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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - DRAMA
Set after "That Old Yeh Shen Story" and "Privacy." An old enemy exacts revenge.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2421 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer: Firefly and all related elements, characters and indicia © Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television, 2003. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright Mutant Enemy Productions and 20th Century Fox Television.
Please do not archive or distribute without author's permission.
Author's Note: This story contains mature themes, including sexual violence. Proceed with caution.
Lex Talionisby Tara O'Shea
I'll close my eyes, and it'll all just be a dream. Just a nightmare.
God, please let it just be a nightmare.
There were birds singing, outside. She had almost forgotten what that sounded like. It seemed impossible that there could be birds singing.
Kaylee sipped the water slowly, trying not to grimace as she swallowed. Her throat burned, but she'd been so thirsty. Like she hadn't had a drop of water in days. River had gone down to the kitchens, to see about getting her some grub. She didn't feel hungry, but she needed to eat something, as she hadn't since breakfast the day before.
Simon had woken up almost as soon as she'd had started crying, her face buried in River's shoulder, while the other girl had stroked her hair and whispered in her ear. He had come awake quickly, and she'd wondered if he'd done that at the hospital—caught sleep where he could and got in the habit of just going from sleeping to waking, no grey space between full of yawns.
Thinking about that gave her something else to think on, besides how bad he looked. How bad she knew she must look. One side of her face was stiff and swollen, and she gently probed the inside of her mouth with her tongue, and tasted blood still, the copper tang of it bringing back thoughts she wanted to keep at bay.
"I'm so cold," she said, her voice sounding muffled in her own ears, as she handed the glass back to Simon. "Can't get warm."
He pulled the blanket off his cot and tucked it around her gently. She hadn't gotten used to the finger splint on her left hand yet, and it made it hard for her to remember not to try and use that hand.
"Better?" he asked, and she nodded. Her cheeks felt chapped from crying, though her eyes were dry now. She'd blown her nose, with help from River, and there was a packet of paper tissues sitting on the little table next to the bed.
"How long...?" Her eyes took in the tastefully decorated room—she knew now it had to be a hospital of some sort. But it was fancier by far than any hospital she'd ever been before. She had an insane moment where she wondered if all the rooms in the hospital where Simon had worked had been this fancy.
"We've only been on Bernadette since this morning. You've been unconscious since... since we found you. A little over a day." He sat down on the edge of the bed, leaning over to lay the back of his hand against her forehead. "How are you feeling?" he asked, all calm and doctory, even in his rumpled shirt, his hair sticking up in the back.
"A little fuzzy," she admitted. "And a little like I'm gonna throw up."
"It's the pain block," he assured her. "You have a pelvic fracture, and some broken ribs. Dr. Wynn gave you an osteo-stim treatment while you were out—to speed up the natural healing process. But they're still going to take a few weeks to heal enough that you can put any weight on the bone. And you'll need some physio after the bed rest—for the atrophied muscles."
"Fancy doctor talk." She tried to smile, despite the pain in her jaw.
"Hey, only the best for my girl," he said gently, brushing her hair back from her cheek.
She took a deep breath, glanced down at their clasped fingers. His kept stroking her wrist with his thumb—staying clear of the bruises. "They worked me over pretty good, huh?" she said, trying to keep her voice light.
"Kaylee," He lifted her chin so her eyes met his. "I know what happened," he said softly.
Her eyes filled with tears again—she couldn't stop them. She couldn't tell if it was because she was glad he knew—or horrified. Part of her just wanted to pretend that it had never happened. The other part was just needing someone to know. It was all mixed up, and she couldn't stop the tears once they started coming. Her ribs hurt as she breathed, and now that she knew how messed up she was, all the little hurts seemed to be coming to the fore at once.
"They said they were gonna kill me," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "I thought they were gonna kill me."
He leaned his forehead against hers, face cradled in his hands as he wiped away her tears gently with the balls of his thumbs. Every touch was so gentle, and she just wanted to scream. Because nothing felt right anymore. It didn't feel right, that people treating her with such care made her feel worse, instead of better.
"Simon, where is the captain?" Kaylee asked, as if waking from a dream as she realised that, since waking, the only familiar faces she'd seen were his, River's, and Inara's. Fear drew the remaining warmth from her bones, and almost made her teeth chatter with the cold. "Where's Serenity?"
"They went after him," he said softly. "They went after Niska."
Adelei Niska was a creature of habit.
He left his office, on the top floor of his recreational and highly legitimate gaming palace, flanked by two of his most trusted men at the same time each night. While Lars and Miklos kept their eyes on the crowds, he would walk through the throngs of people losing their meagre paycheques at his rigged tables. Showing his face. Reminding them all whose hospitality they were enjoying—and whose wrath they would have to face if they tried to cheat him in any way.
His wife would say that it was his arrogance which would be his undoing and, he mused as he strolled through the main floor of his casino, to a degree this would in fact be correct. But he had a right to be arrogant. He had won that right through decades of toil, which now afforded her the sort of life she had become accustomed to. The feather pillows she rested her head upon, the silk comforter that kept her warm, the silver they ate with, and the burnished wood of their three hundred-year-old bed were all bought and paid for with ill-gotten gains.
His family had risen from the ashes of Earth-that-was and carved for themselves a hold on explored space that rivalled anything his ancestors had accomplished at the height of their power at the turn of the third millennium. They had gone from petty mobsters to controlling the drug, slave, and unregistered prostitution trade across the first terraformed planets.
His uncle had built the skyplex Malcolm Reynolds' crew had left in partial ruins. Despite his best efforts, word had spread—the story of how less than a half dozen petty criminals had brought Niska to his knees. Left him for dead. Slaughtered over thirty of his best men. For generations, the name of Niska had been feared and respected. Now, that reputation lay in tatters, and he could hear the whispers.
Niska has grown weak, they said.
Niska has grown old.
Niska has grown foolish.
He had cut out the tongues of those whisperers he could find. But the whispers seemed to live on, passing from mouth to ear like a disease. He knew the cure—the only cure—was to show them all what it meant to cross a Niska. He wanted to hear Malcolm Reynolds' name whispered as a warning to anyone who would dare stand in his way.
"Your hovercar is waiting, Mr. Niska," Lars said, summoning him from his reverie. He found he was already at the lobby, the tempered glass doors showing him a pale shadow-reflection. His tie pin gleamed in the lights of the lobby. Not a hair was out of place. He did not see an old man.
He refused to see an old man.
"Tell McCabe I want a report from Three Hills before morning," Niska snapped as Lars held the glass door open for him.
Miklos opened the rear door of the hovercar, and Niska slid inside. He tapped on the glass, which separated the rear compartment from the driver's side, with a finger as the car rose into the air, leaving the glass and stone gaming palace below them.
"Sofia is making quail tonight, Stefan. If I am late, and it goes cold—you know how Sofia can be."
The glass slid aside, and the driver turned in his seat to face him.
"No, I don't actually—but I imagine right about now, 'Sofia' is about the last of your worries," Malcolm Reynolds said as he dropped a gas canister into the back.
River sat in the garden beneath a blooming magnolia tree, legs crossed and forearms resting on her thighs. She didn't look up as Inara approached and sat down on the grass beside the girl, smoothing the skirt of her long caftan over her legs.
The companions of the house were at dinner, and so far, Inara had only seen a few girls as she had made her way between Radha's office and the hospice. They had eyed her curiously—but kept walking, chatting to themselves and giving the newcomer a wide berth. Inara wondered what Radha had told them. She would ask her, later. For right now, she was more concerned with River's silence.
Simon had distracted Talia—taken control of the conversation after River's chilling comments about Kaylee's attack, and River had fallen silent while the two doctors had conferred regarding her injuries. But Inara was still perturbed by what River had said—and not said.
"You're afraid for her," River said, her voice soft and her dark eyes huge in her pale face.
Inara blinked. Someday, she would get used to how River was able to head straight to the heart of something—in a way that was often intensely uncomfortable. So many things about this girl had clicked into place in the last few months, since Jubel Early's attack. Inara was still sorting through all of the incidents since River and her brother joined Serenity and re-examining them in their new context.
It frightened her, sometimes. Not just that her government—the government she had supported during the war—could do such a thing to an innocent child. That they could murder to cover their tracks, destroy lives to preserve an experiment or weapon that just happened to be a teenaged girl. But it frightened her that it was even possible for someone to be able to do the things that River could do. Impossible things.
"Afraid she's broken and can't be fixed," River continued, her eyes searching Inara's.
"Yes, I am," she said simply, not knowing what else to say. What else she could say that River wouldn't already know, with her uncanny abilities. "What happened to her on Greenleaf... It's a kind of nightmare."
"No. It's not," River said gently. "You wake up from nightmares."
They sat in silence for a moment. River stared up at the windows of the hospice over the ridiculous horn-rimmed glasses, lips pursed.
"He's scared, too," she said. "He's trying not to be, but he can't help it. She's inside him—part of him. Everybody carries a piece of her, but they can't see how it blinds them."
She shook her head, braids dancing against her shoulders, and then she turned to Inara, smiling and reaching over to take her hand and give it a comforting squeeze.
"She's stronger than you think. Stronger than she looks. Even she doesn't know it yet."
"You knew Kaylee was hurt—you brought your brother to the cargo bay, because you knew," Inara said, thinking back to those horrible moments that felt like a lifetime ago, rather than yesterday. "And when you told us about the men—it was like what happened when we found the ship that had been hit by reavers, isn't it."
"Saw it all," she said, tapping a finger against her temple. "Behind my eyes."
River picked up a fallen blossom and began removing the petals.
"That's part of what they did—they tore away the veil, made me so I can see. It was too much. So crowded, before. But I'm getting better. It's getting better. Sometimes, I can choose. But the screaming gets so loud, can't drown it out."
Inara felt a chill race down her back. It was one thing, to imagine the worst. To look at Kaylee's face, and feel her stomach twist at the idea of what had happened. But River didn't need to imagine—she knew. Had somehow... if not lived it, then at least "read" it straight from Kaylee's mind. Out of all of them, River was the only one who would ever really know what had happened.
Inara didn't know how the girl—already fragile—could bear it.
"I'm stronger than I look, too," she said with a shrug. Inara forgot, sometimes, that the fragile girl next to her had also shot three men dead with her eyes closed. "That's why they opened me up—to see the springs and wires that make the clockwork girl spin. They're coming back."
Inara blinked at the sudden segue. "I never said—"
"You're afraid they won't. You're afraid that we'll have to go on alone, without them. Without him. But they're coming back for us," she said, as if she were the mother patiently calming the child's fears. There was something about her in that moment—something serene. Almost otherworldly.
"You sound so certain," Inara said with a wan smile.
"You think it's hope, shut into the box so death doesn't seem so scary."
"Jiàn," she corrected absently, even though there was no one else with them in the garden.
"How do you know?" Inara asked, brows drawn together in a slight frown. "What's going to happen?"
River shrugged again, dropping the remains of the flower to the grass. "Just do."
Inara knew that the relief she felt was because she wanted to believe River, rather than any kind of logic. She supposed, as she took the girl's hand, and the two of them continued their vigil from afar, that it was more like faith.
"There was three of them," Kaylee said, her eyes focused on the hands folded in her lap. River had returned with some soup, which had gone cold and sat, untouched, on the table. She'd tried eating, but the thought of food made her stomach turn. Thus far, she'd managed to keep down some of the fruit juice Inara had brought her. The sugar made her head buzz a little, but in a pleasant way.
Dr. Wynn had given her the once over, shooing everybody but Simon out while she conducted her examination. She'd been brusque but kind as she'd told Kaylee the outcome of the various tests and patiently explained how she was gonna be stuck in bed for a while, while she healed up. Kaylee had just nodded, eyes darting to Simon, watching him because she knew how to read his expressions.
After Dr. Wynn left, it was just the two of them. The sun was starting to go down, and Simon had turned on the lamp by her bed, which cast a soft golden glow over everything. He sat on the edge of the bed, one leg still on the floor for balance, and she rested her head on his shoulder. His sweater was rough beneath her cheek, but she didn't care. She breathed deep, smelling traces of the harsh detergent they all used to wash their clothes, and beneath that, Simon. He'd held her hand in both of his, trying to warm the cold fingers with his own body heat before he'd draped one arm around her shoulders, resting his cheek against her hair.
"One of 'em was a real big guy—he was the one who snatched me. The two other guys—one of 'em never touched me. Just watched."
Kaylee shivered, and Simon pulled the blankets closer around her. She was wearing a red embroidered robe over her shirt and soft trousers, and they had piled blankets onto the bed. She still shook with chills, and felt like she'd never be warm again.
"When I woke up," she went on, "I was cold, 'cause they'd taken my clothes. I couldn't figure out where my clothes were. My throat was real sore, and my head hurt—I thought I was gonna throw up. I felt like I was gonna throw up, but I was scared that if I did, they'd hurt me.
"It was... it was like when Early had me tied up that one time." She frowned, trying to find just the right words. "I knew what was gonna happen, and I was so scared—I couldn't move. Like I just froze up. They made me stand up, and the big one pushed me up against the wall—real hard. Then even as scared as I was, I kept trying to push him off me. I tried to push him away—and he hit me. I tried to cover my face, but he hit me. I think he musta hit me a couple times. I got all dazed, and I kept coughing, 'cause my mouth was all bloody, and I couldn't swallow.
"He pushed me up against the wall, and then he raped me."
His arm around her shoulders tightened, but he didn't interrupt her. She thought she should be crying and screaming—but she was so calm. It was eerie. She'd cried herself out, before, and now felt like she was swathed in cotton. Like a part in a crate she'd ordered, waiting to be unwrapped. Layers and layers between her and the rest of the world.
"He just kept saying 'shut up,' telling me to shut up or he'd kill me. I weren't even saying nothing—but he kept saying it, over and over. When he was finished, the other one got me by the hair. I fell, and he kicked me. He was wearing boots, and I was curled up on my side, trying to keep him from kicking me again cause it hurt to breathe so much after he kicked me. He pushed my face into the floor, and got my arm twisted up behind me, like he was gonna break it.
"The whole time, it was like... It was like I wasn't really there. Like all the stuff that was happening, was happening to someone else, ya know? I was there, only I wasn't. I was watching it happening from someplace else. Like I wasn't in my own body. Like it was just... a body that was getting raped. Not me. Like it weren't me at all."
Simon made a small sound—and she realised he was crying. Real quiet, like he didn't want her to know. She hadn't ever seen him cry before.
"I'm sorry," he said, trying to blink away the tears, then wiping them away first with the back of his hand and then with his sleeve. He took her hand, his own still damp with his tears, interlacing his fingers with hers.
"Weren't your fault. Weren't nobody's fault. They followed me from the ship. They were watchin', waitin', they said. If it hadn't been—if I hadn't gone, it might've been Inara, or..." she trailed off, taking a shaky breath.
"Nobody's fault," she repeated, needing to believe it. Wanting to believe it.
Like Dobson's bullet, the catalyser blowing, or Early appearing in her engine room, bad things just happened sometimes. Bad things happened to good folk, and it weren't no fault of their own. Her mamma had always said that—when Charlie was killed in the war, and when Tallie's youngest died in the night when he was only a month old. Cry and rage all you want, Mamma would say. Won't change it. Can't undo what's been done or make a wrong thing right again. Blame ain't never did a thing but keep you holding on to the hurt, 'stead of letting it go.
Kaylee was trying to let it go. She just didn't know if she could. She could still feel the crushing weight pressed up against her chest when she closed her eyes. She could still hear the market day crowds, hidden in the birdsong outside the hospice window. And even with Simon right next to her, holding her hand, knowing she was a day out from Greenleaf and someplace nobody could find her, a voice kept whispering shut up shut up you stupid cunt in her ear.
"I blamed Mal," Simon said quietly in the silence she left him. "When he told me—when he told me that Niska had sent a message..."
"No," she shook her head, then wished she hadn't when it made her feel nauseous. "No, Simon, you can't blame—"
"I don't," he said quickly. "Not really. Not anymore." He stared down at their hands intertwined. "It was just... seeing you there, just lying there outside the door. All the blood. I was a trauma surgeon. I worked in an ER. First thing I should have thought was how I could help you, and instead... All I could think about was how scared I was."
He turned so he could face her, and he looked so serious. So grave and solemn as he took her hand in his, carefully minding her bruises.
"I don't know what I'd do, if you'd—if anything ever happened to you. You and River—you're my whole world right now, and then when I saw—when I realised what they'd done, I just got so angry, and Mal..." He shrugged. "He didn't even hit me back. Just... just took it, and looked me in the eye afterwards. Like he thought he deserved it."
"What happens if they don't come back?" she asked, her voice very small.
"They'll come back," Simon said, giving her fingers a squeeze.
"They went up against him before—"
"Yeah—and the cap'n and Wash almost died. Cap'n did die. And if River hadn't been there..." Her eyes filled with tears again, and she let him pull her into a gentle embrace. "Simon, I don't want anyone to die 'cause of me. I don't want anyone to die."
"Shhh, ài rén." He stroked her hair. "No one's going to die."
Niska blinked in the sunlight from Ithaca's twin suns.
He was on his back on the ground, looking up at the circle of grim faces of Mal and his crew. There was no sound but the wind whipping through the patch of desert, and carrion birds off in the distance. Mal watched, his expression blank, as he coughed, rolled over onto his side and spewed the contents of his stomach across the desert floor.
Jayne snarled, taking a step back as his boots were spattered with bile.
"You're a dead man, Malcolm Reynolds," Niska spat as he smoothed his suit jacket with one hand, as if he hadn't just lost his lunch on account of the knockout gas. As if he wasn't surrounded by his enemies, and like to die any second.
"Already died once. Didn't much like it," Mal said, his tone deceptively conversational. He dragged Niska to his feet, and the circle widened slightly. Three guns remained trained on the old man, but Mal's hands were empty as he just stared him down. His hands ached to close into fists. He wanted to pummel the gangster until there was nothing recognisable left in that withered and hawk-like visage.
"You really think you could come after one of our own—do what you did—and we'd turn tail and run?"
"A wise man would have."
"Well, never let it be said Mal Reynolds couldn't be one dumb sumbitch, when the occasion calls for it."
He drew his gun and cocked it in one smooth motion, with an ease and quickness born of long time practice. The gunshot was loud, the crack of the pistol echoing across the dessert. Niska clutched his calf, spitting curses in English, Mandarin, and Czech as his blood flowed across the parched ground.
"I'm of a mind to make this slow."
"I like slow," Jayne's grin was wolfish. "Slow's good."
"I got no problems with slow," Zoe concurred, her face a mask.
Mal glanced at Book, to see how the preacher was faring. He expected to see something like disgust on the shepherd's face, but the older man's face was curiously blank as he kept his weapon trained on Niska. There was no sign of any tremor in his hand, and his dark eyes were hard—like chips of obsidian.
"You'd kill an unarmed man in cold blood?" Niska asked, all his attention focused on Mal. "An honourable man like you?"
"Normally—no," he admitted. "I tend to want to face my opponents on even ground, a weapon in their hands. Not much for the whole 'fish in a barrel' approach. But with you, I thought I'd make an exception, on account of you're so special." He cocked the pistol, taking a certain amount of indecent satisfaction at the fact that Niska flinched at the sound. "And anyway, blood don't feel so cold, just now."
"Almost poetical," Jayne added. "Since you seem all willing to set your thugs on little girls ain't never did you a bit of harm."
"I lost thirty men on that station."
"Yeah, well—shoulda gone after us, then," Jayne snapped. "We're the ones did all the shootin'. Hell, Kaylee couldn't barely hold a gun, let alone use it. She never fired a gorram shot that day."
"Fools, all of you. It is not mattering to me, if the girl killed! It is better, that she is innocent. Better that an innocent suffered." His smile was terrible, and it was all Mal could do to keep from pulling the trigger right then and there. "Did you think I could let such an attack go unpunished? Do you think I would not protect my reputation?"
Niska weaved unsteadily on his feet, blood seeping through the grey wool cloth of his trousers, turning it black. "An eye for an eye."
"The good Lord counsels us to 'resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,'" Book said, and they were the first words the preacher had spoken since he had helped Zoe drag Niska's unconscious body from the passenger compartment of the hovercar.
"'Course, judging from your reputation," Book practically spat the word, "you don't strike me as the turn the other cheek type."
"My boys left her alive," Niska offered with a wolfish smile.
Zoe moved almost faster than Mal'd ever seen, and Niska spat blood as he straightened up from the blow. Mal noted with satisfaction a tooth making an island in the bloody spittle on the ground.
"Your 'boys' ain't gonna live to see the morning," Zoe growled. "Any man laid a hand on Kaylee—"
Niska began to laugh. It was a wheezing laugh, as if his was a body unused to humour as he locked eyes with Mal. "You have a very dedicated crew, Mister Reynolds. Willing to die for you, I am seeing, when they attacked my skyplex. Loyal. Such an obvious weakness."
"Don't seem much like a weakness, seeing as how I'm standing here breathing 'cause of what they did. But had I known what it woulda cost us, I'd have gladly died and stayed dead in your gorram back room." Mal lazily pointing his gun at Niska's heart and watching the old man's face with something akin to satisfaction as he blanched. "Still—I can't seem to keep this crazy bunch from doing what they can to look after their own. Not sure I'd even wanna try."
"Captain! We got company!" Zoe said sharply as a hovercar approached from the south.
"T?m?de húndàn," Mal growled as he grasped Niska by the collar and dragged him behind the limousine, Book on his heels. "Everybody grab some cover!"
The ground where they had been standing was peppered with weapons fire which sent up clouds of dust, as the bullets ripped through the air. There was a whine of engines above them as the hovercar turned to get off a second volley.
"You're all fools. You should have killed me, instead of drugging me."
"You're probably right," Mal said, and hit him with a right cross to the jaw, which slammed the old man's head into the door of the limo. He slumped against it, dazed. "How'd they find us so damn quick?" Mal yelled to Zoe, who crouched with Jayne among the scrub.
"Bastard's prob'ly got a locator on him," Jayne called back as he glanced up and took aim. The sound of bullets piercing the metal undercarriage of the car was a welcome sound to Mal's ears.
"Got it, sir!" She pumped the shotgun, and while Jayne and Book provided cover fire, let a blast loose as the car swung around for another pass. Black smoke poured from the rear of the vehicle, which lurched and began dropping toward the ground.
It landed with a thump, six guys pouring from the back. One fell, and didn't get up again. The rest, however, were armed to the teeth and wasted no time using the battered vehicle for cover as they commenced firing at them.
Bullets whizzed by Mal's head as he pulled a second gun from his boot. He fired both before ducking back behind the limo and heard the bullets hit the side of the vehicle.
"Jayne! We got odds needing some evening up!"
"Working on it," the mercenary growled, stealing a glance at the group of Niska's men before he let lose a volley of shots. Two men dropped, one clutching his leg and screaming, and the other soundlessly.
"I think we might actually win this," Mal grinned at Book, but the preacher's eyes were fixed on the horizon. Mal heard him mutter a curse, and looked up to see a second car coming from the south.
"Gorramit, is there an endless supply of these heishôudâng liúmáng?"
Book didn't answer—merely frowned and took careful aim before firing. His frizzy grey hair was coming loose from its tie, and his grey shirt was streaked with dust as he ducked back behind the battered limo.
Mal peered over the door, jerking his head back as a bullet ricocheted off the once-gleaming and now bullet-pocked metal centimetres away. He muttered a curse as his fingers came away from his brow smeared with blood. Shrapnel. He supposed he should be grateful—an inch lower, and he might have lost an eye.
"We see 'em, sir!" Zoe called back, lying on her back to reload while Jayne fired both his guns at the hovercar arcing toward them.
"They'll circle around," Book said, grim.
"Flank us," Mal agreed.
"Preacher! We can use you over here!" Jayne called, and Mal nodded, trying to provide what little cover fire he could while Jayne covered the distance between the car and the scrub as quickly as he could.
There were still three men on the ground, with plenty of ammo between them, it seemed like. The second car was still in the air, and he looked up to see two men leaning out the rear windows, the long barrels of two laser rifles silhouetted against the washed-out sky. He swore and pressed himself closer up against the side of the car, waiting for the shots he knew were coming.
He was suddenly seized by the mental image of empty Blue Sun cans carefully arranged on a fence, from back when his mamma had taught him to shoot his first pistol on the ranch. There was a sense of inevitability that sat in his belly like a cold hard weight at the roar of engines overhead.
Engines that suddenly sounded much too loud for just a hovercar, Mal realised.
He looked up to see Serenity, coming out of the blind spot created by the converging suns like some sort of avenging angel.
The second car was caught in the heat-wake of the engines and spun crazily before it plummeted to the ground. It landed on its side, then tipped lazily over onto its back before being swallowed by a gout of flame that shot ten feet in the air. Mal was too far away to hear the screams, but he could see several figures writhing before they stilled and the hovercar continued to burn.
"Wash, you crazy son of a—" Mal started to say, but was cut off by Niska suddenly launching himself at him, knocking him flat on his back on the ground, ice-blue eyes practically glowing with madness as Mal's gun went spinning across the sand.
"How does it feel?" Niska ground out between clenched teeth as his hands closed on Mal's throat with a fierce strength belied by his slight frame. "Knowing she paid for your honour with her body?"
Mal could feel the edges of his vision going black as he wrestled, trying to get enough leverage to throw the old man off him.
"Tell me, Mister Reynolds, an honourable man like you—how does that really feel?"
"Cào nî zûxi?n shí bâ dai," Mal ground out between clenched teeth, reaching up to try and gouge out his eyes. He could hear shouts in the distance, but they seemed to be getting further and further away with each rasping breath.
There was a single shot—then Mal blinked as he was splattered with something scalding hot and Niska's grip went slack. He toppled over to one side, an expression of surprise etched into what remained his features, and Mal saw Book standing behind him. Smoke curled up almost lazily from the pistol in his hand.
"Hasn't anyone ever told you? An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," Book said as the light faded from Niska's blue eyes.
"That was bit north of the kneecaps, Preacher," Mal said quietly as he wiped blood and grey matter from his face with his shirtsleeve.
"Yes." Book stared down at the body, the gun dropping from his fingers. It hit the ground with a muted thud, unnoticed. "It was."
Serenity's cargo bay doors slid open almost before she touched the ground, and Mal let Jayne, Zoe and Book go on ahead of him, casting his gaze back over his shoulder to make sure no more hovercars were on their way before he headed up the ramp himself.
"Graze," Zoe said as Mal's eyes went to her bloody shoulder. "You?" She waved her hand near her eye. Mal touched the cut, which was still sluggishly oozing blood, and winced.
"Zhè bìng bù huài," he said as he shrugged. "Might need a stitch or two."
"Woo hoo! Nice flyin', little man!" Jayne clapped Wash on the shoulder as he came down the tiered stairs from the flight deck.
Wash paled when he saw the blood running down his wife's arm. "Nî shòu shäng le—"
"Just a graze," she assured him, wrapping her arms around him and kissing his hair.
"Wash, I thought I told you to stay on Priam—" Mal began.
"I was monitoring traffic on the cortex," Wash said, arm still around his wife. "And, um... a couple of channels that, you know—aren't exactly public. Thought you could use a little deus ex Serenity."
"Well, we did," Mal admitted with a scowl. "But next time, I tell you to stay put—"
"I'll stay put," Wash said with a firm nod. "Sir."
"Take us outta the world, mâshàng. Before anybody else decides to come calling."
"So, did we get the bad guy?" Wash asked as Mal hit the door controls, and the ramp began to rise.
"We got the bad guy," Zoe said, her eyes straying to Book, who had his head bent and was headed through the hatch leading back to the passenger dorm.
Book was in his quarters, washing up. Mal stood in the doorway awkwardly, while he patted his face with a towel that had taken on a slightly greyish hue, one corner smeared with pink.
"I wanted to thank you," Mal said when Book looked up and saw him there. "For what you did down there. Can't have been easy for you."
Mal stepped the rest of the way inside. He could feel Serenity lift off—his body attuned at this point to the subtle shift from planet-grav to artificial. Book didn't seem to notice. He sat on the edge of his bed, towel hanging from his hands.
"I used to think I was on the wrong ship," Book said quietly. Mal didn't say anything, just waited for him to speak his mind.
"It was Inara who told me that perhaps I was right where I ought to be. I wasn't sure I believed her. I'm still not." He bowed his head and wiped at his face one last time with the towel before he dropped it on the bed beside him. When he lifted his gaze to Mal's, his dark eyes were haunted, but his jaw was set in a firm line. "We set down on Ithaca to kill that man. I knew that. I've made my choices, right or wrong. Now I just have to find a way to live with them."
Mal risked an observation. "Not a lot of killing to be done, behind abbey walls."
"Not a lot of anything, behind abbey walls." There was a touch of bitterness in his voice. "But avoiding ain't the same as choosing."
Mal reached out and laid a hand on Book's shoulder, and the older man gave him a wan smile.
"We're only ten hours out from Bernadette. You feel up to rounding up some chow?" Mal asked, thinking that keeping his hands busy might be a blessing. "If not, I can always make Jayne do it—"
Book smiled, and there was a bit more warmth to it. "Don't know how much I could eat—but I could throw something together. We still have some real foodstuffs left over, from re-supplying on Persephone last time."
"Don't have to be fancy, Preacher."
It hadn't been lost on him that the preacher had taken on all sorts of the sorts of jobs the rest of the crew weren't too fond of, to earn his keep once his cash ran out. They'd never much talked about it. Book had just... become a part of their lives over the last year. Same as the doc and his sister—even though Mal had a good solid reason for keeping them on, and things where Book were concerned were a mite fuzzier.
But he was a good man to have on a job, even if he tended to start quoting the Bible a bit too often for Mal's comfort. But even that had changed, over time. His reflexive preaching had disappeared after a while—and he just became another member of his crew. It was still a puzzle as to how a man of God knew so much about both sides of the law, but Mal didn't much care to look a gift horse in the mouth, considering he'd be dead right now had Book not been a good shot.
"You'd best get that eye seen to," Book said, and Mal accepted the dismissal as gracefully as he could. He nodded, and headed back out towards the common area.
Book's voice stopped him at the threshold. "Captain?"
"He would have killed you," Book said, and Mal wondered if he was asking, or telling.
"And I woulda killed him," Mal replied simply. "You shouldn't have had to."
"There are a lot of things in this 'verse that we shouldn't have to do. Taking a life—any life, no matter how wretched, how vile—should be one of them." He spread his hands in a futile, empty gesture. "I should be on my knees, begging the Lord for forgiveness. Perhaps eventually I will."
Sunday, July 06, 2003 8:27 PM
Monday, July 07, 2003 8:58 AM
Wednesday, May 26, 2004 10:33 AM
Sunday, September 12, 2004 11:29 PM
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