Rain poured down on Capital City, soaking River to the bone, but she did not care. Given what she had gone through just to get here, her mental and physical states were taxed well beyond fretting over a little wetness. She had barely slept or eaten for all of the fifteen days since she had left Serenity. She knew that the limited rations she had swiped were not going to sustain her for the entire journey to Osiris, but she had no problem fasting to stretch them. However, after Ariel's murdering of the salesman during her brief loss of control, she dared not relax her guard enough to truly rest. She still had no idea if Ariel could take over when she was asleep. That, combined with minimal food, only compounded her exhaustion each day. Then there was getting to the planet itself. Ships entering Osiris space were restricted to only those with official approval. Given the impossibility of getting such approval and the very real possibility that the Alliance was on the lookout for her and her stolen ship, she had to get creative. Before she reached the limits of the planetary sensor network, she steered to the edge of the most heavily traveled navigation routes and completely powered down except for the emergency life support system. With excruciating patience, she held out for several hours, shivering and cramped in the tiny, freezing cockpit while she waited for the right moment to sneak in undetected. When a massive inbound cargo freighter passed, she seized her chance and swiftly brought her ship back to life. Maneuvering into the larger vessel's wake, she took position just several dozen meters from its main engine nozzles, hoping the heat and radiation would mask her much smaller signature. She also hoped that her ship's hull could withstand the intense bombardment of high energy particles without damage to any critical systems, or to her for that matter. Following the freighter on its descent to the surface was a no less harrowing event in its own right. Blinded by the superheated atmosphere and the freighter's own bulk, she danced through the shower of fire until she was deep enough into atmo where she could risk breaking away. The authorities most certainly detected her when she did, but by then they did not have time to intercept her before she found a secluded place to land. She abandoned the ship immediately, caring little if the Alliance or local Lawforce found it after she was gone. Then she slipped into the city, cloaked in the driving rain.
She tugged her hood further over her eyes to shield them from the heavy drops. A blue sheet of lightning lit the sky, followed by a low roll of thunder. She felt odd, as if the thunder was echoing inside her head. Being in Capital City after what felt like ages away was both achingly familiar and distressingly alien. However, as she passed through the city she could feel something tugging at her awareness, but, as was often frustratingly the case, she could not pin down what it was. The feeling got stronger as she continued until she was so disoriented that she had to stop. The storm was pounding behind her skull now, demanding that she pay attention to the sensation. Thunder. Rain. Her lids slid closed almost gently, her eyes darting behind them as she sorted through a barrage of disparate and sometimes disturbing memories that had inexplicably been dredged up. Then they snapped open. She knew exactly where she was. She had been here before. She tore down the streets, boots making huge splashes in the puddles. Fragments of memory flitted by. She snatched at them, getting little hints. She made a turn here, another turn there, following the pattern in her mind. Finally, she was running down a dark alley, skidding to a halt at its end. Chest heaving, she searched along the ground. A flash of lightning gave her a little illumination. She saw the crack in the pavement and crouched down. There was nothing there now. But there had been, once.
"Centaurea cyanus," she whispered. "Young man in love." Simon had brought her here after breaking her out. He had tried to bring her home, but for some reason he could not. Maybe the Alliance had been on to them and they had to flee. Regardless, she knew now it had not been a dream. It was real. And now she was here again. She rose slowly and walked on through the rain.
She no longer felt the cold or the wet, or the impact of the droplets on her skin. Even sound had disappeared. A thousand memories swirled around her. Memories of her mother and father, of Simon, danced happily by. Memories of dancing, too. And then they were drowned out by the screaming. The pain and the voices. The endless tests by the antiseptic faces peering and poking and prodding into her mind. The nightmares. She turned away from it. That hell was here as well. She could almost smell it. Yet, as all these remembrances, both good and terrifyingly bad, filled her, she did not feel like she was home. She felt like she did not belong. She felt alone. She stopped walking again, sensory awareness returning. An hour or a minute might have passed during her reverie, she was not sure. Home or not, though, she was here for a reason. Ariel was standing before her in her mind's eye, waiting. It was time to complete the mission.
Thunder rumbled outside the window, the rain slapping heavily against the pane. Gabriel Tam watched it for a moment. Deep furrows of sorrow weighed down his cheeks. The faint light in the room made the shadows on his face even deeper. His eyes returned to his wife's face. She was asleep. Not that she had much awareness anymore, but she at least appeared restful. The respirator clicked and sighed, clicked and sighed as it breathed for her. It was a blessing that their personal doctor had been able to procure it. When most of their friends and colleagues had distanced themselves, the man remained loyal, even though he could be risking his career. Gabriel did not know if he could ever thank him enough. The respirator gave Regan a little more time, but it was all borrowed. The end was near, the doctor had told him. It was time to prepare. He had been preparing for a while. But once he heard that, he realized that all of it meant nothing. She was still going to die. She would still be gone. It was not fair. He clutched her hand, kissing it and resting it against his forehead. Tears did not fall, but outside the clouds cried for him.
The ringing of the security console jangled him from his watch. He rose from his wife's bedside and went to the small screen on the wall. He brought up the front door camera, expecting to see a Federal or local Lawforce officer. Ever since the news about Simon and River had broken, they stopped by regularly. Instead, there was nothing there. The night was black beyond the porch light, drowned in the rain. He frowned at the monitor, wondering if it was perhaps a stray cat or dog who wandered into the security grid. Just then a figure stepped out of the rain and onto the porch. He could not see any features, the face being hidden by a hood, but from the clothes it looked like it was some teenager. The figure looked to either side before knocking on the door, apprehension in every move. He thought about summoning Lawforce, but decided it was not worth the trouble. Irritated at being interrupted by some wandering hooligan, he headed downstairs to shoo him away. A second knock came as he stepped off the stairs and crossed the foyer to the door. "What do you want?" he demanded into the intercom.
"Ba ba?" a soft voice replied. Gabriel's head swam with confusion.
"Daddy?" It's me. River." After a second of stunned inaction in which all manner of emotions churned through him, he unbolted the door and yanked it open. The thin figure took a step back, face still invisible beneath the hood.
"Who are you?" he demanded, not sure what to think at this point. The hood came back, and two huge, brown eyes looked deep into his. At first he did not see her. Those eyes were haunted, almost fearful, with dark circles beneath them as if she had not slept in weeks. Her cheeks were pale and gaunt. Her whole demeanor was unsure, tentative, not at all like the warm glow of the daughter he knew. Then a hint of a smile crept over her lips and Gabriel gasped in shock. He grabbed his daughter and held her tight.
"River! Xin gan ding!"
"I'm home," she said.
In her raw state, her father's embrace jolted River like a shock of electricity. Rather than reciprocating, she tensed at first, instinctively going into fight-or-flight. Then she felt the pure, unadulterated joy emanating from him and the tension washed away like warm water, soaking the cold rain from her clothes. Crushed as she was to his chest the familiar aroma of his starched shirt filled her nostrils, the stiff fabric scraping gently against her cheek. She caught the scent of his particular brand of shaving lotion. She realized he was murmuring into her hair, shuddering with what might have been a sob. It was in that moment that, for the first time in what she only knew as years, she felt like a little girl again, innocent, safe, and protected in her father's arms. It was a feeling not even Ariel's underlying presence could impose upon. River smiled serenely and squeezed him back.
When they finally broke apart, her father held her at arm's length.
"Ri yue xing chen, how did you get here?" he managed to ask through the overpowering emotions welling in him.
"I came to see Mom," she said. Her father's joy faded substantially at that. River dropped her eyes, her own warm feelings also draining away as she remembered the circumstances which drove her to come here.
"Of course," Gabriel replied. "But, where is Simon?" he asked, searching the rainstorm beyond the porch for her brother.
"He's not coming," she stated with finality. Gabriel's eyes darkened and she felt him torn between happiness at having her back, and what was almost a sense of betrayal that Simon was not there as well. But he simply nodded and drew her inside. She stepped to the center of the foyer, letting her gaze wander around with simple curiosity at the space that should have been familiar and comforting, but was somehow foreign to her now. Gabriel finished locking the door while watching her from behind. She sensed his concern when his eyes came across the gun strapped to her thigh. "It's not safe for me," she turned around, answering his question before he asked it. He frowned, not understand her statement or the world-weariness in her eyes. When she went to the Academy, she had been a warm, gentle teenage girl who loved to dance. Now she looked like half-pirate, half-commando in her dripping outfit and sidearm. What had they done to his little girl? She regarded him in silence, a sadness that was almost pity filling her now. She did not know whether it was for herself or her father.
"How did you get here?" he asked again.
"How? Did that captain bring you here? How did you get off the ship? Is Simon still with him?" She closed her eyes at his flurry of questions, the strain of the journey and their emotional reunion almost overwhelming her at this point. "They didn't… they didn't…?" her father took her look to mean something else, something more sinister, but he could not finish the question. She sensed the frightened rage growing in him and quelled that notion quickly.
"No. I came by myself. The captain takes care of me. Of us," she included Simon in the statement. "He's a good man." Her father's brow furrowed at her for a few seconds, trying to figure out if he should take her seriously or not.
"I'm sure you think he is," he finally replied and River's heart sank a little. It would take a lot more than her words, she realized, to make him see the truth. "But what matters now is that you're home," he changed the subject, walking over and hugging her again. "I'll wave the task force and let them know…"
"NO!" her cry was sudden and violent, and she flung herself out of his embrace with shocking force. Her father stared at her, uncomprehending and hurt by the startling outburst. She was shaking just a little, struggling to contain the sudden rush of fear. In her mind Ariel clawed beneath, struggling to get out and strike. Her alternate was apparently just as adamantly against the idea of being taken by the Alliance as she was. Perhaps since she was under River's control now, the goal of staying out of Alliance hands had become Ariel's as well. Unfortunately, the threat posed by her father's remark labeled him as a danger in her counterpart's eyes. River gritted her teeth and willed the violent urges out of her head. She barely had the strength left to overcome them.
"River, I have to tell them that you're home so they can stop looking for you," Gabriel explained, cautiously moving towards his daughter while trying to reason with her.
"No. You can't tell them." River's words were sharp, almost an order. Not the way a young girl would speak to her father. He stepped forward again, voice soothing this time, as if he was speaking to her as a child.
"I have to wave them, honey. I know it's scary, but this Captain Reynolds wasn't truthful with you. Nobody is going to hurt you."
"They already did. Too late for that." Her father blinked, not able to make sense of her words, and she did not have the energy to explain it to him. She crossed her arms in a standoff-ish way and heaved a large sigh. "I want to see ma ma," she spoke quietly.
"Okay. Let's go see her," Gabriel agreed, for which she was grateful. No longer an immediate threat, the pressure on her psyche from Ariel receded somewhat. River did not relish the realization that she might have to put forth even more effort to restrain Ariel's impulses if her father continued to insist on contacting the Alliance later, but for the moment the greatest danger had passed. She allowed her father to put a hand on her back and guide her up the stairs.
As they passed quietly through the upstairs hall, River could not shake the increasing feeling of wrongness that had followed her since she arrived. Nothing about the house was unfamiliar. In fact, everything about it that her somewhat disjointed memories could recall looked uncannily the same. It took her a few moments to finally make the connection that it was she who was out of place here. Her oversized pants, the gun strapped to her leg, and her soaking sweater did not fit in. Ariel's subconscious presence was the biggest intruder of all. None of these were a part of the River who used to live here. Where was that River?
Why don't I belong here? She could not answer that question, and it only made her feel like an imposter.
When they stopped at the closed doorway to her parents' room River felt her father behind her, standing by silently. He had been a powerful and practical man, and perhaps not the most outwardly affectionate because of it. However, the intensity of his sorrow left no mistake about the depth of love and care he had for his wife. River felt the devastation the slow loss of her was causing him. It cut right into her heart, and for a moment her resolve failed. She desperately did not want to open the door, but she mustered the courage face what she had come to face. Once again, what choice did she have? Not without a slight tremor, she turned the knob and gently pushed the door in. A dim nightlight was the only illumination in the room, but enhanced by the light from the hall she easily made out a blanketed form lying on the bed. Despite knowing full well what she would see, she was still unprepared for the shock of not recognizing her own mother for a second. Regan Tam's rich chestnut hair had faded to a dull brown streaked with gray, and even from a distance it was obvious the strands were thin and brittle. Her eyes were sunk deep into their sockets, giving her once refined cheekbones a skeletal appearance. Her lips were thin and ashen, pressed together without a trace of the fullness they once held. Several tubes snaked from beneath the covers and joined her to machines at the bedside which whirred and hummed and occasionally beeped. Although soft and unobtrusive, their mechanical regularity was an inorganic discord that only enhanced the impression that there was very little life left in the woman. At the sight, River's composure broke and she ran across the floor, falling to her knees at the bedside.
"Ma ma," she sobbed, taking a limp hand in hers, her head falling onto the covers. Her father came up behind her slowly, laying his palm gently on her head. River raised her stricken eyes to her mother's silent face. "Ma ma?" she whispered again, searching desperately for some response.
"She's… she's in a coma," Gabriel explained, his voice thick and unsteady. River knew it already. She found no trace of her mother's consciousness in her mind. There was only a muted sense of pain and disease, like staring into a dense fog that shrouded everything.
"She still hurts," River turned to her father with tear-rimed eyes.
"No, she doesn't," he assured her. "She can't feel anything anymore."
"Yes, she does," River insisted. "She just doesn't know it."
"River, Dr. Childs is doing everything he can. She's as comfortable as he can make her."
"No." River stood up and started moving about the bed. Sensing the pressure points on her mother's body, she fussed with the covers, loosening them about her shoulders and tucking them in more at her feet. Then she moved her arms, resting them at her sides above the blankets. Gingerly, she fluffed the pillow beneath the once lovely cascade of hair, stroking a lock from the pallid forehead and tucking it behind her ear. Then she stood back with a frown. She had alleviated the minor discomforts and irritations, but the overall miasma of illness and suffering did not abate. She knew it would not, but even so tears started spilling down her cheeks and she broke down again. Her father wrapped his arms around her and let her cry into his chest, a few stray drops of his own mixing with hers. They remained that way for a long time. When her emotions were spent, River slowly disengaged from him. She took a few almost tip-toe steps to her mother's side again. "Gao zhen wu you," she whispered in her ear, then laid the gentlest kiss on her brow. Her father watched, heartbroken by the tenderness. River returned to him and they exited the room together, quietly shutting the door.
Pushed beyond the capacity to process any more emotional turmoil, River numbly followed her father back downstairs and into the kitchen. She vaguely heard him insist she eat something, to which she assented purely from a lack of any strength left with which to resist his demand. He fixed something for both of them although she had no inkling what it was, nor did she care. While they ate, he tried to question her once again about what had happened to her, but after several near-monosyllabic answers he finally gave up and they finished their meal in awkward silence. He then led her upstairs to her room. She felt the happiness and gratitude return to him as he watched her tentatively step inside the space she had called hers since she was a child. He lingered in the doorway a long time before giving her a hug and a kiss goodnight. She could tell he was reluctant to leave, fearing she might disappear again while he slept. Although their reunion had not quite been what he had anticipated so far, he was more than glad just to have her back. Something that had been missing inside him suddenly felt more complete once again. River desperately wished she could feel the same way. After he left, she remained standing in the center of her room, all of the sensations of being out of place filling her again. Her possessions were still here except for the scant few she been allowed to take with her to the Academy. In fact, it looked like she had never left at all, which was surreal. She started wandering around, picking up things and staring at them in wonderment. Her fingers brushed over her dance awards framed on the wall, stroked the mahogany of her small desk, and leaved through the pages of a book without reading it. Her bed was made, neat and trim, the sheets smelling of a fresh laundering. She did not sit on it but instead plopped onto the floor, cross-legged. None of the changes she had experienced since she left were reflected here, and it was a hard thing to wrap her mind around.
Who was I then? Who am I now? She closed her eyes, the questions echoing in her head without any answers. Part of her simply wanted her old self back, wanted to make everything that had happened all go away like a bad dream. She would wake up from it tomorrow and go downstairs to find Simon there, telling tales about the ER over breakfast and making her laugh. Her father would be watching the newsfeed and listening with half his attention like he usually did. Her mother would pour her orange juice and remind her of what she had to do after school- dance lessons, tutoring in astrophysics, and, of course, homework. She saw this scene so clearly in her mind, and it was so warm and innocent that she could hardly believe that she had ever felt that way. It had been so long. She smiled at the recollection, but it was a bitter, regretful smile. She was outside looking in now, as if through a window, and she knew there was no way to get it back. Still, she clung to this one scene, hoping it might at least make her return feel somewhat more normal. She could not hold onto it long, though. The vision gradually faded, getting dimmer and dimmer until it vanished altogether and only darkness was left.
Upon waking the next morning, the first thing Gabriel Tam did was throw on his robe and pad swiftly down the hall to River's room. He had spent an anxious night more awake than asleep, fighting the urge to constantly check on his daughter. He trusted that the security system would alert him if she tried to leave, but that did not fully soothe his anxiety. He had been compelled to make his way to her door three or four times last night, but he ultimately resisted opening it lest he disturb her. Whatever she had gone through to get home, it had been terribly draining, not to mention her suffering through the trauma her kidnapping had inflicted on her otherwise. He knew she might need some space and some time to readjust, that was clear, but he could not bear losing her again.
He grabbed the doorknob and paused just long enough to listen before giving it a turn. The silence behind the door sent a shiver of unreasonable panic through him and he cracked it open just slightly. Peering inside, the slanting rays of the mid-morning sun fell through the window and onto River's dark hair. She was sitting on the floor, dressed as she had been when she arrived, unmoving. Her shoulders rose and fell rhythmically. She was asleep.
"River?" He had hardly finished calling her name when, in a flurry of motion too swift for Gabriel's eyes to follow, River uncoiled herself and sprang up, drawing her pistol at the same time and leveling it right at him. Speechless with astonished horror, he could not move as he stared into the muzzle of her gun. Her eyes burned into him with a ferocious intensity that was not his daughter's. It took two or three seconds before that feral fire died out, leaving her eyes dark pools of haunting and fright. Only then, with a visible shudder, did she holster the weapon.
"I'm sorry," she whispered in a voice both terrified and full of an all-too-familiar sadness.
"Come here," Gabriel finally overcame his shock and opened his arms. His composure almost broke as she moved into his embrace. "My little girl, what did they do to you out there?"
"It wasn't them. It was the Academy."
She's still confused, he thought with disappointment. Abruptly she twisted from his grasp and pushed him away, though not as violently as she had last night. "There's, um, breakfast downstairs," Gabriel told her, trying not to sound hurt. She brushed past him and disappeared down the stairs without a further word. He sighed heavily. He did not understand her disturbingly sudden shift in moods and his heart cried out in pain at her aloofness, but he counseled himself to patience. Whatever she had been through, it would take time for her to heal. At least, that was what he hoped.
Coming downstairs a few moments later, he found her at the dining room table eating some fresh fruit and drinking orange juice. He sat across from her, acutely aware of her reticent silence.
"I hope you feel a little better today," he tried to start a conversation.
"I didn't sleep well."
"Were you like that the whole night?" he asked, regarding how he discovered her. She did not answer. "Why didn't you sleep in your bed?"
"It doesn't feel right."
"River, I know it's been a long time and you've been through a lot, but you're home. No one here is going to hurt you, not while I'm around." He reached across the table and clasped her hand between his in a gesture of reassurance. She regarded him with cool detachment. "Please, River, I'm your father. I love you and I want you to be safe," he pleaded, and her mouth softened some.
"I know," she lowered her eyes.
"Good. Now, Dr. Childs will be coming over today and I think…"
"When?" she asked, immediately tense again.
"Usually in the afternoon."
"He can't know I'm here," she asserted.
"Why not? I thought he could look at you to make sure you're okay."
"River, it's Dr. Childs. He's been looking after you since you were a chan er."
"It doesn't matter. He might tell. And then they'll come after me."
"Who's going to come after you?" Gabriel asked, confused. "Captain Reynolds?" She shook her head without elaborating.
"They'll take me back. That's why you can't tell them. That's why I can't stay."
"River, that's nonsense," he turned aside her words more firmly. "You're home now and you're staying. No one will take you anywhere where you'll be hurt," he tried to reason with her again, meanwhile wondering who she feared the so much. Her neurosis must be worse than anyone suspected. That worried him greatly. What might she do if she felt she was in danger again?
"You don't understand," she pleaded. "Simon was telling the truth. They hurt me. They cut into me. They made me into… into… this!" she stood up, displaying herself. Her eyes beseeched him, desperate for him to acknowledge her fears. It tore at him that he could not help her see that they were not real. Gabriel fought to keep his distress from showing through on his face but it was almost impossible, and that mask of detachment slipped over his daughter's expression once again. "I have to go soon. I want to stay… for Mom, but I can't. It's too dangerous."
"River, calm down," he stood up and came around to her side of the table, putting his hands on her shoulders. "If you don't want to see Dr. Childs, that's fine. But you can't go on like this. Sooner or later we have to tell the authorities that you're back. Then we can see about getting you better. Okay?" He tried for a reassuring smile, but her face showed she did not believe him. It was a bitter, hopeless look that sank its fangs into his heart. She broke away.
"I'll be with her until the doctor comes." She stalked out of the room, leaving Gabriel dumbfounded and pained.
For fifteen days Serenity had hurtled through the black at top speed on a course Mal never dreamt he would be on given the events of the past half year. They had run at hard burn the entire way until their fuel was almost completely spent, cruising through the final stretch on the tremendous momentum they had amassed. The last of the emergency reserves were earmarked to slow them down and for maneuvers. Of course, they might never even have the chance to use them, as the Alliance could shoot them down on first contact. With less than a day until they reached Osiris' system, they would find out soon enough either way. In the meantime, Mal gathered everyone in the dining area to discuss the options they had for getting planetside without getting pinched.
"This ain't gonna be like dodgin' a border patrol or avoidin' the Feds on Persephone," he warned up front. "This is the heart 'o the Alliance. There's no tellin' how much time we've got before they know we're here, but I can guarantee it won't be much. They will be lookin' for us, 'specially if they got River already." Heavy silence fell on everyone. So far the newsfeeds had no reports on her, but he did not trust the Alliance to show their hand if they did not have to. "We'll do this like we did at Spider. There's no way we'll get anywhere near Osiris without tipping somebody off, so Serenity stays in deep orbit out of range of any sensors and we make for Epeuva in a shuttle. Simon, it'll just be you and me," he looked at the doctor. "The rest of you will hold the fort 'till we get back."
"Sir," Zoe began to protest as expected, but Mal silenced her with a shake of his head.
"That's an order. No sense in all of us gettin' caught. None of us'll be any help to each other or to River if that's the case. Dong ma?" Zoe relented at his sharp look, unhappy with the idea but at least accepting the sensibility of it. "All right. Once we make it to the moon, we'll find a ride to Capital City."
"How will we do that without being recognized?" Simon asked.
"I had a notion to borrow from River on that," Mal explained. "Hope you don't mind loppin' all the hair off that pretty head o' yours." Jayne suppressed a chuckle with a snort, but Simon did not even take note of it.
"I'll do whatever it takes to get River back," he intoned.
"Inara, think you can help us out with that?" Mal glanced at the Companion. Inara nodded wordlessly in agreement.
"Once we get down there, we gotta move quick. There won't be time for a family reunion," Mal emphasized to the doctor. Simon swallowed but nodded gamely.
"What if she ain't there?" Jayne interjected, positing on that possibility.
"If that's the case, we'll decide our next move when we get there, dependin' on the situation. Everybody shiny?" Mal hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. It hardly seemed like a plan as much as it did wishful thinking, but it was the best he could do. "Good," he concluded the meeting. "Zoe, you and Jayne make sure our weapons stores are mint as trouble's to be expected."
"Yes sir," Zoe rose and headed for the cargo bay, followed by Jayne.
"Doc, you're first in the barber's chair," ordered Mal.
"I'm gonna miss bein' able to do this for a while," Kaylee said, somewhat forlornly running her fingers through Simon's dark locks. Simon smiled tenderly at her and brought her hand to his lips. Mal rose and turned away from the couple, brokering a swift pace towards the bridge. He had to make sure they were still on course or the whole thing would be humped before it even began. He was halfway through the foredeck when Inara's voice stopped him from behind.
"Mal." He halted and turned to her, though not without some awkwardness. They had generally avoided each other since that night they had spent together, only exchanging meaningless pleasantries in the view of others. It was easier to act like nothing had happened that way. However, they were alone on the foredeck now, and Mal could not stop a faint flush of red from creeping up his neck. He noticed Inara could not quite meet his eyes either, although it was not really awkwardness but a kind of vulnerability that he saw in her. He caught himself wondering for the first time if maybe it had always been there and he had just been too dense to see it.
"I'm, uh… I hope you don't mind doin' a little makeover for me and Simon. It's about the best disguise I could come up with. Unless you thought of somethin' better," he hastened to add, flushing just a tad stronger.
"Oh, no. I… I think it's a good idea," Inara concurred. "I'll be glad to do it." He tried for a loose smile.
"I reckon you've been itchin' for the opportunity to take a razor to my scalp at some point."
"I may have considered it," the briefest of smirks flickered on her lips, but it was quickly subsumed by anxiety. "Are you sure about this?" she asked, looking him fully in the face for the first time.
"Inara, the least I'm worried about losin' in the course of this is a few hairs," he assured her. "Trust me, I'll gladly give them up."
"That's not what I meant," she shook her head. "I mean, do you think this will work, trying to find River?" The expression of her fears brought his own to the forefront, and for a few agonizing seconds Mal had to face the fact that he did not know what to do if the plan went awry. But he did not want to say so. There was always a way. He had always found it before. Inara pressed on, though. "What if we're too late? What if we can't get to her?" He took a moment before responding, waiting for the lump in his throat to recede.
"We got to. After all that girl's done for us, and after all the Alliance has done to her, we can't let her down. I ain't one to leave any of my crew behind." He was unaware of the hardness creeping into his voice as he spoke, the simmering, bitter anger that drove it. He knew that sense of abandonment. After fighting and dying by the thousands, sacrificing their lives for their cause, his own command had left them behind. While a peace treaty was negotiated, those whose blood had been shed were forgotten. He could not help but think if he could not reach River, he would be guilty of the same act. He swore that would never happen. "We'll get her back," he said, determined, and turned towards the bridge, ignoring with all his will the doubts that might soon prove him wrong.
River hid in her room when Dr. Childs arrived to attend to her mother. She kept her ears and her mind open, but her father did not reveal her presence to the doctor, nor alert the Feds. Yet. She knew it was only a matter of time before he would make that wave. It was the right thing to do in his mind. It tormented her that she could not explain it to him. If Simon was here, then maybe both of them could show him the truth. Simon had the words and the knowledge. She could only act, and that was dangerous, even deadly. Just one more reason why she did not belong here anymore.
When the doctor finally left, she decided she needed a shower to help her relax. It was a real shower, with fresh water that she could soak under without worrying about wasting any or overtaxing the reclaimators. She washed the grime from her skin, and tried to wash the grime from her mind. She knew the stains would never come out completely, but still she tried. She visualized it all running down the drain with the water. Afterwards, she visited with her mother again. She wanted to tell her everything, but she did not. She just held her hand and cried a lot. Her father came in a few times, either standing by and watching silently, or maybe laying a hand on her in gentle sympathy. He still loved her, and she was still his daughter. There was just too much in between.
She slept in her own bed that night, leaving the gun within easy reach just in case. Ariel was eerily silent now. Either she had retreated because the mission was done, or she was hiding somewhere deep. In any case, River was glad to be relieved of the stress of keeping an eye on her. For the first time in weeks, she slept like the dead.
Goosebumps from the unaccustomed chill caused the minute stubble on Mal's scalp to stand on end. He ran a distracted hand over his newly bare head as he reviewed the supplies he had loaded into the shuttle. Short of a teleportation device or a transport full of his own personal army, he was pretty sure he had everything he thought he might need for whatever situation they might encounter on Osiris. Simon hovered nearby, also running his hands over his shaved head in an affected way.
"Are we ready?" he asked, his words crisp with agitation.
"Looks like," Mal nodded with his hands on his hips. Then he strode towards the cockpit and swept his eyes on the black outside the window. The blue-green marble of Osiris occupied a significant portion of the field of view, but it was still too far away to distinguish any features. Epeuva was just about to emerge from within its penumbra and Serenity's trajectory had positioned them to take full advantage of her momentum to hurtle the shuttle on its course as quickly as possible. "All right, Doc. Seal her up," he called to Simon, situating himself in the helm. He grabbed the radio. "Zoe, are we ready?"
"Two more minutes, sir," she confirmed.
"Roger that. I'm warming her up." Mal began the ignition sequence while Simon entered the cockpit and took the copilot's seat. "Here we go," he shared a tense but determined look with the doctor.
Thirteen seconds before he was about to disengage the shuttle from Serenity's docking arm, Mal's worst fear assailed his ears in the piercing cry of the proximity alarm.
"Gorram it! Zoe!" he hollered into the radio.
"Frigate coming up on our starboard flank!" relayed his first mate.
"What do we do?" asked Simon.
"We don't take off, that's for certain," Mal rapidly began cancelling the ignition sequence. "Zoe, hold course. Get Kaylee on standby for burn," he announced into the radio and then rushed out of the cockpit. He exited the shuttle and ran full on up the stairs towards the bridge, Simon on his heels. Bounding through the bulkhead, he found Jayne and Inara already present and waiting anxiously.
"They're hailing us," Zoe swiveled in the helm as Mal ran up behind her.
"Put it on, audio only," he instructed.
"Unidentified ship, this is Lieutenant Commander Houn of the Leander. You are passing through Osiris space with an improperly functioning pulse beacon. Acknowledge and hold course."
"If they make us, we're humped," Zoe gritted.
"There's no way they won't if we stay here. Kaylee!" Mal hit the com. "We gotta bug out. Make sure she's hot. Find me the quickest course outta here," he ordered Zoe, flinging himself into the copilot's station and activating his controls.
"Where to?" Zoe asked.
"Anywhere but here!"
"Hold on back there," he announced to the others still standing on the bridge. "Zao gao," he swore under his breath. "It never goes smooth." Then, with knuckles turning white on the control yoke, Mal slammed the jets to full power. The radio squawked with the surprised Lieutenant Commander's voice, but he ignored it. He just hoped that the officer had not been stealthily targeting them and had an itchy trigger finger. Barring that, he was more concerned about getting set for a hard burn on whatever haphazard course Zoe could find for their miniscule fuel reserves. One life-endangering situation at a time, he told himself. "Oh, no…" his hopes of a quick escape were suddenly dashed. As Serenity tore away from the Leander, she was now headed right for an Alliance cruiser that was tracking to intercept them. Its skyscraper-sized spires stood out against the glow of the planet behind it as it hurtled out from a nearer orbit.
"Mal…!" Inara pointed in alarm.
"I see it. What've we got?" he barked to Zoe.
"Gunships incoming!" she informed him.
"Can you dodge them?" Inara asked.
"Workin' on it." He gritted his teeth and banked to port away from the approaching ships. "Kaylee, give me all she's got!" he shouted through the com. "How close are we to a course?"
"Almost there," Zoe's fingers furiously tapped on the console's keyboard. A new alarm blared.
"That frigate's got a lock us," warned Jayne, hovering over Zoe's shoulder. Zoe's eyes darted to her sensor screen.
"Missile incoming!" she hollered.
"Put it on my screen!" Mal shouted. Zoe turned on the rear video camera. Mal glanced up and his eyes went huge. "Whoa!" He threw Serenity into a tumbling roll, the missile rocketing past just meters from their starboard side. "Where are those gunships?"
"Twelve hundred klicks and closing fast. Sir, the only safe way out of here is back through that frigate." Mal hazarded a glance at her. Despite her best efforts to hold it in check, he saw the desperation in her eyes. Things were beginning to look Very Seriously Bad. But with no other choice, he swung the ship one hundred eighty degrees and shot up at an angle to warship's plane of attack.
"More missiles!" He heard the klaxon blaring at the same time Zoe called out. He dodged downward, but the missiles streaked by without even seeming to track them. They soared in front of Serenity several hundred meters, and then the viewports ignited with a blaze with a blinding light. Everyone on the bridge shielded their eyes. The ship bucked and shuddered a second later as it impacted the concussion wave. Sparks flew from some of the control panels. Then everything went black.
"What the hell…" Mal tapped his blank screens and shook the control stick. Nothing responded. The bridge was entirely dark except for the emergency lights.
"Kaylee!" Mal tried the com, but it was dead as well. "Zoe, you got control?"
"Nothin'" Zoe shook her head. "We're dead in space."
"What was that?" Inara's frightened voice came from behind him.
"Musta been some kind of EMP payload on those missiles." Mal heard footsteps pounding towards the bridge. Kaylee stumbled through the darkened foredeck and up the stairs.
"Cap'n, what happened?" came her panicked cry. "We got no power! Not even auxiliaries."
"What do we do now?" Simon turned to him.
"Reckon we got a couple minutes before that cruiser gets a lock and pulls us in," he assessed, flicking switches as he tried in vain to restart Serenity's systems. Then he spun his chair to his mechanic, grabbing her by the shoulders.
"Kaylee, you gotta get us restarted before that. Go!" Kaylee nodded, full of fright, but put on her bravest face. She ran for the engine room.
"I'll help," Simon offered and took off after her.
"How do you know they won't just shoot us down?" Inara demanded with an edge of panic.
"'Cause those missiles would've hit us if they'd wanted us dead," Zoe explained.
"That'd be my guess, too. They want us alive," Mal agreed. The bridge dropped into silence as he stared out through the viewport for a brief space. Osiris' disk was not visible, but its radiance illuminated the black just beyond the edge of his view. They were so close… However, he did not delude himself into thinking they could make it there now, even if Kaylee miraculously got them restarted. The one spark of light in this increasingly bleak situation was the realization that if the Alliance was going to go through the trouble of capturing them, it meant that River must still be out there. If they could just give her some more time, keep the wolves distracted as it were, maybe she would be able to slip through on her own somehow. Maybe she would even find a way to come after them. He did not hold out much hope on that last notion, though. Every one of them had given practically everything to keep River safe. Now, they had only one thing left to give. He rose slowly from his seat, feeling the grim determination set in against the realization of their fate. They had been here before. Maybe Miranda was just a test to get them ready for this. It did not matter either way, though. It was time to finish things. With a stony gaze he took in each of the faces on the bridge. "Ladies and menfolk," he growled. "Arm yourselves."The blood red of the emergency lighting had turned the cargo hold into some sinister impression of Hell. In that respect, Jayne resembled Satan's personal bodyguard as he stood atop the catwalk. He held Vera in hand, with his repeater slung across his chest and a myriad of other firearms and explosives strapped to his hips, legs, and arms. "Can't believe I let m'self get talked into this again," he grunted, although his eyes glittered with what might have been subtle pleasure and a wry twist graced his grizzled chin. Down below, everyone else besides Kaylee had likewise taken up arms. They had arranged themselves in the rear of the cargo hold by the doorway to the commons, fortified behind whatever extra crates they could stack for cover. Mal dished out spare clips from the armory while Zoe pumped rounds into a shotgun. His second in command's eyes were like bits of obsidian: black, hard, and razor sharp. She knew the score. Hell, maybe she even welcomed it. However, Mal also knew that, as he had before, he could count on her stalwart resolve to hold out until the end, no matter what.
"Doc, I hope you're a better shot today than you were last time you used that," he cracked dryly as he handed Simon an extra magazine.
"I hope so, too," Simon replied, snapping the slide of his pistol back and chambering a round. He and Mal's eyes met, and the captain saw a ferocity there that he had not seen before. The doctor was not going to go down without a fight either. Taking some comfort in the resilience of his crew, Mal swung around for another batch of clips and found Inara standing right behind him. He froze, startled to find her face so close to his. A tumult of fear and doubt roiled in her eyes.
"Inara…" They both started to speak at the same time and stopped at the same time as well. Mal could see she was scared, really and truly scared. But despite that, when he looked into her face he could only remember the passion and fire that it had held one night not so long ago. He could not help but remark to himself how utterly lovely and gorram amazing she was. He reached his hand up to place it on her shoulder in reassurance, but instead it found its way to her neck. His thumb caressed her cheek just a little, a tender gesture no one else saw in the dim light. Inara did not move at first, but just stared back into his face. Then she grabbed his hand and pressed it against her, closing her eyes as she did so. When she opened them, he saw her fear melting away. It was not gone, but the sheer mettle of her character, the fire and steel which he knew resided in her, were rising up and taking control of it. He nodded to her and she nodded back, lips set in firm determination. Side by side, they turned to face the airlock. Mal slammed a clip into his rifle and Inara cocked her pistol.
"Zoe, Jayne, and me'll take 'em first. Simon and Inara are back-up in case one slips through. Is that clear?" he barked.
"Aye sir!" Zoe was the only one to respond verbally, and her militaristic cry rang out in a defiant challenge. As if in counterpoint to it, there came an ominous scrape of metal on metal from outside the airlock, and then a solid thud reverberated through the hold.
"Kaylee," Mal called through the hand-held radio. "Company's here. You seal yourself in that engine room and don't stop workin' for nothin' until I call you. You hear?"
"Aye, Cap'n" her thin voice called back as more metallic noises echoed through the chamber.
"Come on, you hun dan sons-of-bitches!" Jayne snarled, taking sight on the airlock through Vera's scope. The latch to the door grated loudly. Suddenly it burst open amidst beams of flashlights slicing through the semi-darkness. The curtain was up, and it was time for the final encore.
Up on the catwalk, Vera sang first. Zoe and Mal followed, opening fire at the same time. Two lights in the airlock went down. The rest retreated beyond the portal for cover. Nothing moved for an excruciating long period of seconds. Then two small objects rattled across the grated floor.
"Grenades!" Mal shouted, dragging Inara beneath him as he dropped behind the crates. The hold erupted in a concussion of white light like a sun going nova. The blast threw Mal off of Inara and onto his back. His ears rang and ghosts of color peppered his vision. He struggled to his knees, managing to find a hand still on his rifle. Blind and deaf, he opened fire in the general direction of the airlock. He was vaguely aware of Zoe doing the same. He emptied a clip, discarded the rifle, and grabbed for the shotgun at his feet. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to clear the retinal afterimages which too closely resembled shadows of Alliance soldiers whenever he shifted his sights. He thought he saw three more bodies on the floor. The rest had retreated again.
"Mal! Simon's down!" Inara tugged on his arm, her words muffled through his still throbbing eardrums. They both rushed to Simon's side. The doctor moaned slightly and twisted on the floor. Mal held him down, searching for bullet wounds, but he could not see anything properly in the reddish darkness. Simon coughed and tried to sit up.
"Stunner," he croaked, coughing some more. Mal looked shocked for an instant, and then laughed in spite of himself.
"Come and get it, you ruttin' cowards!" he bellowed, standing up and letting his shotgun roar with no concern of reprisal. "Zoe! Jayne! They've got sonic rifles. Let 'em have it!" He pumped his shotgun empty and dug his pistol out its holster just as a barrage of bullets ricocheted over his head. He dove for cover.
"What was that about wantin' us alive?" Zoe shouted over the clatter of automatic fire. Mal clambered to his knees and blasted away as several armored bodies poured through the door. Vera rained fire down from above, but Jayne's position was exposed. As soon as several soldiers cleared the door and found cover in the wings, he had to retreat.
"Ah, damn!" he shouted, leaping down the stairs beneath a hail of bullets and throwing himself behind the crates next to Zoe. Zoe had exhausted her shotgun as well and was pumping away at the lever of her mare's leg. Another concentrated round of fire erupted from the soldiers and she hit the deck.
"They're gettin' in, sir," she mentioned, taking the moment to load a few rounds. Mal did the same. He looked to Jayne.
"Cover fire," he pointed to the mercenary's repeater. Jayne nodded, and with a deep breath he heaved himself to his knees and strafed the bay from side to side. Shells clattered to the ground like spilled change. Zoe and Mal leaped up and started taking out individual targets. Simon and Inara followed their example. When Jayne's repeater clicked empty, the soldiers wasted no time returning to the offensive. Zoe cried out and dropped to the floor.
"Zoe!" Mal shouted. "Doc!" he called and Simon scooted over behind the crates, Inara and Jayne covering him.
"It's nothin'," Zoe assured. "Ricochet caught me." She wiped her right cheek where a hot fragment of metal had scored a long line, smearing the trail of blood. Mal broke his attention from the battle for a second to check on his first mate himself.
"Mal!" Inara shouted a frantic warning to him. On instinct, Mal dropped behind the crates as a bullet ripped through the space where his head had just been. Inara fired two shots and the soldier who had crept unnoticed around their right flank went down with a grunt. Mal scrambled up from the floor and was about to utter his thanks to her, but the words died in his throat before he could say them. In the wavering beam of a flashlight, he saw a fine spray of blood erupt as a bullet tore into her side. She fell backwards without even a cry. For a few horrid seconds, Mal could not move. He could only watch as Inara spasmed and coughed, clutching a hand over the wound. She turned her head towards him, agony on her face. She mouthed his name. He was moving then, scrambling towards her and yelling for Simon. Gruff voices stopped him.
"Drop your weapons!"
"Hands in the air!" The curtain on their little show had finally come down.