Disclaimer: Firefly and these character belong to Joss Whedon.
TRAUMA MEDICINE: Chapter 5.
Freeze to death first.
You've been cold for so long - shut down, insensate for so very long that it's easy to believe you've always been this way. You're used to it now and can even take comfort from the numbness, the lack of feeling. Better this than the electric sting of nerves and blood. At least you're safe here in. Cerebral, cardiac and pulmonary activity suspended. Deep frozen in your metal shell.
But under the ice floe, a warmer current is moving closer. You can feel it coming. All is flux and flow and nothing is forever. Things change and you must change with them. The seasons progress and winter must give way to spring. The frost will melt away and you will uncurl. You will blossom despite your fears.
Part of you longs for it just as part of you tries to burrow deeper into the snow.
"Definitely a big ship, Sir, and she's without power."
Captain Grayson hesitates. It pains him to have to let the hyenas go but he has no choice. The Dortmunder's gunships are only short-range and don't carry enough fuel to cover five clicks unsupported, let alone thirteen. "Gunships'd never get back to us in time...all right. Let's go help those people." Then it occurs to him that he doesn't have to let those pirates get away scot-free. "Put a bulletin out on the Cortex," he tells the ensign "and flag Interpol: a Firefly with possibly stolen goods aboard. Maybe someone'll step on those roaches." He certainly hopes so. Because people like these undermine the civilized values the Alliance is trying to spread throughout the 'verse.
These vultures need to be stopped.
"You want to do what, Sir?" Zoe asks incredulously, leaning back against her husband's chair. Wash tries to keep the delight he feels at his wife's refusal to go blindly along with whatever wacky notion Mal comes up with from showing on his face.
Mal glares at her. "Don't see why you're objectin'. It was you gave me the notion in the first place."
"I did, Sir? Care to explain how?"
"As I recall, rentin' out the shuttle was your idea. Takin' on passengers ain't so different. 'sides - it'll give us a legitimate, Alliance-proof reason for settin' down on Boros. They got damn near a batallion stationed on that rock now. Don't always wanna be usin' Inara as an excuse," Mal says firmly. Truth is, he don't want her havin' that kind of power over his ship. Over him.
Zoe sighs deeply, as if about to tackle a particularly tedious task. "Big difference between tenants and passengers, Sir. You checked Inara out. Explained the nature of our business. Can't do that with passengers."
"Got no plans to. Way I figure it - we get 'em on board, take their money and tell 'em the cargo bay's off limits durin' transit. Claim it's for safety reasons or some such. That way we can keep them an' the goods from runnin' into each other."
"And what kind of goods are we going to be carrying this time?" Wash asks. "Tell me it's nothing that's going to get us in trouble with the feds again. We were lucky today, Mal. If we hadn't had that cry-baby ..." he trails off, noticing the look passing between Zoe and the Captain. "What? Wo de ma!" He shakes his head. "No. Please. Not more stuff likely to land us all in jail? What's wrong with poultry for a change? We could get rich selling chickens on the Rim. Or geese. We could get extra for geese. There's this trick ..."
"Hunting rifles, dear," Zoe tells him, leaning on the word 'rifles' to press home her point about passengers being a bad idea. "Captain's plan is - we drop the goods off with Badger an' use the coin he pays us to buy in a few crates of hunting rifles we can sell on at a profit on Boros."
"Hunting rifles. Exactly," Mal says, emphatically stabbing a finger in her direction. "For shootin' game. Not people."
"Sure the Feds will make that distinction, Sir," Zoe replies, clearly unconvinced.
"And if they don't?" Wash asks, running a hand anxiously through his hair. "We end up in prison? I don't wanna get locked up. Not without my wife." The prospect fills him with such dread he refuses to accept it as a possibility. He pastes on a hopeful grin. "Us being married, I think they'd lock us up together."
FIVE YEARS AGO
They were in a bar. Been released that very afternoon. Free at last, but too twitchy to think about where they wanted to go or what they wanted to do, they decided they didn't want to think at all. Spent too much gorram time thinkin' during their months in prison, when all they had to look at was four walls, a ceiling and a floor. But on their first night of freedom the outside world felt too big, too free. So they exchanged bars for a bar and decided to get thoroughly drunk.
A couple of hours into the drinkin', Zoe found herself studyin' Mal's face. Partly to stop the room from spinnin' an' partly because she was tryin' to predict which of them would slide under the table first. Serge's focus was off - she could tell by the way his pupils had opened up like black holes. One minute she was thinkin' she oughta challenge him to a test of sobriety - cos she loved nothin' better than winnin' - an' the next she was thinkin' all manner of things she shou'n't. Like how war hadn't made Serge any less pretty. In fact, there was a danger and a darkness to him now that made her spine tingle. Other bits too. She realized she wanted him to touch her. An' not just a comradely arm round her shoulder, nor a comforting squeeze of the hand neither but in a way that would wipe out everything else but the touchin'. A way that would make her blood pulse in time with his.
He caught her lookin' at him that way and somethin' behind his eyes snapped shut. He swallowed the rest of his drink down in one gulp and stood up. "Best see if they've got any rooms. Don't fancy beddin' down in the street an' gettin' arrested for makin' this pi tiao ke de rock look untidy."
Rooms, she noted. Not a room. The two of them had slept in ditches together - worse places too - an' here was Serge gettin' all proper now they were civilians again? She watched him as he leant on the bar and gestured for the bartender to come over. A command more than a request. Prison ha'n't knocked out any of the leader in him. He had a way of standin' - of bein' - that made folk compliant. Well, when he wa'n't makin' 'em mad as hell, that was. An' it wa'n't just the pretty - there was something overwhelmin' about him. And - damn it! - she wanted to be overwhelmed. For tonight at least. She was floatin', adrift an' in sore need of tyin' down. She'd lost everythin' but him an' the 'verse made no sense to her any more. Only solid point in it was him.
He walked carefully back across the room like a man tryin' to pretend he got no problem handlin' his liquor and tossed her a key, not meeting her eyes. "Only had rooms at opposite ends of the corridor. Goin' up now." She began rising from her seat but he shook his head. "Finish your drink. See you in the mornin'."
Surprisingly he managed to take the stairs two at a time, like the devil was on his tail. Zoe's brows knitted together as she tried to work out what in the diyu was wrong with him, but her brain was too fogged up to think straight. She swayed a little as she got to her feet and she left her drink unfinished.
Her room was cold and too quiet. Ha'n't spent a night on her own for years. No hope of sleepin'. Mal was awake too. She knew it, bone-deep. He was awake an' frettin' - tormentin' himself with thoughts of what might have been. What should have been.
She threw back the covers and slipped out of bed. The door creaked a little as she opened it. There was just enough light in the corridor for her to find her way. She didn't bother knocking.
"Sir? Serge?" she whispered into the room."Mal?"
She stole across the room and slipped into the bed beside him. He shifted over, making space between them. "Cou'n't sleep," she explained, as if that was reason enough for her to be there. When he didn't reply she moved closer and lay a hand on his chest. "Wanna help me with that?"
Even in the dark, she could see his eyes widen ever so slightly and his mouth opening to speak. She couldn't bear to hear him say 'no' so she leant over him and blocked the refusal she feared was coming with a kiss. Just her lips on his. A question, that was all. She felt him tense for a second and then his hand was on the back of her head, pulling her down onto his mouth. Teeth, lips and tongues fit together like they had been made for each other. Every connection felt right. Zoe breathed a chuckle of relief into him and rolled them over, so that now she was underneath an' smilin' encouragement up at him. They'd faced death together. It seemed only right to face life together too.
Mal felt the room spin and himself with it. It was like he was divin' into a boilin' sea. A strange scent filled his nostrils and he could taste blood in his mouth. To his bewilderment, he felt his teeth sink into skin ...
A quicksilver pain flashed against Zoe's throat, making her gasp and cry out. But the pain subsided quickly leaving only heat and she arched into it, a soft whimper escaping her lips.
She sobbed ... pleaded ... The nightmare hasn't faded with time. The colours are still vivid ... Green like the fields and trees of Shadow for Zoe, the closest thing to home he has ... How ugly men can be ... She didn't fight ... He takes her and holds her down ... They call him a survivor ... he's not ... knows what lies in the heart of men and fears it may be in his own ... He could still hear the muffled whimpering
Could hear it still. Needed to make it stop. Make her stop. He brought the back of his hand down hard across her mouth to silence her.
But it was Zoe that yelped with surprise. It was Zoe that he had pinned down and vulnerable. Zoe? Mal shook his head. How could that be? It di'n't make any kind of sense. Zoe never cried. She was strong - strongest woman he'd ever known barrin' his Momma.
Had Momma cried?
His head throbbed and the room felt unbearably hot. His gut twisted like somethin' savage was trying to claw its way of of him. Somethin' savage and ugly that he couldn't fight. Or perhaps it was somethin' he didn't want to fight. Because it was him. The Real Him. Sweat trickled down his forehead and dripped from his brow. Hurry up and finish. Get it over with.
The slap sobered Zoe up faster than any quack remedy or jugful of coffee could ever've done and instincts honed on the battlefield told her she couldn't fight this. She could only run. Save herself first an' worry about savin' Serge later. Wherever he might be. Cos whoever this man was ... well, she di'n't recognize him.
She knew with cold certainty that he'd be too strong to resist with kicks and punches. Probably wou'n't even hardly feel 'em. Flow round rock that can't be moved, Daddy used to say. She went limp and his grip on her wrists loosened. Slippin' away, she unsteadied him. Losing his balance, he toppled forwards with a grunt and Zoe was gone.
Part of her would never come back.
"Oh ... oh ... oh my god," Inara breathes against her client's neck with consummate professionalism. She runs a hand through his hair in a practiced gesture of tenderness as he shudders and stills. The same old dance. Being on Serenity was supposed to have changed that. She sighs, smiling at the young man beside her and allowing him to think it's with contentment. But she's sighing because being on Serenity has changed things. Her clients have become interchangeable, indistinguishable from each other. Their auras blend into each other and not a single one of them interests her any more. They are all cut from the same cloth. Predictable. She needs more to work with than that. She needs a puzzle. A mystery.
She rises from the bed and prepares herself for the zai jian ceremony. This time the tea she pours is sweetened with honey. Unlike the welcoming ceremony beverage, it leaves the palate sated not craving more.
Back in his uniform, her young client looks little more than a boy.
"Our time went too quickly," she lies.
A sulk settles around his mouth. "Your clock's probably rigged to speed up and cheat us out of our fun."
Her smile tightens and she is grateful that he is too young and inexperienced to see it. A Companion without her mask is as vulnerable as a crab ripped from its shell. She must never lose her sheen of cool composure. Instead she must use it to reflect back a client's deepest desires, leaving the soft heart of her safely hidden and unknown. Why did her mask slip today?
She hasn't been sleeping well of late, so the explanation may lie in simple tiredness. Despite its layers of silk and satin and down, her bed has become increasingly uncomfortable, as if the expensive mattress were full of lumps. At her lowest moments she suspects Mal of slipping grit under her sheets.
Then again, the boy all but called her a whore and of late the accusation has acquired a vicious sting.
Something older. Nothing flash. Disreputable-looking. Junkers. Simon goes over Yandor's list of desirable qualities in a ship over and over again. He has to get this right, make the right decision. Otherwise he will end up in a federal prison and River ... No! He will not even contemplate the possibility.
Even though it's still morning the Eavesdown Docks are busy and extremely hot. There must be some kind of system here as everyone is moving about purposefully but, for the life of him, Simon can't work out what it is. He gets jostled repeatedly as he tries to make his way through the crowd. It's an uncomfortable feeling this being in such close proximity to strangers and not at all what he's used to. On Core planets people respect one's personal space. Double so one's intimate zone. A hand slides briefly into his pocket, making him start and fear he's again unknowingly done something to draw unwelcome attention, but the hand is swiftly withdrawn and he realizes its owner's motivation was theft, not assault. And the pocket is empty. Simon might not be used to places like this but at least he's had the foresight to hide what little money he has in the inside pocket of his vest. He smiles to himself as the pick-pocket moves on to pastures new. It feels like a minor victory.
There's maybe one vessel to which he'd feel like entrusting his life - a gleaming cruise ship sporting the latest in heat-deflecting panelling - which of course makes it the one vessel he can't choose. Most of the others promise a bumpy ride with an unsavoury crew and some look as if they were designed with the specific intent of disproving the laws of aerodynamics.
"Lookin' for a ride?" a gruff voice asks.
Simon turns to see a broad-set man in his early thirties, dressed in a shabby khaki jacket and matching hat. "I beg your pardon?" he asks carefully.
The man eyes him with poorly disguised disdain. "A ride. Passage. On a ship," he says slowly as if Simon were unable to comprehend simple English.
"Oh, I see. Uh ..."
"We're heading for the outer rings. Heard a lot of you Core folks like to spend time on the Rim," the man elaborates. Does he have a facial tic or what that a wink? "So - you wanna come with us?" OK, now it's a definite leer.
Simon straightens up and somehow manages to look down his nose at the taller man. "No. Thankyou. I have other plans."
The hustler shrugs and moves on. "We're cheap, we're clean," Simon overhears him saying to a grey-haired man in clerical attire. "The Brutus is the best ship in the 'verse."
"The Brutus is the best ship in the 'verse," the young man insists but without any real conviction. Book recognizes a sales pitch when he hears one and, to be blunt about it, he'd rather not. And as if that weren't enough, he's familiar enough with Earth-that-was history to feel uncomfortable about that name. Brutus. Et tu, Brute? Conjures up the image of a friend's knife between the shoulder blades.
There's been too much betrayal already.
"I never married," Book says cryptically and walks away.
"I'm not a grandpa." Ah, it feels good to explain and yet not. Let people believe what they will. Something of the man Book used to be surfaces with a self-satisfied smirk as he makes his way towards the Firefly class ship. It'll be interesting to see how much the design has changed.
Jayne reholsters his gun, fighting down feelings of rage and ... disappointment? Embarrassment? No - shame, tha's what it is. Gorram, ruttin' shame. An' not on his own account neither. If'n it'd been his call he'da shot that chou wang da ban Badger where he stood an' qin wode pigu with the consequences.
He gotta believe Mal knows what he's doin' - that somehow he's gonna turn this to his advantage. Jayne can smell the anger comin' off him, which don't reassure him none. But Mal's come out smilin' from situations worse than this before. An' there ain't no denyin' he's got smarts. Probably got a back-up plan all worked out already. Yeah, that'll be it. Mal don't do nothin' without a reason. The kinda reason that turns into hard coin.
"Not an aught three though. Didn't have the extenders, tended to shake."
Kaylee suddenly sees the man before her in a different light. Not just as an elderly Shepherd but as a man who knows about engines. An' ships. She realizes he ain't that old either. Older than her daddy surely, but still got a bright twinkle in his eye an' a ready smile. He's lookin' up an' down at the ships in dock, not the destination panels. Been a lot of that today. There was this handsome young man too ...
"So how come you don't care where you're going?"she asks almost as soon as she realizes that is the case.
"Cos how you get there's the worthier part," he replies simply.
Kaylee nods at the Shepherdly wisdom of that. Heard stuff like that from the missionary that came to preach in the chapel near her daddy's workshop. "You a missionary?"
Is it his imagination or has the sun blazing over the Eavesdown Docks grown brighter? Book looks at this pretty girl in her simple overalls and turquoise silk jacket and a sense of stillness - of meaning - comes over him. He fancies he can hear the beating of a dove's wings.
Mal takes a deep breath and a step closer to Badger.
"Maybe I'm not a fancy gentleman like you with your ... very fine hat," he says slowly, pleased that he's able to get the words out without laughin' in the pompous little ji bai's face, "but I do business. We're here for business."
They eyeball each other for a while. Mal idly wonders why Badger chooses to dress that way. Don't suit him - certainly don't make him look the respectable businessman with roots in the community he pretends to be. Oughta have a shirt with a pinstripe jacket, any fool knows that. Exceptin' Badger of course. An' the hat is jus' plain ridiculous. Overall impression Badger creates is of a sad little upstart, desperate to join a club that won't have him.
Badger's eyes narrow. Did Mal let his contempt show on his face? "Try one of the border planets - they're a lot more desperate out there. Of course, they might kill you but you stay here and I just know the Alliance'll track you down. I have that feeling."
He don't just wear the clothes, Mal realizes. He dances to the Alliance tune too when it suits him. Man's made of straw - hollow inside. Nothin' of himself left to call his own. No roots of any kind - and when the tide turns, he'll be swept clean away.
"Wheel never stops turning Badger."
"That only matters to the people on the rim."
Kaylee feels bad Wash ain't back yet with the mule to help the Shepherd with his luggage. Don't seem right, a man of his age havin' to haul all them bags and boxes up the ramp his own self. But he wou'n't let her help. Such a nice man. Weren't his fault he di'n't have enough coin for the full fare. She hopes the Cap'n won't be mad at her for accepting fresh produce as part payment.
Sure is hot here, even under her parasol, but Kaylee ain't complainin'. She's enjoyin' the chance to indulge in some people-watchin'. Fancy ladies, feds in uniform, hustlers, whores an' street vendors. All of 'em with stories.
The crowd thins a little an', makin' his way down the berths - takin' a right close look at every ship, Kaylee spots him. That same handsome young man an' just about the most shuai fella she ever did see. Dark suit, black hair and fine features. Can't see his eyes as they're hidden behind sunglasses but he's got a real pretty mouth. She hopes he'll pass close enough by for him to notice her. She'd like to see him smile.
"My wife back yet?" Wash asks as he slows the mule before ascending the cargo bay ramp.
Kaylee smiles at him. "She'll be OK, Wash. She's with the Cap'n."
"Not necessarily the same thing," Wash replies, scanning the crowd for any sign of the others. "You heard his latest ...?"
Kaylee suddenly stands up, all her attention elsewhere, and the pilot wonders if he's suddenly gone invisible. "Hi," she's saying with a flutter of eyelashes and a shy girlish dip of her head. Wash turns round to see a dandy fella who looks like he oughta be swankin' around someplace cool on the Core rather than sweatin' into his silky shirt here in the Eavesdown Docks.
"Uh. Good day, miss," the newcomer says as he casts an inexpert eye over Serenity's battered skin. "I ... uh, I'm looking for ... I mean, I want to book passage to ... uh..."
Wash raises a quizzical eyebrow at Kaylee. Wacky fella doesn't even know where he's heading. Something a bit cuckoo about that.
"Boros," Kaylee finishes the stranger's sentence for him and gives him another sweet smile. "Are you travellin' alone? Ot with a ... friend?"
Wash rolls his eyes. Oh yeah, Kaylee - real subtle!
"No. I'm travelling alone. Although I do have rather a lot of luggage. Will that be a problem?"
She shakes her head. "Not a bit of it. You need help carryin' it? Cos Wash can put it on the mule."
Simon likes the way she talks, the way she smiles. River used to smile like that. Before. Sometimes Mother would put her hair up in that exact same style too, although Simon doubts that, unlike his ten-year old sister, this young woman wanted to look like a dinosaur.
"Thankyou." He turns to Wash and bows his head formally "I would be very grateful. It's in store at the freight depot. It is rather heavy ..."
Wash grins, wondering what a man who looks like he's never even had to carry his own handkerchief would call heavy. "No worries."
At last the mule comes back into view and, to Simon's immense relief, it's carrying the cryochamber. "Please - be careful with that," he urges as Wash drives past.
The contrast between the two pieces of equipment is striking: a low-tech, bottom-of-the-range utility vehicle and a state-of-the-art dedicated life support system. Simon doesn't imagine any of Serenity's crew will have ever seen anything like it before. He prays they will be careful with it. Press any of a dozen buttons and the interior will start to thraw, awakening River from her dream of death. Will they ask awkward questions? Will they see through his carefully elaborated cover story? He will just have to remain cool and composed. He's come too far to lose now.
The mule disappears into the ship's cargo bay and Simon finds himself on the receiving end of a laser stare, full of ice and heat. A shiver travels the length of his spine.
"Mal, this is Simon," the girl with the parasol - Kaylee? - is saying. "Simon, this is our captain."
Simon has almost frozen under the burning weight of the other man's eyes. Captain? He'd been expecting someone older, someone less ... discomfiting. Nonetheless he manages a stiff nod. "Captain."
Mal keeps right on starin'. Somethin' about this boy sets bells ringin' in his head like a fire alarm goin' off. Don't much like the look of him. Seen his type too many times before. Moneyed, that's for gorram certain. Can see it shinin' out of the whiteness of his shirt an' the easy confidence of his expensive black suit. Badger oughta be here. See how someone born to 'em wears these kinda clothes. Boy's got that better-than attitude perfected too. Nose in the air an' a barbed wire fence of brittle politeness round him to discourage ordinary folk from getting' too close. Every damn thing about him is all manner of irritatin'.
Mal lets his resentment smoulder in his eyes before looking briefly away. It's only for a moment, but that moment is like a cool breath of air. Maybe no-one's gonna get burnt today after all ...
"This all we got?"
The temperature is rising, even if the dials haven't yet registered the fact and the atmosphere has changed. You aren't dead after all. The sky grows light and chaos is come again.
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Title: Chapter 5.Freeze to death first.
Series Name: Trauma Medicine
Author: Kispexi2 [email]
Details: Series | PG-13 | 24k | 11/02/04
Characters: Malcolm, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Simon, River, Book
Pairings: Mal/Zoe - nearly
Summary: Zoe recalls a painful incident from the past and Simon and Book come aboard.
Notes: Spoilers for "Serenity" (the TV ep not the movie)
Possibly disturbing almost-sex scene between Mal and Zoe.
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