Ain't a Power in the 'Verse
The moment Captain Malcolm Reynolds awoke, no, the moment he came to, he instantly knew three things. One, his head hurt somethin’ awful. Two, somewhere, a ways off, bells were ringing. And most importantly three, them blasted bells were makin’ his head hurt that much worse. He tried to sit up. Blinding white lights flashed before his eyes, and he lie back down.
Bad idea. OK. Where am I?
He might not be able to sit up just yet, but rolling his pounding head to one side seemed to be a feasible option.
Hmm, walls...dirty walls, dirt floor, no sign of a door or any windows from this vantage point... what the hell happened? Why won’t those blasted bells stop ringing? Where is Jayne?
Even Jayne’s ugly gorram face would be a welcome sight just now.
Fallon! That rutting... gorram... chusheng zajiao de zanghuo!...
This was Fallon’s fault, all of it: The “cell,” the splitting headache, hell, maybe even the bells for all Mal knew.
Why in the ’verse did I bring that weaselly little runt on my ship? Ok...well, there was the whole, he paid a lot of money thing, but damnit all... I shoulda known...
Mal tried to think, to remember, what did he miss? How did he not see this one coming? Was the need to keep Serenity flying beginning to interfere with his judgment? Probably. Not like it was the first time either. Considering his current predicament, he hoped it wouldn’t end up being the last.
No, can’t think that way... there’s no knowing about the rest of the crew. Zoe’s probably on her way with a daring, yet effective rescue, even as I lie here...anytime now she’ll bust through the door...anytime now...any...time now...Or maybe I’ll just lie here a bit longer...have a little nap, naps are good...yep, little nap, so I’ll be all rested and ready when they get here...
Somewhere out of his sight, and by the sound of it, roughly from the direction his head was pointing as he lay there, came the grating of rusty hinges as a door swung open. Booted feet marched in, and presently a man came into view, peered down at Mal with a look of contempt. He was average sized, about Mal’s own height and build, close cropped brown hair, and a small scar below his left eye. He had the reek of a military man. Mal lolled his head so he could look directly up at him.
“You’re not Zoe.” The man kicked Mal none too gently in the side, which, of course, Mal figured he would do. Captain Reynolds now knew that he wasn’t permanently damaged because he could feel the searing pain in his ribs flare throughout his inert body. The knowledge had been costly, but definitely worth it. He just hoped he had enough strength to fight when the time came. Out loud he said, “Ow. Guess it’s good you ain’t Zoe. She kicks much harder...”
The scowling man drew his heavy boot back, ready to have a harder go at the wisecracking prisoner when a voice from someone Mal could not see stopped him mid kick.
“Cutter, Ba! Liu da.”
The man Mal now knew and loved as “Cutter” made a disgruntled sort of noise and stalked out of his range of vision, presumably leaving the room. He heard more boot steps, these much lighter, not as though the person was smaller, but that he carried himself differently. This new arrival paced the room almost silently, careful to stay out of Mal’s limited range of vision. The image of a prowling lion came to mind. His voice was deep when he spoke, but smooth and sweet, like molasses.
“You are an interesting man, Mr. Reynolds.” He purred.
“Oh, that’s just ’cuz you don’t know me too well.”
“On the contrary, Captain, I know very much about you; which brings me to my first question. What possible madness could drive such a man to ally himself with trash like Markus Fallon?”
The comment verified Mal’s initial suspicion that his most recent passenger was to blame for this unexpected and rather unwelcome situation.
“Ally? No no, I think maybe you over exaggerate our arrangement... I’m just a simple man, flies a simple ship what takes on simple haulin’ jobs...ain’t my business to go askin’ loads a questions of my passengers. Those what can pay their way and what don’t cause no trouble...”
“It seems to me Captain, and I apologize for the interruption, but it most certainly seems to me, that your current predicament constitutes trouble. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Well by golly, I do believe you are correct. In fact, as soon as I use your facilities, you don’t mind if I use your facilities, I’ll be on my way to locate our mutual acquaintance Mr. Fallon. I mean to have some serious...serious words with that hun dan...”
“Unfortunately, Captain, I’m afraid your stay with us must be extended a bit longer. You see, I am not quite satisfied that you aren’t in league with our Mr. Fallon. I truly hope that you are not...truly. That would be most regrettable. For you.” Mal heard another set of boot steps approach. They stopped at the door. “Ah, Cutter is back. I believe he has some more questions he would like to ask of you. Please do yourself a favor and answer them truthfully and promptly.”
Cutter chuckled. It was a terrifying sound. The unmistakable whisper of a blade kissing the air as it was unsheathed prickled Mal’s skin. Cutter leaned down from above Mal’s head, a very wicked looking knife in his hand.
“You don’t gotta answer too promptly...that just wouldn’t be any fun at all.” Mal tensed, his already throbbing muscles burned in protest.
“You know, that really isn’t necessary Cutter...kinda startin’ to figure where that shiny name comes from...”
The sound of the other man’s steps, the smooth-talking lion, receded from the dank room, the rusty-hinged door creaked its way ponderously shut, clanging closed with a disconcerting finality, and Mal was alone with the one they call Cutter...
FOUR DAYS AGO…WHITTIER, TENTH PLANET ORBITING KALIDASA
Markus Fallon was not a simple man. Then again, neither was he all that complex, and that was what made him dangerous. A simple man is predictable, obvious. A complex man, long as you have a grasp on his type of complexity, is equally easy to read. It’s when they ride life right down the middle that makes them hard to second guess.
Markus Fallon knew this, and in so knowing, he purposefully exuded the air of a simple man; hung it out where everyone could see, plain as day. He wore it in the cheap and somewhat shabby brown suit, it reflected from his nearly hairless pate. His eyes, however, told a different story. Greed, ambition, hatred, and a shrewd intelligence hid just beneath the surface of those limpid gray pools.
All this and more Captain Reynolds had observed in his first glimpse of the man. He took it in, filed it away, and smiled real nice-like as they shook hands on the lowered cargo bay ramp of Serenity.
“Cap’n Reynolds.” Fallon drawled.
“Mister Fallon.” The handshake was short, and Fallon was already past Mal and up the ramp.
“Neat little ship you have here Cap. Right tidy. I do believe she’ll do she will. Yes…nicely, nicely.” His balding little head bobbed like a bird as he spoke, twitching from right to left, up and down as he visually cataloged the cargo bay. Every detail was taken in, committed to memory.
“Little?” Mal muttered. He recovered the smile that had slipped from his face and spun to catch up with the ever-moving Fallon. A few quick steps and he had placed himself in front of the smaller man. Fallon, mid-step, came up short and leaned slightly back and away from the imposing Captain. He was not fond of being touched, or for that matter having anyone even remotely invading his space. The Captain was standing far too close and Mal could see it in Fallon’s suddenly uncomfortable expression. He did not, however, cede ground. This was, after all, his ship.
Little indeed, he thought.
Out loud he said, “Just a few ground rules Mr. Fallon…”
“Uh…you can…can call me Fallon. Jjj ju just Fallon if you puh..please,” he stammered.
“Alright…Fallon.” Mal, feeling he had made his point, took a casual step back, leaned against the stair railing. “Rules. The dining area, which you’ll be shown, is open to you at any time, but apart from that I’ll have to ask that you remain in the passenger dorm while we’re in the black. The bridge, engine room, cargo bay, all off limits without an escort.”
“Shiny, sure, yeah, that’s no problem at all.” A slight sheen of perspiration had begun to coat Fallon’s pale face.
Maybe I gave this guy too much credit. “Good.” He glanced down at the single case that Fallon was carrying. It was neither small nor large, expensive looking nor shabby. But there was definitely something in the way Fallon held on to it. Whatever it was, it was important to him. “That all your luggage?”
“Yep, yes. Exactly. Just this. As I stated when I booked passage, I am making a delivery to a client on Verbena. Something of vv va value, a collector’s piece or some such I believe. Not my job to ask, just to deliver. Commercial transport is too ss slow, private is much better. Heard that Serenity was an honest ship, her Captain honorable, looked you up, here I am…” He seemed to realize he was rambling, chuckled amiably, though it came off sounding nervous instead.
I do not like this guy. “Right. Well, I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but one of these days I’ll have to thank ’em for the right nice commendation.” Right on cue, Jayne ambled up the cargo bay ramp and into Serenity. Ignoring Fallon, he walked straight up to Mal.
“Cap’n, Zoe said you was looking for me?”
Mal smiled inwardly. I love this part.
“Jayne, this is our new passenger, Mister Markus Fallon…”
“Uh, just F ff FFallon…” He reached out tentatively, offered his hand. Jayne, his thumbs in his belt loops, looked at the outstretched hand, his brow creased. He shot Mal a look as if to say “Yer kiddin right?” Silently Mal responded with a look of his own, “Humor him.” Jayne grunted, rolled his eyes and reached out to grab hold of Fallon’s hand, which he then proceeded to crush as he said with a huge smile,
“Nice ta meet ya.”
Fallon sagged a little as he lost all feeling in his right arm.
“Likewise,” he managed to gasp.
“Jayne,” Mal began, “show our guest the mess and then his quarters.”
Jayne locked eyes with Mal, the momentary glee he had felt at his domination of Fallon’s hand was gone. For a second his eyes betrayed that he might argue the order, but only for a second. He let loose another disgruntled sound, released the rapidly paling Fallon and spun on his heel, calling over his shoulder as he went.
“C’mon. This way.”
For the briefest moment Fallon’s external façade slipped as he cast a deadly glare at the back of Jayne’s head. It was gone almost as it began, and his aloof, simple expression and nervous smile slid back into place. No one saw, and he proceeded to follow Jayne farther into the ship.
Mal watched them go, a not-so-good feeling beginning to form in the pit of his stomach. Either he was hungry, or he sensed trouble on the horizon.
I’m definitely hungry. Damnit that means it’s probably both.
The need to be done with this job was growing increasingly stronger with each passing minute. If Fallon hadn’t been paying so well he thought he might just toss him off the boat and have done with it, honorable Captain or no. Like it or not he was paying, and well. Too well, in fact. But Mal needed that money if he wanted to keep Serenity flying and his crew’s stomach’s full. Well, less empty anyway. Pushing the nagging feeling of dread to the back of his mind, he headed for the engine room to check in on his ship’s mechanic.
And then a sandwich.
Just as he reached the open hatch to the engine room he heard Zoe’s voice from behind him.
“You really mean to be goin to Verbena?” Her arms were crossed and one eyebrow was raised. Not a good sign. He ignored it.
“Yes, Zoe, I mean to do just that.” Knowing that more was about to follow he quickly added, “And then I mean to get paid the remainder of my money and very shortly after-wards be on our merry way.”
“Simple as that sir?”
His eyes went up and to the right, and his head tilted ever so slightly to the side in his customary fashion whenever he was being purposefully obtuse.
“Sounded pretty simple when I said it just now didn’t it?”
“Zoe…” He gave her The Look; the one he always used when he had decided a conversation was over. She raised both eyebrows but said nothing further. Smiling her patented long-suffering smile, she turned and went on her way, her unspoken protest trailing along behind her like an unpleasant smell. Mal watched her until she was gone.
Always with the questioning my decisions.
He turned back towards the engine room. “Ah!” He screamed as he suddenly found himself face to face with an equally-but less vocally-startled Kaylee.
“Sorry Cap’n. Thought you knew I was here.”
“Yeah, the girly scream sorta gave that away.”
“A bit…did Zoe say we’re goin to Verbena?”
“She did, and we are. That’s why I was on my way to find you…”
“So we’re expectin’ trouble then?”
“I never said that…”
“But we are? Expectin trouble?” Kaylee looked at Mal with those great big puppy dog eyes of hers. She always looks so gorram innocent.
How does she do that?
“Huh, yes…yes, we may be. Hope not to o’course, but, just make sure she’s fit to run if needs be.” Kaylee’s eyes lit up.
“Oh she’ll run Cap’n, mark my words. She’ll run like…like something what runs real fast…”
“Good.” Mal turned to go, then turned back. “Girly? Really?”
“Yeah. OK.” He spun on his heels and headed for the mess. He didn’t get very far. Simon appeared from a side passage. He stepped out, reached across to the opposite bulkhead, barring Mal’s way. Mal stopped, frustration beginning to find its way to his face. “Something I can do for you Doc?”
“Are you mad…?” His eyes blazed with an intense fire. It was a fairly common look for the Doctor.
“I’m getting there…”
“Verbena is an Alliance occupied planet, we can’t go there.” There was a lot of finality saturating the statement, a little too much for Mal.
“In case you’ve forgotten, again, I am the Captain on this boat, and therefore what she can and can’t do is entirely up to me. Not you, me. Try and remember that this time.” Mal pushed through Simon’s arm and continued down the passage. Never one to let go, Simon called after him.
“One of these days, Captain, you’re going to get us all killed.” Under his breath he added, “Or worse, arrested.” Mal did not respond, and Simon, realizing that the Captain had nothing further to add, went morosely on his way.
Gotta get me a new Doc, less mouthy.
He had made it almost all the way to the bridge without realizing he had been heading towards it.
I’m never gonna get that gorram sandwich.
The familiar thrum of Serenity’s engine whirling to life could be heard as she spooled up to take them off world. The deck shuddered ever so slightly and then went still as she left the ground. Crazy or no, she’s a hell of a pilot. And as he thought it, like she’d been listening, River came silently out from the bridge. She glided down the stairs towards Mal. She always reminded him of a dancer, the way she moved; so graceful, ethereal. But he knew all too well the deadly power behind the simple, fluid movements. She always looked him right in the eyes when she spoke to him. Mal liked that.
“Verbena’s a long way. Four days in The Black.” Mal, as was often the case, wasn’t quite sure what she was getting at.
“Done it before, plenty a times. Tain’t a big deal really.”
“We have a passenger. He isn’t what he seems.” Knowing River’s abilities, and knowing River, Mal had learned to take what she said to heart. His gaze hardened now as he regarded her.
“Is he a danger to my ship?” River looked at him a long time, what seemed like hours. Mal was beginning to think she wasn’t going to answer him at all. He was just starting to feel slightly more uncomfortable than is normally the case with River when she finally responded.
“Of course. But we have to take him where he’s going. It’s the only way he’ll get there.” She held his gaze a moment longer and then abruptly walked on past him, leaving him standing there with a mix of anticipation and confusion playing across his face. The anticipation because for some reason he had expected there was going to be a little more to the conversation, and confusion because, well, it was River, and the girl did little that did not confuse him. Another thought jumped into his mind and just before she went through the side hatch he turned and yelled after her.
“River! Who’s flying my gorram ship?” River stopped, looked back at him over her shoulder.
“Serenity flies Serenity.” His brow creased. He looked as if he was waiting for more. She rolled her eyes before adding, “She’s on autopilot until we break atmo.” And then she was gone.
“I knew that. Autopilot. I knew that’s what you meant.” He called after her, more for himself than anything. She was right about one thing for sure. This trip might be a long one; a lot can happen in four days when you’re out in The Black. Mal continued on up to the bridge, thinking as he did that a few hours alone in the pilot’s chair might be the only peace he would be getting for the foreseeable future.
“Ah well,” he thought out loud, “there’s worse things. I could be Jayne.” He smiled at his joke, then shuddered a little as he envisioned it. He settled into Wash’s old chair, and watched the sky turn from azure to onyx. He waited until the view screen was full of stars, removed the autopilot, and jumped them into hyperspace.
River flowed like her namesake throughout Serenity, and the spirit of the ship in turn moved into and around her. She was one with the vessel, the vacuum beyond, the distant stars burning brilliant and cold, and they with her. The youngest Tam had found a tenuous sort of equilibrium in the time since the events on Miranda. Mostly she felt good. Mostly. The headaches still came, and they were often quite bad. She could work through them most of the time, like if one came on while she was flying, or fighting, or dancing. If she wasn’t doing any of those things her brother Simon would give her something to help her sleep. Not normal sleep, where she’d have dreams of all kinds, but the deeper kind, the kind Simon had to sometimes wake her from with a needle. She didn’t like these thoughts and so flicked them away. The ones that slid in to take their place weren’t better, just different, sadder.
It felt strange to her that she should be the one to fill Wash’s shoes. At the same time though, it was all so fitting. She missed him, missed the good natured way he approached everything, especially trouble. And now he was gone. No more. A jumble of laughs and smiles that got all mixed up in her head and turned into tears. She knew it was worse for Zoe.
Oh, how Zoe had loved Wash. But Zoe was a soldier, a warrior. The external façade showed no cracks, but River could see how she was crying on the inside. She tried not to, but Serenity was not a large ship, not nearly large enough to contain the roaring thoughts of her crew. River heard them all. When they were together, when they were alone. Always their thoughts were there. They all knew she could hear, but she never let on that she listened, and they loved her all the more for it. Knowing them all so well made hearing their minds’ voices all the easier and it took a lot of effort to shut them out. Mostly she tried not to listen. Mostly.
She moved through the boat, up stairs, down ladders, through corridors, flowing where the current took her. River had a way of seeing things that others couldn’t, wouldn’t, or most often simply didn’t seem to see.
It’s best that way, she thought to herself as she slid open the cabin door in front of her. If they could see they’d just get all worked up and likely explode. Best if I see. Best when I help them see.
Her fingers moved deftly, touching everything, taking nothing. Well, almost nothing. He won’t miss this, not for a while. The something small disappeared up her sleeve.
“So little,” she whispered to no one. “So small. So many, either saved or killed.” She turned abruptly, a new flow of thought sweeping her off to another part of the ship. The cabin door closed silently behind her. She was never there, and somehow, always everywhere.
And Serenity sailed on.
TWO DAYS LATER, IN THE BLACK.
Mal was alone on the bridge. He stood behind the empty pilot’s chair, one hand lightly gripping the headrest. He was looking at the screen displaying the person he was talking to.
“Alright,” he said with a false air of nonchalance. “I’ll, we’ll, see you soon then.” The communication was terminated, the screen went black. He remained where he was a moment longer, making sure he had a firm grip on the feelings screaming chaotically around inside him. Finally confidant, he turned and strode from the bridge, making his way back toward the mess.
Everyone was basically where he’d left them when the comm had chirped, signally an incoming transmission. The crew was arrayed-rather uncomfortably if he was correctly gauging their expressions and posture-around the mess hall table. Fallon sat at one end, talking. Still. Mal had to wonder whether he had even bothered to take a breath since he’d left. It sounded like it might be the culmination of an entirely different story than he had been telling previously, but there seemed to be so many that it was hard to be sure.
“…and, as fate would have it, he actually turned out to be the very mm m man we had been looking for the entire time, only in disguise! Can you believe that?! What irony! Oh, hello Captain, I was just telling everyone about the time I took on a job from bb b BBaron Chaldemar of Osi…”
“And I’m sure it was quite fascinating, maybe you could tell it to me…some…other time. However, I do have some news of import, so, although I hate to interrupt…”
“No!...Please…” Zoe paused, collecting herself before continuing, more mildly, “please, important news is always…important…to everyone…” she looked around, slightly self-consciously. Fallon seemed unabashed.
“Yes, yes Captain, please, by all mm m mmeans…” Fallon eschewed, almost too willingly.
“Right, well, I know how important it is for you to get to Verbena in a timely fashion and all…”
“…Yes?” he eyed Mal hesitantly.
“We have to make a very minor detour,” Mal watched Fallon’s face turn slightly red as he spoke, though he seemed very careful not let his passive expression slip. “Gotta pick another passenger. Former member of the crew actually.” Kaylee’s eyes lit up immediately.
“Inara? Was that Inara on the comm Cap’n?”
Mal’s eyes did not leave Fallon’s face. And though he knew the news that they would be slightly delayed bothered the man much more than he was showing, he was disappointed to spot nothing of that emotion on the man’s face.
“Actually, yes, that was Inara. She’s concluded her business somewhat earlier than anticipated and since we’re sort of nearby, we’re going to meet up with her, my, shuttle.”
“Captain. I do hope this will not upset our timetable, I am very much…”
“In a hurry to get to Verbena, yes Mister Fallon, I know, and I do apologize but this really won’t take long. I promise we’ll have you on Verbena mere hours later than intended. No one will even notice. Promise.”
“I do hope you are right Captain. It would be a shame to anger my employer.” With that, Fallon got up, wiped his face with his napkin and placed it back on the table. “If you’ll all excuse me.” Without actually waiting for anyone to respond he turned dramatically and made for the passenger dorm. The reactions of the crew were nearly the same all around: raised eyebrows, expressions of relief. None vocalized; none but Jayne, and none too quietly.
“Jee-zus! Thought he weren’t never gonna shut his damn trap. Couldn’t he tell no one gave a rat’s turd about his crazy ass stories?” Zoe looked at him, her long-suffering expression in full effect.
“Maybe not at first, but I’m sure he got the idea when you pretended to fall asleep.” She said around a bemused smile.
“If not then, I’m sure your extremely loud, and quite obviously fake snoring may have tipped him off.” Simon chimed in.
Jayne, as usual, didn’t seem to notice the reproachful undertone in their voices.
“Then why the heck didn’t he stop?”
Mal, typically straight-faced, looked Jayne pointedly in the eyes.
“Well Jayne, I’ve personally known several folk who just never seem to know when to quit.”
“Sure know what I’d like to do to them kinda people.” A dangerous glint flashed in Jayne’s eyes as he said this, his right hand sliding down to caress the hilt of the bowie knife strapped to his hip.
“Yes, Jayne,” commented Zoe dryly, “we’ve all felt that way at one time or other.” Jayne, of course, still didn’t catch on, and before he had too much time to think on it, Kaylee spoke up, changing to a less delicate subject. But only slightly less.
“Can’t wait to see Inara again.” There was a short pause as everyone joined Kaylee on this new track. Mal recovered first.
“Kaylee, you saw her not three weeks ago when she came to borrow the shuttle.”
“I know, but I meant, like, I miss having her aboard…you know. She brought a sorta elegant feel to Serenity.”
“Elegant? She sleeps with men for money Kaylee. Don’t know about elegant, but I gotta word for it…wh...”
“Ok!” Simon cut in suddenly, standing up. “I’m just going to go ahead and clean up now.” He moved around the table, picking up everyone’s plates. “Everyone get enough to eat?” He knew it had been the wrong question when he said it, but somehow it had slipped out anyway. Since he knew they were coming, the chorus of ‘no’s’ and sarcastic ‘yeah right’s’ didn’t disturb his rhythm and he quickly followed up with, “Good, well, have a good night, see you all…later.” He dropped the collection of plates in the sink and made for the hatch. Mal, like everyone besides Jayne, got the hint.
“Well, I guess we all got things need doin. River…” He noticed abruptly that she was not present, and hadn’t been the entire time. He was slowly getting used to her popping up often and at random, so when she answered from the hatchway behind him, he barely jumped in surprise.
“The new course is laid in. We’ll rendezvous with Inara’s shuttle in three hours, five minutes, and twenty seven seconds.” She had that look on her face like she knew regular people didn’t calculate that way, but she couldn’t help it.
“Uh, thanks, good. Good job.” Mal stammered. She always seemed to bring that out in him. Just like another former member of the crew, but for all kinds of different reasons. River looked at Mal in her way that said, ‘I love you Cap, but you’re a dumbass.’ She turned and headed back towards the bridge, Mal calling after her.
“My shuttle. It’s my shuttle. Dong le ma?”
Zoe stifled a grin, Jayne outright scoffed, and Kaylee spoke up.
“Oh Cap’n, you’re such a bully.” Mal turned back to them all, a wounded expression on his face.
“It’s my ship. My ship. Everyone’s always forgetting.”
“Well then Captain,” Zoe ventured straight-faced, “I guess you’ll be wanting to wash your dishes. We know how important your things are to you, so we’ll just leave you to it.” She got up, a smile in her eyes, and headed for her cabin. The others followed suit. Kaylee patted Mal consolingly on the arm as she passed.
And just like that, Mal was alone with his dirty kitchen.
EIGHT HOURS ’TILL LANDFALL
Mal’s shuttle, piloted by Inara, had docked successfully. Aside from a brief and somewhat awkward conversation with Mal, she had remained in the shuttle, telling a rapt Kaylee about her most recent exploits. She had forgotten how much she missed Kaylee. Being back aboard Serenity made her realize how much she truly missed the ship, their adventures…Malcolm. No. She did not want to think about that. Not right now.
Mere decks away, Fallon sat alone in his dorm. The Companion’s sudden presence on board was something he had not foreseen. The potential for disaster was now much greater. Since her arrival he had remained locked away in his cabin so as to avoid accidentally bumping into her. The crew of Serenity had obviously not recognized him thus far, but someone who had so recently been on such a heavily populated world might very well do so. He had, of course, taken some precautions, and was cleverly disguised. Still, he thought, best not to tempt fate.
Fate, though, seemed to have plans of her own. Hunger was a compelling force, and Fallon had not eaten since just before the captain had informed every one of their necessary detour. And neither was it because she hoped to “accidentally” run into Mal-or so she told herself-that Inara happened to walk into the mess just as Fallon, a hastily made sandwich in his hand, was about to slink back to his cabin. They made eye contact for the briefest of moments before Fallon disappeared through the hatchway, taking a huge bite from his sandwich as he went.
Something that came close to being recognition flickered fleetingly across Inara’s face, but just then Mal appeared from the hatch Fallon had escaped through, and it was gone. Mal, who was looking over his shoulder, presumably at the squirrelly little man with the sandwich, turned and caught sight of her standing there and stopped dead in his tracks.
“Hi there.” He blurted. Normally he would have silently chided himself for such a lame exclamation, but there was something about being near to Inara that always made it hard for him to think, to breathe. His legendary charm always seemed about to fail him, and his rough, smuggler attitude felt false, thin, weak. Sarcasm seemed the only weapon that remained at his disposal and although, well, because he knew it infuriated her, sooner or later in every conversation they seemed to have, he would bring it to bear with all his might.
Why shouldn’t I? He always thought. She relished making him uncomfortable, he knew she did, in which case, she deserved it.
Yeah. Serves her right. It’s what she gets for goin’ around, making folk feel all queasy and weird.
“Hello Mal, you seem well.” She intoned, in that inscrutable way of hers.
“Yep.” He responded. It wasn’t his best, but it did give him time to think of more words to use, though, unfortunately, not better ones. “So do you…seem well, that is…how’s business?”
“Business is good.”
“I’m sure it is.” Whoops. He knew they were the wrong words even as they left his mouth. Too late now, he thought.
Her brow furrowed in that cute way it did when she was mad at him. He’d seen that expression many times.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Gone was the perfectly balanced tone, replaced with that slightly higher pitched one she always affected when he said something wrong. He’d heard that one many times as well. A familiar indignant look began to creep its way onto his face, bringing a light flush in the cheeks with it.
“Just that, a woman what looks as you do, any man would pay top dollar to…” Oh boy. Now he’d done it. Before he could attempt to recover she had already spun on her heel and begun to storm off. “It was a compliment!” he hollered after her. Her contemptuous response reverberated back through the ship and struck him full in the face.
“Liou coe shway duh biao-tze huh hoe-tze duh ur-tze. Impossible!”
Mal flinched at the venomous tone and scathing insult. Half to himself he muttered,“Language!” Fortunately for him, she was too far away and did not seem to hear.
Inara had not left her temporary quarters aboard the shuttle she used to rent from Mal since their little…episode. Once again, the last person she wanted to think about was the one person she couldn’t get out of her mind.
Why does he always have to be so antagonistic? She thought to herself.
You know why. Another part of her responded. You’ve always known why.
I shouldn’t have come back.
I can’t stay away.
I can’t stay.
I can’t feel this way anymore.
Besides, it’s not like he would…not as if he feels…
What am I doing?
What am I thinking?
He needs me.
I need to leave this ship, and never come back.
And suddenly, from nowhere, she knew, she remembered, she recognized. She had no idea how the thought had come to her, or what could have triggered it, but there it was, floating in her mind as clear as a sunny day. She knew where she’d seen the squirrelly little sandwich man before.
She leapt up from her bed, practically flew to the console. She had to be sure. Before she told Mal, she had to be sure. Quickly, she logged onto the news feed, searched for the appropriate headlines. There he was, staring her in the face. The nose was slightly different, and he didn’t have a beard in this photo, but it was the same guy, she’d bet her life on it.
She left the page up on her display screen and clicked the shipboard com, hailing Mal’s room. Despite everything, when he heard the tone of her voice, his attitude changed instantly. Gone was the belligerence, the prideful hurt in his eyes, gone was the sarcasm. She didn’t say much, but she knew she wouldn’t have to. He signed off, already on his way, and a slight smile crept onto her face. Mal was who he was, after all, and nothing could change that.
Maybe that was why, deep in her heart, she loved him so much.
Jayne woke gradually, as if to achieve wakefulness he first had to wade through a dense fog. He could barely see his own hand in front of his face, and therefore did not know which way to go. He might have wandered forever in that gray soup but for a voice, distant, belligerent, and apparently talking to him. The fog muffled sound, and Jayne could not quite make out what it was saying, but somehow, the tone that disembodied voice was using was really pissing Jayne off.
Slowly, falteringly, Jayne’s vision began to come back to him, and with it, his ability to understand the gruff voice that was engaged in mocking him. “Not so tough now, eh?” It was saying. Jayne, noticing for the first time that he was lying on his back, attempted to sit up. Two things happened. Thing one involved the chains shackling him to the bare and cold concrete floor going taut, meaning that his attempt to sit up was arrested almost immediately. Thing two was the dirty, sized-ten boot that planted itself on his chest and urged him none too gently to return to his former position. He grunted, the breath rushing from his lungs making his apparently cracked ribs scream in protest.
“Not so fast super guy. I think I prefer you where you are.” Jayne bit back the retort that had been forming on his lips, and instead took a look around. There wasn’t much to see from this position, and he quickly realized that even if he had been sitting up, there would likely have been little to look at. He appeared to be in a small room, square-shaped, no windows, and only a single door, which, from this vantage point here on his back, he could not see. Through the pain and gritted teeth, Jayne mustered his toughest sounding voice,
“Where is she?”
The man half-standing on Jayne’s chest cocked his head to one side.
“What the Hell you talking’ ’bout, worm?”
“If you’ve done sumthin’ to her, I swear on all that is righteous, I’ll make you bleed.”
The man’s confusion deepened.
“You lost your gorram mind, boy.”
“Vera. Where she at?”
“Vera? Who the fu…”
“My gun you idgit. Vera. She better be in one piece or when I find her, you won’t be.”
The man laughed, a deep guttural sound. It was not easy on the ears.
“I think you got more pressing matters to concern yourself with right now. Boss don’t care much for them what’ll work with Fallon. Nope. He don’t care much at all.”
“Work with Fallon? You idgit, we’re fixin’ to collect the bounty on that no good, turn coat bastard.”
“Riiiiight, of course you was. Well now that that’s all cleared up, why don’t I just give you your guns back and send you on your merry way?” His gravelly voice dripped with sarcasm. Jayne, of course, didn’t catch it.
“You can start by gettin’ your stinky-ass boot offa me!” Jayne’s tone couldn’t have held more venom if he tried.
Before the man could respond, the door to the cell opened and though Jayne could not see the person who stood in the now open doorway, he knew from the instant he heard their voice that this was a man who commanded men.
“Barber, you may go.”
The foot resting on Jayne’s chest, which he now knew belonged to Barber, lifted itself clear, and the man turned and stalked out of the small room, leaving Jayne alone with this new threat.
“Well. If isn’t the Legend himself, the Man They Call Jayne.” The speaker had a voice like warm honey. Jayne hated it immediately. He couldn’t see the man who was speaking to him from the now open doorway. All he could think about was the door, and how it was open, and how he might get to it. His reply was little more than reactionary.
“Who’s askin’?” he growled.
The man didn’t move, didn’t enter the room, or even respond. Not at first. He stood there quietly for so long that Jayne began to wonder if he’d left. He hadn’t, of course. Jayne wasn’t that lucky. He was just doing his damnedest to piss Jayne off even more than he already was. Or at least, that’s what Jayne assumed he was doin’.
“You’ve been employed by Malcolm Reynolds for a remarkably long time. I use the word remarkable because anyone who knows anything about people of your, shall we say, temperament, know that loyalty isn’t usually a big part of your repertoire.” He purred, still standing in the open doorway that Jayne could not see, “Also, equally as remarkable, is the fact that men like Captain Reynolds tend not to attract people such as yourself, since loyalty is something he values rather highly. And if not loyalty, at least the ability to follow orders with some degree of consistency. Yet another trait people like you often have difficulty with.”
A long pause followed, even longer than the first. Eventually, Jayne decided he was finished.
“Am I ‘sposed to say sumthin’ now? You sure seem to like hearin’ yourself talk, and I don’t wanna interrupt er nuthin’…” The man continued on as if Jayne had said nothing at all.
“I suppose despite all of that, it is rather surprising that someone like you would stoop to the level of terrorism.” That got a reaction.
“Terrorism?! Now you just wait a gorram minute…”
“Then again, if a man like Malcolm Reynolds can fall that far, I guess it isn’t such a stretch that you could too…” he let the implication hang above Jayne’s supine form. Jayne’s reaction was almost instantaneous, and far more passionate then the man had expected. He heaved his body against the chains securing him to the hard floor, every muscle taut with exertion.
“Mal ain’t no terrorist!” he yelled as he continued to strain against his bonds. So surprised at the crazed reaction was the man, that it took him several moments to recover and respond.
“Calm down, calm down. You’ll only injure yourself.” Jayne either didn’t hear or didn’t care as he railed even harder against his bonds. The raw strength was impressive, the man had to admit. He was very glad he’d thought to have Cobb chained down. The man leaned backwards out the still open doorway and shouted down the hall, “Barber! Barber, get in here now!”
As ordered Barber came sprinting down the hall and flew past the man in the doorway. He fell upon Jayne, and with bear-like strength, slowly managed to bring the wildly thrashing man under control. It shouldn’t have been too hard, seeing as how Jayne had recently been drugged, was chained down, and had been straining against those chains for going on a full minute, but even accounting for all of that, the man called Barber had to call upon all of his own considerable power to finally quell Jayne’s spasms of anger. Barber produced a syringe from somewhere and stabbed it forcefully into Jayne’s left thigh, and the fight went completely out of the big man. Barber, sweat beading on his forehead from the exertion, stood up, an openly hostile scowl on his face as he looked down on the quickly fading warrior.
A sweet numbness washed through Jayne, swift as a flood-tide and blessed darkness followed quickly behind. He no longer struggled. His eyes closed, and he was out yet again.
ON BOARD SERENITY, NOW:
Something wasn’t right, Zoe could feel it. It nagged at her like an itch she couldn’t reach. It was the same feeling she used to get during the war, right before something bad happened. Whatever was coming, she knew, it had everything to do with that traitorous little worm, Fallon. After Inara had told the captain she’d recognized him as a known terrorist against the Alliance, Mal had called Zoe, and the three had met up in the shuttle Inara used to rent from Mal.
There Mal had detailed his plan to take Fallon down to the surface of Verbena using one of Serenity’s two shuttles. He’d tell Fallon it would be cheaper for him to rent a smaller berth for the shuttle than to bring Serenity down to the planet. He’d take Jayne with him, something about needing an extra pair of hands to bring what supplies they’d pick up back to the shuttle. Once down, they’d follow Fallon until he revealed his co-conspirators, then they’d alert the authorities to their location, collect the reward, and be on their way, pockets full, the traitor captured, and a good deed done. Easy.
Except, as Inara had reminded them both, nothing was ever that easy, especially with Malcolm. He’d taken offense, as usual, and Zoe had had to douse the fire that always seemed ready to combust when the two of them were in close proximity to each other. She knew that feeling all too well. Wash had always been the tinder to her flame. And now, that fire was doused forever. She had closed her eyes and taken a deep breath then, and let the memory of her beloved flood into her, filling her up with his light. She had opened her eyes, diffused the storm brewing between Inara and her captain, and gotten them back on track.
She had been satisfied with the plan. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. She’d rather it had been her tagging along down to the planet instead of Jayne, but that would have meant leaving Jayne in charge aboard Serenity, and that was just ridiculous. So, she had remained behind.
Almost as soon as Mal left, however, things had begun to go wrong. River was beset by one of her headaches. It was a bad one this time too, and Simon had given her something to help her sleep, which she was now doing down in the med-bay, her ever-vigilant brother watching over her, monitoring her vitals while she rested. Zoe had noticed that the painful attacks had come less and less often since the events involving the planet Miranda, but Simon was in a constant state of worry over his little sister, and almost always insisted she sleep the headaches off. This meant that until River was recovered, she was now the pilot in the event that they needed to do some flying. And while she was far from terrible at it, no one could replace River behind the controls. No one currently on their crew, anyway.
And so, there was nothing to do now but wait, and trust that Mal and Jayne could handle whatever mess Fallon was likely to get them into. She sat, alone on the bridge, in Wash’s old chair, staring at a couple little plastic dinosaurs sitting in their fixed place on top of the flight console. They’d been adhered to the metal of the flight board by one of the crew after Wash…
After Wash was…gone.
She shook her head to clear it. No one knew which of them had done it, and no one asked. It just seemed right, and so, there they sat, forever locked in their imaginary struggles as herbivore and predator. The comparison between the little toys and the relationship between Serenity’s crew and the Alliance was not lost on her, or, likely, any of them. Well, maybe Jayne. It was almost definitely lost on Jayne.
A sudden chirping ripped her from her thoughts. It was an incoming call. She sat forward in the chair, eying the information displayed on the screen. The message was coming in from the shuttle that the three men had taken down to the surface a few hours before. It was probably Mal calling to let her know all had gone well, and they were on their way back.
Yeah, right. She thought. That’ll be the day.
She thumbed the switch that would open the message. A frown tugged at her face. There was no video or audio, only text.
There was no reason she could think of for the Captain to transmit a message this way. Unless it wasn’t the Captain who sent it, of course.
That fool better be alright. She thought.
The message was short. It read: Unforeseen issues. Land as soon as possible. This was followed by coordinates for a landing zone. She checked them against the computer. They were for a docking bay on the outskirts of the city. She plugged them into Serenity’s navigation computer and set the auto-pilot. Whoever sent that message wanted them to reach those coordinates, so she wasn’t worried about letting the ship fly herself down to the planet. It would be a short trip, and she needed all the time she’d have to prepare for whatever trap they were now flying into.
Better go rally the troops.
Mal was not new to interrogation. He generally preferred straight questions followed by straight answers. And he usually liked being the one asking, as opposed to the one being asked. His new friend Cutter was terrible at interrogation.
“Cutter, I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re terrible at this.” He drawled. He was just able to raise his head and look at the man before Cutter hit him again. He was no longer on the floor. Now he was upright, his hands above him and manacled over a pipe that passed through the room just below the ceiling. He preferred the floor. At least when he was there he got to lie down, and he hadn’t been chained. And no one had been hitting him. Yeah, he thought, I miss the floor. A bit of blood dripped from one corner of his mouth. He flexed his jaw. It was not broken. Yet.
“Why did Fallon risk coming to an Alliance held world? Does it have to do with their manufacturing plants? What is his plan?” Cutter, the broken record. Mal raised his head again, made eye contact with his captor. He was gettin’ real tired of this dance.
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know. And if I did know, I still wouldn’t tell ya, because I want to find that yi da dwei bun chou roh even more than you do.” There was conviction in his voice, and fire in the gaze he skewered Cutter with. Cutter, true to form thus far, simply cocked an arm back, preparing to deliver yet another blow to Mal’s already purple face. Before Cutter could reward Mal for his answer, however, the door to the room opened and the man with the liquid gold voice strode in.
Mal hadn’t seen him since they’d met, way back when he had been lying down. Now that he could look at him from a normal angle, he felt just as indifferent towards him as he had before. The only really remarkable thing about the man was his voice. He was a few inches shorter than Mal, a bit thick around the middle, and had a wild mane of unruly, shock-white hair with a bushy mustache and a full beard to go with it. His entrance had stalled Cutter from completing the strike, and the look he shot over at the man was enough to send him from the room. He waited until the door closed behind Cutter before he began.
“Well, now we are alone, you and I.”
“Coulda had that before.”
“Ah, you are nonplussed with your accommodations. I do not blame you. This place is a shit hole.” He ran a fat finger along the near wall as he spoke, and made a face at the grime his inspection revealed. He wiped the finger on his pant leg before continuing, “This,” he gestured at the room around them and at the chains binding Mal’s hands above his head, “this is not how I like to conduct business. You must needs understand the current predicament I find myself in, to understand this…” he searched for the right words, “unfortunate situation.”
“What was unfortunate, was your men ambushing us. We were following Fallon when your thugs attacked us from behind.”
“Ah, following him, I see…” he nodded like he understood, but his tone betrayed his disbelief. “There is a very small distinction between walking with someone, and following behind them, is there not?” It was a question, but by the way he said it, he clearly wasn’t looking for Mal to answer it. Not that Mal would have, but he continued on almost immediately anyway, “You would have me believe that you flew him all the way here, to Verbena, days in the Black, just to follow him to…where? His friends? What if he is working alone? What if he did what he came here to do before you could stop him? No…no, I think not, Captain. If you were not in league with the man, you would not have allowed that vile gou cao de murderer onto your precious ship. And even if you took him on without knowing who he was, you clearly know now, which means that at some point while in the Black, you figured it out. And a man like Malcolm Reynolds would have nothing to do with one such as Markus Fallon. You, my dear dear captain, would have tossed the no good buhn dahn out the nearest airlock. So no, Captain Reynolds, I do not believe you are telling me the truth.”
The man with the silky voice and silver hair stepped forward, close enough for Mal to smell his breath. It smelled like ham.
Great, thought Mal, now I’m hungry again.
He lifted his head, though the effort of doing so was beginning to wear on his very sore muscles, and looked the man in the eyes. With all the “truth” he could imbue his words with, he said,
“I found out who he is just before we got here. The plan was to follow him to his crew, alert the authorities, and collect the bounty on his gorram head. That’s your truth, old man. Now if you really want that bastard as much as you say you do, cut me the Hell down and let’s go get him. I’m done playin’ prisoner.” Mal’s words hung in the air between them for a long time. The white haired man stared deeply into his captive’s eyes, searching. “And if there’s any of that ham left, I could go for a sandwich.” Mal added a small smile there at the end. Besides the pistol he wore, his sense of humor was his best weapon against all that is bad in the Universe. Inara had once commented positively on that trait, said it was “hopeful”. It was one of the few compliments he could remember her giving him.
The silence stretched between them for another few seconds before the old man let out a roar of laughter.
Well, Mal thought, this is the part where he either frees me, or sticks a knife in me.
Before either thing could happen there was a sharp knock at the door. It opened and Cutter stuck his head in, but did not enter. There was a new expression on a face that Mal thought could only look angry or confused. This one looked a lot like concern. Of the three expressions he’d seen Cutter make, this was the first one that scared him. The old man must have felt the same way because he stopped laughing, looked once more at Mal, and exited the room with Cutter. The door closed behind them, and Mal was once again alone.
TINDANOW DOCKS, VERBENA, NOW…
Aside from the audio confirmation from the Dock Master that they did indeed have clearance to land, no one had attempted to communicate with Serenity since that single text-only message from the shuttle an hour earlier. The ship had settled to the ground as smoothly as Zoe could manage, but she didn’t go through the normal power-down sequence. She left the engines on and in a standby mode just in case they had to make for orbit abruptly. She had Kaylee stationed down in the engine room where she could be of use in an emergency, and where Zoe knew she’d be safe. The doc was still watching over his sleeping sister, Inara was locked safely inside her, Mal’s, shuttle, and all the doors and hatches that could be closed and locked, were.
Though she was surprised by the thought, she found herself wishing that River was awake and up on the bridge. If this all went sideways, at least she’d know that a competent pilot was ready to take the others to safety.
Well, she thought to herself as she once again checked the ready status of her short rifle, nothing to be done for it now. Best get on with it.
She’d given everyone their instructions, no point in repeating herself. Everyone was where they were supposed to be, and every minute she spent hoping the comm would crackle and Mal’s voice would ring out, calling the all-clear, was one more minute he could be somewhere in trouble, in pain, or worse. Her mind flashed back to the time Mal and Wash were taken by Nishka’s men, and her resolve hardened. She cocked the weapon, a satisfying crack and click that had always comforted her, and hit the button that would open the door which also served as Serenity’s cargo bay ramp.
It was never a fast process, but today it felt to Zoe that it took a million years for that ramp to lower. Then it was over, and the silence that followed the long hydraulic groan was unsettling. There was no one waiting for her. She set her jaw and walked down the ramp, eyes roving ceaselessly for any threats. There seemed to be no one in the docking bay at all.
This is bad, she thought.
And then the bullet slammed into her chest, spinning her around and dropping her heavily to the landing ramp. She half slid, half rolled down it, coming to rest at its bottom, her face resting on the cool concrete surface of the landing zone, and then everything went black.
Simon, in the med-bay, and not far from where Zoe now lie unmoving, had heard the shot and, of course, went running towards it. He made it halfway to the extended cargo ramp before he saw her lying there at the bottom. There was blood. A lot of blood.
No, he thought, not her, not Zoe.
He knew better than to run out into danger, but the sight of his friend, a woman who had saved his life on more than one occasion, lying in the dust, bleeding to death was too much for the doctor in him, and he ran the last few steps to reach her. He crouched at her side, trying to see the damage the bullet had done, but he barely got her turned over when something whistled through the air above his head and crashed into his skull, knocking him unconscious.
Mal had never done it before, and so thought he’d try taking a nap while being suspended upright by his wrists. Just as he was settling in for what he thought might be a nice quiet doze, the door to his cell flew open and in strode Cutter. Without a word or more than a sideways glance he began to cut Malcolm down. A second man, whom Mal had not seen before, appeared in the doorway, a gun leveled at him in the hopes, he assumed, that the troublesome captain wouldn’t try anything creative. Escape was a nice thought, but Captain Reynolds was too curious about this new development to entertain it much. He tried getting something out of the two men, but neither deigned to acknowledge him in the slightest.
“Are you the one in charge of this fine establishment?” his query was aimed at the gun-toting thug. “I hate to complain, but if I recall, the brochure said something about great views, and all I’ve seen so far is the inside of this closet.” The man didn’t flinch or even scowl harder at the wisecracking smuggler.
Tough room, he thought. Cutter exited the room, and the as yet unnamed brute, who Mal decided to call Shooter, gestured with the barrel of his gun that Mal should follow. They went down hallway after hallway, Cutter in the lead, then the captain, followed closely by Shooter, sometimes turning left, other times right, and eventually Mal pretended to be completely confused, just in case that’s what was taking them so long to get where they were going. Cutter led him around one more turn to their right. This hallway ended in a closed steel door, upon which Cutter knocked one time, sharply. It opened almost instantly, and the three men walked through.
It, like the room Mal had previously occupied, was square, windowless, and empty save for a beat up metal desk, and two chairs. The man who had opened the door for them, the man Mal had taken to calling “Whitey” in his head, the man with the deep silken voice, moved around behind the desk and sat down, gesturing for Mal to take the chair opposite. Cutter and the man Mal was thinking of as Shooter stayed in the room and took up positions behind the Captain, and flanking the door. Mal sat as the old man began to talk.
“My name, is Lionel McPherson AKA the Lion, and I’d offer you my hand to shake, but seeing as how our relationship hasn’t started off so amicably, I expect you wouldn’t accept. And you’d be right not to, I’ve been a terrible host to you and Mr. Cobb up to this point. Now I imagine you have questions, but time is of the essence, and so I’ll tell you what needs tellin’, and we can go from there.” He didn’t wait for Mal to agree, or even respond before he continued. “Serenity landed at the Tindanow Docks out at the edge of the city about an hour ago. My man tracked Fallon to the very same docks about three hours ago. Now my first thought was that my suspicion of you was on the nose, and that hurt me to my core because I did not want that to be so. It’s a lose lose scenario you see, Captain. If I’m right about you, it shatters my image of you, a man I have respect for. I know your story, son, I know it well, and I’ve lived one just the same, a life turned to war and then left without one to fight. People lost along the way. Only hatred and anger left in their place. But now, if I’m wrong, and you are the man I wanted, hoped you to be, then I had grossly misread the situation and worse, caused harm to you and yours. Lose lose. That’s what Fallon drives a man to. He’s is a villainous stain on life itself and I mean to have no part of anyone who works with him, for him, or harbors him. Do you understand me Captain Reynolds?”
“I do,” said Mal. There was something in the current flowing through Lionel’s words that rang of truth and integrity to Mal’s trained ear, and though the man had him attacked, drugged, kidnapped, assaulted, and chained him up, he felt a sort of grudging respect building for him.
“Events have transpired that lead me to believe you are not in league with Fallon after all. And I regret to say my mistake may have cost you something dear.” Mal sat up at this, a look of wariness stealing over his features. He was too afraid to ask the question forming on his lips. The Lion saved him the trouble. “Fallon was with five other men when he arrived at the docks. They went inside, and my man heard shots. We assume the people working that dockyard were killed by Fallon and his goons. My man could not get too close for fear of detection. When Serenity landed and I thought my unfortunate suspicion of you was true, I ordered my man to get close enough to learn the truth, if possible. From what he could hear, it seems that Fallon believes you have something that belongs to him, and he wants it very badly. Any idea what that could be?”
“Not a clue,” Mal responded immediately. “He boarded my boat with but one piece of luggage, a small case. He kept it on his person or in his bunk the entire time he was aboard. And that’s the truth. Now, you gonna tell me what happened or you just wanna keep fishin’ an empty pond?”
Lionel did not answer right away. He seemed to be chewing on Mal’s words, seeing if they tasted true.
“One of your people was shot, not sure how bad, and Fallon took two of your crew, both female. He took the women into the administration building and has not come out since. A crew member dragged the one who was shot back inside the ship. It’s been silent since. Anything changes and I’ll hear from my man who is still out there watching.” Lionel’s words stabbed like a knife into Mal’s stomach. The men and women on that boat were his family. Sure they bickered, they fought, they got tired of being around each other. But that’s what families do, it’s how they are. And now someone, a man he had invited into his home, had hurt one of his own, and taken two others to do who knew what with. The pain in his gut twisted tighter and tighter until it couldn’t twist any more, and it hardened and went cold. The cold turned frigid and coursed through his veins, filling him up until he overflowed. And a supreme calm came over him. Mal was going to war.
“…and that is non-negotiable.” Mal realized suddenly that Lionel was talking to him. He’d missed a whole conversation, apparently. Lionel noticed. “Look, son, I understand how you’re feeling right now, and I am sorry for my part, but now there’s just moving forward, and we need to be on the same page if we’re going to be able to do that.” Mal still didn’t trust himself to talk and so chose not to. He nodded, though, to show Lionel he understood. “So, as I was saying, I have a speeder that can take the five of us to Tindanow Docks, you and Cobb will exit the vehicle and we’ll pull away and make it look like we’re heading back to town. You get to Serenity…”
“You don’t have to go over it again, The Lion, I got it the first time,” Mal interrupted. Lionel, to his credit, didn’t rise to the bait, simply smiled knowingly instead. Then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the smile slipped from his face. He leaned forward across the bare desk and locked Mal with his eyes.
“Fallon is mine. On that there can be absolutely no discussion.”
“He’s all yours.” Mal said. He even meant it, mostly. They held each other’s gaze a moment longer, two warriors, lingering in one another’s pain, recognizing it as their own, seeing themselves reflected in the eyes of the other. Then, Lionel broke the trance and nodded over Mal’s shoulder at one of the men flanking the door. Mal didn’t bother to turn and see which one left, but he soon returned, following behind and prodding a very vocal, very offensive Jayne Cobb. Jayne was still chained, though of course no longer to the floor. He was now shackled wrist to wrist, ankle to ankle, with yet another chain connecting the wrists to the ankles. He walked in a sort of awkward shamble, jingling and cursing the whole way. Mal had been able to hear him coming for almost thirty whole seconds. When he finally arrived at and entered the room, Malcolm turned around to regard his loyal companion.
Well, companion, anyway.
“Jayne,” Mal said, in cordial greeting. “You’re looking well. And in such high spirits.” Jayne stood there, sort of wobbling unsteadily in his chains, looking back and forth between Lionel and Mal, head slightly tilted, mouth open and brow furrowed. When he finally spoke, as was often the case with Jayne, it was worth the wait.
“Heya Mal, how come you ain’t chained like me?”
Mal smiled up at him, looked around at the three other men in the room, thought about it, and said,
“Well Jayne, I do believe these men think you might hurt them if they cut you loose without me in the room.”
Jayne glanced at each of them men in turn, mulling over the Capn’s words. He smiled.
“I woulda too.”
“I know you would have, but, instead, though, go ahead and don’t do that. They’re gonna help us…”
“YOU’RE helping US, Captain…” came the raised voice of Lionel.
“We’re gonna help them get Fallon.”
“Do I git ta kill him?” Jayne growled.
“No,” Mal said flatly.
“Not that either.”
Jayne’s face scrunched up, his voice got higher.
“Can I at least cut on ’im a tiny bit?” Mal shook his head. “Well gorram it Mal, what in hell are we doing this for then?” Jayne practically shouted at him.
“He’s got Serenity. We’ve got wounded, don’t know who nor how bad. I aim to take her back. They get Fallon, we get offa this ho tze duh pi gu of a planet. Dohn le ma?” Jayne didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. Lionel didn’t know that, of course.
“We good, gentlemen?” he asked, the syrup back in his voice. Mal, still in a locked gaze with Jayne, said,
“Shiny. You can take his chains off now.”
APPROXIMATELY AN HOUR LATER, TINDANOW DOCKS…
The administration building at the Tindanow Docks was, Inara thought, very representative of the operation on the whole. The offices were too small or too furnished, the decor looked to have been chosen by a Spice addict on a bender, the air cooling and filtration unit seemed not to be working, though you’d never guess from the racket the unit was making. The end result was a stuffy series of rooms that made you feel claustrophobic, depressed, and queasy all at the same time. That she was being held against her will, along with Kaylee, by the madman terrorist Markus Fallon, made the situation absolutely unacceptable.
She was seated, at a rather awkward angle, on a small, garish red and orange couch, her hands bound in front of her, a gag hung loosely around her neck, still damp from having been forced into her mouth for the past hour or so. She stared intently at Kaylee who was similarly bound, and similarly tossed into a nearby chair. The young mechanic, unlike Inara, was still passed out. Whatever knockout agent Fallon had used, thought Inara, it was very strong. She had been conscious for a few minutes now, but was still extremely groggy, her vision furry around the edges, sounds coming through distorted, far off. Movement outside of what she could do with her eyes was still fairly impossible. It was a horribly helpless feeling.
Where is Mal? Were the three words that kept running through her mind.
She was looking right at Kaylee when she saw her eyes flutter open and the girl started scanning the room in that same desperate way she herself had done only a few minutes before. They locked on each other’s gaze. Neither one had found the ability to speak yet, but overwhelming comfort and love spanned the short distance between them. They lie that way for another few minutes, both longing to speak words of comfort to the other, but unable.
The door to the room in which they’d been left opened and a smug looking Markus Fallon walked in. He looked them over, an event that made skin crawl on both women. It wasn’t quite leering; there was no appetite for them in the look, it was the fear he invoked in them that seemed to inspire the crooked smile spreading across his face. He walked between them both, to lean against the wall opposite the door.
“Can you speak yet?….No? Too bad,” he purred, the false stutter completely gone. “I’m sure you both have charming things to say.” He leaned forward at the waist low enough to bring himself eye-level to the bound and sedated women. “When your captain returns, he’ll give me what he stole from me, and the two of you might even survive. Oh, who am I kidding, none of you are going to live, and I promise, your deaths will be the slowest. Your final release will come while Malcolm Reynolds is forced to watch. Only then will I put him out of my misery.” He glanced up at a chronometer mounted on the wall to his left. “I imagine he’s found the message I left for him in the shuttle. He should be arriving with that smelly ape Cobb any moment now. Well,” he sighed, “guess I should go prepare the welcome party.” He stood up fully, stretched his neck, and made to leave. A rather unladylike grunt from Kaylee stopped him. He turned to regard her, a bemused expression lighting his features.
“Mmm krrrlllll.” She coughed a few times, and in a stunted and choked voice she managed, “Capn’s gonna kill you.” He actually laughed.
“Oh I don’t think so, dear. I have him out numbered, out gunned, and I have you two.”
“That’s…that’s why he’s gonna kill you.” Her voice was getting stronger by the second. She couldn’t quite sit up, but she managed to get an elbow under herself and she raised her head so she was looking right into Fallon’s eyes when she said, “you took Inara you stupid go neong yung duh. Ain’t a power in the ’verse can save you now.” The venom and sincerity in her voice gave him pause, and when he replied, there wasn’t as much certainty as there had been before.
“Yeah, well, I guess we’ll just see won’t we?” the sound of a land speeder could be heard coming from outside as it approached. Fallon looked up, towards the window. “Ah, and here they come now.” He looked at the women one last time before leaving the room. “See you soon.” A lock clicked into place as the door closed behind him. Kaylee and Inara looked to each other, the fear there was palpable, but Kaylee saw more than fear in Inara’s eyes. She saw hope, too, and it gave her strength. She curled herself in around that strength and kindled it, stoked it, and felt it grow.
Lionel stopped the speeder only long enough for Malcolm and Jayne to exit, and then he sped off, seemingly headed back to town. Normally Jayne would have had Vera on her sling, hanging within reach, but comfortably over one shoulder. Right now she was cradled lovingly in his hands, primed and ready to go loud at a moments’ notice. Mal’s revolver rested in her holster, safety off. His right hand hung down at his side, not swinging as he walked. They were as ready as they could be given the situation.
The Tindanow Docks were…quaint, was the nice way to say it. Disreputable was more accurate. It was a series of small single-level buildings scattered about “landing pads”, which were little more than large squares and rectangles of land that are kept flat, clear of any debris, and outlined in chalk every morning. This was where ships with less than honest crews hauling less than legal goods paid more for discretion than amenities. Serenity sat, cargo ramp open, shining in the light of the setting sun in the middle of a mostly blown away chalk rectangle about twice her size. No one was about, and Mal could likewise see no one waiting inside the cargo bay of his ship. Without looking to Jayne, but leaning in a bit closer and lowering his voice Mal said,
“Don’t go to shootin’ less I give the signal, dong le ma?” he didn’t wait for Jayne’s reply, which, to be fair, was little more than a grunt anyhow. Right hand hovering near his hip, and Jayne’s itchin’ finger caressing Vera’s trigger-guard, the two scoundrels sauntered towards Serenity, eyes roving back and forth as they walked.
They were ten feet from the lowered ramp when a very disheveled Simon, hands bloody up to his wrists, hair askew, appeared at the top. His look was focused and as serious as Mall had ever see it.
That’s never good. He thought as he regarded the doctor, too afraid to ask the obvious question. Simon, uncharacteristically, did not say much before hurrying away, back into Serenity’s interior.
“You should hurry.” Was all he said. Those three words put Mal’s heart to beating irregularly and a hard lump began forming in his throat. He followed Simon as quickly as he was able. He caught up as the physician reached the sick bay. There were two beds, and both were currently occupied. On the one Simon had his back to lay his sister and the ship’s pilot, River Tam. Aside from being unconscious, she bore no mark of injury or other external trauma. On the bed in front of Simon, however, the opposite was the case. Zoe’s normally rich brown skin was ashen, her lips beginning to take on the slightest tinge of blue, an almost purple hue that Mal had seen before, and seeing it here, now, on her, was almost too much. He clenched his jaw hard before he spoke.
“Talk to me Doc.” Simon, already back to work on the fallen warrior turned his head to look Mal square in the eyes. The deepest pain and anguish appeared there in Simon’s eyes for the briefest of moments and then was gone, replaced by the eyes of a practiced and skilled surgeon.
“I don’t know. But I’m doing everything that I can.” Mal took in the doctor’s words for a second, looked over at River. “She’s just sleeping off one of her headaches.” Simon said without Mal having to ask. Mal gazed at River for a short moment then turned on his heal and made for the door. Instead of slowing him, Simon’s words only hardened his resolve. “He took Kaylee and Inara.” As Mal pushed past Jayne on his way back towards the cargo bay ramp Jayne’s eyebrows raised. He’d seen Malcolm like this before. Once. It was the same look he’d had on his face when the Preacher died. He had held Book in his arms as his soul left his broken body to rejoin the stars. And when he’d finally stood up, his face was full of fire and war. He wore that look now. There was vengeance in his stride, and Death clung to his shadow. Jayne checked Vera for the tenth time, a grim smile lighting his face, and fell into step behind his Captain.
Mal saw Fallon and his goons before he was halfway across the cargo bay. They were out there, about thirty feet from the ship, four of them including Markus Fallon, Man of the Hour. They were all armed, and Fallon was carrying something small in one hand, a transmitter or a radio, Mal thought. He walked calmly but confidently to the bottom of the ramp, walked about five more feet and came to a stop, thumbs hooking into his belt loops. His face was expressionless. He gave no hint at the inferno raging behind those placid eyes. As soon as Jayne caught sight of the men he started to raise Vera, but then lowered her again at a tiny gesture from Mal. He walked off to Mal’s right a bit, opening his field of fire. Markus was all smiles.
“Ah, here you are Captain, we’ve been waiting for you.” Mal was in no mood for banter.
“Where are my people? And I better like your answer.” Fallon’s eyes flicked down to Mal’s gun hand, hovering near his revolver, and then back up to Mal’s face before he answered.
“They’re quite safe, and completely unharmed. In fact, as soon as you hand over my property, I’ll tell you where they are, and we can all go our separate ways. How does that sound?”
Mal didn’t move, didn’t twitch, didn’t even blink. There was cold steel in his voice when he replied.
“You best bring them ’round and do it with haste or I will plant you where you stand. Not a threat, just statin’ the God’s honest truth.” There was a brief silence following that remark. Finally Fallon brought the small device he was carrying up near his mouth. He pushed a button on the side and spoke into it.
“McPherson, the window if you please.” To Malcolm he said, “If you would be so kind as to direct your attention to the window there, fourth from the right ,” he pointed with the radio at the long, low building to their right, Fallon’s left. The large window he’d indicated was tinted, but as Mal and Jayne watched, the tint faded and there, standing side by side and pressed up against the glass, were Inara and Kaylee. They looked relatively unharmed. Larger shapes could be seen lurking behind the women, but at the distance of the forty or so feet they were from the window, it was impossible to make out any detail. Fallon continued talking, “My men have very large guns pressed to the backs of those two pretty little heads. At a signal from me, or if you do something stupid like shoot me, they’ll paint that window red and chunky. Now.” He made the word a sentence. “You know what I want. If it is not in my possession by the time I count to five, I’ll have McPherson kill one of the girls.” He paused for effect, but when there was no immediate and powerful response, he added, “and the other one will be raped.”
That got a reaction. Vera was leveled at Fallon and Jayne’s finger was crooked around the custom hair-trigger in less time than it took to blink. Mal gestured again, this time far more sharply. Jayne once again lowered the weapon but this time it took him a while, and the look he was impaling Fallon with was pure acid. “I apologize Captain, but you see, this situation is very troubling. I took you for an honest man, and then you shatter that illusion by stealing from me, a paying passenger who did absolutely nothing to you or your crew that could possibly warrant such distasteful conduct. So I’ll ask you one last time, where is my property?” He didn’t give Mal more than a second or two to respond before he began counting loudly. “One. Two…”
A voice from behind Fallon had him and his men spinning to regard this new and unexpected threat.
“You give this mongrel even the suspicion that you have what he wants and you’re all as good as dead.” Lionel had been creeping slowly up behind the terrorist and his thugs and now stood mere feet away, a deadly looking rifle raised and aimed squarely at Markus Fallon’s head. The surprise on Fallon’s face was real.
“Lionel? What the Hell are you doing here? I thought you died…”
“You mean in the explosion you triggered that killed over a thousand innocent civilians? No, I survived that. I been looking for you.”
“Lionel, I really haven’t got the time for this right now. I’m happy to see that you are alright, and I’d be glad to talk with you about what happened, but, I’m kind of in the middle of something right now so…” It looked very much like Lionel was about to put a bullet in Fallon’s brain. Fallon, seemingly unfazed, turned back to Mal. “Captain, this man is endangering this transaction. I fear if he is not dealt with, it might be your people that suffer the consequences and I’d just rathe…” He speech was cut short by the sound of a shot going off. He’d barely even seen Mal draw his weapon but he knew it had happened. Lionel grunted in pain and dropped to the dirt, clutching at a new hole in his side. Mal’s gun was already back in its holster, his hands raised high, an equitable expression painting his sharp features.
“No need for complications. Bring the ladies out here. They board Serenity and I will tell you where you can find your property. No one else needs to get any new and unwanted holes. Now that’s as fair as can be made and it’s the only deal on the table. Only other option leaves a lot of dead and I guarantee you’ll be first. On that you have my word. And when I find out which member of this crew stole from you, I will sort that out. You can trust in that. I don’t like makin’ speeches. Not one for too much talkin’. What you’ve heard about me, being a man of my word, fast gun, whatever it may be, well, you’ve seen the gun, an the rest is just as true. Now let’s do this nice and friendly and we all just walk away.”
Fallon eyed him for a long time. Lionel’s groans of pain were the only sound.
“How do I know you even have it? Describe it to me.”
Liu kou shui de biao zi he hou zi de er zi. Now what? Thought Mal. He of course had absolutely no gorram idea what Fallon thought it was that he’d stolen. He was saved by a low voice projecting from behind him.
“It’s shiny and blue and deep and it sleeps. It sleeps until they’re together.” River Tam, in her dark blue dress, her hair mussed from sleep, glided silently out from Serenity’s open cargo ramp. She walked right past Jayne and as she floated past Mal she raised up on her toes like a ballerina and spoke two words so softly that only Mal heard them. Fallon, for his part, unsure of this new development simply stood there looking dumbly on. He had only been in River’s presence a few times during the trek across the Black to get here and always felt very put off by the strange girl’s company. She stopped walking about three feet past Mal, but still closer to them than to Fallon and his goons.
In her hand, suddenly, there was a small silver cylinder. It was featureless save for the clear windows set in its sides. Within the cylinder a deep blue liquid sloshed this way and that as she turned it about in the sun’s fading light. Fallon’s eyes lit up, Mal’s cleared in understanding, of course it had been River, and Jayne…well…there was no change in Jayne. Subtlety wasn’t his biggest strength. What came next, however, very much was.
In one graceful motion River tossed the small cylinder up into the air, sending it arcing towards Fallon, who actually let go of his gun to catch it with that hand, the radio still clutched in the other. Time seemed to slow. The little silver cylinder cartwheeled across the distance and about midway through its path Malcolm drew down, putting a single round through Fallon’s left eye. He followed it up with one more to the goon behind and to Fallon’s right, carving a tunnel through that man’s brain before he even began lifting his own weapon. Jayne was nanoseconds behind his captain, dropping the other two gunmen as they brought their guns to bear. The silver cylinder hit the ground at Fallon’s feet a full second before the four bodies all slumped to the dirt, four less bad guys.
Mere seconds ago they had been talking, and now, only Mal’s people and Lionel remained among the living. Mal’s attention turned immediately to the administration building and the window where he’d last seen Inara and Kaylee. Someone had turned the tint back on over the window, and Mal could see nothing. Something sharp was stabbing him in the chest. He looked down, and was surprised to see that he was completely fine and in one piece. No new holes. Then he realized the pain was on the inside, but it was nothing in comparison to the absolute jubilation he felt the second he saw Inara and Kaylee come running out of the building’s front entrance. Behind them, but following more slowly, were Cutter and Barber-the man Mal had nicknamed Shooter. Jayne stepped closer to Mal before the women reached them.
“What’d little miss whack-a-doo say to you back there?” Mal couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the woman rushing towards him. Through the fog he heard himself reply to Jayne.
“Just two words. ‘They’re safe.’”
Jayne was watching River as she wandered around the dead men, sometimes hopping over them, sometimes bending down for a closer look. He shuddered.
“She just never stops being creepy.” Louder and in River’s direction he yelled, “Hey, gorram it girl, leave off of ’em. We need ta git. Shouldn’t you be up on the bridge er sumthin?”
Just before Inara reached Mal, he had time to back Jayne’s advice.
“Jayne’s right. Get her ready to fly, whatever bribe kept the authorities away from this place has got to be about at its limit. They’re on the way or they will be soon. We need to be gone.” River made for the ship just as Inara reached Malcolm. It looked as though she might rush right into his arms, but she pulled up short, stopping within arms’ reach but not presuming a right to his space. They stayed like that for a few seconds, their eyes locked together, volumes of thought and emotion being shared in mere moments. Then the wave broke and she was in his arms. He could smell the lavender and vanilla in her hair. She felt so small and fragile in his arms. The embrace was real, and meaningful, and intimate. And then it was over, and Inara pulled back, that ever-present awkwardness that permeated their relationship slipping back into its usual position between them. Her first words to him were to inquire about Zoe. That Mal didn’t have an answer creased her brow with worry. She turned and joined Kaylee and River, who were getting on board, leaving Mal and Jayne to deal with Lionel and his men.
Cutter and Barber were helping Lionel to his feet, one on each side of him. He was slightly paler than normal, but he was alive.
“You shot me you ching so bastard.” The Lion intoned.
“Be grateful you’re alive after putting my people in harm’s way, again. And I barely winged you, ya big baby.” Mal responded, no hint of regret in his voice.
“Well, you lied to me. You promised me Fallon.”
“That was before I knew he shot Zoe. Which was also your fault. If she dies…”
Lionel was nodding his head. He held up a hand, which had the desired effect of stopping Mal mid-sentence, but the look on the captain’s face warned of how near the end of his patience Mal was getting. Lionel half turned to regard the men behind him and jerked his head in a sharp motion towards Serenity. Cutter responded and began to head towards the ship. He stopped when Jayne pointed Vera at his face. Lionel returned his attention to Mal.
“Cutter is a remarkably skilled field surgeon. He may be able to lend your doctor a hand…” he let the suggestion hang in the frosty air between them. Mal hesitated, but not long. He nodded once and Jayne, cursing under his breath, lowered his weapon and Cutter hurried past him on his way to the sick bay. “Well Captain, I’m sure you’re right about the authorities’ imminent arrival, and as much as I’d love to stay and take credit for bringing that horrible little man to his end, the Alliance and I are, alas, on disagreeable terms. I find myself in need of transport off-world. The three of us, that is. I’d be willing to pay, of course…”
“There’s no denyin’ that. And the price is non-negotiable. Did I mention I decide what the price will be?” In the distance, the sound of speeders could be heard on approach. The high-pitched whine of rotor-wing aircraft joined the mix and Mal suddenly felt a powerful urge to be out in the Black. He turned and headed towards Serenity, The Lion and Barber following shortly after, Jayne bringing up the rear. “Jayne,” said Mal over his shoulder. “Take their weapons and show them their bunks.”
THREE DAYS LATER, SERENITY, IN THE BLACK:
The small vial of blue liquid turned out to be a very regulated, very illegal substance known as X-10 which is basically harmless on its own. Mixed with the compound Arjet-7, a greenish solution with a jelly-like consistency, the two form a very volatile compound called JetBlu. Even in very small amounts, JetBlu can produce massive and devastatingly violent explosions. Neither Mal nor Lionel had any idea what Fallon had planned to do with his half of the compound, but both men agreed that preventing whatever it was had been a very good deed.
The local Verbena authorities had arrived shortly after Serenity’s departure, and news of the infamous terrorist’s death was all over the Net. No mention was made about the small metal cylinder which they’d wisely left behind, only that the deceased terrorist had been found in possession of “explosive materiel”.
Zoe had survived the three surgeries that Simon, with Cutter’s help, had been forced to perform on the badly wounded soldier and she was still down in the sick bay acting under the doctor’s orders of continued bed rest and near constant observation by the young surgeon. Everyone had come through in one piece. A few new holes, but nothing they couldn’t survive. Inara had explained how, after Zoe had been shot and Simon knocked unconscious, Fallon’s men had gone through every inch they could access of Serenity looking for that vial.
The only places they were unable to access were the bridge and sick bay. Zoe had locked the bridge down and only the right code could open it. Simon had locked the sick bay behind him when he’d rushed out to help Zoe, thereby protecting River, and unknowingly keeping the X-10 vial out of Fallon’s hands. They’d eventually gotten into both the shuttle and engine room, and with no one left to help them fight, Inara and Kaylee had been overwhelmed and subdued. Although, as Kaylee was compelled to point out, they put up “one helluva ruckus”. When Simon had come to, Zoe was still bleeding and unconscious and everyone else was gone. He did the only thing he knew how to do, he tried to save Zoe. In fact, had he remained unconscious a few minutes more, Zoe would have been beyond anyone’s ability to save.
Cutter turned out to be a very skilled field medic, just as The Lion had promised, and was instrumental in Simon’s efforts to save the ship’s XO and their Captain’s closest friend. Over the course of the next several days while Serenity glided through the Black, Lionel told them all his story, how he’d been a soldier in his younger days, fighting against the Alliance and all it stood for.
After the war, like so many Browncoats, he had to find work any way he could. For a while, that meant running raids against Alliance ships and settlements out in the outer rim. Then he’d met Markus Fallon, a psychotic murderer masquerading as a peaceful idealist. They’d run a job together on Bellerophon. The disruption of an Alliance top Brass ceremony celebrating the retirement of some big-wig Alliance General. No one was supposed to get hurt. Then Fallon, behind everyone else on the team’s backs, set off an explosive that killed over 1000 civilians. Lionel had barely survived. Every day since had been spent in search of the double-crossing terrorist.
A day or so in to Zoe’s recovery, once she was allowed to have visitors, Lionel made his way down to the sick bay. Zoe was propped up on a few pillows. Color had returned to her skin, and her eyes were only slightly foggy from the drugs Simon had kept flowing through her system over the last twenty-four hours. Mal had already been by to see her and so she had at least an idea of who Lionel was. The med bay was empty save for the two of them; Simon had finally gone to get some much needed rest. Lionel sauntered in slowly, letting the half-dozing warrior have time to take his measure before he pulled a chair up next to her bed. For a long time he didn’t say anything.
“I am so very sorry for my part in this messy business. I know you do not know me, but I feel as though, at least on some level, I know you. Well, I know you by your company, I suppose.”
Zoe did not respond, just kept her big brown eyes trained on the old man and waited for him to continue.
“That you fly with Malcolm says a lot, but it’s your husband, may he rest in peace, that tells me the most about you.”
Her eyebrows raised at the mention of Wash, and a slight wariness crept over her face. This was territory she hadn’t traveled much with anyone. She tended to keep her feelings to herself. Now this man whose actions had nearly gotten her killed was sitting there, next to her, words of her lost husband on his lips. He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner before he continued.
“I doubt he talked much about the Unification War, it was an evil time, as wartime always is.” He looked into her eyes, then, and though those deep coffee colored pools had hardened slightly at the mention of Wash, she spoke to him for the first time.
“He was shot down on his first mission…”
Lionel laughed at this, a deep, low chuckle. He stopped himself as quickly as he was able.
“I’m sorry, please don’t misunderstand. I laugh, but it’s out of love. The Shadow Puppet story huh? Yeah…he was fond of telling that one. The Unification War was ugly and Hovan and I were both there, together. Everyone else called him ‘Wash’, not me. It was Hovan for me. He hated me calling him by his given name. That’s why did it of course.”
There was something new in Zoe’s eyes and Lionel thought it looked a lot like hurt.
“He was shot down,” he went on hurriedly, “and he did in fact entertain men in the POW camp with shadow puppets. As ridiculous as that story is, it did actually happen, just…not on his first mission. I’m not surprised he doesn’t talk much about that time. You shouldn’t take it personally. Hov…Wash, wasn’t much for lingering in the past. He faced forward, always on the lookout for his fellow soldiers.” He chortled again, this time from a memory that had just sprung to mind. “There was this one time…”
Lionel remained down in the sick bay with Zoe for hours, regaling her with heroic tales involving her late husband. Throughout the night came sounds of their laughter, their collective sobs-some of sadness but most filled to bursting with love and happiness-and even long silences while they sat together but alone with their memories of the man they had both cared a great deal for.
For years after that, Zoe had stiffness and frequent discomfort on her right side, where the bullet had ventilated her torso. She soon came to cherish that pain. It reminded her of the night she spent with Lionel, the new stories he had given her of her beloved Wash, new memories, new thrilling adventures she could picture in her mind’s eye. Sure, Lionel had cost her some blood, but what he ended up giving her in recompense was priceless. Zoe would always remember that night as the night she got Wash back, if only for a few hours. It wasn’t enough, it never could be. But it was perfect, and beautiful, and it was hers.
Mal sat up on the bridge in the pilot’s chair. It was pretty quiet this evening. He could occasionally hear little speckles of laughter floating up from the sick bay where Lionel and Zoe were still deep in conversation. Simon had gone to rest, finally. Kaylee was suspiciously unaccounted for at the same time. The corner of Mal’s mouth turned up in a half smile.
Good for you, doc.
Jayne had quickly bonded with Barber and Cutter, two men whose proficiency with the many ways to end life complimented his own. They spent most of their time in the mess, drinking, bragging about their scars, and sharing their somewhat exaggerated exploits. They must have finally passed out, since Mal hadn’t heard any cursing or grunting for some time now.
River was…somewhere, maybe with Inara in her…his, shuttle. That just left him, alone on the bridge of his boat. As nice as it was to have a bit of peace after the events on Verbena it still felt wrong, siting there. It was his ship. It shouldn’t feel wrong, but it did, nonetheless. Serenity was his, but this chair…this chair belonged to Wash. But it didn’t. Not really, not anymore. Now it belonged to her. Their little psychic wunderkind. He wondered what Wash would think if he knew River had taken his position aboard Serenity. He liked to think Wash would have supported it. He was always saying how the best pilots were all half mad. And damned if River wasn’t a special kind of crazy. He had planned to go down and see Zoe. Before he hit the rack every night he had stopped by the sick bay. They played cards and talked about anything but the past. Tonight, however, he thought it best to leave her in Lionel’s care. Zoe hadn’t spoken more than a few words concerning Wash, and Mal knew he was woefully inadequate when it came to talk what concerned feelings and the like. If he were being honest, he was glad for Lionel this night. He was achieving something Mal knew he himself could never have done, and it was good.
Mal’s family had grown smaller of late, and that truth, coupled with how this last little adventure had gone, really had Mal thinking. It might be time for something new. He didn’t know what, exactly, but something else. Until he figured it out he’d keep doing what he did.
Find a job, complete the job, get paid, keep flying. It wasn’t much, but it was sumthin.