BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
Monday, November 22, 2010

The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1737    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

Back Stories Book 3 Chapter 21.

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

Links: The Fish Job, Easy Tickets, BS Book I, BS Book II, BS Book III, Chapter 1. Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

Many thanks to desertgirl for the beta read.

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Zoë, Wash, Malcolm, and Inara made quick use of the back door of the gift shop, throwing down heavily laden wooden shelves in the stockroom behind them as they passed. This gained them a few precious seconds, and they made it out of the building and into heavy brush before their pursuit broke into the open behind them.

They ran on, Zoë leading, Wash in the rear, for at least a hundred meters westward up the valley before stopping behind a large red-gold rock that seemed to spring right out of the ground. Zoë pushed the others behind her and waited, catching her breath, her rifle in her hands, her carbine ready on her hip.

“They comin”?” Malcolm asked in a whisper. “Those Reavers comin’ for us?”

Zoë shook her head. “They’re out there, though. I hear `em. They’re looking for us.” Her eyes and ears followed distant rustlings in the trees and she wrinkled her nose in disgust. “I take that back—I think they’re sniffing for us.”

“Caverns,” Wash said, and he nodded toward the small, burbling creek that passed a little further along their path. The cave’s entrance was just up the valley across the brook, west and south of them.

Zoë quickly nodded her approval of her husband’s plan. “You lead.”

The small group crossed the ice-cold water, laboring against the current in the deepest spot where the melting snows of early summer had the water running above their knees. Zoë followed a few steps behind the other three, her eyes and aim watching their tail, but it wasn’t more than ten meters past the stream when her back bumped against Inara.

“What the dìyù?” Zoë demanded in a whisper. She turned to find Wash holding a finger to his lips, and quickly saw why he’d stopped them all behind a clump of young evergreens. A group of Reavers was just ahead of them, a large group, at least a dozen of the things loping through the forest. Fortunately, the monsters were focused on something further across the valley: the caves.

Gunfire suddenly rang out ahead; the invaders had been sighted, and a resistance was quickly being mounted. Most of the bullets fired by the defenders missed their intended targets and whistled through the branches over Zoë’s head. “Get down!” she ordered. “We’re on the wrong side of this battle!”

Their only choice was to reverse course quickly; they all stooped low and ran back toward the stream.

“We’ve got to find another way around,” Zoë said after they’d returned across the water to shelter against the tall red stone again. “We can help fight those things off, but not if we’re getting hit by fire from our own.”

“Our own?” Inara asked, then her eyes lit in understanding. “Jayne and the others are the ones putting up the fight?”

“If our fine Mr. Cobb hasn’t gotten Book and the Tams over to the caves by now, and if he ain’t doing his best to protect them, he can find a new job.” Zoë glanced into the woods toward town; though the forest was quiet, a suddenly shifting bough here and there caught her eye, and she could hear the occasional crackle of stones under heavy feet. The hunters were still out there.

“We have to circle north,” Zoë said. “Go up the valley a bit, then double back on the other side of the cave’s entry.”

They didn’t make it far; the valley was too narrow. They covered barely twenty meters before being blocked by a curving wall of stone, a crumbling ledge shaped by age-old meanderings of the stream. Dust puffed from the upper edge of the bluff now and then as stray bullets from the shootout at the cavern’s entrance found it. The four of them hunkered down behind a small brown boulder at the wall’s foot just as a blast sounded behind them, followed by a distant hoot of fierce battle-joy from a familiar voice.

“I guess Jayne did get there,” Inara said.

“And he brought grenades,” Wash added.

Inara’s brow creased in worry. “I hope he brought all the others too.”

“Hush,” Zoë snapped. “If we want to be any use to them, we need to find a path to get over there.”

“Should we fight?” the Companion asked in a fierce whisper. Zoë could only look pointedly at the weapon the woman held in her clenched right fist: a knife with a handle studded with garnets and polished bits of tiger’s eye. The blade may have been large, but it was dull, and the arm wielding it was not trained for this kind of battle.

Inara got the message from Zoë’s expression; she wilted and lowered her knife.

“Just let me think,” Zoë whispered sharply. She turned and sat heavily, her back against the boulder as she considered her options.

The low but sharp cliff in their path left only three directions for escape, and none seemed hopeful. To the east was the burning town, to the west were the stray bullets and explosions of the battle for the cavern’s entrance, and to the south hunting Reavers slipped through the trees, making a web that slowly drew tighter.

Zoë raised her eyes and saw a fourth option; up the cliff and a bit back toward the east, the tip of a familiar black-silver engine showed against the sooty sky. The four of them were cowering not far from the fueling platform where Serenity rested. Not that it did them any good; the Firefly was useless as long as the Reaver ship and its grappling hook hovered nearby. Zoë slouched and pressed her back against the hard stone of the fallen boulder, but her jaw set with determination rather than despair. She just needed to think. In a hopeless situation like this, she had to consider everything at her disposal, and hope to find some overlooked advantage.

She patted her pockets and added up her personal armament: she carried a fair amount of ammo and explosives, though with only two hands to wield it, all the weapons in the world would only take her so far.

Her other assets were her troops. Wash was also well-armed, but looked pale and unsure of himself. A cold voice in Zoë’s head told her that she couldn’t know if he’d fall back into the paralysis that had taken him in the town. Nor could she count on Inara; the Companion was holding her composure, but the depth of her fear revealed itself in her quick breaths and jittery hand movements. If Wash was a barely trained child when it came to this kind of warfare, Inara was an infant. These two might both be brave, but inexperienced courage wouldn’t be getting anyone out of this predicament.

Zoë’s eyes settled on Malcolm. His eyes, the same eyes she’d seen take in bloody battles and hopeless despair that would freeze the stoniest heart, were now wild and unsettled.

“We fight, we die,” he muttered to himself. “We don’t fight, we die. Wǒmen shì gègè jiānghuì sǐdiào.”

The sight of Mal wallowing in despair snapped something in Zoë. She didn’t need a terrified boy, she needed a brain that could calculate strategy, even when facing an ugly and, apparently, inevitable death. She needed the Sergeant she’d fought beside and fought for, and needed him now.

She tucked her rifle under her arm and bent to crawl around Wash so she could reach Malcolm. Without hesitation she took her ex-Sergeant by his shirt front and pushed him back against the rock.

“I can’t have this Reynolds!” she hissed. “I can’t have this from you. Wherever the hell you’re hiding, get your ass back on the line!”

He didn’t reply, but closed his hands on her wrists and weakly tried to pull himself free.

She leaned forward to get in his face, but her voice was softer, almost pleading. “I can’t have this useless gorramned boy right now, sir. I need you back. They need you.”

Malcolm’s expression was full of fear and doubt as he followed her gaze, but he turned his head to take in Inara awkwardly holding her garish knife, then Wash staring at his wife and captain with mouth and eyes wide open, the gun in his hands, for the moment, forgotten.

“You know how to fight,” Zoë told Malcolm. “You’ve faced these things before, and you won. It took us both working together and tore us to shreds, but we won. You remember that? You remember how we got off their ship?” Malcolm put his hands to his head and bowed over, but Zoë bent to stay with him and watched his eyes. His pupils wobbled back and forth, as if searching. For a second, a cringe of pain distorted his face, but then his eyes lifted to hers and she saw something that she’d almost forgotten how much she craved: recognition. Real recognition.

“Reavers?” he asked. He looked unsure of himself, and his breath was coming heavy.

She nodded. “A full party.” She looked toward the smoldering town, listened for the thinning gunfire by the caverns and the thud of heavy feet in the nearer trees. “We got slaughter on one side, sir, battle on the other, a search party behind, and this cliff at our faces. It ain’t pretty.”

He took two more breaths, then closed his mouth and clamped down his jaw. His face was a grimace, but in his eyes a glint of ice took hold.

Serenity?” he asked.

“Up there.” She pointed up the low cliff, and his gaze followed her. “That’s your ship, sir, right up there.”

He cut his eyes at her. “I know my gorramned ship, Zoë,” he said with rather unfair sharpness. “We have to get to her.”

“No—not good!” Wash said, his shifting eyes eagerly taking in the change that Zoë had wrought in the captain. “That Reaver ship has grappling hooks—”

“Shh!” Inara warned. The Companion was also listening closely to the exchange, but showed presence of mind by putting herself in a lookout spot, sitting slightly to the side of the small boulder so she could study the woods. “They’re getting closer!” she whispered almost silently.

Wash lowered his voice. “The Reaver ship has grappling hooks. Lots of them. They’ve taken down everything that’s tried to lift off.”

“The rest of the crew?” Mal asked.

Zoë replied, “They’re out of our reach, sir, but might have a better chance for safety then we do at the moment.”

Mal sat back, thoughtful. Suddenly, he showed little emotion, nothing but a blush rising in his cheeks. In the old days, when Zoë’d known the inside of this man’s head nearly as well as she knew her own, she’d have guessed the color in his face to be the heady adrenaline rush of a soldier getting ready to pull some fool-hardy maneuver. She held her breath, hoping that he’d do exactly that.

After a moment, Mal focused on the purple-bladed knife in his right hand. He rubbed his thumb against the blade, checking its edge, then sneered in disgust and tucked it the back of his belt. He patted his hip, only to find his holster missing.

“Gun?” he demanded.

Zoe nodded to Wash, and the pilot immediately handed over his rifle. “Captain,” the pilot said.

If Mal noticed the depth of meaning Wash put into the word, he didn’t show it. His expert hands checked the piece over, breaking it down like it was a old friend he needed a re-introduction to. This was the man who’d stormed an Alliance stronghold against direct orders. This hard face had held a group of the defeated and dying together in the midst of hell. This was the soldier Zoë needed.

“What have we got?” Mal asked suddenly.

“Me and Wash, and Inara there…”

Mal’s eyes flicked at the Companion, but quickly returned to Zoë. “No, what have we got?”

Zoë understood him. “Inara ain’t holding nothing but another one of them awful knives, but I have my carbine and handgun, this here rifle, a spare six-shooter in my boot, and a good half dozen grenades. Wash has two pistols and another handful of grenades. But the biggest thing on our side is secrecy. If those creatures, or that ship hovering, find out we’re here, we’re done for.”

“We just have to get to Serenity,” Mal repeated.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me—” Wash started.

“There is a problem with that, sir,” Zoë interrupted, taking over the argument from her husband, who she didn’t trust to handle it exactly right. “And it’s not just those grapples, though Wash is right that those are a definite problem.” Mal flashed her a look of annoyance, so she got to the point.” The only way up to Serenity is the stairs we came down, but they gotta be a good hundred meters away and the path is pretty damned exposed. We won’t have cover on the way, and those hunters in the woods will surely see us.”

Mal angled the gun in his hands so he could slide the ammo clip home. He flipped the safety off, then rose to his knees to take another look around. In his old this-is-an-order voice that allowed no argument, he said, “We’re going to Serenity. We’ll deal with the grapplin’ hook when we get there.”

Inara, who seemed too befuddled by Mal’s sudden transformation to even speak, accepted his plan with a nod, but Wash paled.

“Shàngdì xī zìjǐ hún,” the pilot said softly.

“Our souls ain’t going no where,” Mal replied quickly. “The hunting party’s the only problem we got to worry about for the moment, and that looks to be only a half dozen, tops. We’ll get by.”

“How’s that, sir?” Zoë asked.

Mal turned his calculating eyes on her. “You’re gonna be our ticket out, Zoë. Hand over everything but that rifle in your hands.” She immediately complied as he went on explaining. “You’re gonna slip back to that creek and slide down it a ways and get behind those hunters. Keep the rifle dry on the way. The sound and smell of the water ought to hide you well enough for a short time, at least. You got two minutes before the three of us break. They’ll be on us, but I doubt they’ll try to kill us out right. They’re hungry. You’ll have a chance to hit them from behind while they’re coming at us.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Wash broke in. “Are you sending my wife off, alone? And are you really expecting the rest of us to be bait in this scenario?”

Mal stared at the pilot for a long, thoughtful second. “Are you sayin’ Zoë needs hand-holding? Or are you saying that you’d be bad bait? Would you drive the Reavers off? ” He turned to Zoë. “Is it a smell thing? Haven’t you taught him to bathe?”

Wash’s mouth dropped open, but Zoë distracted her husband by pushing her last two grenades at him. Her smaller guns had already gone into Inara’s eager hands. “My man smells just fine.” She leaned over and pecked Wash on the cheek. “Be good bait,” she said, then, without allowing him a chance to reply, she turned and jogged in a crouch toward the creek.

Despite the warm air, Zoë’s breath left her body as soon as she slid into the clear, icy water. She went feet first, on her back, only her hands and face out so she could keep her gun dry and see her way. The burbling water was just deep enough to hide her body, though she had to wind back and forth to stay with the main current.

Mal must have given her more than two minutes; it felt like at least ten, but her sense of time might have been stretched by the frigid water and the unbidden doubt that played in her mind. She’d just left her husband with a paid socialite and a very recently recovered madman. If he was truly recovered. She might have taken a little more time to think about it before following orders, but it was too late to reconsider now.

She knew the trap was sprung when a handful of shadows suddenly darted through the woods on her left, running away from the creek toward the cliff that was now a good forty paces distant. She gave them a slow and chattering count of five to get a lead, then pushed herself to standing on half-numb legs and somehow stumbled out of the icy water. Clumsily, she hopped over a downed log and into the woods.

A high-pitched cry came from just ahead of her, then Mal, yelling in a booming voice. “Go now! Along the cliff! Go!” Zoë knew he wasn’t ordering the other two as much as drawing in the Reavers and letting her know exactly where he was. His direction wasn’t needed; she already saw the trio of her crewmates against the red-gold wall of stone. They tried to hurry across a long open stretch below the bluff, but were slowed by the slipperiness of smooth rocks in the old stream bed. They were very visible, and they were very vulnerable.

The trap was set and the bait was out, dangling in the open.

Zoë hunched down quietly, clenching her teeth to silence their chattering as she searched the forest for the enemy. She immediately saw a pair of Reavers moving through the trees to her right. Their intent was clear; they were out to head off the trio of Serenity’s crew, to stop them from reaching the stairs leading up to the fueling platform.

Mal, Inara and Wash also saw the slow-moving attack. They pulled to a stop, though they had no cover. Mal held a hand out to Wash and Inara, making them hold their fire.

“But they’re coming at us!” Wash said, his voice loud enough for Zoë to hear. He didn’t turn to look toward the woods where Zoë crouched, but raised his voice to pass a message: “I sure hope my wife is ready to be helpful here!”

Zoë had to reply in a nearly silent whisper. “I am, baby. Be patient.” She understood Mal’s hesitance; she didn’t trust this. The attack was moving too slow. They were holding back purposefully, waiting for something. Zoë searched the woods again, and motion caught her eye to her left.

The monsters were setting their own trap. Three more bulky shadows circled around behind Mal’s group, cutting off escape.

“Now would be good!” Wash added.

“Nope,” Zoë whispered quietly. “Not… yet. There’s might be more out here… there!”

A wet, crunching noise had caught her ears; she found another Reaver keeping to the trees, off to her right a score of paces. It held a large and gory bone to its mouth, picking the thing clean as it watched the two-fronted attack advancing on Mal, Inara, and Wash.

Wash’s impatience was spreading. “Mal! We need to do something!” Inara called out, her voice a small step above normal in pitch.

The three Reavers on the group’s tail was about to come into the open behind them, and then the attack would begin for real. Zoë decided to worry about the lone diner later. She jumped to her feet and opened fire on the pair coming in from the front, as they were the nearer danger. Mal, Wash, and Inara joined in, and the two attackers were cut down before they could do any harm.

Zoë immediately shifted her fire to the attack from the rear. Mal saw where her bullets were going and caught on, shifting to set up his own defense, but Zoë didn’t see how it played out. A small noise behind her reminded her of the stray Reaver in the woods.

The thing must have sprinted toward her as soon as it heard her firing, because she turned to find it just leaving the ground in a long final leap at her. She immediately tumbled forward, rolling once before landing on her back and firing upwards as it flew over her. She hit it, more than once, but didn’t kill it. It snarled in pain when it landed, tumbled on a leg shattered by her bullets, then somehow sprung toward her again, loping hideously on its arms and one good leg. She clambered backward; her ammo was spent. Her hand slapped the wet and empty holster at her hip before recalling the necessities of her trip through the water: the empty rifle in her hands was the only gun she had.

The Reaver got a claw on her ankle, then another in her opposite calf, and its jaws gnashed as it pulled its putrid, bleeding body onto her struggling legs. It got a tight hold and its head reared back, maw stretched open wide to reveal sharp, pointed teeth, as if it wanted to show her exactly what it’d be using to tear the flesh off her thighs. For one long second Zoë stared into the rabid insanity of its eyes, then she finally got her knife free of her waistband. She buried her blade in the roof of the thing’s wide open mouth.

“I am not your gorramned lunch!” she told the Reaver as she tried to kick its twitching body off of her. To her horror, its jaw closed on the edge of her hand. Its sharp teeth dug into her knuckles, making her cry out in pain. Like a dog that won’t give up its fight, even after a death blow, the thing had a grip on her.

And it wasn’t a good time to be caught. More heavy feet were approaching through the woods behind her.

“Mal!” she called out.

“Stay down!”

Zoë did as the captain ordered, rolling onto her side and curling around the hideous mouth trapping her knife and hand. Mal knelt three paces away, shooting toward the pines on the other side of the stream. Zoë twisted and lifted her head just in time to make out another stray Reaver. It didn’t attack, but crashed through the underbrush and disappeared.

“Going to fetch his friends?” Zoë asked when Mal gave up firing.

“Most like.”

“Help me with this?”

Mal saw her predicament. Fortunately, the last bit of life was draining from the Reaver she’d knifed, and its muscles began to loosen. She was able to pry its jaw open enough to slip her torn fingers free, then Mal kicked the half-rotten body away from her.

“You all right?” he asked.

She pushed herself to her feet. The slight breeze was chill on her wet skin, but she forgot about it, and her other ailments, when she caught a good look at the captain. “I’m just fine,” she said. The sting of claw marks on her legs and the bite on her hand faded when she took in the broad smear of thick red on Mal’s face, shirt, and coat.

“What the hell happened to you?” she demanded.

“Nothing,” he said dismissively, but his eyes held a shadow and he seemed to shudder just a bit. “The blood ain’t mine, most of it.”

“Wash? Inara?”

“They’re fine. Had to gut one of those things is all. Come on.”

He turned back to the cliff, but Zoë stopped to reach down. With a sharp jerk, she pulled her knife out of the dead Reaver's slack mouth.

The rumble of the attacking ship’s engines had almost become background noise, but the sound suddenly rose. The invading ship, still sitting over the town, was powering up and reorienting itself. It pointed its nose straight at them.

Zoë sprinted toward the others and caught up with them at the foot of the fueling platform’s stairs. The spray of blood that had caught Mal full on had misted Wash’s shoulder, and Inara’s blouse and skirt were heavily stained.

Wash had a bit of a shake in his limbs. “Being bait was fun and all,” he said breathlessly, “but I’d prefer a different job next time.”

“You’re okay?” Zoë asked.

“Hush!” Mal ordered.

Wash nodded his head in response to Zoë’s question as the four of them ducked beneath an evergreen. The Reaver ship moved overhead, blocking the dappled light of the sun. Zoë snatched her carbine out of Inara’s hands, then reached into Wash’s pockets for ammo and got busy reloading both the carbine and her rifle.

To all of their relief, the ship moved on, heading for the caves.

“There’s hardly any gunfire,” Inara whispered.

Zoë realized that the Companion was right. “Jayne must not have much fight left,” she agreed. “But there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Not from here,” Mal said. “Come on!”

The ship’s falling exhaust, mixed with smoke blowing off the fires in the town, was oily and harsh on the throat, but it provided cover while the four of them raced up the stairs. Zoë went last, lagging a bit behind to defend against attack from below. Just as she stepped onto the fueling platform she heard Wash’s raised voice: “They’re up here!”

Zoë looked toward the ship and saw a few hulking figures approach. Gunfire rang out and the shadows fell; she caught up to the other three to find them lowering their weapons.

“They came out of the ship,” Mal said. He was down on one knee, his aim still on the darkness of the cargo bay. “There might be more on board.”

Suddenly, the pavement of the platform shook beneath their feet. Zoë turned back; the air behind her was clear enough to allow a view across the valley. Right over the cave’s entrance, where the Reaver ship now hovered, a thick cloud of tan and gray dust billowed into the air.

“What was that?” Wash asked. “A bomb? Now they’re dropping bombs?”

Zoë shook her head. “I don’t think so. Not enough fire, and the smoke ain’t the right color to be a surface blast.”

The Reaver ship tilted away from the explosion, then wobbled in the sky and limped slowly back along the valley toward the town.

Zoë understood. “The folks in the caves aren’t part of this fight any more,” she said. “They’ve sealed themselves in. That ship is looking for new prey.”

“Let’s not be it,” Mal said. He rose to his feet and ran ahead; the others followed.

A breeze cleared the air as they ran under the ship and up the cargo bay ramp, but just as they got inside Zoë heard heavy feet and the grunts of low voices on the stairs behind her. She stopped at the base of the ramp to kneel and protect their flank, but Mal barked orders at her:

“Zoë, take Wash up top!”

“Got incoming, sir!”

“I’ll see to them. You make sure my pilot reaches gets to the bridge in one piece. Bay’s clear, but I don’t know what’s waiting inside!”

Zoë saw the sense of it. If they had any hope now, it lay in getting this ship off the ground and past those grapples. And that wouldn’t happen if their pilot got eaten by whatever critters had wondered in the open doors while the crew was out. She left the defending to Mal and ran into the bay, hitting the stairs a flight behind Wash. As she climbed, Mal went on with the orders below her.

“Inara! Weapons locker. Ammo, and more grenades!”

Zoë glanced down from the catwalk; the Companion obeyed as quickly as any private could have, though she froze at the weapons locker and stared into it, eyes wide with confusion.

“Good luck,” Zoë mumbled, and she leapt up the last set of stairs just two steps behind her husband.

* * *

Inara stood with one hand on the open metal door of the locker. Inside, a dense jumble of boxes were squeezed onto the shelves. There seemed to be at least a score of options.

“Um, Mal?” she said tentatively.

He didn’t hear her over the blasts gunfire and grenades just outside the cargo bay doors.

“Mal!”

He didn’t glance back. He was on his belly at the side of the ramp, holding out against a small but determined attack, but he managed to reply: “Green box—middle shelf!”

“Right.”

“Also the blue box. Lots of those!”

“But there’s two different kinds of blue boxes!”

“The ones with big bullets. You know—BIG bullets!”

She saw what he meant and grabbed as many of the blue boxes as she could pile on her bent left arm.

“Next locker over,” Mal added. “Grenades!”

Inara somehow managed to scoop up her skirt and drop the ammo into the fabric. Every grenade in the second locker joined the boxes, then she paused another half second to grab a large lever action shotgun from a third locker.

She dropped the pile of ammo onto the deck next to Mal and dove to her stomach beside him. He immediately rolled away, rising to sit against the cover of the hull, and started reloading.

“Now’s our chance to see how a Companion handles grenades,” he said without lifting his eyes from his work. “Just pull the pin and throw—but get some distance on it.”

She did exactly that, and laid flat while a surge of hot air from the blast blew over her head.

“See anything out there?” Mal asked.

“No. Wait—there!” She grabbed the shotgun she’d brought from the locker. The recoil made her arms shake and she was certain she missed, but the flitting shadow moved out of view.

“Keep on,” Mal said. “We just got to keep them away from the doors until Wash lifts off.”

“Why don’t you close the gorramned door?” she demanded with more than a little irritation.

He furrowed his forehead at her. “It’s complicated.” He finished reloading and settled on his stomach again, loaded guns lined up beside him. His frown turned into a wicked grin. “Besides, why not leave it open? I’d say we’ve got the upper hand here.”

* * *

Zoë caught Wash’s left shoulder as he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs. A shared nod set the plan, and they entered the main corridor with Wash aiming fore, Zoë aft. She had the work to be done: a single Reaver was pulling apart the galley. She brought it to a quick but messy end, then followed after Wash.

Once in the bridge, she slid the door shut and locked it behind her.

“Get her going!” Zoë ordered unnecessarily. Wash was already in his chair, flipping switches. She passed under the muddled sunlight of the windows to make sure the front of the bridge was clear of invaders, then came back up and stared out. She couldn’t see straight down to the platform below, but had a lovely bird’s eye view of the valley. The Reaver ship was still wandering over the treetops like a shepherd without a flock.

“Warm her up careful,” Zoë said. “As soon as they see us trying to lift off, they’ll be on us.”

“I got it,” Wash said. “Get back down there and tell Mal to disconnect the fuel line. It’s still running. One spark in a bad place when we lift off and we’re in trouble!”

She turned and caught his eye. “You all right here?”

“Just seal the door on the way out,” he said, his hands still busy on the console. “As long as I’m alone in here, I’ll get us off the ground. I am alone, right?”

Zoë did one more quick sweep, checked that the entry below was locked, then sealed the door behind her and left Wash on his own. * * *

“Did we get them all?” Inara asked.

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Mal said. He took another break to reload.

Inara kept her cover fire going, though she didn’t see anything to fire at. The moment’s respite was more than welcome; her ears were ringing from the blast of guns and her mind was full of the blood and screams of the Reavers she’d managed to kill in the chaos of the past half-minute. Their rage was just as horrifying as the ugly way they died, fighting on, even tearing at each other while they took their last breaths.

“Stay steady,” Mal said. “You’ve done fine.”

“Fine? You call this fine? This is crazy!”

“Fighting ain’t ever been sane. You get used to it.”

Or lose your sanity trying, Inara thought, which made her recall other details of the current situation. She lowered her gun and looked at Mal. Now that death didn’t seem so immediately eminent, she had a moment to fully appreciate what Zoë had done. The change in Mal had happened suddenly, unexpectedly, but it was real. His tense jaw and blood-spattered face held none of the light openness of recent days. The boy Malcolm was gone.

“Mal?” Inara ventured. “Is it really you?”

He cast a quick glance at her, but didn’t reply. A shadow fell over his features, like the heavy weight of dark thoughts.

Perhaps it wasn’t the time to push him, but she had to know. “Are you all right, Mal? Do you remember…”

Heavy boots rang out on in the bay behind them, making both Mal and Inara startle and raise their guns. It was Zoë. Inara sat back and exhaled in relief, but Mal just went on reloading.

“Wash is gettin’ her ready, sir,” Zoë reported as she raced down the steps. “I got one Reaver in the galley and found another just now in the engine room. Don’t see any others on board.”

“Good,” he replied. “Take the guard here. Don’t believe the quiet—they’re out there.”

“Why don’t you close the hatch, sir?” Zoë asked as she crouched next to Inara.

“I like to see what’s happening,” Mal replied shortly. “Why ain’t we in the air?” Without waiting for an answer, he stood and reached around the corner of the doorway to punch the comm. “Wash, why the hell ain’t we in the air?”

Wash immediately replied, though he shouted into the comm to be heard over a beeping alarm. Fuel tank isn’t secured. The line’s still up and running!

“Override the damned alarm and take off! Do it now!”

Wash didn’t reply, but the grating beneath their feet rumbled as the engines powered up.

“Sir!” Zoë called out. A new wave of Reavers was climbing onto the platform outside. Apparently, the word was out, because it was a large group of hunters and the Reaver ship was coming in behind them. The ship stopped a bit back from the platform, as if it was daring the Firefly to take off.

Uh, Captain? Wash asked over the comm.

“Get us in the air now or I’ll find a new pilot!” Mal barked into the comm. “Just move!”

Wild gusts of foul-smelling air blew into the cargo bay through the wide open door as the engines fired fully. The Firefly shifted, finally taking to the air, and the pavement receded. Mal recklessly stepped onto the down-tilting ramp, then stumbled sideways and caught hold of a vertical strut that held the ramp open, saving himself from a fall that would have made him a snack for the hungry creatures gathering on the platform below.

“Mal!” Inara called out.

“Not now!” he replied. Both he and Zoë fired at a figure that had managed to grab the ramp and ride into the sky with them, and it plunged back to the platform. The Reavers below scampered out of the way when it hit, but quickly swarmed around it again, tearing at it. Others looked up at their fleeing prey and howled, but didn’t open fire. They knew their mother ship was nearby, and counted on having the Firefly on the ground again before long.

“Tell Wash to back away to the north,” Mal yelled at Inara. “But stay on this heading. And tell him to hold the wheel tight!”

Inara punched the comm and relayed the command word for word, then looked out to see the Reaver ship following closely. Reavers now filled the platform below, running over the still-running fuel line that had been pulled free when they lifted off, and now spilled its contents over the pavement.

Mal leaned out into the smoky air, pulled the pin from a grenade, and dropped it.

The fueling station went up with a bright enough blaze to blind Inara, and a blast of heat and pressure flung her back into the cargo bay. She rolled across the grating as the ship tilted, blown through the sky by the blast.

* * *

“Gǒu shǐ tù zǎi zi kuài kuà dào dì yù!”

Wash clung to the controls as he tried to work out what had just happened. He’d barely taken in a bright flash of light from below before a shock wave nearly pulled the stick from his hands. He had one glimpse of the valley that was suddenly much further from him than it should have been: the fueling platform was gone. Under a mushrooming cloud of thick black smoke was a large, glowing red hole in the hillside, a blaze that eclipsed the fires of the burning town. A bit further up the valley, a thin cloud of dust settled on a pile of fresh rubble: the ruins of the cave entrance.

Wash realized what his suddenly distant vantage point must mean. The blast had thrown the Firefly away from the valley, and the ship was still rushing backwards at an alarming pace. He checked the scanner just in time to realize his danger—Serenity was being pushed straight toward the jagged peak of one of the larger foothills.

“Hold on!” He yelled to no one in particular, and he powered the Firefly forward and up with everything she had. He didn’t breathe until he saw craggy fingers of grey stone pass below him, seeming so close that they might have scratched the ship’s belly. He kept the engines on full while he managed to rotate to face the way the ship was heading. He was clear of the mountain peaks but wasn’t so sure about the Reaver ship. He kept the throttle on full, one eye on the sky, one on the scanner, until he could see the curve of the world.

He switched on the comm. “Zoë? You there?” He waited with his heart in his throat until his wife replied in a breathless voice.

Are they following?

“No. No they’re not. The blast must have knocked them away from us.”

* * *

Zoë exhaled and leaned her forehead against the comm panel, enjoying the blessed calm of the cargo bay.

We still got everyone? Wash asked.

Zoë sighed in relief. “We all made it. Somehow.”

She would never figure out how she and Mal had managed to hold on during that blast, but they had. During the wild ride just after, she’d reached out and caught the captain’s coattails and pulled him away from the brink. They’d clung to the edges of the door at the top of the ramp while the thinning but still wild air tried to pry them free and throw them out into the void. Then, thankfully, the door had closed. Inara had found her way to the controls.

Damn him, Wash said, bringing Zoë back to the present. Mal did that, didn’t he? He planned it. He could have told me!

Zoë smiled and pressed her hand gently to the comm, as if it was a physical connection to her husband. “Well, he did tell you to hold the wheel.”

Tell him thanks a lot, Wash said sarcastically. The comm was quiet a second, then Wash added in a more somber tone, No really. Tell him I appreciate it.

“I will.”

The adrenaline of the past half hour flowed in her veins still, leaving her weak and shaky. She’d need time to consider everything she’d said and done, and to consider the things that had almost gone horribly wrong. And she’d need even more time to figure out what to do about the crew members she’d left behind.

Her senses returned at that thought. “Still no one following?” she asked.

Local sky is empty, but we've got more than one ship in near orbit.

“Alliance?”

Can’t tell. There’s a few big ones.

Zoë swallowed hard, but had to make the tough call. Those in the caves below were out of her reach. “Can you get around the traffic?”

Wash managed to scoff through the comm. Can I get around the traffic? Hey, it’s me. We’ll be in the Black in a minute, going full tilt toward anywhere that isn’t here.

“Good.”

And Zoë? We’ll come back for them. Right?

She nodded. “Of course.” Somehow.

She turned back toward the cargo bay. Mal was sitting against the wall just inside, and Inara knelt next to him. The Companion had a hand on his shoulder, but she was looking at Zoë. Her eyes were large and frightened.

Zoë realized that the captain wasn’t moving.

“What?” she demanded as she rushed over. “What’s wrong?”

Inara turned back to Mal. “I don’t know.” Her hands moved lightly over his arms and torso, then down his legs, patting him with the quick, impersonal manner of a medic. “I can’t find anything. This blood on his clothes—it’s not his. He was fine before. I don’t know what’s wrong!”

Zoë crouched at Mal’s side and took his wrist to check his pulse.

“I don’t think he’s injured, Zoë,” Inara said, suddenly stopping to look at the captain’s slack face. “I think he’s just… gone.”

Zoë felt Mal’s strong heartbeat, saw his regular, deep breaths, but she looked into his empty eyes and understood. The captain was no longer home.

* * *

Translations dì yù: hell wǒmen shì gègè jiānghuì sǐdiào: We’re all gonna die. Shàngdì xī zìjǐ hún: God rest our souls. Gǒu shǐ tù zǎi zi kuài kuà dào dì yù!: dog-shit-son-of-a-rabbit-quick-ride-to-hell!

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COMMENTS

Monday, November 22, 2010 2:30 PM

MAL4PREZ


Whew! That took some time to edit. It's just a long damned chapter. I really hadn't thought it was so long when I wrote it! But while editing I was like - really? All this has happened and there's still five pages to go?

Some work to do still on the next few chapters. But believe it or not, the end isn't far...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 12:12 AM

AGENTROUKA


That's quite the twist.

I can't decide whether I love it or am befuddled, that Zoe managed to basically talk Mal out of his disorder, however temporarily. This would imply it's much, much more voluntary, consciously steered than I previously thought. Basically, Mal is much closer to the surface and much more aware of what all he pushes away, even subconsciously, methinks.

Very interesting. Not that this implies "blame" but he certainly is almost willingly impaired, if you will.

I like how the insanity of all this violence is reflected in Inara, and while Mal (and Zoe) never show any consideration for the feelings of others when in fight-mode, the contrast to Mal's pre-shift panic and his post-fight lock-down imply that he is not loving it in a thrill-seeking way. His emotional reaction must be much closer to what Inara is feeling but he has completely blocked out trying to deal with it. Methinks this experience of previous innocence, of his own horror, will actually help him long-term. I wonder if Zoe has such an access to her own emotions.

Anyway, very curious to see the next chapter and how this mess will play out. With the reduced crew (for now) another (self-righteous?) Zoe confrontation with Inara might seem inevitable?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 3:58 AM

KATESFRIEND


Wow, now I see the set up lines you gave to Simon that said Mal would heal mentally if he didn't get exposed to any more stress. Well, I think he blew that in spades. Loved your dramatic twists of reaver destruction, and glad Mal got to be a hero for all with grenades no less! You opened up Pandora's box of introspection on self loathing for those who have survived doing and seeing horrible things, and Mal's quotient of "survivor's guilt was pretty high in the series. Masterfully done - looking forward to more!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 6:52 AM

BYTEMITE


I'm kinda like AR here, only more so.

I can see what you were doing here with Blank Mal at the end, you were trying to subvert Amnesia is Cheap by showing there's a nasty price for Zoe forcing Mal to come back. I can also tell this is a plot point you were planning for, so you have somewhere interesting in mind to take Blank Mal.

I'm really, really bothered by what Zoe did. And I guess I kind of expected kid Mal to show his innate rascalliness that got him through the war could shine through here, too. I'm also wondering why neither kid Mal and Zoe were able to figure out the fuel explosion thing. I'd have thought that would be something both of them would be capable of coming up with.

Well, anyway. I guess all I can do is see what happens next.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 11:40 AM

PLATONIST


Great chapter which plays with the duality of Mal and Malcolm realistically without seeming forced because you created a situation where Sergeant Mal was needed, but at a cost to his overall mental state.

I like how curt “Mal” became with Inara once he’s in his leadership role and how he let her know there was no time for sympathy, until the fighting is over.

I don’t blame Zoe for what she did; it was needed because things were dire. I do feel sorry for Inara, though, she would have taken Mal either way, but now that there is nothing left…hmm…I’m not sure even with her highly trained skills she could bring any part of him back.

Hopefully, she’s up for a challenge.

Monday, November 29, 2010 6:42 AM

SAFEAT2ND


You have a knack for writing action. Not too much description, no superheroes, I tip my hat to you.

Another fine chapter!


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OTHER FANFICS BY AUTHOR

Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.


Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 18
The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.



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