BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 15
Saturday, June 24, 2006

Ray catches up with Will and Inara, Simon catches up with River, Inara catches up with Mal, but Mal’s not quite caught up.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2670    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.

Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529 and LEEH for the beta help!

Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end.

Sorry for the delayed posting! Busy, busy week!

* * *

The planet P23-657 needed a name. Eileen and Edward Verdande, as the only people in the `verse with an active interest in the remote planet, drew from the mythology of Ed’s Nordic heritage:

          Niflheim: The world of cold and darkness. From Niflheim flowed
              the eleven ice-cold rivers, the Elivagar, from which life first
              emerged.

They chose the name because the surface of the world was, indeed, cold and dark. Clouds of sulfur and methane gas blocked out the sun’s rays, and the corrosive atmosphere was a large part of the reason the planet had been passed by for terraforming.

Because the planet was so inhospitable, living quarters, refineries, and all the infrastructure needed to support mining crews and cartel staff had to be constructed in orbit, all at great expense. There were further delays while contracts were signed for the transport and processing of the mined lithium dubniate, and agreements were negotiated with the computer manufacturers who would be buying the final products. In the end, it took nearly twenty years after the mineral rights to Niflheim were purchased before the infant cartel finally established its mining trade. It was twenty difficult years of alternating hope and despair, and the Verdandes were never sure if they’d lose everything or come out ahead.

Finally, when it was all settled, the success of the venture was beyond their wildest hopes. There was a first heady rush, creditors repaid and wealth amassing as the Verdande family expanded into other markets and generally enjoyed the thrill of being the newest Movers and Shakers of an expanding human empire. Ed and Eileen Verdande got used to having the best of everything. They greeted Parliament members by their first names, and had biographies and documentaries made about their rise to glory.

As they settled into their success, the second part of the mythological Niflheim’s definition came back to the couple: from which life first emerged. If their planet was carefully nurtured and lovingly guided through its infancy and childhood, they thought, it could be a new life. It could rival Greenleaf for natural beauty, Sihnon for the grace and elegance of its culture, and Londinium for its industry. And, they reasoned, it was located so far from the Core that it would never be brought down by overpopulation and the associated evils of high crime, pollution, and black markets in human beings and illegal drugs.

At great expense, using all the political clout of their cartel, they won enough backers in Parliament to have Niflheim considered for terraforming. The plan took years to gain approval, and there was another long wait before a large enough crew could be spared to tackle the special challenges of the remote planet. Eileen didn’t survive to see the terraforming crews arrive, but Ed Sr. watched from orbit as the face of the planet began to change.

A few months before he died, Ed Sr. walked the surface of Niflheim, and slipped off his mask to breathe an atmosphere which still had the noxious tang of sulfur. It burned in his lungs, but he convinced himself that it tasted wonderful.

* * *

“Cap’n?”

Mal turned to Kaylee. She returned his look for a few seconds, like she wanted to say something, then bit her lip and glanced toward the back of the bridge.

“Spit it out,” Mal prompted without looking at the woman who stood silently behind them. “She’ll speak up if she don’t like you sayin’ anything in particular.”

Kaylee glanced back one more time before she spoke, her voice low but forced. “I was just wonderin’…” She stopped and swallowed hard, doubt in her eyes.

“What is it?” Mal asked softly.

“I saw the Shepherd, in the dinin’ room, and he’s been hurt. Not too bad, but… well, you been all beat-up too. I was just wonderin’ if… I was wonderin’ where Simon’s at.”

Mal studied her face. She didn’t look like his little Kaylee should. The wet shine in her eyes wasn’t a surprise – she’d been brought into a bad situation, and Mal knew that she was more than a little sweet on the young doctor. It was natural she’d be worried. But there was something different about her, a hard set to her jaw and a deep down shake to her voice that wasn’t right.

“You keep yourself cool, Kaylee. Doc’s just fine.”

Mal had to force himself not to look away from her when he said it. Truthfully, he wasn’t even sure where Simon had got to, or who was with him. Last Mal remembered seeing the doctor was… hell, when had it been?

“He ain’t hurt bad?” Kaylee asked.

Mal looked away from her, realizing that he wasn’t entirely sure about the answer to that. Vaguely, he recalled Simon’s voice, gasping: Just bruises… possibly a cracked rib or two…

“He had a few knocks,” Mal replied, “but nothin’ he can’t handle.” He looked back at her, trying his best to be reassuring. “He’ll be all right.”

Kaylee nodded and looked away.

Mal hoped that would be enough to satisfy her for now; he wasn’t up to providing details. He returned his attention to the console to check the course he’d set. Serenity was heading toward the outer edge of the rings, and it would take a few minutes to get there. He had time to think things over, to try to pin this down.

When had he seen Simon last? Mal remembered ‘fixing’ the grav drive, then…

He had to close his eyes and concentrate, forcing himself to picture it.

I came back here… Will was sitting at the pilot’s seat. Simon was… Simon was curled up in the nose of the ship. Lookin’ beat up. That’s when he told me about his ribs. What happened next?

Nothing came, and Mal’s thoughts started wandering, thinking how Simon had put up a fight against armed men, even though he’d been alone and nauseated by weightlessness. Boy was awful stupid, even with all that schooling. Boy was awful brave, too.

Mal pulled himself back on track with an effort.

Focus. What the hell happened next? I… I got Simon up, helped him to the co-pilot’s chair.

The co-pilot’s chair. Mal glanced at Kaylee, who still had her eyes fixed on something far away. He should ask her about Zoë, Wash, and Jayne. They had to be up to something, if only he could ask without Ginger figuring it out…

Cut it out. What was next? I moved Simon to the co-pilot’s seat… Kaylee! He told me how Kaylee was being brought here. And Will…

The next memory was vague, fuzzy with his own rage. He’d been punching someone. He remembered pinned a body to the deck and hitting, hard as he could…

Then he woke up on the deck with Kaylee leaning over him, feeling like he hadn’t drawn a deep breath in hours.

There’s a gap, after I was hitting – it was Will, I got him pinned, beat on him, and then…

Nothing.

Mal tried to think on it more, to figure out what was working his nerves so bad, but he kept getting distracted. It was like there a slippery place in his mind where his thoughts wouldn’t go. He couldn’t even focus enough to work out the question he was trying to answer. There wasn’t really a problem here, was there? He’d jumped into a fight with Will and Ray had knocked him out. Simple enough.

But there wasn’t any sore spot on the back of his head. No headache at all. He did have a sour taste in his mouth, a slight jitter in his hands, and a weakness in his muscles that he couldn’t shake off. The feeling reminded him of something. Made him think of Adeli Niska.

Mal realized that his eyes were fixed on a cord on the console, one that ran to a lamp; it had been cut clean through. He looked down and saw the live end of it lying on the deck, so he pulled the plug. It wasn’t safe having a bare wire sitting out like that. Could hurt someone.

He held the cut cord up, and his uneasiness increased.

“Somethin’ special you plan on doin’ with that?” Ginger asked from behind him.

Mal frowned and shrugged. “Not a thing,” he replied. He looked at the cord one more time, then threw it aside and wiped his hand on his leg like he’d been holding something slimy.

“Good,” Ginger said. “We almost there?”

Mal glanced at the display. “A few minutes.”

“All right. Stay sittin’ where you are, I need to make a call.” She came forward and took down the comm unit, then stepped back, stretching the wire so she’d have some distance from Mal and Kaylee while she talked.

* * *

Ray?

Ray started when Ginger’s voice came through the comm, then lifted his head to look into the infirmary. The doctor was watching him, sitting on a stool with his hand poised above the exam table, a small curved needle in his fingers with a thread running down to Jase’s shoulder.

Ray felt like he’d just woken up from a heavy sleep. He stood up stiffly, then walked into the infirmary to answer the call.

“What is it?” he replied to Ginger.

Ship’s all fixed, and the captain says we’ll be gettin’ to the harvester soon. Time to seal off the cargo bay.

“I’m busy. Will can do it.”

Will’s off someplace.

“Doin’ what?”

Didn’t say. I figured you knew.

Ray closed his eyes and wiped his face. He was so gorram tired. “Go find him.”

I got two people up here, the captain and the mechanic. I can’t leave em’ alone.

Ray paused to think about it. He couldn’t leave the doc walking around free; if he was to go looking for Will, he’d have to tie the young man up, interrupting Jase’s treatment again. Wouldn’t go good with the boy. There was only so much a half-starved and half-bled out body could take. Ray looked to the exam table; Jase was completely out, looking pale and lying still like he was dead already. But the doctor was stitching away, so the boy must have a chance.

If Jase died, Ray would lose the last bit of that woman he had left. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing; he could let that part of his life go, and he’d be free. He could finally do as he liked, and not have this burden any longer.

Funny – the thought didn’t make him feel good. Not at all. But it was out of his hands now.

“You stay put,” he told Ginger over the comm. “I’ll get Will.”

* * *

Simon tried to find a position that wouldn’t pain his bruised and likely fractured ribs, but there wasn’t one. He finally gave up and sat still, breathing as carefully as he could. His hands were taped together, and also taped to one of the seats that folded down from the bulkhead just inside the infirmary hatch. He still had his surgical gloves on, covered in blood. Ray hadn’t allowed him time to do anything but tie off the last suture.

“Simon?” He looked up when he heard his whispered name. River stepped through the hatch in a crouch, tentative and wide-eyed as a hunted deer.

“River? What are you – ”

She flinched and raised her hands over her ears. “Shh! Too much! Please, so loud now. Can’t do it anymore.” She curled up next to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. It hurt a little, but he was more concerned that he couldn’t hug her back, not with his hands bound.

“Need more medicine,” she said into his shoulder. “Ma’s gone. Pa turned into a monster. Too loud.”

Oh, dì yù, Simon thought. He’d find a way to explain how he got loose. “River, you need to help me get my hands free.”

She continued like she couldn’t hear him. “Walls won’t stay,” she mumbled. “Tore down, never fixed right. Melting walls. No control. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t warn her. Then the pain…”

Mèi mei… can you get into the drawer? Over there. River, please!”

“Had to put the memory away… But they come back. The smell of her… miss her so much.”

“River, I need the scissors, so I can get free and help you. Do you understand?”

Finally, she replied to him with a nod. She got up and found the scissors, but instead of cutting him free she put them in his gloved hand and turned away. Simon couldn’t stop himself from pausing to stare at his sister as she climbed onto the exam table, lying down along the edge of it.

“Think about the good day,” he heard her whisper, and Simon knew she wasn’t talking to him. “Trees and the pretty sky and songs. I need the good day.”

* * *

Ray didn’t know much about ships, but he wasn’t stupid. He noticed the open hatch off the catwalk in the cargo bay, and remembered that it that hadn’t been open before. He wasn’t sure where it led, but he had an idea that he might find Will there.

He stopped just outside, taking in the warm light that spilled out of the room. He saw heavy curtains of dark fabric, golden light, and artsy things on pedestals. Stuff that didn’t belong anywhere near this ship. He drew his gun and stepped through the hatch.

There was a body lying still just inside the hatch; it was Will. Ray nudged him with his foot. The man was breathing, but didn’t respond to the prod.

Against the far wall sat a young woman with dark curly hair, wearing a peach gown of a sort that Ray had never seen, fancy and rich-looking. She had her knees drawn up, hugging them to her chest. She also had a darkening bruise on her cheek. She didn’t get up, just looked at him with empty eyes. Ray hadn’t been working with Will all that long, just a few months. He couldn’t say he knew the man well, but he had a good idea as to what had happened here.

“He have a go at you?” he asked the woman.

She looked at him blankly, and for a second he thought she didn’t understand. Then she nodded. He looked back at Will, then at the woman again. “And you knocked him out?”

Another nod.

Ray walked nearer to her, keeping his gun pointed at the floor. She looked all delicate and pretty, and didn’t have much in the way of muscle.

“Now how exactly’d a thing like you manage that?”

The woman swallowed hard, and finally gathered herself enough to speak. “It’s not always about strength,” she said, her voice soft and rich, her words carefully pronounced. Ray couldn’t rightly explain why, but he believed her. Maybe it was her dignity. She seemed beyond doubt.

“Did… did he hurt you?” he asked.

The woman gave a short laugh, like she was insulted by the question. “He wasn’t expecting me to defend myself,” she said in a stronger voice. Then her face slowly went blank again, and she asked distantly, “Did I kill him?”

“No, he’s still breathin’.”

She was quiet for a bit, as if deciding how she felt about that.

“Oh,” she finally said. “I guess that’s good. I wouldn’t like to be a killer.” When she said the last part, she looked up at Ray, looked him in the eye like she was accusing him of something.

“Ain’t my favorite thing either,” he said. But she held his eye still, her expression telling him that he was less than human. He glanced around the room, wanting to escape that stare.

“This place wasn’t here before,” he said. “Where `xactly’d you come from?”

“This is my shuttle. I returned from an appointment.”

“Anyone know you were comin’?”

“I waved.” Her voice shook when she said that, and she paused to swallow hard before she continued. “No one responded.”

“Guess Will there heard you.”

The woman didn’t answer. She clasped her hands together in front of her knees like she was bracing herself, then she asked in a voice that was forcibly calm and steady, “Is he really… dead?”

Ray paused, confused. Maybe this lady wasn’t all there. He glanced at Will, then back at her. “I just told you, he’s breathin’ – ”

“Not him. The Captain. The captain of this ship.”

He frowned. “Where’d the hell’d you get that idea?”

A strangled sound came out of her throat and she dropped her head, staring down into her lap. Ray waited, stood still until she pulled herself together enough to speak again.

“He told me Mal was dead,” she said softly, not looking up.

Ray turned and frowned at Will’s still form, sorely tempted to go over and give the bastard a few hard kicks.

“Your captain’s just a little beat up is all.”

“You’re sure?” she looked up at him, naked hope on her face.

“He’s on the bridge – flyin’ this thing right now.”

The woman crumbled; she buried her head in her arms and sobbed.

The sight of the her crying twisted something in Ray, and he couldn’t do anything but stand and wait for her to stop. He felt sick. He hadn’t planned on this. It was supposed to be simple: just take a gorram ship. He’d assumed it’d be crewed by a bunch of rough hands, the sort he was used to seeing on Niflheim. Just a few folks who’d cower down at the sight of a gun, then sit quiet till the job was done. He never thought anyone’d make such a fuss as this bunch was doing, never considered that he’d have to see someone all torn up like this lady was.

He didn’t like how he was feeling; he wanted it to stop. He stepped closer to her, and when she looked up, he motioned with his gun for her to stand up. “This really is all kinds a’ fun,” he said, “but I got no more time to chat. I can’t leave you here. Come on.”

* * *

Simon fumbled with the scissors as he tried to reach the tape on his wrists; the gloves on his hands were slick with congealing blood. It took a few minutes before he worked himself free, then he stood up and stepped to the table.

River had pulled the unconscious boy’s right arm away from him so she could nestle against his side, her head resting on his healthy shoulder. She had her arm wrapped around his waist, and appeared to be fast asleep.

“This is something I don’t need to know about right now,” Simon said to himself. He stripped the surgical gloves off, then turned away to prepare a fresh batch of smoothers for her. River opened her eyes when he gave her the injection, turning her head to look at him. She was calmer than she’d been before.When he finished and she had her arm back, she hugged the boy again.

“You can’t let him die,” she said.

“I’ll do all I can,” Simon replied, but instead of hurrying to put a bandage over the boy’s wound, he found himself standing still, watching his little sister. She looked at Jase’s face and smiled, nearly beaming.

“He’s nice,” she said.

Simon sighed. “The ship is held by violent criminals, and you’re busy making a boyfriend of one of them?”

She turned her head and gave him a silly-big-brother frown. “We just met. Not my boyfriend.”

“I certainly hope not.” He put a hand against her cheek. “Are you okay?”

She smiled. “I’ll be all right. There were too many bad things, all at once.”

“Have you been hiding?”

“Of course.” But the glint in her eyes said something else, said that she’d been making mischief. Simon decided not to pursue it; there were too many things to think about as it was.

“If you’re feeling better, I want you to go hide again,” he told her firmly. “And don’t come out, no matter what. These are bad people, River. They’ll hurt you.”

“Not all bad,” she said. She rested her head on the boy’s shoulder again and twisted a finger in his hair. “He’s not. Still has a chance to be whole. That’s why you can’t let him die.”

Simon looked at the boy and remembered that he had a task to finish. He turned away from River to get some gauze and tape.

“Don’t get too fond of him,” he said, suddenly feeling tired. “I don’t know how much I can help.”

“Promise you’ll do your best?” River asked as she slid off the bed.

“I always do, mèi mei.”

* * *

For a good solid minute, Inara had no control over herself. It wasn’t something that happened often. She hadn’t felt much more than disgust when Will was stalking her; she hadn’t even been overcome when she’d believed that Mal was dead. That had just made her feel numb, empty inside.

But hearing that he was alive…

After a while, she became aware that the tall, gaunt man was still watching her, standing closer than before. His face looked hard, like he’d never felt an emotion in his life, but Inara didn’t believe that. His patience with her suggested something different.

He noticed her looking at him. “This really is all kinds a’ fun,” he said, “but I got no more time to chat. I can’t leave you here. Come on.”

Inara nodded and wiped her face. She stood up, her legs shaking and her head light. She took a few awkward steps to the divan and grabbed her robe, hoping that the time it took to put it on would help her find some strength.

It didn’t. She looked at the man, trying to stall.

“Where are we going?” she asked. She couldn’t stop her hands from shaking, so she clasped them together in front of her.

“I got a few things to do, you can help out,” he answered. “And uh… I’m a little more prepared than Will there. I don’t mean to hurt you, but I will if you try anything like that on me.” His voice lacked the threat of his words, like he was saying it just because it was expected of him.

“I’ll behave,” she said, then started toward the hatch. She noticed that he backed away from her, keeping his distance. He meant it then, he wouldn’t be leaving her an opening like the man in black – like Will – had.

She paused next to Will. “What about him?”

The other man shrugged. “He’ll do just fine where he is.” But he didn’t move, just stared down at the unconscious man, then back up at her. “How’d you do it?” he asked.

At first she wasn’t sure what he meant, then she understood. “There are many soft places on a man,” she explained distantly. “You don’t need to hit hard, if you aim well.”

He smiled at her, and Inara blinked in surprise. The expression didn’t fit his face. He looked a little shocked by it himself, but then his features settled into it.

“Gotta say, lady, I never liked him much. If things were different, I might buy you a drink.”

At first Inara frowned in confusion, not sure what to make of him. But then she found herself smiling back.

“I could use a drink.”

His smile faded as he studied her face. “This ain’t how I wanted it to go,” he said softly, then he looked away, like he hadn’t meant to say that.

Inara might have said something about intentions, but she didn’t. “What’s your name?” she asked.

He hesitated, then answered. “Ray.”

She didn’t respond, just nodded to him and walked out of the shuttle.

* * *

“Captain’s not all right,” River told Simon. She was sitting on the counter across the exam table from her brother, watching him finish the bandaging. The medication was working, and she was able to think clearly again, to separate the voices. But she was very tired. It was hard work.

He looked up at her. “The Captain?” he asked. “Is he injured?”

“Bruises. You saw those already.”

River sighed. She felt Simon looking at her, but she only stared at the floor. She didn’t know how to explain. “No control,” she mumbled. “Had to shut down, close off. Only way to avoid damage.”

“What does that mean?” Simon asked.

She looked up at him. “Sometimes forgetting is the only safe thing to do.”

Simon tore off the tape, then turned away to set it down on the counter behind him. He didn’t understand. Of course not; he couldn’t. She sat silently while he finished.

“Can you tell if Kaylee is on board?” he asked.

His voice was even, but River could see the worry behind his question. “Yes,” she answered, and she raised a hand to rub her forehead. She rubbed hard; she didn’t like what she was sensing. “Very angry. Toy in her shoe. Not a fun toy. Not for playing.”

Simon was looking at her again; he still didn’t understand. And he probably wouldn’t, no matter how many different words she used. But she kept going, telling him the other things she knew.

“Book has a headache. Needs to go to the head. Inara is… ” She stopped.

Simon froze. “Inara?”

“Came back early. Will was waiting.”

River immediately regretted saying it. Simon was better off not knowing, since there was nothing he could do about it now. But he’d want to help anyway, because that’s how he was.

“Will?” Simon asked, and River felt a wave of anger rise inside him. She wasn’t used to seeing that in her brother. He really didn’t like Will. Nobody did.

“What did he do to her?” Simon asked.

River felt her eyes starting to tear when she thought about Inara, so she turned her face away from Simon. It wasn’t her place to explain. He probably wouldn’t understand anyway.

“Can’t look, Simon. Not now.”

Simon looked up in the direction of Inara’s shuttle, as if he’d be able to see through the walls. “Is she hurt?”

River held her hands over her face. “No. Sloppy. Bù zhī tiān gāo dì hòu. Arrogant. Good for Inara, easy to play.” River didn’t open her eyes, but she knew what Simon was doing – he was considering the array of scalpels he had available, wondering which would make the best weapon. River lifted her head and jumped off the counter.

“No! Nothing you can do. Finish Jase.”

“But... it’s Inara. She’s on our crew, and this boy is just…”

“Can’t think that way. Trust me. She doesn’t need help from you. The real hurt is in her heart. Not yours to fix.”

River watched her brother take a deep breath, saw how he winced at the pain in his ribs, and she saw that he’d stay. Simon wasn’t foolish; he wasn’t able to put up a fight right now, and he knew it. He nodded to her, and River wandered back to the exam table.

Jase was pale as a sheet. Even his mind was far away, too far for her to reach. River knew Simon was doing all he could, but a body this weak was difficult to help. Blood was running low. No blood, no fight.

“It’s time for you to go hide,” Simon said.

“Not yet,” she replied. “One more thing for me to do.” She lifted Jase’s hand and met Simon’s eye. He knew exactly what she meant. After all, she’d gotten the idea from him, even though he hadn’t said it out loud.

“No,” he said. “You’ve been here for too long already. You have to go.”

She stiffened her jaw and glared at him. “Then you better get started.” She pulled a stool up next to the bed and laid her arm out on the edge of it, rotated up to bare the veins on the inside of her elbow. Simon still hesitated, and River sighed impatiently. “Same type,” she said. “I don’t need all I have. Not as much as he does.”

It was the right thing to do, and Simon knew it. River glared at him until he gave in. She held back her victorious grin – well, most of it, and sat quietly while Simon started the transfusion. He was just finishing and stepping away when River saw two people in the hatch.

“Hey, Inara,” she said casually.

Simon whirled around, and his face turned pale when he saw Inara standing with Ray behind her.

“You could have warned me,” Simon said softly.

River smiled – there was nothing to worry about, she had it under control. Simon didn’t know that; he was always a little slow to keep up with things.

But then, most people were.

* * *

Ray took the woman by a complicated path, stopping at each hatch opening into the cargo bay so she could latch and seal it. He’d told her how the outer doors of the bay would need to be opened, letting in the hard emptiness of space, and they’d all be dead if she didn’t close things off right. She didn’t argue.

They left the bay through the hatch near the infirmary. Ray wanted to stop by, see how things were going. See if Jase was gone yet. When he looked through the window into the little room, he grabbed the lady’s arm and pushed her ahead of him until the reached the door. A young girl was sitting next to the bed, a red tube running out of her arm. The tube connected to a bag, then ran down to Jase.

“Hey, Inara,” the girl said.

Her casual tone confused the hell out of Ray, and he stood dumbfounded, barely hearing a few words exchanged between the doctor and the girl. He turned to the lady.

“She come here with you?”

The woman’s response was a look of such genuine confusion that he ruled that possibility out. He pushed her into the infirmary so he could keep an eye on her.

“You got a friend, Doc?” he asked.

“She’s just a passenger,” the man replied. “She’s been hiding. For some reason, she thought one of you people might hurt her.”

“I wonder why I’d think that,” the girl said in a saucy tone. “Do you know, Simon?” She looked pointedly at the bruise on the side of the doctor’s face. He answered her with a frown and a shrug. Ray’s eyes narrowed at their sarcasm. Gorram if they weren’t making fun of him. He held up his gun, noticing how the doctor looked alarmed at the sight, but the girl just watched him with open curiosity.

“So why ain’t you hidin’ now?” he asked. And why ain’t you scared of me? he didn’t ask.

She looked at him, and her eyes cut into him like she was some kind of witch, like she could see into his soul.

“Mĕi Líng,” she said softly, and Ray straightened in shock. “That was her name,” the girl continued, her head tipped to the side and an expression on her face like this was something she was just learning. She lifted her eyes to him. “You called her Mĕi.”

Ray felt the blood draining from his face. He motioned at Jase with his gun. “He told you that,” he said. “It was you he was talkin’ about – ”

“No,” she interrupted. “He only calls her Ma.” She looked at Jase and took his limp hand in hers. When she looked up again, staring straight at Ray without a hint of fear or concern, he felt a little hint of the rage licking at the edge of his mind, like flame just taking hold of paper.

“Um… River…” the doctor said, staring at Ray’s face. The young man took a few steps forward, putting himself between Ray and the girl as if he meant to protect her with his own life.

Ray lifted his gun, waved it at the doctor. “Move,” he mumbled.

The doctor stayed put, but the girl’s hand gripped his elbow and pushed him aside.

“It’s okay, Simon,” she said impatiently, and now she sounded like an ordinary teenager, bratty and know-it-all.

“What else’d he tell you ‘bout me?” Ray asked.

“Nothing, really. Told about himself. You told about you.”

“I ain’t never…” He glanced at the two others in the room, the pretty woman and the doctor, to make sure they were keeping their distance. They were playing him, they had to be. Setting him up for something. But neither of them had made a move toward him.

“What the hell are you talkin’ about?” he asked the girl. “I ain’t never even seen you.”

“I saw you. Saw everything,” she replied, and then she shook her head, looking sad, looking like she almost pitied him, and her voice was soft when she said, “You’re a bad man. A very bad man.”

Ray opened his mouth to argue, but he didn’t know where to start. Sure he’d done some hard things, but it’d been for the best. Hadn’t it?

“River, you’re not helping…” the doctor said, edging toward the girl, but she didn’t answer. Her eyes stayed on Ray.

“But I understand why you’re bad,” she said.

Ray didn’t know what it was about this girl, but she sounded like she knew. Not like she forgave him – there was no pardon in her voice. But her eyes stayed on him, glowing like she was seeing things that no one else had ever known about him.

And that would be something - to have someone who understood. Someone who knew those things long past, who could see the invisible scars he carried from hurts he hadn’t deserved. If someone knew that he hadn’t always been what he was now...

Ray shook his head, and clamped down on the feeling of need; it made him weak. “You stay out of my business,” he snapped at the girl. “You don’t know a gorram thing `bout me.”

“Please,” the doctor said, stammering in his worry over the girl. “Look at her, she’s… she’s harmless. She’s only here to help.”

The woman’s plea followed right after the doctor’s. “Ray, these two have been in here, free, for some time,” she said. “They haven’t tried anything. It appears they’ve just been treating this boy.”

Ray glanced at the doctor, aware of the dried blood on his face, the way he held his body stiffly like it hurt him to move. He didn’t have to look at the woman; he could picture the swollen redness of her eyes, and the sound of her crying still rang in his ears. Gorram accusations, coming at him from everywhere. As if Ray didn’t know that he’d gone astray. As if he didn’t know that, at the heart of it, he was the cause of all this. Including Jase. Especially Jase.

He took in a deep breath and ground his teeth at the thought. He’d known it in the back of his mind, known it for a long, long time. This boy may not have come from Ray’s own body, but he could have been a son just the same. Ray’d never even tried to take him in that way. Not really. He had failed. He’d failed Jase, and he’d failed Mĕi. Probably even failed Bucky, if you viewed it in a certain light. He’d failed as a farmer, and didn’t make much of a criminal either. He’d never done a single thing right.

But he was going to fix the one thing he still could. The boy was alive; there was a chance to make things work out. This job - he had to see it through to the end. There wasn’t anyone gonna stop him from doing it.

Suddenly, Ray felt alive, aware, and more awake than he’d been in years. Like a cloud had lifted from his eyes, and he could finally see clearly. He had his opportunity; it was right in front of him. He wasn’t going to miss it. No way. He backed out of the infirmary, then motioned at the woman to follow him.

“You two stay here,” he told to the doctor and the girl. “Keep him breathin’. This is gonna work out fine – just don’t let him die.” He paused for a second, thinking about the chance he was taking by leaving these two free. But it was only a half-beaten doctor and a skinny little girl; they couldn’t be a danger.

“Once this hatch closes,” he told them, “it best not open again.” He was speaking faster than he ever did – energy surged through him, and he couldn’t slow himself down. “Stay put, and don’t make me sorry I’m leavin’ you here like this.”

He swung the door closed and latched it, then turned to the woman.

“Inara, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Bridge, and move it,” he ordered.

* * *

Inara entered the bridge in front of Ray, and she had to stop with a hand against the bulkhead to hold herself up. Mal was there, alive. He was at the helm with his back to her, his attention focused on the console.

“Inara!” Kaylee gasped. She was in the co-pilot’s seat, sitting with her knees up and her arms wrapped around them, hands clenched to her elbows. Mal sat up straight when he heard Kaylee speak, then slowly turned around. His eyes met Inara’s for a barely a second, then he looked away. His face was shadowed, and Inara couldn’t make out his expression.

Motion caught her eye; a strange woman stood off to Inara’s left. She had shoulder length iron gray hair and eyes just as hard as the pistol in her hand. She gave Inara a hostile glare, then turned to Ray for an explanation.

The two strangers exchanged words, but Inara wasn’t listening. She waited until the rush of blood in her ears quieted and the worst of the weakness in her legs passed, then she took a few hesitant steps forward. When no one stopped her, she continued on. It was Mal’s arms that she wanted to fall into, but he stayed in the pilot’s chair, not looking at her again. Kaylee stood and held out her hands, and Inara gratefully accepted the embrace.

* * *

Translations:

dì yù: hell mèi mei: little sister bù zhī tiān gāo dì hòu: not know the immensity of heaven and earth (have an exaggerated opinion of one's abilities)

* * *

On to Chapter 16.

COMMENTS

Saturday, June 24, 2006 6:42 AM

MAL4PREZ


And the bad news – I’m going to take next week off posting. The next few chapters are rough, and I’d like to take the time to fix them up right. Hey – I could have delayed this week, but that would have left you hanging with poor Mal after Chapter 12 last Friday, and that would be just mean!!

So… Chapter 16 on July 3 or thereabouts. Then it should be a steady diet of chapters right up to the end!

Saturday, June 24, 2006 7:20 AM

AGENTROUKA


Of course, I'm very sad about the one-week hiatus, but I appreciate the warning and I understand, so... *sigh* I'll have to distract myself from the Monday-Wednesday-Friday afternoon (my time) tingle of "New chapter!" It's like a spidey sense only less cool. ;)

The interaction between Ray and everyone, but especially Ray and Inara made me soooo happy, reading this. The smile they share... I squeed. Her quiet strength humbles him and that's why, no matter how bad the things he's done, I love this character you created. There's a core of morality and kindness, even if it's been pounded to a pulp by his own disappointment.

He's finding a balance again, in the mirror that River holds up and I love it.

Also absolutely wonderful: Kaylee getting *angry*. She'll be scared for herself, but when people harm the ones she loves she gets her Mama Bear on and I can see the clock ticking in her head... It's wonderful, that strength she's summoning.

Mal, on the other hand, has me very worried. His brain is putting up a self-defense amnesia (loved him seeing the instrument of his torture with unknowing dread) but why won't he look at Inara?

And Inara... she's my favorite character and I adore how right you do by her. Balanced and unbalanced at the same time. Quiet horror, defiant dignity, complete breakdown and dry acceptance all in the space of five minutes without much of a jar. Love.


It's sad that you have to take a break but this is a lovely chapter to leave us with. *G*

Saturday, June 24, 2006 12:22 PM

AMDOBELL


This is brilliant but I worry that Ray is so close to the raggedy edge, and I'm not surprised that he is connected to Bucky, the same Bucky the old woman has told Zoe and Jayne to get help them. I'm also concerned that Ray didn't tie up Will, I just know nothing good can come from that. Not happy about that gap in Mal's memory - a definite concussion it seems, and what about Book? It is going to be a long painful wait until the next part because I can't wait to see how this pans out. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Saturday, June 24, 2006 12:26 PM

LEEH


I haven't been commenting because I've been reading these in beta--but I peeped in on this one, and am hoping others are reading this series, because it's just such a pleasure to read. As AgentRouka and Amdobell have proven, you're really bringing your OC's to life and making a connection between them and the BDH's. Well done.

I also can't wait for chs. 16 and on!!

Saturday, June 24, 2006 8:06 PM

DRACONUS


Sorry, that was me. Forgot to log on.

Saturday, June 24, 2006 8:53 PM

BOOKADDICT


Hey Mal4Prez take as long as you want. Just give us more great chapters.

I love that Inara was able to defeat Will because of his overconfidence and that, with the possible exception of Ginger, no-one likes him.

The story of Ray & Jase is so sad, I wonder how it's going to turn out?

This was another great chapter in your story and I'm waiting very patiently to see how the rest of the crew come into it.

Saturday, June 24, 2006 9:57 PM

2X2


Heee Since I won't be online this week coming, this works out just fine for me!! *lucky dance*

Wonderful chapter again... Inara's breakdown when she found out Mal was still alive, after just sitting there numbly thinking he was dead... so powerful... hit like a ton of bricks...

Ray is such an interesting character... but I wish he'd just decided to space Will then and there, because I just know he's gonna get worse...

Curious about Angel's open hostility towards Inara....

So very happy to see this up at last! This story is wonderful, and I love the tension flowing through it... really good stuff!

Sunday, June 25, 2006 7:29 AM

LEIASKY


A week without an update? Nooooooo!

I loved Kaylee's concern and hesitation in asking about Simon and how Mal couldn't quite remember. That was nicely done!

I was on the edge of my seat waiting for someone to walk in while River was in the infirmary - and then they finally did!

So now we have more of the crew reunited. I like the pace of it all.

Looking forward to more!

Sunday, June 25, 2006 2:40 PM

LEIGHKOHL


I too loved Kaylee's hesitant quetioning of Mal about Simon. If you need a week off, take it becuase this is such a well crafted story, if you need tiem, you deserve it! I am worried about Will as well, and Mal's reactions are bit perturbing, at least Kaylee and Inara can find some comfort together...stupid boys...Waiting patiently for your next post!

Sunday, June 25, 2006 4:17 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


If time off is what ya need to keep such amazing work coming, then take all the time you need, m4p:D

And why do I get the feeling that Ray's ephiphiny isn't as shiny as we would hope? Cuz it feels like he's still on the bad path quite solidly:(

BEB

Monday, June 26, 2006 6:43 PM

NOSADSEVEN


Thank you for another satisfying chapter!

Your break from posting fits in well with my vacation/limited-computer-access time, so you'll hear no complaints from me! (Of course, even if I were here, I'd prefer you took the time to maintain your dazzling quality, rather than push to post.)

Here's the love:

I love how things are starting to come together... I love River's ballsy-ness, and the way it unnerves both Simon *and* Ray. I love how Ray smiled at Inara's treatment of Will, talking of buying her a drink, and her response. (His plans surely didn't involve taking a Registered Companion! -not that he knows that's what she is.) I love all of your OCs' genuine surprize at how much our crew care for one another...breaks the heart as it highlights where they (the OCs) are coming from, and as Kaylee realized in the previous chapter, how special our crew is.

And here's the speculation: (because I'm sure it amuses you)

I see alot of parallels between Mal and Ray, but that certainly doesn't leave me assured that all will turn out well. I think of Mal as so close to an edge that Ray has long ago gone over (and Mal's fears as illustrated in the Fish Job seem to lean the same way).

I'm curious to see if Inara's presence has brought the horror back to Mal, or if he has blocked it out so completely that he doesn't even realize that her plans to leave have changed or that she was so upset. Assuming it's the latter, it puts him and Inara at such different places emotionally...*shakes head and sighs*.

I want to see if Inara remembers the details about her overheard conversation between Aunt Beyla and Peter where Ginger is mentioned, and if that comes into play. (How could it not, right?)

I still want to see what (if anything) Jayne does with Hank's gun!

And may I just say... POOR BOOK! Still tied under that table and needing to use the head. Cruel torture, indeed! I hope he finds some relief.


Anyway, I posted comments on C.14, but they have since disappeared... If you didn't get them, I can repost them once I get back home sometime (hopefully) next week.

Thank you for taking the time to do these so well. Just...Thank you.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006 7:26 AM

TAYEATRA


Well, it took a while but I'm all caught up now. Unfortunately that's just left me impatient for the next chapter!

Loving this series!

Friday, July 14, 2006 7:07 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


Boy was awful stupid, even with all that schooling. Boy was awful brave, too.
-Good line.

It was supposed to be simple: just take a gorram ship. He’d assumed it’d be crewed by a bunch of rough hands, the sort he was used to seeing on Niflheim. Just a few folks who’d cower down at the sight of a gun, then sit quiet till the job was done.
-Jobs don't seem to go smooth for anyone who even gets near to Mal. *sigh*

“I could use a drink.”
-As could the rest of the crew, at this point.

But it was only a half-beaten doctor and a skinny little girl; they couldn’t be a danger.
-HAHAHAHAHA two unlikely heroes, and I assume they will do some serious ass-kicking.


POST YOUR COMMENTS

You must log in to post comments.

YOUR OPTIONS

OTHER FANFICS BY AUTHOR

Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.


Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.