Ch. 14. Check the barricades.

by Kispexi2

[Story Headers]

Disclaimer: Firefly and these characters are a gift from Joss.

WARNING- Spoilers for "War Stories"

RATING - Somewhere between R and NC-17 in that it contains consensual (though not graphic - patience, gentle reader, that's coming later) sex between two men and two women. Separately. It's not an orgy, people! Plus some torture - which somehow the censor is always less bothered about. Strange ...

Chapter 14: Check the barricades.

Mal yanks off his boots and throws himself down on the bed. He don't bother undressin'. For a long while he lies with arms crossed behind his head starin' up at the ceiling, tryin' to ignore the naggin' ache in his balls an' how uncomfortably tight his always snug pants feel right now. It's all his own ruttin' fault anyhow. Ten minutes ago the Doc woulda been in here happily administerin' somethin' to ease his discomfort. Now he's more like to wanna inflict pain on him than the other thing. Yesu tamade but Mal is one stupid sonofabitch. Ought never have let the boy get to him. Shou'n't never've started admirin' his devotion to his sis, his smart mouth an' his determination. Shoulda stayed irritated by 'em. Gorramit - somehow Simon Tam's breached all of Mal's defences, bar one. An' that ain't gonna happen. Not never. Cos every damn thing Mal touches turns to dust an' he's learnt his lesson well. No touchin'.

He groans and rolls over onto his side, wishin' to hell that Zoe an' Wash would tone it down. Though it's mostly Wash doin' the yellin'.

One look at Zoe's face tells Wash it's serious. And there's only one thing Zoe takes that seriously: Mal. That chou wang ba dan de too zai zi Mal. Sometimes Wash thinks Zoe shoulda just ... He kicks a chair over and glares at his wife, defying her to complain about it. She doesn't say a word.

"What the hell is this, Zoe?" he demands, his voice tight with anger. "You see - me - I just ignore that poor kid's crazy talk but here you are ... " He gestures wildly with his hands. "All quiet and gloomified. What was all that Georgie Porgy stuff about kissing girls?"

"Who knows?" Zoe shrugs unconvincingly. "River never makes much sense."

"Except this time she did. At least, she did to you." Wash points out, his tone softening. "And it upset you. Wanna tell me why?"

Zoe sighs and rubs her palms together. "Not really."

"It's something to do with Mal, isn't it?" Wash persists.

Zoe looks at him out of the corner of her eye. "Yes," she finally admits with a sigh. "But it don't affect you an' me, baobei."

He knows she's sincere - he's just not sure whether she's right. "It affected you. That means it affects me. It's a thing."

She smiles. "It was all a long time ago, Wash. Water under the bridge."

Wash's slightly worried expression turns terrified. "You said you an' him ... you said you never ... You swore to me, Zoe .."

"An' it was the truth," she says, her gaze intense and earnest. But there's so much going on behind her eyes, it doesn't do much to allay her husband's fears.

Wash resumes his distracted pacing, brows furrowed as he recalls that conversation. The one they had early on in their relationship when Wash didn't really understand the bond between Zoe and Mal. Ha! He still doesn't understand it, but he's always believed what she told him. She never slept with Mal. She didn't want to. Mal didn't want to. And then it hits him. How he'd framed the question in such a way that she could tell him the truth and yet tell him nothing. How he'd meant had they ever wanted to and she hadn't.

He tugs at a handful of hair. "You said neither of you wanted to ... but now I'm thinking you were talking about then. When I asked you. What about before?"

"Before doesn't matter!" Zoe cries, reaching out a hand. "I love you. I married you! And anyhow - nothin' ever happened."

Wash would so like to believe her. "There's something you're not telling me!" he suddenly shouts, pointing an accusing finger at her. "And it's driving me crazy! You're always telling me not to be jealous and how I can trust you. But what about him, Zoe? Can I trust Mal? Cos if he used to want you before, could be he's still harbouring some feelings for you ... Could be he's still waiting for his moment."

"He don't want me!" Zoe is surprised to find herself yellin'. "He never wanted me, you yuo ben de chun zi!"It takes several deep breaths before she's back in control. "How many times I have to say it? How damn fragile is your ego, husband? Cos I'm gettin' sick of this!"

Wash is taken aback. One minute the moral high ground was his, now he's being painted the villain of the piece. He grabs Zoe's arm. "And what about you Zoe? You ever want him?"

He thinks he sees her flinch but the reaction is gone so quickly he can't be sure about it. Or begin to guess what it means. Her eyes are blazing now and she shakes free of his hand. "I've had enough of this," she says coldly, one foot already on the bottom rung of the ladder. "I'm gonna check on the cargo. What we got is valuable - don't want it gettin' broken."

Wash lets her go, noticing how she avoided answering his question and not for the first time thinking how much simpler their marriage'd be without the shadow Malcolm Reynolds casts over it.

River is laughing hysterically. "Been king too long," she splutters, doubling over. "Thinks he can hold back the tide."

"Shh, mei-mei," Simon whispers. "You'll wake Shepherd Book! Come on - lie down. Time to go to sleep."

She falls silent as abruptly as if he'd turned off a switch and allows herself to be guided to the bed. "Not time to sleep," she complains as he tucks her in. "Time to wake up. Time for the boys to come out to play."

Simon's mouth twists and he bites back a bitter reply. "Good night, mei-mei."

Back in his own room, Simon looks for a way to vent his frustration. He'd like to break something. Someone's neck. He picks up a pillow and flings it across the room. Pathetic. Just like him.

He crawls into bed and pulls the covers up right over his head and tries to sleep, but Simon has never fallen asleep easily. He can like awake for hours. That's usually when his thoughts turn to Mal. And tonight he'd much rather they didn't. The secret fantasies that have sustained for the past few months seem more like a kind of torture now.

At least the physical craving has subsided. His body's about as flaccid as his self-esteem. Painful rejection has that much to be said for it at least. He squeezes his eyes shut and rides an unexpected wave of sadness. This would be so much easier to bear if he still believed Mal's lack of interest was because the man was one hundred per cent plain. But that comforting explanation was swept clean away by the hunger in his kiss. No - Mal didn't push him away because Simon's a man - it was because he's Simon. And that hurts.

Hurts so much and Mal has no idea. Doesn't know or doesn't care. He really is a bastard. A self-serving, unremitting bastard. And right now Simon hates him. With a passion. Enough to want him to hurt too.

The cerebral scan answers a lot of Simon's question but it raises many more. Questions he'd like to have time to ponder without being engaged in somewhat ghoulish small-talk by Book. He wonders what the Preacher's real reason for being here is. Did Mal send him? To deliver some pious words about unnatural practices and hell-fire? It seems unlikely. Mal's opinion of religion is about as low as his opinion of Simon. No, Book is probably here on his own account.

"Have you ever read the works of Shan Yu?" Book asks.

Hearing that name on the lips of a man of God sends a chill through Simon. "Shan Yu, the pyschotic dictator?" Psychotic. Dictator. A man who enjoyed making people suffer. Hmmm. Now who does that description remind Simon of? He tries not to listen as Book talks about poetry and torture and war but the words are like missiles, carrying a payload of meaning he doesn't understand and yet can't ignore.

"He said 'live with a man forty years, share his house, his meals, talk with him on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano's edge and on that day you will meet finally meet the man'."

"What if you don't live near a volcano?" Flippancy - the last refuge of the emotionally challenged.

Book smiles. "I expect he was being poetical."

Simon doesn't want to be drawn into this. Whatever this is. "Sadistic crap," he says coldly. "Legitimized by florid prose. Tell me you're not a fan."

"I'm just wondering if they were. The people who did this to River."

The box is out of sight, hidden at the back of Inara's closet. Only for use when the pain seems unbearable. And today the pain is merely bad. Something has happened, she's sure of it because Mal is acting very strangely. He didn't make a single snide remark when she asked for details of Serenity's schedule so that she could make an appointment with a client. He simply gave her the information and even asked if she needed longer. And then he said something about hoping the client appreciated her.

She likes it better when he's obstructive.

Inara returns her attention to her Cortex screen where five hopeful faces look out at her. One is unfamiliar, a high-ranking official recommended by a third party. She clicks on his face and it disappears. Two of the remaining faces are regulars - sincere, gentlemen Inara holds in high regard. She clears them from the screen too. Devon Cartwell's smile is a lot like Mal's. And is gone in a second. That only leaves the Councillor. A good choice, Inara tells herself. The safe option. Someone with whom she can go through the motions and not feel a single thing.

Simon is angry. He woke up angry and Mal has done nothing during the course of the day to change that. He hasn't spoken a single word to him, has hardly even acknowledged his presence. Which means Simon is still angry when he takes his place at the table for dinner. Not raging, shouting, red-hot angry. No - more like ice-cold, distant and aloof. Carefully ignoring Mal, he smiles at Kaylee, nods to the others and looks at Jayne with undisguised admiration. He doesn't notice the way that makes Mal's jaw tighten and his nostrils flare slightly. Instead he leans across and removes the serving bowl from in front of the Captain without bothering to ask if he's finished with it. Simon came to a few decisions today - chief of which was the firm resolution not to take any more of Malcolm Reynolds' gou shi. He won't let the Captain dish out any more punishment for what was a gesture of genuine, uh, affection. If Mal had wanted to make an issue of it, he should have done so earlier. Simon has apologized. He even offered to leave Serenity but Mal claimed there was no need for either. And then he had to do that ... had to humiliate him like that ... Simon bangs the serving spoon down onto his plate noisily and returns Zoe's quizzical glance with a determined stare. No - he's not going to be bullied by any of them any more.

Meal don't look none too appetizin' but then, Jayne ain't got much of an appetite. He wou'n't be here at all if Mal ha'n't insisted he act normal. So's nobody'd know what he did. On Ariel. The mercenary pushes the mushy protein around his plate half-heartedly wonderin' which is worse: the gettin' your skull cracked by Mal or the waitin' for it to happen again. The man's never simply there like other folk - his presence's got a kinda ominous feel to it. Like Jayne only gotta make one false move an' he'll be in for some more pain of the serious variety.

The stillness opposite tells the mercenary that the Doc is watchin' him. Makes him all manner of twitchy an' guilty. He jerks his head up and demands grumpily, "What ya lookin' at me like that for?"

"Cos you're his hero," Mal says sarcastically, intendin' to uncomfortable Jayne some with the irony of it.

Simon bristles but ignores the remark. Instead he asks Jayne solicitously, "Are you feeling all right? You look a little ... Any headache? Nausea? Dizziness?"

Embarrassed by Simon's concern, Jayne grunts. "Some. Had worse."

Simon's admiration for the mercenary's fortitude grows. "I'm sure you have, but if you've finished eating, I'd like to run a few checks on you. You have a second swelling here - " he indicates the spot Mal struck with the wrench by pointing to his own temple - " which I didn't notice yesterday. I suspect you may be a little concussed."

"Don't want no fuss," Jayne mumbles staring down at his plate. "Anyway - Mal wants us to get the goods prepped for tradin', don't ya? Mal?"

Mal shakes his head, kinda lovin' the big man's discomfiture. "Do as the Doc says," he orders cos the more guilty Jayne feels 'bout his treachery, the less like he is to do anythin' of the sort again. "Let the boy take a look at you. Seein' as how eager he is to take care of you. Don't rightly need either of you right now."

Too late Mal realizes how he made that sound.

Simon turns his head sharply and catches Mal's eye before the Captain has time to look away. Boy's practically cracklin' with fury. "I didn't imagine for one minute that you did, Captain," he says, each word steely and sharp-edged.

See? Dust. It always turns to dust.

Next morning River is sitting in the commons area, hunched over a blank sheet of paper. All round her lie piles of discarded drawings, each identical. The pencil in her hand hovers indecisively for a moment and then it's moving rapidly and precisely, building up form and texture with effortless ease. Kaylee picks up on of her earlier attempts and studies it. The detail is so sharp it's almost like a photograph. And it's exactly like the one River is concentrating on now.

"She sure do like those nestin' doll things," Kaylee says to Simon, who's poring over his encyclopedia. "She have one back on Osiris?"

Simon shakes his head.

"Well maybe she always wanted one." Kaylee kneels down beside her friend. "That it, sweetie?"

"The real one's trapped inside," is River's only answer. She crumples the drawing and tosses it aside in frustation before reaching for another sheet of paper.

Simon pinches the bridge of his nose and clenches his teeth. Kaylee gets up again and pats his shoulder sympathetically, smiling sadly at his desolate expression. "It's a compulsion," he tries to explain. "Caused by whatever they did to her at that school. Mostly probably something she associates with some kind of traumatic event. She doesn't like these dolls, Kaylee. She's just compelled to keep drawing them. She can't stop."

Kaylee considers this for a moment. "Well - that the case - you ever think maybe someone should do it for her? Stop her, I mean."

Simon rubs his cheek. "I don't want to upset her. She's been through so much ..."

"Apples!" River cries looking up expectantly. "To stay in the garden.!"

The man's just as Mal expected. All fancy clothes and manners. Not unlike the Doc. But without any of Simon Tam's endearin' oddness. Mal steps forward and extends a hand.

"Welcome aboard. I'm Capt-..."

Man jus' keeps right on walkin' like Mal wa'n't there. So, not so much with the fancy manners then.

"We're all clear here, Councillor," the man says into the electronic doodad on the side of his face.

There's a shimmer of grey light to Mal's left and he turns to see an exquisite woman gliding up the cargo bay ramp. For a moment he don't get it ... then Inara is embracing her, kissing her and Mal's mouth falls open. "Huh."

Inara and the Councillor ascend the stairs, matching each other step for step, beauty for beauty. Even their gowns move in the same flowing, hypnotic rhytmn. Mal's mouth is dry. He turns away quickly. Does Inara torment him like this on purpose? A man can only take so much.

Once in Inara's shuttle, the Councillor allows Inara to undress her. For a moment she stands naked, enjoying the feel of the Companion's eyes on her body. Inara smiles sweetly and leads her to the bed. Yes, Councillor Altana was the perfect choice. So self-absorbed and self-satisfied, she has neither the skill nor interest to reach Inara's heart. Inara sits beside her and runs practised hands up the unblemished golden skin of her back. Routine tasks calm the mind and Inara craves a little calm. "You have such beautiful skin ..." Words without meaning, like an incantation. Inara finds her mind slipping away.

"There's no need for show, Inara," the Councillor replies, playing her part to perfection. "I just need to relax with someone who's making no demands on me."

Inara seeks to reassure her that she wants nothing in return. She prefers it that way. Because wanting leads invariably to pain. "Most of my clientele is male. Did you know that? ... If I choose a woman, she tends to be extraordinary in some way." She doesn't explain that the Councillor's extraordinariness lies in how very blank Inara finds her and how safe that makes her feel. "And the fact is, I occasionally have the exact same need as you do. One cannot always be one's self in the company of men."

"Never, actually," the Councillor agrees.

"So, no show," Inara promises. "Let's just enjoy ourselves." She closes her eyes as the Councillor strokes her hair and leans in for a kiss, happy to let her body take over, leaving her essence - the real Inara - untouched and intact.


"You don't always ... always have to be ... so ... so damn careful about it!"

They were hemmed in on all sides, bein' shot at an' bombed and yet again supplies had failed to get through. So - another excitin' adventure in doin' not very much and tryin' not to get killed.

Except Bain had had an idea about how to pass the time.

"For God's sake, Mal ... I want ... all of you." The words come out in shallow lungfuls. "Let go for once ... Stop holding back."

Instead Mal stopped moving completely. He bumped an apologetic finger down the other man's spine. "I ... I jus' don't wanna hurt you," he mumbled and immediately contradicted himself by leaning forwards and delivering a sharp nip to Bain's shoulder.

Bain reached an arm back to hold him there. "Mal - I know your Momma brought you up to be a gentleman but I'm not some girly-girl you have to be chivalrous with." He thrust harder into Mal's hand to underline the point. "I'm not saying I don't enjoy slow, but on occasion I like hard and fast as much as the next man. And I'm not so afraid of a little pain I want my play in half measures. Dong ma?" He twisted his head round and caught half of Mal's mouth in a wet kiss. "I don't want polite and good-mannered." Another kiss, then in a hoarse whisper, "I want the real you Mal, not who you think you ought to be. Please."

A man can only hang on so long. An' then only when he's concentratin' on the hangin' on. Cos he feels he has to. But Bain's words loosed all Mal's ties to 'should' an' 'ought' an' he lost his balance. Went flyin' an' fallin' all at once. Heavier than stone and light as air, lost in the wantin' an' havin'. Nothin' else mattered. Not right, not wrong, not Bain - nothin'. Jus' blood an' skin. Bone an' fluid. Flesh in flesh and sensation on sensation until the 'verse throbbed and hummed and Mal was flung to the very edge of it. For a moment he was held tight in stillness, in almost-peace, an' then the 'verse turned itself inside out an' him with it, leavin' him fightin' for breath as his body shuddered and pulsed beyond his control.

Bain let out a little hiss as he withdrew and Mal feared he'd gone too far, crossed too many boundaries. But Bain rolled over to face him, a lazy sated smile on his lips.

"You okay?" Mal asked.

Bain grinned and pushed the damp hair back from Mal's forehead. "I'm better than okay, Mal. So - that was the real you? Glad to have met him. But tell me ..." his eyes were dancing. "Are you sure you lean towards women? Because - hey! Stop that! Mal ... I mean it ..." He had to break off because Mal had him pinned down and had just discovered his friend was horribly ticklish and before long they were wrestling and rolling through the scrub, laughing with content and relief whilst in the distance bombs kept falling.

"Bye hon. We promise not to stop for drinks with the fellas!" Wash promises Zoe with a grin as he slips into the pilot's seat. He turns to Mal, damn near smirkin'. "So - we gonna sing army songs or somethin'?"

Mal stares at him like he's from a different species. Why's he lookin' so gorram smug? So triumphant? This ain't him winnin'. It's him bein' ruttin' stupid. Whatever does Zoe see in this clown? Time to let him know this is a one-off. Mal ain't comfortable with the notion of havin' to rely on Wash for back-up. He's only goin' along with this lunacy because Bolles ain't the kinda fence you get trouble from ...

Time is running out. The elections are looming and the Consul will not wait forever. The Director cracks his knuckles. They'd been so close, he felt sure they would get her back. But Gaunt and Ginger let her slip through their fingers. The Director would be within his rights to terminate them for their failure, but such action would only draw attention to his own shortcomings. No, better to assume fear will make them redouble their efforts. And besides - the Ariel debacle was not a complete disaster. At least they now know that the girl's aboard the Firefly class vessel Serenity and that the brother is still with her. There's little point in retrieving one without the other. Without him, she will not imprint. The Director laughs. It's almost poetic. Using love to unleash the whirlwind.

He flicks through the file of Prospects on his desk and notes with satisfaction that in each case, excepting River Tam's, imprinting depends on a predictably venal weakness - anger, greed, lust, envy. Common, everyday failings ripe for development and exploitation. River Tam's weakness eluded them for many months. And then someone looked more closely at her letters home and all became clear. The girl's greatest weakness was love.

Once that had been discovered, the rest was relatively simple. They worked on her endlessly, tweaking responses, implanting the phrase, the scenario. When the time came her brother would be 'persuaded' to utter those three words and thanks to his proclivities, the girl would believe him. Thus the Consul would take ownership of the 'verse's most efficient, mostly deadly bodyguard. Complete and infallible protection. Better than a fortress.

Soon as Mal's fingers came into contact with that strip of fabric, he knew there'd be torture involved. It was the feel of cold metal and that all-pervasive smell that told him it'd be electrocution. And when the blindfold came off and he saw the twinklin' smile of that tamade old psychopath, he understood why. And how much of it there'd be.

Electrocution ain't like other tortures. Knives, flames, blunt objects - they can only hit you so many places at a time. Electrocution gets you everywhere all at once. It's like fightin' a war on a million fronts. Ain't no way you're gonna win. Only question is how long you can hold out before your defences crumble, before the walls you've built to protect yourself start tumblin' leavin' you exposed an' vulnerable.

Mal's got a particular dread of electrocution.

"Now we got some money, next time we go someplace with a Triplex, I'm gonna buy another fancy dress like that one the Cap'n got me for the ball," Kaylee declares.

Zoe purses her lips.

"What? You think I should get somethin' slinky?" the mechanic asks her.

Zoe grins. "Hell, yes! All them frills an' bows - obscures the view, if you know what I'm sayin'."

Kaylee's face drops. "You can't've thought much of my ballgown then?" Her bottoms lip juts out a fraction. "What 'bout you, Simon?" She turns to the medic and flutters her eyelashes a little. "You prefer slinky too?"

He looks up from the page he's read three times already. "What? Sorry. I was just ... " He looks at his watch and then at Zoe. "Shouldn't Wash and the Captain be back by now?"

Zoe smiles at his obvious anxiety. Boy's not very good at hidin' his feelin's. "Clandestine dealin's, little one, don't always follow a strict schedule. They're only a few minutes late. An' any worryin' needs doin', I'll do it. You go back to your readin'. Somethin' interestin'?"

"Mmm. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Not much of it's relevant to River, I'm afraid. Most of the case studies are on emergency services personnel. And the military."

"Really?" Zoe raises an eyebrow. "Interestin'."

They're arguin'. It's good that they're arguin'. Keeps the adrenalin flowin' and dulls the pain. 'Course, Wash don't know that.

"What about love?" he demands.

Mal nearly laughs. Love ain't gonna get them through this. Anger - hate - that's what they need. Luckily Wash already got plenty of ill-feelin' towards him. All Mal has to do is crank it up some. "I ain't against it as a general rule. But in situations such as ours, it tends to cause problems. It splits loyalties." He has to stop for breath and somehow his mind jumps from loyalty to betrayal to Jayne and then Simon. Can't think on that. Defences'll be breached all the sooner if he does.

"You know what I think?" Wash all but sneers.

Mal tenses at that, anticipatin' an unkind but wholly accurate assessment of his character but instead a surge of current burns through him. There's no resistin' it - jus' gotta hang on. Beside him, Wash crumples a little as the fight begins to drain out of him.

"What, Wash? What do you think? Because I'm interested!"

Struggling to breathe, Wash lifts his head. "This policy you got against shipboard relationships - that's just you projecting your own intimacy issues on everyone else." Wash's voice is thick with somethin' unexpected: pity. Now jus' who the good gorram is supposed to be torturin' who here?

Another jolt of electricity. The torturer? Oh yeah, that would be Niska. An' he's good at it. Too good. Wash is failin'. Too much love in him and not enough hate.

"Or, could be a might simpler than that. Could be I jus' don't think you're good enough for Zoe," Mal needles him. For his own good.

"I don't give a good gorram what you think!" There's a spark in that answer, somethin' that still wants to live.

"Oh don't you? See - I think you do. Zoe and I - we got a history. An' I figure you gotta be askin' yourself some fundamental questions as to the nature of that history."

The strange thing? The truly crazy, wacky thing? Suddenly Wash realizes Zoe's been telling him the absolute truth all along. "You never slept with my wife."

"Oh? That a fact?" Gotta keep goadin' him or he's goin' down. "You know that for certain, do ya? You ever asked her?"

Another twist of the dial and the pain blocks everthing out. Limbs shudder uncontrollably and muscles contract under impulses too powerful for them. Mal's still breathin' heavily when he resumes tormentin' his pilot. "We'd been together a long time before you came along Wash. An' she's a damn fine-lookin' woman!"

"Never happened." Wash's voice is ragged but certain. "Know how I know?"

"How? Tell me?"

Wash drags in some air. "This whole 'Captain' thing isn't Zoe's trouble. Its the guys-she-never-slept-with thing. Hell, Mal - I wish you had slept with her. Then at least she'd be over it."

"Oh, you want me to sleep with her? Would that make you fell better?" Mal snaps back at him, his anger real now. He don't wanna be hearin' this. He don't wanna think someone he cares for could lie with him an' then move on, takin' a piece of him with them. Not when he's lost so much already.

"It might."

What the hell does Wash take him for? The likes of Jayne? Kinda fella who wants nothin' more than to wet his wick an' never kiss no-one on the mouth? That ain't Mal. Wishes it were sometimes, but no - Mal wants everythin'. An' forever. An' that tends to make things complicated. He twists his head round an' finds Wash ain't lookin' so good. Needs another jab. "I imagine it'd do wonders for her too!"

"Screw you!"

"Get in line!"

The next blast of agony is almost a relief but after it Wash's legs give out and his head slumps forward onto his chest. Mal knows that he can't let Wash win this argument or he'll lose his life. Gotta keep him angry. "Okay, gonna do it then. Wash! Listen ... first thing we get back ... Wash! Listen to me! I'm takin' your wife into my bed. I'm gonna get me a piece of ..."

The rest of the sentence turns to sparks on Mal's tongue under the onslaught of another surge of electricity.

Zoe's face gives nothing away. She scarcely even bothers to give her husband and her Captain a second glance. "It's five times what you paid us for the train job, " she tells Niska, her tone even and business-like.

The old man's smile is much like that of any other elderly gentleman. Almost as if he's proud of her success. "Yes. You have had - you say it? - good times ... I see that."

"Should be more than enough to buy back my men."

Niska chafes a little at her assumption. "This is your opinion, is it?"

Zoe stands her ground. "It is."

"They are perhaps damaged now. Are they worth so much to you?"

"Yes." The word is too heart-felt, too true. Niska has her and they both know it. Now the real torture can begin.

"And to me they are worth more." His assertion is a blasphemy and Zoe would cut his tongue out for it if she could. However great the hatred he bears Mal, it is a puny emotion beside Zoe's love for him. And even that love is overshadowed by her feeling for her husband. Her dear, sweet, crazy husband. The man who sees the real Zoe in all her strength and who loves her despite her weaknesses - maybe even because of them.

"I think this is not enough. For two. But sufficient perhaps for one ...Ah - so now you have a question to answer ..."

"Him," she interrupts without hesitation. Wash. Because Wash is hers in a way that Mal never was and never will be and even though Zoe would die for Mal without a second thought, she won't let her husband. "I'm sorry - you were goin' to ask me to choose, right? Did you wanna finish?"

Niska stares at her, amazed. "He is yours. We are ended now." But it was too easy for her, no? The suffering should be extended, he is thinking. Drawn out slowly, like nails. "A moment please! This money ... There is too much. You should have some small refund." He turns to his henchman and issues an order in a tongue Zoe doesn't understand. The man advances on Mal with a savage blade. It flashes once and then Mal is screaming, a sound that erupts for some deep well of pain inside him. Wash stumbles against Zoe and she has to brace herself and close her ears to Mal's torment.

It's the only way to survive.

Serenity trembles a little as the shuttle docks, mirroring the response of her crew. Five pairs of eyes turn expectantly towards the door.

Wash comes through it first, looking both better and worse than Simon had been expecting. Better in that he's at least able to walk. And worse - well, because Simon's never seen someone who's been tortured before. "Let me take a look," he urges. "How bad is it?"

Wash pulls away. "I'm fine."

And then Inara says the two words Simon's been trying keep out of his mouth, his mind. "Where's Mal?"

Simon knows the answer. He just knows. Mal is dead. Or soon will be.

"Niska wouldn't let him go," Zoe replies bluntly.

Inara's eyes widen and her heart hammers in her chest. "Is he alive?"

A beat and then Zoe answers. "For now." She turns to Simon. "Take that to the infirmary." Her voice echoes weirdly through the fog of despair that has enveloped him. "Put it on ice."

Simon looks down, amazed to see there's something in his hand, wrapped in white cloth. He opens it mechanically and stares, numb. Unable to feel anything.

"What is it?" Kaylee asks despite herself.

"It's his ear," Simon hears himself say calmly. Everything - everyone else - is moving, sliding forward and away into the future, whilst he is suspended in this one moment in time. Hanging over the volcano's edge. Holding all that may be left of the man he ...

"We're getting him back." Zoe's words yank Simon back from the edge.

Jayne frowns. "What we gonna do? Clone him?"

Simon looks at Zoe, snatches some of her determination for himself and dares to hope. To believe he can help somehow. "It's a clean cut. With the right equipment, I should be able to attach it." But they're words. Just words. Clinical. Detached. And absurd. The fiery pit beneath him opens up again. "That's assuming there's a head."

Somehow he gets to the infirmary and packs the ear in ice. The ear - not Mal's ear. He can't let himself think about that.

Then he walks slowly to his bunk and with infinite calm, vomits into the toilet bowl over and over again until he's bringing up nothing but bile.

He's empty, shallow, hollow. Hardly a man, let alone a doctor. How could he have wished hurt on Mal? He'd rather die himself. Simon doesn't believe in Fate or in the tempting of it, and yet somehow he feels this is all his fault.

"You're not responsible." He looks up and River is standing in the doorway, eyes brimming with compassion. "It's not your fault."


"You think because it was your idea to steal that medicine, and because it happened when he was out there trying to sell it, that's why he got took." She trips over the last word, like it's not her own. "Taken." Again River looks confused, as though someone's putting words into her mouth. "Abducted. The Captain was abducted." That's it - the higher register is her own. He's not there in her head any more, telling her what to say, comforting her brother.

Simon smiles weakly and looks down at his feet. "River, mei-mei, there's something I have to do. The others ... they're going to try to rescue the Captain and I ... River, I ..."

She crouches down in front on him, one hand on his knee, the other stroking his cheek. "It's all right. I know. You need to go with them. Can't hold back the tide, Simon."

"I can't just sit here. I'm sorry it means leaving you behind but I have to do something, River." He swallows and smiles again, shyly this time. "I have to. Because ..."

Her head tilts to one side. Three words. She realizes she's been waiting for them. "Because?"

He shakes his head, disbelieving it himself. "I love him."

In her mind's eye, River watches as the puzzle solves itself. Pieces slot easily and inevitably into place. Knots untangle and the marble rolls unhindered down its track. White resolves into a spectrum of colours and the cacophony she's lived with for years reveals its true harmony. Her purpose. At last she's found it. She is Simon's and Simon is Mal's, which makes her Mal's too. Simple.

"River? Are you all right."

"Perfectly. Time to get the Captain, Simon."

"You jus' gonna turn up on her doorstep?" Zoe asks dubiously.

Inara shrugs. "What else can I do? She won't answer my waves."

"She ain't gonna like it," Zoe warns.

"In that case she can gen houzi bi diushi," Inara replies vehemently. "I'm going. I can't just stand by and wait for Mal to die!"

Zoe blinks and looks more closely at the Companion's distraught face. Well, taikong suoyou de xing qiu sai jin wo de pigu! - how's she been so blind? Been too busy watchin' the Doctor fall in love with Mal to notice Inara doin' it too. Gorramit - talk about complications!

"What about the Guild? Won't they have somethin' to say about you breakin' their rules?"

"I don't care, Zoe. If Mal were to die and I hadn't done everything I could to prevent it, I couldn't live with myself." Inara realizes she's on the point of crying. She digs her fingernails into her palms and paints on a false smile. "And if he doesn't die and I didn't do everything ... Well, we all now how insufferable he can be!"

Mal's no longer sure where the pain stops and he begins. Maybe he is the pain. Always winds up hurtin' - other people, himself - that's for sure. An' sometimes he means to. Which is bad. Makes him a bad man. Could be he deserves this - the crampin' agony of blood loss and the nerve-janglin' screech of metal against bone. He's done a lot he ain't proud of an' mayhaps don't deserve the mercy of a bullet to the brainpan, but he needs to rest. He craves stillness, peace. The losin' hisself. His eyes close and he lets himself fall into the Black.

But there ain't no rest for the wicked. His body pulses and shudders and he's gasping for breath.

"Mr Reynolds?" The sing-song cheery tone lights the Black once more. Mal groans. "You died, Mr Reynolds," Niska informs him.

"Seemed like the thing to do." Still seems like it, cos Mal can't struggle on with this load no more. The hill's too high. The boulder too heavy.

"When you die, I can't hurt you anymore. And I need two days, at least. Minimum. I think many people know the name Malcolm Reynolds. They know he crossed Niska. They must know what happened after that. They must know business is still running."

Two days? It's too much. And so very little. The senseless finality of it crushes down on Mal's chest like rock. He closes his eyes and wishes what's left of his life away.

At first he thinks it's the blood ringing in his ears, but eventually Mal realizes that noise is an alarm. When he manages to prise his eyelids open again, he sees Niska talking anxiously into his comms system. "Dalin? What is this? Dalin?"

Zoe came back for him. Again. Bad as he is. Somehow he manages to swing his legs down and his feet find the floor. Hope and anger combine to override the throb from open wounds and he looks round for a weapon. Ah - the very thing! The tendrils sink into Niska's henchman's back with the same ease they ate into Mal, with similar results. Screaming, the man claws at his back and falls to the ground. Niska turns and looks like he's seen a ghost. Mal advances on him. At last - someone worthy of the kinda pain Mal's capable of dishin' out. He takes a swing at the old man, lands a solid blow to his jaw and sends him tumbling over backwards. "Looks like business ain't runnin' so much as crawlin' away," he growls. Turns out pain is as effective as pleasure in loosin' the ties to 'should' and 'ought'. Vengeance might result in the same kind of high. "You wanna meet the 'real me' now?"

"Don't think, just shoot," Book advises.

Simon's hand tightens around the gun. He can do it if they have a hope of rescuing Mal. Doubly so if they don't. He nods to the Shepherd and follows him down the corridor.

Behind him Kaylee freezes. She starts shaking and tears roll down her cheeks. Cap'n's as dear to her as her own Daddy an' yet she can't do this. Can't kill for him nor for no-one. A bullet whizzes past her and she stumbles into a run. Another bullet, closer now. She dives back behind the cargo bay doorway and sinks to her knees.

River is puzzled by her friend's behaviour. Why is she cringing behind cover when people are trying to kill Mal? She steps out of the shadow and picks up the gun Kaylee's dropped, giving the terrified girl a smile that's all quiet confidence. Kaylee is Mal's heart. Without her, his engine won't turn. And River wants to keep breathing. Keep Simon breathing. She peers quickly around the door frame, maps the location of each gunman and dips back again. "Can't look, can't look," she mutters, allowing the implants to take over and then she's standing and firing the gun. Just three shots. One, two, three. Like ducks at the fair, they all keel over and the prize is River's. She raises an eyebrow at Kaylee. "No power in the 'verse can stop me."

Simon is glad he's a doctor for two reasons. First, it means he can do something practical about Mal's injuries. Clean them, dress them, ease the pain. Secondly, he can hide his emotions behind detached professionalism. Stern words about getting enough rest and not overdoing things take the place of sentimentality and afford him some defence against the strength of his feeling for this man.

He helps Mal into his shirt, biting his lip as he sees the Captain wince at the effort involved. "I think you should take a few minutes before trying to stand up again, Captain," he suggests.

Mal nods. "Think you might not be wrong 'bout that, Doc."

Captain, Doctor - the barricades are back up, but Simon doesn't resent them now. He's just glad to have Mal back. "I'm just going to get the Councillor's equipment ready ... if you're ..."

Mal holds his gaze for a while, seemingly on the point of saying something. Instead he just nods again. "Okay. Thanks."

Simon exits the infirmary and joins Book who's already dismantling the high-pressure grafting system. Inara watches them thoughtfully and Simon wonders what she's thinking.

Far earlier than he should Mal comes out into the cargo bay too, fussing about his ear and talking to Inara. Simon concentrates on checking the attachments and putting them carefully away.

"I hear ya'll took up arms in that piece of action back there."

Book nods but Simon feels almost embarrassed. He keeps his eyes lowered wondering how Mal knows. Who told him? Jayne? Zoe?

"How you farin' with that, Doctor?" Mal asks, without a trace of mockery, only interest, concern.

Simon looks up and is surprised by the gentleness in Mal's eyes. "I don't know," he confesses. "I never shot anyone before."

"I was there, son," Book grins, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'm fair sure you haven't shot anyone yet."

The medic can't quite believe his ears. He went through all that for nothing? Then Mal chuckles and he realizes it wasn't for nothing. It was for something - someone- precious.

"It's a difficult mission," Mal tells Zoe, brushing her hair back over her shoulder and placing her hand on his hip. "But you an' I have to get it on."

Wash rolls his eyes.

"I understand. We have no choice. Take me, Sir. Take me hard."

In the entrance to the kitchen, Jayne stops mid-stride. "Now somethin' about that is jus' downright unsettlin'," he mutters, meanin' it.

Wash gets up. Yeah - he gets it. They never have. Zoe didn't want to. Mal didn't want to. He takes Zoe's hand firmly and tells the others, "We'll be in our bunk."

Zoe gives a little squeak as he swats her on the butt, and they head off along the corridor laughing. One corner of Mal's mouth curves minutely upwards. Wash is good enough for Zoe. Knew it the moment he laid eyes on him.

Zoe's eyes sparkle as Wash pulls her close He slides his hands down from the small of her back to squeeze the full curve of her butt and he kisses her mouth, tenderly at first then more heatedly.

"You sure you're up for this, husband?" she teases.

He grinds his hips against her. "Hey - I'm up! You mean you didn't notice? Now I'm offended!"

She laughs, marvelling at her husband's indomitable zest for life. How quickly he bounces back. When he kisses her she feels his vibrancy pour into her and when she kisses him back, he melts against her, wanting to give her everything he has, holding nothing back. She breaks the kiss and looks deep into his eyes. Time for her to stop holding back too. Time to tear down that final barrier.

"Wash - there's something I want to tell you first. Something about me an' Mal."

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Title:  Ch. 14. Check the barricades.
Series Name:  Trauma Medicine
Author:  Kispexi2   [email]
Details:  Series  |  NC-17  |  *slash*  |  42k  |  02/20/05
Characters:  Malcolm, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Simon, River, Book, Other
Pairings:  M/m I/f plus some more angst
Summary:  Some people want their barriers down, some people want them back up again.
Set against "War Stories."
Notes:  Spoilers for "War Stories"
Rating - between an R and a NC-17
Sequel to:  Ch 13. An interesting day.

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