his other eye and sends him into endless dark.

“You missed this one!” Jayne yells, distracting the attention of Dobson's remaining two henchmen away from the grisly sight of their leader's shattered face and towards the body of their colleague, from the centre of whose chest Betsy (the longest of Jayne's blades) protrudes, sheathed in crimson. Instantly, there's a burst of gunfire, spent cartridges popping from their automatic weapons and floating slowly away like seeds on the wind.

Jayne laughs triumphantly from behind the shelter of his victim's body, even as the bullets rip into it. Driving it forwards towards the younger of the remaining gunmen, he reaches his own gun round to shoot the fella in the gut. Before the older, bearded man gets the chance to fire at Jayne, he's dispatched by a headshot from Zoe.

Replacing the safety on her sawn-off shotgun, she turns to Mal. “And after we kill 'em all, Sir?”

Mal gives her a grim smile. “Honestly? My thinkin' hadn't gotten that far.”

Jayne watches as Dobson's body does a slow somersault through a fine mist of blood droplets. “Man could hold a grudge,” he observes, not without some admiration.

“Yeah,” Mal agrees. “Let's get out of here.”

All he wants to do now is get back home, back to Serenity, but as Zoe and Jayne start making their way towards the exit, he suddenly turns and fires another round into Dobson.

Zoe raises an eyebrow. “Sir?”

“Jus' makin' sure, Zoe,” Mal explains. “Jus' makin' sure.”

* * * * *

Wash always worries when Zoe's out on a job. His wife isn't as tough as people imagine. Well, actually she is, but she's soft too. Vulnerable even, under that kill-you-with-her-pinky exterior. So yeah, Wash worries about her.

Today he's worrying about himself as well.

“I can't break their seal!” he leans into the ship's comms to tell Simon. “They've got some kind of blocking device that overrides Serenity's docking protocols. And something that high tech - it's gotta be Alliance. You don't think ... you don't think they know we've got you and River on board, do you?”

“I don't think,” Simon replies, picking up Jayne's barbell once again - just in case, “I know.”

Aiya huaile,” Wash breathes, flicking a different combination of switches in the vain hope that this time it might do the trick. If the Alliance knows the Tams are on Serenity, they're humped, truly humped.

“Wash -” Mal's voice interrupts his gloom-laden thoughts. “We're headed back your way. Ran into a bit of a problem.”

Wash sighs. “I bet I can beat it ...”

* * * * *

Down in the cargo bay, Kaylee is struggling to keep the trapdoor closed. Beneath her, she can hear the impatient buzz of a metal saw and the determined screech of a drill.

“I'm runnin' out of ways to rewire her, Wash,” she calls out to the pilot. “I'm a step ahead of 'em, but it ain't gonna last ...”

“Keep at it, Kaylee,” Book urges. “They come through, you get yourself to Inara's shuttle. She'll know what that means.”

Simon feels every kind of bad about this. About not having kept River safe. About having put Serenity's crew in danger yet again. But especially about having to accept help from Inara when she doesn't know the truth, when doesn't know how easily he would have betrayed her not so very many months ago ...

Only now is not the time for confession, despite the availability of a preacher. Now is the time for standing here and beating back the men who want to take his sister away. Simon will defend her with his last breath. After that ... He turns to Book.

“Shepherd-”

“Please,” Book replies, his grip on the wrench in his reluctant hand tightening, “Don't call me that. It makes this harder.”

His words make Simon feel worse still. “I'm sorry,” he offers uselessly.

“Not your fault, son,” Book tells him firmly. “Always feared it might end this way.”

He's careful to say 'it' not 'I' because the prospect of meeting his maker with a weapon in his hand is unthinkable. Then again, maybe the Good Lord ought not to keep putting this crew in mortal danger ... Heaven help him! Book's not only begun acting more and more like Mal, he's started thinking like him too.

The Shepherd pats Simon's arm. “You just concentrate on keeping River safe, son. No need to worry about me.”

* * * * *

Back at flight school, Wash gained a rep as the guy who'd try anything: crazy flight plans, excessive speed and daredevil stunts. Right now, he's trying them all at once. Straight through this minefield of floating wreckage at seven-fifty - fast enough that when Serenity grazes the largest bit of debris, the sharp edge'll slice off the vessel that's currently making like a limpet on Serenity's underbelly in one clean cut.

Or at least, that's the theory. A bead of sweat appears on Wash's forehead as he opens the forward drive to Full.

“No need to panic,” he tells himself as Serenity lurches forward and he has to make a hasty adjustment to avoid crashing into a dismembered engine casing. “This is gonna work just fine.”

“Wash!” Mal's voice blares through the radio. “What the hell is goin' on over there?”

Oh great. Just what Wash needs - flying advice from an amateur.

“I'd explain Mal,” he replies, flipping Serenity through twenty degrees to port, “but I'm flying at buyao ming de sudu speed through a mess of pointy stuff at the moment.”

“An why the hell are you doin' that?!” an incredulous Mal demands.

“Just ...” - another flip back the other way - “looking for a good fit ... There! Everybody hold on ...”

Serenity shudders and slows as metal grinds against metal. Kaylee holds her breath and hangs on tight the door control panel. Simon braces himself against a wall and Book clutches hold of a railing.

Up in her shuttle, Inara wraps a comforting arm around River's shoulder and prays.

Wash runs a quick external scan. All clear. The bead of sweat on his brow begins to trickle slowly down his nose. He wipes it briskly away.

“All right, Mal,” he announces. “I scraped the burr off our butt and I'm headed your way now.”

Mal gives a weary grunt. “We'll be aboard just as soon as you dock,” he tells his pilot. “You can explain the burr thing then.”

“Sounds good ...” Wash starts cheerily but his voice trails off.

Tamade! In his desperation to get rid of their little encumbrance Wash had forgotten about that bit. There's no way Serenity's going to be able to dock with anything until they land and Kaylee gets the airlock system functional again.

“Sounds good,” he repeats hesitantly. “Except for the docking part ...”

Shenme?” Mal asks, beginning to lose patience with Wash's cryptic comments. “What the diyu are you talkin' about, Wash?”

“ 'fraid the docking system's out, Mal,” Wash tells him. “You're gonna have to come in through the dorsal hatch.”

Great, Mal thinks, shooting an accusing look Zoe's way - Wash is her husband, after all - ruttin' great! Nothin' like a little spacewalk after a close shave with death.

Serenity is coming towards them, making a slow enough pass for Mal to reach out and grab a handhold. Zoe and Jayne follow suit, Jayne muttering angrily about yet another job gone spectacularly south as they crawl up and onto Serenity's back. Zoe's the first down the hatch and, at Mal's signal, Jayne goes next. Mal's just preparing to clamber down too when suddenly there's a flash of light and a bullet streaks past him. His head snaps round. Yesu tamade, he's bein' shot at. Again. Another couple of bullets whizz past him.

Wo zai qianshi yiding redao shenme ren le ba,” Mal comments bitterly to himself as he does his best to rush for the hatch. A final bullet misses his boot by a tiny fraction before he drops through the hatch and seals it behind him.

“We're in,” he advises his pilot, then goes on to add, “A bit of advice, Wash - after you pull a tick, step on it. Full burn, mashang.”

Wash opens up the fuel line and slides the accelerator control across to Max. He doesn't need to check visuals to know that their heat wake has all but incinerated their would-be pursuers, but he consults the screen nonetheless just to be certain. So that he can tell Mal he's certain.

* * * * *

There's not a lot of room beneath the dorsal hatch, so Simon, Book and Kaylee have to wait out in the hallway for Jayne, Zoe and the Captain to appear. Jayne is still grousing about Mal's lack of foresight as he goes stomping past. Uninjured, Simon notes with relief and holds his breath.

“Reckon I'm gonna take a shower,” Zoe says as she comes out into the hallway, helmet under her arm. “Get rid of the taint of that place.”

“Yeah,” Mal agrees, looking down at his spacesuit. “Got Dobson's blood all over me.”

“Dobson?!” Simon gasps, his alarm at hearing the Fed's name completely ruining his sudden mental image of a very wet and naked Mal. “How can that be? You killed him.”

“That I did,” Mal agrees. “Remember it clearly. Trouble was, Dobson di'n't.”

“Don't think he's like to forget this time, Sir,” Zoe deadpans.

But Simon doesn't find the comment in the least bit amusing.

“Oh God!” he exclaims. “Dobson, those men ... The Alliance don't just know we're here. They're going to do everything they can to get River back, aren't they?”

He looks so distraught, so rutting hopeless, that Mal wishes he could disagree, find some comforting words about how they can just keeping on flying under the radar, but Simon's too smart to be soothed by empty platitudes.

So Mal tells it like it is. “Most like they will.”

Simon's smile of appreciation for his honesty is a bleak one, and it makes Mal's chest hurt. He's gonna have to make some decisions about the Tams 'fore long. He knows it; Simon knows it. Can't stay one step ahead of an enemy with such resources at its disposal forever.

There's a long silence whilst each one of them considers the implications of Mal's words before Simon announces stiffly that he needs to check on River and hurries away.

Kaylee turns to Mal, her eyes big and pleading. “But we can keep 'em safe, Cap'n, can't we? If'n we take jobs away from the Core, places where they don't got purplebellies?”

Zoe and Mal exchange a look.

“Cap'n?” Kaylee presses.

But instead of answering Mal gives her a quick hug and drops a kiss onto the top of her head. “Wanna tell me who 'those men' the Doc mentioned were, mei-mei?”

* * * * *

His parents called him Ayubu, an old name from Earth-that-was, meaning 'perseverence'. It would have been most fitting had he retained it, but now he has no name. No rank either. To all intents and purposes, he does not exist.

“Our independent contractors have disappeared?” the uniformed man filling his Cortex screen asks.

“Much of them, yes,” he confirms. After all, a ship running at full burn leaves little in its wake.

“Then their work falls to you.”

“I accept,” he replies, although there was never any doubt that he would. He believes in his work, in building better worlds.

“I am transmitting the assignment now.”

* * * * *

Simon rubs three fingers up and down the middle of his forehead in an attempt to massage away a developing headache and consults the test results screen again. If he hadn't checked the analyzer more than once already, he'd be thinking the equipment was faulty in some way or wrongly calibrated, because when he looked in on River ten minutes ago, she was alert and unusually lucid when she ought to have been unconscious.

“Shepherd Book tells me River helped herself to some of your supplies,” Mal comments as he enters the infirmary. He walks over to stand behind Simon and casts an uncomprehending eye over the columns of numbers the medic's staring at. “She gonna be okay?

“I don't know,” Simon admits with a sigh. “I'm pretty sure she's not in any immediate danger from the overdose - although she really should be. But in the long term, I've got no idea.”

Mal grunts sympathetically and sits on the edge of the medcot. “Been a helluva day for both of us,” he says with a slight smile. “Hear you were quite the hero. Way Kaylee tells it, you'll be captainin' your own boat 'fore long.”

Simon turns in his chair to look at the Captain. “We have to leave, don't we? River and I, I mean.”

Mal closes his eyes. He don't want this. He wants Simon to stay. Wants all manner of other things from him too. Things he can't have. He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes again. “Yeah, reckon you do at that. Soon as we get to some place safe.”

Simon knew Mal would have to agree, but that doesn't make it any less painful. He stands up and switches off the screen.

“What about Liann Jilin?” he suggests with a calm he doesn't feel. “We could get off at the same time as Inara. It would certainly make sense. Save you an extra-”

“No!” Mal snaps, the prospect of losing three of his crew on the same day more than he can bear right now. Simon blinks at the vehemence of his tone and Mal hurries into an explanation. “Not sure how safe it'd be. Whole bunch of Companions in training? That's gotta be a place the Alliance checks out an' often, seein' as what a bunch of lecherous humps they got amongst their top brass. No, Simon, I ain't happy with the notion of leavin' you an' River alone on that rock. It'll have to be someplace else.”

“Where then?”

Simon's apparent eagerness to make departure plans is beginning to annoy Mal. He gets to his feet again.

“Awful keen to be off on your merry, ain't ya, Doc?”

“Not really,” Simon answers quietly, running a hand over the counter beside him, trying to imprint the feel of it onto his memory. “I'm just being practical.”

Tian, Simon!” Mal hisses. “I don't give a good gorram about practical!”

“Well, perhaps you should,” Simon hisses back, not quite sure why they're arguing but it's better than breaking down. “Things might go smoother ... more smoothly ... better around here if you did.”

Mal snatches a fistful of his vest. “Don't you ever tell me what to do,” he threatens.

Simon prises Mal's hand away, but before he can spit out the smart-ass answer Mal's sure must be forming on his lips, Mal seizes his head between both hands and kisses him - long, hard and insistently. Simon's mouth opens and Mal hungrily swallows down the moan that escapes it, as he forces Simon back against the counter.

Simon was so sure he was beyond this, so convinced he was strong enough to resist Mal's overtures for meaningless sex, that the violence of his response to Mal's kiss astounds him. It's voracious, desperate, possessive and selfish. He's not kissing - he's sucking, biting and tearing at Mal's lips and tongue. One of his hands has twisted in Mal's shirt, just under his chin, and the other is gripping his shoulder, keeping him where he is, not pushing him away.

No, Simon's not strong at all when it comes to Mal. He's weak. Horribly, stupidly weak. Weak enough to let Mal have whatever he wants. Not that it matters any more. Simon has to leave Serenity. He has to leave Mal. What difference can giving in to him make now?

Mal was half-expecting Simon to punch him, or knee him hard in the groin, so he too is surprised by Simon's passion. Surprised and overwhelmed. Unable to resist the urge to get closer still, he grabs Simon's ass and hauls him up onto the counter top. Simon spreads his legs eagerly and wraps them around Mal's, grinding their pelvises together and making a sound that's almost a sob of need when his erection makes contact with Mal's.

“Simon ...” Mal breathes, tugging Simon's shirt free of his pants. “Want you. Want you so much.”

Simon laughs, a little crazily. “The feeling ...” - he gasps as Mal's fingertips circle his nipples - “is .. oh!” - another gasp as Mal plunges his tongue into his ear - “entirely mutual.”

“Yeah,” Mal rumbles against Simon's throat. “I noticed. We gonna do somethin' about it?”

Simon nods enthusiastically.

“My bunk,” he suggests breathlessly. “Nearer.”

Mal conveys his agreement by giving Simon another bruising kiss and pulls him roughly to his feet. His hand is on the back of his neck, pushing him out through the infirmary door, when suddenly Inara and River appear.

Mal pulls away from Simon with a start and clears his throat awkwardly. “Uh. Hey ... Inara.”

The Companion takes in the flush on Mal's cheeks and the discheveled look of the Doctor. For the briefest of moments, her smile falters but almost immediately it's back in place, amused, superior.

“Am I interrupting something?”

Simon is so very grateful for the concealment his loosened shirt provides.

“Nah,” Mal assures her, putting another pace between himself and Simon and grasping the front of his gunbelt with both hands cuz he too could do with a bit of concealment. “Nothin' important, anyhow. There a problem?”

“Actually, it's River,” Inara explains, turning to Simon. “She was becoming a little agitated. I thought-”

“Yes, yes,” Simon says quickly, glad of something other than Mal's 'nothin' important' to think about. He takes River's hand. “What is it mei-mei? Are you feeling ill?”

“No!” she yells, exasperated at the way he never understands, before her voice drops to an agonized whisper. “They found another cat, Simon ... one the mice can't hide from. Knows where all the holes in the skirting board are. He's going to kill them, kill them all!”

She's getting hysterical, but a smoother is out of the question, given that her system is already awash with ketamine, so Simon decides to try the thing that has always calmed her nightmares since she was a child.

“Would you like me to read to you?”

She stares at him blankly for a second, then her face splits into a delighted smile. “Yes, yes,” she enthuses. “Something with a happy ending.”

“Let's see what we can find,” Simon suggests, steering her gently towards her bunk, his arm protectively around her waist.

Simon Tam is a good man, Inara tells herself. A devoted brother, who's given up everything for his sister. She can only guess at how much it's cost him, what he's had to renounce and the deals he's had to make. The truth is, he deserves a little happiness. And yet ...

Inara gives herself a shake. This is ridiculous! The sooner she leaves Serenity and forgets her idiotic feelings for Mal, the sooner she can return to her mission.

“What time will we be making planetfall on Liann Jilin tomorrow?” she asks briskly.

“Some time in the 'fore noon,” Mal replies, aiming for business-like but failing badly when he adds bitterly, “That soon enough for you?”

“Not really.”

Mal's still trying to work out quite what the diyu that means, when the hem of her gown vanishes around the top of the stairs and into the upper hallway.

* * * * *

Almost wishing his order were one that set more store by Deuteronomy than Luke, Book lays his Bible aside. Taking an eye for an eye has always come much more easily to him than turning the other cheek.

It's no use trying to convince himself that what he did today was wholly altruistic, because he knows the truth. He still enjoys the rush of power that comes from giving in to wrath. And, if the chips were down, he fears he may not be the kind of man who could willingly lay down his life for his friends.

But at least he can cook them a meal, so he makes his way up to the kitchen where a quick search through the store cupboard yields a large red onion and a couple of cloves of garlic. Enough to disguise the basic protein ration and turn it into something acceptable to all - a trick at which Book has learnt to excel.

He begins chopping and frying and gradually all the members of Serenity's crew, except Simon, are drawn to the mess. Book imagines the doctor's having hard time dealing with having knocked a man unconscious and once again marvels at the man's moral integrity. If Simon Tam were Captain of this ship, it would be easier to stay and keep one's faith.

“Mmm,” Wash sniffs appreciatively as he steps down into the kitchen. “Edible, definitely edible. Not wife stew, then.”

Zoe gives him the kind of smile that promises he'll pay for that later, then resumes her conversation with Mal.

“They ain't the most reliable of middle-men, Sir.”

“Cou'n't be any worse than Badger,” Mal points out. “An' if they've got work for us, we sure could use it.”

“Who's got work for us?” Wash enquires eagerly, pulling out a chair beside Zoe.

“Mingojerry and Fantastic,” River leans over to whisper.

Wash gives her a nervous grin and his eyes slide towards Zoe.

“Mingo and Fanty,” she tells him, going on to explain how an hour ago they received a wave from the Rample twins, offering them a job on Kerry.

“So, do we think they're on the up-and-up?” Wash asks Mal, but the Captain isn't listening; he's looking at River with interest.

“You been on the Cortex, xiao mei-mei?” he asks. She shakes her head. “Then how-?”

River treats him to the kind of you-idiot look she normally reserves for her brother.

“They plan on cheating you,” she tells him.

“Tell me somethin' I don't know,” Mal replies wearily.

“Told you he wasn't dead,” River smiles.

For a moment Mal thinks this is just more of her crazy talk, but then something tickles at the back of his memory: River, talking about spacesuits and holes and Mal having hurt someone. At the time he'd thought she was talking about Simon ...

“Dobson!” Mal exclaims and River claps her hands. “You knew. You ruttin' well knew.”

River dips her head modestly. “Know lots of things,” she murmurs. “Too many things.” She looks up again, right into Mal's eyes, with such directness that he feels a prickle of anxiety at what she might say next, but she just smiles and squeezes his hand.

“Dinner is served!” Book announces and, as a steaming casserole dish is set down at the centre of the table, amidst much praise for how good the meal looks and smells, more normal conversations start up. Jayne grumbles about the lack of red meat, but grudgingly admits that his supper ain't half bad and Inara compliments the Shepherd on his presentation skills. Meanwhile Kaylee once again regales the company with a description of how brave Simon was fighting off those men who came after River.

Mal eats in silence, thinking. Mayhap Simon and River don't have to leave after all. Alliance may have Serenity in their sights now, but Mal's got River. A girl who knows things, a Reader. That could prove all kinds of useful. And not just in eluding the Feds. Mal can't help but smile at the possibilities opening up in his mind.

Simon still hasn't shown when Mal's done eating, so he decides to make up a plate of food for him and take it down to his bunk. Best they discuss this in private anyhow cuz Jayne's bound to object to River being crew and that'll make it all the harder to convince Simon Mal's plan is a good one.

* * * * *

Mal has to knock on Simon's door more than once before it opens. When it does, the look on Simon's face is scarcely welcoming.

“Brought you somethin' to eat,” Mal offers, holding the plate out.

“Go to hell,” Simon replies, trying to slide the door shut again, only to be prevented from doing so by Mal's boot blocking the way.

“Simon ... What happened earlier ... Maybe I shou'n't have ...”

“No, Mal,” Simon interrupts coldly. “Please don't blame yourself. I shouldn't have. I should have realized that you ...” - he gropes for suitably hurtful words - “that you just had another itch you wanted scratching. There's no need to explain. Now, why don't you do what you really want and spend the evening with Inara? It would be a shame to miss your last chance with her.”

Mal grits his teeth. “What I really want,” he says slowly, “is for me to talk and you to listen. Reckon you can do that?”

Simon folds his arms and turns his back, but he at least he's quiet and Mal figures that'll have to do. He steps into the room and closes the door behind him.

“You don't have to go,” Mal states bluntly as he puts the plate down on Simon's table. Might as well get right to the point. “You an' River don't have to go.”

“Yes, we do. The Alliance know we're here. It's only a matter of time-”

Bizui. Realized we got a way of stayin' ahead of 'em.”

“We have?” Simon demands incredulously, turning back round to glare at Mal. “Then how did we get boarded today?”

Mal grins and snaps his suspenders. “Cuz we wa'n't usin' our secret weapon.”

Simon looks at him like he's gone mad. “Shenme?”

“River.”

WHAT?!!”

“No need to get agitated, son. Fact is, your li'l sis is a Reader. An' that's not only gonna help up steer clear of the Feds, it's also gonna help us get some better jobs. Or at least, make 'em turn out better.”

Simon's eyes narrow. “You are not involving her in your criminal activities.”

Anger flashes across Mal's face but he reins it in. “I ain't talkin' about havin' her ride shotgun. Jus' reckon her knowin' things could prove mighty helpful. Or do you wanna end up on some crap-heel rock where you an' River are gonna have to dredge mud for a livin'? Some place where you're always gonna have the likes of Jayne sniffin' round her? Or,” Mal pauses for emphasis, “could be you'd prefer the kind of moon where folk decide she's a witch and set her on fire?”

Simon flinches. Trust Mal to go for the low blow. What makes it worse, is Simon knows that he's right. There's nowhere he could take River where they'd be safe. And if they stay on Serenity, using River's intuition to avoid danger makes perfect sense. But she's Simon's sister, his little sister - she shouldn't have to be part of this.

“Well?” Mal presses. “We got an agreement?”

Simon glowers at him. “It doesn't look like I have much choice.”

Mal re-opens the door.

“Always got a choice, son,” he answers and walks away.

COMMENTS

Friday, April 28, 2006 2:56 AM

KISPEXI2


For anyone who's still reading - thanks! I'm afraid real life is making it hard to write as fast as I used to, but I have every intention of finishing this. (There are *at least* six chapters to go).

Friday, April 28, 2006 5:56 AM

CLIOMUSE


Glad to see you back! I love your "twisted" version of things. You know I'm not normally a slash reader, but yours is so gorram good and realistic. This was really intense.

Friday, April 28, 2006 8:16 AM

AMDOBELL


So relieved you are back and continuing this story, Kispexi2. I was worried that something had happened to you, maybe you got pinched by the gorram Alliance and locked somewhere the sun don't shine. Made my day to see you posting again so no apology necessary. Loved this, and I especially like the whole scene with Dobson and how Mal shoots his other eye out. Bet he didn't see that coming! Oooh, had a kind of poetry to it plus I am hoping for more Mal and Simon goodness. Take care now and keep writing, *dong ma*? Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, April 28, 2006 6:46 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Gotta chime in here and say it's great to have ya back in the saddle again, Kispexi2;)

Had almost forgotten this skewed version of events, but I am glad you've resurrected it and have more to come. Though I am wondering what twist on "Inara as a sleeper agent" you will pull for this series...cuz if Mal goes Brokeback, will she have reason to go against the mission she was given?

BEB

Saturday, April 29, 2006 6:52 AM

GUILDSISTER


Another grand chapter! The senses and visualizations were vere vivid. I felt clearly the reactions of Zoe, Mal, and Jayne in the beginning to the bodies--all felt very in-character and strong. What you do with River is fascinating. I feel like I get a better grasp of the character and what she's about from your work more than the tv series or movie. Wonderful to see a new chapter! I just wish another was done and ready to post right behind it ;-)


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