Wash gasped and clutched at his chest as he woke. He looked down at his hands, expecting to see crimson, but his fingers weren’t slippery. Still, he could not shake the thought that he been impaled through his torso. He remembered losing his breath and struggling for air. He remembered dying.
Then came the memory of the Reavers and the Alliance and a huge battle with thousands of casualties. And he had flown right through the middle of it all, leading a massive Reaver fleet into an Alliance ambush. For a moment, he relished in the afterglow of being a martyr and a hero, even if it was just a vivid, hyper-realistic fantasy.
“I’m a leaf on the wind,” he whispered. He clutched at his sides and stomach, still struggling to come to terms with the fact that there was no murderous hole anywhere.
He sighed in deep relief. Apparently, the Reavers had not killed him. He was safe in Serenity. His wife was not going to be a widow. In fact, his dark-skinned warrior woman was safely and snugly pressed against him. She was the little spoon, and he was the big spoon, surrounded by their clothes, a simple stiff cot and all of her guns and ammunition. Soft, cream-colored sheets. Shelves littered with parts, canteens and trinkets from markets in the Outer Rim.
“But it was so real…”
Zoe tensed against him. She remained silent while he writhed and wiggled behind her, resuming his search for a gaping puncture wound in his body. She was naked. The nightmare had been so long, so real, that it had pushed every other memory out of his mind. Zoe and he must have made love earlier that night. And her being very nude and very close to him was causing an all-too-familiar reaction.
He heard her tongue briefly moisten her dry lips. She was grinning. He rested his hands against his chest, no longer checking for metal protrusions or porous organs.
“Honey?” she asked.
“I was impaled,” he said, patting his hand against his chest.
“I believe that’s my role,” she replied, “and if I’m not mistaken, it feels like I may be in danger of that again.”
He laughed. “Yeah…”
The dream fog in his mind still had not cleared. Had he been thinking properly, he would have just shut up and quit while he was ahead. But all he could think about were the clear skies and dead bodies in his dream, of a perfectly terraformed planet with only corpses for residents.
An elbow drove into his ribs before he could even explain himself and apologize in his own mind.
“It’s a planet!” he cried. “Argh…”
He grimaced as she rolled off the cot and onto the hard metal grating of Serenity. She stood before him, naked and intimidating. She bent over to grab her custom Colt 1860 Army pistol from a gun belt and aimed it at him.
“Talk,” she commanded.
He held his hands up in the air and then brought them down to shoulder level, trying to calm her down. “It’s a planet, dear. I swear to all that’s holy, it’s a planet. Lots of dead people. No pretty ladies, and if there were, they’d be corpsified.”
“You’re not making any sense,” she said.
“It was a dream!” he shouted. “I had a bad dream. There was a planet. And River—”
“You had a dream about River?” she asked, raising her deceptively calm voice an additional octave.
“I had a dream about everyone,” he said in exasperation, still trying to soothe her with his outstretched arms. “Jayne was in there too. Think about it. What kind of sex dream would I have involving Jayne?”
Her face twisted. She closed her eyes and grimaced.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” she said.
“Come on!” he complained. “You’re the only woman I would ever dream about. I mean, even if I did dream about Jayne, he’s a man, and that wouldn’t count. Right?”
“I’m going to hurt you,” she said.
A knock echoed through the metal door and around their small room.
“Everything okay in there?” Captain Malcolm Reynolds asked.
“I’m thinking of murdering your pilot,” Zoe called back.
“Don’t do that,” Malcolm replied. “Someone has to stay on the ship while you pilot the Mule to the payroll robbery. We’ve got a job to do, people! We’re gonna get paid!”
Zoe shook her head and gave an exaggerated sigh. “I guess you’re off the hook, lover.”
“Wait!” Wash said.
He stumbled out of the covers, tripped over their clothes and past his naked wife. He pressed the button next to the door and felt immediate regret as the cold air rushed into the room, against his bare flesh. He covered himself with his hand and tried to look as casual as possible. “The payroll robbery. That’s the Beaumonde job, right?”
After his nightmare, the job seemed like it was ancient history. Over and done with. But here they were, apparently headed right for it.
Mal looked down at Wash’s hand and then up to his face again. The Captain did not answer.
“The Beaumonde job for Fanty and Mingo Sanchez, right?” Wash added helpfully.
Mal raised a finger into the air. “First…” He pointed down to Wash’s waist. “Don’t ever point that thing at me again.”
Wash agreed vigorously. “Right…”
“And second,” Mal continued. “Why are you naked?”
Mal looked over Wash’s shoulder, seemingly to direct the question at Zoe instead. He immediately recoiled as if someone had thrown water onto his face. “Why are you both naked? Nee mun doh shr sagwa.”
“Well, Captain,” Zoe said. “When a man and a woman get married…”
“I know,” Mal said in frustration, “but I really don’t want to know.”
“So, we haven’t done the Beaumonde job, then?” Wash asked, raising both hands into the air to add emphasis to the question before calling to the heavens. “Am I the only professional here?”
Mal turned his head down the hallway, away from Wash’s nakedness. “Wash… what did I just tell you about pointing that thing at me?”
“Sorry, Captain,” Wash said. He motioned a thumb back at Zoe. “We were spooning, and I had a dream… You know what? I’ll just put some clothes on.”
“You think?” Mal asked sarcastically, as he busied himself wiping something off the metal door frame. “Like that just occurred to you? A minute after you answered the door, gun blazing?”
“She’s the one with the weapons,” Wash said in mock defensiveness, as he bent down to retrieve his pants.
“I can see that,” Mal said, accidentally looking back into the room as Zoe was foraging around for her brown shirt, red leather vest and pants. “But I don’t want to see that…” Mal buried his head into his hands and stomped away down the corridor, muttering curses in Mandarin. “Talk to me again when you’ve both put some clothes on.”
“Wait,” Jayne said from down the hallway. “Was Zoe walking around naked again?”
“Shut up, Jayne!” Zoe yelled from beside Wash.
“I’ll… um…” Jayne mumbled. “I’ll be in my bunk.”
Captain Mal’s footsteps retreated toward the bridge.
“So, we haven’t gone to Beaumonde yet?” Wash asked as he wiggled into a shirt. “Haven’t even done the job yet? No Fruity Oaty Bars commercials? No rampaging 90 pound girl beating the crap out of Jayne?”
“Are you sure you didn’t hit your head?” Zoe asked as she put her arms through her shirt holes.
He admired her toned body, and she caught him staring through the neck hole of her shirt.
“Did you want me to hold the pose?” she asked.
He nodded enthusiastically, and she gave him a wry I-know-you-too-well grin as she plunged into the shirt to put an end to his fun. He feigned an exaggerated frown, and she pressed a finger against his lips.
But he kept on with his inquiries. He just wanted to know that what had just happened was definitely a dream, and what was happening now, in this room, was definitely reality. “And Shepherd Book is still alive at the Haven mining colony?”
Zoe tilted her head, squinted and gazed at him curiously. “Seriously, Dear. What is wrong with you?”
Wash shook his head and ran his fingers through his short red hair. “The dream was just so real, you know? I can’t shake it.”
Zoe wrapped her arms around him, and he buried his nose into her curly brown and black hair. He breathed so deeply he thought some of her tresses might have tickled his lungs. He coughed and made an obvious move toward her rear with his hands. She grabbed his wrists and forced his hands back up to her waist.
“You know,” he said, pressing himself against her playfully. “The Captain gave me an order not to point this thing at him anymore, and I only know one way to get my man parts to stop standing at attention…”
She rolled her head to his shoulder from his chest and then pushed herself away.
“Let’s go have some breakfast,” she said. “If your little man is still at attention after we eat, maybe we’ll talk.”
He smiled impishly. “I love it when you call him a little man. I mean it’s more respectful than ‘little boy’, while also conceding that between the two of us,” he pointed down at his crotch and then to his face for emphasis, “I am the bigger individual.”
“Stop talking,” she said, grabbing him by the shirt and leading him down the metal corridor as the door to their cabin shut behind them.
He chuckled as she let go of his shirt and grabbed his hand. She released it shortly before they arrived in the mess hall. Always the soldier, she would not want to show too much affection in front of the other crew.
Kaylee, the mechanic, plopped a plate down in front of them. Her frazzled red hair hung loosely over her jacket, but she had obviously made some effort to comb it between the engine room and the table.
“Gruel again,” she complained, pointing down at the grayish-green and brown mystery dish in front of her.
River, with her long brown hair, and her doctor brother Simon sat at the other end of the table. River rocked herself gently within her seat, while Simon worried over her. She wore a breezy red dress with a cream cardigan. Simon wore a dark buttoned-up vest over a white shirt and black tie.
“I see she hasn’t lost her crazy,” Wash mumbled as he watched River sway back and forth, her arms around her knees and her feet tucked into her body on the seat.
“What?” Simon asked.
“It’s just great to see everyone up,” he lied. As the doctor eyed him suspiciously, Wash remembered that he had to at least try to come up with something that rhymed with ‘crazy’.
“Thought you might be lazy,” he added. “Today, I mean. Sleeping in.”
“Well,” Simon said. “It’s hard to sleep when people are yelling.”
Wash looked at his wife, who shrugged as she heaped a pile of grayish brown goo onto a plate for her and then another spoonful for him.
“Well,” Wash said, grinning as he sat down. “I married her because she’s a screamer.”
“That’s not what I—” Simon said.
“The walls are really thin,” Captain Mal noted as he stomped into the room from the direction of the bridge.
“And metal,” Kaylee added. She wiped at her greasy face with a slightly less dirty part of her sleeve. “Metal carries sound really well.”
“Miranda,” River said, still slowly rocking back-and-forth.
“Miranda?” Kaylee asked. “Who’s Miranda?”
“Is everyone in on this?” Zoe asked as she dropped her husband’s plate and then her Colt pistol onto the table. She challenged everyone at the table with her eyes, from each person to the pistol, jokingly daring anyone to bring up the woman’s name again.
“Everyone was asleep,” River added.
There was a sadness in her eyes. Wash shook his head. It had only been a dream.
“I wasn’t,” Kaylee said, wiping her hands on her dark green jacket and overalls. She pointed toward the engine room. “I was working. Mal won’t buy me new parts, so I have to use poxy and duct tape to keep this bag of bolts flying.”
“And we haven’t died yet,” Mal reminded her. He eyed the pan of mush and apparently lost his appetite. “And she hasn’t even crashed—”
“Really, Captain?” Kaylee said. “What about that moon?”
“It was just a moon!” Mal protested, relaxing his hand against his gun belt. “That’s why they made her out of metal. She’s going to take her dings from time-to-time, just like all the rest of us, but she’s still flying.”
“No thanks to you,” Kaylee replied, glaring at him. “And that’s just the engine room. The heat shield is a wreck. One more bad reentry, and we’ll lose the gorram buffer panel.”
“Oh yeah!” Wash said, slapping his hand against his forehead. “The buffer panel. Yeah, that comes off on the way to this job. In the dream, I mean.”
“Hey, hey!” Mal protested. “It’s bad luck to talk like that. You keep your fei hua dreams to yourself! Zoe, control your man.”
Zoe shrugged and plunged a fork into the substance in front of her.
“No one moves,” River droned on. “Everyone just sits there. Sits there until they die!”
“Doc,” Mal warned Simon. “Your sister’s gone fong luh again.” He pointed toward River and then to Wash. “Between the two of you, my whole gorram morning’s pretty much ruined.”
Wash stared at River. He tried to blink away this new dream. What if he was still sitting in the cockpit of Serenity, pinned to his seat like a kebab, waiting for someone to either put him out of his misery or rush him to an operating table?
River had brought up Miranda. She had mentioned the people on the planet from the nightmare, the ones who had just sat there until they had died. In his dream, the Alliance had tried to subdue the population of the planet with an airborne sedative, and the drugs they had injected into the atmosphere had worked a little too well on the majority of the population. But a minority had rebelled against the tranquilizing regimen. Their brains had reacted in the extreme opposite. They had become deranged, self-mutilating killers. They had become Reavers.
“Mal?” he said. “Captain?”
“What is it, Wash?”
“I’m going to try something. It’s probably going to end badly.”
“Then don’t do it,” Mal said. “Hah! My captaining is done for the day.” He raised his hands magnanimously to the crew. “I feel like I’ve accomplished so much while working with so very little.”
Wash thought of the commercial for Fruity Oaty Bars that had triggered River’s rampage in the Maidenhead bar on Beaumonde in his dream. He gulped as he remembered the catchy lyrics in the animated advertisement.
“Fruity oaty bars,” he piped up in the rhythm and cadence of the song. “Make a man out of a mouse…”
He watched River closely. She stopped rocking and tilted her head slightly.
“What are you doing?” Simon asked.
“Fruity oaty bars,” Wash continued. “Make you bust out of your blouse…”
“Hey,” Jayne said gleefully as he barged into the room. “I love this song.”
“Eat them all the time,” Wash sang. “Let them blow your mind… Wǒ hěn jiāo nián diūliǎn wǒ méiyǒu chī Fruity Oaty Bar!”
River bolted upright and jumped into a standing position on her chair. She did not go into full kung fu mode, as she had in the dream. She did not kick the Captain, who was within striking distance of her, and she did not go after Jayne. She just stood at attention, as if she waited on further instructions.
“What are you doing?” Simon asked Wash again, this time with serious concern. “Eta Kooram Nah Smech!”
River collapsed limply back into her chair. Simon shook her, but she did not wake.
“It’s real!” Wash cried, half-triumphant and half-confused.
“What’s real?” Zoe asked.
“I have no idea,” he admitted. “This? The dream? Something’s real. I think?”
“What’s going on here?” Captain Mal asked Simon.
“Don’t ask me!” Simon protested. He pointed at Wash. “Ask him!”
Mal turned to Wash and then shrugged. “Doc, he’s been over there the whole time, singing a stupid song.”
“How did you know?” Simon demanded. He jumped from his seat and angrily strode around the table to confront Wash.
Zoe put one hand on her gun but continued to eat as if nothing else was going on in the room.
“Careful, friend,” she warned.
“Yeah,” Jayne said from the doorway. “Your sister is already carrying enough crazy around for the both of you.”
“Jayne, that’s enough!” Mal said.
“You kidding me?” Jayne complained, pointing toward River and Simon. “They started it!”
“And I’m going to finish it,” Mal threatened.
“Captain,” Wash said. “I’ve been trying to tell you what’s going on this whole time.”
“Tell me what?”
“I had a dream.”
“I hate to break it to you, genius,” Mal said, “but we all had dreams last night. Hell, I’ll give you a reading for free. Kaylee here dreamt that she had a top-of-the-line engine with the shiniest parts in it.”
“He ain’t wrong,” Kaylee said, smiling as she leaned back in her chair. “Though I did have some other thoughts.” She very briefly glanced at Simon.
“Jayne over there dreamt about Vera in human form.”
Jayne grinned from ear-to-ear. “36 double D, and when you bend her over, you can see everything.”
“How did you know?” Simon asked, looking first at Mal and then at Wash.
“Are you serious?” Mal asked.
“Jayne’s had the same dream every night since we met him,” Zoe explained.
Jayne shrugged and then nodded. “There’s another recurring one with Mal’s ex-wife…”
“Tah mah duh hwoon dahn!” Mal exclaimed.
“Language!” Kaylee said. “Look, all of this is beside the point. The real problem here is that Simon’s upset.” She moved beside him and put her arm around his shoulder. “I think we should apologize.”
“You’re just looking for a reason to snuggle up to the doctor,” Jayne said. “Put your ovaries back in your pants.”
Kaylee sent him a death glare and gave a loud “pssshaw!” when Simon looked at her.
“I’m upset,” Simon said, “because I just had to use the gorram safe word.”
“Safe word?” Mal asked. “That bit of humbo jumbo that you said when your sister was doing her best impression of a chair lamp?”
Simon exhaled deeply and rolled his eyes. “How did you know?” he repeated to Wash. “Was it the song? Is that the trigger? How did you find out?”
“Look,” Wash said. “What I’m about to say is going to sound kwong-juh duh, but I’m telling you, I had a dream about all of it. I mean, everything that’s going to happen to us on this job. There’s going to be Reavers, and there’s going to be—”
“Gwai-gwai long duh dong!” Mal cried. “Zoe, control your man. He mentions Reavers one more time, and I’m going to brain him. This is going to be a simple job. Get in. Get out. Get paid.”
Jayne rolled his eyes. “Since when has one of your plans ever gone the way you drawn it up?”
“Hoo-tsuh,” Mal said, slamming his hand against his hip.
“Captain,” Wash said. “I’m telling you. We go down to the surface. We lose our primary buffer panel—”
“Ha!” Kaylee pointed toward the Captain and then back to Wash and everyone else at the table. “I told you it was going to happen sooner or later!”
“We grab the dough,” Wash continued. “And then, River here picks up on the Reavers—”
“I’m warning you,” Mal said, his eyes and demeanor serious. “I’m commanding you, and I’m warning you…”
“I think he’s right, Captain,” Kaylee said. “I mean, at least about the buffer panel…”
“Dear,” Zoe said, squeezing Wash by the shoulder. “It was just a dream. You’re spooking the Captain.”
“Maybe he should be spooked,” Wash said. “I mean did you see me trigger our little assassin here? That was in the dream too!”
“Assassin?” Mal laughed. “The sleeping girl over there? Last time I checked anything can set her off. The Alliance went and messed with her mind. Right, Doc?”
“No,” Simon said. “This wasn’t something random. He triggered her on purpose. I had to use the safe word to bring her back.”
“The Alliance did far worse on Miranda,” Wash noted.
“What the hell does a safe word have to do with any of this?” Mal said, turning back to Simon.
“I have no idea who Miranda is,” Simon said, “but if they did worse things to her, then I feel sorry for her. Wash is right about River’s training. The Alliance conditioned her. They messed with her brain, trying to turn her into an assassin. I interrupted that training, but the man in charge told me the program she was in had defense purposes.”
“Defense purposes?” Mal asked. “What kind of defense purposes?”
“I don’t know,” Simon said, pointing to River, “and I don’t want to know. The point is she’s my sister. She’s not a monster.”
“No,” Mal corrected him. “According to you, she’s an assassin.”
“She’s 90 pounds soaking wet,” Jayne said, patting his Callahan Full-bore Auto-lock named Vera on his back and scratching his shoulder through his black shirt. “Who exactly is she supposed to kill?”
“That’s not important,” Simon said. “What’s important is that our pilot here activated her programming.”
“Her programming?” Jayne asked. “What is she? Some kind of robot?”
“No,” Simon insisted. “She’s my sister. She’s a human being.”
“A human being trained by the Alliance to kill people,” Mal added. “I don’t much like assassins on my ship.”
“You can’t get rid of her,” Wash said. “Not now. She’s the only one who can tell you when the Reavers are around.”
“Mal,” Jayne whined as he shook his hands and bounced on the balls of his feet. “Can you make him stop saying that word?”
“For once,” Mal said, “I’m in agreement with Jayne.”
“We run into Reavers,” Kaylee said, worrying her hands against her jacket pockets. “And Serenity’s going to be in a world of hurt. Captain, when I say she’s held together with poxy and tape, I’m only slightly exaggerating. The drive chain is—”
“The ship will hold,” Mal said in a commanding tone of voice. “And there won’t be any more talk of Reavers. And from all the gossiping and lack of eating going on here, breakfast seems over.” He stood there with his hands on his hips. “Get to work.”
Zoe stood up and brought her plate to the sink. Kaylee followed and Simon went back to his sister. Wash had not eaten anything yet, but he was not hungry. He slid the plate along the table.
“I’ll go get something to wake her up,” Simon said before heading toward the medical bay.
“I think she’s just fine where she is,” Mal called out.
“Jing-tzahng mei yong-duh,” he mumbled before walking toward the bridge.
Jayne retreated back to his bunk, and Zoe kissed Wash on the forehead before walking to their room and her stash of weapons and armaments.
“You’re right about the buffer panel,” Kaylee said encouragingly. “It’s only a matter of time.”
“I know!” Wash shouted in frustration, before burying his head in his hands against the table. “Sorry… I just… It seemed so real… None of this makes sense.”
“Everything will be alright,” she said before walking toward the engine room.
As Wash brooded and chewed on an errant fingernail, he detected the slightest movement across the table. River’s eyes were open, and she was smiling creepily at him. His mind recoiled but his body sat as motionless as hers had been. She lifted her head awkwardly and continued to smile.
“The Captain doesn’t want to see,” she said, “but he will. In the end, he’ll see.”
“Thanks, Crazy Pants,” he said. “You’ve been a real help. Aces all around!”
She giggled, pushed herself from the chair and skipped toward the medical bay, where her brother had gone earlier.
“I have a resolution to announce,” Wash said to no one in particular as he rose from his chair. “No more dreaming. I’ve had more than my share of that.”
He snapped the waistband of his pants against his skin, looked down and smiled.
“Honey!” he yelled down the corridor to their cabin. “Remember what you said about after breakfast?” He broke into a jog as he bounded through the kitchen porthole to the hallway. “There’s some attention, and you said we’re supposed to talk about this!”
“Ugh!” Jayne cried in protest from the doorway of his cabin. “Get a room!”
“I plan on it!” Wash retorted. “Hey look! Here’s one right across the hallway from you!”
“Can’t even enjoy my own bunk,” Jayne grumbled.
Wash bit his lower lip in anticipation as he crossed the threshold of his cabin. Two perfect, powerful arms pulled him into the darkness and the door shut behind him.
“Oh, have mercy!” Wash yelled loudly so Jayne could hear. “If we’re not back in an hour, just go on and do the robbery without us! I’m sure the Captain will understand.”
“Stop talking,” Zoe said.
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