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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
River maintains her own kind of hope, Simon gets to use big words, Mal and Zoë make plans, and Kaylee refuses an offer.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1381 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I’m just playing.
Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don’t want to give things away. In general, don’t be getting into any of this if you’re not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.
Many thanks: to several fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and www.chinesetools.com provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally – kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.
Added thanks to wikipedia for providing Simon's big words and rounding out my pseudo-science.
Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ) and Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.
River maintains her own kind of hope, Simon gets to use big words, Mal and Zoë make plans, and Kaylee refuses an offer.
Just east of St. Thomas, West Indies, 1684 A. D.
River drags in a ragged breath, her bosom heaving as the tight stays of her emerald green silk gown bind her ribcage. The dress is meant for dinner parties in fine drawing rooms, not adventures on the high seas. Her raven hair, once neatly arranged in a coil on the crown on her head, has long ago been messed by the wild salt-tinged winds. Dark tendrils fall against her shoulders, sticking to the sheen that the hot, moist air leaves on her white skin.
“Get below decks!” she hears, the words shouted by her brother. He doesn’t wait to see if she obeys; he turns and makes his way toward the aft deck, his land legs clumsy as the ocean’s swells toss the vessel.
River has no intention of hiding below. Simon may have his talents as a merchant, but he knows nothing about living by the sword, and that’s the only thing that matters out here. He’s done his best to guard her since they were driven from their father’s estate in the Old World, but he can only do so much. She has to take care of herself.
She bunches her skirts in her left hand and follows him. The crew hardly notice her presence; they’re frantically busy with the ship’s riggings, though their efforts will do no good. The vessel with the black sails is abreast of them now, and there will be no escape.
River climbs up the ladder to the large raised deck at the aft end of the ship, unnoticed by Simon as he barks futile orders at the man controlling the helm. Her hair slips completely free of its pins when she turns into the wind to study the wild men on the pirate ship, and her brown eyes widen with fear. Discretely, she lifts the voluminous skirt of her gown and reaches for the dagger she keeps strapped to her thigh. She has learned that life in the colonies of the New World isn’t safe, and she means to defend her honor at all costs. The jewel of her maidenhood is meant to be taken by one man – the only man she will ever love, the man she loved against all rules. The man she lost.
Shouts ring out below, calling her attention. The first of the pirates have swung across the gap between the ships and are being met by fierce resistance. The militiamen Simon engaged to guard the valuable cargo in this vessel fight valiantly, but they are too few. More of the lawless heathens swing across, countless numbers of them overwhelming the fine English officers.
The melee is coming closer; River pushes the wild curls of her hair from her face, then clenches her dagger tightly, preparing for a last desperate battle, but before the brigands can climb up to the bridge deck, she hears a familiar laugh from behind her.
“Now here’s the treasure I came to claim,” a husky voice says.
River’s heart feels about to burst in her throat as she turns – she never thought she’d hear that voice again, or see those blue, blue eyes. But it’s him, her true and only love, standing balanced on the rail of the ship. She gasps when she takes in his clothing – he’s dressed as an outlaw, tight black pants and a loose white blouse clinging to his muscular frame.
He releases the rope he just used to swing across from the invading ship and jumps down to the deck. As River watches, he thrusts his long sword back into the sheath on his belt, then holds up a hand toward the fighting hordes. They instantly stop their attack, obeying his unspoken order.
“Malcolm!” she says breathlessly. “You’re a… pirate? I thought you were only my father’s lowly servant! I thought… I thought you were dead!”
He strides toward her. “The Brown Pirate Reynolds – dead?” he says with a dark laugh. “You should know better than that.”
“Reynolds?” she manages to say through the shock that has taken her. “You’re… the Brown Pirate Reynolds?”
Her dagger falls from her grasp uselessly when his large hands wrap around her slim waist and pull her close to him.
“You should know that you can’t get away from me,” he says, his beloved face only inches from hers. “Nothin’ can stop the love you n’ me share. Nothin’ can ever keep me away from you.” He tangles a hand in her wanton curls, then lowers his mouth toward hers –
“I just don’t know.”
The words made River start and look up.
“I don’t know what to do `bout it,” Kaylee added with a shake of her head.
River scrambled to recall the situation. They in her room, both sitting on the bed and leaning back against the wall. River had just returned from talking to Simon in the infirmary when the mechanic had knocked on her door. Kaylee’d said that she was worried about River because of way her birthday party had ended, but River had seen that, really, Kaylee was the one needing a friend.
Though River’d wanted to be alone to think about Mal, she’d stuck with her new plan to be a grown-up. She’d given up her free time so she could be a good friend, but then she’d gone and slipped into her thoughts anyway. It was hard not to. Her own stories were so much better than real life. And this one… she’d have to come back to this one later, and make a proper ending for it.
Now, what was Kaylee talking about? Oh, of course – Mal.
“You’re not the doctor,” River said. “You keep the ship healthy. Simon will make Mal healthy.”
“But there’s gotta be some way I can help,” Kaylee said. “Maybe I should’a gone ahead and told Inara.”
River had been slouching, but she straightened as her attention was completely caught by that. “Inara?”
“Yeah. I wrote her, but I didn’t say nothin’. Not a thing. Just told her we were doin’ business like we always do. It wasn’t easy to pretend it was all right, but I figured it was better that way. Maybe I should’a told her…”
“No,” River said firmly. “No, you were right.”
Kaylee had been staring straight ahead at the wall, but now she turned and looked right at River. “You think so?”
“She left,” River said. “Inara was mean, and only thought about herself. Doesn’t deserve him anymore.”
Kaylee looked away and blinked for a few seconds before she turned back to River. “But the captain loves her,” she said.
“No, he doesn’t,” River said. “He doesn’t even know who she is.”
“But that’s… that’s `cause he’s sick. She might’a left, and… she might’a been wrong to do it how she did, but she must’a had reasons.”
River clenched her teeth and turned her face away, not wanting to meet Kaylee’s eye. She didn’t want to explain. She might say too much.
“River, you got to think about it. Inara’s not a mean person. She’d never hurt a single person–”
“She did,” River interrupted. “She hurt him. This is all her fault!”
“No, it ain’t!” Kaylee said, then she reached out and touched River’s arm. “River. River, honey, look at me.” River raised her eyes, even though she knew that nothing was going to change her mind. “Folks get their hearts broke all the time,” Kaylee said, “but they don’t go and lose their minds, too. There’s something else happening with him. You know that.”
River lifted one shoulder in a reluctant shrug. “Maybe,” she said. But that doesn’t make it any different. She was mean to him. I would never be mean like that. She didn’t say any of those things out loud, though. She knew what would happen if Kaylee found out how she loved Mal. Kaylee would tell her that Mal was too old, that he’d never feel that way about her, that he’d never love a half-crazy and completely inexperienced eighteen year old.
But I’m more than that, River insisted to herself. I know it, and he will too, someday.
“You’re friendly with Simon now,” she said, deliberately changing the subject.
Kaylee took the bait without a bit of struggle. She sat back against the wall, and a slow smile spread across her face. “I guess – I guess we’re gettin’ along all right.”
“Gonna watch more movies?”
“Well – not right now. He’s got his hands full. He’s gotta take care of the captain.”
“Yes,” River agreed with a nod. “The captain needs to be better. He needs to better as soon as possible.”
“If anyone can do it,” Kaylee said with a tired sigh, “Simon can.”
He began to bring up various sub-regions of the brain, adjusting the opaqueness and rotating the view as necessary. He started with the limbic system, in particular, the hippocampus, the mammillary body, and the amygdala. These were the parts of the brain which influence the formation of emotional memory, and seemed the logical places to start. Also, the medial prefrontal cortex, he reminded himself, which was well known to play a role in the handling of traumatic events.
Though he wasn’t a neuroscientist, the workings of the limbic system weren’t new to him. The butchers who’d done their work on River had focused on it – particularly her amygdala. Simon had spent a considerable amount of time studying this part of the brain in the past several months, ever since he’d taken a similar scan of River on Ariel.
Even so, he didn’t expect anything to be obvious. A brain is a complicated system, and each person’s is unique. Simon had no statistical database to help him sort out the results of the scan; he’d have to analyze the details of every structure and decide for himself what was normal and what could be damaged. It wasn’t going to be easy.
Which was why he was surprised to find a problem after only a half hour’s study.
He was still staring at the screen, considering the implications of what he saw, when Zoë stepped into the infirmary.
“You got anything, Doc?”
Simon turned to her; she’d changed from the medic outfit into her usual pants and vest.
“I believe… I have,” he said. “How is Mal?”
Zoë stepped aside, and Simon looked past her to see the captain taking a seat in the common room. He had also changed clothes, but wasn’t looking as crisp and neat as usual. In fact, he didn’t appear to be well at all – he was pale-faced and seemed somewhat dazed. Simon started to get up to go check on him, but Zoë held up a hand to stop him.
“Captain,” she said over her shoulder, “I’m just gonna have a few words with the doc here, all right?”
To Simon’s bewilderment, Mal had no reply but a faint nod, and Zoë pulled the infirmary hatch closed behind her.
“Does… he still not remember me?” Simon asked.
“Don’t know you from the devil himself.”
“But he doesn’t mind you talking to me privately…” Simon straightened and eyed Zoë suspiciously. “Did you sedate him?”
“No. Not with drugs anyhow. I told him the truth.”
“The truth?” Simon asked, his voice rising in alarm. “But I warned you, that’s dangerous! No wonder he looks – ”
“Doc, I needed to not lie for once. Anyhow, it’s too late. He knows. I didn’t tell him any details of how it came about, nothing about Oeneus or Inara. But he knows that he’s got some memories gone missin’.”
“And he believes it?”
“Seems like.” Zoë glanced toward the closed hatch. She’d chosen a spot where she could see Mal through the window, maybe to make sure that the captain didn’t wander off. “So you got findings to share?” she asked, turning back to Simon.
“Uh... yes… I did see something, just now.” He looked toward the screen. The image he’d been studying when Zoë’d interrupted him was still there, the abnormally shadowed area of the brain still prominently displayed.
As often happens when the workings of a mystery are revealed, what he saw made sense. He should have guessed it, really. He hadn’t yet thought out the implications, but he had a strong feeling that this would explain Mal’s symptoms, and could easily be a direct result of what the captain had been through.
“You’ll have to bear with me,” he told Zoë, “I’m still trying to work out the details.”
“Take your time,” she said shortly, not even trying to sound like she meant it.
Simon took a seat on a stool. Her impatience was rooted in worry over Mal, and it didn’t offend him. Nor would it stop him from being methodical, no matter if it took a few minutes longer than she’d like.
“It’s about emotional memory,” he began. “You know how you remember things most clearly when they involve strong feelings? Like childbirth, or horrible accidents, or…” Simon paused when Zoë tilted her head to the side. Of course she knew – an experienced soldier must understand this far better than someone who’d read about PTSD while sitting in the warm safety of a classroom in the Core.
“Whether positive or negative,” he continued, trying to focus on the medical details and not get side-tracked, “if an event causes strong emotions, the raised adrenaline level activates the amygdala. This triggers the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter which effects the hippocampus and changes the way that the experience is stored in long-term memory.”
Zoë folded her arms and tapped a finger impatiently against her elbow – perhaps to express her opinion of all those big words. Simon turned away from her to avoid the distraction.
“The brain of a person in a traumatic situation is inundated by norepinephrine. The amygdala is overstimulated, and the experience they’re having becomes stuck in their memory. It replays itself, whether in the conscious mind or subconsciously, as dreams. Even small details of the experience become indelibly tied to the sensations and physical reactions of fear – the fight-or-flight response. Any reminder of the event can trigger a traumatic flashback, or put the person in a paralyzing state of dissociation.”
He glanced at Zoë, sure that he’d lost her, but she shrugged. “That’s got nothin’ to do with Mal. He ain’t runnin’ around shooting at things, and he ain’t a vegetable.”
“He was having violent reactions when we first got him off the military base on Oeneus, and what he’s doing now is certainly a type of dissociation… But give me a little more time. I’m just reviewing what I know of PTSD. Thinking out loud.”
“Think away,” Zoë said with a impatient sigh.
Simon turned away again, and returned to speaking to himself. “What Mal went through was a different kind of traumatic experience. It wasn’t just a stressful event – it was a forced re-experiencing of existing traumas, and he was being held in a drug induced state that I still don’t fully understand. What’s more, they were using electrical impulses to somehow alter the functioning of his brain. He couldn’t react naturally, couldn’t defend himself. Like River – he had no choice but to feel everything. Fully.”
Simon looked closely at the screen and shook his head. “And it’s right there.”
Simon glanced back at Zoë, then zoomed in on the screen’s image. He pointed to the area of the prefrontal cortex where he’d found depressed levels of activity, though he knew Zoë wouldn’t make anything of it.
“Normally,” he said, “the prefrontal cortex dampens the amygdala's response and calms fear. That ability has been almost completely suppressed in Mal.”
“And that makes him forget things?”
Simon dropped his hand and looked back at her. “Not… directly. It explains why he was so… moody after Oeneus. He was having strong responses to even minor stresses. Either he’d be disproportionately angry – as he was while we were on New Borjomi – or he’d go into a dissociative state….” Simon half-smiled to himself, the thrill of solving a problem getting the better of him. “That’s why he was acting so odd on the bridge, when he was flying the ship during the hijacking.”
“And that’s why he blocked out the memory of whatever Will did to him?”
“Exactly. The strain must have been wearing him down, and during the hijacking it passed the limit of what he could endure. His mind blocked the experience out – it was the only way he could protect himself.”
Zoë wasn’t satisfied. “Since then he’s been losin’ things while he sleeps. Good things, bad things…Why?”
Simon blew out a deep breath and shook his head. “I suspect – and this is only speculation, I’ll need more time – I suspect that the amnesia, since it happens while he sleeps, has to do with memory consolidation.”
Zoë frowned at him.
“Okay, so… memories take time to form, and much of this work is done while we sleep. The things we’ve experienced in the course of the day are processed; important events are” —he moved his hands together in front of him to illustrate— “compressed and added to long-term memory, like archiving information in a computer. We access our long term memories while we sleep and bundle them up with the events of the day that correlate. Trivial details are thrown away to make room for the next day’s experiences.
“But with all that’s going on in Mal’s head, I don’t think much of this ‘regular maintenance’ is going on. He’s throwing everything about the present away… and, apparently, events from his past as well.”
Simon stopped to consider it further. It was a plausible scenario, although he needed several days of studying the scans before he could feel at all confident. Even then, he couldn’t be sure. There must be other things happening, other changes on a physical level as Mal’s brain sought to cover the damage. The lack of computing resources to make sense of the imager data, or a neural trauma specialist to consult with, made it nearly impossible for him to make a real assessment.
Simon looked up when Zoë cleared her throat loudly. She didn’t say anything, but gave him an expectant look. He knew what she was mutely asking.
“As far as treatments,” he said, “beta blockers interfere with the effects of adrenaline on the brain. They can stop the amygdala from consolidating the memories to a damaging level.”
“That don’t seem likely to fix much,” Zoë said. “If I’m understanding half of what you said, it sounds like preventive measures ain’t but a drop in the bucket. The problem’s already dug in.”
Simon sighed. For all her lack of education, Zoë had a way of cutting to the heart of a matter. “You have a point,” he admitted.
Simon resumed his pacing. He didn’t know how to address the physical changes in Mal’s brain. He couldn’t begin to treat what he saw without several day’s access to a hospital’s equipment and staff.
But maybe he could treat it non-invasively. Besides the beta blockers, there had to be some medication he could use to recover or simulate the function of the damaged portion of the prefrontal cortex. Or perhaps he could suppress Mal’s traumatic memories, or reduce the stress they caused, just until some permanent treatment was found.
The minutes ticked by while Simon approached the problem every way he could think of, but he was stumped. There was no way to be sure that the types of medications strong enough to be effective wouldn’t further damage Mal’s already weakened system, and Simon had no equipment that could monitor the effects of anything he tried. He could do great harm, and not know until it was too late.
Maybe he should go for smaller solutions. It would be a great improvement if could simply restore Mal’s ability to process his day-to-day experiences, some gentle way to allow his mind to do its necessary tasks during the sleep cycle.
Suddenly, Simon stopped his pacing.
“Doc?” Zoë asked.
He looked up at her. “I think I know where to start. It won’t solve everything – as a matter of fact, it won’t solve anything, but it may stop his deterioration.”
To his surprise, Zoë didn’t demand an explanation, just got right to taking action. “What do we need to do?” she asked.
Simon felt himself straighten a little – the look on Zoë’s face left him no doubt that anything he said would be followed as if it was an order. He’d always known that his skills were valued on this ship, but he’d never felt this kind of absolute trust. And absolute responsibility.
“Highgate,” he said. “We need to go to Highgate.”
Zoë immediately went to the comm and called up to Wash; she had him set the ship’s course and go at full burn. Then she turned back to Simon.
“Explain,” she ordered. Apparently, the trust needed something to back it up.
“Let’s tell Mal,” she said, and moved toward the hatch.
“Wait!” Simon called out. “That’s not a good idea.”
Now – in this particular matter, Zoë figured that she had one up on the doctor. No one knew Mal like she did, and if his sickness kept going the way it was, there might be problems besides brain chemistry to consider. Mal should have a say in how it was handled. Besides, keeping him in the dark certainly hadn’t been working any miracles.
“We don’t need to go into details, Simon. Just the plan as affects the ship’s business. Mal knows what’s goin’ on, and he’s got from now `till he falls asleep to have some input.”
“But I – ”
“Simon. I ain’t askin’.” She didn’t say it mean, just stated the fact. Simon was speaking up on Mal’s behalf, and she respected that.
Simon took a deep breath, then nodded. Zoë turned and opened the hatch.
Mal sat up straight when they came out of the infirmary. He looked better than he had before – his face had some color – but he didn’t seem real comfortable with the situation.
“Simon?” he asked.
“That’s right,” Simon replied.
Mal smiled awkwardly. “I’m feelin’ a need to introduce myself, but I guess you know me already.”
Simon was just as ill at ease as the captain. “Yes, we’ve met,” he said.
Mal cleared his throat uncomfortably.. “I understand you, uh… been known to stitch me up from time to time.”
“You do seem to attract bullets. And knives and fists and things like that.”
“Guess you do know me,” Mal said with a small grin. “I appreciate the service.”
“Sir,” Zoë said, putting a stop to the pleasantries. This all was entirely too odd for her to take at the moment. “We should get to business,” she suggested.
“Right,” Mal replied with a nod.
Zoë and Simon sat down, and Zoë looked to Simon to get them started. “Well,” the doctor began, “I don’t want to get bogged down with technical details…”
“I appreciate that,” Mal muttered.
“… so I’ll get right to the point. There’s a device that I think can help you.”
“A device?” Mal asked. “That don’t sound like fun.”
“It was actually created for recreational purposes.”
Mal’s mouth pulled into a half-grin, though he still looked more nervous than happy. “I take it back. Could do with a little recreation.”
It took an effort for Zoë to keep her face straight and not frown at the captain. She’d have preferred it if he left the commentary aside and let the doc talk, but she figured that a little banter might loosen him up. After all, it was a mighty odd situation for him, putting his trust in a clean-cut Core-bred young man that he must not like the sight of.
“It’s basically a field generator,” Simon continued. “A very precise field generator. It hasn’t been tested or used by any respectable medical organization, but” —Zoë’s attention shifted to Simon as the doctor fidgeted in his seat— “it’s not exactly unknown in medical schools.”
He looked up at Zoë, and what he saw in her face must have made him feel like he needed to explain himself. “School wasn’t easy,” he told her. “Anything that reduced stress and increased productivity made its rounds.”
“You tried it?” Zoë asked. She glanced at Mal – he’d already picked up enough about Simon that he was also looking amused by the idea of the doctor using any kind of illicit “device.”
“Of course not!” Simon insisted. “But… never mind, the point is – this is effective and non-damaging. It does nothing to change the permanent state of the brain, but it definitely has an effect on neural activity.”
“And you’re gonna get to the point and tell us what ‘this’ is… ?” Mal prompted with an impatient sigh. Zoë almost smiled at how easily Mal slipped into his usual attitude toward Simon.
“It encourages… good dreams. Usually day dreams, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t have a similar effect on a sleeping mind. There’s a headpiece of transmitters that fit around the skull. They set up a standing field inside the brain, targeting”—Simon looked at the floor, his face reddening—“pleasure centers.” He continued before Mal and Zoë could react to that properly. “This thing is not in common use because it has to be tailored to each user’s skull and brain geometry, and the average black market doesn’t have access to a holo-imager. This wasn’t a problem in med school – students could sneak into the imaging suite.”
“But we’ve already got all that info on Mal,” Zoë filled in for him.
“Yes. It’ll be tricky that I won’t be able to set up the generator with a holo-imager on hand, but I’ll find a way to do it just from the data. It’ll take at least a day after we get the generator before I can work that out.”
Simon looked at Mal, the penetrating stare of a doctor eying his patient. “It won’t fix the damage, or bring your memories back, but it should let you function on a day to day basis.”
“I’d wake up tomorrow rememberin’ today?”
“That’s right… I think.”
Mal gave Simon’s uncertainty a small frown, but let it go. “So… where we gonna get this thing?”
“I could try to build one myself, but I’m not sure if I’d succeed. It has to be very precise… We should buy one. Someone I went to med school with is running a clinic on Highgate. I’m fairly certain that she’ll have what we need. She was known to be… a little wild… and I doubt she’s changed. If she doesn’t have one of these, I’m sure she’ll know where we can get one. I should warn you though – it won’t be cheap.”
“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Zoë said. She looked Mal over; the captain seemed to be trying to hold on to his humor over the doc’s discomfort, but it was fading. The reality of his situation must have been coming back to him; it was clearly time to move on to the decision making.
“Simon, could you lend us the infirmary for a spell?” Zoë asked.
Mal nodded, then got up and followed her in. He paused at the hatch to look back at Simon. “Thank you, Doc,” he said. “That’s… uh… it’s real helpful.”
Simon accepted Mal’s gratitude awkwardly, managing a shrug and a tilt of his head before he turned his back and left them.
“Hey, Simon,” she said. “I was just talkin’ to River.”
“How is she?” Simon asked. “I mean… I don’t mean to pry, but she was so upset before. She was talking about… ” He stopped himself, certain that the conversation he and River had had about leaving Serenity wasn’t something that Kaylee would want to hear. “Well, this has all been hard on her,” he finished lamely.
Kaylee nodded. “She really has taken to the captain,” she said. “It’s hurtin’ her to see him like he is.”
“I’m glad she’s talking to you,” Simon said. “She needs someone besides a big brother. What little she tells me is… confusing.”
Kaylee leaned back against one of the ladders, and her mouth bent into a little smirk. “It ain’t like I can `xactly figure out what she means most the time. But I think she’s tryin’ hard to sort this out for herself, and not just get all… buried under it. She’s more angry than anything, but I can’t argue with that so much. It’s… easy to wanna blame someone, you know?” Her smile faded as she lowered her eyes.
“How about you?” he asked. “How are you doing?”
“I’m all right,” she said, then she forced a little smile back. “Be doin’ a lot better once you figure out that scan.”
“Oh,” Simon said. “Oh! Tiān, I almost forgot, thinking about River…. I found something. I think I can help him. It won’t make him completely better, but I can at least make him stop forgetting.”
Kaylee’s face lit up. “You mean – he won’t lose no more?”
“Well… it’ll be a few days before I can get what I need. But after that…”
He stopped when the momentary hope left Kaylee’s face. “That may be just long enough,” she said. She turned her shoulder against the ladder, looking away from him. “He’s gonna forget about me too. It must a’ been awful for River, and for you. I know you ain’t ever been buddies with the captain, but to have him act like you ain’t nothin’ to him…”
Simon reached out, setting a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Hey – I just had a talk with him, and… he’s still himself. Actually, he was much more friendly than he was the first time around. But he’s the same Mal, bad sense of humor and everything.”
Kaylee smiled, and Simon realized that, for once, he was saying the right thing to her. “My point is,” he continued, “even if he forgets that he’s met you, he’ll recognize all that’s good about you, the same way he did before. You don’t have to be afraid.”
Kaylee had been looking at him, but now she dropped her eyes. “Xìng fú xì, Simon. I hope you’re right ‘bout that. I do so hope you’re right.”
The sight of tears in her eyes made him tighten his hand on her shoulder. She seemed to take that as an offer; she stepped close to him, folding her arms against his chest and tilting her head under his chin. As much as she surprised him by doing that, he didn’t hesitate to wrap his arms around her and set his cheek against her head. He pet her back once before raising his hand to her hair. It felt good to hold her. It felt friendly and comforting and safe.
She shifted against him; he felt her arms slide around him, turning it into a proper hug, and that made it all change. The curves of her body pressed against him, and it took him right back to another time he’d held a woman in his arms – that blurry, drunken night on Persephone. For just a second, he felt a nearly overwhelming rush of sexual attraction, a need to shut down his mind and find escape and release through his body.
But he couldn’t allow himself to give in to that – a familiar sense of shame followed hard on the tails of the desire. He shouldn’t be doing this at all; it wasn’t his place…
“Please, be right about that,” Kaylee whispered against him, and the sound of her voice pulled him away from his memories. This wasn’t a stranger in his arms, and there was no exploitation, no impersonal exchange of need. This was Kaylee, and she’d been through hell in the past few weeks. If he could be of any comfort to her, he would. There was nothing degrading about that.
He looked down toward her face and brushed her hair back. “I’m the top three percent, remember?” he said. “Of course I’m right.”
She tilted her face up to him, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to kiss her.
It was nothing like the kiss in the whorehouse on Persephone. There was no nastiness, no over-the-top eroticism. It was more like finally stretching his lungs after not taking a deep breath in years; it was sweet and soothing and as thirst-quenching as a rain shower in the hottest part of summer.
Kaylee’s hands on his back didn’t grip, didn’t demand or order, just explored as softly as the tip of her tongue against his lower lip. He let his own hands wander, one still gently touching her hair, the other running lightly over her spine and ribs, finding just the right amount softness and curve.
Like the last women he’d kissed, Kaylee wasn’t shy, but her forwardness spoke of ease and comfort without any sense of physical attack to set him on edge. Her body pressed tighter against his, fitting without effort, and with such an openness that he couldn’t for the life of him understand why this had never happened before. She must have felt the same; her arms tightened around him, pulling him with her until her back hit the ladder. He felt her hand on his jaw, passing over his ear to grip his hair so she could hold him and put a little more into the kiss.
Her eagerness was freeing, it made him give in to the need to taste her skin. He pulled his mouth from hers, moving along the soft line of her jaw, the smooth hollows on her neck. He wanted to make her react to his touch. He wanted to find out what made her gasp, what would make her cry out…
“Simon,” she said, her voice hardly a whisper.
“Yes,” was his only reply, right against her ear.
“Can’t, Simon.” Before he could process her words the grip of her hands had changed and she was pulling away, slipping under his arm. Simon half turned after her, one hand reaching out to trail off her shoulder, but he didn’t try to hold on to her.
She never even looked at him, just dropped words over her shoulder. “Can’t be gettin’ into this. Not now.”
“Right,” he said, holding himself steady against the ladder. “Right. Of course not.”
She probably didn’t even hear him. She was gone already, the sound of her boots against the deck fading as she disappeared into the cargo bay.
“He ain’t a bad guy, huh?”
Zoë gave him a surprised look.
“What?” Mal asked.
“Took you a little longer than that to accept the doc the first time around.”
“Maybe I wasn’t needin’ his skills then.”
“No, actually, you weren’t,” Zoë said, thought it was a slight stretch of the truth. She thought it best not to mention that the first time around Kaylee’d been the one in need of doctoring, largely because of Simon. “So, you like his plan?”
“Ain’t got much choice, do I?”
“Guess not. But let’s talk over the details, settle on things while we can.” She smiled, suddenly feeling awash in relief that she could, for once, talk to the captain straight. “I really don’t like havin’ to guess what it is you’d do all the time,” she told him. “Ain’t exactly easy tryin’ to live in your head.”
Mal grinned. “You don’t know the half of it,” he said, but then his look turned a bit apprehensive. “Have I…. have I been makin’ it hard on you?”
Zoë couldn’t help herself, she snorted a short laugh. “What do you think?”
Mal looked away, but he broke into a smile again. He gave his own short laugh before he turned serious again. “Zoë, you know I... you know that I –”
“I know it well.”
He looked up at her briefly and nodded, then let that matter rest. Zoë was fine to leave it alone herself. She never had needed apologies or thanks from Mal, just like he’d never asked it of her.
“So, how long’s it gonna take us to get to Highgate?” he asked.
“Two days at full burn.”
He thought about that, then nodded. “Ain’t a problem; I can manage it.”
Zoë didn’t understand his meaning. “How’s that, sir?”
“There were plenty of times we went without sleep during the war. I can do three days, `specially if the doc’ll fix me up with somethin’ to keep me bright-eyed.”
Zoë shook her head. “Captain, that’s a fine idea, but I ain’t sure it’ll happen.”
He fixed her with a hard look. “You told me yourself – soon as I sleep, I lose it. I’m back to bein’… confused… not knowin’ a thing. Gettin’ babysat and lied to by my own crew, and acting like....” He clenched his teeth; for just a second the disgust he must be feeling over the whole situation showed through. “I can’t have that, Zoë.”
She nodded her understanding. Mal’d been out of control of his own life before, but it wasn’t something he’d chosen at the time. She knew that he’d never give in to it again if he could do anything to help it.
“Two days of travel,” he continued, still making his argument, “another for the doc to work out his tech stuff, then I’ll be working up top again. I won’t have to forget another gorramn thing.”
“Sir,” Zoë said in her most reasonable tone, “you ought to reconsider. First of all – I know that Simon ain’t gonna give you anything to keep you awake.”
Mal’s expression turned angry. “It’s my gorramn infirmary.”
“Don’t matter. He won’t let you hurt yourself, and I’ll be right with him on that. Anyhow,” she continued before Mal could argue, “I don’t think it matters. You ain’t in any kind of shape to stay awake for long. In the past few days you’ve been tending to nod off – it’s part of the bein’ sick. I doubt you’ll make it a single night, no matter how you try.”
Mal turned away. He went to the counter, flicking a finger against a neatly arranged tray of supplies. His head turned slowly as he looked over the infirmary, like he was taking it all in for the first time. Zoë followed his gaze – it took some effort for her to recall what this room had been like a year ago. Mal’d always kept it stocked, but now it had an odd mix of sterility and warmth that came from Simon’s daily presence. It looked like a completely different place then the one the captain must be recalling.
Mal finally turned back to her. “If my time’s gonna run out, let’s not waste it. What exactly are you tellin’ me?”
Zoë had to think that through. It wasn’t just a matter of knowing her own intent; she had to figure out what Mal would make of this situation if he was able to think it through proper. Since he didn’t have the time or capacity to understand everything, she had to whittle it down for him.
“Sir,” she said, “things have a way of not working out as smooth as we hope, but this thing of yours seems to be movin' faster all the time. There's a chance you could forget Jayne, Kaylee, and Wash before Simon helps you. You may even forget the ship. It ain’t fun to think on, but… you might be wakin’ up in a few days thinkin’ we’re still in the war. I ain’t saying it like it’s your fault, or like you can do anything to change it. It’s just a fact of the situation, one that you need to consider.”
She thought that Mal might be horrified at the idea, but she underestimated him in that. He leaned one arm against the bulkhead, tipping his head down as he worked out her meaning.
“You don’t think it’s safe for me to be here.”
“No,” she said firmly, but then she had to amend that. “I mean – not exactly. I just want you to think on it. And think fast. Simon says that puttin’ you through this, telling you the truth, hurts you. I believe him – you’ve been half-sick over it.”
Mal shifted, turning his face away from her self-consciously. He never had liked people knowing when he wasn’t well.
“Captain, I’m just tellin’ you that if you want any input as to what happens tomorrow and on from there, you’d best decide on it soon. I ain’t puttin’ you through this again. This’ll be the last time I tell you the truth.”
Zoë’s call came over the comm right around the crew’s usual bedtime. It didn’t appear that anyone had been getting into their PJ’s though; they all arrived within a minute. Book watched them, taking in the changes in mood that the long day had wrought.
Mal and Zoë were first. Mal wasn’t looking his best; he had a bruise darkening on his jaw and dark circles under his eyes. Still, he stayed to his feet at the head of the table, standing behind his usual chair. Zoë sat down next to him, folding her arms stiffly like she was holding a tight rein on herself. Book was puzzled by the arrangement – it seemed as if Mal was going to be leading this meeting.
Simon nodded at Zoë before he took the seat beside her. The doctor seemed a bit dazed himself, which made Book worry. Had the imager results given him such bad news? But then Book saw that there might be another reason for the doctor’s mood; when Kaylee came in, she kept to the far side of the table. It didn’t take any special skills to see that she wanted to avoid Simon, and her down-turned eyes made Book sigh sadly. She had seemed to be doing better lately.
Jayne came in looking annoyed at the call. He pulled his chair way back from the table like he didn’t really want to be part of all this, and sat half sideways so he didn’t have to look at anyone. Wash was the only person to offer a greeting as he came in, but he didn’t get much response. River was the last to join them, slinking in the hatch and along one bulkhead, her head down like she hoped not to be noticed. Mal surprised Book by calling out to her.
“Hey, there, uh… River. Why don’t you pull up a chair?”
River raised her head and froze for a second, staring at the captain. “Rather sit over here,” she finally mumbled, then she took a few quick steps and dove into a padded chair in the sitting area. It had its back toward the main room, and she stayed hidden behind it, setting her chin on the top so all that could be seen was her face.
The captain looked to Zoë, who shrugged, and he left River be.
“Thanks for gatherin’,” he said to those at the table. “And… I guess maybe I should say some sorrys about earlier.” His eyes flicked over Simon and Book, then back to River. She ducked down lower, so that only her eyes and forehead cleared the chair’s back. It seemed that she wanted to be here even less than Jayne did.
“Must be odd for you, gettin’ forgot,” Mal said. “Gettin’ taken for interlopers. From what Zoë tells me, you’ve earned better than that. Wish I could promise not to do it again, but…” He paused to shrug, and that gave everyone a moment to figure out his meaning.
“So… you know?” Kaylee asked, finally looking up at him. “You know what’s goin’ on?”
“Zoë explained a bit,” Mal said, “and I think I got some sort of handle on the situation. It appears I don’t have much time – soon as I nod off, I’ll, uh… Hell, you all know. Know it better than I do, I suspect. And I have to admit, I’ll feelin’ a little tired.”
More than a little, by the look of you, Book thought.
“Anyhow, Zoë and I have talked it over, and we’ve made a few decisions. The doc there’s got an idea of how he can make this problem I got slow down. All the technical stuff is a bit past me – the end of it is that he needs a piece of something high tech. We can’t be stayin’ in the Core, so we’ll go by Highgate to get it. Actually, I should say you will go by Highgate, `cause I ain’t staying on board quite that long.”
Book could see a wave of protest around the table as the crew shifted in their seats, but nobody said anything aloud.
“Fact is,” Mal continued, “I might be a danger to you all. I could start thinkin’ I’m… I’m in other places, and I won’t know you. So Zoë and I’ll be gettin’ off at one of Highgate’s moons. Hunk of rock so rough it ain’t got a name of it’s own, but it’s empty and quiet, and it won’t hurt us none to breathe the air for a day or two. You can come pick us up when the doc finds what he needs.
“Meantime, from now `till Zoë says different…” He looked down at the table and gritted his teeth, taking a few seconds before he forced out words that he clearly didn’t like the taste of. “I ain’t in charge. Zoë’s the last word. On everything.
“This may be odd in times to come, `cause I may not recall it.” He looked up; this time he met Zoë’s eye, and his voice held a note of apology. “I ain’t one to let other folks run my life, and I’m bettin’ I won’t take this well when I don’t know the reason for it. Wish there was something I could do about that.”
“Captain?” Simon said, half raising his hand like he was afraid to speak up without permission.
“It might be helpful if you suggested a story that you’ll believe. It’ll be nearly two days before we reach Highgate, and we might have difficulty getting you off the ship if you’ve forgotten us all by then.”
Mal looked down at the deck again as he considered that, then he finally pulled his chair away from the table and sat in it heavily.
“Gorramn,” he said, shaking his head. “This is beyond belief.”
“It’s a good point, sir,” Zoë said. “No one knows what you’ll fall for better than you.”
“I got to help you pick a lie?” he asked. “Can’t you just dope me?”
“I suppose…” Simon said uncertainly. “Maybe something mild…”
“Captain?” Book asked. Mal looked up at him, and Book was taken aback to see an edge of hostility in the man’s eyes. No matter the soft words Mal had started this meeting with, he didn’t like having a preacher on his ship. At the moment, that was all he could see in Book.
“What?” Mal asked tightly.
Book swallowed back a wave of defensiveness. Mal didn’t really mean it. “I could stay with you and Zoë. I could be of use.”
Mal’s voice was cold. “I don’t need a man of God lookin’ over me.”
Book replied patiently, not taking up the challenge. “I don’t offer for religious reasons. I can cook meals and watch the camp, as I expect Zoë may be…” He didn’t finish. He wasn’t sure how to say the Zoë’d be busy caring for Mal, like he was a child or a cripple.
It didn’t matter, Mal was set against it. “No,” he said shortly.
Book didn’t argue any more.
“That’s enough,” Zoë said. “You all know the plan. Jayne – you’ll need to be making more sales on Highgate. We won’t be able to take jobs for a spell, so what you can get us will have to be enough. Simon says that he’ll need a handful of coin to buy what Mal needs.”
Jayne straightened up and push his shoulders wide, like he was getting himself ready to carry a heavy load. But he looked less than pleased at what Zoë said next.
“Wash,” she continued, “Simon’s in charge for this job, and you’re a close second. The two of you have to work things out so far as what Mal needs and what can safely be done.”
Simon and Wash glanced at each other and nodded.
“First priority is getting this thing of Simon’s," Zoë went on, "but it won’t do us any good if you all get nabbed while you’re at it. We got folks on both sides of the law displeased with us right now, and changing out the pulse beacon might not be enough to hide us.
“So that’s it, that’s the plan,” she finished up. “We’re well on the way, but won’t be there till noon, day after tomorrow. I suggest you all get some shut-eye while you can.”
Book was one of the first to leave; he clearly wasn’t a help to Mal, not at the moment. But he wasn’t going to give up. He may have joined this crew with the intention of watching over River, but things had changed some in the past year.
“I was just wonderin’,” Kaylee said. “What’s the captain doin’ now?” Her eyes flicked to Mal and back, like she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to talk directly to him. But he answered her question himself.
“Thought I might sit up for a spell,” he said. “Maybe throw some cards `round.”
“Could I sit with you?”
Kaylee looked toward Zoë again as she asked, and Zoë sighed. It was hard on the crew, not knowing what they could or couldn’t do around him.
“I’d like it if you did,” Mal replied, and the two of them moved over to the alcove.
Zoë tried sending Wash to bed, wanting someone to get a full night’s sleep, but he had no interest. He joined Mal and Kaylee in their card playing.
Not twenty minutes later, Jayne came up from his bunk. “Can’t sleep,” he said shortly. Zoë pointed him toward the tea kettle; he got himself a mug and joined the game. Zoë stayed at the main table, sitting with her arms folded and looking on. She’d have plenty of time with the captain in the days to come; the rest of the crew could have their chance now.
Mal sucked down tea like the ‘verse was running out of it, but it didn’t do him any good. The circles under his eyes deepened, and after an hour the card game seemed nothing more than a task to keep his hands busy. He couldn’t keep track of when it was his turn, and had to be reminded which game they were playing from time to time.
In one of the wee hours of the morning, Mal told them to leave him out of the deal. He leaned back in his chair and watched the play go on without him. Zoë’d swear an oath that his eyes never closed, but his stare got fixed for a time. Then he sat up suddenly, blinking hard.
He looked around in sleepy befuddlement, taking in Wash, then Kaylee, before his stare settled on Jayne. The merc was sitting next to Kaylee, and he gave her a little box on the shoulders after she played her winning card.
“Kaylee,” Mal said, still focused on Jayne. “Did you bring a beau onto my ship?”
Zoë was on her feet in a second; she’d been half waiting for something like this. “Kaylee cleared it with me, Captain,” she said, speaking loud enough to draw Mal’s attention and stop Jayne from saying something stupid.
Mal nodded, not looking like he accepted that as much as he was too tired to question it. “I ought’a turn in,” he said, his eyes drooping heavily.
Zoë came over to the alcove. “Game’s over,” she told the rest of them. “You all get to bed. I’ll take care of him.”
She waited till they were gone, then went to get the captain a blanket. He was nearly out already, and wouldn’t be moving anywhere for a while.
And now there were only three people on the ship that he knew.
Thursday, June 07, 2007 7:12 AM
Thursday, June 07, 2007 11:20 AM
Thursday, June 07, 2007 1:43 PM
Thursday, June 07, 2007 2:18 PM
Thursday, June 07, 2007 3:33 PM
Thursday, June 07, 2007 6:21 PM
Friday, June 08, 2007 1:39 AM
Friday, June 08, 2007 7:40 AM
Saturday, June 09, 2007 8:08 AM
Sunday, June 10, 2007 9:18 PM
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 7:35 AM
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