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Aberration

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Aberration
by Ann

Disinterest is not an emotion Simon can feel right now, nor can he allow himself to relax, to act casual. So instead he feigns it. Sits upright in his chair and forces himself not to tense, digging his fingernails slightly into his hands as he clasps them together just to stop himself from crossing them, from acting defensive. He doubts he looks anything but what he feels,  but he pretends none the less, just as he fakes indifference at the cool stare levelled his way.

Dark brown eyes thoughtfully appraise him;eyes that Simon would have thought could have conveyed emotion extremely well, suited sympathy perhaps, show nothing. Just resolution. Which only adds more weight to the man's words and tone as he leans forward, sending a cold chill through Simon.

"You understand that there is only one outcome and one offer. Want it or not, all the hope in this 'verse isn't going to stop us finding your sister, from bringing her back to us. Only the choice of when is yours, Doctor Tam."



*Eight days earlier*

Inside River Tam's head, a dozen voices are screaming, yet she doesn't make a sound; just follows impassively; waiting, hearing the stray idea and watching as Jayne's shoulder comes up to neatly clip the Alliance officer. It's not a calculated move, not like the ideas she can hear whirring around in Simon's head, it's sudden and spontaneous and makes her startle to a stop.

Jayne's mental curses almost drown out the screaming as River watches him tussle with the officer; her brother throwing himself at the other, letting his weight take the man down. *Two by two...*she can feel them closer now, making the screams all the louder. A dozen voices clamouring, begging for something, whispers and fragments of things she can't know, hasn't ever known, all trying to cover the thought...*hands of blue*. They hurt her ears, hurt her head, but they keep the coldness at bay. The creeping, sharp coolness that tells her they are close. It's oily, tries to seep through her, but the voices form a barrier in protest and River just stands watching Jayne and Simon.

She feels their fear, feels their confidence, momentary as it is and she knows what Simon's told her is true--they're going home. And then something happens, something changes, *aberration*...and everything is different.

Simon's not as calm and confident as she felt before, not so sure in what he's doing as he places his knee on the officer's windpipe to keep him silent when the man quickly comes too. He knows just where to press and how but the doctor within him, the compassion, doesn't allow him to press harder. It's a fatal flaw and in that second River knows it; compassion is something Simon always carries with him, but she knows Jayne and she share a kinship, both of them have killed and would easily draw no line.

But Simon does draw lines, does keep his movements from being too harsh and suffocating the man, and so the officer has ample opportunity to grasp his gun and swing the barrel upward as Simon leans down. Simon doesn't even notice though, his eyes are on Jaynes as the officer gouges at the merc's face, shifting himself from pinning the man underneath him so tightly as he lifts his weight ready race over and help Jayne.

He looks better in red.

Simon hears the trigger click before he feels the weight slam into his chest and stomach. Sonic gun, safety gun, it's not meant to do more then wind or knock out, but his ribs are already battered from tackling the fed and the force of the blast pushes him to the wall. The wall is unmovable and as Simon's back slams against it the fed pulls the trigger again, same spot, same blast; it smashes into already cracked ribs, forces itself on bruised and tender organs.

There's a moment of nothingness, Simon's just pinned to the wall, breath drawn in and stuck. And then it catches up with him. His stomach folds and cramps, air just forced from his lungs, forced in again just as quickly. He doubles over, whimpers slightly and folds gracelessly down the wall.

*River!*

She's the one screaming now, head snapped back, a single droplet of blood escaping and trailing down from her nose as Simon collapses in a heap. River hears her name, feels Simon's terror, the horror that he's failed her, and she moves forward; her leg arches out like she's about to dance, and connects with the fed's head, smashing into his already broken nose and driving him back to unconsciousness. Jayne's so busy beating back the second officer, trying to fight him, that the movement escapes his notice and River is by Simon's side in a moment, her hand rubbing his back as her brother shakes.

Simon's fighting for breath now, lungs forced so far inward that he's struggling not to panic and to remember how. It feels like a band has tightened around his chest and is holding everything in tight. He's curled in on himself, fetal-like and River's presence is only the more terrifying. To feel his sister next to him, not running, not getting away, just waiting for him, waiting to be caught if she stays any longer...it panics Simon all the more. And then River slaps his face, hard; harsh enough to shock Simon into taking in a grateful breath of desperately needed air and he's choking, coughing, but *breathing.*

Neither one of them notice the crack as Jayne twists the fed's head to one side, dropping the corpse and turning to see the two lying there, River cradling her brother's head against her legs. Simon's knees are against his chest, pulled up close in a position that he, as a doctor, knows can only hurt himself more. But it doesn't matter any more and Simon knows it, can feel it as surely as River can because she's begging him now, spitting out the word 'no' over and over again, each one becoming more like a cry as she does.

"Gorramn it, ain't got time for this go se."

Unlike Jayne, who strides over to push River aside and pull the doctor up, Simon knows he's not going anywhere. His holler of protest is pitiful, choked off as pain lashes up his chest and Jayne drops him back down again in shock.

To Jayne's mind, the doc's gone the oddest shade of color and is flopping back down, gasping like a fish out of water. It's not a pretty sight and Jayne's instant reaction is to back off, but he fights it because the day's gone rutting bad enough already and if he can get them all out and back on board ship no one has to be any the wiser. They can just all enjoy the take and maybe, just maybe, if the take is as good as the doctor had promised the Tam's would pay their way and Jayne wouldn't be needing to try anything again. He hopes not, anyhow, since the girl's got some kind of mouth on her and a creepy assed way of knowing things she shouldn't, things Jayne doesn't want anyone else hearing.

He drops down to one knee, pushing Simon back against the wall. "You been shot or somethin'?" Except Jayne can't see anything but that *luh-so* rifle he got hit with earlier. Trust the Alliance to be soft enough not to use real guns, wouldn't catch Jayne using one of those passive things. But he knows how it feels to get the air pumped from your lungs so fast it makes you sick and your head spin, makes all your limbs go to jelly for a moment and gets you downed. He just can't see why Simon's looking so pale and sickened, like the doc's been shot with bullets instead.

"Splinters, like wood, pressed once tremors, twice cracks appears, third time...shatters." River's shaking now, a tremor that starts in her belly and works its way up. The voices are silent, cowed into submission by Simon's fear and Simon's pain and the oily feeling's creeping again. "They come, creep up on you-- don't make me go back there."

"Ain't nobody goin' anywhere but the ship, dong ma?" Jayne growls the words out, his hand reaching to squeeze her wrist. He isn't aiming to reassure, just wants her quieted, wants to drag them both back to Serenity and get away from the Core as fast as possible. Which'll be pretty damn fast if Mal has his way, that Jayne's sure on.

"Simon is." Jayne doesn't hear the whisper, ignores River as she curls in on herself, rocking in a ball as the oily coldness seeps into her mind. *Two by two*...Silent tears run down her cheeks and her nails dig into her hands.

Simon's able to look Jayne in the eyes now, able to breathe in though it hurts with every motion, he's not going to be moving any time soon, not without a great deal of help. His ribcage sinks in at each breath, no longer lifting outwards on inhalation. The doctor in Simon can categorize the symptoms, can easily file them away and find at least three different methods of treatment, yet none of them apply now. None of them can be administered now. And Simon knows he won't be walking any time soon.

"P-para-" He coughs as the word refuses to come, gesturing at his chest instead, hoping Jayne can see the unnatural movement. The merc's not a doctor but he notices it as Simon points, doesn't know what Simon's trying to say but can see something's wrong. And all of a sudden that's not the only problem. Anguished screams ring out back in the direction they've come, men in a world of pain that Jayne's not wanting to experience and Simon's realizing, with a sinking heart, he can't run away from. But he can protect River from them.

"Ain't carin' what's plaguin' you, move yerself now." Jayne grunts the words out, screams having shaken him deeply, not that he's about to admit it. He can hear River's whispered words now as she scrambles to hold onto Simon, dislodging Jayne as he tries lifting the doctor up. "Get yerself offa him, girl."

But River's hanging on like a limpet, pressing her face to Simon's battered chest and Jayne has no choice but to set Simon down again. The screams are still coming, still wailing, one person at a time it seems. Someone or something, taking a macabre pleasure in torturing the Alliance folk. Not that Jayne's got a care about them, except he's never heard anyone screech like that whose not been come after by Reavers.

"Can't be dealin' with this." Jayne mutters words that centre Simon's focus on him, away from River muttering softly against his chest. "Can't carry both of you."

*So take River.*

It's not a hard choice and Simon opens his mouth to say it but Jayne's already grasping at River, making both relief and fear flood Simon before the merc tosses her roughly to one side and reaches to yank Simon up once more.

A medic's a better choice to have on board than a crazy, knife-playing girl and Jayne's not willing to leave them both behind. Chances are Mal will catch on and smell something's wrong, even if Simon starts on revering and thanking Jayne like he'd been earlier. *Won't thank me much for leavin' crazy.* But Mal might. So he decides to take the doc, tries to ignore the guilt--unfamiliar emotion that it is, which settles unpleasantly and is all the more stomach churning than what he felt after going back to Canton--tries to pretend he can't hear River's cries over the screams, can't hear her garbled words and see her fingers claw at the floor where Simon had lain.

"Put-me-down." Simon forces each word out, incredulous and furious all at once. He doesn't try to pull away, has managed to find a position leaning against Jayne that's comfortable enough to let him talk.

"Talking crazy now, doc." The screams are winding down, becoming a keening wail and Jayne's in a hurry to get out of the hospital, wash the fear and guilt and *Core*, all away.

"Take River." Simon forces the words out, eyes boring into Jayne's as the man looks at him in sheer disbelief. He could give reasons, explanations that would satisfy Jayne; could even explain his broken ribs, claim he couldn't walk in case of puncturing a lung. Something that was a possibility, even if Zoe could deal it with aboard Serenity. But he doesn't want to. Can't find the will or energy to do so. "Please, Jayne."

Simon's trembling now, Jayne can feel it, can see the doctor's sweating too and gone a sickly color, much paler then before. "Take moon brain an' leave you?" Doesn't sound like a good deal to Jayne, doesn't want her hanging over him sure as leaving Simon's going to.

"She's my sister."

The oily coldness is getting closer, River can feel it, can sense purpose and smugness and surety coming from it as it worms its way closer. Tries to pick at her mind and devour her. They've come to take her; no home, no Simon, nothing but everything. Too bright and ugly and painful for her to keep herself in, already fragmented she can draw herself together slowly and push away what's not her but she can't stop it coming, can't stop it hurting. And no one's going to save her. *No big damn heroes*...But maybe she doesn't need someone swooping in to save her, maybe she doesn't need weapons, maybe she only needs one person, one hero. Her gege. She can feel him bright and sure, terrified at the same time, he can't--no, he *won't*--run from the monsters without her and she wants to look up at him. To call at him to run. Not to stay and embrace the darkness with her.

And then she feels arms around her, feels brilliance surround her that's Simon and only Simon, and she struggles in Jayne's arms realizing what he's done. Cursing him and crying, trying to pull away.

Simon's unable to stop trembling, thankful that Jayne's taking River. The man's dragging her away, threatening to knock her out as he does and Simon's having to turn his head away, to break away from her accusatory gaze. If they'd stayed any longer he'd have been forced to listen to that small voice inside his head, the one that had sounded for a terrible moment, had wanted Jayne to ignore his request and knock Simon out and drag him away.

*I could never have left her here.*

Yet he had left her. Had given her up and thrust her into Jayne's arms, had entrusted her life to Jayne and trusted that the man will get her back to Serenity. He isn't sure why he believes Jayne will do it, thinking the man will take his sister back to the ship rather than just dump her. But he does. Once aboard Serenity, River will be safe. Mal will take care of her, Simon has faith in that. He isn't sure why but he knows Mal will protect her, keep her safe where Simon has failed. And his crew will follow him, keep her safe.

Simon grimaces, each breath taking longer to draw in and out, each motion hurting that little bit more. He starts as the fed stirs at his feet; coming around once more and Simon can only hope he won't go for the gun again. He can hear footsteps drawing closer, two sets from what he can make out and he knows he should pray that the officer awakes and uses the gun once more. Compresses Simon's lungs and suffocates him so those that come won't have the chance to get any information from him. But Simon can't want that, is sure he's selfish in wanting to stay alive, wanting to resist what they throw at him and find River once more. It's enough of a hope to keep him going though, logically, he knows River would be safer with him unable to speak.

He breathes a shudder of relief as the men enter--if they're here, they haven't gone after Jayne and River-- though his heart races as one of them squats down next to him, a finger lightly tracing over his ribs, making Simon involuntarily groan. River's repeated rhyme rings in his head, sharp and clear, just as the waking officer's screams are, when the other man leans over him. *Two by two, hands of blue*. He understands the fear, lives it as the other man moves over next to them, and waits. Yet the pain doesn't come, the trepidation doesn't lessen, but Simon doesn't draw his focus from the two men, staring defiantly back though his body is trembling.

"Not the Tam we were hoping for." The man sounds so normal, yet something about him screams of wrongness and sets Simon's teeth on edge. He's eyeing the doctor with amusement,  categorizing his injury with light touches, as he continues. "But he'll do."





end part 1

Chapter Text

River doesn't even give Jayne the chance to go the way he's wanting, not that he's so sure he can hand her to the feds anymore, not with hearing them scream like they were having their throats cut. She's still fighting him, clawing at his arms and leaving bloody gouges, more red to go with the blood drying on his hand, more marks to accompany the tooth prints. He ignores the pain, tries to forget why she's screaming and why the doc's not shutting her up and getting her moving.

*Medic's more use'n she is. Ruttin' doc.*

River twists in his arms, looking back over her shoulder and she chokes off a cry, stares blankly for a moment as the oily coolness settles against her mind, just on the outside; it's not forcing its way Simon's there stopping it. Brightness holding firmly against the cold and even though she sags limply in Jayne's arms, he's not the one saving her. It's Simon. "Always, Simon." She sniffs the words out, quietens as Jayne stops dragging her and starts lifting. Cradles her against him and jogs.

Jayne's jog becomes all the faster as screams once again rend the air, howls of pain that slow him only for a moment before he speeds up. He's still not sure why he's not just dumped her and run, not even sure why he left the doc and took her--*shoulda just punched him out, dragged his sorry ass back to the ship an' maybe she'da followed.*

His confusion and resentment are enough to drown out Simon in River's mind, to stop the fear and relief overwhelming her as her brother faces down her monsters. *Always protects me, keeps me safe. Grow together, come together, doesn't see monsters wear the faces of friends.* She looks at Jayne's arms, her fingers tracing over the gouges making the man wince as he pauses by the locked door. Redness stains her fingers and she wipes it on his shirt, No blue now…

"Forgot the gorramn gun!" Jayne doesn't let up his hold on River, the girl's silent enough now but he's not taking any chances, just wanting to get back before what made those screams catches them. He's not thinking on the doc anymore, nor River herself, just wants out. Wants back at home and she's now become an extension of him. He's not aware of it, can't fathom why but he's not leaving her. Doing what the doc asked instead, saving his sister.

She grips at him, hands fisting in his shirt as he kicks at the door, feeling the shock vibrate up his leg and through her. Coming…helps coming, she can feel it, can rest for a moment before she gathers her strength to find Simon.* Single aberration easily reworked, stride in and take back what's ours.* Then she cries out, flinches away as the sharp sound comes and the door crashes open. *Not now, won't take, have to run.* She feels the surety, the contradiction to what she'd thought on hearing as the Captain takes note of just her and Jayne, faces the man down and stares impassively at him while Jayne squirms and blurts out the half-truth. River knows, feels Mal know, and senses the tide that rises in him; that washes over him and leaves him unmovable as it tosses her around, making her jolt in Jayne's arms, try to push him away and get back to her brother.

"Doc got hurt, told me to take the girl and get gone." Jayne's not having any difficultly meeting Mal's eyes, the captain looks stunned enough as he says the words and looks back along the wayThen River starts moving again and Jayne's palms itch to shake her to a stop; can't she see what's going on, gonna run and throw herself back into that, make what the doc did seem sourer than it already is?

"We best get that way then." Mal reaches for River, closes his hand tightly around her wrist and tugs her towards him. He doesn't take his eyes off Jayne once, doesn't let his guard slip or any of them see what he's thinking. What he's sure on. Zoe seems to guess though, gestures Jayne in front of them with her gun as Mal takes a tight hold of River. She's muttering something about copper and crawling things, but she doesn't fight him, sags against him instead, her eyes staring blankly at nothing, her fingers wound in his coat. Not wriggling makes her easier to lift, not like she's heavy though, all scooped out and fragile.

"Hope you know what you're doing, sir." Zoe eyes him and in that moment they're both sure of it, except Mal's not so sure on what to do but follow Jayne. And Zoe stays at his back, keeps her thoughts to herself though she's cursing Jayne for being such a greedy hundan, pushing thoughts on the doctor away too, until they know more, until they're safe.

Mal glances to Zoe, nods as she stays at his back while they rush back to the ambulance, get flying, get away. He can't start thinking on Simon or Jayne or any of them till they're back aboard Serenity-safe. Then he'll do what needs to be done.

~

Kaylee can't stop grinning as she greets Inara, it's been a good day as far as she knows, and all the better for having Inara back on board, having everyone back on board. They got the goods, no one got hurt: and once she's told the Captain the good news, she can go back to skimming over the toys she found in that junk heap. *Core folk sure do throw away a lot of good stuff*. She moves down the steps, shaking her head at Mal's yelled out question. "Nothing on sensors."

The captain doesn't look as pleased as she expected him to be, barely glances Inara's way either, which is odd enough, and he's muttering something to Wash, the pilot surprisingly fast and pale-faced as he jogs towards the cockpit.

"Everything okay?" Kaylee can't help the uncertainty that creeps into her voice, snapping Mal's attention to her. Inara's touching Kaylee's back now, reading Mal more clearly than Kaylee is and seeing something's wrong.

"No, it really ain't." Mal's not smiling, watching as Kaylee's smile fades and pushes back the white hot rage he knows is going to come loose soon enough and strike out in the wrong manner if he's not careful. And he's got to be careful, always aimed to be for himself and his crew, but now he's  got one more reason to. One more responsibility and a whole boatload of guilt to keep himself from forgetting it

Jayne stumbles out of the ambulance, wishes he could close his ears to Kaylee's words and the accusation he fancies he can hear in Mal's. Guilt doesn't sit comfortably for him and he wrestles between it and fury as he  watches River just stare into space. Blank-faced, blank-minded no doubt.
Trouble from the get go and Jayne can't help disliking her. Hating her brother for being so damn noble and stupid, for making Jayne feel like he's done wrong when there's not a man in the 'verse that could turn down that much credit.* Took her with me didn't I? Should count for somethin'. *

"Where's Simon?" Kaylee chokes out the words, moving closer to the ambulance, leaning inside, shaking off Inara's arm as she tries to hold her. "Oh, god." She sags against the ambulance, dread clutching at her chest, gaze snapping from Mal back down to River.

"Had to leave him." Mal's words don't explain much but the regret leaks through, fury shows for a moment too, though its placing isn't clear and it's enough to keep Kaylee from snapping at him.

"You left him behind?" Her voice cracks and her hands are over her mouth, silencing herself. Not by choice…there's no doubt about that. River and Simon are crew, could become family, captain's never not made that clear.

Serenity's vibrating now, engine starting up and Kaylee squeezes her eyes closed for a moment, letting misery sweep through her and shielding herself from River's expressionless stare. From having to be the one to take care of River, from having to comfort her friend. She knows it's not the right thing to do, knows it's not nice but can't get herself moving.

"Wasn't by choice, meimei." Mal's voice is gruff, not wanting to see realization and misery, not looking at Jayne because he knows the merc won't be feeling anything short of relief and that's, to his mind, worse.

"Let me take her, Mal." Inara's not asking any questions though her shock is obvious, it breaks through her composure as she moves forward to take River from him and for a second Mal's not sure he can let her go but River doesn't protest, remains mute as Inara supports her. "I would suggest the infirmary, but I think perhaps my shuttle instead. Maybe you could fetch the medical bag for me, Kaylee?"

The medical bag, not Simon's bag, Inara's careful not to say his name as Kaylee looks to her. The mechanic nods and stumbles off on shaky legs, pushing aside her own emotions for a moment. Mal's never really disagreed on the fact that Inara can be a real lady at times, it's always been a part of the reasoning that he hates her whoring, but she acts every inch of one now.

 

"We'll be in my shuttle, Captain, please call me as soon as you're ready to discuss this. I'd like to offer what services I can."

Any other time and they both know he'd be making a comment over that, but he merely nods to her, watches as she walks River up the steps taking most of the girl's weight upon her.

"Best move this cargo, can't be giving anyone reason if they come searching." Mal's voice is neutral but as Jayne turns away from him, relief shining on the man's face for a moment, so gorramn pleased and thankful that he hasn't been caught out, Mal can't help grasping for the wrench. His thoughts are simple now, Jayne's a traitor, did him wrong, did the crew wrong and Mal was a fool to have forgotten he'd turn on him. Jayne himself had even warned Mal on it, at a time.

"Good take the doc got us, mayhap we can-" Jayne's trying to find words, anything to distract from what he's thinking and feeling. To throw Mal off the scent in case the captain gets wise, but his words are cut off as he turns and cold metal bites into his face. Sharp and harsh, striking true enough to make him stumble, to dizzy him and make him fall over, catching his head for a moment and knocking himself out.

"Conjure this is an interestin' day, Jayne." Mal squats next to him, grasps the man by his armpits and drags him towards the airlock, locking the door tightly behind. Serenity's not broke atmo yet and he's about to comm up and ask why when Zoe's voice comes from behind him.

"Got a few problems. Fed's are holding all ships from breaking out until they've verified everyone's got legitimate reason to be leaving now."

"Ain't takin' no chances are they?" Mal clenches his fists and pauses as Kaylee rushes past them, Simon's red med kit in hand. "Kaylee, comm up to Wash. Got some trouble leavin' see if maybe Inara can work something. Tien knows she's got some fancy clients waitin' for her; be a good time to put her ambassador status to the test again."

"Will do, Cap'n." Kaylee takes the stairs two at a time, not noticing where Jayne's disappeared off to though the moment Inara's shuttle hisses open, Zoe's eyes are on the door.

"Permission to speak true, sir?" She's going to say her mind whatever his answer, just respect and friendship that keeps her from lighting into him already. Never been love between Jayne and Zoe; the merc's made enough crude comments to show he wants to bed her as he does most of the population, but she's always been suspicious of him. Never let herself trust or let down her guard. But she's accepted Mal's choices, just in this case she hasn't liked it.

"Seems the day for it."

Zoe's eyes flit to the airlock door, mouth compressing in a line for a moment. She can't say she's not considered how much easier things would be without the Tams, but they are crew now. Simon had saved Kaylee, saved Mal and even Zoe herself upon a time. He might not have been her choice in friend, but he was crew and that meant something. "You not tossed this sorry hundan out already?"

"'S a good question." Mal isn't about to deny it, he's just not sure he can answer. There's more anger in him than he cares to dwell on, frustration and a small amount of humiliation. "Jayne played me, stuck a knife in me and mine."

"So again, sir, why not open the airlock?" Zoe's not in any hurry to see Jayne dead, isn't any fonder of the man than she is of Simon, little less in fact, but better rid of him now before he tries again, or before he wakes. Not a pleasant way to die, sucked out into space. Zoe wouldn't wish it upon anyone.

"I'm not sure." Mal moves to the airlock door, noticing Jayne's fingers twitching as the man slowly comes too. "Not sure how I'm going to play this. Got more'n half a mind to toss Jayne out, but got another half considering whether he'd do it again. Man sticks the knife in, gets it stuck back and twisted, sometimes it leaves enough of a scar to warn him."

"A second chance?" Zoe's not sure she'd be thinking like that. If Mal ends up leaning that way she'll support him, but she doesn't like it. *Will be keeping a closer eye there, if he does*.

"Man like Jayne…who knows what he's thinkin'. Can't say for sure what'll happen, best still set the table for nine--eight." He clenches his jaw shut and she levels him with a measured look, "Need to see what he's got to say, Zoe. Ain't looking' for excuses, just the truth. Wantin' to know about Simon being left behind too."

"As long as you know what you're doing." Zoe doesn't argue, merely moves over to the side of the bay and presses the comm button. "Wash? You got clearance sorted yet?"

There's enough of a pause to have Mal's gaze wandering back over to the door. He can hear Jayne stirring properly now. Then Wash's voice comes clearly over the comm, thankful and relieved. "Tianna, Zoe, she did it. They asked Inara a bunch of questions and she must've sweet talked them something good 'cause we've got automatic clearance. We break atmo in ten."

"That's real good , husband." Zoe flicks off the comm. "Just as well River's not saying much, wouldn't have made for a good display if she was carrying on while Inara was talking."

"You should get up there, check on them, then see we're not bein' followed. I don't discount that Wash's probably done that already but better not to be sorry. Besides, Book needs a wave afore we go and collect him."

"Wouldn't hurt to look on the cortex either, see if I can spot anything about our doctor." Zoe's not needing to remind Mal of Simon but she does so all the same, feeling anger flush through her as a clanging comes from the airlock and she recalls what happened.

"Got ideas on that myself." Mal nods to her, moving over to the airlock window, the portable comm unit in his hand.

Five minutes until they break atmo, four now even, and Jayne's banging on the door, though from the angle of it he can't see that Mal's talking to Zoe. Mal taps on the small window with his comm unit, not looking to see Zoe stride out as he settles himself to face Jayne.

Zoe just hopes the captain does have something planned, because there's nothing she can conjure they could pull off to get the doctor back with them. There would have been a time she'd have considered it better to have the two Tam's off ship. Was a difference in having them off ship and running, and having them in Alliance hands.

*Best hope they don't have a mind to cut into his brain, too. *

It's only a short walk to the cockpit, her husband turning to her, his own worry obvious and she lets herself have the luxury of being pulled onto his lap for a moment. Knows he needs this as much as she does as his face rests against her back, and she watches the small blinking light-which reminds them the airlock's open-fade down to nothing.

 

end part 2

Chapter Text

"This must be exquisitely painful." The blue-handed man runs a finger lightly down Simon's chest, sending a fresh wave of agony through him. The constant ache is bad enough, but the man's touch makes Simon flinch and only adds to the biting pain.

Simon ignores the comment, tensing as straps are pulled across his shoulder and belly, restraints encircling his hands and feet. A part of him is surprised they aren't just dragging him back to whichever ship they came in on, adding to his pain and difficulty to breathe. But it's becoming clearer and clearer that these men aren't anything like he expected. *Stabilise a patient, put him on the road to recovery and then get what you want from him. A lack of oxygen could lead to brain damage or even death, neither of which would be any use to them.*

They were clever, Simon had to admit that, and he wasn't so sure anymore that they were Alliance; at least not the shining, smiling face that was projected over the Core. Beacon of civilization and prosperity. These men undoubtedly had ties in the government and had Alliance in their pocket, but not all and every officer. If they had, then there would have been no need to kill the feds. No need to ensure no one knew of his and River's presence.

"You've been quite a problem, Simon." The man is looking down at him now, chiding him as one would a misbehaving child.

"My heart bleeds for you." Simon croaks the words out because it's getting harder to breathe, band tightening around his chest, pressing in and what he wants to say, everything that rages within him, he can't give voice to. The man says nothing, merely smiles and lays his hand on Simon's chest, bringing another groan to the doctor's lips; the pain's excruciating and it's unnerving being strapped down to a stretcher, feeling someone's hand on his chest, just knowing how vulnerable he is. And then the man presses down lightly, sending white hot pain through Simon's body as he tries to twist, unable to do more then rock in the bindings, air shunted from his lungs as he makes a guttural choking sound. *Oh god, oh god, oh god…*

And then he can breathe again, the offending hand is lifted off and Simon can barely see the man leaning over him, can just focus as his vision swims and eyes sting. There's no need for words, he's made his point eloquently enough and Simon's not about to say any more. Not about to think on anything to say, just ride out the pain as it starts to abate, to become a juddering throb.

The blue-handed men don't say a word as they work, their own thoughts centered fully on the man they're binding. Both have an unhealthy to punish Simon along with the dislike and annoyance they feel. Bindings firmly in place, the taller of the two men presses his hand to Simon's throat, noting the wheezing sound the doctor's now making.

"You exerted too much pressure." It's a comment, not a jibe or accusation. Neither man cares that Simon's in pain, both view it as justice; extra punishment for the man that stole from them. But they do need Simon alive and healthy, do accept in hindsight that conditioning Simon Tam before River would have been beneficial and made the process smoother. It's an error they plan to correct; with Simon in their custody and River's location undoubtedly inside his mind, they have no doubt that they can make him do as they wish.

"Perhaps." The other man nods. "Intubation might provide sufficient ventilation."

"A sound idea."

Simon can't hear what they're saying, but he notices when they gesture a third individual over, a woman who at first glance Simon is relieved to notice wears no gloves. *Prisoner? Doctor… * He wonders if she's innocent in all of this, if she'll be clawing at her ears and eyes in a matter of moments, but she's cool and poised as she steps over the downed fed's corpse and presses her stethoscope to his chest. *Not a very good one*. Simon winces as she presses too hard, isn't careful in her touch and doesn't say a word to him, just addresses the two men with obvious respect on her face.

*So she's one of them, or works for them. *The thought sets him on edge because these people don't heal, they twist and change and hurt. One of the men cups his hands around Simon's jaw, the touch making Simon's heart race and his breath quicken in anxiety as fingers then dig into the sides of his mouth, forcing it open. Something fills his mouth, burning his tonsils as it pushes itself down his throat, making Simon gag and heave, though a touch to the pressure points in his neck has the reflex abating and the tube slides down deep towards his lungs.

It's a violation of the worst kind and Simon tries to claw at it, unable to breathe, hyperventilating as he tries to cough the tube out. *Never without anesthetic* And then there's a prick in his hand and everything suddenly seems so far away, his body too heavy to try moving and the tube isn't so much of a bother.

Without a sound Simon slips into a sedated sleep, and the doctor nods to the other men lurking in the forecourt. "Take him to the ship." She orders them and they obey without question, it's only a matter of handing over the necessary information and her work is done. She can go back to her normal job and no one's the wiser. Until they call on her again.

"We need all information on today's traffic, everything in and out of the hospital." The blue-handed man is unsurprisingly polite, pleased at her prompt response; if only all their operatives were that conscientious.

He idly wonders if Simon Tam has any idea just how far their reach could extend, just what areas they can affect and who they can use. Shaking off the thought, he follows his partner and leaves the room, allowing the cleanup team to do their work. To cover up and assure Alliance officials that the fugitives were still at large and they, and whoever was with them, had no qualms about killing nine men in cold blood.

 

end part 3

Chapter Text

*Next time you decide to stab me in the back... have the balls to do it to my face.*

Jayne can't seem to let that thought go, can't get Mal's voice out of his head. He's not ever seen the captain so furious, never seen Mal consider taking down a man in something that wasn't a fair fight, but he has no doubt Mal would've spaced him. Could see the look in the man's eyes, Mal was all set to and Jayne's not sure what changed his mind. Begging hadn't worked, being all confused  hadn't either and now the confusion is doubled, added to a good dose of frustration because Mal's let it go it seems. Has seen Jayne walking around after Zoe let him in some hours later, first mate never asking why he was locked out which comforts Jayne some-- glad no one else knew of his deception.

Mal's acting no different than before, though Jayne fancies there's a hardness in his eyes when Mal looks his way, a slight undercurrent to his tone which makes some things all the more personal.

It keeps Jayne on edge, about as much as explaining just what had happened to the crew does. Making him talk and tell and relive what happened. Simon's words and plea, his thanks being guilt enough in making Jayne feel like a heel and come the next planet fall he'll be finding a way to make it up; fresh fruit and produce do make the crew sunnier. Maybe he'll ask the preacher for atonement, too. He's got nothing to say right now, just listens as they talk over him. Mal's got plenty to say it seems, and he's already used his patented, 'not looking to assign blame' speech.

Mal's keeping his gaze from Jayne deliberately as he speaks, chances are his tone will give him away if he looks at the man, thinks on how he's put them here. The rest of the crew's quit arguing, stopped demanding answers and some stopped insisting that they fight to get back Simon. They've settled enough to listen. Mal knows they're not going to like what he has to say, chances are he won't be getting much sleep tonight, but things need saying and he's the one to do them.

"All right, first thing, how's River doin', Inara?" He looks to her, making the companion redden lightly, an unhappy flush that creeps down her cheeks as her gaze creeps over to the silent girl by her side. She hates talking over River, considers it the height of rudeness, but it can't be helped.

"Not well, I'm afraid."

"Ain't heard her carryin' on an' screamin'." Though Mal wishes she would, worse seeing her retreat like she is. Inara and Kaylee dressing her like a child, walking her around. Been more then twenty four hours and she hasn't said a word.

"Kinda wish she would." Kaylee speaks now, drawing their attention to her. "She just sits there, Captain." Her eyes drift to the others as she continues, "like she's not there anymore."

Zoe takes a sip of her drink, eyes on Jayne for a long moment before she looks to the center of the table. "Got enough rage and fear curled up inside her; likely she's doing that to hold herself in. Jayne said she went more peculiar before they heard screaming. Sounds to me like she's got a guess what'll happen to Simon."

"Screams?" Wash has a peculiar look on his face, caught somewhere between worry and disgust.

"Weren't nothing' like I've heard before. Men dyin', folk with bits hacked off, them's bad enough." Jayne snorts, hiding the shudder that runs through him and takes a gulp of his drink, noting the sickened looks on some faces around the table. "This was...I ain't sure, but it weren't right. Not heard folks sound that bad save ones that've been hit by Reavers."

"Evidently these individuals are not the more common Alliance officers we've seen." Book unfolds his hands and rests his chin on them. The preacher is well-rested from his time at the monastery, but his eyes show signs of strain as he rubs them. "News on the cortex is that River and Simon were responsible for the deaths of nine officers, it doesn't specify how but it's bumped the reward money up a substantial amount."

Mal tenses at that, eyes flicking to Jayne, but Jayne manages to hold his head up and doesn't even blink as Mal assesses him.

"So, cover up?" Wash frowns moving over to the small kitchen, grasping cutlery and laying it upon the table. It's hard to think of eating at that moment but the meal's already cooled and the last thing they need is to get sick or weakened.

"And a large one at that." Book shakes his head, eyes on Mal, "Seems Simon did right to get River out of there, who knows what they did to her." Jayne's agitated now, thinking on Simon's words in the hospital--*cut open her skull*--playing with his knife. "Made her crazy, what else you gotta know?"

"It might be a help to look through all the information Simon's gathered, but I doubt any of us can understand it." Inara looks downcast. "So much medicine and we have no idea what we can use to help River."

Mal's not looking to get morose again, to have his crew quiet and uneasy, he needs them sharp, drawn together. "Conjure she needs a different kind of help now. Best help we can get her is to get the doc back, don't think anyone's disputin' that-"

"Well, of course we gotta get him back." Kaylee looks up from her hands now, eyes narrowing slightly, forehead wrinkling as she wonders on the captain's choice of words. Seems to her like there was a 'but' coming which didn't sit well. "Right?" She tears her gaze from Mal, looking at each of the crew in turn. What she sees satisfies her in part, but also discomforts her.

"Right. Now Simon's crew an' we'll be gettin' him back soon, but right now it's not an option-"

"Not an option? Wo de ma! Mal, do you realize what you're saying?"

Mal holds up a hand, cutting off Wash's incredulous question as the man interrupts him and rises to his feet. "Just let me be finishing, Wash, then you can all have your say. Can tell me what you like after I'm done, won't be changin' anything, but can have your say nonetheless."

For a moment it seems Wash is going to challenge him again, the man twists his gaze to look at Zoe, who meets it firmly, no offer of help, no backing up and then Wash sinks back down to his seat in dejection. There's a hush around the table as Mal leans on it, looking down over them all. "Now we got little coin, an engine needin' parts, not much chow left an' a whole cargo of stolen meds."

"Haven't got prices for all of them, Simon was gonna finish when he got back." Kaylee's voice is soft and she glances away when he stares down at her, moment of rebellion gone, listening instead.

"Can make a guess on them, maybe even find some on the cortex. Book-" He looks to the man, another idea forming in his mind, one for later, one he's going to need to know more about the shepherd for in order to use. If Book feels in a sharing mood. Man's been nothing but cagey about his past, but Mal knows having someone aboard carrying Alliance approved ident could go a long way to helping them. "Might be you'd be best doin' that."

Book stares at him from a long moment before nodding, eyeing the stubborn line of Mal's jaw, the flickering in the captain's eyes. He seriously hopes the captain doesn't intend on visiting the route he suspects, chances are the boy would end up dead if they did.

"Now ain't none of us wants Simon left there, but we've got no notion of who took him or where. Got no contacts can buy off an' no coin to do it. Simon wanted us lookin' after River, keepin' her safe, s'why they were here. Safer to keep being on the move. We could start bein' nosy, get ourselves dead and River taken back, but I've got no mind to be a corpse yet, an' I'm not losin' more of my crew."

Mal can see a multitude of emotions playing across each of their faces as he speaks, his eyes settling on each one in turn. Zoe's not showing much but he can see she's less tense then before, shows her support with the barest of nods to him and Wash, *ma de* the man don't look pleased at all, looks fit to hit someone, but there's resignation there, too. He knows Mal's right in his words and can't fault him.

Book's not hiding his approval and Jayne just looks uncomfortable, hopefully feeling a weight load of guilt, though Mal's got reservations how far that would stretch--*"You got her brother as good as dead, made the whole 'verse a darker place for her, Jayne, an' you ain't gettin' off that lightly. Far as you're concerned, she's only reason I'm givin' you another chance, you be her shadow now, keep her safe when she needs it."*The merc hadn't appreciated any of the talk Mal had given him, but something had changed, swayed Mal when Jayne had asked him not to tell what he'd done, and  had him shutting the airlock instead of leaving Jayne to the mercy of the black.

Kaylee…she's not happy, that's for sure, gonna be a while before she starts smiling again, especially at him and Inara is looking as displeased about the situation as they're all feeling.

"We do a job. We get paid, we keep flying and every day we do we keep ourselves open. Start searching contacts, dippin' into things. Ain't a perfect plan but it's the only one we've got, dong ma?" Mal straightens, glad to have it off his chest, though his stomach still feels like it has a lead weight in it. None of them can find words, can start questioning or explaining, the revelation--ruination of the fantasy they could be playing at heroics again and storming in to rescue Simon--has left a sour feeling in all of them. There's no real appetite amongst them but Kaylee still stands and, with Wash's assistance, silently doles out dinner.

It's River who finally puts things in context, the screaming in her mind silent for one moment, ears ringing as she senses the resolution in Mal. Feels it spread from the captain into all of them, stirring up certainty and determination and dragging her out, if only for a moment. She looks up at him, smile sweet yet sad, holding his gaze long enough to capture his attention and Inara's too. Speaking words which ring a chord with Mal, even while they chill him.

"Not weak."

 

end part 4

Chapter Text

Warm…Simon revels in the heat, would burrow into the softness against his back if his limbs weren't so leaden. He can't summon the will or energy to open his eyes at that moment, and he wonders where he is. He hasn't forgotten the events of Ariel, can remember his own capture, though the events and after are still cloudy. Even recalls the looks on both Jayne's and River's faces as they left him behind. *As I told them to…*

He's not in his bunk-the mattress there is harder, better support for the back and besides, the ship doesn't smell this fragrant. It reminds him of Inara's shuttle, incense and musk, and he inhales deeply, his eyes still closed, not taking the chance that this is a dream or hallucination and opening them will send him catapulting back into reality. Definitely not Serenity, and Simon feels a pang of remorse at that. Funny how an object becomes all the more like home when you're welcomed, when they come back for you. Or at least don't throw you out the airlock.

Not a hospital either, no underlying feel of sterility and stench of antiseptic. And he's not dead. Simon grimaces as his chest protests his large inhalations. No longer a burning tearing pain, no longer such a difficulty to breathe, but it feels unpleasant and uncomfortable taking such deep breaths and he switches to shallow--no longer trying to use his sense of smell. He doesn't want to open his eyes, to ruin whatever hallucination his broken ribs have brought on. No doubt he'd find himself bundled in some filthy cell, or some dank little room, something over the top and clichéd.

*Just a peek…*

Simon forces himself to look, pushes away the lethargy, eyes watering and shutting instinctively when bright light assaults. A murmured curse comes from above him, low and feminine, reminiscent of the woman that had forced the tube down his throat. He starts, groan coming before he can stifle it, clamping his lips together as he remembers fingers catching at his jaw, feeling the sting at the back of his throat as he swallows.

"Keep still, Doctor."

She doesn't sound friendly, but she's not the woman from before, Simon can hear it in the inflection of her voice. Exasperated, not indifferent. And he feels resentment at it, opens his eyes, half-squinting at her, though he feels a sense of gratitude as she lowers the light intensity. His vision's still a bit hazy, things vibrate in and out of focus slightly, his head feels like it's been stuffed full of rocks, his chest quickly following and the taste in his mouth is vile, revolting even; bizarrely enough, as he swallows again, he can hear Jayne's voice--*tastes like crotch*--and he pulls a face.

"Feeling light-headed?" She sounds almost concerned and Simon fixes his gaze on her. She's older than he expected, pleasant faced and when she smiles it's almost motherly. Simon feels bemusement as she tucks blankets up around him.

*I must be hallucinating, brain starved of oxygen perhaps.*

Except he doesn't feel delusional, just tired and aching, head still woolly, and when he closes his eyes for a brief moment, he can feel the 'verse sinking inwards, wanting to pull him into sleep again. He fights the urge, forcing his eyes open, though his words are a little slurry now. "Where'my?"

"Don't be thinking on that now, you've had a bad accident; we had to put you out for a while, just to keep you from hurting yourself." She's checking the IV in his arm now, setting the analgesic flow rate higher. She can't help frowning at the waking man. She can see he's fighting, can sympathize with the anxiety he feels; but she doesn't reassure him, doesn't explain that they do things differently here. Blue Sun is a more refined organization and, in time, he'll realize that acceptance is an easier way to go than rejection, than stubbornness. She rubs a small scar on the back of her own hand thoughtfully. They all learn eventually.

Hurting myself, or fighting them? Not that he'd done much fighting, body weakened though his mind was strong. Stronger than River's, at least right now. He feels a stab of relief just knowing she got away, reassured she is safe from the Alliance. "I should go home." He gasps as pain shoots up his chest, caught midway between pushing himself up, stubborn determination giving him enough adrenaline to attempt, though it wears off quickly at the pain, and he sinks back down, coughing harshly. Each cough catches at his chest, makes him feel like it's being ripped in two and he can hear the woman clucking around him, easing him fully down, surprisingly strong, or perhaps he is just oddly weak at that moment.

"If you can't behave, I'm going to have to sedate you."

He opens his mouth to protest, but there's a light sting in his arm before he can. Gaze drawn to it, he catches the motherly smile once more before he slips into unconsciousness, though this time it's distorted and creepy.

 

end part 5

Chapter Text

 

"Sedation is always the best method." The blue-handed man sounds smug as he turns to his compatriot, although his face is expressionless. The gunmetal grey of the room glows lightly all around them, a stark contrast to the room they can see into.

"It could work in our favor." It's about as much of an agreement as he's going to get. "But we can't let him linger this way for too long, as soon as the muscle heals we'll wake him. The longer he remains anesthetized, the longer the recovery time." The man flips through a small brown folder, eyes scanning. "Chances are Tam will react in the same manner with which he has previously, which will put us several days behind schedule anyway."

"We've waited this long." There's a ghost of a smile on the first one's face, "What's a few days, weeks even? When we convince the doctor to give up the girls whereabouts, even join with us, it will be worth the wait."

"If we convince him. I'm still not sure anyone can talk this young man around, he seems unnaturally persistent. His parents were easier to condition." The folder is dropped onto a table, "I still say we employ…other tactics. Conditioning the man would be so much quicker without all this charade."

For once not united, the two men are so busy staring each other down, voicing their own concerns, that the presence at their door goes unnoticed. But only for a moment, and then their guest speaks, voice soft and articulate, the very image of civility though he's made many a corpse with his words and hands.

"But Doctor Tam's a civil man, and a very loyal one at that, special tactics are needed in a situation such as this." The operative has no doubt of this, can see Simon having a place in the society they create- him and his sister for that matter, though he has no doubt that convincing the man will be a challenge.

"I do believe we taught you that." Both men are looking at him now, amusement flicking on the first one's face as his companion picks up the folder once more.

"You did." The operative inclines his head slightly, "I also believe you want me to persuade the doctor to give up his sister's location. I can assure you it won't be easy, but all men have a failing, something I can work on to change his mind."

"I take it you're opposed to the idea of conditioning, then." The second man holds himself rigidly, displeasure flickering for a moment. More impatient than his partner, he's not willing to expend too much on a worthless project and he has severe doubts the doctor can be talked around.

"Opposed to injury, yes." The operative pauses, "But only the kind which leads to permanent damage or maiming. Doctor Tam needs to be in a good physical condition throughout." He moves closer to the two-way mirror and peers through it, down at the doctor, thoughtful for a moment. "You both taught me the great endurances the human body can succumb to and survive, and that a good measure of them leave no markings nor damage."

There's a smile on the second man's face now, directed more towards the first man who looks to be in agreement too, rather than enthused over, the prospect of inflicting pain.

"Do you think he dreams about her? His sister, I mean?" The operative stares down at Simon, eyes intensely burning, watching him sleep. The questions are meant for himself not for the other two men, and they let them slide. "I think he does. Just as he must those who watch over her." His hands are lightly tapping the bottom of the glass. "He probably dreams about what will happen when he wakes, even has it all mapped out logically in his mind. Assuming we'll start breaking him, torturing, resorting to cruel and barbarous techniques."

"He probably expected to wake up in some kind of holding cell." The first man's joined him at the glass, blue hands clasped behind him back. "It was probably a shock seeing this room in contrast."

"Confusing." The second man joins them, "Smart as he is, I doubt he'd figure it out."

"Civility." The operative smiles. "As opposed to barbarism. Conditioning, pain, but all the while keeping it proper, respectable, as he was once used to before desperation drove him to the Rim. Keeping him on edge, needing to lean somewhere." He turns away from the man. "Which is where I do believe Doctor Tam may be too smart for his own good."

 

end part 6

Chapter Text

Everything is foggy, wrong, not like it’s meant to be. Pain burning into the side of Mal’s head tells him he’s still alive, but he’s honestly not sure how that is. Can’t remember passing out, can’t recall a time he’s woken up from it feeling like a mule's just kicked him in the chest. There’s a low hum all around him, his chest burns, aches right over his heart and feels close to agony on his ribs. That gorramn ugly toy of Niska’s gotta be why his ribs are hurting. He still remembers the feel as the ends of its clamps burrowed into him. The white hot agony that flashed through him as it powered on. Felt like he’d just stepped foot into the core of a sun.

He can hear muttering around him, a loathsome noise and it makes his nose screw up. Familiar and vile, Niska talking, saying something low to him, and then something wet flicks onto his ear and the smarting pain that flares up is enough to get him groaning. Groggy and exhausted, he’s not opening his eyes, instead letting the pain wash through him, limbs more leaden then he would like. Niska’s still talking to him, voice low and almost melodious, and Mal just about summons enough energy to answer back, to quip back at the man, even if Niska's not paying that much attention to him.

Niska’s torn between two emotions- happy, glad even, that Captain Reynolds is such an interesting man to explore, to break, but disappointed at the fragility of the human body, that he has to draw back for a moment if he wants to keep the man living. He doesn‘t want to bring back a nothingless mass with the Captain‘s name, after all. Shan Yu himself probably would have liked to meet the man, liked to put Malcolm Reynolds under his knife and truly see him. Niska’s sure he hasn’t seen Mal yet, has only gained glimpses and can now focus on exploring. Now is no longer teasing and giving the preliminaries of pain as he had when there were two to focus on. Fingers dipping into the sweet wine, he flicks it onto the bloodied mangled mass of Mal’s ear, idly wondering how long he will last.

Mal’s also glad Wash isn’t here to see this, see how close he’s getting. Mind no longer torn between different thoughts and ideas, different certainties, it's still and calm now--certain. Certain that his crew's coming for him, knows he wouldn’t be left behind. Even if there’s not much left by the time they get here, at least Mal’s got the same certainty knowing they’ll still come.

Not as peaceful as he’d like though, not wanting his crew to come to put themselves in that. Zoe and Wash would be readying themselves he’s sure. The others are more worrisome, not having the know-how to take up arms or a boatload of reluctance to put themselves out. He can’t see Kaylee being able to fight, can’t see the preacher having the want-to given his religion and River…she hasn’t been all that lucid since Simon was taken. Had moments that’s true, made enough noise the day before, playing with Kaylee right before she went back to being all silent and staring again. Something Jayne claimed was more creepifying than her random comments, even if the merc had made good on Mal’s orders, taking pains to not scare or upset her.

Mayhap he’d taken Mal’s order to shadow her and keep her safe to heart, maybe not, Mal couldn’t be thinking too much on it now.

Niska’s still talking, making Mal’s lips twist as he ghosts warm air over Mal’s mutilated ear. Hurts more than a bullet for some reason, makes his guts twist and hands twitch to cover and protect it. It’s hard to focus now, harder to keep himself from just sinking back into the warm unconsciousness he’d come from.

Died, he died, least that’s what the psychotic old man’s saying. Not a pleasant thought. Mal’s not willing to be a corpse just yet, even if he wants the pain gone. Somehow he finds words to stay back, though it’s a struggle, and for some reason he’s finding himself wondering on something else, something less pleasant, that he’s hoping is not true.

Wonder if Simon’s gettin’ much of the same, conjure those that took him’s as crazy as Niska. Chances are they’ll cut into him too…

He’s tried not to think of Simon much recently, tried to push away the angry, churning feeling that comes whenever he thinks of the man left at the mercy of Tien knew what. But he can’t help thinking now, and suddenly Niska’s words become a lot more interesting as the man leans in closer. He’s not waffling on about debts and repayments, and Mal’s focusing more on his words than the wicked looking implement his torturer’s waving around.

“Tell me Mister Reynolds, who is this Simon you speak of?”


end part 7

Chapter Text

 

Disinterest is not an emotion Simon can feel right now, nor can he allow himself to relax, to act casual. So instead he feigns it. Sits upright in his chair and forces himself not to tense, digging his fingernails slightly into his hands as he clasps them together just to stop himself from crossing them, from acting defensive. He doubts he looks anything but what he feels, but he pretends none the less, just as he fakes indifference at the cool stare leveled his way.

Dark brown eyes thoughtfully appraise him; eyes that Simon would have thought could have conveyed emotion extremely well, suited sympathy perhaps, show nothing. Just resolution. Which only adds more weight to the man’s words and tone as he leans forward, sending a cold chill through Simon.

“You understand that there is only one outcome and one offer. Want it or not, all the hope in this 'verse isn’t going to stop us finding your sister, from bringing her back to us. Only the choice of when is yours, Doctor Tam."

Simon smiles, he can’t help it, it’s involuntary and disbelieving. “You can’t seriously think that I’m going to help you find River.” He means it too, wonders why the man is even acting out this facsimile of a meeting, of a discussion. He knows what’s coming, has spent the last five boring days imagining, growing half-crazy himself as they ignored him. Until now.

“You couldn’t have thought you could hide her forever, can’t think that the people you entrust her to now will do anything more then sell her to the highest bidder.” The man leans forward, intense gaze never once leaving Simon’s face and, for a moment, there is a flicker. He’s hiding something; he knows it and, in that moment, Simon does too.

It’s a good sign in Simon’s mind, a sign that he‘s being misled in some way, and it gives him confidence, but also makes him all the more wary. “What people?” He sounds innocent, curious even. It’s easy to sound that way when he’s pushing every little thought about River and Serenity to the back of his mind. Gathering the thoughts close and wrapping them carefully, not letting the falsehoods he’s quickly thinking up touch them.

“I’m a patient man, Doctor Tam.”

He sounds like he should be smiling, yet the man doesn’t smile, merely sighs and sits back a bit. He’s assessing Simon now and Simon’s having to hold himself straight to avoid squirming, avoid looking away. There’s something in that gaze, something honest and determined, that makes Simon cold, makes him know this man means what he says. He will find River; will go to the ends of the ‘verse if he has to. And all Simon can hope is that Serenity keeps flying and her captain takes care of River.

“Do you really think those on your ship are those you should rely on?”

The man looks curious now, the operative, Simon thinks and he nearly misses the trap, nearly takes too long in answering and only just manages the small word, manages to put enough question in his tone. “Ship?”

“Or perhaps planet? Somewhere on the Rim maybe. I can only imagine your first move was to get as far from the Core as possible.”

Simon doesn’t answer, just counters the operative’s question with one of his own. “Do you know what they’ll do to her if they catch her? Do you even know what they were doing to her? Doing to all of them? Playing with their minds, cutting into-.”

“I’ll thank you to stop now.” The operative’s cool exterior doesn’t vanish, Simon’s impassioned words not touching anything, not changing anything. “I know why River Tam is so sought after, as do you, and it’s of no concern to me. I know she’s a danger-” He pauses, seeing Simon’s eyes narrow at that, “something you yourself know, I’m told. Something that as a doctor, as her brother and as the one who broke her out, you would most definitely be aware of. She’s an imperfect specimen in an imperfect world, but I have been assured that she could be perfect, could help make this ‘verse a better place. When we find her.”

“She’s just a kid.” Simon’s words are soft, a cold feeling gathering in his stomach at the thought of what would be done to make his sister perfect. Cut her open again, pull her insides around a little, twist up her brain until she’s something unrecognizable. Something unstoppable.

“She was. I’ve seen the consent forms, Doctor Tam. She knew what she wanted, what she aimed to be. Special, unique and empowered. Impressive ambitions in one so young, which makes her potential for perfection all the more feasible. And all the more sought after.” The operative speaks softly, only moving to pour Simon a glass of water which is, for the moment, ignored.

“She already was all those things.” Simon can’t stop staring now, doesn’t want to break eye contact, wants to shake the operative until his teeth rattle and finally understands. Sees what Simon sees. The little sister smiling up at him, entwining her hand in his, leaning on him, letting him lean back. His best friend. “She was just a child, our parents signed those-”

“You think too linearly.” The operative doesn’t see them, wouldn’t care to look if he could. He has a job, a purpose, one of many in fact and once River Tam’s safely where she belongs and Simon Tam no longer causing trouble, then he can move on. Making the ‘verse a better place bit by bit, keeping those who oppose the natural order of things where they belonged- pressed down tightly, whether they could breathe or not.

“What?” Simon’s confused now, his gaze briefly dropping to the glass to tap his fingers against it. Not saying a word, but grudgingly nodding. Impeccably mannered. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t quite comprehend how messing around with my sister’s brain is in any way for her benefit.” He bites his lip before finishing the rest of his argument, using River’s psychosis and symptoms to verify his words. The less any of them knew about her the better.

The operative sits back and now Simon thinks he can see a hint of a smile, as if the man believes he’s caught Simon, lured him in. It makes the doctor uneasy.

“Perhaps if you knew the end result, could see just what had to be done?” The man’s words are almost conversational, friendly even. “You could even be involved in getting her to that stage, monitoring her at every moment. Keeping her safe.”

“Safe? With the “hundan who hacked into her? Who twisted her up inside and forced her to stay when she wanted to leave?” Simon is clutching at the glass now, anger threatening to make words spill over or his hand draw back and fling the glass. Neither of which would be productive, nor smart. This is the first real communication he’s had with anyone in days and it’s already given him relief to know that they haven’t caught River, that Jayne held true to his words.

“There was never any indication she wanted to leave.” The operative speaks calmly, the smooth tone only infuriating Simon further. Quick breath in, long breath out. Quick breath in…the breathing calms him, quells his temper and lets him keep his dignity and poise, keep up the cool façade he’s trying his hardest to adopt because he knows, Simon knows, that they’ll find some way to force him to talk. Some way of getting the truth from him. A truth he does not intend to give up, not letting River fall prey to them again, nor Mal and the rest of the crew falling foul.

“You seem to know an awful lot about my sister.” Simon’s first thought had been the man’s a lackey, a hunter and tracker, though his uniform very clearly states him as Alliance, but his first impression had never led him to envisioning this conversation. Interrogation, some pain even, Simon had been steeled for that, but conversation--especially one in which the man knew things that someone low down on the chain of command wouldn’t--he hadn’t considered. He wouldn’t contemplate the offer, hadn’t before believed it was at all sincere, but now he sees it as that. And he still rebukes it.

“You’d be surprised how much I know. About River, about yourself, your family even.” The operative is sitting forward once more, gaze feeling as if it could strip Simon bare and open up his soul as easily as the man’s superiors opened up River’s mind.

“River’s my family, my only family.” His parents made that abundantly clear. His father’s last words to him still etched in Simon’s memory. His mother’s refusal to answer his waves…Biologically related yes, and Simon couldn’t deny he felt a pang of loneliness along with the hurt, couldn’t deny he’d missed his parents, either. Nevertheless, they had made their choice and he’d made his.

He could only hope River could find a family aboard Serenity, not weighted by Simon’s suspicion and anxiety. He had no doubt she would find it more difficult, given her mind's tricks, and yet easier in a way. River had always been more sociable, fit in better than Simon had. Even as child Simon had been more confident in his self, but River had been the one more confident with others. And much as he’d wanted to trust the crew, had found himself warming and opening to them, he’d always held himself back. Protecting them, shielding himself from betrayal.

“And I’m sure you miss her.” The operative nods firmly. “Which is a compelling reason for you to take this offer, Doctor Tam. Besides, I’m sure you wouldn’t want those you’d entrust her to bearing the burden of your error. Make no mistake, I will destroy everything standing between your sister and myself, I have no desire to kill anyone but I will. If you force me to.”

Simon’s wide-eyed, caught between disgust and horror, which clearly shows on his face as he spits the words flatly out, “You’re insane.”

The operative smiles, it’s a small smile but very real, very amused. “I dare say you see me as that now, but in time you’ll come to understand what must be done.” He pauses, “You may want to drink that. I can see you won’t be taking my offer today?”

It’s phrased as a question and Simon answers it as such, “I won’t ever help you catch River.” He’s trembling slightly, though whether it’s out of fear of anger he’s not sure. Not sure he wants to find out, either, as the operative nods at the mirrored wall behind him.

“Shame.” The operative means it too, he can see the potential in Simon, can only shake his head at the oversight that allowed the elder Tam to slip away and not be conditioned before the younger. Had her brother been a part of whatever training River had undergone, by now she’d be perfect. Before now, possibly. “We’ll speak again in a few days. Such matters should be handled in a civilized manner to my thinking.” He pauses, “Though you may wish to rethink the offer over that time. When we next speak, I can assure you there'll be nothing but conversation, but, sadly, until that time, other avenues must be explored.”

Other avenues…Simon’s heart sinks at that, though it had already been a foregone conclusion. Interrogation, torture even. Simon isn’t a stranger to the worst things a person can do to another, but he has never been all that intimate with pain. The first time he’d been punched had been by Captain Reynolds; he has no scars, not even calluses to his palms, but he has no doubt that will change.

“I see.” He’s not sure what he’s meant to say, the operative’s looking at him expectantly, but Simon just presses his lips together and after a long pause the other man stands and moves over to the wall. In a seamless movement the door slides open, Simon can’t see what button the man pressed or even how the door opened. One moment there’s a wall, the next there’s a door in it.

The operative inclines his head to someone on the other side of the door, a person who must step aside, and then the man’s gone. Nothing left to indicate his presence save the water, which Simon quickly gulps down. Intuition tells him the man wasn’t lying when he advised Simon to drink quickly, the water could have been poisoned or drugged, but those thoughts no longer plague him. They’d had ample opportunity for that if they wanted it and intravenous drugging worked better then oral anyhow.

The cold feeling settles back in his stomach and Simon forces himself to keep still as the innocuous smiling man walks through the door, nondescript save the blue gloves adorned on his hands. His presence starts up a tremor that Simon has to tense his entire body not to show as the door whooshes back into place and the blue-gloved-man turns his smile on Simon.

 

 

end part 8

Chapter Text

They left her alone, they haven’t done that in a while, not since Simon was taken away. River used to like being alone, used to be able to breathe easy and enjoy the quiet that came when they weren’t all chattering at her. Minds working a mile a minute, making her see things that weren’t there, hear things she didn’t want to.

Sometimes she wonders if she imagines it, is dreaming all of it. Some days it’s so difficult to tell where she is, she has to wonder if she’s still back at the academy, still undergoing some treatment or trial. Trying to make her better, but scared of what they’ve made.

“Lonely.” She murmurs the words, fingers playing on Serenity’s surface, tracing over the ship's flesh lightly. She can hear popping noises in the distance, lets her feet wander that way, dancing lightly over the metal. She wishes Simon was with her, he could dance too. Her feet slow. She can’t think without him, sometimes his screams are so loud she has to use her own to drown them out. An everlasting scream that keeps coming, keeps sounding in her mind. Fear and panic and stealthy resolution to protect her from the cold oily mass that wanted to take her.

“Wanted me.”

She knows they did, felt their determination and delight to capture her, only Simon’s passion pushing it away, stopping them from binding her. She sometimes remembers that passion. Comes out from the safety she’s created in her mind to remember it, to remember where she is. Her mind’s damaged. River knows this, but the warm feeling of Simon helps her to nestle into a part of it. She can’t hear them there, can’t feel them or know their terrors when she’s there. There’s just Simon and her, and they’re safe.

She frowns, hearing the popping noise grow louder, hearing a strangled sob as she looks down on the woman crouching in front of her. Kaylee hasn’t seen her yet, but River knows the moment that she has. Feels Kaylee's panicterrorloathing grip at her chest, brings her close to screaming, and River moves forward to stop the scream coming, touches Kaylee lightly a second before the woman sees her.

Kaylee starts, hands instinctively coming up, fear rooting her to the ground and making her hate herself all the more--Cap’ns counting on you, Kaylee, move your legs--But she can’t move, can’t pick up the gun she’s dropped. She’s shaking and unable to stop. The metal mocks her, so practical and relieving when she sees Mal or Zoe holding it, but useless in her own hands. She’s terrified of even glancing out, of taking stock of where the men are. Gotta be coming closer.

Then River’s there, making her jump and Kaylee wants to cry out, to tell her to stop as the girl does as Kaylee fears and peers out from the cargo doorway.

River’s eyes skirt over the three men, seeing their stances; defensive positions, not changing trajectory, same angle moving forward, with thoughts perverse and wrong. They want to kill Kaylee, want to kill her, want to do unspeakable things to Serenity.

The echoing gunfire her brief peek out heralds makes Kaylee start, her hands reaching for River as she scoots back, but River’s still working things through in her mind, so simple and easy. Math, trajectory--they’ll hurt Kaylee--and her fingers close over the gun knowing what she has to do, what Kaylee wishes she could do.

She closes her eyes. “Can’t look, can’t look.” Can’t look evil in the face, can’t hear thoughts wanting to give pain, rip them apart, take them away like Simon was taken. Suddenly River’s standing and she moves quickly, though it passes in a slow blur for her. A blur of knowing, of feeling and needing. She squeezes the trigger in quick succession. Once, twice, three times.

Kaylee’s fingers are empty, no longer close to touching River she can only watch, disbelieving her own eyes as the girl moves with a graceful motion, the gun looking so wrong yet carried so easily.

River opens her eyes. The gun is a comfortable weight that shouldn’t feel so right in her hand, she knows that, but it does and Kaylee's staring at her horror. Fear briefly crossing Kaylee's face to give way to it and River can’t tear her eyes away, not knowing why Kaylee’s suddenly looking at her, feeling for her like that. She doesn’t like it, wants it to stop and says words that earlier had them both giggling, was fun. Brought a smile and a happiness to Kaylee and herself that eased the ache of losing Simon in both of them for a moment.

“No power in the 'verse can stop me.”

Her words have the opposite effect, but River can’t seem to lose the smile, fixed on her face, gun still clasped in her hand. She feels Kaylee’s shock mount; feels it turn into distress as the woman edges back a little and River lets herself retreat, hears Simon calling her and dances back there rather than face Kaylee’s alarm and revulsion.

Kaylee’s trembling, watching River’s smile fade and her face become set and distant once more. It’s as though she thought it was a game, like they’d played all morning, repeating Kaylee’s words back to her but, instead of being funny, they’d taken on a whole new meaning. Become twisted and wrong and River didn’t even seem to notice the dead men outside.

“River?” Her voice is tremulous and she glances towards the popping she can still hear, avoids looking at the bodies. How’d she do that? How could anyone do that? It makes her shudder to think like that, like River’s not a person just something, too clever and cunning and callous for her own good, because Kaylee knows that’s not River. That’s something else, something wrong. She just hopes when they get Simon back he’ll be able to fix her. Wouldn’t have been so bad if it’d just been her shooting them, eyes open an’ all but she had them closed. Not even Jayne could shoot like that an’ he’s been shootin’ years, playin’ at it to. But River did it all at once and went to laugh about it. Ain't right.

“River, sweetie?” It’s not right what River did, can do, but Kaylee's taking her hand anyway, can’t leave her friend. She bends to the ground, discarding the gun she’s taken from River’s lax hand, and places an arm around her, trying to resist the tremor and gladness she feels at knowing River’s not really there right now, feels guilt and a stab of loathing for being relieved. That River’s not questioning or asking or smiling.

end part 9

Chapter Text

 

He’s taken the operative’s words literally, believing and steeling himself against pain and possible torment; trying to think up ways to disassociate himself if that happened. Instead the blue-handed man is disinterested, has smiled at first in such at way that made Simon’s gut wrench. The man pulls up a chair as he moves his hand to Simon’s water, making the doctor believe that they are going to start dehydrating him. Taking away the basic comforts of food and water. But the man merely pours himself a glass and tops up Simon’s, which confuses the doctor greatly. It is bad enough that his room has all the markings of a Core hotel- comfortable, clean and almost homely-as opposed to the cells, or possibly hole, Simon envisioned. But now they are going against all he’s imagined, all he has prepared himself for. Its distracted him enough that he doesn’t notice that the blue-handed man never touched a drop of the water.

Simon notes cameras mounted to each wall, pinpricks half hidden and not at all obvious, in every room he’s been in. On a particularly long day he’s spent what he assumes is the better part of it, scouring the room they’ve given him for such devices. Spending the rest of the day trying to imagine what techniques they’ll use, just how they could get him to talk about River.

When his captor escorts him to the large tank he feels his heart lurch, wonders what horrors lay inside it. But anxiety quickly gives way to embarrassment, to humiliation, as he’s ordered to strip. His initial refusal has the blue-handed man waiting patiently, speaking calmly as though he were lecturing a rebelling child. The man’s words only add to the mortification Simon feels, though he’s finally convinced to shrug off his clothes when the threat is insinuated, if Simon didn’t undress himself he’d call some people in who would do it for him.

He means it to. Simon’s seen the slight smile play around the man’s lips, telling him he’d be happy enough to do just that and hastening the doctor’s motions to undress. He feels leery standing on the cold floor, hands cupping himself, with just the man’s eyes on him. He could try running before he’s in a much more vulnerable position, but is under no illusions that the whole place is heavily guarded. However lax security looks.

Drug therapy’s too unreliable, too many side effects. There’s always the chance of brain damage if the dosage is too high and misinformation if it’s too low. Still it had been Simon’s first thought, first suspicion. That whilst they can’t drug him enough to reveal River’s location, can’t rely on the information he’d give them, perhaps they’ll use drugs to inflict pain, to send burning agony through his veins and then just keep asking and asking until they figure he’ll break.

This is the last thing in the ‘verse that Simon’s been expecting, perhaps not even the last since it never would have occurred to him for his captors to be so perverse. Take such delight in torturing him. Not with pain, but with fear; and something equally as demoralizing--boredom.

They’ve already started the process of boring him, frustrating him, though to their minds they are giving him time to recover, to heal. And Simon is grateful for that time, glad that now his ribs only twinge, an annoyance more akin to pulling a muscle rather than the wrenching burn from before. But now it’s all too much, now he needs answers, wants them even, but receives nothing.

There’s nothing much he could do now, but to climb into the open tank, let the black hole reflecting nothingness swallow him down. Anything could be inside and Simon fights panic as darkness stares back at him. Just as dark as the Black had seemed from Serenity. Simon wonders if they can read his mind in much the same way as they wanted River to. He can’t fathom how they know, how they guess, how frightening it is to be told to step into nothing. To not know what’s in the tank, to feel himself fall in and hit anything.

“Amazing what nothing can do to a man.” He shudders as the words ring in his mind, eyes still focused on the yawning hole, not liking to remember or think about Serenity or any of her crew, not when he could accidentally say something or give them away somehow.

The choice to get in is lost when the blue-handed man slaps his hand firmly against Simon’s back, jolting him and making him fall forward into the hole. He tells himself he’s lucky not to hit any of his extremities as he falls through, but the thought’s fast and quickly lost in the dizzying rush that lasts only a few seconds before he falls into the water. Face first, stinging slap as he meets it, air pushed from his lungs as he’s winded, and his involuntary action is to open his mouth and breathe.

Simon sucks down a lungful of water, choking and jolting as he does, hands clawing for a surface that’s easy to reach and then he’s retching, coughing up water as his nose runs and eyes stream. The waters tepid, not cold but not warm enough for Simon and he shivers, sneezes as his nose clears. His throat burns again and there’s an unpleasant taste at the back of his throat. He kicks his feet, treading water to stay afloat as he wipes the wet hair from his face, does his best to push water from his eyes and nose, and peers up at the light from the room above.

“Son of a bitch.” He doesn’t usually curse and the words are more coughed out, but the man looking down doesn’t answer him, merely smiles once more and suddenly Simon’s acutely aware of just why that smile scares him so much. There’s no answer from above and Simon kicks out, swims to the side, hands grasping in vain for any kind of hold. But the sides are slippery and smooth, his fingers can’t even find a seam to dig nails into.

“What kind of sick game is this?” The words are a whisper, but he’d have got no shout from above even if the blue handed-man had heard him.

His captor’s not wanting to talk right now, not about to try asking questions once more, he just watches Simon splash for a moment before the doctor swims back to the middle and looks up at him. Puts all his attention on him. Watches as blue hands grasp at the edge of the hole, tugging the sliding door, never once taking his eyes from Simon’s as he slowly slides it across.

Simon’s struck mute for a moment, stupefied and horror-struck as the man calmly slides the door closed, the light fading as he does until the door finally snicks shut and not a glimmer shows through. Darkness, complete and unyielding, no light, no nothing and suddenly Simon’s terrified once more, splashing as he rotates one way and then the other, hearing nothing but echoes around him as his breathing quickens.

All around me…nothing…

He can’t touch bottom, doesn’t want to even try. If he holds his breath and ducks down will he reach bottom, will he come back up only to find no space between the top of the tank and the water? Will his lungs burn as he struggles to hold his breath, to keep himself from drowning or will they give out quickly, weakened from the pain in his ribs from before? Simon has no answer and the possibilities scare him.

Stop flailing, keep treading water and don’t panic.

Simon inhales deeply, then exhales quickly, still treading water. He closes his eyes and tries to ignore the scared sound echo around him, encourages calm to wash over him instead as he concentrates on what he does know. River’s safe.

It’s enough to quiet his mind for a moment, a better distraction than categorizing just what they could be doing, what they’re attempting by this game. That’s an avenue he doesn’t want to explore. His legs are starting to ache and after a moment wrestling with his own dislike for lying on his back, naked and floating, he does so. He still can’t see anything and it’s now worse than the black in Simon’s mind. Being separated from nothingness by a flimsy material was terrifying enough, made Simon’s head spin as if he had vertigo, but at least there he had the distraction of worrying if Mal’s plan would succeed; he could take comfort in River, in having his sister close and taking delight in the starlight around her, and Serenity, odd as it sounds given how hard he’s tried to regard the ship as nothing more than a means to an end, a way away from the Alliance. It was comforting to rest his helmet on her, to grip tightly and finally to stumble inside and all but kiss her floor in relief.

Now there’s nothing and Simon merely floats, trying not to let the fear of nothing embrace him once more.

Which is exactly what they want from him, though Simon can’t see it yet; can’t see their subtle methods of breaking him down. Taking away everything from him bit by bit, starting with his control, with his expectations. It’s not that they aren’t impatient, but they know better than to rush these things. Breaking the doctor would be easy enough if they wanted nothing more then a gibbering wreck of a man at the end of the process, if they wanted any information Simon gave them to be sketchy. He can’t hear what they’re saying, can’t see them watching him from the other side of the immersion tank. They are commending each other on a good first choice, hoping to lull the doctor into depression, into constantly thinking on his sister, on his own failings until he can think of nothing more, until there’s nothing more to focus on. Which is when they’d start offering.

They know it will take more than one session, plan at least one a day if not more. Since the doctor’s recovered from the anesthetic and its lethargic after-effects, he’s been sleeping more and has no real knowledge of how long he’s been captured, how long the days are. So it's easy to drug him into a false sleep, let it last a few hours then wake him up claiming it is a new day. His constant waking and sleeping should confuse the doctor's own body enough to weaken it, only adding to everything else they plan to explore. Soon enough he’ll accept their offer.

Neither one expects the doctor to last long under the pressure they’ll put him under, expecting him to show signs of cracking; soft and spoiled, brattish and encumbering, that is how they see Simon. Even if he is extremely stubborn; refusing to answer a single question put to him, instead he's countered them with his own, demanded answers and somehow found enough energy to be sardonic towards them.

But they can be equally stubborn and have barely begun breaking Simon.

end part 10

Chapter Text

Mal stumbles as they help him back on board, inwardly cursing as his ribs grate and breath catches. He hates feeling helpless, wants to be striding up the ramp showing his crew he's well and good, but the hands supporting him feel real good at that moment. Really Wash is the only one actually helping him, taking most of the captain's weight, Zoe just stands at his side. She doesn't help hold him up, can see he's grateful to lean on Wash and perhaps the both of them need it. She does stand close enough for her shoulder to brush against him, enough for him to shoot a bleary glance at her and attempt a wobbly smile.

"How we doing?" She calls back to Jayne and Book who bring up the rear, the merc's cursing a little, taking the opportunity to shoot holes in anyone that twitches and it's the Shepherd who answers, saying a silent prayer for the men's souls, redeemable after death if he didn't figure they deserved it before.

"All clear." Book calls to her, locking the airlock doors behind them and avoiding the corpses that litter the dropped ramp.

"Kaylee?" Mal's voice is gruff, glancing around, eyes bright with pain as he squints. "Simon? Inara? River?"

Zoe's tense now, eyes glancing at the dead men, face down unable to see where they were hit. Kaylee's not a good shot, never handles a gun; *she had to be looking right at them*. It isn't an agreeable thought, imagining how close Kaylee must have been to them, wondering how she managed to catch all three unaware…but before Zoe can think too much on it Kaylee's there, holding River close, stopping her from wandering.

"Oh god," Kaylee's let go of River, the horror from earlier leaping up anew as she stares at Mal, sees the bloodied mass where his ear had been. "He gonna be okay?"

She addresses them all, voice so small that Zoe can't help but answer even if she doesn't want to be stopping here, wants to be in the air and away with her husband by her side and friend healing up in his bunk. "He'll be fine, best be moving though. Jayne, help the Captain get to the infirmary."

Jayne grunts at the order, eyes lowering to the floor when she stares hard at him. Something about her gaze always did unsettle him, more so now as it seems she's always looking, watching. Like she thinks he's about to slip up or do something stupid. But he isn't, not any more. He takes Mal's weight, grimace twisting his lips as the man's ear comes into full view. Or what's left of it. He'd better hope Inara's got the goods she promised. "Whose gonna be slappin' it back on?" He asks, eyes narrowing as Zoe graces him with a piercing stare.

"Shame we've not got a medic on board." Her words are matter of fact and she feels Kaylee recoil at them, wants to bite them back as her eyes stray to River. But River's lost in her own world, not caring or not listening, no one could be sure.

The girl lets Book take her by the shoulders and gently guide her inside, his hand slapping closed the cargo doors as he passes the button. "I think perhaps I should take River to the galley until Inara returns."

River doesn't protest, smile curving her lips slightly as Simon teases her for finding fault in his games. *He always likes to stick to the rules.*

Her smile makes Jayne shudder as he half carries Mal towards the infirmary, taking the captain's weight without complaint. Ain't right to him for her to be so quiet and wispy, like she's not there and sometimes Jayne forgets, starts when he sees her and wonders what's going on in that feng le mind of hers. Should make him more wary of her, have him feeling more guilty but that feelings faded somewhat since they've all been so caught up in selling the take and rescuing Mal. *Prefer it when she was noisy an' cussin', least then it was amusing'*. At least then he didn't creep himself out more by feeling protective, gorramn captain making him that way by putting the notion into his mind. Must have done something, or got crazy too.

Wash and Zoe are already in the cockpit, setting Serenity flying far away from Niska's skyplex. There's a definite chance Niska will have it in for them after this and they aim to be as far away as possible when he gets into a mind to chase them. Zoe's in Wash's lap, feeling him rest against her  as he flies. Comfort position, Zoe knows, she's just not sure who's most comforted by it. Him or her.

They don't say a word, save when Inara waves them and they set a course to her. Just keep touching, looking at each other. No need for words to come between them. It's all been said and now they both know, now they share something else, something Zoe wishes they'd never had too.

Zoe can't help feeling a satisfied surge at the chaos they've left behind, but it's only when Inara steps aboard carrying the loaned medical equipment which Mal's sure to be pleased on and in sore need of, that the recollection strikes her; *Mal called out asking where Simon was…*

 

 

end part 11

Chapter Text

 

Firmly encased within the large steel tank, Simon lets his mind wander for a moment, wishing he could feel something all around him other than water, wishing he had the strength and energy to kick out and push himself to a side, to touch metal and reassure himself that he isn't just floating
aimlessly. Isn't just lying on his back, water in his ears drowning out the ominous silence as it laps against them. The barest twitch of his fingers against the surface reminding him to think. Distracting him from sinking into the hypnotic lull of nothingness.

The fear has faded, pushed back as terror has taken over and given way to complacency. He isn't sure how long he's been in here, how long he's just been floating. The water hasn't cooled, but a part of his mind registers they could be keeping the temperature constant, they don't want him to freeze after all. To get hypothermia. It's been long enough for his skin to wrinkle though, crinkles he can feel on his fingers as he rubs them together, water in his ears no longer causing a pressure--just settled. He takes note of his physical response with barely a care, merely uses it to try to gauge a length of time but he can't. *Too many variables.*

Simon smiles as he thinks that, because now he's sounding like River. Can almost hear her voice saying it, in fact. If he closes his eyes, he can let his mind drift off, protect it from whatever outcome his captors think being immersed and isolated will have.

"Absence of light…"

He isn't sure if that's River's voice or his own, but he doesn't need to open his eyes to see her floating beside him, can ignore the knowledge that he's hallucinating, that this kind of isolation promotes this. For a moment, he's with his sister once more and he can link fingers with her before she backstrokes lazily past him. She's safe, and it's not at home aboard Serenity, not with Mal or Kaylee or any of the others. She's with him. He can ignore the logical part of his mind that stubbornly tries to disprove him, can wrap it carefully up and push it aside. Keep himself sane where they want to drive him mad.

"Not the first time." He can hear the smile in her voice now and Simon smiles, floats alone in the tank and confuses those watching on camera outside. Retreats into his own mind to protect the both of them and answers his sister.

"No, not the first time." His smile widens as she turns on her belly and floats, nose and mouth in the water, eyes on him and he should know she could drown, does know deep within himself that no one can breathe like that without gills. But he ignores it, just keeps talking, starts remembering. "I'm pretty sure that was your fault, you know."

She laughs through the water and flicks water on him and he flicks it back. "Brat."

She turns on her back now, head close to his, resting in the space between his shoulder and head, "Was your idea."

"Only because you wouldn't stop bugging me remember?" He remembers, and he's sure she does, too. Can clearly see his sister as the child she was. Pouting up at him, distracting him from completing the essays his schoolteachers had set him. *She always got bored in her own classes, finished quickly and always tried to help me with mine.*

"You didn't want to be doing it anyway, found it boring." She interlocks her fingers with his own.

"I remember." And he had, hadn't seen the point in taking extra classes in nautical engineering, in business management. He had no desire to follow in his father's footsteps, though his father still pressed the issue no matter how much Simon professed his passion for medicine. *He came around…eventually*. "You wanted to go swimming, to the lake. It wasn't a cold evening and everyone was at a party anyway, but they told me to finish all my work first. They knew I wouldn't, that by the time I did it would be too late. I think they were planning to take us to the hydro pool in the morning, but that wasn't where you wanted to go. You never liked being cooped up…"

"You promised me." She reminds him and he tilts his head catching her eyes. "The hydro pool would have been fun, but the lake was more exciting, more of a distraction." And he had loved spending time alone with River; even as he grew older and should have been focusing more on those of his own age, he always preferred her company. They had so much in common, besides  blood ties; they both were in classes more advanced for their ages. Simon had been advanced by two years and River by three. Their classmates had taken it as either a personal affront to their own intelligence to have someone younger studying with them, or regarded them as oddities.

"Got in trouble." She laughs at the memory and he finds himself blushing at it. The sneaking out had been fun, made into a daring game where they were soldiers crossing a battlefront, the reward of the lake more than enough to satisfy. It hadn't been hard to get past their own sensors; River was quicker at disabling, Simon at navigating them out. The lake had felt like this, same temperature, made his skin wrinkle in the same way when they lingered a while too long. Definitely a while too long. They'd made up their own games, chased each other around the lake and held their own challenges before floating aimlessly, staring at the clouds, neither one thinking, just floating.

It was when the sun had dipped low that they'd remembered, had quickly stripped off their wet undergarments and pulled their own clothes back on. All the rushing hadn't done much good though, his parents had already been back an hour and frantic to find their children gone. They had the Alliance in the house, alerts on the cortex, thinking Simon and River had been kidnapped, maybe to be held for ransom.

It was the only time his mother had ever hit him; seen the two of them wet-haired and pale-faced, rushing to them as the officers brought them in, her hand reddening his cheek making Simon's head snap back and his eyes water before she drew them both into her arms.

"Da-" He stumbles over the word, still feeling the heat of that slap. "They weren't happy." It was an understatement, his mother had been close to hysterical, his father furious. Embarrassed and humiliated at their inappropriate behavior, more so because it would soon become the subject of gossip and much laughter within their circles.

People might have said that his father's overreaction should have warned Simon just how concerned he was with image and his place in society, but even if Simon does sometimes wonder he has to push the thought away, has to honestly believe his father was more concerned about them than how they'd behaved. His mother's reaction made it easier to believe that, made it easier to think his parents weren't unloving, didn't just view them as attachments to their image, to bump up their own self esteem, but that they were weak, selfish even.

"Not weak."

He glances at her, di yu did she just read his mind? He does wonder, can't help but do so after what the doctors had claimed they'd tried to make her--a psychic. "I don't mean to badmouth our parents, River, I just--" He pauses, he just needs to. Can't help it.

"Not them. You. Not weak at all, Simon."

She squeezes his hand reassuringly then whispers, "Close your eyes."

He has a moment to wonder, to puzzle on that, before bright light assaults his vision, makes him yelp, and he lets go of River's hand, kicks his legs up and sinks under. As he comes up, breaking the surface spluttering, he half-closes his eyes against the light and gropes for River's hand. Fear
making a quick return, he shivers as he registers the cold, body trembling and teeth chattering as he shades his eyes and makes out hazy images from above. The water level is rising and he has to kick his legs to keep afloat once more.

The hazy objects come into focus excruciatingly slowly as his sore eyes take a moment for his vision to adjust and Simon's heart lurches, sound caught between a whimper and a growl coming from his throat as he sees the blue hands reaching for him.

 

 

end part 12

Chapter Text

 

"You know that's all kinds of...of..." Jayne can't seem to find a word, moving backwards and forwards slightly as the doll's eyes follow him. "Ain't right that's for sure. What kinda ben dan gonna be payin' us for these things?" He pokes the doll nearest him, watching its head bob back and forth, painted smile and wide stare fixed on him.

"Captain says they're a big hit in the Core. He seems to think we can off-load these on Persephone and maybe get some more jobs whilst we're there." Wash drums his fingers on the cockpit's dashboard, nudging two of the dolls closer together, a thought occurring to him. "It's not as fun as some of our other jobs but I, for one, am glad for a little downtime with my wife." He smiles, edging the doll Jayne's eyeing closer to him.

Jayne wrinkles his nose, caught between a smirk and a sneer, "Yeah, heard you an' Zoe were gettin' it on better now."

"Better now?" Wash frowns, knowing what Jayne means the moment he asks the question. Since Niska's skyplex, since the torture and everything else Wash doesn't want to remember but can't completely let go. The only thing he wants to remember from then is Mal's dog-eared perseverance in refusing to let him go under, to break. It makes him all the more reassured when  Zoe and the captain go on jobs, and all the more understanding of them. He knows he'll never see it all, never completely get *them,* but it's enough. "Who'd you hear that from?"

Jayne grins at Wash's easy change of subject, leaning closer to the man, invading his personal space, "No one's been talkin'. I *heard* you an' Zoe gettin' it on better."

He puts an emphasis on the word that isn't missed by Wash, the pilot flushing a bright red, lost for words for a moment. Jayne's grin is all the wider now, snort coming to his throat and Wash scowls, nudging the doll closer to Jayne's obvious dislike. "Adding voyeur to your list of fun things to do Jayne? Isn't River keeping you busy?"

River's taken to alternating between staring, barely moving and needing all the attention they can give her. To appearing out of nowhere, eyes just following but not seeming to see, odd words on her lips that rarely have any meaning.

At least to Wash they have no meaning, not so to Jayne. He's got a sneaking suspicion she's taunting him with them even if they make no sense, either that or she's using some wiles or girlfolk abilities to make him uncomfortable and unsettled. He's still waiting for the moment she tells the rest of the crew. Tenses the second she seems lucid. Hell, he prefers kicking and screaming crazy girl, but he isn't keen on her pensive, thoughtful, careless-tongued counterpart. Whatever her game, she's enjoying doing it to him the most, taking pains to stay in shadow and hide around corners before slinking out.

"Shepherd's showin' her some fancy paper foldin'." He grunts out the answer, resenting it immediately. "Kaylee's all busy an' tinkerin' with Serenity, ain't got the time to be babysittin' anymore'n the rest of us."

"She's been a bit quiet lately, don't you think?" Wash is staring out of the cockpit now, pressing two more dolls into place.

"Girl's always quiet, ain't you heard?" Jayne's got no idea how ironic his statement is, or how his attention's wrongly placed.

"No, not River, though I have to admit I miss her madcap moments at times. Was fun watching Kaylee or Simon chase her round Serenity." He smiles for a moment but then it's faded, thoughts turning to the doctor as he often finds they do. He can't help wonder what's happening to Simon and whether they'll find him again. He keeps voicing his thoughts to Zoe, questions that would drive her into not talking, seeming to hold something back that has Wash wondering. At least before Niska, since then he hasn't done much wondering aloud. "Kaylee, Kaylee's been quiet, don't you think?"

Jayne shrugs, he's not really noticed, been so caught up in other things. Had a lot of gun cleaning, ammo toting-up to be done after they raided the skyplex, not to mention avoiding River. And Mal. Captain's eased up the hard looks since Jayne got in on the rescue, but there's still things Jayne's
sure is unsaid, times Mal looks at him and he wonders if Mal's wanting to ask something Jayne's not sure how to answer. "Thought she was just broodin' over the doc."

"Maybe," Wash looks as unconvinced as he feels. Kaylee sometimes liked to wander up to the cockpit, liked to talk to Wash about her father, Serenity, Simon sometimes too, but she hasn't taken to it of late, which is odd to him. Tells him something's not right.* I'll go down and see her when we're in the black, might do her good to talk it out.*

"Hey, what's that?" Jayne pokes at the blinking red light and Wash slaps his hand away, ignoring the glower.

"A wave, it's-" He squints at the signal information, "For Inara. Probably another client. They sometimes get routed here by mistake. Glitch in the system I'll have to look at."

Jayne grins, not having forgotten Inara's last client. Seeing two women fine as that embracing, had his mind wandering to all kinds of lewd levels. "Gonna show us then?"

"Violate Client-Companion confidentiality?" Wash looks scandalized for a moment then grins, "Trust me, it's more than my lives worth. Inara would not be pleased."

"Ain't like yer the one bein' paid." Jayne crosses his arms, doing his best to crowd Wash and 'convince' the man to change his mind. But Wash isn't budging, finding it amusing to see Jayne attempting to look so intimidating when his enthusiasm and hope's making him look like a child denied a present.

There's the usual newsreels and update messages attached to the wave and Wash uses them to distract himself, distance himself from the merc hovering over him. They're all pretty routine and deletable, save one which catches his eyes.

"Ai ya." He breathes the word out, bringing up the message, the fugitive arrest warrants. *Two* fugitive arrest warrants, for Simon and River Tam. "Why...why?" He brings them up on screen, the doctor's tense face filling one side, River's startled one filling the other. "I thought they would have retracted Simon's-"

"Guess they don't want folks knowin' they got him." Jayne feels ill-at-ease with the picture of Simon staring back at him, draws his eyes away and glares at the dolls whose eye line he catches.

"I suppose." It makes sense Wash can see that. The bounty on the two is impressive, not at all tempting but certainly impressive. It appears Simon's own bounty is close to River's now, rather than several hundred credits lower. "I should show this to Mal when he gets on board." The information scrolling at the bottom of his screen catches his eyes and Wash reads it quickly, a perplexed look playing across his face. "They don't seriously expect people to believe Simon killed those officers do they?"

Jayne merely grunts, not wanting to continue this line of conversation and he's fervently glad when the comm beeps, Mal's voice filtering through.

"Got us a buy an' possibility of another job. Be back on board in twenty so's you'd better get that cargo shipped up good an' tight, dong ma?"

He doesn't wait for a response just leaves Jayne and Wash staring at the line of intricately painted dolls.

"Guess we should be moving them, then." Jayne doesn't hide his pleasure, only forestalled in grasping the nearest one when Wash tosses a grin his way and nudges the nearest head. It knocks gently into the next, not damaging but nudging, setting off a tandem of motion that Jayne draws back from, snarl on his face as the painted heads bob his way in unison.

end part 13

Chapter Text

 

 

Simon's tired, more than just tired even. His head's fuzzy though he can't deny he's been sleeping, legs aching and he still feels cold no matter how warm they make his room at night. He can't brush off the residual shakes from being inside that tank, not once or twice now, three times. Three confusing, disorientating, heart stopping times. One day he expects to feel surprise rather than the resignation that comes before he steps into the hole and splashes into water. One day he's sure he'll feel pain and shock as he hits nothing but metal bottom. It keeps him tense just thinking about when.

The operative is staring at him, making good on his word that he'll see Simon again, making it clear that when they are together there's nothing but civility and calm. He's again offering Simon water, pouring it into a glass and this time Simon drinks it gratefully. The last day has done nothing but make him thirsty, surrounded by water he doesn't want to drink. Water that could be soiled or salty, has his own bodily products in it when the hours have drawn too long and he's felt pain in his bladder.

The days have bled into each other, nights never seeming long enough to give Simon true rest, stomach never all that hungry to eat anymore. Even if the food he's given is closer to that which he had on Osiris than on Serenity, lush and rich, not mainly protein mush. Odd how he misses the mush now. ...

The operative is calm and collected, not showing the frustration he feels. The emotion doesn't stem from Simon's stubbornness. The man is impeccably mannered and were Simon's company more conversational than interrogatory the operative would enjoy it occurring more frequently. Maybe in the future when Simon's mindset changes and the man becomes an asset and colleague. The operative's frustration stems from the ineptitude of the sources Blue Sun's managed to acquire. Those inquiring about the reward, those with small bits of information on the Tams and those who just want the money the reward offers. It's exasperating judging which are real and which are not, having to hide the mess left behind even in a clean kill or strike when something genuine is revealed.

Even more frustrating is knowing that their best source was someone close to the Tams, a man who refused to leave his name and whose picture scan they haven't managed to trace to an identity. A man willing to sell out the Tams, who should have been awarded his due and then dealt with when his guard was down. Instead, members of his own organization had bungled the operation, had failed to secure the Tams and keep tabs on their betrayer and had spoken to all three. The latter had resulted in their own termination. Regrettable, but the means justified the ends, and all the operative would do was ensure their dependents were taken care of, given compensation and the like. The former allowed their only decent source to escape away, taking River Tam with him for some unfathomable reason. *Guilt, perhaps? Or possibly as a bargaining chip later. The bounty on her head was slightly larger than her brother's*. He would lay stakes on the second; men of honor are rare in any case, and a man who'd sell out those he may have been being paid to protect strikes the operative as one who'd know no bounds. Or honor. Until they identify him they'll have to wait for him to come to them, and just keep scouring planet by planet to find them.

Simon's tired, the operative can see that, offers water he knows will give the doctor rest of a kind, though only for a few hours. Blue Sun is eager to take the doctor's conditioning to a higher level now, to up the discomfort within his interrogations. The only water or food the doctor will receive now will come through him, make Simon dependent on him and even turn to him in time perhaps.

Simon's getting impatient now, tiredness putting him on edge, waiting for the operative to speak. The man's regarding him thoughtfully, keeping quiet and waiting for Simon to say something, but Simon's not sure what to say. He knows they haven't found River, surely they wouldn't be keeping up this game if they had. He knows they're pushing him, testing his limits. Well aware he hasn't spent as many days locked up as they'd like him to believe, Simon half suspects they are drugging him through food or drink, trying to change his bodies natural responses and wear him down by confusing him. But it's not going to work.

They aren't as smart as they'd like to think or Simon's smarter than they anticipated. Experimenting himself, proving the nights weren't as long as a true night is meant to be, he'd cut an apple just before fatigue had made him stumble to his bed. Had hidden one of the slices under the pillow before sinking down onto it and sleeping. The fruit had been slightly browned when he'd woken, just starting to turn, but not the unpleasant coloration or taste it would have been after a night's sleep. More like after an hour.

"Do you want to tell me about her?"

Simon plays dumb for a moment, eyes snapping to the operative's. "Who?"

The operative smiles, amused to see the doctor hasn't lost his sense of humor. "Your sister, Doctor Tam."

"Oh." Simon feigns consideration for a moment, "Do I want to tell the people who hacked into my meimei's mind where she is, so they can do it again? No, no, I don't think so." He shakes his head at the idea.

"You misunderstand me. I know you have no intention of giving River up to us, yet." The operative seems convinced the situation warrants a yet; strong as Simon appears he won't last for long, no one ever did. "I meant tell me about her. About your sister."

"Why?" Simon's looking perplexed, almost distasteful of the idea. He's not about to start discussing River, not about to trade stories with the man.

"You called for her you know, whilst you were in the tank. They heard you." The operative doesn't answer the way Simon expects and knows he's taken Simon by surprise when he sees the doctor's reaction to his statement.

Simon pales, blood draining from his face as he tries to recall his time in the tank. Tries to remember what he's wanted to forget. *Did I say anything about River? About the captain? Or Serenity. Ma de, what if I gave them away. I wasn't thinking, should have been on guard. Hundans wanted to me to let my guard down, and I did. *

"Relax, Doctor, you didn't say anything untoward." The operative enjoys Simon's expression for a moment; watches panic flare in the man's eyes, animating his tense face even though he tries to hide it.

"Well, you would say that." Simon snidely shoots back the comment, tightening his lips to swallow back the words, angry at himself for speaking before he's had a chance to think. If he keeps this up it won't be long before he's saying something that could give River away.

"And you would be annoyed." The operative ignores the outburst, face stoic, though he feels a small surge of satisfaction at seeing the doctor bend slightly. "Forgive me, it was rude to ask."

*So why did you? *Simon thinks, though he already knows the answer. To push him, just as they've constantly been doing. He can sense the talking has drawn to an end, however short their time together, the operative's glancing towards the mirrored wall at the end rather than at him. In some ways he wants to prolong the conversation, even though he's afraid of what he'll give away, would prefer it to going back to a false sleep or more time in the tank. Or worse, being interrogated by the blue-handed men. He wishes he had names for them, for the blue-handed men, the operative, even their lackeys who wander about acting as security or interested spectators. Or maybe the anonymity is good, without names he wouldn't know who to address-- *or beg, they'll want you to beg you know*--it would make it all the more real.

"I should be going now, thank you for a pleasant talk though, Doctor Tam." Courteous as always, it never crosses the operative's mind to be anything like uncouth towards Simon. Moving over to the wall he holds his palm up to it, letting the pinprick laser read the code on his wrist device and activating the door to slide open.

Simon doesn't say a word, quickly reaches for the water and drinks it, gulping. He doesn't know what the operative does, won't be expecting no food or water for a few days, but his gut instinct tells him to take what he can, when he can, and quench his thirst.

The door slides shut behind the operative, as he moves to converse with the other men, out of sight and hearing of Simon, who sits alone in the now doorless room. He fidgets, resisting the urge to turn and face the mirrored wall. He knows they're watching, can feel his ears burn as they talk about him, his back heat as they look at him. It's not a scientific explanation, but the crawling feeling on the back of Simon's neck tells him all he needs to know and he sits quietly, feeling the tiredness settle more over him as the sedative begins to work.

It's faster than before, or maybe the operative's taking longer, but the drug is well into his system by the time he's escorted back to his room. Simon stumbles clumsily to the bed, managing to crawl onto it before he succumbs to an unnatural sleep, uncaring that he's being watched once more; being discussed and dissected, his weaknesses highlighted and ready to be probed and exposed.

 

end part 14

Chapter Text

 

"Is this where I'm meant to remember the adage 'There's no honor amongst thieves'?" Inara smiles slightly, ignoring the veiled threat that is sweetly disguised and hinting. She's poised and serene despite her own inner turmoil. Her outward grace only marred by the gun she has pointed at Saffron.

She still can't understand what actually possessed Mal to try working with this woman, not only can Saffron not be trusted but Inara suspects there isn't one person in the whole 'verse who actually knows her. The real her. Not the fronts she keeps putting up. At least Mal was sensible enough to recruit her in case Saffron did try to double cross them. Perhaps she shouldn't have accepted, should have let them get burned and perhaps learned. But they've had nothing but a run of bad luck over the last few weeks, embarrassing or demeaning jobs, and the crew could do with the morale boost. And a small part of Inara feels guilty knowing her words spurred Mal on. Wwho would have guessed that the word 'petty' would have such a big impact on him

"Honor?" Saffron laughs, not bothering to disguise her amusement. "There's no honor anywhere, no matter how much coin you have."

"So why covert it then?" Inara challenges her, "Why strive for more and keep playing with people's hearts, ruining their lives?" It's what she can't stand, Companion skills-Guild learned and earned skills-used in such a vile manner. For trickery.

"You know we could debate this all day, but I think if you were going to shoot me, you would have done so already." Saffron smiles winningly and takes a step forward, closer now, not enough to touch but too close for Inara.

She calmly fires a shot into the bin and watches Saffron jump back away from the small smoking pot. "I think you don't know me as well as you think you do. You can't play me."

"No?" Saffron's smiling again and suddenly Inara's not so sure. The smile's smug like the woman's just remembered something important, something she can use.

"No." Inara straightens her skirt. "Now, as I've told you, I've done my part of the job and-"

"What was your cut?" Saffron's all sweet and staring up at her now, feigning curiosity though, really, she's working things through in her mind, thinking of the best way to play this. Only reason she hasn't before is that she was waiting to use it. Gather a ship, a few men–maybe–and then play the game. That's what Monty had been for-gathering the ship, his take, whatever else she could along the way,

"Excuse me?" Inara can't quite believe what she's hearing, what she's seeing. Last ditch pathetic attempt at seduction, converting, or perhaps something more?

"Your cut?" Saffron rolls her eyes. "Of the job?"

Inara bristles at the patronizing tone, fingers reaching for the remote to slam shut the bin lid, but Saffron's standing straighter now, saying words that make her blood run cold.

"It must be quite substantial after all, or you'd have turned in those fugitives weeks ago." Saffron sees Inara's pause, smile catlike as her confidence returns. She's shown her hand sooner than she would have liked, but she can work with this, turn it to her advantage.

"I don't know what you mean." Quickly Inara puts on an air of confusion, but it's too late and they both know it.

Besides which, her denial is redundant. Shortly after being tracked down by Malcolm Reynolds, Saffron noticed the 'at large' broadcasts over the cortex. It didn't take her long to place Simon and River as those aboard Serenity and though she knew information held a wealth of reward, she wanted more. Wanted it all and was willing to get in on the game to get the bigger payoff.

"The Tams, I believe? That doctor of yours and his sister?" Saffron shakes her head, "Odd pair. The girl wanted him to marry her if I'm not wrong. Strange what people from the Core get up to."

"What do you want?" Inara's tense now, unsure what to do in this situation and wishing Mal was with her at that moment. Mal, or even Zoe, someone who'd know how to take these threats. Saffron herself isn't a problem, but with River's safety at stake and Simon already lost to them, Inara isn't willing to let her be at risk. She's become very protective of River, so much more so with Simon missing.

"The Lassiter." Saffron shrugs, "Isn't that a fair trade? It's worth more than the two combined and will look great on my bedroom wall."

Her sarcastic lilt annoys Inara, grates on her nerves and pushes the protective instincts that little bit further. She can't–no won't–give Saffron the Lassiter. Not only out of principle, but the crew are counting on her, all of them not just River, and Inara knows there's no way she can let Saffron go. Even if they did make the trade she'd only be back later–after River, or wanting something more.

Saffron's moving closer now, believing she's won, backed Inara into a corner and that the Companion's too out of her depth to do anything about it. But then a steely look comes into Inara's gaze, a small smile plays around her lips and, as she points the metal in Saffron's direction, she feels pain shoot through her head to her toes, seconds before she falls into darkness.

 

end part 15

Chapter Text

 

Mal's ear aches, itching where Zoe's done her best using that fancy equipment Inara brought back. Except she isn't all that used to it, and now Mal conjures his ear's wonky; it still hurts from time to time, especially when he gets hot or cold, and now Mal is in a fair foul mood. Naked and fuming, kicking up the sands of the desert as he watches Saffron fly away with his shuttle. Screaming words after her that he's sure would make her smile rather than take offence.

It doesn't take long for the anger to drain from him and the sand to get too hot to bear standing on. Mal finds himself a smoothish looking rock, and perches awkwardly until he finds a comfy spot and sighs. Should have seen this one coming, was a time he would have, too. Damn woman played him again. He just hopes Inara's kept up her end of the job, can at least get them the Lassiter.

*That went well.*

At least if they get the Lassiter it's all panned out well enough, though getting his clothes back would be nice, too. Not that Mal would mind the being naked so much if there was shade, but the sun's especially high and his rock's about the only protection around. The rock's warm but he'd rather not burn his feet or pigu on the sand and he can't do much but wait. Serenity will be coming for him, he knows it.

Times like this, alone with himself, he enjoys the quiet, finds it a welcome distraction from his own thoughts. Not that his thoughts seem at all distracted right now, crowding his mind, acting like the Lassiter-getting's a forgone conclusion as he runs through what to do with the take. Fancy take too, enough to keep Serenity flying, the crew's bellies full and some left over. Which he's got to be talking to the crew about. He knows they won't be complaining or disagreeing with him if he takes most of the rest to use in getting Simon back.

"No one works for free." He murmurs the words, though he's not including his own people in them. Can't see anyone complaining about using what they have, taking the time to get Simon, not even Jayne now. The doctor needs rescuing simple as, and they are the ones to do it. The man's on his crew and someone took him; Mal doesn't let his crew down, he always comes back for them, always gives them a fair time. Been long enough waiting to get Simon back, long enough to pool together the coin for it and scout around for contacts.

Getting Simon back is not looking to be so tricky; from what little they gleaned from Simon when he first came aboard, he hired folks that were able to walk right in and snatch River from the same men. Likelihood is security would be tight, but if they could pull off Ariel, pull off Tien knows how many other difficult jobs, and those people could get River out quick and easy–they could do it. Harder part would be *finding* Simon. Alliance has been clever enough to keep everyone looking for him, thinking he's still a fugitive. Meaning that the high up people with questions wouldn't be asking just yet or nosing around. Meant that Simon's location was still hidden.

But not for long. Mal's heard tell Mister Universe knows all and every in legal and illegal channels. Need something traced, he's got it in a second. Want to bury something, likewise. Man keeps to himself, no company save an interesting companion who Mal's not even rightly sure can be called that. Not even so sure where he is, not got enough trust to be told where. Not sure he wants to know either.

Serenity's there a while after his anger dies down, not so long he gets more than a touch of pink to his skin, though, and Inara's chiding is familiar, makes Mal smile, especially as he sees her eyes straying. Definitely went well for a change, few hiccups but nothing too major. Now Wash's eyes are straying too, Zoe's...he's not sure, she doesn't let on, but Wash is definitely ogling him, whereas Kaylee doesn't even seem to notice his nakedness.

"Good day. Good day." He can't stop smiling, stands looking out over the desert, imagining Saffron stuck in her bin and the smile widens further.

He doesn't pay mind to the rest of the crew around him, doesn't notice River moving up to them or the looks on Zoe and Inara's faces as they silently communicate delegation. Neither of them wants to be the one to tell Mal, but finally it falls upon Inara, who steps forward, her hand lightly resting on Mal's shoulder.

"Mal?" When he turns to her, query on his face, eyes skirting towards the small gathering in the cargo bay, she sees the oath that's springing to his lips and forestalls it. "Mal, we have a problem."

"Two problems, sir." Zoe steps forward as Kaylee lays her hands on River, lightly trying to steer her away, but River's not in a cooperative mood; after several tries, she leaves River with them and makes her way with Wash, to get Serenity back into the air.

"Too many voices untrue, spinning, all calling at once. Laugh as she slits our throat, spit on our corpses left for crows, no sorrow, no pain, just plans." River's moving past Mal, peering out of the cargo bay window and not elaborating, despite the strange look Mal throws her way.

"Have I descended into crazy now, seems that made a whole lot of sense. Guessin' it's Saffron she's meaning, but I'm fuzzy on the rest of it."

"It seems that way. Mal-" Inara's not been as unsure as this in a while, but Saffron's veiled threats and River's oddly-worded perceptions have thrown her off-balance. Seeing his perplexed look, feeling the slightest vibration as Serenity takes off; she seeks steadiness in the motion and looks straight at him. "I had to bring Saffron aboard."

"What in the name of tyen-sah cao you thinkin' on? We got enough issues with carryin' River aboard, bein' on the wrong side of the law ourselves most times an' fencin' these goods. Why'd you not leave her there?" The words spring out before Mal has time to think on them, though his rant winds down as he puts her words together with River's. "Can't be makin' motions to rescue Simon with her hanging on each corner, not to mention-Wo de ma, she mentioned them didn't she? Simon an' River? Talked on turning them in, right?"

"Was thinking this might be one you actually *do* throw out the airlock, sir." Zoe glances at Inara; it doesn't leave a great taste in her mouth to consider it, but the crew's been through enough with Simon's taking and Mal and Wash's torture; they could use a spell of good luck, not need to be
constantly looking over their shoulders. She can let what happened the first time go with a punch, but knowing the woman aimed to double cross them again, intended to play out taking Simon and River as her tall card and probably leaving them all for dead as River suggests, doesn't endear Saffron to her. Does completely the opposite.

Mal affixes her with a hard look, "No one's goin' out the airlock today, not when there's the chance she knows something. Musta seen somethin' an', much as I doubt she's gonna help with this, we gotta be sure she's not told anyone else." Besides, Jayne's a different matter and one Mal thought they'd settled; he knows full well Zoe's the one that let Jayne back in without question or warning, and the merc's turn coating is not something that needs rehashing.

"You can't kill her, especially not like that–it's barbaric." Even though Inara sees a type of irony and justice in it. That's exactly how Saffron intended to kill them all before, when Serenity was the goal she was after.

"Seems fair to me." Zoe doesn't add that she has no taste for the idea, lets them think what they will. Mal's known her long enough, it goes without saying.

"So what's the second problem?" Because Mal just knows this one's got to be the least interesting of the two.

"Not so much a problem, just badly misplaced-"

Inara's interrupted by Zoe, "River's taken to doping Jayne, seems to think he'll do hisself a damage if he wakes. He was starting to come around after Book scanned him and quick as you like she stuck him. He's going to be out a day or so."

River looks a lot less interested in the conversation now, though Mal catches her arm and her attention along with it. "Can't go dopin' my crew, little one, even if you've got your reasons. There's no place for them here, dong le ma?"

"Grinding, screaming, wouldn't be useful anymore, not for a long time." River rambles by way of reason, she felt the damage inside Jayne even if he only feels a headache. Needs Jayne much as she wants him scared and treading the line, needs him to get Simon back for them. Needs all of them.

"That's not so clear." Mal fixes her with a steady look, releasing her arm, though all River does is stare right back, tosses a look at him like he's being stupid before she wanders off, back towards the engine room, interested in what Kaylee's doing. "You keep outta mischief, you hear?" He turns to Zoe and Inara, "I swear no one listens to me, 'board my own boat as well."

"She'll turn on us." Zoe's back on point again, focusing on Saffron now; River's been acting strange the last few weeks, retreating into her mind more. It's only been a few days past since she's started coming out of her shell more often, and much as Zoe doesn't agree with knocking Jayne out, it's good to see the girl improving.

"First chance she gets." Mal's not disagreeing there. "That's why we keep her locked up, one of the storage rooms'll do. So long as she stays there, can keep her fed and watered–" Zoe raises an eyebrow at that, knowing their supplies won't last if they plan to keep her long, but Mal ignores it. "Ain't to be no one but you, Inara or Book goin' into that room."

"What about yourself?" Mal's state of undress has been forgotten up until now, but Inara's keeping her eyes firmly on Mal's face, resisting a second look. She's surprised he's not mentioned it himself, but not that he wants to keep Saffron's contact with the crew at a bare minimum. There were some who could be easily played by her, either by seduction or professions of a change of heart; she doubts Wash would be taken in, but there's always the possibility he could become sympathetic to a sob story, or Jayne could let his diao do the thinking for him.

"Can't say I'm ever wantin' to see that woman again. Anytime's too soon for my likin'." It doesn't sit well with Mal that she's aboard his ship; there's one who's likely to slit their throats while they sleep. "Best if it's just you three. Don't be lettin' Jayne or River, especially, near."

"Could be a good idea to dope her, for a time anyhow." Somehow Zoe suspects Saffron will be aboard awhile. They can't take the risk of her alerting anyone to River and Zoe knows the captain's got plans for rescuing Simon in the works. Wouldn't be good for anyone to get wind of those, either.

"That's inhumane, surely?" Inara doesn't want any chance of Saffron escaping either, and has to admit deep down that perhaps sedation would be a less discomforting step than the chains they have her currently bound in. But the idea of taking such a measure, it feels almost like a violation.

Mal's not about to argue Saffron's cause; good day waned by the news of her aboard, he's not a good person for Inara to look to for support. Besides, he's got his own musings to be dealing with, got to think on what to do once the Lassiter is sold. How best to be approaching Mister Universe, for one. Dratted woman's just a distraction he isn't wanting. He shrugs, meeting her eyes for a moment, "Conjure you two can come to some agreement, might be that some divine input could help your way."

"We should talk to the preacher." Zoe glances at Inara, waiting until the Companion slowly nods in agreement.

"Shiny." Mal grins, glad that burden's taken from him. He can't see much getting past either of them and combined, di yu, he wouldn't want to be under their scrutiny. "Just don't be kissin' her anytime soon."

 

end part 16