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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
"Out of Gas" as Joss never intended it! Jayne gets wind of a way to make money and get rid of Simon, Mal blames himself for everything and Simon gives in to temptation.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2022 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
Disclaimer: Firefly, these characters, much of the plot and dialogue – all Joss'.
SPOILERS for “Out of Gas.”
* * * * *
TRAUMA MEDICINE: Chapter 12.
Am I dreamin'?
* * * * *
A man can be held accountable for his actions but not his dreams, Mal reminds the accusing face that stares back at him from the mirror. He splashes his face with cold water even though there ain't enough water in the 'verse to wash his mind clean of these images. He swills his mouth out and spits into the little sink, almost angry. He ain't to blame for what his mind is drawn to durin' sleep. It ain't nowhere he'd willingly go.
A glance at the clock tells him it's early, but too late to go back to sleep so he decides to get breakfast now. Least that way he won't have to sit down with Inara. Or Simon. Which, considerin' what his subconscious has had him doin' to them, will be a real blessin'. Don't know why he has to keep dreamin' such things ...
He ain't right, that much is certain. There's somethin' broke deep down inside him an' he can't fix it.
* * * * *
Scratching the back of his head, Jayne grunts and start counting once again, moving the pile of banknotes on his left, bill by bill, to form a new pile on his right. When he's finished he glares at the new stack like it's pulled some fancy scam on him. “Gorramit!” he spits, “Kaylee – what d'ya make fifteen hundred divided by five?”
“Three hundred,” Kaylee replies, crumbling dried protein into a pan of meat stock of some unspecified variety.
“Tha's what I reckoned!” Jayne slaps a hand down hard on the dining room table. “That hundan Mal's cheated me!”
Kaylee frowns. “Cap'n wou'n't do that, Jayne. You mus' be countin' wrong.”
The mercenary snatches up the wad of notes in his fist and shakes it angrily. “There's only two-fifty here. Thought Bernoulli agreed thirty-five hundred platinum for the Higgins' Moon job? Mal took twenty for the ship, that leaves fifteen. Split five ways tha's ...”
The penny drops and Kaylee laughs. “There's your problem, right there! You shoulda been dividin' by six, not five. Cap'n cut Simon a share.”
“What?!” Jayne splutters indignantly. “Why the diyu he wanna do a thing like that? Doc di'n't help none. Jus' nearly got his self killed.” He pauses, reflecting. “Now – he'da succeeded, that mighta been worth a share. Hell, I'da given him mine!”
“That ain't funny, Jayne,” Kaylee scolds. “Anyhow – it was your fault Stitch Hessian was in a killin' mood, not Simon's.”
It's damn well true an' Jayne knows it. Don't make him no happier about the notion of losing percentage to that yu ben de pigu Simon Tam though. Plain fact is, Kaylee defendin' him makes Jayne hate the Doc even more. The big man stands up, knocking his chair to the floor. “I'll be in my bunk,” he growls, aiming a vicious kick at it as he leaves.
* * * * *
The Director's face is grim, the lines around his mouth deeper than ever and his skin a whitish grey. “Time to bait the hook, gentleman,” he announces firmly. “And not with some stinking maggot either. If you want to catch big fish, you've got to use an appetizing lure. Would someone like to suggest a number?”
“Fifty thousand credits,” Gaunt offers reluctantly.
“Credits will only attract upstanding citizens, and I think we've established that wherever Dr Tam may be hiding his sister, it's unlikely to be amongst the law-abiding.”
“Fifty thousand platinum,” Ginger says immediately, understanding only part of the Director's point.
“Think of it like an auction, gentlemen. Bid like you plan to win your chosen lot.”
“Two hundred and fifty thousand platinum.”
“Now that is more like it.”
“If she's been activated, she won't be worth that much to us.”
“On the contrary. Activated, she could be a bigger threat than any of us imagine. Certainly too dangerous to leave at large. Can you imagine what that girl would be capable of with a gun in her hand?”
“Could maybe try via Prospero an' ....” Mal squints at the Cortex scene over Wash's shoulder, wonderin' if he might be in need of glasses for readin' these days. Makes him feel real old. “An' - uh – Augustus?”
“Mmm,” Wash's agreement is plainly not whole-hearted. “Certainly got the benefits of bein' a circuitous route to Greenleaf. But I thought you wanted to avoid Alliance patrols?”
“I most surely do,” Mal says emphatically. Gettin' landlocked on Higgins' Moon means Serenity's details will've been automatically passed onto the Feds. Best they fly under the radar for a spell. “But they ain't got no patrols on Prospero. Hell, they ain't got no nothin' on Prospero. What kind of a sick joker gives a barren rock a name like that?”
“Guess they thought it was ironic,” Wash shrugs. “Meanwhile, on Augustus they've got themselves a whole battalion of Feds now. Look – came up on the bulletin this morning.” He presses a button and another screen lights up. Mal leans in closer to get a better look.
Jayne appears at the top of the stairs. “I ain't happy Mal,” he declares, stomping over to the consul. “We never discussed cuttin' the Doc in on that Higgins' Moon job.”
Mal straightens up and steps in a little too close to the mercenary for comfort and Jayne backs off as if by reflex. “Di'n't discuss it Jayne, cos this here's my boat, dong ma?”
The big man tries to stare him down but in a few seconds he's lookin' away, grumblin' under his breath. Mal returns his attention to the screen. “A gorram uprisin'? Damn fools. Whoa – wha's this?” he says suddenly as a familiar face fills the screen. Despite himself, Jayne looks up and sees the pale face of Simon Tam lookin' back at him. That panty-waist idjit's hauntin' him!
“New arrest warrant,” Wash informs them. He whistles softly. “Wow! Looks like the bounty on our doctor's gone up some.”
“How much?” His interest piqued, Jayne cranes his neck to read the figure pasted across the bottom of the screen.
“Not enough.” Mal flicks the screen off quickly. “You got nothin' to do, Jayne? Cos that septic vat ...” Jayne absents himself from the bridge remarkably quickly for a man of his size.
Wash consults his calendar. Out in the Black, one day's pretty much like another when you're not being shot at or swindled or hunted by the law. Aha! Just as he thought. “Twenty-fifth's today, Mal.”
“It's the Doc's birthday. He's twenty-seven. Today.”
Mal feels his skin prickle uncomfortably. “An' I'd be interested in that because ...?”
Wash puts on his most serious face. “I'm sure Kaylee would like to make him a cake. Have a bit of a party. Maybe some dancin' – some kissin'...” His eyes twinkle.
“No!” Mal says, too fast. “No party,” he amends more calmly. “We ain't on shore leave.”
“Kewu de lao baojun,” Wash mutters and returns to his course-plotting.
“All right, all right,” Mal relents. “The boy can have a cake. But I ain't dancin'.” Danced with him before. Held him in his arms. Tianna! – the way he moved ... Di'n't even appreciate it at the time an' might appreciate too much were it to happen again. “You keep workin' on that. I'd better go ... captain.”
Back in his bunk Jayne takes Binky down from the wall an' starts polishin' but he ain't really lookin' at the knife. No, what keeps flashin' before his eyes is that mighty big number. Two hundred and fifty thousand platinum. Now that's what he calls interestin'!
* * * * * *
Gales of laughter sweep through the mess. Simon's sides hurt from laughing so much. Whoever would have thought Shepherd Book such an amusing raconteur? Or that he would tell such risque stories? Simon decides this really is a very pleasant way to be spending his birthday evening, all things considered. Kaylee starts clearing the table and, ever the gentleman, he rises to assist. “Let me help you with that ...”
“Not a bit,” she says firmly but with a smile. “In fact – it's your turn.”
He looks puzzled. “My turn?” The others are grinning at him expectantly.
“Shepherd told us a funny story 'bout bein' a preacher,” Kaylee explains. “Now you tell us a funny story 'bout bein' a doctor.”
A multitude of images spring to Simon's mind, ranging from the excruciatingly embarrassing to the downright unrepeatable. “Funny story ...” He has so many he could tell them. This will be fun ...
“Yeah, cos sick people are hi-larious,” Jayne sneers, picking his teeth with a knife. Barbarian!
“Well they can be ...”
Simon laughs, remembering. Mal watches in fascination as a little of the doctor's starch dissolves, confidence replacing his usual diffidence. He wonders what the boy was like back on Osiris in his white coat an' at the top of his profession. Gets a flash of someone to be reckoned with, someone in charge. “There was this one time I was working in the E.R and this fellow, very upright ...” His soft hands move expressively, almost passionately and the next flash Mal gets is of a different kind entirely.
But all that is promptly swept aside by Jayne. “Now Inara – she's gotta have some funny whorin' stories, I'd wager.”
Something cold settles in the pit of Mal's stomach. Whorin'. Nothin' in the 'verse will ever make that right in his eyes.
The Companion is serene. She chuckles, throaty and low. Kinda sound to make a man all manner of sweaty. “Oh, do I ever! Funny and sexy! You have no idea.” Then, unexpectedly coldly, she adds, “And you never will. I don't discuss my clients.”
“Aww, come on, Inara,” Jayne whines. “Who'd know?”
“You,” she answers flatly. “Anyway, a Companion doesn't kiss and tell.”
Mal can't resist the temptation to tease her. “So, there is kissin'?”
Reluctantly she acknowledges he's scored a point and smiles. Mal smiles back. It's so rare, this comfortable feelin' between them. He's tempted to touch her, but instead takes a sip of wine from his glass. Lust's a deadly sin, he reminds himself. Kinda sin you burn for. Greed too. An' what's wantin' not one but two of his crew if not greed? How long before he wants 'em all, at this rate? Or maybe it's the denial, the build-up of hunger? How long can he pretend it's not there?
Zoe's voice breaks his train of thought. “Hey, Doc. I think our Kaylee could use your help after all.”
Simon turns and his mouth falls open at the sight. A cake. Candles. “Care to make the first incision, Doctor Tam?” Kaylee asks, grinning from ear to ear.
All around him people are wishing Simon happy birthday. How did they know? “Well ... this is ...”
So cute like this. Speechless, slightly breathless. All fumblin' an' pleased an' grateful.
“How did you know? River – did you ..?”
River denies it, her defence an odd mixture of sisterly defiance and astrophysics.
“It was me ratted you out,” Wash admits without a hint of regret.
“Seems a fresh warrant for your arrest came up on the Cortex. Had your birth date attached right to it,” Mal continues, looking really pleased with himself. He treats Simon to a warm smile, a gift in itself. Mal has the most beautiful smile when he means it. His eyes go soft and dark and his mouth ... Simon tries hard not to think about his mouth. He wonders if he's blushing. Despite the anxiety caused by being reminded of his status as a wanted fugitive, he's ridiculously happy to think Mal may have been talking about him without necessarily putting the words jingchang meiyong de before his name. And he must have sanctioned the cake-making ...
When Simon first set eyes on Mal, all those months ago, striding up the cargo bay ramp, he never imagined he'd keep wanting to hug him. The way Mal looked at him back then – well, Simon thought they were destined to hate one another and was thankful the trip to Boros would be measured in days rather than weeks. The fact that within hours Mal had punched him in the face not once but twice seemed to confirm his expectation. And yet it started this fire too.
Kaylee holds the cake out in front of him. “Come on, Doc. Give a good blow.”
Simon is extremely glad he isn't making eye contact with Mal at this precise moment. Because sometimes, in his weaker moments, when the boredom or despair get too much for him, Simon allows himself to imagine what he might do with Mal if he were free to lead his own life. Which he's not. If the Captain were interested. Which he's not. But Simon still daydreams. He lets himself wonder what kind of lover Mal would be. In daily life he's uncompromisin, demanding and yet – how does Shepherd Book put it? - 'extraordinarily protective'. Extrapolating from those characteristics, 'overwhelming' is the conclusion Simon reaches most often.
Perhaps that's just wishful thinking because Simon would quite like to be overwhelmed. He'd like all the pain and frustration he feels at what's been done to River and his inability to put it right, all the terror he feels every time he sees a man in uniform, to be blotted out – if only for a short while. He'd like to be wholly in the here and now, not constantly worrying about the future or pining for the past. So, yes - 'overwhelming' would certainly be his preferred option.
On the other hand with Inara – to whom Simon knows he's attracted - Mal's very hesitant, unsure. Over and over again, Simon has seen him retreat from situations where their relationship might have progressed. Could it be he's shy when it comes to intimacy? Would Simon have to seduce him? He smiles to himself at the very idea of it, even as a warm wave of tenderness washes over him.
Shy would be good too.... He would hold him close, turn out the lights...
The kitchen lights flicker and dim and a visceral, metallic moan of pain rather than pleasure grinds through the ship.
“What the hell was that?” Jayne asks, alarm written all over his face.
People start jumping up from the table, the easy content of just minutes before giving way to worry.
“Fire,” River answers, eyes fixed on the birthday cake.
At first Simon doesn't understand, thinks she means the candles. “Right. Okay, okay.”
The last thing Mal sees before heaven becomes hell is Simon puckerin' up his lips, gettin' ready to blow out the flames. It only fans them higher and now everyone's gonna burn.
It's like thunder and lightenin' multiplied a hundred-fold. Noise and light rip through Serenity like weapons. Kaylee is right in their path. Acting on instinct sharpened on the battlefields of New Kasmir, DuKhang and Serenity Valley, Zoe hurls herself into the mechanic, knocking her to safety but taking the full force of the explosion herself. It flings her hard into a wall. She slides down and into unconsciousness.
“Zoe!” Wash is in agony. “Zoe,” he pleads, “Honey, talk to me ... You gotta talk to me, baby...”
“Seal off everything that leads below decks. Do it now!” Mal's mind is racin', his thoughts scrabblin' over one another in a jumble of imperatives. Find out what's caused this an' fix it. See to Zoe. Keep everyone calm. Keep them safe. Keep flyin'.
For some reason his eyes meet Book's. They're deep an' solemn an' Mal fancies he sees judgment in them, as though the Shepherd can see into the darkness within him. Read his selfishness and the black thoughts he harbours. The dark fantasies he has about Inara. About Simon. Bless me, father, for I have sinned. In thought, an' word an' deed. Especially in thought. I'm a bad man, an' there ain't no fixin' it. Probably deserve to burn. But not my crew. Please – not them!
The sight of Kaylee hunched miserably over that gorram treacherous engine part could rip Mal's heart out if he let it. Would be a simple thing to lie down and wait for eternity to take them. But he ain't ready to give up yet and he can't let Kaylee give up neither. “Kaylee, what are you doin'?”
“I'm sorry, Cap'n. I'm real sorry. I shoulda taken better care of her. Usually she lets me know when somethin's wrong. Maybe she did, an' I wa'n't payin' attention.” She turns desolate eyes on him, seekin' forgiveness.
How can he be mad at her? When he knows the comfort in ignorin' the warnin's that's somethin's wrong? “I cannot be havin' this from you right now.” Nor me, neither. “We got work to do, dong ma?”
“Catalyzer's broke,” Kaylee tries to explain. “Gonna need a new one.”
“There is no new one. You gotta make do with what you got.” Everybody gotta do that. Cope with all the fei hua as best they can.
“It's broke,” Kaylee repeats, defeated.
“Come on.” He takes her hand. “This the part? Well that don't hardly seem nothin' at all.” Amazin' what nothin' can do to a man. “Where does it go?”
“Here.” She points to a gap in the engine, its edges dark and charred. “But it won't fit.”
Mal stares at the hole, then the part. “Then you gotta figure a way to make it fit,” he says grimly. Same way he gotta make himself fit, broken and damaged though he is.
Kaylee shakes her head sadly. “Tried. Sometimes a thing gets broke – can't be fixed.”
He don't wanna hear this. Don't want his own fears spoke out loud. He needs someone to reassure him everythin' will work out in the end. “Engine don't turn without this? Engine don't turn, life support won't function, we won't breathe. You wanna keep breathin', don't ya?”
“So do I,” he replies, meanin' it. His hearts already beatin' faster than usual, compensatin' for the fallin' oxygen levels. Mal might yearn for rest, for escape, but his body will resist to the last. That's gotta mean somethin', right?
They're all wrapped up, fighting back against the advancing cold, breath hanging in the air around them. Mal is cold, beyond cold. He folds his arms across his chest, tucking his hands into his armpits. Across the room, Simon mirrors the movement. Cold now, the heat at bay.
“Truth is ...” Mal says and pats an overhead pipe affectionately, “Ain't got a lot of options at this juncture. So, instead of lookin' at what we don't got, time to talk about what it is we do. An' what we got are two shuttles. Short-range. Won't go far. But they each got heat. An' they each got air. Last longer than what's left on Serenity.”
“Long enough to reach someplace?” Simon asks, aiming with laser accuracy at the flaw in Mal's plan.
“So,” Book presses, “Where will we go, then?”
“Far as you can get. We send both shuttles off in exact opposite directions. Betters the chance of somebody bein' seen - maybe getting' picked up. Shepherd Book, Kaylee an' Jayne'll ride with Inara in her shuttle. Doc – you an' your sister will go with Wash an' Zoe ... seein' as how Zoe still needs some doctorin'.”
“What about you?” Kaylee asks the question Simon wants answered. Who will he choose to die with? What will that choice mean?
“Four people to a shuttle. Four. That's the arrangement. Evens the odds.” He gives his crew a stern don't-argue-with-me look. “I'm stayin' with Serenity.”
Inappropriately, Simon feels grateful. Inappropriately - because what does it matter at this stage? They're all going to die. But at least Mal hasn't chosen someone else to spend his last hours in this 'verse with. And, Buddha be praised! - he hasn't chosen to spend them with Simon either. It may be shallow of him but the medic's glad Mal won't be there to see him fall apart, see how weak he is. And - oh God – and he's so very grateful he won't have to watch Mal die.
He swallows and nods. Mal needs to hold onto this – the idea that he's done the very best for his crew. Simon reaches for River's hand and leads her towards the spare shuttle.
Take a deep breath, Inara tells herself before the irony of the instruction hits her. She pastes on a smile to hide her irritation. Even now, when neither of them has anything to lose, Mal is still being evasive. He really is the most annoying, the most exasperating ...
“Keep everythin' set as low as possible,” he advises, fiddlin' redundantly with the shuttle controls an wishin' he'd heeded his own counsel years back. “Don't waste what you got.”
Frustrated, Inara pushes him out of the way. “Let me do that,” she snaps. Let me do something, Mal, please.”You never could operate this thing.” Because you were too afraid to try.
He steps back and lets her set the controls. For a moment they gaze wordlessly at each other. No, it's more like they have too many words and if they started they wouldn't know where to stop. Inara doesn't care about being able to stop anymore. She opens her mouth to tell him that -
“And try not to talk. Talkin' uses up air. There ain't no need for it.”
“Mal ...” Useless to debate with a man who won't argue back. “Come with us.”
“Can't. Four to a shuttle, Inara. Four.”
“One more person? You know it can't make a difference. Not now.”
But Mal don't agree. One more person makes it even more complicated, even more impossible. He can't give into the wantin'. Not now. Not never.
“I'm not leavin' Serenity,” he says firmly. He craves serenity. Mayhaps death won't be so bad after all. Might be like fallin' asleep. Or drownin'.
Inara feels him slipping away. “Mal...” She offers him the only lifeline she has. “You don't have to die alone.”
He stares at her and briefly considers taking her hand before deciding against it. No need to drag her down with him. “Everybody dies alone.”
“When your miracle gets here, you just pound this button once. It'll call back both shuttles.”
After their bitter words up on the bridge earlier, Wash's last minute gesture of reconciliation touches Mal. “Go see to your wife,” he answers, returning the gesture with the acknowledgment that that is what Zoe is – Wash's wife.
Jayne approaches. “I went ahead and closed off all below deck vents,” he says. “Diverted what there is to the bridge. It ain't much. So my advice, seal off everything tight behind you when you go back up. Might buy you some time.”
Seal off everything tight. Mal nods. Seems like everybody's full of good advice today. Only he's been doin' that for years. An' if he had kept better care of those seals – stopped 'em from workin' lose - might be they wouldn't be in this here predicament. Things might've gone smooth ....
From his solitary position down in the cargo bay, Mal gazes up at the catwalk above and watches his people leave. Stays there, listenin' for the shuttle engines to fire and the docking equipment to disengage. The noise builds to a peak and abruptly stops.
The walk to the bridge is a long one but Mal remembers to close each door behind him. He shuts the door to the infirmary and tries to let go of the ache for Simon. He secures the door to the aftdeck and says a silent goodbye to Inara. Fastening the kitchen door, he admits his dreams of havin' a family, a home, will never be. And when he enters the bridge and punches the autolock, he finally relinquishes Zoe to her husband.
Alone at last, the chill air around him enters his bones. He reaches for the old army blanket he could never bring himself to throw away and wraps it tightly around him.
A million million stars twinkle through the viewports. He scans the Black automatically out of habit. So much to see and yet so little. And none of it means a damn thing. He settles down in the pilot's chair and waits to cross the bar.
Never expected that ship to loom into view. Unsettlin' – that's what it was. The havin' it all start up again jus' when he thought it was endin'. Like there's unfinished business he still has to deal with.
Sweetest breath of air he ever took when the door opened and fresh, clean oxygen filled the cargo bay. Filled him with hope only to have it dashed by the sight of so many guns, all pointin' his way. Life an' death were only toyin' with him, battin' him back an' forth like so much fei hua. Don't matter none which of 'em wins.
But in the split second before the pirate captain fires his gun, Mal suddenly sees everything differently. He don't wanna go silently into the night, he wants to rage. Rage against every injustice in the whole gorram 'verse! Don't wanna sleep now, nor never. He wants complicated. He wants not-smooth. He wants life, gorramit!
And then the bullet leaves the barrel and knocks him off his feet whilst Death leans back against a crate an' licks its lips.
“Billy, get this plugged in,” the other ship's captain is saying. “Jesse, call Stern over here. You an' him'll pilot this pile of goushi out of here.”
It's hard to breathe, every intake of air is an agony and yet somehow he manages to do it. His eyelids are gettin' heavier with each heartbeat, but he fights to keep them open. And is rewarded by the sight of a gun, taped to the underside of Jayne's workout bench. Within his reach. Kinda thing the Preacher might say was a sign from God. Kinda thing Mal expects to be an illusion but when his fingers meet cold, hard metal he knows it's real. And that knowledge gives him the strength to pull himself to his feet and fight back.
“We'll get as far as ...”
Ain't nothin' like the sound of a gun bein' cocked to shut a fella up, Mal thinks grimly as the captain stops mid-sentence. “Jesse,” he says, not takin' his eyes from the shocked ones starin' back at him in disbelief. “Don't call Stern. Billy – leave the catalyzer.”
The men look to their captain, expecting a counter-order but the man's seen something he recognizes in Mal's eyes and it fills him with an urgent desire to get clear of this ship. “Do as he says,” he tells them.
“Take your people and go.” Easier to be merciful with a pistol in your hand an' your enemy out-manoeuvred.
“You would've done the same,” the other man says as he retreats, needin' some kinda absolution from Mal.
He ain't that forgivin'. “We can already see I haven't. Now - get the hell off my ship.”
So gorram weak, so utterly gorram weak. Damn body won't do what he wants. Why does he feel so hot when the heatin's out? Sweat trickles down his forehead and drips from his brow. Hurry up. Finish. Get it over with, so he can rest.
Everythin's spinnin' out of control an' he's spinnin' with it. He forces himself to take another step. There's a strange scent fillin' his nostrils an' he can taste blood. Then the gratin' rises up painfully to meet him and somehow he's lyin' down, starin' through it into the darkness below.
Mal's was clutching the iron grating that served as both window and cage and shaking it violently. Seated on the bare floor, Zoe watched with quiet amusement. Which was odd, given their situation.
“It ain't gonna give. You been at that for near on an hour now an' all you've done it shake a few bugs outa their hidey-holes,” she reminded him. “In the name of suoyou de dou shidang, sarge – stop!”
He gave the grating a final useless yank and dropped to the ground beside her, cursing colourfully. They sat in silence for a minute or two and then he asked conversationally “Reckon they're gonna shoot us in the mornin'?”
“Most like. Could be some torture involved. Whatever,” she replied straight-faced.
“Meanwhile we're stuck here. Cao!” He snapped his fingers and shook his head regretfully. “I was hopin' to get laid on my last night in this 'verse.”
He shuffled his ass closer and looked up at the ceiling. “So – say you were gonna get laid by anyone – who'd it be? Anyone, mind.”
Zoe laughed. “Well, ain't that a question! Let's see ... mmm, what about Captain Powell?” She considered for moment then changed her mind. “No, no! Major Andersen! You seen that man's arms?”
Mal grunted. “Di'n't think you approved of officers sleepin' with the men,” he remarked, a touch bitterly.
She shot him a look. “I don't. But this is jus' funnin'.” Ignoring his scowl, she smiled sweetly. “Your turn.”
Still dwellin' on past arguments between them, he di'n't feel much like answerin'.
“What about an old girlfriend?” she suggested, elbowing him sharply in the ribs. “Or di'n't you have none? An' old boyfriend, maybe?”
That did it! “How many times do I gotta tell you – I ain't sly! That thing with Bain ... oh, wa cao, Zoe – I don't know ...”
“Okay, sarge,” she soothed. “Forget it.”
“No.” He grinned suddenly. “You got me thinkin' on it now. Think I'll go for ... uh ... girl name of Nadine.” He flushed a little as memories came floodin' back. “Never could say 'no', that one. Or Lucille Hepworth. Hopkins? Hawkins? Somethin' like that – tianna, but that girl had stamina!”
Zoe smiled at the far-away look in his eyes. “Sounds like you're plannin' quite a party, Sir. Any more names to add to the list? Someone locked up here maybe?”
Mal chewed a thumbnail thoughtfully. “Mmmm. What about that li'l girl they brought in after us. You know – that real pale one. Dark hair.”
Zoe's eyes flew open wide and she slapped his arm. “You evil, lecherous hump! She's just a kid!”
They had the prisoners all lined up. Men on one side, women on the other. Waiting. Dreading. The Alliance commander marched along the lines, looking each prisoner up and down, taking his time. Drawing it out. Torture of a kind that left no marks. Then he turned and pointed his baton. “Her!”
A scream rang out and then she was being dragged away towards a tent.
She was the youngest of the ones who'd survived. Just seventeen. Little more than a kid. But they took her anyway. Took her and he cou'n't do a damn thing about it. He'd tried and earned a crack to the skull with a rifle butt for his trouble. And to punish him for his chivalry, they dragged him in too. They made him watch.
Would it be so very wrong to give Nature a gentle shove, Simon wonders, removing the black cuff from Zoe's arm. Her blood pressure is very nearly back to normal and her breath sounds are good. Her being conscious would certainly help in diagnosing the nature of her injuries, given the woeful lack of medical equipment on this shuttle. Lack of everything, he amends, looking around at the plain metal surfaces and plastic furniture. Whereas Inara's shuttle is lush and full, this one is Spartan in the extreme. Only the barest of bare necessities.
Six months ago to Simon's eyes Serenity had looked just like this, accustomed as he was to wealth and plenty. Now Serenity is like a palace compared with some places he's been – no, Serenity's better than a palace – she's a home. Zao cao, but he wishes he was still there. Still with Mal. As soon as he felt the shuttle pull away, he knew he'd made a terrible mistake. But how could he have opposed Mal at such a dreadful time? The only person capable of doing that was unconscious. So, the question arises again ... would it be so very wrong?
River looks up from braiding her hair. “Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies,” she promises. Simon's heart skips a beat. She knows what he's going to do – or at least, has guessed. And if she knows that, what else does she know?
“The point of no return is fast approaching,” she says cheerfully.
Tamade! He hadn't thought of that. “Wash? How far can we get on the fuel we have?”
“Half a click. Maybe.”
“And how far have we gone so far?” he asks.
Wash checks his screen. “Nearly a quarter. Why?”
“Nothing,” Simon lies, picking up a syringe. “Just making conversation.”
Wash eyes him suspiciously. “What's that your giving her?” he asks as Simon fills the syringe from a sterile blister pack.
“Something to help. In case of internal bleeding,” Simon lies again, slipping the empty pack into his bag as if the pilot might know what naloxone hydrochloride is used for.
“Okay.” Wash jumps up from his seat and hurries over to his wife's side,. He takes her hand just as Simon slides the needle into a vein. There's a seemingly endless pause and then Zoe's whole body convulses. Instantly, Wash has an arm under her shoulders, supporting her head. Coughs rack through her and her eyes open, close and open again. Simon holds a beaker of water to her lips. She sips, then gulps, looking around her, rapidly working out where they are if not why.
“What we doin' in here?” she asks as soon as she can speak. “An' where's the Captain?”
Wash bites back his jealously and starts explaining, getting events all in the wrong order in his confusion and delight to see his wife awake and alert.
Zoe stares at him. “You all just left him there? Alone?” she demands. “How could you?”
“It was our only choice, bao-bei!” Wash nearly shouts at her. “And he did order us off the ship.”
“Well, I'm orderin' you back,” she says through clenched teeth. “Turn this shuttle around. Mashang!”
Simon breathes an enormous sigh of relief, then remembers they're still all going to die – foetal, bloated and gasping.
River groans softly and falls backwards, clutching her side. “Hurry,” she whispers.
“That's a lot of blood, isn't it?” Wash asks Simon as they make their way down the hallway.
“The average adult human body contains ten pints of blood,” River informs them. “Accounting for seven percent of body weight.”
Wash glances at her out of the corner of his eye and grimaces. “Right. Good. Uh – Doc ..?”
Simon doesn't look up, he's still following the trail of blood, holding his breath and praying. Please, please don't let us be too late. Don't let him be dead.
“What about Zoe, Doc?”
“Take her to the infirmary. I'll be down as soon as I can. As soon as I find him.”
“I'll be fine ... Leave me here...” Zoe is saying when River interrupts. “His miracle got here. Gone to meet it.”
Simon and Wash exchange a look. “The bridge!”
Simon starts running.
Simon withdraws the needle from Wash's inner elbow and places a cotton wood pad over the puncture wound. “Keep that pressed down for a while,” he tells him, moving the pilot's fingers into position. “Are you feeling all right? Any dizziness? Nausea? No? Well, I think the best thing would be for you to get some rest now. Zoe will probably need a lot of nursing when she comes round.”
Wash nods. “Okay. Nursing I can do. I'm big with the brow-mopping and the tending.” He looks down at Mal. “How's he doing?”
“Well, he's weak, but he'll live. Thanks to you. You saved his life.”
Wash shakes his head. “No, I didn't Doc. I just had the right blood type. It was you that saved him. Saved my wife too. Might just have to name our first-born after you. Assuming it's a boy.”
“That's awfully ... but ...” Simon starts as the guilt kicks in, then stops himself. “Thank you. Now I'd like you to go and lie down for a while. That was a lot of blood to give in a single session. Don't worry - I'll call you when she wakes up.”
Wash is reluctant to leave, but when he gets to his feet he realizes he's quite light-headed. “Okay, Doc.”
When he's gone, Simon sets about tidying up the infirmary and writing up his notes. Both patients are sedated and the room is very quiet. He checks Zoe's blood pressure and pulse and moves on to Mal. Using the third finger of one hand to gently pull it down, he inspects the inside of Mal's lower lid for signs of anaemia. None. Thanks to Wash, the blood vessels are red and healthy. Amazing, after such blood loss. In fact, apart from the wound in his abdomen, dry lips are the only indication of what the Captain has been through. Bleeding on that scale causes dehydration too. Simon crosses to the sink and wets a cloth. This he applies carefully to Mal's mouth, letting the water trickle over his lips and into his mouth. The Captain's tongue flickers out briefly, but he soon lies still again. Simon puts the cloth down, and as if in a dream, traces the wet contours of Mal's lips with his fingertips.
Zoe opens an eye. And watches as Simon's hand moves up to stroke Mal's hair back from his forehead. Zao cao! She groans quietly, making the medic start. He's swiftly at her side. “Try not to move,” he urges. “You need complete rest – that means bed rest – for at least forty-eight hours. It's all right,” he adds quickly as she opens her mouth to argue, “You don't have to stay here. We'll move you to your own bunk in the morning.”
Zoe's brows knit together. Maybe she ought to stay here. Keep an eye on the Captain. Keep an eye on Simon too for that matter. “Doctor,” she says, touching his arm. “You remember our first conversation?”
He nods, suddenly nervous.
“Good. What I said then – it still stands.” The pause that follows gives Simon plenty of time to recall every last syllable about mercy, forgiveness and trust and how Zoe will kill him if Mal tells her to. She smiles. “But that don't mean I'm not all manner of grateful for what you've done for me an' the Captain. When we got back, wa'n't sure he'd – well, he'd lost a hell of a lot of blood, ha'n't he?”
The unspoken threat is still reverberating around the room and Simon can't quite return her smile. “Yes. But luckily Wash was able to ...”
Zoe looks around. “Where is that husband of mine?”
“I told him to rest. It was a long transfusion. The Captain needed several pints ...”
“Not enough,” River says from the doorway. “The hole's still there.”
“It'll heal me-mei. I've stitched it up. He'll mend, River – now go back to bed. Please.” Simon tries to shoo her out of the infirmary but she won't be moved. She slips past him and reaches a hand out onto Mal's chest.
“Hollow man. Between the emotion and the response falls the Shadow.” She smiles down at him sadly and turns earnest eyes on her brother. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
“River – I don't ... what are you talking about?”
She looks so old, so wise, and yet she's just a kid. She lays a slender hand on Mal's head like a blessing. “The way his world ended,” she says simply.
The flame of a single candle lights Inara's shuttle. She closes her eyes and feels the blood drum through her veins. A deal is a deal, even one made with the Infinite. She reaches out and extinguishes the flame between thumb and forefinger, wincing at the pain.
A man can't be held responsible for his dreams but often they hold him to account. Remind him of all the things he could've done an' di'n't. All that things he shou'n't have and did.
Of the things he might do.
There's a package on his bed, wrapped up in anonymous brown paper. A tag hangs from it which reads “Not to be opened.” Defiantly he rips it off and tears open the paper. A Russian doll tumbles out and rolls across the mattress. He bends down to pick it up, fascinated to discover the face it bears is utterly familiar. Simon Tam – all serious eyes and pretty mouth. Mal rolls it between his hands for a while, enjoying the smoothness of the paintwork and admiring the detail. Then suddenly he gives it a vicious twist and the doll cracks open, revealing a slightly smaller one inside. This body glitters scarlet and black, so it don't take a mind-readin' genius to realize it will be wearing Inara's perfect smile. A sharp pull and this shell falls open too. Zoe's face appears, angry and unforgiving. He can't bear to look at it and quickly snaps the doll open once again. Round, doe eyes are replaced by almond ones and dark skin fades into something paler. It's Jia Wei and there are tears in her eyes. Blood on her bottom lip. Mal's hands tremble as he snatches at the doll, wrenching it apart desperately – not wanting to, but unable to stop. At first he thinks there's nothing there but a shake proves him wrong. A small, cold shape falls out onto the palm of his hand. A pale body, scratched an' battered and bleedin'. There's blood on his hands. He fumbles with the tiny pieces of torn clothing which cling to the figurine, trying to cover up the immature breasts and slender thighs, but his fingers are too big, too clumsy. He can't do it. Can't put it right. Frustrated and furious he flings the wretched thing onto the floor. Its eyes roll open and stare up at him. Cold and lifeless but full of blame.
Panicked, Mal snatches it up and begins frantically reassembling the dolls, forcing one shell into the next until once again he's left with the white-coated likeness of his medic. He rolls it up in the brown paper and sinks down on the bed, exhausted, covering his face with his hands.
“You want me,” a voice says.
“No,” he argues, clapping his hands down hard over his ears. “No. Leave me alone.”
“It's all right,” the voice continues. “Everthing's going to be all right.”
In the still of the infirmary, the sound wakes Simon up. He rubs his eyes and gets up from the chair he decided to sleep in in order to keep watch over his patients. Mal's head is thrashing from side to side and he's muttering something in his sleep as he struggles under the weight of blankets.
“Shh, Mal,” he says softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “It's all right. Everything's going to be all right.”
His patient lets out a long sigh and turns his face in towards the comforting touch. Simon's breath catches in his throat as Mal's slightly stubbly cheek rubs against the back of his hand. “Uh - Captain? Can you hear me? Mal?”
There's no answer and Simon lets out a sigh of his own. He straightens the blankets, tucking Mal back up like he used to do for River when she was young. Funny, in this light and fast asleep, the Captain looks pretty young himself. Young and surprisingly vulnerable. Simon smiles fondly at him and leans forward to press a light kiss to his forehead. And another to his lips.
Shocked at himself for having taken advantage of Mal's unconscious state, he pulls back quickly. That was unethical, stupid and wrong. And he might never get the chance to do it again. He glances across at Zoe. She's sleeping on one side, her back turned, her breathing steady.
This time he closes his eyes.
And when he opens them again, he's looking right into the clear blue depths of the Captain's.
* * * * *
Thursday, January 20, 2005 9:05 AM
Sunday, January 30, 2005 2:56 PM
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