BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - SUSPENSE

JEBBYPAL

Camouflage
Sunday, March 13, 2005

Ch1-5 --> Chapters that have previously been posted have been heavily revised.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1789    RATING: 8    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimers: Firefly doesn't belong to me, that honor goes to Joss, Mutant Enemy, Fox, and Universal pictures.

A/N: K, this technically isn't an AU – season happened as shown. But it is somewhat of an alternate interpretation of characters and alternate history. Many thanks to my beta readers shdwdrgn, neroli66, and cassiee. Also, much credit for the origin of the bunny that grew into this story goes to Zoid and the ideas he posted in a very old thread about Zoe.

I hope to do better about posting fairly regular updates :) Enjoy

Camouflage

Chapter 1: Orders Chinese Glossary Tai-kong suo-yo duh shing-chiou doh sai-jin wuh dhu pee-goo! - Stuff all the planets in the universe into my ass!


Quietly, Zoe made her way to the bridge. She'd heard the Captain's bunk close earlier so she knew he'd finally finished his late night wanderings. Wash slept fitfully; she always wore him out on these days like this. Everyone else should be quietly asleep, but she checked the lock the bridge door just in case.

She paused before turning on the cortex. Something was different now, she felt it. This call might be the one that would change her life. Once she would have welcomed it, the boredom had come close to driving her mad. Instead of giving in, she'd fought back and married Wash. The relationship gave some distraction and gained her some distance from Mal. She wasn't sure he'd forgiven her, but then that had been the point.

Sighing, she turned away from the past and toward the now. Time to be the person she was again, time to learn if the path would change. Her body hummed with anticipation as she turned on the cortex and dialed the number. When the well known face appeared on the screen, she allowed a genuine smile to show.

"You're late," the person said.

"Couldn't be helped, you know that."

The gray-haired woman nodded. "Very well. I'm sending you the details now. Will you be able to convince him to take the job?"

Zoe smirked. "Low as coin is, all I'll have to do is mention it. Any specific objectives?"

"All you need to know is in the wave. Good luck."

"Luck is for the clueless," Zoe said before the woman disappeared. Zoe quickly printed the wave before erasing the trace of her call and modifying the wave records to show only the job info.

After reading through the wave, she smiled before once again slipping on the mask that the crew of Serenity knew so well. It was about time that things got interesting again.


Zoe's mind flowed through the past and the future while she listened with half an ear to the Captain. She already knew the job, already knew the ins and outs. Nice thing about the person she played was no one expected her to say much. Learned early on that the shorter your responses, the more time you had to anticipate reactions and variables.

Thanks to the Captain's overly generous personality, this plan would have more variables than she cared for. During her time at Mal's side, she'd come to appreciate being uncomplicated and straightforward. Everyone knew how she'd react and that gave her an edge. Most might not recognize it, but then few planned for the long term.

Carefully, she evaluated the variables she could not predict. Kaylee, Simon, and River were easy, no surprises to be had there. Wash equally predictable. Book, now there was a story whose ending could not be foretold. Or beginning for that matter. Did he have an agenda or was he exactly what he said? Somehow she doubted it. Better not to underestimate the unknown, life lasted longer that way.

Inara. Now there was a piece to be used to advantage. She knew the hold the Companion held over the Captain. Utilized correctly, it could buy Zoe valuable time.

Jayne. One might think that the mercenary would be an open book, but Zoe wasn't so sure. The man was too easy to read, his motivations too transparent. Knowing her own mysteries made her worry that others might possess them in equal volumes. Elimination would make things go smooth, but then again waste not, want not. Could be the man would provide a distraction. Mal thought she was ignorant to the events of Ariel, but he was wrong.

Zoe nodded when it was called for. Meeting was almost done. Her planning was solid, execution should be simple. Lives would change and some would end. But first there was a job to be done.


The next week consisted of the normal boredom of space. The re-supply and cargo pickup went smoothly. No problems en route to deliver the goods to the buyers. River became a tad jumpy, but nothing that Zoe wasn't expecting. Easy-peasy as Kaylee would say.

Zoe was glad when the ship landed though and the mule was loaded. Sitting and waiting had never been high on her list of things to do and now that the waiting was over after three long years, she was ready to set her plans into motion.

One short detour back to the kitchen before meeting the others at the mule and all would be ready.


"I don't like it none," Jayne groused.

Mal sighed. "Look, you don't have to like it. Just give Zoe the gorram gun and let's get this show on the road before we're late."

"How come Zoe gets to do recon? That's my job," Jayne protested.

Zoe just smirked and continued to hold her hand out expectantly as she waited for Mal to explain the situation. 'Course, if Mal did his job right, he wouldn't have to explain ever single decision to his subordinates and continually gripe about how his ship wasn't a democracy. She could tell that Mal would prefer to hit someone, but he finally ground his teeth instead. "For the love of…Look, our unit fought a battle on this moon early on. Won it too thanks to Zoe's recon. So trust me, she knows this moon and she's gonna take Vera with her. Now you can either be conscious 'n go to the meet with me or not. What's it gonna be?" Mal asked.

"Fine," Jayne growled. "Better not be jammed when I get 'er back."

Zoe rolled her eyes. "I'll take care of it as if it were my only child," she promised while tugging it impatiently.

"Let go of the gorram gun, Jayne," Mal urged. After the mercenary finally released the weapon, Mal nodded at Zoe. "Let us know if you spot anything."

Zoe nodded. "Will do, Sir." Zoe smiled at the weight of the rifle in her hand as Mal and Jayne sped off to the meeting. So far everything was proceeding according to plan.

An hour later, she was in place in a spot she remembered from the war. Through the scope, she could clearly see Mal, Jayne, and the buyers. The buyers didn't appear overly concerned with safety; in fact Zoe couldn't spot any hidden gunmen anywhere. Oh well.

Taking aim, she carefully set up her shot. Seconds later, a bullet pierced Jayne's leg just above the knee. Mal and the buyers quickly dropped, each shooting at the other. Zoe let off a few more shots from different positions making sure she hit only dirt.

Firefight underway, she carefully made her way to where Mal had concealed the mule. Zoe ensured her head start by pulling several wires free from the engine. Running at an easy pace, she wondered if events on the ship had gone smooth.

Zoe entered the ship and found exactly what she expected. The entire crew, with the exception of River, was unconscious, slumped in their places at the kitchen table. Zoe quickly transported Wash to shuttle two before making a detour to the infirmary. After gathering some useful supplies, she located River in the passenger dorm. Apparently Simon had had to give her a smoother. Good thing no one tended to listen to the girl's ranting.

Zoe deposited River on the floor of the shuttle beside Wash and then restrained the teen with several cloth ropes. Everything situated, she laid in her course and headed for atmo. One life over, another waiting.


Mal grunted as a bullet grazed his arm. He didn't know how it happened, but things got humped up fast. Jayne was bleeding, but still shooting. Most of the buyers had been taken out though. Zoe wasn't answering over the radio; he could only hope she was okay. He forced himself to assume that she was currently stalking the gorram sniper that had taken down Jayne.

Once the last of their opponents was neutralized, Mal crawled over to check on Jayne while keeping a close eye on the horizon for any sign of a sniper or Zoe.

"I'm fine," Jayne groaned as he struggled to tighten his belt around his thigh. Mal helped him tighten it till the bleeding slowed some. "Went straight through, should be no problem gettin' to the mule once we get paid."

Mal nodded tersely in agreement. Zoe's absence was worrying; he would have expected to hear from her by now. Forcing himself to do the job rather than searching for his friend, Mal began to rummage through the pockets of the dead and injured in search of their pay. Once he located the bag of coins, he helped Jayne to his feet and the pair began to make their way slowly back to the mule. Hopefully Zoe was there and waiting.

Some fifteen minutes later, the mule came into sight exactly as they had left it. Mal got a panting, pale-faced Jayne arranged on the back before starting the engine. Mal cursed colorfully in Chinese when the engine turned over before dying with a sputter. His curses increased in volume after he examined the engine and found that it had been tampered with. Not a creative bit of sabotage, but enough that they'd be very late getting back to the ship. Mal tried to raise the ship in order to get a shuttle sent so that at least Jayne could be tended to while he searched for Zoe. Unfortunately, no one answered. He was gonna have a fun talk with his pilot about attention to duties when he got back.

Looking at Jayne, he amended that. He was gonna have a talk with the pilot really soon, otherwise Jayne would be in trouble. Sighing at his humped luck, Mal busied himself with fixing the mule.


"Gorramit. Why can't someone open the ruttin' door?" Mal demanded after finally getting the mule back into the cargo bay. His repair job had failed a quarter of a kilo away from the ship forcing him to push the mule and Jayne back to the ship. His mood had not improved by the lack of response from his crew to his repeated requests for someone to have the door open and Simon waiting for him. Gonna have to have a chat with the whole gorram crew about responsibility just as soon as they found Zoe.

"Doctor, where in the hell are you?" Mal called over the ship wide comm. When no answer came, he left Jayne on the mule while he hurried up the stairs in the cargo bay to locate his lazy crew. Grumbling the entire way, he checked the infirmary and the engine room before heading to the kitchen. Even Kaylee wasn't working. He'd tear them all a new one if he found they'd snuck off to a lake or river. They were all back-berths if they thought he wouldn't notice that one of the shuttles was missing.

"Tai-kong suo-yo duh shing-chiou doh sai-jin wuh dhu pee-goo!" Mal exclaimed. Every member of his crew, including Inara, was face down on the table. Book had even fallen into his food. Wash and River were absent though.

Mal tried to rouse the doctor before retracing his steps through the ship hollering for Wash and River. Giving up, he retrieved several stimulant shots from the infirmary before heading back to the kitchen. Reasoning that it would be best not to accidentally kill Simon when he needed the boy to patch Jayne up, he gave the shot to Book first,

After seeing that the shot wouldn't be deadly, Mal gave one to Simon and Kaylee. Figuring to let the rest wake up and get their bearings, Mal moved Jayne to the infirmary before returning to check on his crew of Sleeping Beauties. Kaylee and Simon were just coming to while Book looked a tad less confused than he had earlier.

Mal glared at Book. It was high time that he get some answers to his overly confusing day. "Care to tell me what happened?"

Book shook his head, clearly still more than a bit puzzled his own self. "River got upset at what we were going to eat, so Simon sedated her. We sat down to dinner. After that,"

"Black," Kaylee interrupted.

Simon sat up suddenly, "River!"

"She's not on the ship. Neither is Wash, and Zoe disappeared during the meet. Anyone got a clue as to what in the hell is going on?" Mal asked loudly. The whole situation seemed to get more frustrating by the minute.

Everyone at the table shrugged except for Inara, whose hair was still lying in her protein gravy. Mal sighed as he dropped down in a chair to rest for a minute. "Simon, Jayne needs your attention. Sniper winged him. Book, feel up to a little shuttle recon to see if we can locate Zoe?"


Chapter 2: Destinations

Zoe programmed her destination into the autopilot when she heard Wash start to wake. Immediate necessities taken care of, she went to her husband's side. "Hey there."

Wash blinked at her blearily. "Zoe?"

"Hey you," she replied with a tender smile. "Everything's fine. Here, this will help," she told him, offering a canteen of water.

Wash pushed the canteen away. "What's going on and why are we on the shuttle? If Mal agreed to a vacation, why do I feel like I just went two rounds with Jayne?"

Zoe caressed his face as she considered her answer. Most likely Wash wasn't ready for the truth. It would come out soon, but best to only have one passenger to worry about right now. "Things got humped at the meet and the feds showed up. Mal ordered me to get River away from the ship. Knew I'd be distracted if you were left behind, so he told me to take you too."

Wash struggled to sit up. The drugs were clearly still affecting him because his color turned rather green and he forcefully balanced himself with his hands on the bench. "So if that's what happened, how come I'm all space-sick and River's unconscious…and tied up?"

"Feds piped a narcotic gas into the ship. Mal and Jayne distracted them while I got the two of you to a shuttle. River might be disoriented when she comes around; I figured restraints would be better than fighting with her for control of the ship," Zoe explained.

"It doesn't make any sense Zoe. How did they find us?"

"I don't know. Maybe the buyer rolled on us after getting pinched." Zoe looked up when she heard the alarm notifying her that the shuttle had reached the intended coordinates. "Look, rest for a bit more and keep an eye on River. Everything will be okay."

Wash swallowed hard as another wave of nausea hit him. Sure, things would be just fine. But who the hell was flying Serenity in his and Zoe's absence?


Kaylee watched Inara in the pilot's seat examining Serenity's flight controls while the mechanic nervously chewed at her fingernails. "Ya really think you'll be able to fly her?"

Inara resisted the urge to snap at the mechanic. Everyone dealt with the stress of the disappearance of River, Wash, and Zoe in different ways. Kaylee's just happened to be a nuisance when Inara was trying to focus on deciphering the main cockpit controls. "Flying the ship won't be difficult, mei mei. Navigation is another matter. I think that between Simon and Book's mathematical knowledge, we'll manage."

Kaylee nodded as she walked closer to the other woman. "Just don't understand it is all. I mean, why would they leave? And where's Zoe? She's gonna be so upset when she finds out Wash is gone."

"I'm sure Mal will find her. And then we'll be able to start looking for the others." Inara prayed that Zoe would indeed be found. Experience had taught her that when Malcolm Reynolds was deprived of the steadying influence of his second-in-command, the situation often deteriorated from bad to worse.


"Well, that was a waste of time and fuel," Mal stated.

Book nodded. He'd felt the Captain's tension rise with every landing that yielded no clues as to Zoe's whereabouts. The man was worried about his friend while being downright terrified by the disappearance of the other two crewmembers. Zoe, Wash, and River…the pattern made no sense. Book's gut told him that Wash would be the last person to turn the younger girl in to the authorities and there was no one that Malcolm trusted more than Zoe. Yet here they were, returning from a fruitless search for one with no idea as to what had happened to the rest.

"I'm going to check on Jayne," Book informed the younger man as they exited the shuttle.

Mal grunted. "Good idea. Maybe the doctor knows why all my crew was asleep in their food."

They found Simon sitting on the couch outside of the infirmary. His face fell when Book shook his head in response to the boy's unspoken query. Book felt deeply for him. To have thought that he and his sister had attained some measure of security in the unlikeliest of places and then have it all ripped from him without warning was akin to torture. As a shepherd, this situation was testing even his faith. He admired the strength of character of both the captain and the doctor. Lesser men would be cursing the fates or have resigned themselves to their loss already.

"How's Jayne doin'?" Mal asked as he turned his back to allow the doctor a measure of privacy to regain his composure.

"The bullet went straight through without damaging the bone. He'll be in pain, but should heal quickly," Simon informed them.

"Any ideas as to what affected the rest of us?" Book asked.

Simon looked down at the floor before answering. "The food. A strong sedative was in the food." Mal cursed fluently as Book considered the new information. Simon finally added the conclusion that Book had already reached. "It was Wash's turn to cook."

Book almost felt weak with shock. The idea that the pilot might seek to profit off of River's pain only added to the betrayal of the Captain, crew, and his wife…Zoe, had she been a part of the deed? If not, where was she?

"Zoe must have gotten a whiff of what he'd planned, that's why she's missing," Mal declared. "I'm going to see if Inara is ready to try to follow them. We'll need one of you for the navigating soon."

Book and Simon both nodded. Once they were alone, Simon turned to Book. "Do you think he's right?" he asked clearly hoping for something, anything that might bring his sister back.

Book sighed. "It's possible," he replied. Out of desire to spare the boy's feelings, he refrained from mentioning other likely scenarios. The Captain's deduction didn't explain why only one shuttle was missing.


"Wode tian, that's a big ship!" Wash stated as he sat in the co-pilot seat of the shuttle.

Zoe glanced at him as she went through the identification and docking protocols necessary to turn the landing controls over to the space-carrier that loomed in space before them.

Wash leaned forward to get a better look at the behemoth. "A Zeta35 Transport?" he asked. "Geez, I thought they were all destroyed or impounded after the war."

"Not all," Zoe replied tersely.

"Apparently." Wash sat back in his seat and looked at his wife. "Judging from our course, I assume that's our ride?"

"How's River?"

"Okay," Wash drawled. "Avoidance is the battle plan for today. You know, I think that you could let me in on the plan a little here lambie-toes. I may not be Mal, but I'm not going to fall apart on you either," he griped.

Zoe sighed as she rolled her eyes at her husband. "I already told you the plan zhang-fu. We will dock with this ship which will put some more distance between us and the Alliance patrol on Rantun before we figure out a way to help the rest of the crew." Pausing for effect, she made the last adjustments to their course. "In the meantime, I would like to know whether our gracious hosts will be dealing with our crazy Reader while she's conscious or not."

"Sorry, I just thought that you already had your plan figured out. River's fine. Still sleeping peacefully."

"Good." Zoe's stomach was in knots. Wash was the one mistake in an otherwise perfectly executed maneuver. Whoever she saw next would not be happy. Worse, if they let him stay….or told him the truth, he wouldn't be happy. "Listen honey, I know you feel out of the loop, but when we get on that ship I need you to follow my lead. Dong ma?"

Wash nodded and gave her one of his signature grins. She did her best to return it, but she didn't know if she had much to be happy about right now.


"What do you mean you lost it?" Mal roared.

Kaylee flinched at his outburst and shrank back into her seat in front of the radar and telemetry screens. "Don’t yell at her, it's not her fault," Inara shouted back.

Mal's face twisted at the Companion's words. "This is my boat 'Nara and I will do as…"

"Captain," Book interrupted.

"What?" Mal asked curtly.

"It's not Kaylee's fault. The Cortex indicates that there have recently been a series of comets in this quadrant of space. Even an Alliance trained technician would have trouble picking up any kind of trail after this long," Book explained.

Mal cursed loudly in English and Mandarin for a good five minutes before calming somewhat. "Can nothing go my way today?"

Kaylee's eyes were wide as she regarded the others in the room. The entire day had been so surreal. To think that Wash could ever…No, she couldn't believe it. They'd find there was another explanation when they found him and River, surely. He'd never do that, not to the Cap'n or Zoe. They just had to find them to figure it all out.

"There's only so far that the shuttle could go," she offered. "Once Simon and Book find the places they could be, we'll check until we find 'em."

Mal barely glanced at her before turning to look out at space again. Seeing him so torn up was almost as bad as seeing Simon sick with worry over River. The shuttle would turn up, she told herself. Anything else was unthinkable.


Zoe tried to disguise her displeasure when the Cortex lit up to indicate an incoming call. After making sure that Wash was clearly visible to the camera, she initiated the signal.

"Zoe," an older woman in a brown uniform greeted.

"Ma'am," Zoe replied with a nod. "Permission to come aboard for myself and two civilians."

The officer frowned at Zoe's information. "I thought you understood we discouraged visits by anyone of neutral standing."

"Couldn't be helped. One was a fugitive we were harboring, but my ship ran into a patrol. The other's my husband." Huh, seems like that particular expression of displeasure wasn't unique to the Captain. They must get lessons when they get promoted to officer status, Zoe mused.

"If you brought them, I assume you vouch for both?" After Zoe agreed, the officer signaled instructions to someone. "Fine then, escorts will receive you. The civilians are not to roam understand?"

"Yes, ma'am." Zoe glanced over when she felt Wash hit her elbow. After seeing his silent message she turned back to the screen. "One more thing - the fugitive I mentioned, she needs medical attention."

"Understood. We'll see to it. And Zoe, welcome back," the woman stated with a warm smile before signing off.

"Welcome back?" Wash asked.

"Later husband. Later."


Chapter 3: Cold Souls

Zoe carried River through the airlock while Wash followed. She hoped he took her warning not to speak out of turn to heart. Things were going to be pretty tricky for a while. They were met by an escort almost immediately. She cursed inwardly when she saw the soldier carrying his gun. Already she could hear the gears in Wash's brain start to turn as her husband continued to collect more and more questions.

After a short walk down a drab metal corridor, the group came to a stop in front of three officers. Two of them Zoe could identify immediately. The third must have been newly promoted from a regiment she hadn't trained with. She nodded her head in acknowledgement rather than saluting since she didn't want to lay River on the metal grate upon which they stood.

"Report," ordered the new officer.

Zoe resisted wincing as River jabbed her with an elbow. There hadn't been time to give the girl another dose and it appeared that she was beginning to rise to the level of simple sleep. "Sirs, our ship was ambushed by an Alliance patrol. My Captain ordered me to remove this girl to safety since she's a wanted fugitive," Zoe answered. She saw their eyes flicker back towards her husband as they pieced her cover story together with what they knew of her actual orders.

When Admiral Burton stepped forward, Zoe felt a small sense of relief. Burton was a firm, but fair commanding officer and someone she trusted. The old man hadn't aged well; his light brown skin hung from his face while what hair he had left was now completely silver. He still wore the turquoise necklace she had sent to him after the war though. The gift had accompanied her message informing her superiors that Mal had bought Serenity as well as the wave address of the ship.

"I imagine that you are all tired. Goodman here will take the girl to the infirmary. Lieutenant Yabis," he told them as he nodded his head toward the new officer, "will escort you to your assigned bunk."

Zoe felt Wash tug gently on her arm. " River will be pretty upset when she wakes. Shouldn't one of us should stay with her?" he asked quietly.

Of course, Burton overheard the question. He might appear to be older than dirt, but his hearing was as sharp as ever. "Certainly. Your husband is welcome to accompany her."

Zoe understood the unspoken message. They'd take advantage of this opportunity to debrief her. Sighing, she decided that there was no avoiding it. Didn't matter how much she'd hoped for a bath first. Or a night of sleep. "Yes, sir," she answered as she gently handed River over to Goodman. Before following Yabis down the corridor, she gave her husband a quick kiss and a silent reminder to watch what he said.


Wash sat beside her on a metal chair. She could feel how uncomfortable his seat was, but that he wasn't noticing it. His mind was going over and over the day's events trying to suss out a pattern. He wanted to trust his wife, but too much had been revealed. He'd found an elephant larger than the Captain and Zoe's past battles, but he couldn't determine its color. She felt sorry for him, yet she knew that she didn't have the luxury of getting him to understand.

She could feel the eyes on her. The machines and technicians both watched - one with clinical detachment, the others with eager curiosity. She wouldn't get long, but then they also didn't know anything about her. Waiting until the curious eyes got bored, she started to stare at Wash's face until he could see her open eyes. She'd already managed to move her hand close to her face, so he immediately saw her signal him to be quiet.

The pilot was smart. She had to give him that. She wasn't sure if the rest of the crew would have immediately leaned toward her while being sure to not attract attention from the eyes. She split her attention between him and the eyes while she continued to make her body fool the machines. Controlling heart rate and breathing was so simple. Brain waves would have been more difficult, but fortunately they hadn't hooked anything to her head. She was glad. She might have had a flashback otherwise.

"Have to get a message to Daddy," she told Wash. She saw his forehead scrunch in confusion. She never understood why no one else ever understood the title. He'd get it in time. "Careful of the tacks. They prick so easily. She's Zoe, but not your wife."

Wash gasped as if she'd punched him. She felt the watchers. Too late, they saw her eyes open. She hid her smile. They had no clue what to expect. The performance might be fun.

She let the machines detect her systems gearing up for the fun. Screaming, she started to jump off of the bed. Wash was taken aback, his fear and confusion washed over her. She welcomed it, used it since she couldn’t find her own through the haze of the remaining sedatives. Ripping at the wires, she managed to tear the restraints from the table. She jumped to run before the first of the eyes got to her, but she was too slow. Strong arms encircled her as others approached with more drugs. Drugs all around her, tacks couldn't be avoided. She heard Wash yelling, felt the blow he dealt to her captor, felt the prick in his skin before her own. Surrendering to the darkness, she found herself praying to the Shepherd's symbol that he understood.


Zoe gritted her teeth as she entered the bunk. No one had protected her. She hadn't known any of the officers. At least she had gotten to see Stu first. 'Course, the fact that he was onboard wasn't exactly a comfort since her husband was as well. However, it had been all kinds of nice to be able to confirm with her eyes that he had survived the war. She couldn't remember the last time they'd actually seen each other.

She shook her head as she sat on the bed. Wash was already asleep. Not sure if that was a good thing or not. Might be better to get all the interrogations over in one night. Didn't matter. She was beginning to wonder if anything ever had.


River struggled against the drugs. They hadn't given her a sedative this time. Only a mild tranquilizer. Eyes were too eager to start their tests. Problem was none of them knew where to start. Their eyes hadn't found the right information. Hands of Blue didn't like sneaky little rats.

No, mustn't go that way. Attract attention. Stay focused, find a place to hide. She reached out hoping to find Wash's dreams. Unfortunately she missed; they'd given the pilot too much sedative for him to be in R.E.M. yet.

River cried out when they attached the monitor to her temples. Not there, here. Zoe brought them here, didn't bring the Hands of Blue. Felt the tack prick her as the eyes delivered another round of drugs. No time - now or never!

She jumped. She cried when she landed. She avoided these dreams as much as she avoided Daddy's. Too late. Grabbing a tree, she closed her eyes against the driving snow as her teeth began to chatter from the cold.

Zoe shivered. Couldn't remember the last time she'd been warm. In her head, she knew it hadn’t been that long. Only three days since her life had been destroyed, but it seemed longer. Only spot of warmth to be had was beside her, sleeping. But that was ruined by the guilt.

Only reason she was cold was she had lied. Played sick to miss the weekly meeting. Gone to meet Stu in the woods instead. God hadn't been happy with either sin. Their hot session in the storage shed had been interrupted by the first explosion.

They'd been smart enough not to leave their clothes behind, but had no time to dress during their frantic dash from the shed to the woods. The cold had set in and not let go as they watched flames consume the church and additional bombs destroy the surrounding homes. His fingers had been like ice as he pulled her away into the woods. Blue hands forced her into the brush before he jumped on top of her. She'd grunted when he knocked the air out of her with an elbow as he hastily pulled his clothes on.

The cold of the ground seeped into her body while his heat on top kept her warm. Zoe wanted to go back to the flames. Find her parents, her little sister, oh god, her baby brother. Today was to be his baptism. She'd left the food for the celebration cooling on the table when she'd left to meet Stu.

The tears froze on her face and his cold hand covered her mouth, the force begging her to be silent. She soon saw why. Purple uniforms spilled out of a landing shuttle. Purple robots went house to house searching. Weapons thrown onto the church, elderly and sick people dragged from their homes.

Stu hit her when she screamed. The gunshots and other screams camouflaged it. None of the robots noticed. His icy hands pulled her from the ground and forced her to run. The cold snow covered her body and his hair.

She hadn't been warm since.

Zoe froze when she heard the sound. They'd seen the shuttles leave the day before. Waited another before building a fire. Had they left some uniforms behind? Her eyes searched for a stick as she struggled to remain still.. Didn't want to wake him - first time Stu had slept. First day and night he'd had to keep her quiet and alive. Afterward he'd tried to find them both food while she'd slept cocooned in the cold that wouldn't leave. Apparently, it had all been for nothing though.

Three men and a woman appeared, all armed. No purple though and the weapons weren't pointed at them. One of the men, his skin a lighter shade of brown than her own and hair straight, smiled at her. "No need to be afraid, we aren't here to hurt you," he told her.

The words jolted Stu out of his slumber. He sat up quick as he aimed their only gun at the people in front of them. The speaker motioned for his people to do nothing. "I know you're confused. It's all right. We've been looking for survivors. We'll take you someplace safe and warm, I promise."

That was when they saw them. Two of the younger kids from their classes standing silently with the woman, hands around each leg. "The other settlements?" Zoe asked.

The man's face fell. "They're fine. All this was an example. Strike is over though, but I doubt any of them will risk taking you in. A monitor in each town is searching the houses randomly to see if any survivors are hiding."

Zoe's breath caught at the knowledge that her entire world had been destroyed randomly. All their parents had wanted was assurance from the Alliance that their children could leave the mining moon for schools in the core when they were of age. Had closed the mines until their demands were answered with written promises. No one had taken up arms; no one had destroyed company property.

She felt Stu pull her off the ground. Didn't know if she wanted to go. She should have been with her family. For her desertion, she didn't deserve to leave the cold. She followed the brown man and the rest though as Stu silently pushed her along.

Zoe woke freezing. Ice ran through her veins as the tears ran down her face. She hadn't had those dreams in years. Had started to think the fires of Serenity Valley had burned them out. She felt her husband's arms surround her in a comforting embrace as he made comforting noises and tried to find out what was wrong. Zoe just closed her eyes as she imagined what Stu's arms would feel like right now.


Chapter 4: Betrayals Chinese glossary Kangchen – land of snows Yunnan – cloudy south tien shiao duh – who knows what


"Don't you think that was a bit harsh Admiral?" Stu asked. "I mean come on, this is Zoe! I can't think of a single person on this boat who has been more loyal to the cause."

Burton glared at the younger man. "You are out of line, son," he warned. Stu jerked to attention at the admonishment. "Normally I'd agree, but Warren deviated from her orders immensely. I didn't enjoy watching the interrogation any more than you did."

Burton sighed and sank down into a nearby chair. He could see Stu grinding his jaw furiously. He was glad that M.P.'s hadn't been required to restrain the boy once the debriefing had switched tactics. Still, Zoe had born it well. He knew the other officers remained suspicious though. Her past emotional scars had healed better than predicted - as a result, no one could be certain if the programming still held. The fact that the crew of Serenity was still alive certainly didn't help her case. From what he'd read of Malcolm Reynolds, the man did not endure a betrayal and move past it. No, he'd show up sooner or later seeking revenge.

That Warren had manipulated events such that Reynolds would be seeking his revenge on her husband did not mitigate the circumstances any. The Board of the Organization could clearly see that she'd left herself an out. The Zoe he'd remembered from the war would have cut all ties to anything or anyone they asked so long as Stu was unharmed. He wondered if she knew how much their alliance had troubled her superiors. Only the fact that both were valuable had saved their lives. Still, it might have been smarter if one hadn't survived their respective missions.

Burton shook his head sadly. They'd tried that too. No one had imagined that Reynolds would manage to hold together the survivors of the Valley long enough for med ships to be sent. Yet he had. And Zoe had spared him and his crew. They never should have sent her off with the man afterward. It didn't matter if she had brought the Tam girl to them in the end. She'd brought complications with her as well, not the least being that he now had to worry about Stu's own loyalty.

"At ease Johnson," he ordered the young man. Pausing again to evaluate the lean, black man in front of him, Burton wondered if the man's bond with Zoe would be enough to pull her back where she belonged. The husband worried him. He had no doubt that each had sought solace in the arms of strangers during their years of separation, but Burton had been shocked to learn that Zoe had actually wed another. When they'd been brought to the training camp, the pair had been inseparable. The drill sergeants had attempted to split the couple early, but failed miserably. Eventually all attempts were abandoned so long as the couple agreed to sleep in their assigned dorms. That acceptance had ended with both Stu and Zoe throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their studies. Eventually the Organization decided to see the two as an experiment to determine if such a relationship would hinder the effectiveness of their elite squads.

It was only because of Stu and Zoe that fraternization had been allowed in later years. Now it was almost seen as necessary for such a bond to form for those dedicated to the Plan. Otherwise the troops would start to feel that they had sacrificed too much for the cause.

Turning from his thoughts, he regarded Stu again. "Surely these developments worry you? She brought her husband with her after all."

Stu's face remained completely inscrutable as he responded. Another aspect of the couple that their superiors disliked, neither showed any hint of emotion. Their composure proved useful for their missions, but damnably annoying during debriefings. Drugs helped, but the amount required for either to lose their self-control rendered them almost useless at recalling details.

"Sir, I wouldn't expect anything else of her. Zoe would never abandon someone who trusted her implicitly," Stu explained.

"Hmph. Are you telling me you aren't the least bit incensed at her? Or jealous of that man?"

Stu shook his head. "Doesn't change a thing, Sir. Nothing can change what we are to each other. I've always known that Zoe needs someone to pull her back from the darkness. I'm just glad she found someone to do it when I couldn't be there myself."

Gorram boy didn't make his job any easier. Words like that wouldn't ease the minds of the Board. Burton sighed. His children made him so tired sometimes. "Very well, dismissed," he ordered with a wave.


Wash stared at his wife's back. He longed to touch her to assure himself that she was still there, still his Zoe, but he'd learned early in their marriage not give in to his sappy desires when she was sleeping. He chuckled silently as he thought of the scar he still bore from the only time he'd done it.

She'd scared the hell out of him when he woke to find her bawling her eyes out. She'd almost been hysterical. It had disturbed him on many levels to see her in that state. Zoe might cry on occasion when she had flashbacks, but she'd always done it silently. He'd learned to feel her tenseness even in his sleep when her flashbacks started so that he could be there to comfort her. She never told him about what she saw, but she never pushed him away either.

Times like this that he wished that the Captain was around. As jealous as he might get of their relationship, he knew that Mal knew how to pull her out of these moods so that she was functional.

Mal might also have some damned clue as to what in the hell was happening on this gorram rust bucket! Wash itched to go back to the infirmary so his fists could have a little chat with that so-called doctor. God, poor River! They'd probably drugged the kid out of her mind. The sedatives that Zoe had been feeding her on the shuttle probably hadn't helped much.

Their short conversation had been very surreal. He wondered what message he was supposed to get to Mal? Of course, recalling that portion of the conversation almost put him into stitches laughing. Wondered what the rest of the crew's reaction would be to River calling the Captain "Daddy"?

Was he supposed to tell Mal about the tacks? Whatever the hell that was? Or the bit about Zoe not being his wife? Which, by the way, still creepified the hell out of him. But he couldn't fault River's logic. Zoe hadn't acted quite herself since he'd regained consciousness on the shuttle. Oh, she'd been her normal taciturn, inscrutable self, but something was off. He could tell that there was something she was holding back, a part of her that he'd never witnessed before was operating. He didn't particularly like this Zoe.

"Lambie-toes, if you'd just tell me what's going on!" he complained quietly.


River whimpered as the last of Simon's treatments left her bloodstream. Emotions poured in from hundreds of souls, the dead marched past in an endless line. Closing her eyes helped none since the sounds were as bad as the visions. The Organization's drugs kept her from sinking into unconsciousness while the restraints kept her from even rocking back and forth in an effort to focus her senses on the now.

She gasped when she felt Zoe's other half approach. His pain, worry, and sadness out sung the emotions of the rest. Focusing on him and his feelings allowed her head to clear some. It still buzzed with the loudness of his experiences, but the cacophony was gone. She keened in distress when he backed up a tad and the others invaded her mind again.

River sighed when he returned to her side and caressed her head. He was sick about her distress. Sick to know this had been the plan all along. Wondered if Zoe had known or guessed. Too dangerous to find out, would have to risk betraying her too. Wouldn't stand by and watch another be torn apart as they had been. No war was worth the casualty of any more innocence.

River opened her eyes and looked into his black ones. Felt her lips form the shapes of Serenity's cortex address. Felt his mind register her meaning. Screamed when the pandemonium of the ship's occupants replaced his presence.


Zoe groaned when she saw him enter the cafeteria. It was too much to hope that the two wouldn't meet while they were on board. Of course, Wash had to notice her distraction and follow her gaze to see Stu standing in the doorway looking back at them. "Friend of yours?" Wash asked.

Zoe nodded, but found herself unable to articulate an explanation around the lump in her throat. She felt Wash's questioning gaze yet found it impossible to turn away from the sight of Stu walking toward her.

His smile was just as beautiful as she'd remembered. Once it had been something that was private since there were very few alive who'd seen it. "Good to see you in one piece Warren," he greeted. Zoe just nodded again, too afraid that her voice would fail her and give Wash something else to interrogate her about.

Stu nudged her over with a gentle punch on the shoulder before sitting down beside her. "Rumor has it that you got yourself hitched? This the lucky bastard?" Another nod. Zoe wondered if either man could see the trembles that were rippling through her body.

Wash smiled hesitantly at Stu as he took over the conversation. "You know Zoe, woman of few words," he joked. "Name's Wash."

"Stu Rogers," he replied as he reached out to shake Wash's hand. "Gotta say, me and the boys are mighty curious as to what our little Zoe has been up to since the war. Not to mention how you convinced her to get married. You managed a feat many of us had only dreamed of, Wash," Stu stated as he looked over at her. The lump in Zoe's throat still prevented her from getting involved in the conversation.

Zoe looked over at Wash when she heard him laugh. "Yeah, well she's a force of nature. I don't know if I ever had much of a choice in the matter," he answered as he gave Zoe a wink. "So you guys knew each other during the war? Were you a part of Mal and Zoe's unit?"

Cao! She should have known that Wash wouldn't let the past lie. "Before that," Zoe growled as she stood quickly and left the table. If Stu wanted to drag up the before, he could. Didn't mean she had to stay around and listen to it!


Stu watched as Wash looked in confusion towards the door his wife had exited. Looked like he could ease the mind of Burton and the Board on how much Zoe had told her husband.

Stu shook his head when he noticed that Wash was getting up from his seat. "Give her a minute or ten. She never has liked to reminisce," Stu advised.

"Huh. That's odd, 'cause she and Mal are always sharing war stories without batting an eye."

Stu sighed as he rubbed his face. He ought to keep quiet he knew, but he'd bet his last coin that Zoe had never mentioned a word of her history to her husband. Not that he blamed her. "Our past isn’t a war story, well least not till the middle of it." Stu pulled Zoe's plate over and began to toy with her food as he considered what to tell Wash. "I don't know if you would have heard about it depending on where you lived. Hell, actually I don't know how much press the event ever got. Would have been 2503…"

"Tzao-gao! The miner's strike on Kangchen," Wash interrupted. "Way I heard it that was one of the events that convinced the Rim planets to start organizing."

Stu looked back down at the table. Funny how he'd never heard that, but then wasn't like the Organization felt that it was important for the recruits to stay up to date on current events. Training took precedence over everything. "Makes sense."

"So what, you both joined up after that and met in boot camp?"

Stu shook his head. "We both grew up in the town of Yunnan." He stopped when he saw the shock register on Wash's face. He was grateful to not have to continue the story. Zoe wasn't the only one who disliked sharing memories of home. "Look, I know it must be upsetting to know that she didn't tell you any of this, but I don't know that she's ever talked about it with anyone. Zoe used to get pissed as hell at me for days whenever I brought it up. I just told you so you wouldn't go pestering her about the past. Dong ma?"

Wash nodded. "I used to ask her about her family a lot. After about the fifth round of silent treatment, I figured that she'd tell me if she wanted to. Just never really imagined…"

"You're a lucky man Wash. Don't go making an issue out of an event that she hasn't ever been able to get over." Stu left the shorter man with that advice. If Wash and Zoe ever discussed it, Stu could only hope that she'd forgive him for sharing their past with her husband.


In Serenity's galley, Malcolm Reynolds paced back and forth. Simon and Book looked on as they answered his questions. "Any clue as to the origin of the wave?" Mal asked.

Book shook his head. "Whoever sent it managed to erase all identifiers. It's a skilled piece of programming."

"Why aren't we headed there already?" Simon asked. "This is what we've been waiting for. You said yourself that Zoe would be contacting us."

Mal rubbed his face. "I don't like it. It's just too easy and I have a really bad feeling about it." Mal waved Simon down before he could protest again. "Look, Simon, I know you're worried about your sis. We all are. But all we have is a set of coordinates. No message, just coordinates. And trust me, Zoe ain't skilled enough to wipe out all identifiers on a Cortex wave."

"You think it's a trap?" Book asked.

Mal snorted. "Just learned to be cautious when I don't have a gorram clue as to what's going on or who's pulling the strings." He looked over at where Simon sat dejected at the side of the table. "Look, we'll go and check things out, but I'm not prepared to go in guns blazing. The coordinates are in the vicinity of Georgia. I've asked Inara to look for work so we'll have a legitimate reason for being there. Might be nothing, might be everything. Just have to keep a sharp eye."

Simon nodded, but left the room in a defeated manner. Mal turned when he felt Book's eyes on him. "Think I'll go relieve Kaylee at the helm. I'm sure she'll know just the thing to raise the boy's spirits," the Shepherd stated as he rose.


Part of him hated to do this, to invade her privacy. But he had no choice. She was gone, her husband was gone, and an innocent girl was missing. Mal snorted to himself, well mostly innocent. River certainly caused her share of mischief and trouble, but she didn't deserve whatever Wash was planning.

Mal hoped that he'd find some clue in their quarters. A paper with coordinates or monetary amount maybe. Something, anything to stop the dread and fear that churned inside him. He'd made the decision when he found himself doubting Zoe. He knew that Zoe would never betray him, not in a million years. They'd been through too much, saved each other too many times. He knew she'd sooner cut off her own arm than to cause him pain, let alone betray him.

Mal paused as he pawed through their dresser. It was ironical that their only true arguments had been over the pilot. Oh, sure they disagreed almost daily, but they never really argued till he wanted to hire Wash. And even that had been nothing compared to the fight they had when Zoe told him that she was dating the idiot. 'Course it hadn't helped that the only reason she'd told him was by way of explaining that she was going to marry the man.

Mal couldn't help but chuckle at the memory. They'd woken poor Kaylee when their voices carried down the hall. Seeing her scared little face in the doorway to the bridge was still probably the only reason he'd surrendered and given them his blessing. Wondered how different the last years would have been if he held out. Probably would never know. Zoe would have to give him a damn good reason to not make her a widow once he caught up with Wash though.

Mal's hand caught on a protrusion in the drawer. Exploring more closely, he discovered a yellowed paper taped to the bottom. Carefully, he freed it. Eyes devouring the letters on the page, Mal fought dizziness as he found his universe altered yet again.


Book studied the page while Inara looked on. Kaylee and Simon both sat on the opposite side of the table, subdued. It was difficult to be anything else though while the Captain radiated fury and disbelief. It felt as if there wasn't any room in the ship for any other emotion.

Book sighed and pushed back a little as he allowed Inara to take the paper. "It's a code, that's all I can say right now. It could take a few days to figure it out," he stated.

Book had to struggle to not look away when Malcolm's glare settled on him. "Do it," the man ordered before stomping off. Everyone in the room let out a collective sigh of relief as the anger that accompanied their Captain receded.

Kaylee's face scrunched up as she broke the silence of the room, "It's just a letter. Code don't mean Zoe's up to anything bad."

Book watched as Simon didn't respond at all to the mechanic's question. This latest revelation had caused the boy to sink further into depression. Before he'd held out hope that Zoe had gone to rescue his sister, but now everything was in question. Book smiled encouragingly at them both. "We won't know anything for certain until we break the code. It looks to be an old letter though. Could be it's just an old set of orders from the war."

Book frowned though as he caught Simon's muttered response as the boy rose to leave. "Or it means they planned this for a long time."


Wash jumped when he felt a hand descend on his shoulder. Turning away from the infirmary's glass windows, he saw Admiral Burton standing beside him. "Where's River?" Wash demanded, before softening his speech. "I thought she might like a visitor," he explained.

Burton smiled encouragingly as he gently guided the pilot down the hall. Wash stumbled in surprise at first before following. "She's fine. She finally settled down enough that the med staff moved her to her own room. I'll let the doctor in charge know that you'd like to visit when she's up to it."

"If your doctors hadn't attacked her with needles, she would have been fine. No one can blame the kid for being disoriented when she wakes up in a strange place."

Burton nodded as he continued to lead Wash down the grey corridors. Wash was uncertain if he knew how to get back to his quarters from here, but figured he'd be pointed in the right direction soon enough. "I've already reprimanded them for their heavy treatment of both of you. I apologize for it as well. Mixed communication sometimes occurs in the chain of command of even the best militaries."

Wash bit his tongue to stop himself from pointing out that this military shouldn't even exist according to the Unification Treaty. Zoe would be all kinds of upset if he managed to get himself pushed out an airlock for treason. Could you commit treason against a government that didn't really exist?

"Anyway, I was curious as to where your loyalties lay during the war, son," Burton prompted.

Wash felt his mouth go dry. Questions like these were never a good thing when you weren't exactly clear as to what side was which anyway. "Umm, well I really stayed out of the fighting. Blood never was really my thing." Hmm…from the look on Burton's face, that wasn't exactly the right answer either. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not a coward. But well, I'd only just gotten my pilot's license and my family still lived on an Alliance planet. I didn't want to cause them trouble by signing on with the Independents." Good enough reason, although one that hadn't occurred to him at the time. Plausible enough for now, he supposed.

Burton nodded. Wash babbled on before any more interesting questions could be asked. "It turned out to be a moot point anyway. Patrol picked us up carrying contraband to an Independent-allied planet and I got to sit the rest of the war out in a nice comfy prison camp."

"And now?"

"Now?" Wash almost squeaked. God, where was his gorram wife when he needed her? "Well mostly I'm loyal to Zoe."

"Hmm.." Burton stated. Wash couldn't tell if that was a good thing or not. "You know, it would probably ease Zoe's mind a lot if you decided to join up. Then she wouldn't have any reason to feel conflicted you understand?" Burton clapped him on the shoulder again. "No hurry to make your decision dong ma?"

Wash nodded mutely as the admiral walked away. He wished he knew what in the hell was going on because he was really tired of walking around without a clue.

Chapter 5: Wrinkles Chinese glossary Fei fei pan – big lie Gou zoa de – this can't get any worse Guan ni zi zi de shi qing – mind your own business Jue shi – sir Deng dai - wait

For a Skylark – Percy Bryce Shelley

Wash was pissed. He was pissed off at the man in front of him, at the man who suggested this entire string of events, and most of all, he was pissed at his wife. He was sure that if he thought about it long enough, he could find a way to include Mal in that list too. After all, generally when he was mad at Zoe, he was mad at Mal. Not to have Mal on the list disturbed him more than his current condition.

Looking up at Stu from the mat that he was once again laying on after being slammed down, he revised his view of the situation. He loved the Captain. He never knew what a great leader that Mal was. He certainly didn't get off on wiping the deck with the bloody body of his pilot, which is more than he could say for his current bosses.

Bosses….just to think of that made his head spin even worse. Of course, the concussion didn't help any either. In fact, he was just beginning to suspect that Stu and Zoe had a whole lot more history than they were saying and that the other man was now getting his revenge on Wash. Which really wasn't fair. He didn't think that getting married had been only his idea.

"We still have another twenty minutes, lover boy. Get up," Stu ordered. Wash just closed his eyes and groaned. He'd get up as soon as the ceiling stopped spinning. "Come on, kid," Stu repeated as he nudged him none too gently with his boot. Wash finally rolled over and slowly pushed himself to his feet. Unfortunately, his head still didn't agree with his decision and he promptly found himself staring at Stu's boots again. Wash could hear the frustration in Stu's voice as the other man helped him from the mat, "Well, I guess we can cut the training short today. If you'd learn how to take a fall already, you wouldn't still be having this problem."

If his bosses didn't insist that a pilot be trained in hand-to-hand combat, he wouldn't be in this position either. Besides, Wash had always thought that the point of a fight was to NOT get knocked down. Learning how to take a fall seemed rather counter-intuitive. In fact, he knew it was. It was much better to simply run back behind someone who was a better fighter. He'd learned that way back when he was a little kid avoiding bullies that looked suspiciously similar to Jayne. Wash had a private theory that all bullies were cloned. It was the only explanation for the similarity in facial features.

Suddenly, several of Zoe's faces appeared in front of him. "Oh, honey. I told you to duck more."

"Duck, take a fall, why don't you two make up your minds?" Wash complained.

"Does he need to see the doctor?" Zoe asked Stu. Oh yeah, Stu was still here. That explained why he was still upright.

"Nah, he's just a bit woozy and dehydrated. Just keep an eye on him," Stu said as he passed Wash into Zoe's gentler hands. Wash went where she propelled him until he was lowered on to a bed. Beds. Now why didn't they practice their martial arts on beds? They were much more appealing to fall onto than mats.

"No you don't! Sit back up and drink this," Zoe ordered as she forced a cup into his hands after pulling him into a sitting position.

"This was a bad idea. I don't know how you ever talked me into it, Zoe. This was a very very bad idea," Wash complained. "Your friend seems to be taking out his repressed war trauma on me. I need someone else to teach me, please."

Zoe began to massage his abused muscles as he slowly relaxed. "You're doing better every day, Wash. I know it seems tough, but the Admiral wants you up to speed as quickly as possible. And there is no one better to train you than Stu."

"You could train me? I always listen to you. Come on lambie-toes, he's trying to kill me slowly."

"I can't train you Wash, trust me. And Stu isn't trying to kill you."

"You don't know that. I wouldn't be bruised and hurting if he wasn't."

Zoe's voice took on a different quality as she answered, one that Wash wasn't certain he'd ever heard before. "Trust me, if he was trying to kill you, you'd be dead."

"Very reassured here sweet-ums. Really." Wash got up to get more water while thinking about Zoe's statement. He still wasn't entirely certain why she'd encouraged him to take the Admiral's offer. Surely Mal would be rendezvousing with them any day now. "Zoe, I'm still not sure about this whole thing. I mean what's the point of it all. We'll be leaving with Mal as soon as he gets here, right?" he asked as he faced her.

Zoe didn't pause as she answered, but then he hadn't expected her too. One thing he'd learned over the years was that Zoe rarely showed any sign of hesitation. In fact, he'd be willing to bet that she could pass the most sophisticated lie detector that the Alliance had. However, none of it eased the worry in his gut over the events of the past several days. "Of course, but I know Mal will think it's a good idea too. Never hurts to add a few more skills. And it's best for us to be on good terms with the Admiral and his organization. After all, they are going out on a limb to help River and all."

River. Yes of course, the girl that they hadn't been allowed to see since Wash had been so rudely drugged upon his arrival. "Speaking of River…Exactly how much do they know?"

He saw Zoe's face tighten the way it did when she was defending Mal. Anger started to pound in time with his headache. Wash was tired of being protected. He was here risking his neck with her, except he got to do it completely in the dark about everyting.

"They know what's on the cortex."

"That is a damn fei fei pan, sweetheart. If that was the case, I'm sure she'd still be in the infirmary where we could see her. Or even sharing our oh so comfortable cell-like bunk. And I wouldn't be escorted every gorram place by an overly armed relative of Jayne's," Wash responded with venom. It hurt more than he could say to see Zoe not react to a single word of his tirade. When they argued about Mal, she'd always get sanctimonious. Better, she'd get angry.

Now she was completely stone faced. Not an ounce of emotion leaking out anywhere. That was never good. Zoe only acted as if nothing could hurt, like nothing could ever touch her, when she was on a mission. Now the only question was whose mission was she on?

"Where are you going, Wash? You should rest."

Wash shut the door without responding. What could he say to change things? What could he say to get her to let him in? He'd played along hoping that she'd explain that this was all part of one of Mal's brilliantly fucked up plans and let him know what exactly the goal was. That hadn't happened yet, and he was beginning to doubt that it would. It was time to start acting like he was as alone in this as he felt.


The man in front of her was strange. His thoughts weren't empty, but rather too full. The past, the present, they blurred together all at once and River found it difficult to distinguish his plans from his memories. The only thing she was sure of was his pity. She just couldn't tell for whom he felt sympathy.

"The doctors say that you have been uncooperative, Ms. Tam. I find that disappointing. We told your brother that we thought we could help, but we can only do that if you cooperate with the tests," the man's mask said. River couldn't see through it. It was easy with the others. Easy to see that nothing resided below the surface other than their orders. But not with him.

"You promised to keep them safe. Promised that they'd stay together. But you separated them as fast as you could and made sure they'd stay that way," River stated. "She surprised you though. Chose another. Added a variable. You don't like him."

River was surprised when she felt the electrodes attach to her head. She hadn't detected anyone else in the room. That disturbed her more than what the circles might mean.

The mask smiled, tried to project encouragement. He'd forgotten how though, she could tell. Been so long since he'd meant what he'd said, he couldn't even remember what it felt like. "There now, that wasn't so difficult now was it? I know you're scared, that others haven't always understood what you've done. But we want to understand, River. And maybe we'll be able to fix it."

Suddenly, it all opened up. A gaping hole that had always been there, simply concealed before by the mask. The plans, the consequences, the lives, all tumbled past her as she fell. Quantifications, sacrifices made based on faulty assumptions. All held together by a veil of lies so thin that the slightest pressure would snap the entire structure down.

"YOU LIE," she screamed. "Don't want it finished, don't want it understood. He'll come for me, you'll see. He will."

The hole in front of her nodded and she was puzzled as to how an object could make a movement. Then she felt the solution enter her vein and didn't have time to decipher the quandary.


"Are you sure that I should leave now?" Inara asked.

Mal nodded as he looked down on the empty cargo bay. The ship seemed empty with the absence of River's combat boots and fits of crazy. Not to mention the complete lack of intelligent, smart-ass remarks. Jayne tried, but he just didn't have the intellect to replace Wash's brand of back talk. "No need for all of us to be broke on account of what's happened. Georgia is close enough that you can reach it with the shuttle and come back if you refuel."

"I'll listen to the grapevine for useful gossip as well," Inara offered. Mal knew he should refuse, but he was desperate enough that he couldn't find the energy to worry about keeping her from being implicated in the Tam situation. Besides, those womanly wiles had to be useful for something other than….well he was sure they were.

"We'll contact you if we have to change position. Otherwise just let us know when you liftoff for the return trip."

Inara paused as if she wanted to say something else, but soon turned and left. A short time later, he heard her shuttle disengage from the ship.

Mal honestly couldn't think of another time he'd ever felt more alone. War was one thing. Never being able to return to Shadow, losing his home, and his family were another. But days upon days of not knowing where the one person who'd been glued to his side throughout all of those events, well, he just felt more than a little bit like coming apart at the seams. It didn't help that everyone on the ship was tiptoeing around him as if it might happen at any moment.

Pulling his hands from his face and his mind from his problems, he intended to head to the bridge to see if something that could keep him busy. Intentions rarely meant a gorram thing though, because instead he was faced with the one person on the boat who wasn't concerned about him losing it.

"Exactly how long until you give up completely and we all fly off to the next job?" Simon asked with a less than conciliatory tone.

Someone really needed to talk to the boy about the benefits of choosing one's words carefully. Mal reminded himself that the Doc was hurting as well and forced himself to count to ten before answering. "I'm not giving up and we'll stay until we find another lead or need to refuel." Mal started to walk away with the hope that Simon would get the message.

"You mean you'll never give up on Zoe…Somehow I doubt that no matter how long I'm cooped up on this ship that you'll be racing off to save her from the almighty Alliance."

Gou zoa de! Mal was really starting to believe that the boy liked being slugged. Mal stalked over to the doctor. Holding the other's eyes in a glare that openly held the threat of what he really wanted to do to someone, anyone, he told him in no uncertain terms, "Doctor, I've told this to you before, but I'll repeat myself in case you weren't listening. You and your sister are a part of this crew. Dong ma?"

Sadly, Simon didn't back down. Mal was getting really tired of dealing with this shit. "It's not like I have a choice in whether to believe you or not, is it? I mean what are my choices? Risk being stranded on a backwater planet where I'm still not assured that I won't be turned over to the feds? Or continuing to haunt this lovely piece of machinery in the hope that we will find her?"

"Well be sure to let me know which planet you choose," Mal stated before he roughly pushed the doctor out of his way and continued to the bridge. Missing three of the crew and sent Inara off to a client, but the gorram ship was still too damn crowded!


Stu stood outside the laboratory wing with the Admiral. He was less than pleased to be here. Seeing the girl in the infirmary had been difficult enough, but here. Well, it was bound to bring back memories for both of them.

"The doctors said that her vitals were calmer during your previous visit. They thought that perhaps you could convince her to cooperate," the Admiral explained.

"Somehow I doubt that anyone is going to convince her to do that."

"Really?"

Go ahead, Stu, shoot yourself in the head. Can you think of anything else to say that would raise his suspicions more, he berated himself silently. Truth be told, he was scared to death to face the young woman while she was being monitored ten ways to Sunday. He doubted that anyone could be lucid with the amount of drugs she had been given, let alone the trauma of waking up in a reality very close to her worst nightmare. If she were to say the wrong thing, sense some of his plan...

"Look, I'm just saying that you've cut her off from the two people that remind of her something resembling safety and thrown her into a room alone while treating her not unlike the place I got her out of," Stu hedged.

Burton was silent for a long time. Stu focused on maintaining eye contact while going through recitations of every poem he had ever memorized in order to maintain a cool facade. Those things had seemed like a waste of time back in school, but now he gave thanks every day for Miss Winters' insistence that poetry recitation exercised the mind.

"My understanding is that the researchers wish to study her in a controlled environment. I'll make the suggestion though that perhaps some visits may help improve her mood. In the meantime?" Burton prompted.

Nodding at the question that was really an order, Stu carefully ensured that his mind was focused before triggering the door and entering the room. The images that greeted him were very reminiscent of the first time he had met River. Stu quickly repeated the first stanza of For a Skylark to reorient himself to the task at hand.

Across the room, in full view of the surveillance system that was positioned above the door, River appeared to sleep amid a tangle of IV tubing and wires. The only thing that was different from the other image in his head was the blessed lack of head wounds or bloody scratches.

It was in that instant that he saw her eyes open. He knew immediately that she recognized him, saw the relief and anticipation in her eyes as she tried to move her arms in the soft restraints. "No box this time, no cold. It doesn't keep the voices away and can still feel the Hands reaching, they still come two by two, no boxes!"

He quickly crossed the room and pushed her arms gently down before she could bruise her arms in the cotton cuffs. "No box this time sweetheart, I promise."

"But you'll take me to him? You're taking me to Simon? Or did we already do this? I don't think I should be here."

He hated himself for what he had to do, but he didn't have the luxury of experiencing the emotion. Especially not when he was in the same room with her. "Tell you what sweetie, you cooperate with the doctors and I'll bring him to you," Stu suggested.

River stayed silent at his suggestion and cocked her head as if she was listening to someone speak in her ear. "You're different. Changed, but the same inside."

Christ, he couldn't have this. Not now! He consciously kept from glancing up at the surveillance equipment. "Well, it's been a while since I've seen you. I think you've grown a bit too."

Her face took on a puzzled look. "You've never changed. Always lived the truth. Always seen the truth. Not like Zoe."

"Hey now."

"She didn’t mean to hurt you. Couldn't see you without seeing the ghosts. Preferred to stay in the Valley of Death rather than face the past. Found someone who shone in the darkness and had never been touched by a scythe. She would have liked the cabin if she'd seen it though."

"Guan ni zi zi de shi qing," he whispered as quietly as he could. He knew what she spoke of. Knew every syllable of it. If the Board knew she could do this, tamade. Too much at stake at every turn. Too much depended on chance and luck alone.

"I'll play along if you'll bring him to me. And try to make sure that Wash doesn't sleep too long," she told him with a sly smile. "I think I'd like to rest now."

Stu nodded and turned to leave the room. He wondered at the meaning of her last words. Wondered whose game she would be playing.


"If this is just to evaluate my piloting, I don't see what the hurry is. Surely Zoe will be done with her meeting soon," Wash complained as he hurried to keep up with the taller man's stride.

Stu didn't even look back as he answered. "The thing about being in the military is that you don't ask why, Wash. They told us to go now, so we go. Zoe of all people will understand."

Wash bit back further gripes. Stu was right; he'd signed up for this and couldn't complain. Of course, he could because this wasn't exactly his life-long dream. But Zoe had thought it was a good idea and he trusted her judgment. At least normally he did. The longer they were on the ship, the more doubts took root.

From the description, this flight would be a cakewalk. In fact, he could probably do it in his sleep. A milk-run over to Georgia for some supplies and back. No flash, no worries, just simple piloting of an extremely small cargo ship.

Upon seeing the ship, Wash's doubts about the group he'd signed up with began to grow exponentially. True it was a simple cargo ship when it began its life, but some time in recent history it had undergone a high-powered make-over. Small anti-aircraft guns were mounted inconspicuously near the engine intake. Moreover, the engine….well, the engine itself would give off a rather large explosion if it were ever allowed to overheat. Not knowing the mechanic personally, Wash felt a tad nervous to be flying it. At least with the amount of power the modified engine had, the flight would be blessedly short. Of course, they'd never have time to know it if they blew up either.

"Don't these modifications raise some suspicions at the docks?"

Stu gave him an odd look as he stowed some equipment. "Who would be nuts enough to land this ship at a dockyard?"

Great, just great. Exactly what he'd always wanted to do – fly a ship that would get him thrown into jail if an Alliance patrol even caught a spec of them on their radar. Wash consoled himself with the reminder that the flight would be short.

Ten hours later, the planet of Georgia came into view through the portal. Wash was overjoyed to see it since Stu was even less talkative than Mal in a bad mood. Which he actually found odd given their conversation when they first met. He'd have thought that Stu would have been asking him all types of questions about his time with Zoe. Or even just talkative about the Core since it was his experience that these hard-core Independent types rarely set foot on an Alliance planet if they could help it. But no, nothing.

In fact, Wash was going slightly stir crazy. Being cooped up for ten hours in a small shuttle without any return conversation wasn't exactly going to be fun. Not that he wasn't capable of dominating the conversation when it was necessary, but well, he knew how to take a hint. When Stu had gotten up to get a rather large gun and began to methodically clean it as Wash continued piloting, Wash had shut up.

In fact, Stu reminded Wash a lot of some of the crew of Serenity. He had the quiet, serene air that Zoe carried about her while still managing to radiate danger similar to Jayne and Mal. Wash was hard put to classify Stu or predict how he'd respond. Even after all their training sessions (and the bruises he remembered ruefully as he stiffly changed his position), he wasn't sure if Stu liked him or merely tolerated him. He cared about Zoe though, that Wash knew. Therefore, he couldn't be all bad.

"Anything specific I should know about landing?" Wash asked when Stu retook the co-pilot's seat.

"No, just land discreetly at the coordinates I gave you."

Wash didn't think "discreet" landings had been specifically covered in flight school, but he certainly hoped he could manage it. Visiting Georgia's prison was not high on his list of tourist attractions.

Fortunately, everything went smoothly and he powered down the ship next to a very large and expensive house. "Stay with the shuttle. I'll be back with the package," Stu ordered.

"Great, stay with the shuttle," Wash griped out loud. "Because after ten hours of silence, staying alone in a piece of tin is exactly what I want to do." Deciding that he could stay with the shuttle just as easily outside as in, he exited to stretch his legs a bit.

After walking around the ship several times, Wash was stunned to see a shuttle similar to Serenity's land not more than fifty meters away. His astonishment quickly turned to amazement when he watched Inara exit the ship.


"Flight go okay?" the owner of the house asked. Stu didn't know his name and really didn't care to learn it. He'd learned early that it was best to invest nothing in the contacts the Organization presented. Most, like this one, were simply in it for themselves. Padding their bank accounts and hoping that enough favors were given to each side so that they would ignore any involvement with the other. Personally, they all made Stu sick. None of them knew or appreciated the sacrifices that so many had made over the past decade. Few could imagine that lives were still being stolen and the war still fought.

"The pilot was acceptable. You have everything requisitioned?" The man nodded and waved for Stu to follow. "You stored them in your home?"

"But of course. Where else could I be certain that a surprise inspection would not occur?" the well-dressed bureaucrat answered as he narrowly avoided running over two toddlers who suddenly appeared in the hallway. "Back to the nursery, mashang!"

Stu followed the man up the stairs slowly, dismayed at the man's carelessness. In a few years, those children would be old enough to be curious and that could lead to very unfortunate accidents. Somehow, this particular bureaucrat would be facing slimmer bank accounts when the Board learned of his lack conscientiousness.

Briefly, Stu glanced out the window at the top of the staircase. Unlike Zoe, he'd spent the largest parts of his life on the well-manicured worlds of the Core. He still missed the sense of order found on the inner worlds as well as the abundance of life that spread over the horizons. Space was not to his liking, too metallic and empty. Reminded him too much of the last days on Kangchen.

What in the Nine Hell's was that? Stu stopped frozen as he watched the scene below on the sculpted lawn. That idiot was going to ruin everything. Bad enough that the Companion had come, but his luck was truly cursed for Wash to actually see and talk to her. Of course, he should have known better than to become too attached to a single plan. No plan was perfect, Stu reminded himself. Worse, no plan could predict the future.

"Jue shi, deng dai. I'm certain everything is in order. If you could have it delivered to my ship within the hour?"

"But of course. As always, ours is a most profitable arrangement."

Stu made the necessary courteous noises and gestures before exiting the manor as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, his hurry was unneeded. After twenty minutes, the entire shipment had been loaded and Wash was still not back at the shuttle. Just when Stu was about to take drastic action, the pilot waltzed up with a goofy grin on his face. "Everything go okay?" Wash asked with open curiosity.

Stu looked down on the shorter man with the harshest gaze he could muster. "I thought I told you to stay with the ship."

"One of the serving girls needed a bit of help."

"Zoe doesn't mind you running off to help young women with their chores?" Stu asked as he gestured for Wash to precede him onto the ship.

"Hey, I'm married, not…" Wash's sentence was cut short as Stu swiftly knocked him out. After situating the limp body securely in the hold, Stu fired up the engines as he reprogrammed the flight plan. It would be easiest for him to dispose of the wrinkle, but somehow he felt that events could still be turned to his advantage. Of course, Zoe's husband might find himself wishing that Stu had eliminated him instead if half the rumors Stu had heard about Serenity's Captain were close to true.


Chapter 6

COMMENTS

Sunday, March 13, 2005 1:40 PM

ANONYMOUS


I'm not exactly sure where you are going with this but it is certainly interesting. I can't really see Zoe turning against Mal and Wash like that but I'm very curious to see what your plans are. Keep writing!

Sunday, March 13, 2005 2:31 PM

AMDOBELL


Very shiny though it is hard to think of Zoe betraying Mal let alone taking Wash into danger which means the brain washing thing. I like Stu though, even if he did slug Wash I think he wants to do the right thing. Simon getting ansty with Mal feels out of kilter considering the Captain is his best chance of finding River. But the best bit is how you write River, absolutely excellent! Can't wait for more, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, March 17, 2005 8:27 AM

SOULOFSERENITY


Wow. I'm really liking this take on Zoe's past. I have to agree, you've got River down perfectly. More please!!

- Soul

Thursday, May 19, 2005 8:37 PM

CASTIRONJACK


What the?!!? With the Wash and the Zoe and the River?!?!? With the betrayal and the Wash learning to fall badly!!?? Well written, but the why and the with and the hurting of my brain...

River's coming off well, as is Wash. It's very odd to see Zoe taking the role of conflicted loyalties and you are doing well with the application. It is Zoe, just alot that I couldn't think to apply, I guess. We all take for granted that Zoe and Mal are inseparable that it gives this story alot more of a twist.

Good stuff,

Keep flyin'


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