: Time to Stop FallingAuthor
: Jedi ButtercupRating
: Firefly/AtS. It unsettled Mal a little, the idea that there had been folk doing to others what had been done to River-- or near enough-- even so many years ago
. 2100 words.Disclaimer
: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.Prompts
: joss100 #71 - Fall; also, TTHFFA for Charles Gunn and River Tam.Spoilers
: Firefly; "Serenity" (2005); the last seasons of Buffy & Angel.Notes
: For the Twistedshorts August Challenge. Set in the same 'verse as "Of the Wolf, Ram and Hart
"So, what's the verdict, Doc?" Malcolm Reynolds said, looking down at the coffin-shaped crate his crew had brought over from the derelict starship.
Simon Tam, fugitive, annoying pain in his ass, and highly trained core doctor, looked up from the little glowing panel on the side of the crate and shook his head in bemusement. "I have no idea how this man is even still alive," he said. "For whatever value of alive might apply. This technology is centuries
old; at least twice as old as the ship out there."
"A ship which represents an intriguing anomaly in its own right," Inara said, leaning against the cargo bay railing next to Mal. She was dressed finely as always, as befit her status as a highly trained and educated Companion; but she'd used a light hand on the makeup brush that day, and she went barefoot, as had been more common for her since the dustup at Miranda. Mal leaned a mite closer to her as they played spectator, and relished the uncomplicated warmth of her against his arm.
"Kaylee says that according to its registry, its last port of call was on Earth, under a company name listed only as W&H, but none of the parts are anywhere near as old as they should be if it were part of the colonial exodus," Inara continued. A delicate frown marred the fine skin of her brow.
"Someone, somewhere, really wanted this man saved," Simon sighed. Then he stood, brushing dirt from the knees of his trousers, and turned to look up at Mal. "Unfortunately, he was very severely wounded before he was put into stasis; the abdominal perforation on its own would have been a challenge to the medical profession of his day, but there are indications that he was mauled by some sort of creature afterward, which infected him with a very aggressive pathogen that I have no frame of reference for. It would be folly to try to heal him without knowing more; but we may not have a choice, given the deterioration in the chamber's systems. It could be weeks, days, or even hours before the circuitry fails; Kaylee would be able to pinpoint it more accurately, but it will definitely be soon. Likely before we can find a world with adequate medical facilities that will accept our custom."
Mal pursed his lips, considering the situation, and glanced up at the cargo bay doors that still stood open on their connecting passage with the derelict ship. Zoë and Kaylee were still exploring its dusty innards, looking for more useful bits and bobs that might've survived the passage of time and the long-ago attack that had left it drifting. "Seems to me we found him just in the nick of time, then."
"Seems to me our creepifyin' pilot might maybe have kenned he was there, and brought us out here to the ass end of nowhere on purpose," Jayne observed, coming down the hallway from the dining room. "Navigation error my ass." He took a spot on the railing on the other side of Mal, eyes fixed not on the crate but on the slight figure slumped against it, ear pressed against its side about where a man's heart should be.
"He's a fighter," River observed in a mournful tone of voice. "Name like a weapon. Fought like one too, noble and true even when he got confused." She smiled a little at that, then shifted, turning her face so she could look up at her brother. "Remembered too much. Some of it was made up, and there were too many secrets... but he found his way out and went down fighting, the way he'd always wanted."
Simon swallowed visibly at that; it was plain he understood from that speech what had drawn his Reader of a sister to their slumbering guest. Mal understood, too; and it unsettled him a little, the idea that there had been folk doing to others what had been done to River-- or near enough-- even so many years ago. He knew better than most how dark the seamy underbelly of Humanity could get, but like most Rim-world children raised on stories of Earth-That-Was, he still cherished the idea of their long-ago home as paradise lost: green and rich and covered in a multitude of separate nations, each with their own ideologies, cultures, and governments to bow to. No Alliance lese
gathering all the worlds under one banner, whether they will or no.
"Well, we'll do our best to see he lives to fight another day, little one," he said, nodding down to her. "Won't turn a man in need away."
He had cause to regret that promise a few days later. The stasis chamber had failed, just as Simon had said it would; and their guest had pulled through, just as River had wanted. They hadn't counted on him waking as ornery as a bear caught in a trap.
After hours of difficult surgery and the use of more of Simon's stolen core-world drugs than they could really afford to spare, their guest had finally slipped into a healing sleep. Mal had left Jayne behind to guard him, while the rest of them went through the last of the records and antique goods brought off the Angel
; fighter or no, it had seemed unlikely that a wounded man without a weapon on him would be any challenge to the mercenary's skill even if he should prove to be difficult. The first clue they'd had that anything was wrong had been a choked-off bellow of surprise, followed by the clanging of metal implements hitting the floor.
Mal was first down the stairs, with Zoë and River close behind him, and Simon on his sister's heels. He waved the others back as they came into range of the infirmary windows, easing his pistol out of its holster on his hip, and peered into the confined space; the normally orderly room was an unholy mess, tools and drugs strewn about every which-a-way, and Jayne backed into a corner by the shirtless patient. From the looks of his broad, bandaged chest, he'd torn a stitch or two in his waking, and the trembling of his visible muscles made it clear he'd run out of gas again soon-- but he had Jayne bent backward with a knife to his throat, and if they didn't interrupt him, soon
might be too late.
"'Scuse me, is this a private party, or can anyone join in?" Mal said blandly, easing into the room gun-first. He'd be perfectly willing to put the pistol down to ease hostilities; but only if the other also lowered his knife, and in the meanwhile he might
be able to shoot faster than that blade could cut. Man liked to keep his options open in a situation like that.
Strangely, the man paled even further at the sight of him, going all ashy-grey in the face. "Caleb," he blurted, then glanced past Mal's shoulder and swallowed visibly. "Jasmine," he whispered, sounding pole-axed. "What kinda Hell did I wake up in? Ain't y'all supposed to haunt the heroes, not their sidekicks?"
Something in Mal froze at the name the man had given him, and he lowered the gun slowly, putting connections together in his mind. Inara'd said the Angel
sailed for a company name of W&H; could that stand for the Wolf, Ram, and Hart? Nigh on a year ago he'd been captured and tortured by a man looked just like Jayne that couldn't be killed without you staked him in the heart first and scattered him across the black in a dozen separate pieces. He'd called Mal 'Caleb', too. And Zoë had been real skittish about the matter; she'd known something about him, something beyond the legends of immortal assassins that slipped round the edges of the 'verse, that she hadn't been willing to say. The whole mess added up to a very ugly sum; one he wasn't sure he wanted more details of.
At least River had taken to this one. She hadn't gone anywhere near Hamilton's corpse when they'd had it aboard, not even as close as the kitchen.
"Ain't no kind of Hell at all," he said calmly, gesturing to Zoë to lower her gun as well. "Not to those of us as call it home. And we ain't who you think we are, neither. If you're thinkin' that one there's called Hamilton, got to tell you, I completely understand the urge you're havin' to kill him; but we took care of that tama de hundan
last year. This here's Jayne Cobb, and he's a member of my crew. My name's Mal Reynolds. And my second here is Zoë Washburne."
"He ain't lyin'," Zoë said, quietly, at his side. "He ain't Caleb, and we've run afoul of the Wolf, Ram, and Hart before. Kinda curious that we found you on one of their ships, though."
The trapped panic in his eyes cleared a little at Zoë's calm insinuation, and he straightened a little, loosening his grip on Jayne's throat. "Don't know about any ship. Last thing I knew, Wolfram and Hart had sent an army to kill me and mine. Their kind of severance agreements are just a little
on the literal side, and your guy here looks exactly
like their hatchet man."
"No hatchets here," River said, pushing Zoë and then Mal gently out of her way and gliding into the room. "Just people, who want to be your friends."
Mal was tempted to grab hold of the girl and stop her, but she'd more than proven she knew her way around sharp edges, feng-le
or not. And she had
drawn them to him. Hopefully, she had a plan.
Their guest relaxed a little further, looking at her; she was wearing a long, flowing gown gone ragged at the hem, one of Inara's cast-offs, a size or two loose on her, with her hair all down and tangled. She looked younger than she was, and next best thing to harmless. "And who are you, little girl?" he asked.
"I'm River," she said calmly, halting a few arm-lengths away. His knife had pressed closer to Jayne's throat again as she approached, but he stopped again when she did. A slow bead of blood welled up, trickling down Jayne's throat; Jayne swallowed, but his eyes were still clear, and Mal could see one of his hands groping along the nearby counter for something of use.
"It's rude to ask my name and not offer yours, though," River chided him.
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Gunn," he said, grudgingly. "They call me Gunn."
"Strong name for a strong man," River mused, tipping her head to the side. "You've been asleep five hundred years, Gunn."
"Five hundred-- what
?" he objected. The tremor in his muscles had increased, and he blinked as though the lights in the room were blinding him, but he still didn't let go his weapon.
"Say goodbye to everything you ever knew," she told him, in gentle tones. "Time to stop falling."That
caught at Gunn's breath; and finally, finally he lowered the knife toward the floor. Jayne skittered away as soon as the blade left his throat, swinging around a bedpan he'd picked up to brain him with; River slid inside his reach just in time, catching the metal before it could impact. Then she turned to catch Gunn as his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped toward the floor.
Simon edged into the infirmary then, to help her ease his patient back onto the bed; and Jayne swore, grabbing up a piece of gauze and pressing it to his neck as he stormed out of the room.
Mal turned his eyes toward his second, thoughtful and quiet, as they backed out to let Simon work. "Notice you didn't tell the man you
weren't what he called you," he said, slowly.
A grim smile turned up one corner of her mouth. "No, no I didn't," she said. "And that still ain't a story I'm anywhere near ready to tell."
"You're still my
Zoë, though," he added for clarification's sake, raising his eyebrows at her.
Her expression softened a little, and she nodded. "Always was, sir."
He sighed. "Good. Then whenever you're ready to tell's soon enough. Meantime, though, I'd better go make sure navigation's set."
"I'll keep an eye out here," Zoë assured him.
And that was that. Mal shook his head as he tramped back up to the bridge, wondering what in the tian xiode
would happen next.