BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

GIRLFAN

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapters 21-30
Sunday, January 21, 2007

All already posted before, just posted together for convience of new and (re) readers. Overall rating NC-17; this does not apply to all chapters, however. Chapters 21-30 begins with Simon in captivity and what happens to him and the crew before the big damn rescue, and ends with things finally appraoching something on the mend. Canon pairings, where applicable. Postive comments perfered; any cease and desists recieved will be complied with, and shown off at parties.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1789    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

*** *** *** Chapters 1-10, Chapters 11-20 *** *** ***

Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Twenty-One: Vixere fortes ante agamemnona (literally, brave men lived before Agamemnon; which is to say heroism exists even if it's not recorded)

Simon Tam had an excellent sense of the amount of time that was passing. This was not usually the case; he often lost track of time under the pressure of surgery, due to his level of absorption with his work. Here, it was different: here, there was nothing on which to focus his mind but the pain he was in, and how long it had been going on for. He could track the time, despite the interrogators lies, and attempts to confuse him; he knew roughly how long it would take to inflict a certain level of damage, and he could track reasonably precisely how long it had been since he’d last had food or water thanks to the symptoms he was presenting, adjusted, of course, for blood loss and ambient temperature. It was somewhere around the end of the second day, or start of the third day since he’d been arrested. Around forty-eight hours without food or water, without sleep (though he had passed out, finally, once today).

His mind debated the benefits of waiting longer. Part of his brain suggested waiting another several hours, just because forty-eight was significant number of hours. It might look noticeable. Another part reminded him that his clock wasn’t that precise. It was at least forty-eight hours; it could as much as fifty-four hours already. He sighed. ‘Okay,’ he decided. ‘Next beating, we try out our plausible lies.’ For a man in his situation, Simon’s spirits were reasonably high. He was certain that they hadn’t caught Kaylee, because he knew they wouldn’t have hesitated to use her as leverage. He was reasonably certain that his lies would work. ‘Fingers crossed, nice arraignment cell here we come.’ He’d been able to hold out. The rest was up to Serenity.

It was those thoughts that kept his heart from being overwhelmed when the interrogator returned. He arrived with a group of guards; Simon knew what that meant – a beat down before the finessed cutting would begin. He tried to work out when the best moment to break down would be – but it was really hard to concentrate given the savagery of the attack.

It was the kick to his ribs that decided matters for him. “God damn it!” That was the fourth rib they’d broken in two days.

“He speaks.” The interrogator noted aloud. The guards stopped beating on him.

‘Kind of hard to talk when you’re screaming,’ Simon thought snidely, but had learned about half way through yesterday that it was best to keep those thoughts to himself. He groaned, “Fast burn rocket shuttle.” He wished that he’d had to at least try to make his voice sound pathetic.

“River Tam?”

“Yes.”

“Destination?”

They both knew that there was only one possible destination. “Belleraphon.”

“Dr. Tam, where is Serenity?”

“Don’t know.” Simon groaned again. “Never did.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We left weeks ago. Thought the warrants were quashed.”

“I see.” The interrogator spoke to the guards. “Take Dr. Tam to a holding cell.” They didn’t even bother to suggest Simon walk, just dragging him out behind them as they left.

The interrogator’s young assistant turned to him. “A holding cell, Sir? I thought we were going to arraign him?”

“We were, Donna.” The interrogator sighed. “We wanted him to prosecute for his crimes, and to help catch his sister. The brass want him to tell them how he trashed their security and to act as bait for his sister. Arrived a couple of hours ago. You guess where this is going?” He posed the question rhetorically, then continued. “Hell, we were lucky to have him long enough to get a lead for the investigation; not that there will be much of an investigation in a likelihood from this point.”

The girl nodded, thinking that she understood. “Once she got to Belleraphon – she could be anywhere by now.”

“I know, but that’s not why. The brass seem pretty certain that they’ll be able to locate River Tam easily enough, now that they have Simon Tam.”

The girl blanched in sympathy. “Is there even going to be anything left to arraign when they’re through?”

“Probably not.”

Chapter Twenty-Two: Vixere fortes ante agamemnona (literally, brave men lived before Agamemnon; which is to say heroism exists even if it's not recorded) Part II

Not an arraignment cell, then. Well, it had been worth a try.

As soon as he’d been dragged to the holding cell, a small team of medics started to load him up saline and blood, nutrients given intravenously, but he was given no food. It would help him to prepare to survive another round of interrogation, without in any way relieving the pain of his hunger.

Simon thought that that had been a particularly efficient, if sadistic, touch.

When the medics finally left, he peeled himself off of the floor of his cell, and stumbled to his cot to lie down for what little rest he would be permitted.

*** He forced himself to close his eyes. It was another cell, with no hope of escape. Better to rest than to worry. His newest guards had chained him down tightly, his calves and ankles strapped tightly to the floor, and his arms each, separately, chained to the ceiling of the darkened room. He’d been strung up to his maximum extent, so that he couldn’t even switch between the straight and sitting kneeling postures. Even if he hadn’t had broken bones, large swathes of bruised muscles, and cut tissue, he would have been stiff. But his bones were broken, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe even in the little amount of time that he had been left there.

His eyes flew open at the sound of the opening door. Two men, very blank – walked in. Simon didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone who more perfectly fit the term ‘spooks’. One of them leaned back on the front of the desk, and eyed Simon piercingly. The other stood by the side of the desk, checking the instruments. “I’m not going to tell you anything,” Simon hissed at them.

“Well, it’s just as well we reached that understanding early, then, Dr. Tam. Agent Smith?” Agent Hunt’s assistant handed him a scalpel. “As it happens, we don’t particularly care to hear your screams.” The man reached toward Simon’s face with the blade.

“What do you mean?” Simon stammered. What the hell was happening now? “I thought you wanted to know how I broke into your secure facility?”

Hunt paused. “Couldn’t care less, Dr. Tam. What makes you think that?” He looked at his assistant.

Smith shrugged. “I imagine the prison guards told him that that’s why he was being transferred, Sir. I put it down on the transfer form.”

“Ah, yes. The paperwork.” The agent turned back to Simon. “No, that’s just the public reason that you are here. It didn’t take particularly long to work how you had managed your feat, extraordinary though it might have been. We had the security footage from it, after all. Our intent with you is retrieve River Tam.”

Smith couldn’t help but laugh at the expression on Simon’s face.

Hunt smiled and continued. “We’re joking, of course. We do very much want to know how you – not so much broke in – but more importantly, broke back out of our top facility with our most prized possession. But you don’t need your vocal cords for that. Or even your fingers. In the end, your brain can easily be wired to a keyboard.”

“Blinks.” Smith added.

“You will tell us eventually. How much of you is intact at the end is of very little difference to us. In any case, we don’t particularly care to hear you scream.”

“You don’t know. Maybe I’m… really good. The last guys seemed to enjoy it.” ‘Great argument Simon Tam,’ he cursed himself.

Both of them smiled, albeit somewhat wanly, at Simon’s joke. “Well, police in general are a bit… low brow. Our tastes are more refined.” Almost as an off hand remark – though nothing here in truth was said or done off hand, he continued to say, “As are our methods. We will leave the fingers of your right hand intact for the time being. We will find you sister, one way or another. The police are searching for her based on the information that you gave them – but I think it’s likely they’ll find her when she arrives at our open door. You came for her. She’ll come for you.” Hunt paused. “Somehow, I suspect this is one of the rare instances where the brother surpasses the sister.”

“In any case, as with paperwork, we have some formalities to put aside before we get started,” Smith noted aloud.

***

“Mal, I realise that it’s probably crass to ask…” Inara began.

Mal’s eyebrow shot up. “Oh, please, do go on. This I must hear.”

“Is there any chance that Simon will survive this… shall we say, intact in spirit, if not in body?” Mal’s face went stony. Inara hurried along. “I think I understand the general outline of what’s happening –.” Inara paused and started again. “Mal, Kaylee’s very distressed. The longer this goes on, the more important it becomes that she receives information that she believes she can trust, so that she can continue to hope. She knows that I can’t tell her that everything will be fine. It’s just… been too long. Her head is full of ugly pictures – as, I must admit, is my own. Mal, what’s going on? What are they doing to him? Will they kill him?”

“’Nara, right now we don’t even know for sure who ‘they’ are. But in the general, in answer to your questions: we’re more likely to get him back broken in spirit than body, or broken in both, than intact in spirit but broken in body. Rare’s a man who’s kept his secrets under torture, and I don’t know even one of ‘em.”

Inara stared. “But, with Niska…”

“Niska didn’t want information, just to see us in pain. Never have been beat on by anyone who was doing it for intelligence instead of fun, honestly can’t say for sure I’d last.”

“But you were alright, mostly, both of you. Shook up, but you picked up your lives again, went on.”

“Niska didn’t have us that long.”

“Mal, he had you long enough!”

“And that, right there, is my point.”

Realisation dawned. “No, Mal.” She shook her head. “They’ve already had him so long!”

“Yeah.”

“Mal, I’m serious. What kind of shape will he be in when we get him back?”

“Assuming we get him back alive…”

“Mal!”

“You want the truth?” His tone was warning.

“Ah, yes.” No, no, no. Clearly not. But until she understood, she couldn’t do anything to prepare Kaylee, or, for that matter, herself, for what they would likely find.

“They’ve got him this long – most like they started with questions about the whereabouts of River, and Serenity. They might throw in some questions about Kaylee, too, seeing as she was with him and got away. Might not, too. Doubt they care too much – may save those questions for after they’ve already broke him and the getting’s good. If he’s alive now, it’s only because they haven’t broken him yet, or more likely, ‘cause they think they’ll have a shot at getting River back when we ride to the rescue. And they know we will, they’re counting on it. By now, assuming that he’s still trying to hold out on them, young Simon’s gotten several broken bones. His face – going to guess, busted up lip, quite probably at least one eye swollen shut. Probably not both, it’s supposed to be kinda fun to make your victim watch. They’ve probably permanently ruined his hands. Cut off fingers, smashed his wrists, the like.” Mal could see that Inara’s composer was slipping, but he didn’t stop. She’d said that she wanted to know. “He’s a doctor, he’ll treasure ‘em, so like as not, off they’ll come, early on.”

“Wo de ma.”

“Inara, these guys don’t play games. You been watching too many vids with Kaylee? You think they’re going to be considerate enough to leave him in an easy-to-patch-up state, just ‘cause we’re riding to his rescue? Hell, no. All the more reason to put the crunch on as fast and… crunchy… as possible.” He looked at her appraisingly. “Want me to continue?”

Inara was pale, but nodded.

“Nerves have to be attached to feel pain. So they won’t amputate any more than necessary for the psychological effect, choosing instead to create pain with flame, cold, acid, drugs, maybe even poison. Maybe they’ll feed him. Maybe they won’t. Maybe he’ll refuse food and they’ll force feed him.” He saw Inara pale further. “Yep, that one’s damn unpleasant. Maybe they’ll let him have trips to the head, more likely they’ll lock him up in a cell the size of a coffin until nature has no choice but to run it’s course.” He paused and looked at his watch. “How long’s he been gone now? Yeah, that one’s quite possibly already happened.” He looked at her again.

It took every moment of all of the years of her training to meet his eyes. “That’s so… humiliating, Mal.” Her voice, at first, came out in a whisper of disbelief, but got stronger. “I realise how stupid that sounds. Obviously, that is the entire point of the exercise.” She hesitated. “I can only imagine that it might even be worse for someone like Simon.”

“Yeah, that’s an ‘exercise’ that works pretty well on anybody, but some people are more irrational about their bodies than others. Simon strikes me as that sort. But he’s a doctor, he might be ok. They’ll watch him, see what he reacts to, even when he’s trying not to react. They’re not going to waste their time with the generically scary, and they won’t throw what terrifies you or me or Zoë or Jayne or Kaylee at him – they’ll try their damnedest to pick what utterly, completely terrifies him. His own nightmares, made to order.”

He paused again and caught Inara’s eye, then continued. “You see where I’m going with this now?” Inara nodded in sad and horrified silence. “We’re not going to get Simon Tam back. If we’re lucky, we might get his body back, and, if we’re very, very lucky it might even be alive. But Simon Tam will either have been destroyed in the process, or he’ll buried so deep like as not he’ll never find himself again.”

“You can’t mean that, Mal.”

He sighed and looked out at the black. “Swear I do, ‘Nara. This is his Garden of Gethsemane.” He looked at the Companion quizzically, realising that she might not understand the Christian reference. Her next words elegantly expressed to the exact degree to which she did understand.

“His Serenity Valley.”

Chapter Twenty-Three: Vixere fortes ante agamemnona (literally, brave men lived before Agamemnon; which is to say heroism exists even if it's not recorded) Part III

“Dr. Tam, you guilty of the theft of one of Blue’s Sun most valuable pieces of property. By precedent and company by-law, you are liable both for the loss we sustained, and for the losses we sustained through not having the use of our property. This means that you are liable for a period of bound service of no less one year, for each year or part thereof that our property remains unavailable to us. That is, of course, assuming that we get River Tam back, and assuming that you cooperate early enough to ensure your own survival. I don’t particularly care, but you could, for example, be put to some use, for example, in a drug trial, possibly some experimentation. You do understand that you are not an equal trade for River Tam? Due to the unique organic parts of the product it is essentially irreplaceable.”

“You’re talking about my sister!”

Hunt acknowledged the interruption, “No. You’re talking about your sister. I’m talking about one of Blue Sun’s most costly experimental prototypes.” He continued formally. “By custom and precedent, you are hereby ordered to bound service, subject to Blue Sun Corporation.” Hunt looked away from Simon’s stunned face, to his assistant. “Agent Smith, are we ready?”

“Yes Sir.”

Hunt pressed his call button, and four guards immediately stepped through the door. “I don’t imagine that he can move very much, but I would like two of you to brace him for processing. Their leader gestured and two of guards broke away. Each took a tight grip on Simon’s already taut arm. “Agent Smith, in your own time.”

Simon could hear the agent called Smith moving around behind him, somewhere to his right. He could feel the tiny hairs at the back of his neck standing up. He heard a heavy door open, and felt a wave of heat, as if from an oven. His brain had worked it out before the sound of crackling even reached it. The brightness of the brand, held before his eyes, was itself painful in the darkened room. Instinct forced Simon to try to thrash away, but he was held tight by heavy chain and strong men. ‘Tyen shiao duh,’ was all Simon had time to think, before the logo of the Blue Sun Corporation was burned onto his skin. “Mother of Mercy!” he screamed.

As the agent put the brand away, Simon tried to pant out his pain. Over the sound of his strained breathing, Smith’s voice carried, it’s tone one of intellectual curiosity. “Sir, do you think this may once have been a Shino-Christian temple?”

“Dismissed,” Hunt said to the guards before turning back to Smith. “What makes you wonder?”

“It’s just that so often, when I come in here, our visitors seem to be praying.” Simon heard the guards sniggering quietly on their way out.

“Astute. We will definitely have to commission some expensive study into the archaeological and anthropological significance of the site.”

Simon tried to sag against his chains, but there wasn’t much sagging in them. If the brand wasn’t bothering him so much, Simon would have been extremely irked at their joking – he found the pair about as entertaining as a Sunday morning spent shopping with a hung over Jayne. But the brand was bothering him, in the extreme. He’d never before experienced anything so painful – but it was not the pain, itself, that was getting to him. That was only part of it. No, the fact that these hundan had marked him, had made him property, chattel, that was like a nagging itch under the pain of the brand. The pain would eventually fade, but the brand, even if removed, would always be there.

***

When Inara relieved Jayne in the shuttle, both he and Kaylee looked worse for wear; Inara wanted to ask what had been said, but they were sitting together quietly, so she kept her peace. Jayne left quickly, barely acknowledging her thanks. Kaylee’s tears had clearly shook him deeply.

“Kaylee, sweet heart, I’ve spoken to Mal. He’s working hard on a plan. We talked a little about what’s going on with Simon – what’ll they do him, have done to him. Kaylee, I need you to be brave. Mal’s warned me of what Simon’s likely to face. The longer he with holds the information that they want from him, the more damage he will sustain. Some of that – may be permanent.”

Kaylee’s interruption was almost inaudible. “He ain’t never gonna betray River.”

Inara kept her face soft, relaxed, gentle. “Kaylee, that’s a huge standard to hold someone to – far too high to ask of anyone, and given what they will do to him if he doesn’t tell them, really, I pray that he chooses not to try to hold out. It’s not like we’re running; we will return to rescue him.”

“Ya heard River’s screams?”

“Some. She was trying to be quiet by the time I was in the infirmary with her.”

“He’s holding out. They’re hurting him.”

‘Yes. They’re hurting him. It doesn’t mean he’s holding out.’ Inara didn’t say it. She didn’t see how Simon losing the use of his hands was going to help them one jot. She really hoped that they were only hurting him for fun now, as a lure for River. Just transient pain, nothing permanent; but she, too, knew that Simon would protect his sister as best he could. She continued. “In any case, Mei-mei, when we get Simon back, we’re going to need to be patient with him, ready to help him deal with his emotional and physical recovery. That itself is a difficult task, and right now, you aren’t up to it. Mei-mei, you have to stop blaming yourself, and try to focus on the things that we can do.”

Kaylee actually laughed. “Stop blaming myself? ‘Nara, I DID THIS. I TURNED HIM IN.”

“Kaylee, what do you mean?” Inara was puzzled, more than shocked; she didn’t consider for a moment that her friend’s words might have any literal truth.

“I mean I turned him in.” Kaylee explained.

When she was done, Inara was horrified, but she hid it well. She was horrified, not at what Kaylee had done, because that was clearly an accident, but at the cruelty of the situation. The depth of the girl’s pain made more sense to Inara, now, than it had before. She didn’t like to leave Kaylee alone, most especially now, but Inara knew, because of all that he’d said before, that Mal did not know this information, and that he needed to. “Kaylee, I will be right back.” She hugged the girl tight. “Kaylee, I love you very much, and we will get Simon back. This is not your fault.” She repeated herself. “I will be right back. Don’t go anywhere, please.”

As she hurried from the shuttle to head to the bridge, she spotted Jayne sitting by his weights. He wasn’t working out, just sitting quietly, alone. “Jayne, could you sit with Kaylee again for a few minutes? I forgot something I needed to say to Mal, and I don’t think she should be alone right now, she’s – so upset.” Inara would tell Mal, because the information needed to be shared, but she would protect Kaylee’s confidence as much as possible.

Inara didn’t know that Jayne knew. Jayne didn’t realise that Inara knew, and as much as he hated it, he had a better understanding of Kaylee’s grief than he wanted anyone to know. Jayne just nodded and silently headed back up to Inara’s shuttle. Inara hurried past to get to the bridge.

When she returned, Mal was still staring out at the black, and River hadn’t yet returned. Inara was grateful for both, the latter even though she was certain that the girl knew, Inara was not truly comfortable repeating Kaylee’s story in front of her. “Mal,” she began softly.

“’Nara.” He gestured to the co pilot’s seat and turned toward her. She sank into the chair.

“Mal, I was just speaking to Kaylee. She didn’t tell us everything.” Inara tried to hurry along, while still somehow picking words that wouldn’t upset him more. “Simon wasn’t spotted. That’s not what happened. There was an argument, and Kaylee yelled at Simon, mentioning him by name.” She added for clarification. “His full name. Kaylee thinks that the man who approached them was a retired Alliance officer, and she was nervous and said the first thing that came to mind to get him to go away. At that point, she thinks, he hadn’t yet realised who Simon was. But when she told him that she was Simon’s sister, it seems he put two and two together and when to get the police. Simon insisted that she go ahead, while he tried to quietly pay the bill and leave, hence, Kaylee getting away.” She paused, but continued quickly. “They’ve never been looking for Kaylee. They never even knew that she was there, because Simon’s delay meant that she left before the police arrived. She’s been blaming herself this whole time for everything that’s happened, because she thinks she turned him over to the government.”

Inara was nervous, waiting for Mal’s response, but none was forthcoming. “Mal, please. She’s hurting. It was a mistake. Please don’t be angry. I thought that you should know, in case it changes anything –.”

Mal interrupted. “Don’t change a thing. Maybe they aren’t lookin’ for Kaylee, but they’re still lookin’ for Serenity.” Inara heard the anger in his voice as he spoke.

“No, they aren’t. Not looking for Serenity either.” River had walked onto the bridge, silently.

“What do you know, lil Albatross?”

“Simon lied. Knew he had to wait for the pain to be bad, so the police would believe him. Scared, but patient. Waited. Told them I took a fast burn rocket shuttle back to the surface. Told them we left Serenity weeks ago, after Miranda. They believed him. He thought he could wait for us in a quiet cell somewhere until we came to rescue him, while the police looked the other way, hunting down every vessel that left Belleraphon. It was a clever plan.”

“But there’s a but.”

“Blue Sun want me back, and they want to know how Simon got me out. They’re holding their own investigation. They have Simon now.”

***

“Smith, what is the prisoner’s name?”

“Sir, he has been enrolled in the database under ident BSIMCTBSI3.” Simon’s abyss of pain and sorrow had enough light left in it for wonder. Blue Sun Indentured Man, Criminal/Thief, Bound Service Indefinite, third line in the database. He was only the third person in the history of Blue Sun to warrant such a classification. Realisation dawned, ‘They probably just killed all the rest.’ “Omitting certain letters, randomly assigned name – Cyan.”

Like the brand, this annoyed Simon beyond the bounds of reason. Not only did they consider him chattel, but their name for him was a synonym for Blue. Clearly, the only inventiveness in this pair’s life was in the tortures they devised. Simon knew that that was part of the message – ‘you are not important,’ ‘you mean nothing to us’. Still, he couldn’t help take it personally – it was his name, his life, and he had a right to take it personally.

Agent Hunt pressed his call button again. The guards stepped through immediately. “Guard Commander, please send for Mister Black and Mister Blue.” Simon and River rolled their eyes simultaneously at the idiotic pun.

“Number of rotations, Sir?” The Guard Commander asked respectfully.

“Twenty.”

“Standard orders?”

“That will be fine. Thank you, Guard Commander.”

As the guards left, Hunt turned back to face Simon. As he watched Simon’s face for any trace of reaction, he spoke to Smith. “I’ll need the standard endorphin inhibitor.” Smith handed the needle to Hunt, who slowly crossed the room to Simon, speaking all the while. “No point in having to over come your pain tolerance, if we don’t have to, now is there?”

Up until now, Simon had managed to maintain a centre of calm under his fear, though his increasing anger was already wearing it away. As the needle slid into his vein, and the drug pushed into his body, that calm vanished. He knew that in minutes he would have been stripped of whatever remaining physical defence he had left against the pain. Panic threatened to take hold, but with what little control he had left, Simon chose, instead, to surrender to despair.

Two new men entered and Simon forced himself not to look at them at all. They took up their places behind Simon. Hunt spoke again.

“Cyan, you are guilty of theft of a valuable piece of equipment. Your punishment for this will be severe. Messers Black and Blue, in your own time.”

There was a moment of silence – not even quite long enough for Simon to start to wonder what was happening, when with a whistle-snap, his back exploded in hot pain. Simon didn’t realise that the two were counting silently to themselves, and he was in far too much pain to consider counting himself. Black, standing to Simon’s right, lay on the odd strokes, while Blue, on Simon’s left lay on the even strokes. When Blue reached the count of twenty, the pair left the room, leaving Simon’s screams to fade to tearful moaning as he tried to pant back his pain.

Hunt and Smith looked on silently. About five minutes after the first pair left, a fresh pair strode in. “Messers Black and Blue… in your own time.” The new pair laid on another set of twenty expertly crisscrossed lashes before leaving.

When the third pair stepped in, Simon realised what ‘twenty rotations’ meant. Under the agony of his increasing pain, he managed a haphazard count. As the third pair left, he looked at the floor in horror. 20 blows. 20 rotations. 400 lashes. He didn’t even attempt to hold back the flow of tears.

***

With the first fall of the heavy whip, River stumbled and hit the floor. The intensity of the pain cut through her double dose of Inara’s soothers. However much she might wish to spare Mal the horror of listening to her, she could not. As each blow landed, she screamed in terrified agony.

Chapter Twenty-Four: De inimico non loquaris sed cogites (don't wish ill for your enemy; plan it) Part I

“River, what the hell – ?” Mal’s stunned face turned towards his fallen, screaming pilot. “’Nara, I thought she was drugged?”

Inara bent down to comfort her. “River, sweet heart, please let us help you…”

After about a minute, her screaming stopped and she writhed on the floor in silent agony.

“River, what do you know?”

“River, is Simon all right?”

"The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across the shoulders and back. At first, it cuts through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. Finally, the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons, and the entire area is an unrecognisable mass of torn, bleeding tissue." River recited it from memory, in that cold academic tone the others found so disturbing, before adding in a whisper, “Crisscross, left and right, all down his spine.”

At the description, Inara promised her stomach that it could throw up for as long as it liked if it would only wait until she returned to the privacy of her shuttle.

River continued. “He doesn’t know yet.”

“Know what, lil’ Albatross?”

“That was just the first twenty. Three hundred and eighty left to go.” She whimpered.

***

Mal had picked her up, and tried to carry her to the infirmary, but she insisted that he leave her in Simon’s room. He’d had to carry her like she was a toddler, with her head on his shoulder, and her arms around his neck, and with his arms supporting only her buttocks, because she screamed if her back was even touched. She pleaded with Inara to send Jayne back to her, and to go sit with Kaylee. Mal sat with her as Inara left to do as she’d been asked, but started when she sat upright and began frantically removing her clothes.

Instinct served and he stood up, sputtering, “Hey now, lil’ Albatross, no need for that.” Then again, he didn’t really know what was going on. “Is there?”

“Go get Zoë. Go to the shuttle. Quieter there. Plan.” She threw her dress, then her bra unto on Simon’s floor before laying down and curling up in nothing more than underpants. As Mal looked on she began to sob again. “Go now. Please Captain!”

As he left, he tried not to think of it as fleeing.

***

As Zoë settled Kaylee onto Inara’s bed, and loaded the mechanic up with the Companion’s soothers, Mal studiously tried to ignore the sound of Inara throwing her guts up in the head. Once again, he felt helpless. If it had been Zoë, he’d have known exactly what to do. But with ‘Nara… he caught Zoë’s gaze. Zoë’s face was as impassive as ever, but she let her captain know what she thought with just the slightest shift in her gaze, sliding past Mal’s face and toward the head.

Mal widened his eyes at her, and she nodded.

Damn, he wasn’t so sure. But, if Zoë thought so… then he would at least try.

He slipped the door open, and slid in. He knelt behind her on the floor, and swept Inara’s hair back, holding it for her as she continued to puke. She acknowledged his presence only by dropping her own rather imperfect one-handed grip on her hair, bracing, instead, the toilet more firmly.

Eventually, she paused. Stopped? She wasn’t certain. “Mal, if you don’t kill those bastards who have Simon, I will do it myself. I will do it with my bare hands.” Her voice was shaky, but he knew that she meant it. She gingerly stood, and flushed the toilet, before washing her hands, and rinsing her mouth. Mal stood with her. “Four hundred lashes. Four hundred. How will he even survive?”

Mal answered truthfully. “He might not.” He looked her in the eye. “Not a word to Kaylee, ‘Nara.”

“Not a word to Zoë, either, Mal.”

“Why?”

Inara answered smoothly. “She’s pregnant Mal. Stress isn’t good for the baby, and more stress is even worse.” She could keep a confidence. Zoë knew Mal best of all of them, and she would tell him when she knew he was ready.

“She’s gonna wonder what’s going on.”

“I think Zoë knows better than to ask.”

Mal nodded. “Probably. Yeah, that’s my Zoë.”

***

“River, what the good gorram are ya doin’ nekkid?” Jayne, as always, manfully went straight to the point.

“Too much pain. They hurt.” The girl was curled into a ball, crying her eyes out by the sound of it.

It occurred to him that the door was still open. He spoke as he turned to close it. “Yer clothes are hurtin’ ya?”

“Yes! Rubbing against the…” Her sentence was cut off with one of her own screams. She rolled from her curled position to flat, face down on the bed. The mattress muffled her screams some, but Jayne could already feel his blood pressure rising, as he turned back to the now-howling teenager.

*** They were capable of pushing blood into him as fast as he was losing it, and they did. Simon despaired of even the chance to die. ***

After about two hours, River curled back on her side, and Jayne noticed that the red marks stopped appearing on her.

*** “Now that your punishment has been completed, we will begin with the interrogation.” Agent Hunt lifted Simon’s head so that they could see each other eye to eye. “At this point, you have the opportunity to abort the interrogation. We can have you transferred to a cell once you debrief. You will, of course, be beaten periodically by your guards to keep River Tam interested, but that will be nothing compared to what you have already withstood. Would you like to avail yourself of this chance?”

Simon no longer had the strength for a proud, ‘I’ll never tell,’ choosing instead to weakly shake his head no.

“Well, Sir, it seems that he’s already gotten the hang of non-verbal communication,” said Smith, walking up behind Hunt.

Simon saw the blade in Smith’s hand; these would be his last words. Simon may not have much strength left, but he still had courage. He would make them count. As Smith passed the blade to Hunt, Simon focused on his enemy’s eyes, and spoke with as much steadiness as he could muster: “I will never betray my sister.”

The knife flashed expertly across Simon’s throat. ***

“How much longer we gonna be holed up in here?” Mal growled.

“You want to go out there and listen to her scream, Sir? Gotta say I’m finding it hard to concentrate myself.” Zoë was sitting on the bed, only partly to keep an eye on Kaylee, but Mal didn’t need to know that.

“Girl’s louder than some battles we been in.” Mal acknowledged. “We could just drug her, Zoë.”

“No, we can’t. River’s got a double dose a’ soothers in her already. Any more, and nothing Simon says to his captors will affect her.”

“Why’d she ask for Jayne?”

“At a guess, Sir? Maybe she figures he’s not so crucial to the plannin’ stages of her brother’s big damn rescue.”

“We ain’t plannin’ nothin’ Zoë, we’re just sittin’ here! Four a us, cooped up in the shuttle, while she and Jayne have the whole boat to themselves.”

“Sir, no-one’s stopping you leavin’. You’re the one asked us in here.” Zoë reminded him.

“This don’t strike you as faintly ridiculous, Zoë?”

“Given the circumstances, Sir? No.”

Inara, seated at her computer, interrupted. “It looks like we’ve finally got a lead.”

*** Though no sound came out, Simon howled as Hunt and Smith slowly broke each bone in his left hand. ***

“Still not seeing how we’re gonna make this work, Sir.” Zoë said patiently.

“It’s a puzzle all right, Zoë. You think they’d be making this easy for us. This is all supposed to be in aid of getting River back? Making it kinda hard for the girl.”

“Well, getting there isn’t the problem as such. There is enough room to dock the shuttle.” Inara spoke quietly.

“Yes. And when we do, they’ll storm it, grab River and shoot the rest of us.”

“I thought you liked danger, Mal.”

“Oh, I do. This is a bit rich for my blood, though.”

Zoë and Inara exchanged a glance behind the Captain.

“All right. Let’s play this through again. Who do we got?”

“Captain, Zoë, Jayne, River, Kaylee and Inara.” Zoë answered patiently.

“We need a pilot for Serenity and a pilot for the shuttle. We need a mechanic on Serenity. We need as many bodies with for the rescue as possible.”

“Zoë can pilot Serenity, and I can take the shuttle. We’re not going to get in without River, and there’s no need to take Kaylee: she can see to the engine, and help Zoë. That leaves you, me, Jayne and River to rescue Simon.” Inara put forward her strategy.

“Don’t know, Inara. Kaylee and River are in next to no shape to help.” Zoë put in. “I can pilot Serenity, and you can take the shuttle. We can leave Jayne to help Kaylee with the engine.”

“That leaves us a man down for the rescue Zoë!”

“I know, Sir. But Serenity needs a pilot and a mechanic, and her pilot and her mechanic are in no shape to do their jobs, Sir.” She took a breath. Nobody was going to like this version of the plan. “Ok: Inara can pilot Serenity and I can take the shuttle. Jayne can stay behind. We’ll still be a man down, but that’s still a stronger team going in then with just you and ‘Nara.”

“Ain’t happen’ Zoë.” But Zoë had already known that. Precedence. “Dammit, there’s gotta be a way we can make this work.”

Precedence. “There might be a way to make this work, Sir.”

“Listenin’.” The Captain sounded weary.

“We don’t split up. Take Serenity in.”

“Like with Niska?” Inara broke in.

Zoë nodded. “Just like.”

“Zo, don’t know what schematics your lookin’ at, but no way we can dock Serenity with that!”

“Wash could.”

“He ain’t here, Zoë!”

“Yes he is.” ‘For a little while, at least,’ she added silently. She laid her hand across her stomach. “River can do it. And she will. Order of Precedence.”

“What the hell?”

“Simon’s nightmares, Sir. River knows them all. The Order of Precedence is his way of valuing our lives – the crew’s lives. You can guess who’s life comes first.” Mal and Inara nodded. “As far as he’s concerned, his life falls lowest of all, far below the baby.”

Mal interrupted. “Don’t see what this is to do with River.”

“River wants to save her brother, Sir. But not if it means bringing him back to a worse nightmare than him dying.” Zoë didn’t elaborate as to how she knew.

“Zoë, the girl’s lyin’ in bed naked screaming her head off.”

“Naked?” Inara repeated. She’d missed that part. Mal nodded.

Zoë was resolute. “Don’t need clothes to pilot.”

*** When he still refused to cooperate, they made him watch as they slowly cut off each painfully broken finger on his left hand. He passed out briefly half way through, but that was quickly remedied. They were going to make the pain last.

Chapter Twenty-Five: De inimico non loquaris sed cogites (don't wish ill for your enemy; plan it) Part II

Zoë was right.

River could do this. It was her turn.

As she pushed Serenity into line to dock, she dug deep within herself, beneath her pain at Simon’s pain, beneath Simon’s pain, to the bond she shared with Simon. She could read his mind. He had tried to reach out and touch hers.

But the bond was older than that, older than her abilities. Older than her. Simon, and his love for his unborn, infant, sister had created it. He had always led by example.

She could do this.

It was her turn.

***

Dr. Tam told him that he was just hallucinating. Blood loss. Neurochemicals. Drug reactions.

But Simon knew better. He had heard his sister’s voice, and her secret message.

“Light it.”

***

River pushed the Firefly into docking, and dashed for the door, wearing Zoë’s borrowed weapons.

Zoë took the pilot’s seat. She sealed herself into the bridge.

Kaylee was in the engine room. She was still shaky, but she tried to focus on her part. She’d already failed Simon once. She couldn’t bear the thought of doing it again. She sealed off the engine room.

There had been some small dispute about the order to go in, but there had really only been one choice. River had to go first, both because anyone else would be shot on sight and because only she could manage the Shiva-Kali dance of death that would be needed to get them any further into the Alliance ship.

Mal and Jayne would follow at her signal, and Inara would hold the ground leading back to Serenity.

The further they got into the vessel, it became clear that despite its over abundance of armed men, the vessel was a modified med ship. A science vessel? It hit Mal. A flying academy. No more daring one-man rescues like those of Simon Tam would ever be possible. It didn’t matter. No one else might be able to storm their precious floating hell, but their prodigy could.

When they finally reached the room Simon was being held in, River neatly put a bullet into each of the heads of the two men torturing her brother. Jayne retrieved the keys to Simon’s chains and cut him down.

“We good to get out a here, lil’ Albatross?”

“No. Another ghost. Two rooms down.” River pointed.

“Like Simon? Or like you?” Mal asked.

“Not like either. A spy.”

“Jayne, you go retrieve the other prisoner, bring it to the airlock, but don’t let it on Serenity.” Mal hit his comm. “Zoë, going to need you in the infirmary. ‘Nara, bring the gurney.” He gave her directions, but it wasn’t like it was a large vessel. In any case, Inara was a bright girl, and could easily follow the trail of bodies.

Inara made good time, and she and Mal helped River get Simon on to the gurney. “Simon,” she asked. “Simon, can you hear me? You’re going to be all right. Simon?” His eyes flickered open and shut periodically, but he said nothing. River just gripped her brother’s hand tight. “Simon?”

“Leave off, ‘Nara. Boy can’t talk.”

As they moved the gurney, Mal’s words came back to her. Even knowing in advance – she hadn’t known. “Inara, these guys don’t play games. You been watching too many vids with Kaylee? You think they’re going to be considerate enough to leave him in an easy-to-patch-up state, just ‘cause we’re riding to his rescue? Hell, no. All the more reason to put the crunch on as fast and… crunchy… as possible. Want me to continue?”… “We’re not going to get Simon Tam back. If we’re lucky, we might get his body back, and, if we’re very, very lucky it might even be alive. But Simon Tam will either have been destroyed in the process, or he’ll buried so deep like as not he’ll never find himself again.” She new know that she hadn’t really believed him. She knew now that Mal had been right.

Through her reverie, Inara heard Mal’s voice. “Jayne, what are ya still doing here? Can’t get in?”

“Ain’t going in Mal.”

“Shen me?” He was about to yell at the mercenary, but he knew with a sudden burst of clarity that it would do no good. Jayne only got like that… “They’re Reavers in there, Jayne?”

“Bunch a’ um. Playing dead.”

“’Nara, you and River get Simon back ta Serenity. Zoë’s in the infirmary.” Mal walked the short distance to the mercenary and peered in the tiny glass viewer.

“It’s eerie-assed Mal, that’s what it is. Reaver witchery.”

“It’s something, alright, Jayne.” Mal didn’t know what to think, but he slowly pushed the door open. The door wasn’t even locked. The room was considerably larger than the one Simon had been in, but only in that it was much longer – the width remained the same, as if the joining walls had been knocked out to create one large room out of three smaller ones. At one end, the end near the door, lay a pile of bodies, mostly Reaver. Laid out next to them were four bodies in Alliance uniform. All around the bodies, drawn in what Mal was certain was fresh blood, was a large circle.

“Jayne, Reavers didn’t do this. Ain’t got enough left in them to care about their dead.”

Jayne looked a bit braver and stepped closer. “Mebbe – them Alliance bodies don’t look like they been worried.”

But if he was right, and this was another academy style facility, and River was right, and there was ‘a spy’ in this room… Mal suddenly turned his flashlight on the ceiling, and Jayne followed suit.

Watching them silently from the ceiling, one hand carefully gripping the heavy chain she hung by, was a rather battered and bloodied young woman.

“Mal, she’s nekkid.”

“Yeah. Seems it’s going around.”

***

Zoë and Mal stood over Simon’s semi-conscious body. River stood nearby, sorting instruments. The anger on Mal’s face seemed in no way assuaged by the retrieval of the boy, nor the deaths of his captors.

“You up to this, Zoë?” he asked darkly.

“Yes, Sir. We can triage him for the moment, decide what to do when he’s been bandaged up a bit.”

Inara walked in, “I got the supplies you asked for Zoë; O+ blood, saline, plasma, drugs – can we risk knocking him out?”

“Don’t think so. He’ll have ta pass out from the pain.”

Mal broke in. “You got all that from over there?”

“Yes. And there’s more. I asked Jayne and Kaylee to grab everything they can before we break off.”

Jayne and Kaylee quickly turned up, laying their boxes down outside the infirmary. Jayne strayed no farther than the door way, but Kaylee surged forward. She hadn’t seen Simon yet. Inara turned to grab her, but it was too late. The girl had seen. “Wo de ma… and he was so shui…” tears spilled down her cheeks.

Mal’s head snapped up, his face frozen in anger. “Kaylee.”

Zoë, head still bent, interrupted, voice quiet but firm. “Kaylee, we need room to work. Jayne, take her to the engine room. Inara, take the bridge.”

Mal stood in stunned silence as the others obeyed the first mate unquestioningly. It occurred to him that even if he’d spoken in time, they’d have obeyed Zoë. Zoë still hadn’t looked up. “Zoë –”

His old friend still worked smoothly. “Sir, you were about to tear Kaylee I new one. She don’t need it right now, and the rest of us could do without listenin’ to it.”

“Zoë, the boy’s lying here half dead and she’s sad ‘cause he ain’t pretty no more?”

“Sir, that’s not what Kaylee meant and you know it.” Zoë’s attention never wavered. Mal had never been eyeballed by someone who was looking elsewhere, but it seemed that Zoë was more than capable of it. “She’s blaming herself for all a this, her lover losing damn near everything – including his looks. She’s not rejecting him, and you know it damn well. Not fair taking it out on her, and it wouldn’t be even if the girl wasn’t half-mad with grief.”

Mal’s face darkened. “You want to tell me what else I know, Zoë?”

“If you want, Sir.”

He paused. “Zoë, River’s standing right here, you wanna tell me why you couldn’t waited til we were alone?”

Zoë didn’t bother with the obvious. “Girl knows how to respect a conversation she overhears, Sir.”

Mal turned to move toward the door. Zoë continued to speak with out looking up, “Couple more steps and I will put one of Simon’s special ‘Jayne’ soothers in you, Sir.”

He turned, now truly pissed. “Mutiny, Zoë?”

“No Sir. Executive duty, Sir. Relieving you of your command til you get your head out of your gorram ass, Sir.” She looked at the edge of her blade. “Fresh knife, River.” The girl handed a new scalpel to Zoë. “Thank you.”

“You serious?”

“Sir, the way you been acting? I swear by the God you’ve forsaken that were you any other man alive I’d have slapped you by now.”

***

“Ready to suture?”

“Yes.” Zoë handled the needle carefully as River passed it to her. “Damn glad now that he got to show me how to do this.” She turned the needle in her hand. “Though, as I recall, he threaded the damn thing himself.” River opened her hand and Zoë passed the needle back with an apologetic smile. “Not real domestic, ya mighta noticed.” A moment later, the girl was done.

“I’m ready with the fearsome brow mop,” River deadpanned, and Zoë smiled as she began sewing Simon back up. Mal turned to leave, but stopped as he heard Zoë’s question.

“River, ya think ya can keep your brother breathing a moment?” the relaxed humour was gone from her voice.

“Yes, ma’am.” The girl replied softly.

He turned to see Zoë walking toward him with one of the soothers she’d threatened him with before in her hand. River could have had it in his neck before the words were out of Zoë’s mouth, but Zoë would never lay that burden on her crew. This was between a Captain and his XO, and he knew his XO like she knew her duty: she would discharge it, however much it cost or pained her.

His hands went up to his shoulders. “Zoë, I’m calmed down. Ain’t gonna do anything rash. I’ll go talk to Kaylee, let her know it’s ain’t her fault, and that things are under control here. Let Jayne have a rest, maybe relieve Inara. Do something about our prisoner. Captain-y things.” Zoë was silent. “Zoë, you did good. I wasn’t thinking straight, am now. May I have my command back now, please?”

Zoë lay the soother back down and took the needle back from River. “Yes, Sir.”

When Mal left, River asked Zoë quietly, “‘May I have my command back now, please?’”

Zoë shrugged. “Mal’s Momma raised him the old fashioned way.” She paused and peered closely at her stitching. “Just be glad he didn’t thank me.”

“No wood shed on Serenity.”

***

As Mal approached the engine room, he was relieved to hear that Kaylee’s voice was almost normal. Jayne had obviously done well, sitting with her and chatting with her all the while the surgery went on, considerably lightening Kaylee’s heavy burden. He paused to eavesdrop, a tough habit that he hadn’t yet bothered to try to learn to break.

“Yer real sweet Jayne, but don’t change nothin’. Cap’n still mad at me.”

“Don’t worry, lil’ Kaylee, Mal ain’t mad at ya. He’s just mad. Betcha Mama Bear’ll take care a’ him.”

‘Mama Bear?’ Mal’s brain asked.

“Mama Bear?” Kaylee asked aloud.

“Zoë.” Mal didn’t see, but he could imagine the look Kaylee was giving Jayne. Mal was pretty sure that he was wearing it himself. “What, you ain’t never seen your Mother pregnant?”

“Na, I’m the baby.” Kaylee’s voice sounded amused for the first time in days.

“That explains it, then. They get right fierce, and Zoë ain’t ‘xactly mild-mannered as a rule.” Mal smiled at the sound of her light laugher, but listened as Jayne spoke again, more seriously. “Anyway, doncha worry ‘bout a thing. Be right as rain soon as Mal figures out how to blame all’a this on me.”

Mal’s shock and Jayne’s words was quickly superseded by Kaylee’s sad response. “Ain’t right the way ya’llways get blamed, Jayne.”

Jayne didn’t have a wide vocal repertoire. Mal identified the mercenary’s ‘confused’ tone. “Thought you said you were the baby? Ain’tcha got brothers?”

“Yea, were the only girl. Don’t mean nothin’.” Mal recognised the puzzled tone in Kaylee’s voice.

“Don’t mean nothing? Kaylee, they ain’t never told ya what older brothers is for?” Kaylee laughed again, but Mal thought that the man actually sounded aghast.

The girl answered in an amused tone. “Hair pullin’ and tattlin’?”

“Now, lil’Kaylee, hair pullin’s fun, can’t deny a boy that, especially if he ain’t much older than his sister. But tattlin’? They tattled?”

“Yeah.”

“All of ‘em? Even the oldest?”

“Yeah.”

“That ain’t right, Kaylee.” Was that disbelief in the hardened mercenary’s voice? Truly it was a day of revelations for Mal.

“What, they weren’t supposed to?”

“Naw, Kaylee. That’s yellow. Ain’t supposed to abandon yer little sister like that!”

“What ‘bout when it were my fault?”

“Ain’t never the baby’s fault!”

“What ‘bout when it is, though?”

“Then it’s the oldest’s fault! This ain’t engine mechanics, Kaylee.” Mal took that to be Jayne speak for ‘this isn’t hard to figure out’. “Thems the kosherised rules.” Jayne’s tone was firm.

“Na, Jayne, that ain’t yellow. That’s smarts. No sense getting’ whupped for what ya ain’t done.”

“Dammit, girl, ain’tcha listenin’? That’s what girls have older brothers for. Ain’t smarts. Plain…” Jayne changed tack. “You just go ask Dr. Top Three Percent when he wakes up. See fer yourself if it’s smarts or cowardice.”

There was a noticeable pause before Kaylee spoke again. “Jayne, you saying ya let your parents whup ya for the other’s faults?”

“The baby ain’t supposed to be walkin’ to the wood shed by herself. Don’t know what yer brothers were thinkin’. The baby of the family’s in there, the whole lotta ‘em better be in trouble with ‘er.”

“That why you don’t mind so much the Cap’n being mad at ya, Jayne?”

“That’s what I said.”

“So you’re my ge-ge?”

“Guess so.”

“Then ain’t River the baby?”

“Naw. She’s got Simon.”

“Don’t need another ge-ge?”

It was Jayne’s turn to pause in thought. “Na, yer right. A girl can’t never have ‘nough older brothers. Ok. She can be the baby, but yer my favourite.”

“Xei xei ni ge-ge.”

Chapter Twenty-Six: Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (They change the sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.) Part I

When Mal got to the bridge, he saw that Inara, seated in the pilot’s chair, was engrossed in the file she was looking at. “What ya got there, ‘Nara?”

“Mal! Is Simon alright?”

“Zoë’s done patching him up. Not much more we can do here. Gonna hafta find the boy a doctor.”

“How bad is it?”

“Bad enough. River wasn’t wrong about the flogging, and he’s got more than a few broken ribs. All the bones in his right hand are completely smashed – left hand’s gone from the wrist.”

“What’s wrong with his voice, Mal?”

“Ya saw the cut on his throat?”

“Yes.”

“Cut his vocal cords.”

“That’s obscene.” There was really nothing else to say.

Mal nodded toward the console. “What are you reading?”

“Oh! I pulled all the files I could from the Pandora before we broke away.”

“The Pandora? That the name of the charming little boat we pulled Simon out of?”

“Yes.”

Mal nodded, but Inara couldn’t read his expression. “What did you get?”

“Well, not too much about Simon – apparently he’s officially a bound subject of Blue Sun now. They list date of capture, crimes, punishment, name change...”

“Name change? Of course, name change. Anything else?”

“Not really. It would appear that he didn’t tell them anything. It lists multiple refusals to debrief, and notes the status of the interrogation as ongoing. That’s all it’s got to say on Simon.”

“Anything on the prisoner?”

“Quite a bit, actually. That’s the file I’m looking at now.” Inara peered down again to make sure the facts were correct in her head. “It lists her as Swann, Ceres, third year cadet –”

“As in, Alliance military cadet?”

“Yes.”

“What was she doing in that cell?”

Inara looked up. “I don’t know, Mal. I was with Simon and River, remember? You were with Jayne and the girl in the scary room with dead Reavers.” Mal was taken aback a moment, then decided that it just something about that chair.

“What’s it say about why they had her aboard?”

“It says… it says, in summary, that she was a gifted cadet, an aspiring intelligence/counterintelligence specialist; she wrote some interesting, wildly speculative thought experiments in her third year – which lead both to her being selected as a test subject for their new project and the design of the project itself.”

“Bring all new meaning to ‘he who lives by the sword’.”

“So it would seem.”

“The project was initially designed to help create a program that would help identify the soldiers best suited to withstanding long periods of strenuous interrogation, and then giving them further training. At this stage, Swann had given her consent to be a test subject – the theory being that consent was ultimately required – otherwise your soldiers would cheerfully betray you. At some point, the project shifted from under military research and development to the auspices of Blue Sun. Simultaneously, it’s focus also shifted from a resistance-training program to what appears to mostly be a study of refined torture technique.”

“Should I take it from your tone that Cadet Swann withdrew her consent at this point?”

“If the notes are to be believed – apparently instantly. The records kept by her instructors and the military research team describe an incredibly dedicated, talented student.” Inara pointed to the screen and Mal glanced at it. It was a very respectable record. Inara flipped to another. “The Blue Sun records describe Miss Swann as a bu huihen de pofu.”

“Really?”

“Really. She apparently killed three of her guards on the first day, the first when one of them threatened or attempted – the report isn’t clear – to rape her, the second two when they came to the aid of the first.”

“Well… good for her.”

“Mal, what was it like in that room? Bear in mind that I’m not asking for details.”

“Well, given that they threw her to Reavers, or vice versa – it would seem the possibility of rape still gets her a mite riled up. How long they have her for?”

“Two years.” Inara paused. “Mal, the reason I ask is because they subjected her to a number of surgeries and drug therapies in the that they had her period as their subject. Simon would have to look at these records, but the experimentation and the dead Reavers make me think of…”

“Yea. River did say the girl’s not like her. She’s a spy.”

“Is? Supposed to be? Will be?”

“Not sure.”

“What are you going to do with her, Mal?”

“Long term? I honestly don’t know.” Mal looked as his hands. “I think she broke her wrist trying to get out of the cuffs she was in. I’m gonna have Zoë have a look at her. Go from there.”

“Mal, we can’t send her back.”

“’Nara, the girl’s an Alliance Cadet. Should a been an officer by now. Sounds like she might have been a good one, too, if she’d got the chance. Ya think she’s on our side? We had a common enemy. Don’t make us friendly.”

***

Zoë stepped into the room with their prisoner. The girl stood – almost casually – to attention. Zoë shook her head. The girl was still naked. Mal was worried about a broken wrist? The girl was a canvas of old scars and fresh bruises.

“Cadet Swann?” Zoë started. “I’m Zoë, the first mate of this vessel. The Captain told me that you needed some first aid.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Would you care to sit?” The girl did. “Let me have a look at your wrist.” The girl held it out. “I’m sorry that you were left in here with no clothes. We had an emergency to deal with.” Zoë prodded for a while. Definitely broken, and not much she could do. “Let’s get you a hot shower, and some clothes, then I’ll wrap this as best I can.” Years of experience made Zoë wary, but her instinct was to protect the girl. Then again, she was training to be a spy, and Mal thought she might have made a good one. Zoë kept a close eye on the girl the whole time, but turned away to study a deceptively fascinating stain on the wall when the girl jacked the temperature of the water up to its maximum setting, and began to furiously scrub herself down.

***

Inara walked back onto the bridge. She was certain Mal would still be there; from the look of it, it didn’t even seem he’d moved. She took the pilot’s chair again. “Mal, I’ve found a doctor.”

She expected him to get angry, but he just sounded sad. “’Nara, didn’t ask you ta look.”

“I know, Mal. But we need one quickly, and I know one.”

“He an old client a’ yours?”

Inara closed her eyes. Always, always, with the needling. “She’s an old client of mine, yes. More importantly, she’s a friend. She’ll do it if I ask.”

“She a rabid anti-Alliance activist?”

“No…”

“Then what makes you think Simon would be safe with her?”

“Because the ‘verse isn’t divided into Browncoats and Purplebellies just yet, Mal.”

“I know that, ‘Nara. Ain’t saying she’s a bad person. She’s seen Simon’s warrants on the Cortex for a year now, you really think she’s going to give herself a chance to get to know him? Don’t have to be especially loyal to your government to be scared a’ criminals.”

“Mal, her loyalty is to her patients. I’m not just thinking about Simon here. River is still medicated, Zoë is pregnant, you’ll probably want to patch up Miss Swann before you shove her out the airlock… we need a doctor.”

“Alright. Contact her, see want she says. Where will have to go to pick her up?”

“She’s on Sihnon; but I plan to ask her to meet us half way.”

“She’ll do that?”

“Of course. She’s a good friend, Mal. You should know what they’re like, you have enough of them.” Inara spoke softly as her deft fingers tapped out the code on the console. She made the wave from the bridge.

***

When they landed on Persephone, Inara’s friend was already waiting for them. She smoothly picked up her bags and stepped aboard. Inara immediately embraced her, hard, like it was Kaylee. Mal relaxed a little.

The other woman embraced her back, just as hard. “Inara, sweetheart, I’ve missed you.”

“I’m sorry, Aren, I didn’t tell you everything. I couldn’t, in case…”

“I understand, darling. I knew something was wrong the moment I saw your face.” Mal nearly laughed. Inara was always unreadable. Well, maybe not. He’d know she was in trouble when he received her wave from the Training House. “Are you in a scrape?”

“No, nothing like that.” Inara paused. “The ship’s medic is injured, very badly; he needs treatment urgently. We also have a pregnant woman and a girl with mental illness… and a crew that gets shot at with alarming frequency.”

“These are your friends, Inara?” It wasn’t really a question, but it was asked softly.

“Yes.”

The older woman pushed Inara’s hair back. “Then call them by their names, sweetheart; there’s no need for this distance.” It was said so quietly that Mal almost didn’t hear it.

“Let me introduce you.” Inara turned to Mal. “Captain Malcolm Reynolds, this is Dr. Aren Wren.” The woman extended her hand, and Mal shook it. “Oh, and we have a prisoner.”

“Charming.”

Inara briefed her friend on the walk to the infirmary. When they arrived, Aren set immediately to work.

“Dr. Tam? I’m Dr. Aren Wren. I’m a friend of Inara’s. Captain Reynolds has asked me to have a look at you and take care of your patients until we get you up and around again. I’m going to stand by your feet for a moment. Dr. Tam, if you can feel this, please wiggle your left foot.” She nodded. “Wonderful. Dr. Tam, I’m afraid our communication will be a little rudimentary, but at least we can have some. With your permission, Dr. Tam, I’d like to examine you at this point. If you agree, wiggle your foot.” He did. “Ok, for the moment, let’s have a wiggle equal yes. Dr. Tam, would you like the Captain and Inara to stay?” No wiggle. “Let me rephrase. Would you like the Captain or Inara to stay? No wiggle. “Would you like someone else to come stay with you?” No wiggle. “Captain, Inara, if you please.”

“Hey, now – I didn’t agree to leave you alone with him.”

“Captain, Dr. Tam is my patient, and my patient has made a very reasonable, very clear, request for privacy.”

“He might be your patient, but it’s my gorram boat!”

Aren turned back to him with a mild look. “Captain Reynolds, when there’s a doctor on board, your authority stops there.” She pointed at the threshold of the door, before turning to Simon. “Dr. Tam, did you forget to explain this to the Captain?” No wiggle.

Aren arched an eyebrow at the Captain. Inara laughed. Mal turned and left.

***

Mal found her later, in the lounge. “Dr. Wren.”

“Captain Reynolds.”

“Mal is fine.”

“Then please call my Aren.”

There was an awkward pause. “You get a look at my crew?”

“Yes. And your prisoner.”

“Huh. And?”

“Zoë did a good job of patching up Simon, but he needs specialist care. His right hand, I can probably repair myself. His vocal cords were severed – I can remove them entirely in the hopes that they will regenerate.”

“And if they don’t?” Mal interrupted.

“Then we still have further options down the road – an artificial replacement, therapy, etc. Which brings us to his left hand. With the right equipment, I could replace it myself – but I suspect that that’s not an option. Simon is a surgeon. In order to have a replacement limb function at the level of control he once had – it will require a top consultant in the field, the most sensitive and expensive equipment to perform the surgery itself, time and care – and money – to find the best possible fit for him and modify it to perfection – and then months of therapy, in all likelihood. I couldn’t possibly do it. And Serenity is far from equip to handle it.”

“Can that keep a while?”

“Yes.”

“Alright. It will need some thinkin’ on. What about the rest a’ him?”

“Again, we’re mostly talking about time and therapy. The tissue damage to his back is severe – we’re really quite lucky to have escaped serious damage to the spine itself. He will almost certainly never have his full strength back.”

Mal nodded. He’d already known that. Pie in the sky to think otherwise. “Don’t need to be strong. Boy’s got plenty a other fine qualities.”

“The practice of surgery itself is physically demanding, Mal.” She paused. “In any case, strong can mean more than one thing. He’s been seriously traumatised, not just physically. The mental strain of what he’s gone through is enormous, and it’s not over. He’s currently trapped in what he no doubt regards as an utterly useless shell – it would not be unreasonable to expect him to respond with a level of depression.” She peered back the glass at him. “Currently, of course, he’s of no danger to himself. Once he regains some mobility, however, the threat of suicide will have to be considered.”

Mal nodded. What would look like progress from the outside would almost certainly feel like prolonged agony to the person on the inside. “Well, that’ll keep a while, too.” Aren nodded. “The rest a my crew?”

“River seems to be doing well on her medication. Understandably, she’s feeling the strain of her brother’s condition.” ‘You have no idea.’ “She and Kaylee could probably both do with some counselling – but I suppose they can confide in Inara. Zoë needs to rest more. The prisoner, I’m treating with broad-spectrum antibiotics…”

“Aiya. She infectious?”

“Yes. But I don’t think that you have worry about catching anything. Female prisoner, prolonged imprisonment, lots of male guards? I think you can guess how the infections are transmitted.” Aren paused to collect herself. “I’ve checked the prisoner’s wrist. Zoë set it as well as I’ve seen in the field, but unless we re-break and re-set, it will probably have some diminished functionality. She’s malnourished, and it would appear that she has, at points, been force-fed. Most of her old wounds have healed over, and the bruising she has at the moment is largely superficial, from a medical point of view.”

“From a non-medical point of view?”

“Well, it’s still superficial, but people feel like you’re patronising them if you say that.”

“Ah. You’re saying they just hurt like hell.”

“Yes. There is a possibly of underlying long-term damage, but I can’t assess that right now.” Mal looked like he would interrupt again, so Aren just sped up the explanation. “She’s not currently symptomatic – it could take months or years for the damage to become apparent. Mentally – well, she’s very self-contained, but again, we’re undoubtedly looking at some form of psychological trauma.”

“Well, well, we’re up from one semi-crazy to four mostly crazies?”

“Well, crazy isn’t really a word used within a medical framework, but… if I were to apply it, at guess?” She turned to look at the Captain. “From what I’ve heard, you’re probably all crazy.” Chapter Twenty-Seven: Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (They change the sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.)Part II

The few days that seemed to take such little time to pass for most of the crew, seemed especially long to Simon. Dr. Wren had kept him sedated, sometimes lightly, sometimes deeply, for much of the time; she had removed his vocal cords entirely and delicately, patiently, reset each bone in his right hand. She had done as much as she could, both surgically and medically, to repair the damage to his back – now it was a matter of time, rest and, soon, physiotherapy. River was there whenever Dr. Wren wasn’t, but mostly Simon ignored her and tried to sleep. He was too weary for anything else, but River seemed content to silently keep him company.

Mal and Inara came by, sometimes singly, mostly as a pair. The first time, Inara had tried to converse with him, but he ignored her too. That had clearly annoyed Mal, but River just told them that he was always cranky when he was tired – patently untrue and they all knew it – but they left. Bizarrely subtle for River, who would have normally just bluntly reminded them of his injuries. Maybe it was him she was trying to avoid reminding. After that, Inara restricted herself to updates on what was happening, and never expected him to acknowledge her.

Zoë came by. She never said anything, though she often laid a gentle hand on his arm or shoulder if she thought he was sleeping.

Jayne came by again. Usually he just peered from the windows; rarely a small wave from the door, but his time he came in. “Heya, Simon. Gotta borrow River a minute.”

River said “I love you,” to Simon, and the two of them stepped out, but it was a twenty-second message. Simon counted. He wanted his sister back, hovering silently nearby. When she was there, he knew that he hadn’t quite lost everything. When she was away… it was harder to remember. Harder to fight the thought that it would have been better if he had just died. Harder to fight the urge to mouth the plea ‘kill me’ to Dr. Wren. He wondered if the only reason he didn’t risk it is because he knew that she would refuse, and then he would be left with the terrible knowledge that he was truly trapped. When River slipped back in, she tilted her head and gave her brother a small smile before walking over to the counter. He was morose, and not paying her much attention. Sometimes they talked (well, more efficient than talking), little conversations when he was lightly sedated and nicely relaxed. Right now, he just wanted her nearby, and she often sat – sometimes napped – on the counters near him.

He heard a metal tray being set down next to him. He turned his head toward it – there was a single hypo sitting on it. River was still doing something at the counter – he turned his attention to her. She spoke aloud, though quietly, “‘The thought of suicide gets us through many a long night.’” He was familiar with it. It was a quote from the old Earth-that-was philosopher Nietzsche. Was she offering what he thought she was offering? “If it gets bad enough. If you decide that it’s over.” In his chest, he could feel his heart start to pound. Excitement at the possibility? Or dread? Did he want it? Well, yes, at least partly. But did he want it now? Could he wait? Keep it for if it got bad enough? Then he saw her small hand place a second, identical needle next to the first. “For Jiangyin. For Ariel, and Miranda. For two years of terror. For a year of grief. For the pain of four hundred lashes. For the truth of your last words. For fifty-eight broken bones. And because we take so much looking after.”

***

Ceres spent much of her time sleeping or dozing. There wasn’t really anything else to do. Once a day Zoë walked her to the shower, issued her a change of clothes and checked her wrist. Three times a day she brought food, whatever the crew was eating.

Ceres liked Zoë. She was integrity, and resolute courage. Even her anger and worry were quiet, contained. She was brown like mud on a battlefield, and red like spilled blood, a testament to all that had happened but silent for all her commanding presence.

Ceres liked the brother and sister. Nothing about the sister was contained. She was a riot of colours, mostly pastels, with flashes of metallic paint. She had courage too, and strength of will. She was curiosity, and the bloom of youth. The brother was contained, but not entirely by choice; his pain overflowed, royal purple and blue, sucked down a forgotten drain. He was a sacrifice, offered but untaken. When Ceres slept she had a hard time separating herself from the brother; his pain, fresh and raw, blended with her remembered pain. When she dozed, if the brother slept, sometimes she could feel the sister’s mind at the edge of her mind. The girl was trying to read her. Mostly, Ceres tried not to read others, but she understood the temptation, especially around enemies.

Ceres heard the sister’s offer. It was achingly beautiful: heart-rending. The light pink of hope and sky blue of elation, the charcoal grey of dread. The bright sapphire of perfect truth. The soft red-yellow-orange of flame embers, bonds of love forged against this day. But it was also sad. A word of warning to Zoë could prevent such a future, and the part of her conscious aware of Zoë’s worries about her unborn child wanted to say something. But Zoë had a doctor, and it was the brother and sister’s choice. Ceres knew as well that in a sense, she wasn’t really even here: a ghost, the sister had called her. A spy: an observer of others. It wasn’t for her to interfere.

‘And if it had been?’ another part of her mind asked. Well, then who was she to deny another the means of ending their pain?

***

“Mal?”

“Aren?”

“I was wondering if you could tell me where the crew’s medical records are kept. I’ve been looking for Simon’s for several days, and I can’t find where he keeps them.”

“He keeps them in the infirmary, right enough.”

“That’s what I thought.” The woman paused and studied his face for a moment before speaking again. “I’m sorry, Mal, I think I’ve upset Simon.”

“Shen me?”

She shook her head. “It was a stupid mistake. I was looking for them everywhere, and I asked him if someone had taken them. He was very still, but I thought, perhaps, a little smug – so I asked him who took them, listing the crew’s names... and he just became very determined looking.”

“Like he thought that there would be consequences for not telling.”

“Yes.”

“But he wasn’t going to tell anyway.”

“Yes.”

“He have a flashback?”

“I’m sorry. Probably.” She amended. “Almost certainly.” Mal took a deep breath and reminded himself that Inara would be very angry if he shot her friend. It had been bound to happen, after all. She repeated herself. “I am sorry, Mal. If you can find them, however, I really do need those records.” She left.

Mal went to find his first mate.

“Zoë?” Mal called through her closed door. “Can I come in?”

“Yes, Sir.” She called back.

He pulled the door open, and stood in the frame. “Don’t get up, Zo. Just wondering if you know where Simon’s medical records are? ‘Nara’s lady doctor’s looking for ‘em.”

“Couldn’t say, Sir.”

“They’re not the infirmary. She’s torn the place apart looking for them. Simon won’t tell her who has ‘em, and since you were the last one with them I thought you might know where they are.”

“Couldn’t say, Sir.”

Mal nodded. “River might have ‘em, a’ course the girl would never tell me if so. Still, if Simon won’t say who took ‘em, gotta wonder if maybe the boy has a reason.”

“Most like, Sir.”

“Gotta wonder, though, what it might be. Seems the whole reason a having records would be so someone could take over in a pinch.”

“Could be, Sir.”

“Or maybe he keeps ‘em to remind himself what’s happened? Keep everyone straight in his head?”

“Possibly, Sir.”

“Guess I’d best go ask River, for all the good I expect that’ll do,” Mal said as put his hand to the door to pull it closed. “Ya know, Zoë, everybody who knows ya knows what ya mean by ‘Couldn’t say’, right?”

He thought he saw a small smile play across her lips as she returned to her reading. “Kinda the point, Sir,” she admitted. He nodded and left.

She turned her attention back to her medical record, still trying to puzzle out what GKC meant. It was scribbled in the margins in a number of places, as if for quick reference. Grievous knife cut? Couldn’t be, mostly they were next to summaries of gunshot wounds. Those were usually marked GKC/ALP.

She compared it to Wash’s record. GKC was marked next to Simon’s treatment of Wash post-Niska, except it was GKC/TBP/SPAK=OK. At the top of the chart, next to Wash’s name was (TATT). As much as her fingers itched to, she didn’t open anyone else’s file. Well, she decided that could have a peek at Simon’s – but only the parts she had added herself. She flipped carefully to his entry next to her write up of the post-Early stitches. GKC/ALP/SPAK=OK. That was no help. She closed it again, and turned back to her own.

Next to the notes he’d made the night he confirmed her pregnancy was written G2P0-0-1-0. She braced herself, and read through his comments. Mostly, it was a summary of the questions he’d asked her that night, but she was struck by one part. In the middle of the terse list of questions and their answers was written, “Previous pregnancies: One, due to rape, second term miscarriage.” That itself didn’t startle her. Medicine was a cold as the military, in her experience. It was the next part that surprised her, and brought tears to her eyes. In the middle of the line, he had written Hera Allenye in very neat calligraphy, and added the letters RIP underneath; around the whole thing he had drawn a little heart.

***

Jayne found Kaylee in the engine room. He didn’t bother to hide his annoyance. “You ain’t gone ta see Simon yet, Kaylee?”

She looked up, startled and upset. “How’d ya know?”

“Whole boat probably knows. Anyway, I just asked River. She said ya hadn’t been by anytime she’d been there, and she’s always there when the doc ain’t. So ya ain’t been.”

“Jayne, I can’t.”

He waited, arms folded. “Ya gonna finish that sentence?”

“What?”

“You said ‘I can’t’. I ain’t seeing the reason, so ya best tell me.”

“Simon’s hurt ‘cause a me. Nearly died Jayne. Can’t even talk. I can’t go facing him after what I done.”

“Kaylee, you ain’t done nothing wrong, ‘cept ignore him when he could use yer company.”

“No, Jayne, it’s worse than that…”

“What’s it about, then?”

“Every time we fight something like this happens.”

Jayne stared at her in disbelief. “No it don’t.”

“It do!”

“Kaylee, this here’s the first fight I recall where someone ended up getting pinched by the Feds. Ain’t yer fault.”

“Is. Shouted at him. Called his name.”

“And if he weren’t a fugie, woulda been no harm done. Simple mistake Kaylee. He set ya off, ya bickered. Nobody deserved what happened after. Ain’t right ya leavin’ him all alone.”

“Can’t face him, Jayne. The thought a’ looking at all them bruises – Jayne, they beat him so bad!”

“I know. You sitting here ain’t making it better.”

“He won’t want ta see me after what I done.”

Jayne took the bait. “Ok, lil’Kaylee, hows ‘bout you tell me what it is ya done.”

“Jayne?”

“Naw, I’m serious. Very curious. What ya done?”

“Turned him in.”

“Naw. Some old Fed called the… Feds. What did ya do?”

“Called him by his name.”

“Why?”

“We was fighting.”

“Why?”

“’Cause he said he don’t like my wine.”

“Kaylee, yer engine wine can be used to strip clean parts. Stuff’s harsh.”

“I know that Jayne!” The girl started crying. “See, now?”

Jayne didn’t. He thought for a moment. No, still not coming. “No.”

“Every time we fight, it’s like this. Cap’n told us not to drink anything while we was out. So we didn’t. But Simon wanted to buy a bottle a wine to bring back with us, ya know, ta share. And I was teasin’ him, saying ‘doncha like my wine’ and he went and said something stupid about it bein’ fresh. And I blew up at him, and we quarrelled.”

“Yup. All yer fights are like that Kaylee. Still ain’t seeing.”

“He don’t deserve it. Never did and it was bad enough that I’m always yelling at him. Now he’s been hurt real bad – why would he put up with it? God, Jayne, he was so shui.”

“Kaylee, ya gotta stop sayin’ that. It’s all sorts a wrong. Him being shui ain’t why ya love him, and them bruises on his face’ll fade. Done had worse my own self. Ain’t why he’s lyin’ in that bed.”

“I know, Jayne. Just can’t face it. I did alla this ta him.”

Jayne realised that they would always come back to this point; it was time to switch tactics. “Fine. Ya think so, then ya go apologise.”

“What?”

“I mean it Kaylee. You so sure you done wrong, you go apologise. Own up to it. Ain’t easy, but then I imagine it weren’t so easy for him after that hundan Fed shot you. Think he don’t blame himself for that? But he put you back together with his own hands, and dressed your scar and did all that exercising with you til you was better. Couldn’ta been easy for him, thinking himself the cause a’ yer pain that whole time.” Kaylee started crying harder. Jayne wasn’t sure if it was at her own thoughts, or in response to his little lecture. He drew her into a hug. “Now, now, ‘nough a’ that. Come on, yer gonna go see Simon now.” He took her by the hand, and started leading her out of the engine room. “I’ll go with ya.”

“Why, Jayne?”

He turned back toward her momentarily, and shook his head. “Yer brothers deserve the soundest whupping, lil’Kaylee.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (They change the sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.)Part III

“Okay, lil’Kaylee, I’m just gonna wait out here. You go git on in there.”

The mechanic nodded and walked as slowly as she could toward the infirmary. Jayne resisted the urge to push her. He’d walked her the whole way here – better if she walked the last few feet alone.

Kaylee was dreading the coming conversation. It was worse, too, up here, so close – seeing him. She stood by his side, but after a first, fleeting, furtive, glance she just looked at her hands. “Simon, I’m so sorry.” She could feel the tears welling up again. “Simon, never meant for alla this ta happen. Weren’t right. Never was. Never shoulda gone making scenes like that. Were bound to end badly even if it didn’t end like this.”

“You couldn’t know it would end like this.” Kaylee’s face snapped up and over to River as River spoke. River shook her head and nodded toward Simon, as she continued to speak. Kaylee thought she understood, and she turned her attention back to her hands. “You were almost caught yourself. I know you didn’t mean for this to happen.”

Kaylee sobbed. “But it did!”

There was a long pause. “Do you – do you, shall we say – still love me?” River’s voice was low, soft and hesitant. Kaylee looked at Simon’s face, to catch his eye, but they were closed, his pale, bruised face set. Prepared to hear whatever her response might be. Kaylee stared – had he heard what she’d said before his surgery? Did he think she meant it? She didn’t know what to say. At her silence, River continued. “I understand. Can you forgive me, at least, please, bao bei? Knowing that it could have been you?”

“Simon, ya don’t got nothin’ ta apologise for! Not one thing.”

She heard the hitch in River’s voice, and saw tears sitting in the corners of Simon’s still-closed eyes. “You – you should know. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – have given River up to save you. You would have died. It would have been – awful. Painful. Slow.” He didn’t want to say it, didn’t want to admit it to her, but she had a right to know. Had to know, to understand. “And I could have – would have – done nothing to save you.”

Part of her was horrified. What was she supposed to say to that? Part of her was just saddened by his pain, and by his complete self-doubt in the face of his own exceptional courage. She saw a tear make its way down the side of his face toward the pillow. Such vulnerability. He had already suffered so much. Gingerly, she put her fingers to his face to brush it away, before brushing away more of her own. “You can’t know that, Simon Tam. And if ya did, I wouldn’t a deserved saving. Were my big mouth got us into that mess. And ya made sure I got away. I got saved. Ya made sure a that, Simon. Ya didn’t ‘do nothing’ – ya protected me, saved me. Took alla this on your own self, knowin’ what they’d do. I’m the one who let you down, turned you in and ran away.”

River’s voice was tear-choked. There were more tears falling along Simon’s face, but his eyes never even once fluttered open. “No. It wasn’t your fault, bao bei. Please believe me when I say that it wasn’t. You did the right thing, Kaylee. You – you had to get away.”

“No. Even less since ya got back. Hidin’ in my bunk and the engine room. That doin’ right by you?”

There was a long pause as River and Simon swallowed simultaneously. River whispered. “You were scared. It’s all right. It’s hard to face. You shouldn’t,” there was another hitch, “blame yourself. It’s never been your fault that my being wanted has put you in danger.”

“Ain’t yours neither, Simon Tam!”

“Please forgive me, Kaylee.”

“Simon, I ain’t saying I forgiving ya, that makes it like I thought you did wrong.”

“Please Kaylee.”

“No Simon. Ain’t right.”

“Please say it.” Even from River’s mouth, it tore at her heart to watch such a proud man beg. And for what? He had never hurt her. Never would hurt her.

“Ain’t nothing ta forgive, Simon. But if it means that much to you, I’ll say it. I – I forgive you.” Her voice cracked.

***

Jayne stood in the lounge waiting for Kaylee. He had peered in the glass at first, just to keep an eye on Kaylee. She was wetter than a melted ice planet, but he was proud of her.

He turned away when he saw her gently wiping a tear from Simon’s cheek. Wouldn’t shame him like that to be watched. Weren’t right.

*** After dinner, Zoë brought the prisoner some food. As always, the girl promptly stood to a casual attention – though that mystified Zoe on several levels: how could she make standing to attention seem quite so casual? Why bother? Should she stop the girl? Zoë knew better than to let it fluster her, but the thoughts crossed her mind each time Ceres did it.

She set the food down on the side table without a word, and picked up the tray from lunch. The girl, as always, softly said, “Thank you ma’am.”

“You’re welcome, Cadet Swann.” Zoë headed back to the door.

“Ma’am?”

Zoë turned back to the prisoner. Besides her ‘thank yous’ the girl had not once initiated any talk between them. “Cadet Swann?”

The girl spoke hesitantly, as though out of practice. Then again, Zoë thought, she probably was. “Ma’am, I appreciate the consideration that I have been treated with. But it seems to me that as yet the Captain has made no decision about me – my status. I understand that it is a difficult situation for him.” The girl paused, and dropped her gaze to the floor. Zoë saw a look of fear cross her face as the girl remembered herself and composed her face back in the correct way for standing to attention. “I would ask, that if he is ultimately going to have me executed, to please not wait. It is – it would be preferable to me not to wait here seemingly without end. If he isn’t comfortable with that, if he can just lend me a knife, I can handle matters quickly myself.”

Mal and Inara had told Zoë what they knew about Ceres. Zoë had glanced through her files as well. Zoë had yet to see either the dedicated genius or the cold blooded killer the files had described, just a rather subdued not-quite-there young woman; but Zoë recognised steel when she saw it. And the girl was right. The situation she was in was unfair. It might not get any fairer, but at least it could be over. She would speak to Mal. She told the girl as much, and turned back to the door.

Just before she got there, a thought struck. “Cadet Swann, I was wondering if you knew what the abbreviation GKC stands for?” Zoë had planned to look it up later on the Cortex, but the girl hadn’t had a proper conversation in probably two years. It couldn’t hurt to ask. Zoë knew how lonely being a prisoner could be.

“In what context, ma’am?”

“Medicine. Medical records. Usually next to gunshot wounds.”

“Ah, ‘Gun and Knife Club’, I believe, ma’am.” Zoë blinked in surprise. “Usually relates to injuries sustained in relation to criminal or gang activity.”

“ALP?”

“‘Acute lead poisoning’. Gunshot wounds.”

“SPAK?”

“Status Post Ass Kicking.”

Zoë’s eyebrows hit her hairline. That was going to make for an interesting conversation with Simon at some point in the future. At least that explained the =Ok part. “Ah-huh. TBP?”

“Total Body Pain.”

“TATT?”

“Talks All The Time.”

Zoë nodded. That was Wash, alright. “G2P0-0-1-0?”

Zoë noticed the girl run her tongue behind her teeth nervously. Had she seen that somewhere before? “Could you repeat that, ma’am?”

“G2P0-0-1-0.” Zoë repeated it slowly. She watched as the girl mouthed the phrase to herself.

“Ah – that would mean a woman pregnant for the second time, whose first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.”

“There’s a code for that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How do you know this?”

“I had a broad education.” It stuck Zoë as an oddly almost Book answer; not reassured by the comparison, she turned to leave. “Ma’am?”

“Cadet Swann?”

“Before he makes his final decision, the Captain should know – should be made aware – that I’m a Reader.”

***

When Dr. Wren dropped in to check on Simon one final time before bed, she saw River drop off of the counter and heard the girl say “I love you” to her brother before leaving the infirmary. It was an odd habit; Aren was certain that every time she’d come by the girl had been there, and had always said that before she left her brother. The girl always seemed to arrive back just as she was leaving, too.

River wandered off to find Jayne. It was hard to catch him alone. He was heading for his bunk – she ran to find him before he hit the stairs. She knew that he wouldn’t be keen on her following him down. As she raced toward him he looked up, anxious. “Somethin’ on fire, River?”

“No.” The girl could stop on a dime. “I just wanted to see you before you went to bed. To say thank you. For helping me.” She stood on demi pointe – tippy toes to Jayne – and planted a light kiss on his cheek. “You are a good ge-ge, Jayne.” As she walked away, she called back, “Good night.”

“’Night, River. Ah, sleep tight.”

***

Mal wasn’t pleased. “Why the hell would she tell you that? Makes it more likely we’d shoot her. It’s like announcing ‘I know all your secrets. You can never let me go.’”

“I know, Sir.”

“Ya think she is?”

“I know she is, Sir.”

“How?”

“Knew I was thinking about Book just before I left. No way that was a random guess.”

“Aiya. Think she’s wants ta die?”

“Sir, I don’t know. She’s been locked up for two years, and no end in sight? Aside from her torturers, rapists and guards, I don’t think she’s even seen anyone let alone talked to them.”

“I’ll talk with her, Zoë.” He looked at his hands. “Don’t much want to shoot her, she’s been through enough. Don’t want ta turn her loose, don’t seem like a solution. If they get her back, it’s bad for her, and bad for us. Worse again if they turn her into something like we saw in the Maidenhead. Not somethin’ I’m keen on seeing. Not somethin’ I’m keen on being responsible for.”

“Sir, she did say that she’s prepared to deal with the matter personally. She seems to understand that this presents a dilemma for us.”

“Deal with it how?”

“Suicide.” She saw Mal pale. Zoë knew that it wasn’t a topic he was real comfortable with, save except when it came to Reavers. “Sir, she’s not morose, not pleading for death. Just wants a way out. Seems to think this is an equitable solution.”

“And you agree?” Mal’s brow furrowed. He was becoming mad.

“Didn’t say that, Sir. But I don’t think keeping her locked up here much longer counts for much by way a’ mercy.”

***

On the way to talk to the girl – his prisoner, unfortunately for them both – Mal paused for a cup of coffee in the galley. He didn’t rightly know what to say to her. As he was considering whether to sit to drink it or wander the ship, Aren walked in. “Good evening, Mal.” He watched her consider the food lockers for a moment. “I’m sorry, I thought I’d remember by now. Which one is Inara’s?”

“This one.” Mal reached over and tapped it. “You’re more than welcome to the things in the general stores, though.” He pointed at them.

“Oh, thank you. I know. I was just going to make some Darjeeling before I retire.”

“You’re sleeping in the shuttle, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The woman rifled through her friend’s things a bit absently. “Oh – Inara only keeps some of her teas in there, the herbals, greens and whites. I prefer more – caffeinated – substances. A doctor’s vice.” Mal raised his cup of coffee and an eyebrow at her. She amended her statement. “Not just a doctor’s vice, a suppose.”

“’Nara mentioned that you were a client of hers.”

Aren turned a smile and her full attention on him, momentarily abandoning her search for the tea. “Really?”

“Indeed.” When the doctor laughed, Mal was puzzled. “Is it not entirely true?”

“No, no. Quite the opposite: it’s perfectly true. It’s just that I’ve never known Inara to kiss and tell.” Mal kicked himself silently; he had just been making conversation. Eyes dancing with merriment, the doctor turned back to Inara’s stash of fine – but caffeinated – teas.

Mal wasn’t used to apologising, but he hadn’t meant to make things awkward for Inara. “I’m sorry. I spoke out of turn.”

Aren looked back at him, still smiling. “Oh, please don’t be. I won’t say anything to her. I’m just delighted that she finally has someone that she can truly confide in.”

Which only left Mal with an extra puzzle for the night.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (They change the sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.) Part IV

When the doctor left the kitchen, Mal considered her words, and his cup of coffee. No, coffee just wasn’t going to cut it, not anymore. He took a large gulp and reached into his cupboard. He topped his coffee back up to the rim with whiskey, before setting off to wander the ship. He wandered in the general direction of his prisoner, but he wasn’t quite ready with his thoughts. He wondered whether it was better not to know them, facing a reader, so that she wouldn’t know what was coming; he decided probably not. That conversation was bound to be an unpleasant experience, and probably for both of them; the least he could do is try to make sure it was over quickly.

As he passed the infirmary, he saw Kaylee standing on Simon’s right, cradling his broken and bandaged right hand. River stood facing her, at Simon’s left. Mal didn’t look too hard at the scene, knowing that it had to be a private moment. He was relieved to have seen it, however; he had been wondering if the girl had been going to visit the boy at all.

*** Kaylee was doing her best to be cheerful for Simon. This was so hard. She was used to being cheerful, and trying to do it just felt all sorts of unnatural. She’d left him earlier, confused and angry with herself. How could she just stand there while he asked her if she still loved him? Did he think her heartless? Did he think she’d meant what she’d said when she’d seen him first? Had he even heard it? She couldn’t know, and she couldn’t just ask. She couldn’t talk about what had happened to him, and she didn’t know what else to talk about – it was all she could think of. But she’d promised to come back before bed, and she did. She braced herself before she walked into the infirmary, trying to think of anything light or easy to talk about, but nothing was coming; finally, as she walked through the door, inspiration struck. River stood over Simon, playing with her hair. Yes, it was silly, but she could talk about it and pretend that things were normal for a while. They had to talk about something.

“Hey Simon. Hey River,” she began. “Were talking to Jayne earlier and seeing you fiddling with your hair reminded me of what he was talking about.” She ploughed on, knowing that she would have to supply most of the conversation herself. “Anyway, he was talking ‘bout his sisters, and I just got ta wondering, Simon Tam,” she looked away from River and toward Simon, smiling brightly, if a little falsely, “if ya ever pulled River’s hair?”

River turned a genuinely happy smile on Kaylee, but Kaylee saw that Simon shifted uncomfortably.

“Yes. Once.” River’s voice took on overtones of discomfort and shame. River tried to hold back her grin, but it didn’t matter too much – Simon’s eyes were downcast at the mere thought of his horrible misdeed. River caught Kaylee’s eye, and pantomimed a gesture of being dosed with a soother, before pointing to Simon.

Kaylee smiled a little more genuinely and carried on. “What happened?” Now that she had found something that they could just chat about, she was determined to pursue it. River’s response was encouraging, even if Simon’s wasn’t particularly.

“River cried, and I felt terrible. Father caned me and Mother sent me to bed without supper.” Kaylee wasn’t sure if it was River’s own idea to make it so that he sounded like this had been a reasonable parental response, but she couldn’t help but tease.

Remembering Jayne’s shocked tone, Kaylee spoke as though taken aback. “She tattled?”

Had Simon been able to, he would have sat bolt upright. Instead, he merely gave himself an unpleasant bounce off of the infirmary bed, while he mouthed furiously, face appalled, as River said in an (apparently) equally appalled tone: “River? Tattling? No! Never!”

Kaylee bit back her laugh. “How’d your parents find out then?”

River rolled her eyes, but made her voice low, shameful-Simon like. “She was crying. I told them.”

Kaylee’s heart, already soft, was quickly turning into a big, soppy puddle. She instinctively took his bandaged hand. “Ya told ‘em?”

“Of course.”

“Why, a’course?”

More rolling eyes from River, but she faithfully carried on her brother’s story. “River was crying. I hurt her, scared her. She wouldn’t let me comfort her, so I… picked her up and brought her to Mother.”

“And you told her?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“She asked.”

“Could a let River tell.”

“She’d have lied.” Simon’s words were said with such a finality that almost made Kaylee believe him, but she was a baby sister herself, and thus would have reserved some doubts on that score, even if River herself hadn’t been supply the voice-over. “And if Mother found out, River would have been in more trouble than I was, for lying.”

“You told ‘em and they still whupped ya?”

“Yes. Six of the best.”

“How old were ya?”

“Uhh – eight, almost nine.”

That sobered Kaylee a little. That was pretty harsh for such a small child, especially for such a tiny infraction. “She really never told on ya?”

“Never.” It was River who said it, in a firm tone, but Simon looked as if he couldn’t understand why she was puzzled. He looked so much like Jayne that she couldn’t help but have a genuine laugh.

“And ya never told on her?”

“Kaylee!” It was the second time he’d actually bothered to move his lips in their conversation. She decided that she liked it.

“Kaylee, what?” She teased.

“Siblings don’t tattle.”

Given the context, that took Kaylee aback momentarily, but she was determined that to keep him talking. It was easier to do this while he was drugged – at least for her, and maybe, if she didn’t screw it up this time, it would make it easier to do during the times when he wasn’t. “Ya know, wouldn’t thought that they’re be much ya and Jayne agree on, but he’s just as determined as ya on the topic. Has views.” She caught his eye again and nodded to emphasise her point.

Simon turned his head a little toward her to see her more easily. He mouthed the words, “Jayne is very wise.” Kaylee laughed again, genuinely. It was helping to alleviate her nerves somewhat.

River hadn’t voice it. She smiled and walked toward the infirmary door. “I’ll be back in a bit. Have to go. I love you, Simon.”

Kaylee watched her go. Could it really be that simple?

***

Mal took a deep breath, and knocked on the door. “Cadet Swann? This is the Captain, you’ve got thirty seconds to make yourself decent.” He eyed his watch carefully, and slowly pulled the door open, just in case. He knew that this was ruining his stern Captain-y appearance; but then, she was a reader: who knew what she already knew.

At least she was quiet. River would have undoubtedly acknowledged his thoughts with something insightful or witty; Ceres just stood to attention. “Ah, at ease, cadet.” The girl’s stance loosened a little, but could not be described as easeful. “Why don’t you sit down, Cadet?” He pointed to the bed, then cursed himself. He really should have asked Zoë down here with him. He hated the thought that she might be scared of him, like that. “Or not, as you prefer. Let’s just leave the door open a mite, shall we?” It made him uneasy, but he would rather that then the other way around. Mal leant against the wall. “Cadet Swann, Zoë has passed your message on to me. I’ll be blunt, seeing as you probably already know my thoughts – this ain’t a pleasant situation to be in, not for either of us. We both know that I can’t let you go. Figured that’s why you told Zoë what you did. Ain’t keen on putting a bullet to you, and I ain’t gonna be responsible either for what those hundans do either with you or to you if I cut you loose.”

Mal studied her face for a moment. Aside from her faint flicker of recognition as he stepped in, her face had been unreadable. He corrected himself. Not unreadable, really, not like Inara’s. Closed, but not blank; disinterested but not sullen. Not nonchalance, nor ease, nor boredom. If it was a mask, it wasn’t for his benefit that she was wearing it.

“I ain’t keen on taking you up on your offer, either, and Zoë reminds me that keeping you prisoner ain’t something we can do indefinitely. It is, however, the default position. Now, there’s one other choice that I see, but I ain’t keen on it, either, and I have my own doubts that you would be, but there might be a way as you could earn your place on this crew.” Mal paused, to study her face. It hadn’t changed that he could tell. He wondered what was wrong with her; Dr. Wren had mentioned the likelihood of psychological disturbance, but she was – contained – the other word the good doctor had used. Containing what, though? “I won’t lie and say I’ve made up my mind to offer you a place, but I would like to hear your thoughts before I go make any decision.”

He paused, and waited for her to speak. She didn’t. His rubbed his face with his free hand. There really wasn’t any place to set down the mug. Mal made another stab at talking to his prisoner. Maybe direct questions with simple answers would be better. “I’ve read your transcript. You were a good student. Woulda made a good solider. There ain’t a war, and if their were I think we’d likely be on opposite sides. But you’ve never been commissioned, and I think a student as bright as you knows that you can’t ever go back, even if I was willing to take that chance. Am I right?”

Her voice was clear, and soft, but stronger than he had expected. “Yes, Sir.” There was no hesitancy.

“Do you think you could take a place on Serenity if you got the chance?”

“It would… depend on the terms, Sir. I would think so. I can never not be a criminal, by definition.”

“’Cause Blue Sun would hunt you down if they could.”

She knew that it wasn’t a question, but she answered him anyway. “Yes, Sir.”

“We should put this aside before we move on to the other business. So, we both know you can’t go back, and I haven’t made up my mind about the other thing. Now, ‘til I do, you could just go on, as is, being a prisoner here.” Mal noticed the girl’s face change then; but it was gone in an instant. A flicker of despair? He couldn’t be sure. “So, let’s assume for a minute I ain’t ready to trust you. Might be someday, might not. You rather remain prisoner here for the time being, til a decision gets made, or would you rather a bullet?”

He knew it was deliberate, a gesture of her firmness; he saw as she turned her attention on him completely, not unlike the doctor had earlier, and spoke firmly, clearly. “A bullet, Sir.” He thought she would leave it like that, but she continued to his surprise. “Two years in a cage was already too long. Sir.”

“Alright. I’ll make a decision come morning.” Mal paused before switching back to the lesser of their morbid topics of conversation. “You’ve got a lot of fine and fancy learnin’, and nothing wrong with that. But those skills ain’t much in market on Serenity day to day. But that ain’t a real problem if I decide that we could make a place for you. There’s bound to be something you can do.” He paused, and took a mouthful of coffee. “You can cook, right?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Just askin’, ‘cause it ain’t on your transcript.” Mal sighed, and took anther gulp from his mug to hide it – ‘As if there is a point!’ Mal reminded himself. “The bigger problem is trying to figure out if I can trust you. So, let’s start at the beginning. Why’d you choose that uniform to wear?”

***

After the Captain had gone, Ceres saw the door slide open again. A younger girl was standing there, with paper and pencils in her hand. “You wanted these.” The girl put them on the floor on the inside of the door, but she didn’t move away.

“Thank you ma’am.”

“I’m not ma’am. Just River.”

“You look different in real life. More brunette.”

“Than in the photos on the warrants?”

“I’ve never seen them. You were out after I was in.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“You know, when the others are loud, and you hear them?”

“Yes. But I can’t hear you. Except for a moment, right after Mal left. You wanted something to write with, to write on. Strong emotion, bled out. But you have control. They never taught me control.”

“They never taught me control, either. Well, I suppose that they did teach me not to scream. Maybe that was the point.”

“We’ll learn together. You’ll teach me. Simon will help.”

“The brother.”

“Yes.” River refocused on her unanswered question. “What did I look like to you, before you saw me?” River watched as the other girl closed her eyes.

“Pink-purple skin and a blue hair and silver wings.” Ceres looked a little sad to River. It was strange to be in the same room as someone and not to hear them. It was almost normal feeling. “The picture will fade now that I have something real to replace it with but the feeling will remain.”

“And Simon, what does he look like?” River saw the girl’s eyes close again.

“Slate-grey and strong. A monument of granite. Feet of clay.”

“Show me.” River stepped closer to the other girl. “Can you show me? Before it fades?”

***

River stepped back into the infirmary and crawled up and into the makeshift bed she’d created for herself. She smiled at Kaylee, and covered a yawn with her hand.

Kaylee wasn’t sure if River was just letting her off the hook: in all honesty she was a little relieved (and felt thoroughly guilty about that small sense of relief) knowing that it was time to go. Trying to follow Simon’s sometimes whimsical and soundless words had been difficult, and she was scared that he would just become frustrated with their inability to communicate with ease, ruining the progress she’d felt they’d made. ‘Ain’t never been easy for us ta talk,’ she reminded herself sadly. She prayed that it would get easier with time. ‘Please don’t let me screw this up again,’ she thought. She buried her returning nerves under a cheerful smile and bid the siblings good night before excusing herself.

As she walked towards the door she braced herself again. She looked over her shoulder, face hopeful, and said, “I love ya, Simon Tam.” She saw him smile and close his eyes.

Chapter Thirty: Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (They change the sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.) Part IV

As Zoë passed the infirmary on her way the galley she saw River trying to adjust Simon’s bed to a sitting position – not easy with him in it. Zoë smiled at the pair from the doorway.

“’Morning. River honey, let me give you a hand with that.” Together they managed to put the chair into a mostly upright position. It pleased Zoë to see that he wanted to sit up, look around; she felt that it was a sign of progress – at least he was up to feeling boredom.

“Zoë,” said River, pointing to Simon. “How are you feeling? How is the baby doing? Have you been to see Dr. Wren yet?”

Zoë raised an eyebrow at the pair and turned to River for an explanation. River just shook her head and pointed to her brother again, who waved his broken hand at her. “I see that you’ve mastered snark in panto as well. Captain’s gonna love that, Simon.” Zoë almost couldn’t believe it when Simon stuck his tongue out at her. Humour tinged her voice. “Gorram Simon, so your sister’s not the only Tam brat then?” Zoë was faced with synchronised Tam tongue sticking out. She drew a deep breath. “You sure you’re up to talkin’ – dealin’ with this, Simon?”

He noticed that her voice had gone soft and serious again. He nodded.

“Alright. Now River took good care of me while you where gone, and I’ve spoken to Dr. Wren, but I was spotting for a few days. Been resting, but no-one seems to be sure that’ll help.”

“Are you still spotting, Zoë?” River did a passable imitation of Simon’s Dr. Tam voice, but Zoë was concentrating on the boy’s features. Concern, but not fear – that in itself she found reassuring.

“No.”

She saw his face visibly relax. “That’s good. Hand me the stethoscope, please, Zoë.”

She slipped the thing around his neck and placed it in his ears. She gestured to her belly – and she had begun to think of it as a belly, recently – and he nodded. Zoë slipped her shirt up and tucked it under her bra. River got off of the counter to move the little disc across the first mate’s abdomen. Just as she was about to place it on her skin, River started as though struck, rolled her eyes and picked up the end piece and blew warm air on it for a few seconds. Zoë was nervous, but she managed a tight smile at the silent sibling dynamic. “Thank you River, Simon.”

Zoë noticed that River moved it across the abdomen differently than she had before. Before River had just been listening for any sign of life; it was obvious, by comparison, that Simon’s method had a more precise aim. She was relieved to see Simon’s face break into a happy smile. River slipped the ear pieces from her brother to the first mate; Zoë listened carefully, and heard the tiny heart beat; River moved the disc again, and Zoë heard it again. Then it occurred to her – “Simon, am I?” She watched carefully as his mouth moved.

“Pregnant with twins, Zoë.” He beamed delight at her. River’s voice picked up the rest of his words. “Rest. It might not help, but it won’t hurt. I think you’re probably out of the woods though, as long as you keep away from anything strenuous.”

*** Mal hadn’t slept much, and when he woke still no decision had come to him. He sat up on the edge of his bunk, and looked at his watch. He’d told her that he’d make a decision come morning, and he would hold to that. He walked over to his sink to splash water on his face – mornings like this he was always a little surprised by the face of the man in the mirror: he was still a young man; he just couldn’t remember what the hell that felt like.

He looked at his watch again. He had about forty-five minutes before he would have to talk to his prisoner. He reflected once more on the conversation he’d had with her.

“The bigger problem is trying to figure out if I can trust you. So, let’s start at the beginning. Why’d you choose that uniform to wear?”

“Sir, the war was over before I went to military school. And if it hadn’t been, I still would have chosen to serve. I’m… naturally very vocational.”

“That so?”

“Yes, Sir. I thought about being a nun in my youth.”

Which reminded Mal of having toyed with becoming a priest in his youth. Mal watched her face carefully. If the girl heard the thought, she hadn’t let on. He wasn’t completely sure that she really was a reader. “And you chose to be a solider instead, because?”

Ceres actually wasn’t sure of the answer. A death wish? Wanting to get as far away from home as quickly as possible? Crisis of faith – well, no, that came later. “I’m not really sure. It seemed more fulfilling, somehow. And I guess I didn’t want to take the vows.” Mal stiffened. There was no way he was up to talking about sex with this girl, especially not after what she’d been through. “Not the obedience part, of course, but the vow of poverty really didn’t sit well with me, everything you have belonging to the order – always thinking every luxury you indulge in is taking away from some good you could be doing? I guess that was why. Being a soldier seemed… morally simpler. Legal order? Obey it. Illegal order? Refuse.”

“There’s that whole killing people thing that nuns get to avoid, a’ course.”

“People die.”

“That whole no killing thing in the Bible seemed sorta optional to you? No, maybe you were planning on aiming for the knees.” He watched her carefully. There was still no damn reaction at all, even with him thinking about Book. He listened to her answer.

“Sir, the Bible does not forbid killing. It forbids murder.”

“That so?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Nuances of meaning, I suppose.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Which brings us ta the part where I ain’t exactly a legitimate authority to be following from that point of view.” The girl said nothing. Mal decided to rephrase it as a question. “Now am I?”

“Sir, you are the Captain of this vessel. That role has traditional responsibilities as well as privileges. Presuming that you stay within those boundaries, yes you are. Morally, at least, if not necessarily legally. Sir. Out in the black you are in a sense sovereign – even if that sovereignty goes unrecognised – thus you are the legitimate authority on this vessel. You don’t keep slaves, do you?”

“No. Everybody on board’s free ta leave.” Then, as an afterthought, “’Cept you a course.”

The girl smiled tightly. “I came aboard as your prisoner, and in a sense, the enemy of your sovereign state. You are still within bounds.”

“You really are ok with just being shot, aren’t you?” Mal peered closely at her face again. “It’s almost like you’re trying to talk me into it. You looking for death?”

“Death doesn’t frighten me, and I do not have a life that I need to get back to – but I’m not looking for death, no. On the other hand, looking to not be a prisoner? Yes. And this should never have been your problem. I won’t deny that the situation we’re in is unfair to me, but I’m aware that it’s also unfair to you. I suppose that I want you to understand that I understand that.”

“And that I should be aware that you’re a reader. Thing is, I’m not convinced.” It wasn’t a question, and as Mal had come to expect, she didn’t answer it. “So, I’m wondering if you could tell me who has Simon’s medical records?”

“Couldn’t say, Sir.”

Mal finished dressing and strapped his guns on, before he made his way to the prisoner’s room. The whole thing would be over in a few minutes, one way or another. “Cadet Swann, you’ve got thirty seconds.” When they were over, he slid the door part way open and stepped in slowly. She was standing to attention again, but he didn’t miss the pad of paper and pencils on the floor that she now had. “At ease, Cadet. I see you had a visitor after I left. Was it Zoë?”

“No, Sir.”

“River, then.” It wasn’t a question; Mal was certain that he wasn’t wrong. If the prisoner was surprised, her face didn’t show it. Was it meant to be a hint to him from River? Curiosity on the girl’s part? Compassion? “I’ve been thinking about what you said last night. I’m prepared to offer you a place on Serenity, if you’re prepared to accept the terms. Since the most ancient times there has existed the concept of parole. You understand what that is?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You’ve never sworn your commissioned oath, so you can’t break it. I’m willing to offer you parole on the following terms: you take no actions against Serenity or her crew, you pay for your room and board by helping out: maybe you can help River, or help Simon understand what was done to her. Maybe you can help on jobs, don’t know that you’re willing. You can help stack and store and the like. Always something to be done. For my part, I will not expect you to take any overt actions against the Alliance – might ask you to – but I won’t expect it. Finally, you get captured by the Alliance or Blue Sun, and I’ll do unto you as I would if you got caught by Reavers. You willin’ to except these terms for parole?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You understand the penalty for violating parole?”

“Yes, Sir. Death, Sir.”

“Which no doubt cheers you immeasurably. Alright. Do I have your parole Cadet Swann?” Mal extended his hand to the prisoner.

“You have my parole, Sir,” Ceres said as she shook the Captain’s hand.

“Let’s go meet the crew.”

When Mal and Ceres arrived at the galley, nearly everyone was sitting down, watching expectantly as Inara placed the trays of breakfast in the middle of the table. On seeing Mal and the prisoner, Inara sat wordlessly herself, hiding her sudden discomfort behind a relaxed smile.

“Ladies and menfolk, this here is Ceres Swann.” Mal began.

Jayne interrupted. “Series Swan? What the hell kinda name is Series?”

Mal rolled his eyes. Zoë and Inara stifled laughter, certain of how Jayne was spelling the girl’s name in his head. Mal continued. “Ceres remains our prisoner – but she has offered us her parole, and I’ve accepted it. She’ll get food and dorm, and she’ll be helping out in recompense.”

“She going out on jobs, Mal?” Jayne wanted to know.

“Not as yet. Maybe at some point.” Mal already knew where this was going, and he wasn’t disappointed.

“Long as it don’t cut into my percentage.” Jayne saw the expressions on Kaylee’s, Inara’s and Aren’s faces – Mal and Zoë knew better than to expect a different response form their mercenary – and continued, unapologetically. “What? Ain’t seeing why my percentage should be going to no meiyong de deserter.”

“She’s not a deserter, Jayne.” Zoë spoke up. “Never been commissioned, sworn no oath. Girl can’t desert.”

“Zoë’s right, Jayne. Girl’s a free agent.”

“No she ain’t, Mal! She’s another feng le fugie!”

“Ok, you’re right about that part. That ain’t her fault though, so play nice.” Mal pointed to the others at the table. “You already know Zoë and Dr. Wren, the big man with the big mouth is Jayne, you’ve seen him before; I believe you’ve met River, this here’s Inara and this here’s Kaylee, our mechanic.” He gestured to the table. “Have a seat, Ceres. Inara’s breakfasts are always a treat.” The girl didn’t move. Mal misunderstood. “Jayne’s percentage is coin, Ceres. Don’t got anything to do with what you eat, or it would Jayne who’s access to the stores we’d be rationing. Everyone on board’s got the same kitchen privileges.” The girl still didn’t move.

Zoë realised why. Mal hadn’t noticed, but she’d seen the expressions on Kaylee and Inara’s face change when Mal had gestured for the girl to sit. With Dr. Wren in Simon’s chair, the only free seats left were Book’s, and Wash’s. Zoë was right. Ceres was pointedly aware of the other women’s expectations that if she sat in Book’s place, Jayne would punch her, and if she sat in Wash’s, Zoë might shoot her. Zoë didn’t need to be a reader, though; she’d known these people long enough without needing to peek into their minds. Zoë pushed her chair back and gestured to it. “Cadet Swann, you’re welcome to my chair.” She pulled out Wash’s, and sat down in that.

River causally took a warm bun as Ceres moved toward Zoë’s chair. “These are nice, Inara.”

“I’ll have to try one myself, lil’Albratross. Pass the basket here, please.” Mal joined in to the purposefully ‘causal’ conversation.

“Oh, Jayne, turns out the answer to your question is yes.” Zoë said as she snatched a bun from the moving basket.

“What question, Zo?” Jayne knew when to play along.

“You asked a while back if I was havin’ doubles.” Zoë reminded him. “Answer’s yes.” This time Jayne didn’t have to play along, his face registered genuinely delight. “Aw, that’s neat, Zoë! Doubles is the best fun, s’like having kittens.” Jayne snatched the bread basket away from Mal. “Best you take another roll, Zo,” Jayne suggested as he pushed the basket toward the first mate.

Aren’s response was more cautious. “How do you know, Zoë?”

Zoë looked up from selecting a second bun to turn a cool look on the other doctor. “Been to see Simon this mornin’.”

“He’s not really up to seeing patients.” Concern and sadness were openly etched across Aren’s features.

“Turns out he is.” Zoë’s voice remained cool, measured. She picked her second bun.

“This is nice. No, really, it is. Zoë’s having twins, congratulations on that Zoë. Our tin woodsman has a heart, likes babies and kittens. Well done. Simon’s up to seeing patients – hard to believe, but alright. Can I have a damn bun now please?”

“Sorry Captain.” Zoë handed the basket back.

*** *** *** Chapters 31-35 Just Chapter 31 *** *** ***

COMMENTS

Sunday, January 21, 2007 7:10 AM

GIRLFAN


As I've said before:

"All the chapters have originally been posted here, singly or occassionally in pairs.

As new chapters go up, I add links between them, and every ten I bunch them together. It may be a personal quirk, but when I first started reading stories that were already long by the time I got there, it was nicer when I didn't have to load lots of pages etc to get each fix. I tend to read straight through. I suppose this second upload is a nod toward readers like myself.

If you perfer to read a bit at a time, the original chapters are still up with the comments they garnered. Please take a moment to read them, too. Sometimes the comments are the funniest bits.

Oh, and if you add your own comments, that would be shiny.

Thank you to all who've shared this with me, and especially to everyone who's commented."

Sunday, January 21, 2007 7:16 AM

GIRLFAN


Apologies for the broken tag. It has been fixed now.

Monday, January 22, 2007 3:00 AM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Huzzah! Another omnibus:D

Definitely loving these collections, if only to help me remember stuff that happened several chapters before without having to look back via fishing through the list of submissions in your profile:D

BEB


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Ultimate chapter (i.e. the conclusion). PG13 to be on the safe side (language only). Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc).

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Fifty-Two
Penultimate chapter. (No, penultimate is not a fancier version of 'ultimate'.) Some fluff - Jayne gets to go home. PG13 to be on the safe side (probably G, at least if you ignore the comments - man, I can't spell). Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc).

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Fifty-One
How far did Green and Banks get? Five moments of revealation. NC17 (adult themes). Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc).

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapters 46-50
All already posted before, just posted together for convience of new and (re) readers. Overall rating NC-17; this applies to all chapters in this grouping, for violence, non-con, death, extreme angst (hurt w/o comfort) and generalised squickiness. Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc). Postive comments perfered; any cease and desists recieved will be complied with, and shown off at parties.

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Fifty
The BIG DAMN Rescue. Some revenge, some poetic justice. Very narrator pov, but I like it. Hey, it worked for Dickens. NC17 to be on the safe side, but mostly implied. Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc).

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Forty-Nine
The crew pieces together the facts of Simon's disappearance. PG. Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc).

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Forty-Eight
Because it never goes smooth. PG. Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc). Bridging piece.

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Forty-Seven
Coda to Simon's time of dying. PG (language, themes).

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Forty-Six
Simon's point of view, in his time of dying. NC17.

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapters 41-45
All already posted before, just posted together for convience of new and (re) readers. Overall rating NC-17; this applies to all chapters in this grouping, for violence, non-con, death, extreme angst (hurt w/o comfort) and generalised squickiness. Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc). Postive comments perfered; any cease and desists recieved will be complied with, and shown off at parties.


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