BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories II, Chapter 17
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Zoe finally learns exactly how River found trouble and the crew lost the ship.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3297    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I'm just playing.

Many thanks: fireflyfans.net members: leiasky and nosadseven for beta-reading and mphillips for the artwork.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

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House of Huāzhù, Highgate

River pulled her knees into her chest, making herself into a tiny ball.

“What the hell did you do?” Zoë repeated, her voice low and full of accusation.

River didn’t want to answer the question. She felt sick. Maybe it was a trace of chemicals still souring her insides, or maybe it was the memory of flesh bruised by a hard blow, of bone hitting stone tile and rebounding, damage done in only a fraction of a second and not to be undone without weeks, maybe months, of painful healing.

Or maybe it was knowing that she’d been set on this path years ago, when she’d told a man that she wanted to go home and he’d said no. Not that he’d actually come right out and denied her so cleanly as that – they never were straight-forward at the Academy. He’d merely redirected her attention with a question, not allowing her any chance to argue, to reason out that it was wrong, that what they were doing to her was wrong and she had a right to tell them firmly and with no doubt: No. No. No! You can’t do this to me!

They’d reeled her in so very carefully; she saw that now. Bit by bit, only pushing as hard as she’d accept, letting her blindness to the possibility of the Academy’s reality keep her silent until her confusion and decay were too much to overcome. By then, the only way she could complain, could make herself heard, was with the sharp end of a pencil.

“I hurt someone.”

She breathed the words into the pink blanket under her cheek; she whispered them so softly that no one in this tiny floral brothel room could hear, though they were staring at her and waiting for an explanation she hadn’t yet given. She’d had no chance: the nausea still twisted her stomach and her mind was clouded and confused. There was much to consider, many complications involved.

It hadn’t bothered her to hurt that man at the Academy, the one who wouldn’t allow her to leave. Things like that were what they taught her. Things like that were the only way she stayed at all sane, logical and aware enough to write her letters to Simon. Things like that had kept her from falling into complete madness, losing herself as sure as if the girl River Tam had been crushed to little nonfunctioning scraps and someone – something – new had crawled into her head to walk around in her skin.

But she wasn’t that. She wasn’t whatever they’d tried to make of her. What had happened last night was completely different, outside the realm of the Academy’s lessons. Doing harm to preserve her own life, her own sanity, was okay. That was the law of the jungle, the law of life. And doing harm to preserve one’s mate… that was okay too. Wasn’t it?

So why did she feel so sick?

* * *

23 hours ago, Highgate colony

The door to the clinic was locked, but there were people inside.

River could feel them. Like a lioness smelling her prey on the wind, she knew they were in there. She could feel their exhaustion and pain as well as their patience. They accepted that waiting overnight was simply a necessity of life. If they wanted help in their illness, they had to suffer for it. That was their lot.

And she felt another inside the building – a man. A healthy man on the job, a gun on one hip and keys on the other. Most nights, all he did was bring in bedding and water bottles and bags of salted pretzels from the closet behind his desk. But this man had been tried. This man had steel. The building he defended held wealth in its own form, and he was here to guard it. He knew how.

This man was River’s foe.

But the door was locked. She banged on it with her fist, suddenly impatient. “Let me in!” she yelled. “Need to come in!”

He was there inside half a minute. Keys jangled in the locks, then the door opened. River could see the people in the dark room inside, stretched on pads on the floor of the waiting room, woken from sleep by her knocking. Not many people, only half a dozen. Simon had been productive today, treating more patients than the small clinic could normally handle.

She looked at the guard. He was a large man, and stood blocking the door. “I need to come in,” she said, a little breathless. She wasn’t sure why it was hard to breathe.

“Hours are over.”

“I need to come in,” she repeated.

He nodded and stepped aside, allowing her to enter. The patients watched her with a vacant curiosity. They thought she was one of their own. They pitied her.

The guard locked the door behind her. “Dr. Zhou don’t see folks before eight in the AM `less it’s urgent,” he said. “You got an emergency? In any pain?”

She clutched her elbows and shook her head.

“Well, let me get some bedding for you, darlin’.” He started to turn away from her. “May as well–”

River shook her head faster. “No! Don’t need sleep!”

He stopped and looked at her closely. “What do you need, then?”

She raised a hand and pointed to a door in the back of the waiting room; she’d seen this in Victoria Zhou’s mind. River knew her way around this place.

“There. Need to go there.”

The guard stared at her. Frank; his name was Frank.

“That’s closed, darlin’,” he said. His voice held a note of worry. He was beginning to suspect that she wasn’t an ordinary patient, and his sense of caution was rising.

River lowered her pointed finger; this might not go easy, but she was prepared for that. She could see the path her body could take, and knew exactly how long she’d need to make her move. Frank’s right hand was hanging beside him, fingers loose and ready, but his gun was tethered in by a leather strap and it’d take him at least three seconds to unsnap it and draw. She could easily stop him in less time than that.

But, for some reason, she didn’t do it. Acting wasn’t as easy as they’d made it seem in the Academy. This man was large and muscular and had little excess fat, but somehow he still looked soft in her eyes. The soldiers in the Academy, the ones she’d trained against, had never looked as soft as this. They’d always been hard shelled and brittle. They’d been purely focused on their attack, with protective armor wrapping their tender spots and nothing in their minds but orders and objectives and methods of attack. She’d never looked at them and sensed images of their personal, private selves, not like she did with Frank. She’d never seen flashes of their homes, a meal with his children at sunrise when his night shift ended, then wet kisses and round thighs of a wife before sleep stole his daylight hours away.

“Need to go in,” she said, feeling desperation dance in her chest. “Unlock it. Now.”

Frank’s fingers crawled against his hip but didn’t release the strap holding his gun in place. He knew she was watching his hand. The patients behind her were watching, too. They were watching her and they were afraid. She was too high strung; she was twitching. Her feet were pressing into the floor, toes spread inside her soft boots and weight shifting as she swayed slightly from side to side. They all saw it. It wasn’t normal. She wasn’t normal.

“Now, honey. I ain’t got keys to the meds closet. Whatever it is you think you need, I can’t give it to you. Even if I wanted.”

Hurried pulse, fast breathing, dilated eyes: Frank saw all those things in her. She could have told him that it wasn’t drugs or the need of them that had her in such a state. It was something else, something like the butterflies that used to do a warm-up dance in her stomach while she stood in the wings, stretching her hard-soled pointe shoes and waiting for the recital music to start. This was like that feeling, but worse. It had never happened to her at the Academy. There, when the moment came to act, she’d always been calm and as steady as a piece of ice.

She needed to recapture that. To save Mal, she had to achieve that cold steeliness again.

“Open… open the door,” she said, making her voice as low and hard as she could manage. That was the way Mal would sound if he was on the job, taking what he needed to keep his beloved boat afloat.

“Girl, it won’t do you any – ”

It’s different, River thought as she finally moved, her mind detached from her suddenly whirling body. Doing this in real, waking life, far from the armored men of the Academy, is different.

She hit Frank in the right arm first, to prevent him from using his gun. Her foot hit just above his wrist; the snap of the bone was audible. The next blow went to his abdomen, the edge of her hand striking just below his rib cage. He bent forward, allowing her a second to spin again and raise her leg for a final blow. She felt a brief softness of the flesh of his cheek before the heel of her foot in its supple leather boot hit hard bone. Consciousness left him in an instant, his limbs going pliant as putty and defenseless as newborn puppies. She heard the thuds of his body hitting the ungiving floor, each part making hard, damaging contact. Then she stood over him, seeing the bruises forming already.

“Contusions with slight ecchymosis,” she said softly. “Edema of the brain, increases in intracranial pressure and concomitant crushing of brain tissue.”

She sensed movement behind her before she heard it, and again her body took over, moving fast and silent in the half-lit room. She found herself crouched over the unconscious guard, his gun in her hand and pointed toward the miners in the waiting room. One of them, a young man, had almost made it to the door.

“Go back,” she told him firmly, and she cocked the gun. This brought a moan of terror from the huddled group behind him. A wave of fear washed over River with a flash on images: a feverish woman struggling to cross an arid, empty landscape, her son beside her every step, bringing her from a distant colony to this clinic for treatment. Now the woman feared that he was about to die: her youngest son, shot dead by a desperate drug addict.

“Rene!” the woman cried out, and she held out her arms to the young man.

“This has nothing to do with you,” River told them both, and now her voice was shaking. “Sit. Be quiet. Be done in a minute.”

The man nodded and backed toward his mother, but his eyes were lit with the kind of righteous anger the just feel toward trespassers. River understood how he felt, but there was no time to worry about that now. She waited until he was seated again, then bent forward and took the keys from Frank’s belt.

The door in the back of the waiting room opened to a hallway lined with exam rooms. River checked once that Rene was staying with his mother, then moved quickly, eager to finish and be gone. A door at the far end of the hall led to the lab; the Takara cap was in there.

Of course, the door was locked. She only had to try four keys before she found the right one and the door swung open silently. She stood with her toes almost touching the threshold, her eyes devouring the dark room beyond. But she didn’t go in.

Something felt wrong.

What bothered her? Not the lab equipment. Most were the standard machines needed to diagnose sickness and administer cures, all relatively new and gleaming in the faint light of the hallway. Refrigerators and vacuum hoods awaited the morning when the techs would return to carry on their heroic work; the lab benches were clean and polished, no clutter on any of them. Except one.

And there it was, the object that River had seen in the minds of Tori and Kaylee and Simon, the silvery cap that would save Mal. It was folded neatly on the furthest counter, free for the taking. Only six meters away.

But that wasn’t all. It couldn’t be. What had she missed?

A blinking yellow light caught her eye: next to the door, on the outside, at her left hand. A keypad. Why a digital keypad in a door that opened with a metal key? And what was the code to pacify it? Frank was out, not to wake soon, but she knew that didn’t matter. He wouldn’t know anyway. This was some last line of security, not to be trusted with the off hours help and the patients who bunked in the front room on busy nights. This would only be known to Tori herself, and perhaps a few of her most trusted assistants.

River could do nothing about the keypad now. Still, she wasn’t about to give up. She’d just have to move fast. Twelve meters only: six there, grab the cap, six back. One table in the middle to go around. Easy.

She set the gun on the floor behind her but kept the keys tightly clenched in her left hand. In a flash, she dashed across the lab: five steps, turn the corner, three more big steps to the counter, cap in her hand, turn back…

The door was closing! Closing fast, not just swinging on its hinges but powered by some silent mechanical engine. Closing too fast….

It clicked shut just as she smashed against it, pounding her fists, pulling and pushing the latch. It was locked. She scrambled with keys, tried one, but froze when she heard a high hissing sound above her head. She understood: no key would work. This was a trap.

She turned back and once again looked over the equipment in the room, but it was too late. A sickly sweet smell tickled her nose on its way in to her blood. In only a few seconds it curdled her stomach and weakened the muscles of her legs, and that was the last she knew.

* * *

House of Huāzhù, Highgate

Simon sat quietly and watched his sister as she curled herself into a tighter ball on the bed, hugging her stomach and hiding her face. He knew she felt remorse, though she wouldn’t admit to it. He wanted to comfort her, to let her know that it was safe to explain her reasons, that he would listen. But there was no time for that.

Kaylee took care of the comforting for him, running her hand over River’s back. “It’s okay, honey.”

“No, it ain’t,” Zoë said. “If she’s gonna play like she’s a pillow, someone else speak up. What the hell did she do and how did you lose the ship?”

Simon sat forward in his chair, clenching his hands nervously in front of him. He wasn’t looking forward to Zoë’s reaction. “I’m sure River meant well. She never meant anything but – ”

“Don’t need excuses, doctor. Need to know what happened.”

Simon sighed.

* * *

21 hours ago, Firefly Serenity

He woke suddenly from a dead sleep and immediately realized that he was in his bed alone.

He didn’t have to be; he could have had Kaylee with him. That would have been nice, to again wake with a warm, soft body in his arms. But it just hadn’t happened that way. They’d returned from their day at the clinic for a quiet dinner – quiet until Jayne showed up, back from his long sales trip and eager to tell of his earnings and other associated adventures. Kaylee had passed by that chance, claiming a need for sleep. Simon hadn’t been surprised; she’d had two long days. He just hoped it wasn’t anything more, that she didn’t have her own reasons for heading to her bunk without giving him a second look.

Loud, insistent banging interrupted Simon’s thoughts and kept him from sliding back into sleep. He realized that this sound was what had awoken him.

“Doc! Get yer ass up!”

Jayne’s voice pulled him fully awake and he squinted at his bedside clock; he’d been asleep for less than an hour.

“Gotta be now, Simon!” another voice added. The obvious worry in Kaylee’s tone was startling. Sure, Jayne might make a bit of excess noise, given any excuse for pulling Simon out of sleep, but if Kaylee was sounding like that…

Simon was out his door seconds later, still shrugging on his shirt. Kaylee was looking a bit blurry herself, as if she’d been dragged out of her bed too. Jayne was over toward the infirmary. The merc had his biggest gun slung over his shoulder and seemed wide awake and ready for action.

“What’s happening?” Simon asked.

Kaylee grabbed Simon’s arm and pulled him toward the bay. “No time. We gotta go!”

“Where?”

“Got a wave from Tori,” Kaylee said. “She’s meetin’ us at the clinic. Someone’s tried to steal the cap.”

As the three of them hurried through the dark, empty streets of the settlement, the only answer Simon got to his questions was: “Dunno! She didn’t say!” Eventually, he gave up and followed quietly.

They found the clinic door ajar. Jayne pushed it open with his elbow and stepped in with his gun at the ready. When nothing happened, Simon followed after, Kaylee just behind him.

The room was mostly dark; the lights from the guard’s booth just illuminated a small group of patients who huddled on the floor of the waiting room off to Simon’s left. But his eyes were quickly drawn to the middle of the room; just a few meters inside. Tori was crouching next to a large uniformed man who lay unconscious on the floor. Simon moved to help, but Tori’s wild words stopped him.

“Simon…? Simon!” She stared at him with wide, fearful eyes but pointed a hard finger at Jayne. “Is this… guàiwu with you?”

Simon glanced at Jayne; the merc was in invasion mode, sweeping the dark space with the dangerous end of his mammoth gun. The patients cowered back when his scan passed over them

“Get him out!” Tori yelled. “Get that ape and his damned cannon out of here!”

“But… are you safe?” Simon asked.

“This is a hospital!” Tori hissed. “Get him out!”

Jayne finished his sweep and lifted the barrel of his gun up to the ceiling, then shrugged. “Yell if you need a real man,” he said indifferently, and he slipped back out the door.

Simon ran a hand through his hair – Tori’s words were unsettling. At one time, he would have had the same reaction to the presence of someone like Jayne, when he’d have felt the same unwillingness to let an armed mercenary enter a medical facility in the middle of the night. But that was ridiculous – this wasn’t the Core, and there was obviously a need for armed protection.

“I… I thought you were being robbed,” Simon started to explain, but Tori wasn’t interested. She rose to her feet, her face set in anger.

“What haven’t you told me?” she demanded.

Simon looked to Kaylee; she shrugged, just as bewildered as he was. “Tori, I have no idea–”

He was interrupted when Tori grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the doorway in the back of the waiting room. He looked back at Kaylee and shrugged his bewilderment. She only nodded for him to go ahead, then took Tori’s place beside the downed guard.

Tori spoke as she pulled him down the hallway. “Simon, I need to know why I have a drug addict coming in here, damaging my guard and trying to steal the cap. None of my own people would do this, and no one else knew it was here. If you’ve gotten me involved in any kind of shady criminal business…”

They entered the one examination room with its lights on. River was lying on the paper-lined table. She was unconscious, and clutched the Takara cap tightly in her right hand.

Simon ignored Tori and hurried to the table to check River’s vitals; he exhaled in relief when he found her heartbeat slow but steady, and saw that she didn’t have any visible injuries. He laid a hand on her forehead and looked toward Tori.

“What happened to her?”

Tori’s face was still tight with anger. “You know this person?”

“Of course I do. This is my sister. What did you do to her?”

“What did I do to her? She was the one doing the… doing. You saw my guard! She knocked him out so she could take his keys and get into the lab. She threatened the patients with his gun!”

“That’s not…” Simon was going to say that’s not possible, but he knew that it very well might be. He looked at River again; she was pale and appeared too fragile to harm anyone, but he’d learned better than that.

“Your sister, Simon?” Tori’s tone held an accusation as well as the question: why would she do this?

Simon looked up. “Just tell me – is she all right?”

“The security system sedates thieves; it’s the safest way to handle them, since I can’t expect any help from settlement security. She’ll be out for a while, but not harmed. Not harmed by me, anyway. I can’t say a thing about whatever state she was in before.”

“What do you mean?”

“The patients said she was extremely agitated. She was shaking, in a state of high anxiety. She could barely speak in complete sentences. They say she was on drugs. Either that or insane.”

“She’s neither,” Simon said firmly, but then he sighed and looked down at River. “Well, actually, I guess she’s a little of both.” He brushed River’s hair back and bent to place a kiss on her forehead, silently apologizing for his words. The truth was a hard thing sometimes.

And it needed to be explained. He focused on River’s right hand, gently opening her fist to free the cap, while he explained her state to Tori. He said nothing of River’s “special” abilities, but did tell of the things that were done to her at the Academy, the lengths he’d gone to get her out, and how he’d protected and treated her since. He knew that Tori would believe it. Of all the people he’d known in his former life, Tori might be the only one who wouldn’t argue or tell him he was insane. She’d believe that the Alliance could do such things to an innocent teenager. And she’d understand the details; unlike the crew of Serenity, Tori would appreciate the full implications of a stripped amygdala.

In a way, it was a relief to tell her. It was the first time since he deciphered River’s letters years ago that he felt like he was talking to someone who could truly hear him.

“So, yes, she’s on medication,” he finished. “And she’s… she’s prone to acting oddly now and then. But it’s not her fault.” He met Tori’s eyes and saw that she did understand. Her anger was gone, replaced by concern and even pity. “I’ve done all I can to keep her stable. I thought it was working – she’s been doing so well for the past few months. I don’t understand what could have made her do this, hurt someone who presented no danger. I’d have never thought it possible. I guess… she’s been very worried about the man I’m trying to help. Perhaps that overwhelmed her. She can’t control her emotions.”

“But doesn’t she know that I’m on your side?”

Simon shrugged helplessly. “I guess… I guess not. She’s been very impatient about getting back to him.”

This stirred up Tori’s ire again. “Impatient? Simon, she broke my guard’s arm and gave him a serious concussion, then she threatened sick, helpless people. Held them at gunpoint! Maybe that’s no big deal to you, but they’re not used to living like that. Neither am I.”

Simon set the freed cap on the bed and shook his head. “I’m so sorry. I never would have thought… River’s always been so kind. So loving. Even in the past year, as hard as it’s been for her, she’s always worrying about me. For her to resort to stealing… and to hurt someone…”

Tori stood and walked to the table, then reached out to touch his hand. The contact made him look up and meet her eyes.

“Simon, I want to suggest something, and don’t get upset, all right?”

He nodded. He felt too exhausted and overwhelmed to get upset about anything.

“It’s clear to me that you’re fond of the crew of that Firefly, and I think it’s truly noble how you’re trying to help them. But you have to ask yourself what kind of influence they are on your sister.”

Simon started to reply to that, but found he couldn’t.

“I don’t know these people, so maybe I’m overstepping my bounds. Kaylee is certainly harmless enough. But I know what kind of business a ship like that does, and the musclehead with the planet-sized gun who just pushed his way into my lobby only proves it. These people live by taking.”

“No. They’re not like that,” Simon insisted.

“Aren’t they?”

He looked down at his hands. “Mostly, they’re not. Things are hard for them. They do what they need to do to survive.”

Tori looked down at River, at her pale face. “And that’s the environment you want your sister to grow up in? To heal in? Desperation?”

There was some truth in that, but she was oversimplifying. “That’s not all there is. They’ve provided a safe place for us when they didn’t need to. I wouldn’t have gotten through this past year without their help.”

“And they’ve gotten the services of an extremely talented doctor in return. Look, Simon, I’m just saying – be careful. Don’t blind yourself to your situation just because you’re in love with the mechanic.”

“I’m not in… I like Kaylee a lot, and we’re… involved. But I told you – it’s new. It started just when we got here, and it’s not… defined. At all.”

“Haven’t you talked to her?”

“There hasn’t been time. I’m not sure what she wants, and I….” Simon shook his head at himself. Here he was, talking romance with Tori again, when it was none of her business. “The point is: I’m not blind to anything. Yes, my situation is not ideal for River. But I’m on the run from the entire Alliance government as well as the occasional violently insane bounty hunter who magically appears in the middle of empty space. I’m not real likely to find a nice split level home in a respectable school district anytime soon. I’m lucky to have a place on Serenity. It’s the best I can do.”

Tori nodded, but it wasn’t agreement – her eyes wouldn’t meet his and her mouth pursed. She turned to set a hand on River’s arm and changed the subject.

“She should stay here. I’m going to spend the night, so I can monitor her until the drugs clear. It’ll take some time.”

Simon let out a deep breath and turned back to the table, his attention returned to River’s condition. “Which drugs?”

Tori explained; it turned out to be a cocktail of several chemicals, something she had personally tailored for her clinic’s security system, developing it for release as an inhalant to quickly incapacitate anyone who entered the lab without disabling the system. She seemed pleased with the arrangement she’d come up with, but Simon stared at her in shock.

“Are you insane?” he asked.

His tone caught her by surprise. “What do you mean?”

He put a defensive hand on River’s shoulder. “You do realize how sick she’s going to be?”

Tori’s face turned hard. “I didn’t go out looking to sedate your sister. Anyone who’d break into my clinic – the only decent medical facility these miners have – and steal my lab equipment for their own profit deserves to be ill for a day or two. It’s not permanent.”

Simon couldn’t believe he was hearing this from a doctor. “But it’s completely unnecessary.”

“Hardly. The only law enforcement around here works for the mining company, and they won’t be jumping to my defense. Building in a little deterrent is just good sense.”

Simon shook his head, but he didn’t try to explain to Tori how unbecoming he found her vindictiveness. Security was one thing; building revenge into the system was another.

“River was only trying to help someone who needs it,” he said. “I’m very sorry about the guard and the people in the waiting room. When she wakes up, I’ll make sure that she understands what she’s done to them.” He bent to gather River in his arms; there was no way he’d leave her here. “I’ll see you in the morning – and I’ll ask Kaylee to do all she can to finish the cap tomorrow so we can be on our way.”

Tori didn’t reply, and stayed behind after he left the room.

* * *

House of Huāzhù, Highgate

Zoë watched River while Simon told of his sister’s foray into crime. The girl might have been nothing but a bit of bedding; she didn’t hardly move. But Simon’s voice held a heavy note of apology. Clearly, he felt responsible.

“I know that I’m supposed to keep an eye on her, but I was so busy. And I thought–”

Book interrupted. “You’ve had your hands full, son. That’s for certain. It’s a shame you couldn’t rely on others to help.” He gave Jayne a pointed look.

Jayne’s voice rose defensively. “Hey, I had a bit’a full-hands too! I mean–”

“No, I should have been watching her,” Wash said with a sad shake of his head. “I had nothing else to do. I should have kept track. I never even noticed that she’d left the ship.”

“Speaking of the ship…” Zoë hinted.

“That weren’t my fault neither,” Jayne jumped in to say. “If she didn’t go and get ideas `bout thievery, them guards wouldn’a came down.”

Zoë looked at the merc sharply. “Guards? Came down?”

Simon shot Jayne a frown before he leaned toward Zoë. He spoke in a deliberately cool voice, as if hoping to keep her calm. It only made Zoë want to give him a quick slap. “It was one of the patients in the waiting room. After River passed through and went back to the lab, he ran out to tell the settlement security what was happening. You can’t blame him – he couldn’t have known that River would never have shot anyone.”

Zoë could have debated that, but she didn’t. “Settlement security?”

“I guess the company keeps a’ outpost,” Kaylee explained. “Just a few guys in a’ office in town. But they didn’t hurry none. From what we worked out, they must’a just called it up to headquarters in orbit.”

Simon nodded agreement. “Tori told us about it the next day. She said that the men stationed in the settlement wouldn’t care about the break-in, but that the company officials in the orbiting headquarters must have seen it as a chance to give her clinic a black mark. They sent down a few security men who showed up a while after we left.”

“And Doctor Zhou told them all about you,” Zoë guessed.

“No. She didn’t say a thing about me, or about River.”

Wash modified that. “Well, she told them that some junky had tried to get to her stock of meds.”

“She had no choice,” Simon firmly told the pilot, then he focused on Zoë again. “Look, I can’t say I’m very fond of Tori right now, but I have to give her credit. She did her best to cover for us. The security men searched the clinic and they talked to the people in the waiting room. They saw the injured guard. She had to tell them something, so she went with everyone’s assumptions. She said it was an addict, a desperate girl who’d caught the guard by surprise but found the med room locked and fled. Tori stressed that the girl was an unfamiliar face, had likely left the settlement to go back to wherever she came from, and that it was no use hunting for her.”

Kaylee shook her head. “`Course, that just sent the guards off lookin’ for a ship she might have hitched on …”

“Which led them to Serenity,” Zoë finished.

Simon nodded, but Wash took over the explaining. “Simon had settled River into bed and Kaylee was just finished filling me on events when those goons came banging on the hatch. I wasn’t about to open the door – you know that type just takes an open door as an invitation to search the ship. But I had to talk to them over the comm.”

“The húndàn put a landing lock on us!” Kaylee interjected, clearly offended at their nerve.

Wash went on. “So I told them that we all had the flu and they’d best stay away.”

Zoë couldn’t help but smile at her husband’s guile. “That’s very creative of you, darling.”

“I thought so. I even sneezed a few times, right into the comm. I thought I had them!”

“But he didn’t,” Kaylee said. “After a few minutes, they started sayin’ didn’t care none about gettin’ sick, and then started yellin’ about how they had a warrant.”

Zoë looked at Simon in alarm. “They got a warrant? To hunt for River?”

The doctor shook his head. “No, there wasn’t anything to tie us to what happened at the clinic.”

“So then, what was the warrant for?”

“Um…” Simon dropped his head and studied his entwined fingers. He suddenly looked absolutely miserable. Zoë glanced around the room – he wasn’t the only one. Kaylee was completely absorbed in finger combing River’s hair, and even Wash wouldn’t meet Zoë’s eyes; he took interest in the bright yellow sun painted on the ceiling.

But Jayne folded his arms and answered the question in a gruff voice. “The gorramn parking fee,” he said, “and that sure as guĭ ain’t my fault!”

Zoë scooted across the bed enough so she could turn and give Wash a hard look. “A parking fee? You lost the ship over a parking fee?”

Wash shrugged helplessly.

“Well, there was a sign,” Kaylee said, “but it was old and beat up. It said all this stuff `bout visitors registerin’ in orbit and fillin’ out papers, but ain’t no one actually does that kind of thing on worlds like this.”

“It’s true that such rules are rarely enforced,” Book said, coming to the crew’s defense, “but they provide an excellent excuse to detain those wanted for other reasons.”

“`Xactly,” Jayne said, and he stabbed a finger toward the curled up body on the top end of the bed. “If River’d stayed put, no one’d’a cared a dime `bout any fee!”

“The blame isn’t River’s alone,” Simon told the merc. “We all take some share.”

“Can we leave aside the blame?” Zoë told them impatiently. “I’m still not settled on how they got the ship and not you all.”

Wash sighed and went on with the explaining. “OK, so they had a warrant and weren’t going to go away. I offered to pay the fee right then and there – we had Jayne’s earnings, which was plenty. But they said they wouldn’t take it. They wanted to impound the ship and take us up to the orbital offices to do all the paperwork.”

“Which would give them a chance to search Serenity,” Simon added, “and find River.”

Kaylee spoke up, her voice rising with distress. “And they meant business! They started poundin’ on the doors and threatenin’ to force their way in, sayin’ if we didn’t open up willingly they’d lock us all away in work camps and make us go down to the salt mines!” In her excitement, she jerked her fingers free from a particularly tricky tangle in River’s hair, making the girl raise her head and grunt.

“I stalled as long as I could,” Wash said. “We had to find something to do with River. Even if they didn’t know she’s an Alliance fugitive, they had a description of her from the clinic.”

Kaylee gave River’s head an apologetic pat, then fixed her eyes on Zoë. “I was tryin’ to lock down the cargo bay doors to keep `em out for a time, but they had some magnetic thingys to force the lock.”

“We had no choice but to run,” Wash said. “I wanted to take along a comm unit so I’d be able to wave you, but I had no time to set it up. They’d have been able to trace the signal when it came through the ship.”

“I couldn’t even grab River’s medication or a change of clothes,” Simon added. “All I could find were her shoes, and then they were forcing open the door…”

“How’d you get out?” Book asked, his voice a little raised. He was getting caught up in the storytellers’ excitement.

“Hatch under the cockpit,” Jayne said. “Weren’t easy.”

Kaylee nodded agreement. “Them company security folks were waitin’, right below us, to come in the cargo bay. They had guns and all. They sure do get upset over parkin’ fees!”

“We had to climb around the side of the ship,” Wash said, “hoping those men didn’t look up and see us. It was a bit… nerve-wracking.”

“And don’t forget that I was carrying moonbrain here over a shoulder,” Jayne said, his tone demanding appreciation, “since she was all dead to the world. Like to see any a’ you manage climbing down a ship carryin’ a body – without makin’ a sound, too.”

Kaylee didn’t say thanks; she was fully wound up. “We had to hang there on the side of the hull till the men went inside, then we climbed down Serenity’s back foot and ran, fast and quiet as we could. I had my heart in my throat, thinkin’ they’d look out and see us!”

Jayne nodded toward the curled up girl on the bed. “And then River here wakes up and starts puking all over, like she’s out to leave a trail.”

“Couldn’t help it,” River said. Her face was buried again and the blankets muffled her already small voice.

“Maybe you ought’a ruttin’ learn,” Jayne told her harshly. Simon opened his mouth to reply, but Jayne went on. “I left her to finish that business and came here, to the House of Huāzhù. Bargained a few rooms for us, and a ship to make use of once it was time to fetch you three. Had to use up some of the coin I’d made, but it was just a good thing I had it in my pocket.”

“Yes, your greedy nature saved the day,” Wash said dryly. “Jayne came back to rescue us from the streets and brought us to this house of many floral delights. All praise Jayne.”

Kaylee went right past the chance to ridicule the mercenary. “We didn’t stay long,” she said. “Not me and Simon. It was near sunrise by then – this morning’s sunrise, but it feels like days ago! We just got River settled before we had to get back to the clinic and finish up the cap.”

“It took all day,” Simon went on. “Kaylee just got it ready as the last patients left. We came straight back here, then Kaylee and Wash used the House’s taxi to bring you over.”

The doctor looked around the room once, as if checking that they’d told all the important details. Everyone was sitting up now, bright-eyed and animated from telling of their escape, but no one had anything to add.

Simon leaned back in his chair and exhaled. “And so here we are.”

“Here we are,” Zoë repeated.

“That’s right.”

Zoë looked them over and thought about it. “And Tori helped you today, and wasn’t all mad about her man gettin’ beat last night?”

“I told you – I explained to her about River. She understood. I’m not going to say she wasn’t upset, but she understood. And I treated the guard, set his arm.” He looked toward River. “He’s going to be fine.”

“And that’s it.” Zoë murmured to herself. It was enough, she decided. Kaylee and Simon had hardly slept in two days, River was still recovering from being drugged, and it was getting to be late night. There was no good to be had in wandering the streets looking for an impounded ship. For now, what they all needed was rest.

“Fine, then,” she said. “Tomorrow I’ll see what’s to be done. Mayhap I can play the game, fill out the forms and pay the fee, then we can get the hell out. Tomorrow. Jayne, we got a third room?”

“Damn right,” Jayne replied with some obvious pride at having handled this himself. “Had to pay up extra on account of it bein’ Saturday, but got dibs on the one right across the hall. Colored bright orange.”

Zoë did a quick calculation: three rooms, eight people. “Simon, you need to sit in with Mal?”

Simon shrugged; the reminder of his neediest patient brought weariness back to his face. “I suppose I should– ”

“No need,” Book interrupted. “Son, you’re likely too dead tired to keep a decent watch. I’ll take the floor in Mal’s room.” The Shepherd climbed to his feet.

Jayne stood up too. “And I got bunk elsewhere.” He caught Zoë’s raised eyebrow. “It’s my own share of the take,” he added defensively. He pulled a few coins from his pocket and jingled them at her as if they were evidence, then hurried to follow the Shepherd out the door.

“Simon, River, Kaylee – you’re in here,” Zoë said. “Me and Wash’ll take the other room.”

“Orange,” Wash said, rubbing his hands together with forced gusto. “Marigolds, do you think?”

“Won’t matter none,” Zoë said as she pushed him off the bed and toward the door. “I don’t plan on the lights bein’ on for long.”

Wash flashed her an eager look, then hurried out of the room. Zoë followed just as quick – it was past time for a true reunion with her husband.

* * *

Translations

guàiwu: monster; freak
húndàn: bastard
guĭ: hell
* * *

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COMMENTS

Wednesday, May 7, 2008 4:05 PM

MAL4PREZ


Well. After a shamefully long break, I have finally gotten back into this fic writing thing. :) I have two more chapters after this one done. I’ll post them with a week between to give me time to get to the Book 2 ending – there’s maybe 2-3 more chapters to write. So 21 or 22 total. Probably.

I'm trying not to think about Book 3. That’s a beast best left sleeping for now.

Thursday, May 8, 2008 1:00 AM

WYTCHCROFT


loved this - seeing river grappling with her adulthood and genuine sense of responsibility, she comprehends.
and i am alone in reading a painful irony in this: "She needed to recapture that. To save Mal, she had to achieve that cold steeliness again."
great stuff as ever.

Thursday, May 8, 2008 7:44 AM

LEIASKY


I love River losing it and realizing that she'd done something bad. And I like that Zoe doesn't let them coddle her. She's right down to business and demands to know what happened.

And - giggle - they lost the ship over a parking fee, not anything ELSE dangerous and deadly that they've been doing! It made everything just so - perfect. LOL!

Friday, May 9, 2008 6:02 AM

HOMESPUN


OH, you're back!! YAY! I have to love how they lost the ship. I feel equally for fetal!River and for angry Zoe, but mostly I feel for poor Frank, who seemed like a decent fellow. Still not trusting Tori. gigglesnorts over the description of the rooms and Jayne's pride in having found them.

*slinks meekly back under rock*

Friday, May 9, 2008 6:59 AM

HOPERULES


Glad you've started up again!!! I hope you find the energy to finish! I know it can be tough. I've read your whole saga up until now and I really want to find out how it ends.

P.S. Please don't leave me hanging like FOX did with Drive.

Friday, May 9, 2008 12:16 PM

YINYANG


(I squeed a little when I saw you'd posted this.)

I'm with hopespun. I still don't trust Tori, either.

Saturday, May 10, 2008 2:36 AM

KATESFRIEND


Wow, great read! I've already read this several times but didn't have any time to comment till now. I've been so looking forward to another peek into your little world to see what your inventive brain came up with THIS TIME. But parking violations? That was priceless. How perfectly in style of Backstories that you told this part of the tale in reverse order too.

I loved how River interpreted her environment in the clinic - instinctual almost. But at the time, as the reader, it made perfect sense to me why she had to steal the cap, because she believed in this action so much you convinced me it had to be done. That was tricky writing - and I hope you understood my interpretation of it.

Your work is a joy to read. I am so looking forward to what comes next. Please please keep up the hard work - it's always more than worth it in the end.


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