BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

GIRLFAN

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapters 46-50
Saturday, April 14, 2007

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.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1735    RATING:     SERIES: FIREFLY

Even Roses Have Thorns *** *** *** Chapters 1-10, Chapters 11-20, Chapters 21-30, Chapters 31-35, Chapters 36-40, Chapters 41-45 *** *** ***

Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Forty-Six: Transit umbra, lux permanet (Shadows pass, light remains)

A/N1: the tense change here is deliberate, a sort of attempt at an almost onomatopoeic mental quality. It is intended to be a little weird, dissociatiative and confusing. A/N2: The song here is Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, and the prayer is Tagore’s “Grasp of Your Hand”. A/N3: The exact translation of this chapter’s title is actually ‘Shadow passes, light remains’, but I took a little license with it because I think it gets my intended mood across better, and there’s no chance of confusion about a possible pun on Mal’s home world of Shadow. Transit umbra, lux permanet was (apparently) traditionally inscribed on sundials.

*** *** ***

He’s always liked the slightly numb feeling alcohol gave him before; he’d always considered himself just about the right level of drunk when he could no longer feel his face properly. But now is not the time for numb. Now is the time for grab what you can before it’s gone.

Unfortunately, in the infirmary, there really isn’t anything to latch onto. It’s not really even his infirmary anymore in his mind, and he’d never quite won it back after his time in it as a patient. There’s the infirmary non-smell, nothing more than disinfectants, and the silence of the locked room. He wonders briefly if he should have brought music, then speculates on whether that would have been melodramatic. He smirks at the thought, but loses it quickly, and it’s hard to get back on track. There’s nothing to see, and he’s had his eyes closed since he lay back on the bed. The taste of whiskey in his mouth is fading – he couldn’t make himself drink the sake – the irony was too dark, and it wasn’t that kind of celebration; Simon wasn’t certain that this was any kind of celebration at all. The blood on his arm is warm. For a while, that’s all he can think of. He opens his eyes for a moment to watch it, and it reminds him of River. “Red for blood.” He feels his first pang of regret. “He looks better in red.” He thinks he smiles, but it’s actually a rather sad quirk at the corners of his mouth. He doesn’t notice when his eyes close again.

It’s not long before the cold slips over Simon; he knew it would happen; he’s just surprised that it’s happening so quickly. He knows that the alcohol in his blood is misting his thoughts, but there was no other way. He’d have preferred no buffer from the cold, no buffer from the slow end. It would be his last act. He wanted to experience it, in all its gore and finality. He wants it, wants to have it. Wants it for himself, for his own. But the alcohol is numbing some of the pain. It’s not what he wants, but he sucks it up. Not getting what he wants he can do, he’s used to it. One last time for the road. He laughs a little, and enjoys the pain it causes.

His stomach hurts, but he swallows down the urge to vomit and breaths gently through his nose, noticing, as he does, how much more shallow it’s gotten. When the power goes out, he’s a little disappointed at how quickly death’s claimed him, before he realises that it’s just an engine outage. It doesn’t occur to him to worry.

Aren’s words, “Blood. Okay. This is actually quite promising,” partly rouses his consciousness and disturbs him with its clear threat of continued life, but he’s no longer in a position to do anything except lie there and bleed. If he could still smile, he would, but he can’t. He does wonder for a moment if this is his punishment for every suicide that he tried to save. He knows it’s probably drunk-cockiness but he pushes the worry away: he has to be too far-gone by now. This is too important to screw up. How’d they get the damn door open anyway?

The chattering between Aren and Mal is disturbing him more than what he considers their pathetic attempts to save his life. He realised what the pain in his abdomen was long before Aren even knew it was there; he knew what it meant. He tries to distract himself as he feels Mal hovering nearby and overhears the Captain asking, “Will we get there in time?”

These mist covered mountains/ Are a home now for me/ But my home is the lowlands/ And always will be/ Some day you’ll return to/ Your valleys and your farms/ And you’ll no longer burn/ To be brothers in arms.

As if on cue, Mal leaves. Simon’s mind snorts a quietly to itself. He can feel River’s mind almost more than her hand, as she tries to reach his. He’d close the gap if he could, and he feels his second pang of regret. Through these fields of destruction/Baptisms of fire/I’ve witnessed your suffering/ As the battles raged higher/And though they did hurt me so bad/ In the fear and alarm/ You did not desert me/ My brothers in arms.

But Aren sends his sister’s soft mind drifting back on waves of sleep. He’s not worried. If she wants to join him, it should be her choice, made freely, not some sort of two for one arrangement. He wants to believe that she can be happy here, but he’s not certain that’s the case. Anyway, he tells himself, that’s for her to decide. There’s so many different worlds/ So many different suns/ And we have just one world/ But we live in different ones.

When Zoë’s hand rests on his shoulder, all he feels is the same gentle – almost – guardianship. It seems like the right word, but he can’t see how it applies to him. Not as the guarded, at any rate. Parental, maybe? He wouldn’t know. Now the suns gone to hell/ And the moons riding high/ Let me bid you farewell/ Every man has to die.

He thinks he hears the distinctive sound of a neck being snapped, but it doesn’t gel with his surroundings – Aren and Zoë and River. They’re not dead. They’re not dying. Just him. He thinks something about sacrifices offered, taken and untaken, but he’s not sure that it’s his thought, or if it’s something he heard somewhere else before.

He wonders if it’s a sin for a suicide to pray. What could the prayers of the damned possibly be worth? Nonetheless, one comes unbidden to his lips as he lies there questioning its appropriateness. Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it. Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved, but hope for the patience to win my freedom. Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling Your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of Your hand in my failure. He wonders if this is a failure. He supposes that it is. River might have always liked Nietzsche – ironically appropriate now, he supposes, given that she is, in a way, the Übermensch – but he always preferred Thomas Browne himself: “Where life is more terrible than death, it is then the truest valour to dare to live.” Despite that, Simon doesn’t consider himself a coward. It’s a failure on a moral level, and as a profoundly moral man, he owns that. But it’s his life, his pain – his to end if he chooses. River’s an adult, free to make her own choices – and own mistakes – and right now, he thinks, she’s probably saner than he is. He knows that he should stay to protect her, but how much protecting has he done, lately? He feels a third pang of regret before thinking, “Well, no more regrets.” In the end, there’s no more time for regrets, and this is the end.

He has time to consider that he might be hallucinating – drugs and alcohol and pain and blood loss – before his mind slips and he’s lost to the landscape he finds himself in: walking in a dark, deep, forest where it seemed as though no-one had walked before. He scrapes his arm on a thorn, and the poison stings. He feels profoundly alone.

*** *** ***

Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Forty-Seven: Pulvis et umbra sumus. (We are dust and shadow.)

A/N1: the quote at the beginning of this chapter is from Dante’s Inferno.

*** *** *** “We enter'd on a forest, where no track/ Of steps had worn a way. Not verdant there/ The foliage, but of dusky hue; not light/ The boughs and tapering, but with knares deform'd/ And matted thick: fruits there were none, but thorns/ Instead, with venom fill'd.” The man’s mellow voice was familiar as it spoke from the dark of the wood.

There was a pause as Simon considered his possible responses. “You’re not really him,” Simon said confidently as he turned to face the shade of Book.

“How do you know?” Book asked mildly.

“Because you’re exactly as I remember you. No one ever is, you know. So you’re not really him.” Simon studied the face of the man in front of him. “You’re a memory, a dream – perhaps the face of friend on a demon.”

“But you don’t really believe that.” It wasn’t a question.

Simon’s smile faded as he answered. “No. Not yet.”

“Have you decided if you’re dead or not?”

Simon looked around. “If I remember my Dante correctly, I should be one of the trees, not wandering among them. And Dante wasn’t dead in the Divine Comedy.

“True.”

“So I’m not dead. Or you really are a demon, and this really is Hell.”

“So you’re not sure?”

“So I’m not sure.” Simon agreed quietly as he sat on the exposed root of one of the nearby trees.

Book – or possibly the thing wearing Book’s face – chose a root opposite. “Let’s assume for the moment that I’m not a demon, that I’m a memory or a dream. A voice of your conscience, perhaps.” There was a pause, but Simon didn’t try to fill it. “Why do think I’m here?”

“Because Wash isn’t exactly Virgil material?” Simon’s tone held no trace of the sarcasm of his words; it was – something else.

“No. I think perhaps Wash would make a fine Virgil. It was not, after all, a man of God that guided Dante on his journey, but a storyteller. I think you know why you wouldn’t choose Wash as your guide, even unconsciously.” At Simon’s silence, Book prompted him. “Don’t you, Simon?”

“Yes.” It was a once hesitant and firm. It reminded Simon of his conversation with Mal before Ariel. He recognised the tone, the feeling. “Guilt.” He admitted out loud.

“Yes. At what you are doing to his wife. You know, perhaps better than her, the risk she faces tending to you, the strain she’s been under since her husband died – the strain she’s been under since you were captured.”

“Yes.”

“And you feel guilt, too, at what you perceive to wasting chances that he, were he alive, would have taken.”

“Yes.” The endless fighting with Kaylee.

“You think that he died for you. To make your sister whole. Your goal, your mission. But the Miranda broad wave was not your idea. Even if it had been, Wash agreed freely to it, as he did to far less worthy dangers that might have ended his life.” The shade of Book paused again and peered around under the dark canopy. “I wonder if you’ll ever learn that there is always enough blame and guilt to go around without grasping for more?” The shade of Book appeared to sigh. “So. Do your want to talk about your regrets?”

Simon snorted and asked rhetorically, “How long have you got?”

But the shade either missed the humour of the dark comment, or ignored it. In any case, he answered: “Eternity.” Simon said nothing, though he frowned a bit, and Book stood. “Come along. Let’s walk for a bit.”

Simon rose to follow.

After a while – and Simon couldn’t really tell how long – wandering the woods in silence, Book spoke again. “But I wonder if you would truly be punished enough, here. Are your sins really so small?”

Simon’s head snapped toward Book, but the shade didn’t turn around. A cold wind whipped through the forest, and in a moment, the forest was gone. They stood, instead, on a vast frigid plain.

The shade continued, his musing apparently undisturbed by the changing décor. “After all, there are many sins you have committed, and precious few of them for which you have repented. You’ve always enjoyed the privileged arrogance of false pride. I wonder how much of your self-destruction was self-serving? Let’s not pretend, as you wish to, that this will somehow make things better for the others. You know it won’t. Couldn’t possibly. You know that it violates your hierarchy of loyalties, it can’t not. You’re leaving them without a doctor, which they need more than ever, without a brother, which River will never not need. I wonder, on whom are you laying that burden, without so much as a by-your-leave? Leaving without so much as a goodbye for Kaylee, who deserves more than that from you. She got the door open, you know.”

It occurred to Simon that he did know. “The engine outage. The door opened right after.”

“She saved your life, if you’re alive. And if you’re not, well, she tried her best, to save your life, to save your soul, and despite her fear for you – and at your current rate of going, probably despite her fear of you, as well.”

Simon nodded again, remembering the defiant look she’d worn the night before as she’d tried to stop him from hurting himself. She had been frightened, he knew. Certainly for him; he had worried too that she had also been frightened of him. He had threatened her. He shook his head in disbelief and shame as he remembered what he’d said to her.

Her eyes were openly scared as much as defiant. He seen her try to brace herself, then shake her head. “Ain’t letting ya hurt yerself.”

And for her love, and bravery, he had sneered at her. Thrown her mistakes, her once-secret worries, hesitantly confided to him, into her face. “No, of course not. Where would the fun for you be in that?” Then he’d slammed the door on her, and threatened her when she had tried, desperately, to reach him. “So help me, Kaylee, if you come in here tonight I will put you back on your side of the door.” Kaylee may have been partly motivated of fear, or a selfish childishness, but she had always acted out of love. He had acted out desperation, and despair, and worse: his last acts toward her had been of spite; and worse still: given the chance to make another choice, to make it right – to give her a different last moment – he had chosen otherwise, to let the spite stand. And for all of that, he had felt the certainty of his rightness in the weight of his judgement of her (far smaller) sins. Pride, much? He had dared to judge her: plank vs. splinter. He was reminded again of Nietzsche, and his sister, and of how she had so often reassured him: that which is done out of love always takes place beyond Good and Evil.

He sank to his knees with the weight of his disgust in the snow. It was a long moment before he looked up to meet Book’s hardened expression.

“You’ve betrayed those you loved, who loved you; those to who you had loyalties – by birth or contract – did you really think you could get away these worst of crimes? The suicide discount? No, I think perhaps you should know better.” Book’s gaze cast around the frozen landscape, but Simon knew where they stood already. “Traitors are punished in the lowest circles of Hell, you know".

Simon did. He bowed his head in acceptance of the shade’s pronouncement. He deserved no better – and now, for all time – he would receive none.

He could feel the ice slowly creeping up his feet and legs, and the tears in his eyes froze, unfallen.

***

Banks stepped into his superior’s office. “Sir, may I have a moment?”

“Certainly.” Agent Green looked up from the medical records that he was studying.

“We’ve found him, sir.”

Green smiled at his partner. “Dr. Tam?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. Send an extraction team.”

***

Inara peered closely at the alert her Cortex search had thrown up: ‘Swann Patriarch sets large reward for information leading to the return of grandson’.

It was an odd coincidence. Without surrendering blindly to hope, Inara began to follow it up.

*** *** *** Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Forty-Eight: Virtute et armis (By courage and by arms) Part I

*** *** *** After the guards shoved the cousins into their cell, Sam slid down the wall to sit on the floor, his head in his hands, his knees up to his chin. Ceres sat on the floor on the opposite wall and watched him silently as he cried.

What the hell was she going to do? Sam wasn’t a soldier. Sam was Sam.

She remembered the last time she’d seen him. His mother had taken them to the airport. She’d been four. He’d been three, and couldn’t pronounce her name properly. It had never occurred to her that his compromise might become a nickname. Leaving her past behind had not meant burning any bridges, but it had meant ignoring any bridges back, and Sam had been one. She knew that his mother had been pregnant when they’d left, and that that baby had been another boy, her cousin Ben. She’d never met him. She knew that their father went missing in action during the war, and was presumed, then later legally declared, dead. Last she’d heard Sam had gone to university to study art history.

Green’s words came back to her. “You though you were alone in this cold, dark universe, but you’re not. Isn’t it wonderful?” ‘I hate love,’ she thought as she pushed herself up and sat down next to Sam, arm around his shoulder, as he shook.

***

She was flat on her back, and everything hurt. As the unconsciousness slowly lifted into a vague wakefulness, Ceres inwardly groaned deeply with guilt. If she’d been beaten badly enough to pass out, what had those hundans done to Sam? She opened her eyes. They were back in their cell.

She turned her head to the left. Sam was still out. She’d known that already. If Sam had come around first, he’d have been on her like sweat on skin. He didn’t know much about field medicine – not that they could even do much by way of first aid, but he was picking it up pretty quickly. They had to talk about something, and it was a topic of recurring interest.

She peeled herself off of the floor tentatively, noting each injury and wincing. They all reminded her – Sam’s hurt worse. She checked her cousin for injuries, starting with his head.

***

“You know, I’ve heard suicide defined as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. In your case, it would appear, it’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem.”

Simon’s head throbbed, and the unfamiliar voice made his eyes snap open – then shut, because the light was set just above his head and too gorram bright. He heard the light switch off and felt the heat from the bulb being pushed away from his face. The unfamiliar voice spoke again. “You can open your eyes now, Dr. Tam.”

Simon did. He’d never seen them before, but that didn’t matter. He’d recognise them anywhere – a pair of Blue Sun spooks.

“I’m Agent Green, and this is my partner, Agent Banks. To bring you up to speed, you successfully killed yourself, and were then resuscitated. On your arrival at the Haymer property on Belleraphon, you were rushed into surgery, where an extraction team was waiting to bring you to us. You have been treated for your injuries, and the limb-replacement surgery you were scheduled for on Belleraphon was completed. As a gesture of good faith, we made no attempt to capture your sister or harm any member of Serenity’s crew.”

“Gesture of good faith?” Simon repeated the phrase numbly. It was bizarre, but he tended to believe them.

“Yes. A gesture of good faith. We have an offer for you. We don’t think you’ll like it, of course, but we think you’ll accept it.” Green glanced at Banks, and his assistant picked up the explanation.

Banks began, “We’re proposing a straight deal, Dr. Tam: one life for another. You cooperate with us, and we will stop perusing your sister."

Simon wondered where the adrenaline was. It should really have kicked in by now. “How will I know?” He managed to grind out between clenched teeth. Even moving his jaw so little turned the pain in his head to white-hot.

Banks understood the implied question, and smiled tightly to himself. Dr. Tam was clearly not at the top of his game. “You will be allowed to create a message to send to your sister. Included in that will be the offer that she will be permitted to write to you, and we will not in any way interfere with the letters, though will, of course, be ensuring that the letters contain nothing more dangerous than paper and ink. You will be permitted to acknowledge them, though, as a precaution, your replies will be limited to responses such as 'I received your letter dated... Love, Simon,' or 'I received your undated letter beginning... Love, Simon'."

Simon’s mind was not sufficiently suppressed by the pain to not notice the careful construction of the plan. Still, it was an offer they didn’t need to make. Clearly they were cutting their losses.

Banks continued. “It’s more than fair, all things considered, Dr. Tam. We already have you; we didn’t need to make you this offer. Should you not accept, we will continue to pursue River Tam. Given your sister’s nature, and that we have already accepted the loss on this project, that pursuit will likely result in her death. Tactically, simple destruction of Serenity will be simplest for us, resulting, clearly, in the deaths of all aboard her.”

Clearly they were cutting their losses. Simon changed the subject. “Where is Ceres?”

“Miss Swann is currently in her cell, recovering from her most recent beating and attempting, I believe, to render first aid to her cousin, whom we have acquired in an effort to pressure her. They have no equipment with which to tend their injuries, and the medical attention she is in receipt of is, currently, minimal. Her whipping boy, of course, receives none.” A thought hit Banks. “With your cooperation, you could ameliorate the worst of their suffering. We could permit you access to them and to first aid equipment with which to treat them.”

The headache was not helping Simon’s already snarky nature. “Sweetening the deal with rat poison.”

“Suicide on the brain, Dr. Tam?” Green’s retort cut in.

“It’s a good deal, Dr. Tam. We already have you, after all. You have nothing to lose, and much to gain from accepting it.”

Simon knew that already. He closed his eyes and nodded. “I accept your deal.” It was him against the devil protecting his own.

***

Mal watched River out of the corner of his eye. She’d been eerily calm throughout, eerily calm since they’d first won Simon back. The longer it went on, the less reassured by it he was. It didn’t seem right that she hadn’t snapped, at least a little.

As if in response, he noticed that she turned her head toward him, to where he sat in the co-pilot’s seat, and spoke. “Dead nine minutes precisely. Important number. 9. A symbolic three x three. Past, Present, Future. Body, Mind, Soul. Life, Death, Rebirth.”

***

Inara had closed herself in her shuttle. Jayne wondered if she knew how much noise she was making trashing her things. He sat on the edge of his workbench, having pushed his body past its point. Zoe'd finally knocked Kaylee out cold with something from the infirmary, and he'd run out of things to do to distract himself. He went to his bunk to change his shirt, and then to the kitchen to dig out the bottle of whiskey he’d set aside. Then he headed back to the cargo bay to wait for the crashing sounds to stop.

He sat on the steps outside her shuttle and gave it time. Eventually the crashing stopped and he waited several more minutes before he got up and knocked. She opened the door a crack after another minute, and her eyes were red and her hair untidy. He lifted the bottle a little, and spoke steadily, “To absent friends.” Inara let him in.

*** *** ***

Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Forty-Nine: Virtute et armis (By courage and by arms) Part II

*** *** *** Mostly they just sat together in companionable silence, passing the bottle of whiskey between them. Jayne, when he thought to, watched Inara surreptitiously. He saw that she was struck by something, and followed her gaze. In her rampage, she had spared Aren’s bags. They still sat neatly at the doorway, irony so deep even Inara couldn’t begin to unravel it.

They’d pieced the facts together eventually. They’d both been part of the story, though from different directions. Aren had taken Simon into the theatre to be prepped for surgery, and Haymer’s surgeon had taken charge of the unconscious River, trying to stabilise her, and assess the damage to her heart. When he was done, he immediately scrubbed up to take over from Aren, but he’d barely stepped into the theatre when he stepped back out, face ashen.

Mal and Zoë had jumped to the same conclusion – Simon had expired again – and this time, forever – while they’d worked on River. But that wasn’t the case. Simon was gone. Just gone.Aren was found on the floor of the theatre, scrubbed up, a bullet between the eyes. Zoë called for Jayne, whose tracking skills were too far behind time to catch up, even though he did, unbelievably, find a trail. While Jayne and Zoë raced through the building in an attempt to find Simon, Mal had confronted Haymer, who’d known nothing about the raid. It was when Inara, up until then comforting Kaylee, intervened to convince Mal that Haymer wasn’t lying that she discovered that Simon wasn't the only one who was gone. It was her tailspin, moreso than her conviction that Haymer had not been party to their betrayal, that pulled Mal back into the moment and his crew. He ordered them all back to Serenity. Haymer offered to send his surgeon with them, but with the surgeon’s assurance that River would be fine, Mal declined. He just wanted to get gone.

Mal ordered Jayne to bring the body back, and Jayne complied without complaint. Zoë took charge of the still-unconscious River and the devastated Kaylee, and Mal walked his fiancée to her shuttle before he took the bridge to fly them away from the site of their greatest caper, but which they would always associate with loss. Aren’s body now rested, covered, on the counter of the infirmary, and Jayne had adjusted the temperature to – well, that’s just what you did, and Jayne could do that.

Jayne had run out of things he could do.

***

“She’s done it,” River whispered in disbelief.

Mal’s head snapped up and over to his pilot. “What do you know, lil’Albatross?”

River pointed to a Cortex search she’d apparently been monitoring. “Inara. She found where they took Simon.”

“River,” Mal started gently. This was the breakdown he’d been expecting. It was almost reassuring, despite how sad it was. “I don’t think ‘Nara’s up to searching for Simon just yet.”

“No.” River agreed firmly, voice sad. “But she was.” River pointed to the information again and Mal rose to examine the screen. It took his breath away. “Permission to change heading, Captain?”

“Do it.” Mal’s nod was firm. “Bridge is yours, River.” He had to find Zoë.

River smiled, unseen. What little they had in common, they had this, her captain, and her brother: when it came to protecting their family, they had a flair for the dramatic.

*** Simon’s guards escorted him to his cell, but he asked to be taken to see Ceres. They complied, unexpectedly, and they gave him a first aid kit when he asked for it. He palmed some painkillers from the bottle and got a water bottle from his guards before they let him into Ceres’ cell. His head was still throbbing, but he had patients to care for.

He knelt next to Sam, and Ceres instinctively moved to give him more room. For several minutes, she just watched silently as he worked, not more than looking up to glance at his face as he entered. Then, suddenly, she looked at him, and announced, “Dead nine minutes precisely. Important number, 9. Past, Present, Future. Body, Mind, Soul. Life, Death, Rebirth. A symbolic three by three. Thirty-three: ancient mysteries, all things are possible.”

Simon pushed the pain in his head down as far as he could, and replied, shaky, All things are possible. We will get out of this.

Ceres stiffened slightly in surprise, and her eyes widened involuntarily, but no other reaction betrayed her shock. Do they know?

No. But they believe me capable of learning.

Our secret then.

For a while, Simon agreed. After Simon finished attending to Sam, he stood, almost swaying, and stumbled into the tiny water closet that attached to their cell. When he emerged he lay down on the cell floor and mumbled, “Headache. I’m going to close my eyes for a while.” Ceres pushed up against the wall and rested her head on her knees, watching the boys breath. Simon wasted no time. He immediately dumped everything he knew about their situation, and Serenity’s in half-mumbled words and thoughts and pictures into Ceres’ head.

Ceres was more circumspect, carefully selecting memories and information to share. Still, Simon’s control was hard to fathom – tired and in pain, with no real training, he was still communicating effectively, if not entirely coherently. She considered offering some lessons, but he really did need to rest. He’d been running on empty since forever. She knew that she would never have chosen to survive.

“You should take a soother. You should sleep.”

“Someone should watch Sam.”

“I’m just closing my eyes.”

“Well, then we’ll take turns closing our eyes, Simon.”

“Okay.” He agreed too readily, but it didn’t matter. You didn’t need to be psychic to know that Simon needed the rest. His soft snores started after a few minutes, and Ceres smiled. Snoring never bothered her. It meant that she knew her companions were alive without having to check. Where there was life, there was hope? Perhaps. Where there was life, there were options, at least. Still, Simon had made a deal, dangerous and damned. Only Simon would dare to negotiate with Blue Sun; and perhaps more because of that than anything else, Blue Sun considered him enough of a threat to negotiate with. But bitterly negotiated as it was, it was unfinished. The consummation of that deal was still to come, and was due in flesh and blood.

*** Ceres came to abruptly, disturbed by the feel of something soft beneath her. It was a cot. She sat up, and winced at the pain in her abdomen. Sam and Simon had cots too. Someone, probably Simon, had patched Sam up. It was a fairly basic level of care, but he at least he’d finally received some. She raised an eyebrow at Simon, who shrugged at her. “I gave him a soother. He needs deep rest to repair. I gave him some regen boosters, nutrient supplements and re-wrapped his injuries.”

She reached across and gently touched his mind, not surprised by the dark nimbus she found there. They had to be quick. Too much silence, and someone might suspect. In any case, she didn’t want to be open, and she didn’t think that she should risk tiring him out. Quicker was better on all fronts. She pushed gently, to let him know that she was there. His shoulders stiffened fractionally, but he didn’t even look up.

What did you see? She could tell he’d seen something; the dark gore-red-brown (anger-pain) nimbus was shot through with the brimstone-red-black smoke of his shame and traces of the green-black-brown bile of disgust.

Surgery. Genetic project, came the reply, though why it was coloured with the gunmetal grey of regret, Ceres did not understand. I need you to help me. She remembered the steel colossus that she’d pictured before she’d seen him. I need you to help me find River’s mind. She knew then that she’d started, but pretended to be rubbing a cramp in her side, before lying back down. Simon finished, I have a plan. I think, in a few more hours, I’ll have a mental map of this entire facility – ins, outs, exits, trips, traps you name it. Even when they try not to underestimate me, they still do. Find River, feed her enough to start planning something. I won’t know yet for a while exactly what kind of help we’ll need.

Okay. Ceres sent a mental nod for emphasis.

They think that we’re lovers, Simon said.

I know. I think that we should encourage the illusion.

That could be exactly what they want with the genetic project, Simon suggested.

No. They don’t need us to be lovers for that. But it might convince them that you have truly taken their offer if they believe that you’re trying to protect a lover as well as a sister.

“Let’s rearrange the cell, now that we have some cots and things.” Simon began out loud. He paused, then continued as if on impulse, “If you would just…” before he stopped abruptly.

“If I would just what?”

Simon made his tone regretful. “If you’d just, I don’t know cooperated a little more. Just let them train you, train harder, maybe we wouldn’t have to live like prisoners.”

Ceres made her voice sound exasperated. “We are prisoners, Simon.”

Simon dropped his voice as if under the illusion that perhaps it wouldn’t be as easy to pick up by the hidden audio equipment. “I know, I just… I just think that we have to make the best of the situation. I mean I get that there are things you won’t do, and there are things I wouldn’t do. But couldn’t you wait until they dragged you to that spot before you – look, I just think that if you cooperated more, at least just on your training, maybe we could – I don’t, have a dorm instead of a cell. With a separate room for Sam. And proper – facilities.” Ceres snorted and Simon continued. “Look, we could, I don’t know, live like people. I get that we’re prisoners. I do. But River’s safe, our friends are safe, and we’re together. That counts for something, right? Let’s just – just do it for Sam’s sake, even if you won’t do it for mine.” Ceres considered his soft guilt-tripping tone exactly perfect.

They manoeuvred the cots so that Sam’s was in the bottom right corner against the wall, and pushed Simon’s toward the bottom left corner but left enough room to climb out, and pushed Ceres’ bed along Simon’s. Ceres demanded to be in the middle; it gave her the best access to the door. They then lay down and curled together, Ceres’ head on Simon’s shoulder, and holding hands. They closed their eyes and reached out, together, to find River’s mind. They had a rescue to coordinate, and not very much time to do it in.

***

On Serenity, in the pilot’s chair, River snapped awake with a smile.

When Inara came to relieve her, River went to Simon’s room check on Kaylee. The mechanic was still asleep, hovering between sleep and drug-induced unconsciousness almost constantly. Jayne had taken to sleeping in Book’s old room to be close at hand, but Kaylee never needed anything. Like Simon, like Aren, she was just gone. Not even Inara could do much with the girl, though she tried. River curled next to her friend and whispered her hopes into Kaylee’s dreams.

*** *** ***

Chapter Fifty: Virtute et armis (By courage and by arms) Part III

*** *** *** With an almost gentle brush, Jayne cut the comm. He knew that he should feel happy, but all he felt was overwhelmed. Inara had stepped off the bridge, and no-one else even knew that he’d received a wave. He wasn’t a subtle man, but he was private. Still, his choices were pretty simple. He could keep it private – tempting in its own right, and because the timing gave him an instinctive uncomfortableness, or he could do something about it. Like he wanted to. Like his sisters wanted him to. Like his mother wanted him to. It really was an either/or.

Inara stood quietly outside the bridge, paying no attention to the words that she could almost hear on the other side of the door. If it hadn’t been Jayne, and hadn’t been so mysterious, Inara probably wouldn’t have been curious at all. But Jayne and a wave from home? That was indeed a curiosity. And the girl – well, she’d been taken aback to have her wave answered by a Companion, Inara could tell, but she’d recovered quickly, and broke into a big grin nearly identical to Jayne’s, before she announced herself as Katie Cobb, and could she please speak to Jayne?

But if the news was happy, why then had the bridge fallen so silent? The soft rumble of Jayne’s voice had given way to nothingness. Inara waited a few more seconds and gently knocked on the door before letting herself back onto the bridge. Jayne stiffened, but didn’t look around.

“Is everything alright, Jayne?” Inara asked tentatively.

“’is fine. Thanks ‘Nara,” he added as an afterthought. “I’m awake now, could take the watch for a bit,” he offered.

Inara nearly refused, out of hand more than anything else, but caught herself in time. “Are you,” she began more gingerly than gently, to be truthful, “waiting for another wave?”

Jayne looked up at that. The expression he wore was more than mildly confused. “Huh? No. Just awake is all. Ain’t no need for both a us to be, ‘specially with Kaylee like she is.”

Inara wondered then if maybe Jayne didn’t have anywhere better to be. No place on the ship was better to be than the bridge for quiet and speculation. “No, I’m rested Jayne. You head back to bed.”

“Alright.” But Jayne didn’t move from the co-pilot’s chair.

***

Her brother really was a criminal mastermind. River lay on her bed, shifting through the images she’d seen. He had such a precision to his thoughts that amazed her. Like she instinctively knew when to move, where to do it – kinetic intelligence taken to an unprecedented level, Simon’s spatial awareness was extraordinary. She wondered how she’d never seen it before. His ability to break in, and then back out, of the Academy; the exact planning of the Ariel heist – he had an uncanny knack for moving objects through time and space unhindered. And now, mind opened to others’ minds, Simon could map an entire facility without stepping outside of his cell. And he had. And the good big brother that he was, he had made planning his rescue simple for her.

When he’d presented his plan to her, it had merely needed her approval. She was surprised at the totality of the plan – but perhaps she shouldn’t have been. She was a trained assassin, but her brother was a surgeon – the precise application of violence was as much his art as hers.

She curled on her side and began to quickly sketch the plans for the facility. She would need them to explain the plan to the others.

***

When Mal got to the galley, River was already at the table, ready with cups of coffee and an eerily focused expression. She gestured to a chair, and Mal sat. While he reached for his cup, River laid out some sketches. It took Mal one sip of the hot coffee and a slow blink, and then it hit him, what he was seeing. He stole one glance at her calm features before he began to study the sketches and scan the accompanying notes. That girl was at her creepiest when she was at her most efficient.

“So, we got alla this from Ceres?” Mal asked eventually.

River shook her head. “No. Simon put it all together. We just have to follow his plan. Like Ariel.”

Mal nodded, still focusing most his attention on the plans in front of him. “It’s a solid plan. When’d you find him?”

River’s voice was soft. “He found me.”

Mal’s head snapped up to focus on River’s face. A long moment passed. “As in, boy’s a reader, too?”

“He had Ceres’ help,” River said, but her voice was more evasive than defensive.

Mal had no trouble noticing, that, either. “Ain’t an answer to my question, Albatross.”

River hedged, “Simon’s always been very intuitive.”

“How?” Mal asked evenly.

“It’s been a long time coming, I think.” River’s soft voice was honest. “Really, it started when we found him on the Pandora, I think. Being voiceless, trying to touch my mind… I think he’s finally figured it out. Dead nine minutes precisely. Important number.”

“Any Blue Sun tinkering with his brainpan?”

“Not yet. Soon, though Simon thinks. They don’t know yet, but they believe that they can teach Simon. Make him like Ceres. Can four people keep a secret?”

“When three of them are readers?”

***

Mal broached the plan with the crew once they’d all assembled in the galley. “Jayne, I’m gonna need you in the engine room. Take Kaylee with you, she can rest in her hammock. Keep the door locked tight. Zoë, you’re to take the bridge, and seal yourself in. Only gonna have Inara and River with me, so we’re gonna hafta wait til those hundans have got Ceres out of her cell – then we can go in, but we’ll have to go fast. Inara, River tells me that there’s a third prisoner, should be either in the cell with Simon or, likely, in another room with Ceres when we get there. This is surgical strike stuff, everything’s gotta go smooth, or we’re likely not coming home with what we went to get,” Mal was too tired to soften the blow.

“Soon as we get the signal from Ceres, we pop the lock, and River and Ceres will start taking out enemies. Simon will barricade himself, and the other prisoner if he’s there, in the cell until one of us gets there. Inara and I will be right behind River, until we reach this point,” Mal pointed carefully to the sketches and continued, “and then we’ll branch off toward Simon’s cell. River and Ceres will continue to move toward each other, flanking any Blue Sun personnel in between them. That’s the plan, at least. Once we have Simon, we will have to likely have to double back to here,” Mal gestured again, “where Ceres will have stashed the prisoner if he’s with her.”

Mal looked around the table at his crew. “Everyone clear?”

All the faces at the table were drawn tight, but everyone nodded their agreement.

Zoë spoke up. “We’ll need the infirmary, Sir.”

“I’ll prep the cryo box,” River’s voice was low.

Jayne stood up from the table. “Well, I best go bring Kaylee some food, iffin we’s done.” Mal nodded and Jayne manhandled some of the porridge into a bowl, and stalked out. Zoë and Mal exchanged a puzzled look, missing the subtle, knowing, one that passed between River and Inara.

***

Jayne carried Kaylee’s unconscious form to her engine room, and tucked her into her hammock gently. He sealed the door behind him, and couldn’t help but stare at it. He knew that he should be on the other side; he was a merc, not an engineer, and if there was going to be a fight, he belonged in it. For himself, for Kaylee – and River – and to avenge Aren. Weren’t right, what happened to her. All cold and shoved tight into a box barely big enough for a fetal River.

Zoë sat in what she still thought of as her husband’s chair, and rubbed her belly. It wasn’t a prayer, not in Zoë’s mind – just a quiet word with her husband, asking him to keep an eye on the all, ‘cause they needed it. Leave no man behind.

River’s fingers hovered on the comm. button, ready to give Zoë the go signal when it came in. Inara and Mal stood by in tense silence. Another man down since the last time they’d done this. Wouldn’t even be a chance if River hadn’t held it together, if Inara hadn’t doggedly run those searches until she’d found something. They’d come so close to losing it all this time, and they still could, Mal knew.

As they dragged Sam and Ceres from their cell, Simon and Ceres each sent a signal to River, who promptly sent it to Zoë. By the time Serenity had reached the facility, Agent Cooper had thrown Sam to the floor and begun cutting away his clothes, as Ceres struggled to break free of her chains. It’s just bone. You can do this. You’ve done it before, she reminded herself as Sam terror mixed with hers to the point where she could no longer separate them. Not taking her eyes off of her cousin for a second, Ceres pushed her left arm up as far as she could through the cuff, before bringing it back down against the metal at speed. The bones in her wrist shattered, and her hand slipped free, as Serenity breeched the Pandora’s airlock. The force of the bump wasn’t much to either vessel, but it jostled the unprepared organics on board around nonetheless. Ceres wasn’t unprepared; she’d taken careful hold of the chains binding her before the breech. Simon had laid down on the floor, and Sam was there already.

Ceres pulled herself up using the chains and wrapped her legs around her guard’s neck, snapping it, and Sam used Agent Cooper’s surprise and disorientation to roll away from him quickly. He did as he’d been instructed. Don’t think. If you have a chance to, take someone out. Otherwise, stay down, Sam. He pulled his damaged body up off of the floor as Agent Cooper went for him, and the spook lost his footing with his momentum and hit the floor. Sam grabbed the knife as it slid across the floor toward him, and stuck it through the other man’s throat. He recognised the feeling; he’d had it a lot lately, and this was the first time that fight had been an option. Adrenaline, God bless its little cotton socks. Sam lifted the keys off of his kill and unchained his cousin. Ceres was grateful – that would speed things up nicely.

While River moved through the ship with her dangerous, deadly interpretive-dance-of-death, Ceres tucked her cousin into the spot Simon had found for him before moving toward her lover. Simon sat pushed tight up against the door, barricading more with his body than their pathetic collection of furniture, constantly scanning to transmit tiny adjustments to his plan to his sister and her lover. Mal and Inara just followed River’s lead.

They weren’t Reavers. Killing them had been an act of mercy almost as much as it had been an act of survival. No, they were something worse than Reavers – minds that would create something like Reavers, without compunction. Something that would create something like her. It wasn’t the game it had been when she’d saved Kaylee’s life; she knew the lives she was taking. It didn’t trouble her.

When Inara lobbed the grenade down the corridor, Mal thought that he would have a seizure, it was so unexpected. He turned to Inara, to hiss, “Where?” but there wasn’t time. She seemed to understand and, in the next lull in the battle, whispered to Mal, “From Jayne.” Her voice was so low that Mal almost didn’t catch the last part, and in the end, he still wasn’t certain he’d heard right. “And for Jayne.” Jayne couldn’t be that put out of being left out of a battle that he’d ask Inara to launch a grenade for him, could he? And Inara would never have agreed, would she? Mal decided that he’d heard wrong, that’s all it could be. He and Inara branched off to find Simon, and then pick up Sam on their way out.

River and Ceres continued to move toward one another, assassin and spy, two projects gone as out of control of their creators as ever the Reavers were, and the irony was not lost on them.

***

When it was over – and battles never last as long as the adrenaline makes it seem they do – River waited until Simon and Inara had cannibalised everything they wanted and then she set the explosives she’d made. This time the box would remain closed.

*** *** *** Chapter 51 *** *** ***

COMMENTS

Saturday, April 14, 2007 2:16 PM

GIRLFAN


Those of you one read the omnibus version (thanks BEB!) will no doubt be familiar with the blurb, nonetheless:

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 five or ten (depending on lenght) 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, whether publically or privately. All the support is appreciated.

Really. :)


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