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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA
A man doesn't go through all that Malcolm Reynolds has been through--war and torture, invasion, the death of friends--and not pay a price for it.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2586 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
This story incorporates the omitted scenes from an earlier cut of “Serenity,” regarding the aftermath of the Battle of Serenity Valley. It also takes place not only after “War Stories,” “Heart of Gold,” “The Message” and “Objects in Space,” but shortly after the events of Tara O’Shea’s remarkable story, “Lex Talionis.” References are with the gracious permission of its author. If you haven’t read “Lex Talionis,” go read it now since it’s so damned good. If you just have to read this first, then you need to know that “LT” unfolds around a brutal attack on Kaylee, as part of Niska’s elaborately plotted revenge against Mal for having twice made Niska look a fool. Thanks also to Tara for her Mandarin translations, without which—well, I wouldn’t have any Mandarin in this story!
Oh, and by the way, I guess this story is rated PG-13 for some sexual content.
The metal crate hit the cargo bay floor with a bang.
“Dammit, Jayne, will you be careful with those?”
“Hey, it ain’t like they’s breakable,” Jayne answered. “Bunch of ruttin’ horseshoes—weigh a ton, worth a whole hell of a lot less than they weigh.”
“A job’s a job,” Mal shot back, shoving crates into line along the starboard wall. “New Sweden is a metals-poor planet; they’ll take their iron where they can get it.”
“New Sweden is a money-poor planet too. We’ll be lucky not to spend more on fuel than we make movin’ these things. And I’ll have nothin’ but an ache in my back to show for my share.”
Behind him, Jayne heard a crate slam down hard.
“Tamade chùsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo.” Mal stood, arms folded, sweat beaded on his forehead. “I’ve had about enough of you and your griping. Just shut up and move the damned crates like you’re told.”
Jayne turned to lift another crate. “You want me to stop complainin’, you’d better pay me more. Ten percent gets you work; it don’t get you silence.”
The next thing he knew, he was slammed against the bulkhead, Mal’s fingers digging into his shoulders. Jayne watched a muscle twitch along his jawline. The only time he’d ever seen Mal this mad was after the heist on Ariel. That had been anger at Jayne’s double-cross, Mal feeling righteous that Jayne had chosen money over loyalty. This was something else—something too close to the edge, with a little craziness to it. It was as near to out of control as he’d seen Mal, and he’d never seen that.
“Gorram, Mal, what you getting’ all worked up about? I’m just passin’ the time, is all.” He shrugged off Mal’s hands, slipped sideways and moved back to the crates, pretending to make light of the situation.
There was only silence at first; Mal was just standing there, not moving.
“Just get this stuff stowed,” he said finally in a sharp voice.
“Yeah, yeah. Hao ba.” Jayne pretended not to look, but out of the corner of his eye watched as Mal moved quickly up the stairs.
What the hell? Any other man, after taking out that liúmáng Niska, would be feeling good—getting rid of a danger to them all, striking back at the man who was responsible for what had been done to little Kaylee. Jayne himself had celebrated with a bottle of whiskey the night after they’d finished off the old húndàn. Sure, he felt bad for Kaylee, but she seemed to be mending all right, back in her engine room, singing to herself and puttering around her engines. Once Jayne had seen the old man die, his rage had been satisfied, his worry about further threats put to rest.
Mal, on the other hand, had been walking around like his best friend had died, ever since they’d left Bernadette. He’d been snappish and irritable not just with Jayne—who knew that he grated on the captain’s nerves more than not—but with everyone, and keeping to himself more than usual. Today was just the worst of it. It didn’t much matter to Jayne about anyone’s mood, as long as he got paid; but it when it came to being thrown against bulkheads for no good reason . . . well, that put a different face on things. Serenity was Mal’s ship, and he was the captain and could give orders as he liked. But when the ordering turned into something else, and the man in charge couldn’t keep control of himself—it just might be time for Jayne to be looking elsewhere for his room and board.
He kept his head down as he moved up the stairs. He didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t want to talk to anyone; he just wanted to get away. It was all he’d been able to do not to smash his fist into Jayne’s mouth or slam that thick skull against the bulkhead until it smashed like a melon.
What was wrong with him?
Oh, he’d been mad at Jayne plenty of times—for crass behavior, like the night that Simon had first come on board and Jayne had embarrassed Kaylee; for mouthing off whenever he didn’t like a job; and most of all for selling out the Tams, and by extension, the whole crew.
This was different.
That day after the heist on Ariel, he’d been ice cold with anger, but it was a rational kind, the kind that demands truth before executing justice. And it had been an anger with room in it for relenting, for the mercy Jayne had earned by showing that it mattered to him what the others knew. Jayne was worth his weight in a fight, with fist or gun, and he’d work hard enough when he saw a profit in it. If he wasn’t what Mal might think he should be—well, he was still a human being with a conscience, and that entitled him to another chance.
What Mal had felt in the cargo bay just now though, amidst those lièzhì chun crates, wasn’t about human failings and conscience. It was a sudden blinding rage, out of all proportion to the event, that had caught him out of nowhere and carried him across the room like a wave. He’d had Jayne against the wall before he knew it. Somehow he’d stopped short of punching him in the face, but it wasn’t for lack of desire. He’d wanted to feel the impact of flesh on flesh, hear the crunch of bone breaking.
Wash was sitting in the pilot’s seat, just sitting and enjoying the sitting. When he was in his chair, surveying the bridge and the reaches of space, he had a sense of mastery, of power and freedom. In his chair he was more than just Zoë’s husband, or the funny guy; he was Wash, Serenity’s pilot. Someone who mattered.
There were times when he felt like what Jayne called him—“little man,” not much help in the fights that seemed to follow Serenity’s crew like the ship’s own wake, not much heard when the crew debated a choice of action. He’d had one too many arguments with Zoë about how she loved him, but respected her captain more. He’d been drawn to her strength, but he was always aware that in so many ways she was the dominant half of their whole. And he knew that Mal didn’t take him seriously except when he was in the pilot’s seat, in control of the ship and therefore the destinies of all aboard her. So he loved his chair because when he was in it, he was Wash, the only one on board who could fly worth a damn. In his chair he was defining himself, not being defined by being ignored. In his chair he was close to being in charge.
And close was as good as it was likely to get.
Wash liked to spin out his ideas—how to make a deal here, what kind of work they might find there—but in his heart he was a pragmatist. He’d always just be one of the grunts, not the person giving orders or making final choices. And that was as it should be. Maybe he’d been drawn to Zoë because he really was a follower, content to go where more forceful personalities took him. He was okay with that, really. As long as he could fly and be with the woman he loved and have a little fun now and then, he was pretty much content. It was hard not to be, sitting in his pilot’s chair and watching the `verse spin out in front of him as it was doing now.
Mal came up the stairs, not with his usual bounding stride, but slowly, as if with effort. He’d been looking grim lately—well, grimmer. Wash had seen him plenty grim plenty of times. This was something more.
Not surprising: the man had been through a hell of a lot of hell in the past few months. The list was appallingly long, if you thought about it: getting shot while trying to save Serenity; being tortured (Wash still had his share of nightmares about that, and he’d had a day less at Niska’s hands than Mal had); having that qingwa cào de liúmáng Rance Burgess kill Nandi; shooting Tracy, one of Mal’s own in the War; Early’s invasion of Serenity, the one place where Mal had thought he could keep them all safe. And on top of all that, there was what Niska had done to Kaylee. But Mal prided himself on being impregnable. He wasn’t going to let on that he might be feeling scared and beaten and vulnerable. Not as long as he could pretend otherwise.
“How’s our course?” Mal came to stand over Wash’s shoulder, looking down at the instruments.
“Best speed and most direct route to New Sweden, as you ordered.” Wash gestured down at his display. “I’d offer to get out and push if it would get us there any quicker.”
“And I’d take you up on the offer.”
Mal moved out around the console, to where he could stand with an unobstructed view out the front ports. He was silent, and as the minutes passed Wash had the feeling that he’d forgotten anyone else was there; his shoulders slumped, and even from his profile, Wash could see a faraway look about him and a bone-deep tiredness. They’d never been close, he and Mal. He knew that Mal mostly tolerated him for his piloting skills and as Zoë’s husband, but didn’t really “get” Wash’s sense of humor or view of things If anything, Wash was close to invisible to Mal when it wasn’t a question of piloting Serenity. In turn, Wash hadn’t given much thought to Mal—other than to feel jealous and frustrated that he commanded Zoë’s complete obedience and loyalty.
That is, until after what Niska had done to them on the skyplex, when Mal had held it together for them both. Then Wash knew that he mattered to Mal in ways that the latter would never let on. And he’d come to understand why Zoë always called Mal “Sir,” serving him with near-unquestioning devotion. If Zoë was strong, Mal was a force of nature. After that, Wash had felt not just gratitude, but a certain awe in the presence of someone so seemingly unbreakable.
But as he surreptitiously watched Mal now, while pretending to monitor his screens, he felt a wave of sorrow for the man. What a price these strong people paid, needing to keep up their façade of solidity where weaker people—people like Wash—were free to lean on others. Much as Wash had envied Mal for being the one who would never break, he pitied him now for not being able to let himself go. There were times when strength was a burden to its bearer, not a gift.
“Mal?” he offered tentatively. It was worth a try, and God only knew, he owed the man. “Ni meí shì bà?”
“Shénme?” It took a moment, then Mal half-turned his head in Wash’s direction. “You say something?”
“Just wondering if you’re okay. You seem, well, a bit distracted.”
“I’m tired, I guess.” Mal rubbed at his eyes with the fingers of his right hand, then ran the hand through his hair. “I ain’t been sleepin’ much lately.”
Yeah, Wash almost said, We can all tell. Instead, he asked, “You want to talk about it?”
“Huh? No, no thanks.” After a moment, Mal added, “Nothing to talk about.”
Then he did face Wash, and nod slightly. “But xièxie nî—thanks for asking. `Preciate it.”
Wash was silent, accepting the acknowledgement; he knew that it had taken a lot of effort for Mal to say even that much. It had been foolish to think it would go further than that.
“Listen,” Mal said, and moved to stand just on the opposite side of the console. “Put her on autopilot, set the alarms, and go get yourself some sleep. Just ‘cause I’m up and restless doesn’t mean that everyone else has to be.”
It was a gesture of kindness, Mal’s way of looking after Wash—like he’d looked after him on the skyplex, like he was always trying to look after all of them in one way or another. That’s why it must be killing him to feel that he’d failed Nandi and Tracy and Kaylee, failed them all.
“Hâo de. Thanks.” Wash swung out of his chair, and on impulse, reached over to put his hand on Mal’s shoulder. “You take care of yourself, shìde?”
Mal just nodded, an unreadable look in his eyes. As Wash moved down the stairs, glad to join the warmth of his wife’s body in their bed, he decided he was a lucky man for being who he was and not needing to be strong and in control. In a way that Mal would never know, it left him free.
He stood on the bridge, alone, and told himself he wasn’t afraid to go to his bunk, wasn’t afraid that sleep would bring him the same terrible dreams. He just wanted some time with the silence and the stars. That was why he’d sent Wash off—so he could have the peace of the black. And, he supposed, so he wouldn’t have to meet that pitying gaze. Not that he wasn’t grateful for the effort Wash had made. But it was just easier not to talk about what couldn’t be changed.
He loved Serenity, every bolt and metal plate. He loved the humming clutter of the engine room, heart of the ship; the warmth of the kitchen and dining area, hand painted flowers on its walls, where his crew came together to talk and laugh and sometimes argue, like a family will; and even the hard clean surfaces of the infirmary, where there’d been pain but also healing and care. But he especially loved the bridge. When he was here, he knew he was safely in the black, out of the world and its bindings. On the rest of the ship, space was hidden; here, it was visible in all its glory, wrapped around him so that he felt free in its vastness, far from the planet-bound things that he’d fled seven years before.
Being in the world meant laws and rules made by a government that didn’t care about the ordinary people it governed; its rules were there for their own sakes, or to advance the interests of the powerful who wrote them. It hadn’t taken Mal long, after the War, to realize that there wasn’t a world in the `verse where that wouldn’t be true. If a planet was far enough out there to escape Alliance supervision, it would have its own petty tyrants and injustices. Only out in the black, on a ship that was its own self-contained world, could he shut out all that and make things be as they ought.
Or so he’d thought.
Of course, it had never worked perfectly. They’d always depended on work from outside, to make the money that would feed them and fuel Serenity. And outside, there were always those who would lie or betray when it served their interests: Patience shooting him over salvage rights, Badger offering to throw him to the Feds in the interests of maintaining his reputation, that unnamed gôushî bùrú captain who’d promised a catalyzer and given him a bullet instead. But those were outsiders. Once the hatches were dogged, Mal and his crew were safe in their little world, free to live by their own rules until the next planetfall.
Or so it had been, once upon a time.
First there had been the betrayals from within. He’d known from the first day Jayne Cobb had come aboard that the man would turn on him eventually. After all, that’s how he’d joined the crew, switching sides for a higher cut and a bunk to himself. Jayne was nothing if not a shrewd deal-maker, and one day a better offer would come along. But somehow, over time, Mal had forgotten that Jayne wasn’t just another member of his crew. He’d let himself think that disdain for authority made them brothers in arms.
And then there was Tracy—one of his own, someone he’d fought alongside in the darkest parts of the War, carried under fire the way friends do. Young Tracy, eating beans amidst the chaos. And yet he’d come out like Jayne, ready to bring down the weight of the Alliance on his one-time friends if the money was good enough.
That’s what the world outside Serenity was about—turning people into money, selling them for slaves or sex or bounty. Early’s visit was no different than Jayne’s double-cross or Tracy’s manipulations; he’d come aboard looking to make profit off the lives of two youngsters who’d never done him a jot of harm. He’d come from outside, bringing a twisted selfishness that to Mal represented the corruption at the heart of the Alliance. That’s why he’d joined up with the Independents, to fight the spread of its ugliness. That he’d failed was a daily disappointment, but still he’d hoped to keep it away from his own little bit of the `verse.
He didn’t know why he was surprised. After the Independents had let them all rot for a week on that battlefield, sacrificial lambs under the knives of two greater powers, he’d promised himself that he’d never trust again, never hold out hope. He’d given up on God then, because God had proven Himself a traitor. He hadn’t meant to let himself get tricked again, not by anyone.
And yet he had, time and again. He’d let himself lean on the strength of Serenity, count on the refuge that she gave them. He’d loved Serenity because she was a partner in the struggle—battered and beaten, undervalued but undaunted. And yet now he found himself doubting her, not trusting to her to be the haven he’d tried so hard to make. For the first time since the day he’d paid for her, he felt not safe inside her hull, but vulnerable and helpless.
And so he stood on the bridge—whose? his? Serenity’s? once he’d have said they were one and the same—afraid to go to his bunk, uncomforted where he’d once felt safe and strong.
Just where exactly did that leave him to go?
Simon stood hunched over the readout, hoping it would yield something new, something he hadn’t seen before. He’d been running daily lab work on River, watching for changes in her blood chemistry that would signal a successful drug combination. There’d been better and worse days, evidence that some of the time his therapies were working. But he’d yet to find a consistent strategy to prevent her lapses into schizophrenic incoherence.
She was a gift, this little sister of his, but she was also his worst nightmare. Simon Tam—two grade levels ahead of the other children his age, always taking top honors in all of his subjects, admitted to the most prestigious medacad on Osiris and graduating in the top three percent. There weren’t too many things that he didn’t understand, or couldn’t master quickly and with little effort. Except the one thing that mattered to him most in the world. His little sister.
That night in the hospital in Ariel City, when he’d intervened to save a dying post-op patient, he’d gotten a taste of his old life. It had fit him like a well-tailored suit: drawing on his passion for problem-solving, his instinct for science, his cool-headedness in emergencies. That, and the embarrassingly large amounts of money he’d been paid, had made it seem as if his life before Serenity was flowing effortlessly along a natural current.
But here, now, on Serenity, it was all about struggle. He struggled to fit in among people whose backgrounds seemed so profoundly unlike his—especially Kaylee, so dear and yet so utterly different from him. He struggled to feel useful in a setting that called for skills he’d never acquired: fighting, thieving, avoiding the centers of wealth and power. And he struggled to satisfy his most sacred obligation—to save his beloved sister, all he had left of the family that he’d once thought was his bedrock.
For all that he and the captain didn’t get on terribly well, and came from such different ends of the class spectrum, he had the sense that they were alike in this way. They both carried the burden of duty to those they loved. They would both move heaven and earth to fulfill that duty. And they both knew the crushing weight of failing to do so.
“Doc, you still up?”
Simon jumped slightly, not expecting to hear the captain’s voice, feeling oddly as if Mal might somehow know Simon had been thinking of him. He turned to see Mal leaning into the open infirmary doorway. “Hmm? Yes. I just wanted to run River’s labs again.”
Mal moved through the doorway, shifting around the small space with uncharacteristic restlessness. For such a tall man, and one with such presence of personality, he’d always struck Simon as very contained, not taking up any unnecessary space. Lately though, he’d seemed like a full glass about to overflow.
And it didn’t take three years at a top medacad to see that the captain was in trouble. He looked chronically tired, with dark smudges under his eyes; Simon suspected that he wasn’t getting much sleep, and when he did, that it was interrupted by nightmares. After all, Simon was having his share, and he wasn’t holding himself responsible for Kaylee, and Nandi, and Tracy, and Early’s invasion.
“You’re up pretty late yourself.” Simon kept it casual; he’d learned that Mal shied away from direct discussions of anything personal or private. “Having any trouble sleeping? I can give you a smoother, if you’d like.”
Mal shrugged. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“It’s a pretty harmless medication.”
“No. Thanks.” There was an edge to his refusal.
“Listen,” Simon said, taking the plunge, “as ship’s medic, I have a responsibility to ensure the well-being of each member of this crew. So, in that vein, I’m telling you that I’m concerned about you.” He knew better than to appeal to Mal as a friend, but perhaps he’d respond to Simon in his professional capacity. “You’re clearly exhausted, you’ve been on edge, and you’re distracted and withdrawn.”
Mal’s back was to him as he opened and shut drawers, seemingly taking inventory of the infirmary’s supplies. It was a fairly transparent attempt to avoid meeting Simon’s gaze.
“I thought your specialty was trauma, Doctor, not psychology.”
“It is. And you’ve recently suffered through several. I was trained to treat the physical effects of trauma, but along the way I learned a good deal about the psychological consequences as well. And I assure you, Captain—there are always consequences. Even the strongest people can’t avoid being scarred by experiences of devastation.”
“Maybe so.” Mal stopped his rummaging, turned to face Simon. His expression gave Simon a shock; it was the look of a man who’s given up hoping for something better. “You think your smoothers are going to erase those scars? If there’s a shot out there as can do that, it’s about seven years too late in coming.”
“No, of course not.” Simon kept forgetting how good Mal could be at cutting to the hard truths. “What I’m trying to suggest is that you need some help in dealing with them.”
“Oh, and what kind of help is that? The kind that can take back the things they done to Kaylee? When you got a way to bring back the dead, and erase suffering, and reward the just while punishing them as deserves it, then you let me know and I expect I’ll feel a lot better about things.” Mal moved towards the doorway, then turned a last time. When he spoke, his voice was kinder and less angry. “Son, I know you mean well. But there ain’t anything in your medkit that can fix what’s broke here.” Mal took a deep breath, and Simon thought for a fleeting moment it might become a sob. “Believe me, I wish there were.”
And with that, he was gone. Simon stood there, alone in the infirmary, and thought about how some humans broke things, and others tried to fix them. We’re so good at destruction, he thought, and so limited in our ability to repair what we destroy. You’d think we’d be a little more careful.
He couldn’t tell what he was feeling as he left the infirmary. Anger, mostly, but at what he wasn’t so sure. At Simon’s intrusion into his privacy? At the uselessness of his offer to help? At his own sense of the pointlessness of the whole thing? It seemed like anger was the only thing he knew how to feel anymore—anger, and hopelessness.
Or maybe it was just a feeling that he’d been talking to someone who could never understand. Not that the doctor hadn’t had his share of trials these past few years, working under the radar of the Alliance system and managing to rescue his sister without a shred of help from his parents, only to find himself among Mal and his less than reputable crew. Serenity herself had been a challenge to the Tams, used as they were to comfort and privilege. That is, until they’d come up against real Alliance power—the kind that would cut into the brain of a young girl and try to make her into a tool to advance its own ends.
He supposed that was why he kept them on board. Little as he had in common with Simon and River—their wealthy, cultured lives against his rough and rustic upbringing—they shared a common enemy: a society that treated people like property, that put order over freedom and power over justice. Simon’s efforts to save his sister were evidence to Mal that he was different, because he could have looked the other way, could have held onto his cushy life, could have chosen self and silence like . . . well, like almost everybody else, including Simon’s own parents. That he hadn’t, and had instead been willing to lose everything for love of one other person—that had earned him the right to a place on Serenity.
He’d seen a lot of it in his life—a lot of the selfishness that made people walk away from their obligations. He didn’t have much use for those who did, because he knew it was a choice, one that they could have made differently. It was the difference between his own mother and father. His ma had worked the ranch every day until she was too sick to stand; she’d raised him with love and a firm hand; she’d kept forty-odd ranch hands happy and hard at work; and she’d done it all with a sense of humor and no patience for self-pity. His pa, on the other hand—he’d worked when he felt like it, slapped his wife around when it suited him, got drunk whenever opportunity offered, and up and left when something better came along. Each of them had had taken stock of their duties and their desires, and made a choice between the two.
For himself, he couldn’t remember when it had been a choice. Managing the ranch for his ma, joining up for the Independents when the War started, keeping the Tams on board—they were all the only option because they were all the only right thing to do. He’d meant what he said to the sheriff of that godforsaken little town, Paradise; there had been no alternative but to bring back those medicines, even if it meant crossing Niska. He couldn’t take the easy way out, even knowing that Niska wouldn’t accept the loss of face without making Mal pay for it.
But he’d never imagined that kuh ooh duh lao bao jurn would demand so high a price. It was one thing to go after Mal, who’d walked knowingly into a devil’s bargain. Mal had nightmares about the skyplex—they left him drenched in cold sweat and breathing hard. But they were nothing to what happened when he tried to sleep now, after the attack on Kaylee.
It had been his job to take care of Kaylee, of all his crew, to keep them safe.
He should have had a system in place to prevent unauthorized entries, even in the seeming emptiness of space. He should have known that word would get out about a Firefly-class vessel carrying a fugitive with a huge bounty on her head, and made provision for the likelihood of being followed and boarded by stealth. Instead he’d let the sensors go unattended and left his ship and crew unprotected. It didn’t matter that Early had been a master at his work, and fooled even Wash into reading the heat-bounce off the bounty hunter’s ship as a sensor turn-around. Mal was the captain, the one in charge. The responsibility was his.
He should have known too that Niska would keep coming. It was bad enough to defy him over the Paradise job, but shooting up his skyplex and escaping—that was the kind of reputation-killer that would have the crazy old yaoguài lying awake at night, plotting his revenge. Mal should have expected the worst, planned for it. He should have foreseen what might happen to any member of his crew—most of all to sweet innocent Kaylee, least able to take care of herself, most likely to appeal to Niska’s sick sense of vengeance.
He’d failed, failed miserably and utterly. His misjudgments had come to cost more than any of them could afford.
He had to find a way to take care of his people. Otherwise, what business did he have being captain?
Zoë was half-asleep when Wash slipped under the covers and slid his arms around her from behind. She wriggled in closer to his warmth, his cheekbone pressed against hers, their legs intertwining. Wash made sharing a bed incredibly intimate, even when they didn’t make love. It was part of how he was and what she loved about him—so emotionally and physically present, so ready to connect and make himself available.
That was probably why she’d disliked him when he’d first applied for the job as ship’s pilot. She’d learned not to trust people like that; in her experience they usually ended up dead on the battlefield, or needing to be carried off it. Something kept in reserve, something held back—that was part of the canniness that kept a person alive.
But the War was over, and they’d lost. So she’d rethought her theory on the subject, and decided that maybe being emotionally available wasn’t such a liability after all. At least, not in that whole rest of the world where there wasn’t any combat and people just lived their lives, whatever the government that hung over them. Zoë the soldier would have steered a wide course around a man like Wash; Zoë the woman had come to see the value of a husband who would love her openly and without reservation.
She’d always wondered if she’d find a man worth settling down with. Most were either too spineless, which made them as dull as shooting fish in a barrel, or too uppity, looking to tame her and take the credit for it. She’d never had any use for either type, and it had made her think she’d end her days single. God knows she’d seen enough of men during the War, fought beside them, watched them puking with fear and then telling tall tales of their brave deeds later on. She’d kept her mouth shut most of the time, let them have their lies. Most of the time.
After all that, seeing what most men were like when events called out the truth, Wash was the more a joy to her for being so unexpected—a kind, funny, loving soul buried under a silly moustache (which he’d mercifully soon shaved), and willing to walk through fire for those he loved.
“Everything okay up top?” she murmured.
“Hmm? Yeah, sure.” Wash kissed the back of her neck. “`Cept for Mal spooking about.”
“Just checking on things, I’m sure. He’s being extra-careful these days.”
“Uhnhuhn. That, and the fact that the man looks like he hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in two weeks. Which he probably hasn’t.”
Zoë shifted around in bed so she was facing him. “I know he’s been tired lately. You think it’s that bad?”
Wash kissed the end of her nose. “Lambykins, the man is a mess. He’s a melt-down waiting to happen.”
“Why do you say that?”
Wash sighed, ran a hand through his hair. “I so do not want to spend my time in bed with you talking about Mal.” She stared at him, waiting. “But since you ask—as I see it, he’s barely holding it together. All the gôu pì he’s been through these past months is finally catching up with him.”
“He’s strong,” she answered. “He’s been through worse. He survived Serenity Valley, after all.”
Wash propped himself up on elbow, clearly resigned to having the conversation. “Yeah, and he’s carried that burden around with him ever since. Now, you take seven years of that bundle of baggage, and add to it the last several megatons of new fèhuà, and you’ve got a load that would crush a man of granite. Survived, yes, but not without some pretty serious scars.”
He was right, of course.
All these years, the captain had seemed immovable—so clear about what was right, so unwavering in his commitment to what he believed in. She’d seen what the end of the War had done to him, of course. But all these years she’d also watched him holding on to his core self, staying sane as the world got to be more and more what they’d feared the Alliance would make it. She’d come to believe he was invincible in some way, able to stand up to anything.
She’d forgotten he was just a human being.
With a single fluid movement, she swung out of bed and reached for her clothes. Wash sat up, watching.
“Where you going, xin gan? No, let me guess—to go check on Mal.”
Zoë pulled her shirt over her head, freed her hair. “Wash, don’t start—“
“Hey.” He raised both hands, palms up. “You have my blessing. After all the man has done for me—for all of us—I don’t begrudge him the attention. I just don’t know if you can do anything for him.”
She didn’t answer, because she didn’t know either—but she had to try.
She ran a quick sweep of the ship, but she knew that the captain wouldn’t be in any of the obvious places; if he wanted to be alone (and he would—he’d not want to be seen weak and hurting), he’d go somewhere not much used. Like Shuttle Two.
The door was closed, but not locked. She pulled it open, stepped softly into the darkened space, only dimly lit by the reflected light of Serenity’s engines. As she moved forward, she could see the captain’s profile from where he sat in the pilot’s seat. He didn’t turn around, or speak.
Wordlessly, she took the co-pilot’s chair.
And so they sat, the two of them, silently. Other people—especially Wash, himself a man of many words—thought it odd how little Zoë and Mal actually talked about anything other than the details of business. It wasn’t part of their relationship, and never had been; even during the War, when they’d lost soldiers or were pinned down in some endless firefight, they’d just endured together in silence. Partly it was the way they both were—disinclined to talk about what couldn’t be changed or controlled. And over time the silence had grown to reflect the ease of utter mutual understanding, based on all they’d shared together. It had come to where each knew the other’s thoughts without a word spoken. Just the sense of that common experience had been a comfort to them both, time and time again.
She supposed it was why she’d come at his call, after the War, when he’d bought Serenity and set out to find her a crew. That, and the man that he was, that he’d proven himself to be. If war was a crucible, burning away the dross, then the captain had emerged with his pure heart intact. Her own family was gone, scattered by age and illness and Alliance retribution for their Independent ways. She hadn’t thought twice before packing up and heading out to Persephone to meet him.
And yet, he’d changed so much since those early days of the War. She smiled a little, remembering the first day she’d been assigned to his platoon. He’d been standing outside his tent, buck naked and with a mouth full of toothpaste, gesturing with his toothbrush as he chewed out some go tsao de yúchûn private without a grain of sense. Zoë had stood by and watched, waiting; when he’d had finished and sent the private off to repack sandbags for his punishment, he’d calmly turned to her and asked for her orders, unconcerned that he might look a fool. She knew then that he had something she’d rarely seen, especially among her superiors on the battlefield—utter unselfconsciousness, complete focus on the work of their war rather than his own advancement.
That lack of ego had captured her attention; the rest of who he was had won her devotion. His compassion for the soldiers under his command; the wild sense of humor he’d somehow kept even when he had no business to; the fearlessness that sent him into battles no sane-minded man would enter; his belief in their ability to win, until the very end. And the quick mind that made him able to keep so many alive up to the cease fire, and to save as many as could be preserved during the week when they lay between the cracks, waiting to be remembered. She’d come to obey him without doubt. If nothing else, she would always be grateful for what he’d taught her, in those last months of the War, about what a human being could be.
But she’d also seen the changes coming on bit by bit in those last days on Hera, then with a vengeance in the week between cease-fire and U Day. As more and more men and women died who could have been saved, abandoned by the forces they’d sworn to serve, she’d seen it turn him bitter, seen it kill his faith in God and men. The essence of Malcolm Reynolds had remained—bound by honor and duty and forever a freedom fighter, the qualities that Tracy had mocked and exploited, that had taunted and tantalized Niska. He’d be dead before he’d let those go. But the joyous young man, passionate for his cause and riding on his faith—that man had died on Hera, along with so many million others.
These past years on Serenity had been mostly good for him. Out in the black, on the ship, he was the benevolent dictator of his own little `verse—in control, caring for those who came to call it home, finding a family in return. He might spar with Inara, but the depth of his caring for her was obvious. He might consider Book’s profession unwelcome, but he’d come to respect the man. The Tams—well, they were fellow fugitives from the Alliance. Even Jayne—Jayne, who Zoë knew had betrayed them on Ariel, even though the captain had never said a word—had a place. And with Zoë, and even Wash, he had more: people he could count on, people whose measure he’d taken and who would not fail him. Kaylee had been a surprise gift—tomboy, girly girl, making Serenity into a home and the rest of them into a family. Her untouched innocence was such a marked contrast to the rest of them, to what they’d seen and learned of the bad hard world.
It had worked its way into the captain’s heart, that innocence. And when it had been destroyed, with him powerless to stop it and feeling that he was the cause. . . . How could he believe in anything anymore, if he couldn’t believe in himself?
He’d looked at her, the day they lost Tracy—turned his head and looked at her, and it had nearly broken her heart. No one else on board would understand what it had meant, to have to shoot one of their own like that. Just because neither she nor the captain had hesitated to do so didn’t mean that it hadn’t mattered.
Funny—for all they’d been through together, it was clear that they were in many ways utterly unlike. Zoë loved Wash, and served the captain; her life was clear, her needs simple and easily met. Where the captain seemed constantly to do battle with the injustice that he couldn’t escape, she’d accepted the harsh reality of things, come to terms with the world’s ugliness. That was why she’d chosen Wash in a heartbeat, when Niska had given her the choice; she’d known the reality of the situation, that they’d have time to come back for the captain but that Wash would not have made it if left behind to suffer alone. There was no time to struggle over questions of loyalty, no place for doubt or rage at the injustice that had made her choose between husband and dearest friend. She’d done what she’d had to do, and that was the end of the matter.
It was a fact that once you’ve been in Serenity, you never leave—she’d learned to make a life there. The captain hadn’t, not really; he was still intent on leading his troops to victory, or at least safety, and every battle he lost was like losing the War all over again.
She’d found something solid to hold to, even if it was only herself and Wash and their lives on Serenity. The captain was like a man overboard, the rope that would save him just out of reach.
She watched him, saw his head slump forward into a doze. She wished there were a blanket she could tuck around him, some way to make his sleep more comfortable, some way to ease him. But he was a grown man. For all the ways that he relied on her, there were so many more where he’d never leaned, never let her carry him. She wouldn’t know how to offer, and he wouldn’t even think to ask.
Wash was right. There was nothing she could do for him.
He woke gasping, sitting bolt upright in the pilot’s chair of Shuttle Two. His shirt was wet with cold sweat; his hands were shaking. Zoë was nowhere in sight—she must have slipped away after he’d drifted off to sleep.
He’d surrendered to exhaustion, sitting there with Zoë in the silence, watching space unfold around them. He was so niou-se tired, trying not to sleep because of the dreams, unable to find rest when he couldn’t keep awake any longer. It was as if there were ghosts waiting for him, ready to spring as soon as he dozed off, driven to torment him as they suffered.
This was one of the worst nightmares yet.
He’d been in the engine room with Kaylee, helping her to fit a new catalyzer into place.
“No, not like that,” she’d said, and took it from him. “What a Captain Dummy you are! You’re gonna break it!”
He’d watched as she moved the part into place, expertly fitting it where it belonged. “You keep away from this or you’re going to mess it up, dong ma?”
As he’d started to nod agreement, she’d suddenly looked at him with those big doe eyes of hers, then down at his hands. Following her gaze, he saw that they were covered in blood. When he’d glanced up again, her overalls were stained dark red, spreading like a rose from her belly and between her legs.
“Now see what you done,” she’d said in an accusatory tone, as if it were the catalyzer that was broken. Then she’d started to fall. He’d reached out to grab her, but the blood made her slippery—blood on his hands and blood on her arms—so that she slid out of his grasp, falling silently.
Then she was gone and he was on a boulder-strewn hillside, dotted with bodies, all in browncoat field gear. And all at once he knew he wasn’t on Serenity any longer, but back on Hera, in Serenity Valley, surrounded by corpses and the moans of the dying. It was half-dark, except for the glare of bursting shells; but he could only see the fire, not hear it except in muffled thumps like thunder in the far distance.
He knew he had to find Kaylee, to stop the bleeding and save her; he’d started picking his way among the bodies. Living and dead alike reached out to him as he stepped over them. Some he’d recognized—Henry Painter, Jin-Chow Ling, young Pietr Bendis—while others were unrecognizable, faces a ruin of blasted flesh. The living ones were the worst: they moaned and reached out, begging for help, for water or morphine or a mercy bullet. He’d wanted to stop and help, but there were so many, too many, and anyway he had to find Kaylee.
He began to run, faster and faster until at last he stumbled and fell. The face that met his was Tracy’s.
“Hi, Sarge,” Tracy said, then looked down. There it was again; the spreading flower of blood. Mal put his hands over the wound; blood squeezed its way through his fingers, flowing around him in a pool.
“Aren’t you supposed to find Kaylee?” Tracy asked, strangely conversational. “Aren’t you carrying something for her?”
Mal tried to speak, but when he opened his mouth nothing came out. Instead he stumbled to his feet to keep looking for Kaylee. He knew he had to hurry, but when he tried to run, he couldn’t move. He looked down: his limbs were bound to a metal frame, straps holding him securely, and then Niska’s face was close to his.
“So, Captain Reynolds, you think to escape your obligation, do you? Well, then, I shall have to ask others to fulfill it for you.”
Niska stepped aside, and Mal could see them, all in a row, trussed like birds ready for roasting—Zoe and Wash, Simon and River, Book, Inara. Niska held a knife, something large and serrated. As he moved purposefully towards Inara, she stirred, then looked directly at Mal.
“Everyone dies alone,” she said.
Then Niska plunged the blade into her belly.
And Mal woke, wondering if he’d only dreamed he was screaming.
He should have taken Simon’s offer, tried to drown out the dreams with drugs. But he didn’t trust such things. He’d never shaken the memory of empty whiskey bottles, his mother draping a blanket over his father’s inert body after he’d passed out in a drunken stupor on the sofa. It was the thought that he might become like that, might get used to the comforts of a bottle or a syringe. He’d come close enough in those first weeks after the war, jumping ship to ship on the long journey back to Shadow. Shipboard moonshine was cheap and easily come by, and it could do wonders to dull an ache—even if that ache was back the next morning, and a pounding migraine along with it.
He’d come to hate his father—loud and clumsy, dangerous, mean, unhappy. He’d die before he let himself become like that. But he was starting to understand the things that drove a man to such a pass, that might tempt him to take up with a bottle and never let it go.
Was that what lay ahead for him?
Won't stop. Won't ever stop. They'll just keep coming until they get back what you took. Two by two, hands of blue. Two by two, hands of blue. . . .
River sat up in bed and remembered.
Not blue hands. Red blood, and blackish-brown bruises on Kaylee’s arms, legs. And fear and pain. River knew about pain; knew pain like laser fire, burning away her amygdala, sharpening the edges of her brain, a sword being readied. Strapped to a chair, held down—like Kaylee had been held down, hurt, by men who didn’t see a girl, only an object. That’s what they were. Not girls, just tools. In a box, to be taken out and used.
That was Kaylee, a broken doll lying on the cargo bay floor. River had looked inside the doll’s head, and at first it was hollow—an empty space, full of distant echoes. Later, when the drugs wore off, there was screaming, begging, a little girl in a dark corner trying to hide. Kaylee’s memories were shouts, so loud that River couldn’t drown them out with other noises. She’d wanted to reach in, push here and pull there, make it all quiet and right for Kaylee.
But hurts couldn’t just be erased that way—now you feel, now you don’t!—like a magician with a rabbit and a hat. Wishing was inapplicable.
So loud, so crowded. Too many objects in her space. Laughing and crying, shouts and whimpers, River heard them all. No peace in sleep, either; she walked in their dreams with them. Her own dreams were swallowed by theirs—her ghosts fled before theirs. Not that it mattered. It was all fear, and pain, and sorrow. Fear and pain and sorrow fear and pain and sorrow over and over—
Kaylee’s dreams were quieter now. She had her healers: time, and Simon, and the crew, and most of all Serenity. Now there was singing again, a girl running laughing on green grass, the wondrous mysteries of an engine’s heart.
But the captain; his just got louder, darker. Mal. Bad, in the Latin. Such bad dreams.
She walked beside him, invisible companion. Watching him run his race against time, knowing he’d always lose. And always the memory of pain. Some of it was like hers—the surge of electricity, the gouge of a knife’s edge, machines that kept coming and coming and you couldn’t stop them and it didn’t matter what you said or did because they kept coming and coming. . . .
But mostly his was different from hers, different from Kaylee’s. There were bodies and cries for help, hands reaching, eyes pleading, needing needing needing. Couldn’t help, couldn’t save, and the pain of that wasn’t like hers, an agony all its own. It dragged like a weight, tied to you, until you couldn’t breathe and you just gave up and let it pull you down until you drowned.
“No,” she said to him, “it’s not real.” But he didn’t hear. They never heard her the way she heard them. Had to use her mouth, talk like a person, like an ordinary girl. Tell him what she told herself, day and night, when then and now blurred together. Not real.
She pushed aside the covers, slid out the door, danced across Serenity, knowing where to find him—sitting on the catwalk above the cargo bay. Head in hands. He didn’t hear her bare feet that just barely brushed Serenity’s surface. She reached out a tentative hand, brushed his shoulder.
He looked up, eyes dark. Eyes the windows to the soul.
“You think you’ve lost all there is to lose,” she said. Her voice felt brittle in her mouth.
He looked at her, looked hope at her, for her to make it better. Such a fool, such a fool’s hope.
“It’s not true.” She paused. “There’s so much more they could take from you.”
He watched her float away, too numb to speak.
She was right. Mad woman-child that she was, the Alliance had burned terrible truths into her brain. He’d stopped being surprised that she knew what he was thinking and feeling. And he’d stopped doubting the truths of what she said, because she was always right.
There was so much more for him to lose. But those weren’t words of comfort. They were a warning about just how much more damage he could do to the very people he most loved. Most of all, they were a reminder. Despite what he’d promised himself during that week on Hera, when even God had deserted him, he’d let himself have hope and faith. He’d let himself believe he could care for others, and take care of them. He’d offered to lead, and they’d followed, and now there was just more suffering to show for it.
When had he forgotten how dangerous it was to love?
Kaylee tied the auxiliary port manifold back into its slot, gave it a rough polish with a cloth, and sat back on her knees. There. Not just good as new, but better than before. Serenity’s engine purred like a contented cat. Not much difference between them, really—the right care, a good stroking, and both would do their jobs and not cause a fuss.
“That’s my good girl,” she told the ship, giving the engine housing a loving pat.
After the explosion that had near killed them all, Kaylee had made herself a promise: she’d keep a closer ear to things, listen harder for the warning signs that Serenity was unhappy some way. And so she’d done, pulling parts that could be pulled while they sailed for cleaning and maintenance, keeping a list of those that could only be done while they were in port and the engines were silent. She’d kept at it pretty regular, too—that’s why she’d been in the engine room the night Early had come aboard, threatened her and left her tied and trembling. She’d kept at it, too, after that, even though it spooked her sometimes to be on her own in the back of the ship, knowing that someone could appear out of nowhere. But it took more even than what Early had done keep her away from Serenity’s engines.
It took what happened on Greenleaf to do that.
That had set her back, knocked her off her schedule for awhile. Not because she didn’t want to be in the engine room. She couldn’t think of anything that would make her feel better than getting out a sticky part, working it loose, making it run tight and smooth. But broken fingers and a fractured pelvis meant she couldn’t hold a spanner right, couldn’t wiggle under the engine housing to get at a part that needed tending.
“Simon, I’m fine,” she’d insisted, days before it was true. “I can’t leave Serenity like this. She needs me to keep well.”
“Serenity can wait a while longer,” he’d answered, stroking the hair off her forehead as she lay against him in his bunk. “You need to get well yourself first.”
“Wô hên hâo,” she’d said, knowing it wasn’t quite true. Her bones still ached from the pain of healing fractures; her fingers were still clumsy around the handle of a wrench; and sometimes she had a trembling fit, all out of nowhere.
But the doctors on Bernadette had helped her, so she knew what to do when the fear came on her. And nothing made her feel shiny like sitting with an engine part in pieces around her, while she coaxed its innards back together. It didn’t just distract her from the darkness and the fear and the pain, the memory of their curses and her own pleas for mercy. It made them go away, replaced by the song that Serenity sang to her. There was no better lullaby.
Not that she didn’t have her share of nightmares. Sometimes it was Early, whispering in her ear, telling her she was nothing but a body to him; then his face would melt, become the faces of the men on Greenleaf, leaning in to threaten her and worse. Sometimes it was just darkness, and the sound of her own heart pounding until she thought it would burst, and trying to move but feeling like her body was tied down. She’d wake, sitting bolt upright in bed, gasping for air, and Simon would pull her close, murmuring “shhh” until she settled back into sleep.
But in spite of all that, she was okay. She didn’t know how, but she really was. She’d lived through something too horrible to even imagine, and the memory would always be there—but somehow she’d come out with her happiness intact.
Credit where credit was due—if it weren’t for Simon, and Serenity, and everyone on board, maybe things would have been otherwise. Maybe that heishôudâng liúmáng Niska would have won, and she’d been a shivering wreck, sitting in dark corners, babbling in fear.
Like River. Like River used to be.
For a while, Kaylee hadn’t known what to think of River from one minute to the next. At first it had been pity—pretty young thing, all torn up by what some yaoguài government men had decided they could do to her, no permission given. Then fear; River could do the math and kill three men like it was child’s play, and that put her out of Kaylee’s reckoning as to what a person was. Now, though—after River had got the best of Early, and Kaylee had come to know what it felt like to be used by men who thought they had the right to make her into an object—she understood better. River was strong, stronger than any of them had understood.
Once Kaylee had thought she knew what strength was. There was strength of body—to move a heavy engine part, shift it into its rightful place. Strength of spirit—her pa, standing firm against hard times and holding onto hope for the whole Frye clan. Strength of will—that was the captain, looking out for his crew no matter what it took. Even if it meant staying behind while they all sailed off in the shuttles, waiting for a rescue that had only barely come to be.
Mal was still the strongest man she’d ever met, maybe because he knew to bend when the winds called for it. If you couldn’t give way, you’d break, snap in two when the force against you was greater. Mal could see a truth when it came along, even if it hadn’t been his, and could yield to it if that was what it needed.
Except when it came to himself.
She hadn’t let on to him, but she was worried about him, and getting more so every day. She knew how broken up he’d been about what had happened to her, how he’d blamed himself, despite her telling him that it wasn’t his fault. But that was his way—to feel responsible for everyone else, to think he had to take care of everyone. If someone got hurt on his watch, he’d beat up on himself worse than his worst enemy ever could. And as far as he was concerned, it was always his watch.
If there was one truth that Kaylee had learned from her engines, it was that some things just weren’t in your control. No matter how good care you took of a machine, sometimes it just broke under the weight of forces that nobody could predict or prevent. You did your best—spit and polish and tender loving care—but you knew that sooner or later it would come anyway. Entropy, her science teacher had called it, the universal tendency of things to fall apart.
People were even more that way, she knew; more unpredictable, less trustworthy. So she’d long since stopped trying to look ahead to what they might do, and she knew better than to feel guilty for things she hadn’t started and couldn’t stop from happening. It was a lesson the captain seemed likely never to learn.
It had been that way with Early, and with that Rance Burgess, and even with poor Tracy. Here was Mal, sure that somehow it was his fault—that he could have done something different, changed the outcome some way or kept it from happening altogether.
Poor sishengzi. She wished there was something she could do for him.
Once, when she’d first come aboard Serenity, she’d thought that she and he might, well, have something. He was shuài, and kind, and strong, and those were things she liked in a man. He’d cleared her head of that notion fast enough, and she was glad he’d turned her down. She loved her captain, but not that way. Still, she tried to think of what she could say that would help him to let go of all he was struggling with, to trust that the `verse would make it all come out all right in the end.
“Kaylee, you still working?” Her voice came on her so suddenly that she almost bumped her head on the main drive feed as she sat up.
“Yup, Cap’n, just keeping Serenity tweaked and happy.”
He came and leaned over her, gave her a close look. She could see dark smudges under his eyes, the way a person looks when they are just pure exhausted. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder, gave it a little squeeze. He was always doing that—a quick hug, a kiss to her head, his way of showing how he felt without the awkwardness of words. It was just for her, too; he had a special tender way for her, his meimei. That’s how she’d known from early on that he was a good man, even when he tried to act like he wasn’t.
“Don’t you be overdoing it, you hear me? Just `cause the doctor says you’re okay to work doesn’t mean you should do too much too soon.”
“Nah, I’m shiny here.” She gave him her best smile, wanting him to see how true it was. “There ain’t nothing I’d rather be doing, and that’s got its healing powers, don’t it?”
He regarded her a moment, then shrugged agreement. “I can’t argue that one.”
She watched him pace the length of the engine, back and again. He stopped, put his hand on the engine’s housing. Once he used to touch Serenity the way she did, with love, but now she saw hesitation, maybe even some fear. And lord, he looked so tired. . . .
“Speaking of which,” she said, and sat on her knees, “I’d sure like to get Serenity in drydock so’s I can give her a thorough overhaul. It’s been a pig’s age since she’s had the kind of going over she needs.”
“How long you thinkin’ of?”
Kaylee knew he wouldn’t like it. “Two weeks might do it.”
“Two weeks? That’s a joke, right?”
“No, sir.” She shook her head. “`f I’m gonna do it right, that is.”
“Well, Serenity’s going to have to wait a while longer. We ain’t had good work in too long to be takin’ that kind of time off.”
“Two weeks--zhè bìng bù huài,” Kaylee said.
“It’s bad enough. We’ve already had longer than that without a job, and we can’t afford more. We don’t get some work soon, we’re not gonna be able to fuel this ship, much less pay drydock fees.”
She knew she should let it go; he was already short-tempered these days, and worrying about their next paycheck was only going to make it worse. But she was anxious about her engine, about keeping off another catastrophe. Just because entropy was inevitable didn’t mean that you didn’t try to keep it back where you could.
“Cap’n,” she stood up and moved to where he stood, “We don’t start doing more preventive maintenance, we could end up with another explosion like the one that near killed us all. If we’d replaced that compression coil on Persephone, back when—”
“Gorram it, I said no!” He swung around so quickly, his face suddenly close to hers, flushed and angry, that she took a quick step backwards, bumping up against the engine housing. His hand was half raised, and she glanced quickly at it and then away, wondering if he was going to hit her.
He’d yelled at her now and again, over the years. The first time he’d done it was just a few weeks after she’d joined the crew; he’d come into the engine room and found it a maze of wires and jury-rigging. He’d chewed her out for making a mess of things, and she’d wept like a little girl whose daddy was going to whup her—and Mal had felt terrible and ended up putting his arms around her while she cried sloppily into his shirt. After that, his shouting was an uncommon thing, halfhearted and for show; he knew she was doing her best, and she learned mostly not to take it seriously, that it was him just blowing off steam or wearing his captain hat. And he’d taken to blaming her engine reworkings on space monkeys, accepting that Kaylee had her ways of doing, and that those ways worked.
But this was different. He loomed over her, jaw rigid, eyes dark. It was a stranger’s face, except it was familiar—like the faces of the men on Greenleaf, full of ugly red rage.
“When I say no, I mean no, you hear me?” He was close to hers now, leaning over and in. She heard his breath coming short and sharp. The room seemed darker, narrower—like the alley where they’d taken her on Greenleaf.
She pressed back hard against the engine, pulling in on herself, trying to be small. “Yes, sir. I hear you.” Her heart was pounding against her chest, trying to jump out and get away; her vision seemed blurry, even as she glanced left and right looking for a bolthole. She felt herself trembling and shut her eyes tight.
There was silence then. No blow came, though she waited. She dared to look, slowly, carefully, afraid of what she’d see.
Mal stood staring down at her, fists clenched at his sides. The rage was gone, replaced by something she didn’t know how to name. It was a look she’d never seen before.
“Tiānna—oh, little Kaylee, duìbùqî, duìbùqî.” He repeated the word like a prayer.
“It’s okay, Cap’n,” she started to say. He looked so—horrified, guilt-struck. She lied a little. “I knowed you wasn’t gonna hurt me.”
He backed away, then turned and ran.
He looked at his hands, and they were shaking.
There was no place he could run, nowhere on this ship he could go to get away from what he’d just done. To Kaylee. To the one person who most deserved his kindness and care, his gentleness. As if it wasn’t enough that he’d failed to protect her; now he was the source of her fear.
He remembered a day when his father had come home loudly drunk, staggering into the kitchen and grabbing at his mother, pulling her close. Mal hadn’t been more than four or five, sitting at the long table, doing simple sums. She’d tried to put his father off lightly at first—“Oh, Ephraim, I’ve just got a pot on the stove” and “Not in front of the boy”—but his dad had kept at it until his mother’s refusals had gotten more harsh.
His mother had a way of getting him out of the room when things got dicey with his father. “Malcolm,” she’d said then, “You run out to the back garden and find me some parsley and thyme for this stew.”
“Yes, Ma.” He’d obeyed as always—that is, before he got old enough to think he shouldn’t, that only a momma’s boy did, and before he got older yet and realized that she was worth obeying most of the time. But even as he’d gone rooting among the herbs, he’d heard the raised voices through the kitchen window.
Whenever they fought, Mal had wanted to step in, tell Pa to leave Ma be. Small as he was then, with his father a big man, broad in the shoulders with heavy muscled arms, he wanted to save his mother from the bruises and the crying. He would have done it, too, if his mother wasn’t always making sure he wasn’t around for the worst parts. This time, he rushed to pick the herbs—he knew Ma wouldn’t like the way he grabbed whole stems, instead of just the leaves—and hustled himself back to the kitchen.
His mother was pinned against the wall, his father’s body pressed against hers. One hand held a hank of her hair, pulling her head back so that her neck was stretched and her chin jutted up.
“I’ll learn you who makes the decisions `round here, you gorram pofu,” his father said, jerking hard on her hair. He saw his mother wince in pain. “Ain’t no ruttin’ woman gonna tell me what I can do and when I can do it. You unnerstan’ me?”
Mal stood in the doorway.
“Ephraim,” his mother said, her voice half-choked, “the boy. . . .”
“Qù tāmāde! The boy could use a lesson in who’s in charge.” His father turned to reveal a face distorted with drink and rage. It looked larger, redder, than usual. The smile on it was all teeth; it made Mal think of the wolf in the story of Red Riding Hood. “C’mere, boy, lemme show you how to put a woman in her place.”
His courage fled. He saw his father’s eyes, sharp and mean, and the large hands that were as likely to come at him as not. He turned and ran.
“Pansy-assed little nuòfu,” his father yelled after him. “Good for nothin’, now and forever!”
And now, all this time later, his father was right. He was good for nothing—good only for hurting those he should love, good only for bringing pain and fear. He’d spent most of his life trying not to be like Ephraim Reynolds, despite growing up to look so like him. Where his father had been dangerously unpredictable, charming until he suddenly turned ugly, Mal had aimed to be a rock—solid and steady, trustworthy. Where his father liked the power that came with being feared, Mal had avoided power until it was thrust upon him by events beyond his control. Always, he’d tried to use it responsibly, to take care of those who needed his care. And yet it had come to this: threatening a helpless girl.
What kind of yaoguài had he become?
Inara was a light sleeper; the Academy had taught her that, part of a Companion’s attentiveness to her client. They had taught her also how to come awake alertly, immediately able to focus on another’s needs. So she was out of bed almost as soon as she heard the rap on her shuttle door, even as she glanced at her chronometer. Her heart sped up; what could it be but an emergency at this hour? She didn’t stop for her robe.
Mal brushed past her, began pacing back and forth in the tight space between couch and bed. Under other circumstances she would have made a cutting remark about his barging in, invading her privacy—but the time of night and a quick glance at his face, at his fists clenching and releasing, stopped her.
“Mal, what is it?” She had visions of, well, anything. So much had happened lately, so much of it bad. Anything seemed possible.
He kept moving back and forth, a line that he walked like a tightrope. She waited, but he didn’t answer at first. Then suddenly he turned to face her.
“Inara, am I a monster?”
“My God, Mal, what are you talking about? Of course not! Why would you even ask that?”
He sank down on the couch, and dropped his head into his hands. “Because I can’t seem to bring anything but pain to them as I care for.”
“Oh, Mal.” She went to sit beside him, pulled him close as his shoulders shook in great, dry sobs. His arms came around her, clinging tightly—desperately, she thought—to her, his face pressed into her shoulder. “Oh, qin ài de Mal.” She pressed her cheek against his hair, wishing she were larger, so her arms could encompass him more fully.
This was what she always avoided, even as she wished for it: his body against hers, his hands on her. Some temptations were too dangerous even to flirt with. But she couldn’t bear to see him suffering. That he had come to her like this, let his guard down so utterly, was a measure of his anguish.
She’d seen him struggling these past weeks; she knew, from what he’d said and what he hadn’t, his sense of failure and guilt. She’d even approached him, tried to get him to talk. Companions had their share of training in therapeutic counseling; she wanted to ease the insane burden that he insisted on carrying, the burden of being responsible for all of them. It was what made her love him against all reason and common sense.
She’d been raised and trained to believe that other people sought only to take, and would take what and when they could. Mal defied that dogma, trying to give all that he had. He was a petty thief, with little formal education or polished manners—but he was the most decent human being she had ever known.
What did it take to make a man like this? She’d known so many men over the years: good, bad, kind, cruel, and all the variations in between. She’d been charmed by handsome men with gracious manners and the ability to appreciate her—at least, until Atherton Wing, who’d taught her the difference between admiring her as a prize and valuing her as a person. She’d been disgusted by selfish pigs, men like Magistrate Higgins on Canton, who took pleasure in humiliating others. But always she’d felt she understood men because, good or bad, they all seemed driven by a belief in their right to take what they wanted.
Oh, he infuriated her at times with his calculated insults to her profession. But she knew what he meant, even as she pretended to take offense; he was making clear his objection to the idea that people could be bought and sold, body or soul. What he’d said on Persephone—that he disrespected her profession, but not her—went to the heart of it. He couldn’t bear to see people reduced to things, borrowed, bought or bartered. It was his passionate refusal to treat people as items in the marketplace that had thrown Saffron off her game and made it hard for her to hijack Serenity.
Inara knew what Saffron thought, because it was what Inara herself thought: men used women, saw what they wanted to see so they could take what they wanted to take. A smart woman learned to play to that; a Companion simply turned that performance into high art. But Saffron hadn’t been able to really understand the ways in which Mal was different. Or maybe she had—and that was why she’d only pretended to leave him for dead.
And Inara had meant what she’d said to him about his night with Nandi, even though she had wept her eyes out with jealous grief that morning. He would have been a great comfort to her friend, because that was how he was. But he didn’t know how to receive comfort in return; he’d rejected Inara’s kind words after Nandi had died, as he’d refused her efforts to help him these past few weeks. If he was here with her now, it meant he was finally willing to take what she had to offer.
And what was that? What was she ready to give him? She still hadn’t come to an understanding with herself on that subject. She knew what she wanted well enough. But she also knew the foolishness of such a wanting, the inevitability of failure and heartbreak between two people so strong-willed and independent. And she hadn’t been ready to give in and open up, to let go the last bit of pretense that she wasn’t already tangled in the web of family that he’d built aboard Serenity. She loved the ship, in great part because she loved him and what he’d made of it. But she’d used all her skills not to let him know.
And it was the same with him, although he lacked her skill at dissembling. But she’d felt the weight of him looking at her when he thought she couldn’t see, felt desire surge up in him when they stood close or brushed up against each other. She knew that he tried to avoid those contacts, as she did, and for much the same reasons. It was a measure of his self-restraint, she’d often thought, and of his extraordinary respect for her, that he did so.
Now, though, he’d come to her, showing her what he’d never before shown her—or anyone on the ship, she suspected. He’d let her see his weakness: his terror of letting them down, his overwhelming grief at not being able to keep them all safe. She felt it wash over her as he pressed his face into the curve of her neck, his fingers digging into her shoulder blades. How could she let that openness go unanswered?
“Mal, oh my sweet Mal,” she whispered, and rocked him slowly in her arms.
She felt him stiffen, and he sat up, pulling away from her.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t—” He turned away slightly, head down.
“Mal, let me help you,” she pleaded, and took his face between her hands. The eyes that met hers were dark, liquid, and so full of pain that it made her heart hurt. All she could think about was making it better, taking some of that burden from him. She leaned forward and kissed him.
At first he was startled and pulled away a little. Then, with suddenness and urgency, he responded. His kisses were hungry, deep; his hands moved in her hair, along her arms, down her back. She felt the rising heat in her own body, a response that wasn’t the calculated control of a Companion, but her own pent-up longing for him. When his hand closed over her breast, she gasped, flooded with a surge of desire stronger than she’d felt since—well, since before she could remember.
After that it became about more: more and faster, need driving them both as she fell back beneath him on the couch, their hands pushing at each other’s clothes, desperate to get at flesh, to touch and be touched. His hands were everywhere, and she wanted it that way, wanted to feel him against her everywhere at once. She wouldn’t have thought she could feel such a rush of uncontrolled passion; it had been so long since she’d been able to just let go and be awash in the impulses of the moment. But his yearning carried her along, and gave her permission to sate her own hunger for him. At the end it was rough, with the ravenousness of those who end a long fast.
Afterwards she lay on her back, slick with sweat, his body weighing heavily against her. She wanted him to stay that way, pressed against her, touching everywhere that two bodies can touch; she wrapped her legs around his, pulling him closer. In response, he pressed his face into her hair, tightening his arms around her. For awhile they lay that way, quiet in a moment of blessed, precious peace.
Then he pushed himself up on one elbow and looked down at her.
“Inara.” He touched her face with his fingertips.
She smiled up at him, took his hand in hers and held it to her cheek. The look in his eyes was so . . . complicated. She ached to understand it.
He stroked her cheek, leaned forward to kiss her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry?” She felt her smile fading. Of course it couldn’t last. Of course it would fall apart. “Sorry for what?”
He rolled off her, sitting on the couch’s edge. She could see tension returning in the way he held his shoulders, how his hands gripped his knees. “This ain’t right.”
“What are you talking about?”
He began to rummage for his clothes. She sat up, watching as he buttoned his pants and shirt.
He wouldn’t look at her. “I’m no better than one of your paying clients—coming in here, expecting you to take care of me without so much as a by-your-leave.”
“It wasn’t like that!” She felt her voice rising with anger and frustration. “It’s not like I didn’t want it!”
“It ain’t right,” he repeated stubbornly. “It ain’t how it shoulda been.”
“Mal.” She took a deep breath, willing herself to calmness and rationality. Why did their conversations always involve this exercise? “You came to me for comfort. I gave it willingly. That’s as it should be.”
“No..” He stood up, finally looking at her. His jaw was set. “I can’t be lecturing you about all the men who use you, then come in here and do the same thing. What does that make me?”
“Human,” she answered. “Just human.”
He leaned against the catwalk railing outside Inara’s shuttle, pressed his forehead to the coolness of the steel. Tears pushed against his eyelids; he gritted his teeth, willing them away. He could feel his heart pounding against his chest, and wondered for a moment if it might just burst. Would he much mind if it did?
Most of the time he was good at not letting himself think about Inara, about how he felt about her and what it would be like to be with her. That kind of thinking, on a ship as small as Serenity, was an invitation to trouble. He could hardly give Zoë a lecture on the complications of shipboard romance, and then tumble into one himself, after all.
And with Inara, of all people. So beautiful, and whip-smart, and savvy about the world—and the two of them could barely get through a conversation without banging heads. The things that would make it so easy to fall in love with her were also likely to lead them to kill each other as soon as not. So he mostly kept a lid on his feelings. When she brushed up against him in a narrow doorway, when he stood close to her and smelled the perfume in her hair . . . well, it just took a little more effort then.
He was used to not having what he wanted: the War had taught him all about that. If anything, the seven years since had been one long lesson on the subject of lowered expectations. And the past few months had taken him even further, shown him how you could still lose, even when you thought you were stripped down to the barest minimum. So he’d tried not to want anything, including Inara. But somehow it kept creeping back in, this need for others, this desire for family and love.
At night, alone in his bunk, he hadn’t let himself indulge any fantasies. At least, not generally. Once in a great while he’d give himself the gift of imagining the two of them together—the silkiness of her skin, the fall of her hair around him, the rich curve of her breasts. He’d let himself think of her gentle way with Kaylee or Book, and what it might feel like to have her arms around him, her eyes smiling into his. Once in a great while only.
Tiānna, it had felt so good to be with her. For a few moments, he’d forgotten what it was that was tormenting him, chasing him around the ship in a relentless pursuit. He’d lost himself in her, in the feel of her body against his. It was as close to happiness as he’d come in far too long.
But it was wrong, to go to her like that, to use her out of such selfish need. That was what her clients did, and at least she got paid to service them. For him to barge into her shuttle, to lose control—it was everything he thought was wrong about the world, everything he’d tried to fight against. And then to leave her so abruptly, with barely a by-your-leave and no thanks. . . . She must think he was a real ho-tze de pigu, and a hypocrite to top it all off. Oh, so you object to my profession, Captain Reynolds—until you have need for my services. . . .
He wondered if this was what it felt like to go insane.
Once, long ago, he’d known with certainty what he believed in, where his faith lay. He’d gone to war on the strength of that faith—and felt it crumble beneath him as his people died, one by one, in the week between Armistice and U Day. Still, he’d held to the truths that came with that faith—honor, loyalty, decency. He’d kept on holding, even as the `verse tried to rip them from him again and again and again. He’d thought they could never be taken from him.
What was it they’d called it, in those ancient tragedies from Earth that was? Hubris. Thinking you had the answers, thinking you knew what the gods meant and could outfox them. Thinking you could predict, or control, or hold on to anything you loved.
Now, he knew his anchorage was gone—he was adrift, cut loose by loss after loss until he had nothing to hold him to his beliefs, and no beliefs to hold to. And in their absence he had nothing at all, no meaning to direct his choices, no truths to navigate by.
Where was there to go from here?
Book was a good sleeper, as a general rule, and usually early to bed. It was a habit he’d picked up at the Abbey, where the routine was to rise and set with the sun. He’d taken comfort in that regularity and in the naturalness of such a rhythm; it felt close to nature, and thus close to God. So he was surprised to find himself up late, after the Doctor and his sister had gone to sleep in their rooms nearby.
The ship was quiet, as it was when he was the earliest one up and about. The quiet too reminded him of the Abbey, during the hours set aside for silent meditation—but there, he’d known he was joined by the other residents, each in his or her chamber, each drawn into an inner dialogue with God.
In the early days, when he’d first had his epiphany, it had all seemed alive—every prayer, every meditation and communion charged with the light and warmth of God’s love. The colors of the world looked different through the lens of revelation, everything brighter, vibrant with divine presence and meaning. He’d looked forward to every scheduled prayer, sought excuses to retreat for hours of meditation in a kind of orgy of submission. Later, he’d come to see the selfishness of his indulgences, as if his discovery of God were only for the purpose of his own satisfaction. That it gave comfort and meaning were what had saved him; that it obligated him to be in the world with his faith, sharing that comfort and meaning with others, was the ultimate point of it all. Faith had saved him, not only from his own despair, but for a purpose in the world.
He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in the world now, without faith, without that sense of purpose. He remembered, although he tried not to, when he’d had neither—when it had seemed as if there was nothing but violence and hatred, selfishness and deceit, in all the hours of the day. From waking to sleep, he’d try to flee those things, only to find them again around each corner. It was madness—a madness he’d almost embraced, saved only by that moment of revelation that there was another way to live, to believe . . . to be.
Yet he still knew moments when that madness threatened to return. The epiphany had changed him, but like all such things, it had not stayed; he’d had to hold to the memory of it, and in those moments when God’s love seemed purely theoretical, he’d had to promise himself that its meaning had not been an illusion, but persisted even if Book could no longer feel its presence infusing his spirit.
Not all times were alike, of course. In some moments of prayer, he thought he could feel His presence hovering near, a comfort just at hand yet just beyond reach. Other times, when he closed his eyes and set his mind in search of his Lord, it felt like launching himself into black space without even the stars to keep him company.
“But that doesn’t mean I give up on my belief,” he said aloud, maybe to himself, maybe to the God whose presence so often eluded him. It was a challenge, this emptiness. Like Job’s (although he didn’t flatter himself on that score), it demanded of him faith in the absence of proof of God’s love. After all, belief was easy when its rewards seemed obvious; true faith lay in keeping true even when it seemed that one’s faith had been betrayed. He’d read somewhere that such was the case with many of history’s most devoted servants of God: their early experiences of passionate communion had passed, leaving them to act out a lifetime of devotion with only the memory of a long lost connection to Him who had once inspired them. Not that he was on any kind of equal footing with the likes of a Mother Teresa or a Freire Bendeto. But it was a comfort to know that they too had soldiered on along a lonely road, their memories enough to sustain them.
He’d been moved to leave the Abbey, to walk the world awhile and share his faith with those in need. And somehow he’d found his way to this ship and its crew; he believed there was a purpose in that, and trusted that the purpose was His. Was it to test Book’s own faith, his commitment to the teachings of the Bible? It seemed that way all too often, as violence against these people—good people mostly, people who had come to be family to him and who deserved his humble service—called upon Book to respond in kind. Well, not in kind: he shot to stop, not to kill. When he could, he talked, using his knowledge as a shield behind which Serenity’s crew could be safe.
But it was hard, very very hard, to hold fast to faith in the face of so much injury inflicted on his family.
Oh, he’d seen it all—seen it so often that it had nearly driven him mad, and had finally driven him to God. Nothing in these last months was new. But that the cruelties of the `verse should come again and again to this little band, clinging tightly to each other and the fragile solitude of their little world aboard this ship . . . well, it reminded him of the despair that had driven him to the Abbey. They tried to do good, to fight evil and stand for what was right, and their reward was suffering. Was this the work of a just and righteous God?
When he’d looked down at Kaylee, bruised and bleeding and wounded in ways that he’d hoped never to see again, much of it had come back to him—the world before his conversion, the world that seemed to contradict the possibility of a righteous and merciful Father who cared for His children and did justly by them. But all that had happened to him since his revelation had made him see such things in a new light. Despair didn’t threaten as it had, before; he had a way to understand such things, to despise them and their sources while believing in a higher meaning and purpose for it all.
And that was what made the pain bearable, what gave it meaning—the belief that it had a meaning, that it wasn’t just random acts in an indifferent `verse that couldn’t be bothered to care.
If you didn’t have that belief in a higher meaning to hold on to, if you kept meeting pain and loss and were powerless to protect your loved ones . . . . The haunted look in the Captain’s eyes was Book’s daily reminder of what that felt like.
It hadn’t taken much for Book to see Malcolm Reynolds for what he was—a lost soul whose faith had been beaten out of him until nothing was left but the aching memory of its loss. There was a look in his eyes, a set to his jaw when he realized he had a shepherd on board; Book saw a believer fallen from the grace of believing, angry and bitter at his abandonment. It was a cruel thing, the loss of faith, and the Captain had lost his in the worst possible way: he’d thrown himself body and soul into a cause he’d believed in, given all he’d had in its service, and gotten nothing but death and suffering for his pains.
Zoë had told Book the story of that week between surrender and U Day. What must it have been like, to lose so many men and women in a senseless massacre? A young man, full of passion and joy, goes off to fight the good fight, willing to lay down his life in a cause he believes in. He survives bullets and shells, keeping his sanity when others collapse; at the end, he finds himself in charge of thousands instead of a few dozen, and he holds those troops together through sheer will, even as the enemy mows them down. At the last, there’s defeat, and then betrayal by the very forces he’s served so wholeheartedly—including the betrayal of a God who lets soldiers die slowly, from infections and blood loss and diseases that all could have been avoided, had someone cared enough to intervene.
Book had seen his share of horrors, but even he hadn’t been on a battlefield surrounded by his own people dying in droves, helpless to save them. It was surely enough to drive a man to drink, or madness—and from a God who could allow such a thing to be.
Zoë’s story had only added to Book’s initial fascination with the Captain, with the contradictions that made him both cruel and kind, distant and withdrawn yet loving and dedicated to his crew. In time, he’d come to understand the accommodations that the man had made with his bitter reality. He didn’t judge the Captain’s lack of faith; he pitied it. And he admired, greatly admired, the inner core of integrity that held fast to goodness even in the absence of a promised reward.
But such an accommodation could only stand up so long, in the face of repeated assaults. In the absence of God, the Captain had made his own meaning, set up his own little reality with himself as the supreme power. Each assault, each invasion, each death had proven that power to be illusory. In the end, the Captain had been betrayed not by God, but by his own belief that he could do what God had not.
How did a man live in the aftermath of that?
There came a knock—soft but persistent. Book slid open his door.
“Come in, Captain,” he said. “I’ve been expecting you.”
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