Disclaimer: I don't own Sentinel (Petfly's) or Firefly (Mutant Enemy's), so I'm just playing in their sandboxes. They're fun sandboxes. ;)
"Just a little farther," Blair whispered, and Jim tightened his hand around his partner's shoulder, struggling to ignore the sensory flood that threatened to swamp him. That last time was too close, and he was having too much trouble getting the senses back under control after he'd caught the tail-end of that shock wave blast. Cao. If it weren't for Blair, the Alliance would have taken him, but how long could he rely on a psychiatrist to save him from the gorram Alliance? He pushed that despair aside and focused on their immediate needs. Right now, his most important mission was putting one foot in front of the other. They had to keep moving because the government boys were just too damn close on their tails.
"Oh man, it's just adrenaline and reaction. You can control this," Blair muttered.
Jim glared and really wished that Blair could be intimidated. Unfortunately nothing Jim had ever seen, not Alliance scientists or their human experiments or half-dead men crying for help had ever intimidated Blair. They'd made the psychiatrist cry and his heart pound uncontrollably, but nothing ever intimidated him, not even James Joseph Womak in a bad mood.
"How about that one?" Blair asked, nodding toward the oldest piece of gou shi Jim had seen in a long time. The ship was Firefly class, and carrying more replacement parts than original from the look of her. Taking a deep breath, Jim anchored himself with a hand on Blair's shoulder and let his hearing slide out of his body, sending it to crawl across the ground like a snake until he could hear the footfalls of dock workers and the rough Chinese curses of men and the scrape and drag of cargo as it was shifted. The firefly's engines rumbled softly, and Jim could hear the even rhythm. She had a good engineer. Reaching farther, Jim listened to the structure, searching for rattles or groans that could lead to metal blowing out and ships losing atmosphere mid-flight. Nothing.
"She's solid," Jim said tightly. Using his hearing had left his head pounding and he clung to Blair's shoulder.
"Just a little farther. We'll get passage and hole up in a room. You can sleep this off," Blair promised. Blair was good like that, promising something if Jim could make it just a little farther. Get past the perimeter and Blair would be able to remove the pain controller from Jim's neck. Get past the Londinium docks and Alliance guards, and Jim would be free for the first time in years, for the first time since men had shown up requesting that he accompany them back to the core for an experiment. Blair never promised more than he could deliver. After all, he never promised Jim they'd be safe or they'd be able to sit on one planet for more than two days before the gorram Alliance scientists tracked them down
"You folks looking for passage? The Serenity is about the best around. Where you going?" a cheerful voice asked. Jim had let his head hang forward as he stared at the dust of the road, but now he looked up at a girl with a wide smile and thick brown hair. Only that smile was faltering, and she was backing up quick.
"Captain!" she cried out. Jim glanced at Blair who had a panicked expression on his face. Time for an exit. Jim shoved aside the pain and pulled Blair behind him as he turned and hurried down the street. "Captain!" she cried louder. Jim broke into a trot, his hand still clutched around Blair's wrist.
"Hold up right there." A huge man with an enormous gun stepped out from behind a loaded cart, and Jim's hand instinctively fell on the butt of his gun. "Try it and you're dead, dong ma?" he asked.
"Jim?" Blair whispered, his hand resting on Jim's back. Jim carefully let go of his pistol and held his hands out.
"I understand," Jim agreed with the armed thug. "We don't have any problem with you."
"Seems like Kaylee do," the big man insisted. "Let's go back and figure what that is."
Jim watched the man for a second, the way he held the gun, the way his eyes scanned the area without ever losing focus on him and Blair. Soldier or merc, that's for sure. Damn it, either one would turn Jim in faster than a Browncoat could turn tail. Jim started turning and got just far enough that he could make eye contact with his partner. He nodded, and Blair's mouth came open, probably to argue, but Jim didn't give him time.
Throwing himself backwards, he collided with the big guy, grabbing the barrel of the gun and forcing it to the side.
"Run!" he ordered Blair as a fist caught him just under the ribs. The punch made Jim grunt, but he jammed his knee up into an unprotected gut.
"Wang ba dan," the man cursed and then Jim caught a blow upside his head that sent him crashing into a cart before crumpling to the ground with his sense of hearing warbling out of control. Cao. Jim blinked, his hearing totally gone, but at least now he could function. The big guy had Blair by the back of his hair. Jim had told the kid to cut that tzao gao off before someone used it against him, but obviously he hadn't made his point clear enough because the big merc was dragging Blair by it.
Jim reached for his gun, but the merc swung his own gun around so fast that Jim was staring straight down the barrel before he could even get his clear of the holster. And the big bastard still held Blair, even when Blair kicked him in the shin. Jim could see the man's face twist into something ugly and he jerked on Blair's hair hard enough that the small man was almost pulled off his feet.
"Blair, enough," Jim said. Normally Jim could hear the slightest whisper, so the absolute silence made him cringe. Blair was saying something, and Jim squinted as he tried to read his lips, but he couldn't make it out. Another man appeared, a spacer, and he stepped next to the big guy, resting his hand on the big one's arm and saying something that made Blair roll his eyes. Jim still couldn't hear any of it. The barrel of the gun poking at him caught his attention.
The big one said something and from the unhappy expression, he'd said it more than once. Jim cursed his senses to guay as he struggled to figure it out. If he didn't, they were going to shoot him and he didn't even want to think what would happen to Blair. The 'verse wasn't nice to pretty, sly boys this far out on the rim. He'd get sold to some whorehouse, and Jim would have one more life on his conscience. The big guy jerked his gun, and Jim followed his line of sight. Of course. Holding his hands out in surrender, Jim carefully moved toward his belt, undoing it before pulling the leg-tie free and letting his entire gun belt side to the ground.
"Just let Blair go," Jim said. He wasn't in any position to negotiate with a gun in his face and hearing that was currently missing in action, but he had to try something. The big guy looked to the second fellow, and Jim slowly stood up, focusing on the second one. This new guy asked a question, and Jim frowned. Whatever else this one was, he wasn't a merc. Since Jim had been reduced to playing a guessing game, he would say this was either the captain or the second in command of the ship.
Captain jerked his thumb, and Jim started slowly toward the ship, keeping his hands out away from his body. He had a half-dozen weapons in different places, none as easy to get to as the one on his hip had been, but they were there. And the merc behind him would know that, even if the captain didn't. Captain seemed like he might be a little too clean-cut to take a man's head off with a slipwire, but Jim wasn't, and he was betting the merc wasn't either. He just didn't want to give the merc a reason to hurt Blair before he could do some negotiating.
The girl-next door sort with her wide hazel eyes watched as Jim walked up the ramp. Passing her, he could smell engine grease and lube, so this was their mechanic or assistant maybe. A captain didn't usually have the mechanic acting as barker in dock. Mechanic was usually off trying to scrounge ship parts for cheap.
Jim stopped in the middle of the hold and turned around, waiting to see what the two men behind him would do. The captain looked up toward the walk, and Jim looked up to see a dark woman with thick curled hair and a dangerous look come down the stairs. Jim glanced from her to the second man trying to figure out which was the captain and which was the second. The woman stopped in front of the man and they talked as she kept glancing back toward Jim.
When the man stepped forward, Jim pegged him as the captain. He was talking again, and Jim frowned. Suddenly Blair put his elbow into the merc's stomach and jerked away. Blair should have made for the hills, but instead he made for Jim's side, and the mercenary had the gun up and pointed at Blair's back. Stepping forward, Jim put himself in the path, his hands held up in surrender as the mercenary looked to the captain.
Meanwhile, Blair slipped in next to Jim, his arm going around Jim's waist the way he would when Jim's senses had been so thrown out of wack that he couldn't see when he was stumbling on feet that couldn't feel anything. If the kid had any sense, he'd cut Jim loose and find some nice quiet moon where the gorram Alliance wouldn't find him, but the man had no sense of self-preservation. Jim sighed as he slipped an arm around Blair's shoulders and stared at the captain.
Blair tugged on his shirt, and Jim looked down. Blair said something and tugged at his ear.
"Can't hear a gorram thing," Jim admitted. Blair talked on, his mouth silently working, and Jim watched him, catching quick glances at the confused crew as Blair gave him a hopeful look. Finally, Blair reached up and rested his palm on Jim's cheek.
"...on line. You know the drill, man. This is all mind over matter. The brain is just trying to protect you, but you have to take control of it." Blair's words boomed in his head for a second before they slowly settled back down to normal, or normal for Jim anyway.
"Hearing's back," Jim said tersely. This show had just given these people way too much information, but Jim didn't suppose that made much difference now. You took a prisoner, and the first thing you did was check the waves to see if anyone was looking for that prisoner. They went looking for someone with senses as screwed up as a Browncoat's sense of strategy, and they'd find the alert with his name on it... and the reward.
The Alliance had done this to him—they had activated some long dormant genes that turned him into something abnormal. They'd given him senses that could hear a cockroach walking across the floor, but it had also stripped him of the control he'd always had. He'd been an officer. He'd led battalions at the Battles for Du-Khang and New Kashmir. He'd been willing to give his life for the Alliance and the belief that everyone deserved the protection of the law. However, the Alliance hadn't taken his life. They'd found some genetic quirk in his genes and they had taken his freedom and his sanity instead.
"Right then, if you're done being crazy, let's have the rest of the weapons," the captain insisted, his gun still firmly pointed in their direction. The merc stood to the side with a clear shot, and the dark woman had a mighty fine pistol of her own on her hip, her hand resting on it. If it was just him, Jim would take his chances. Dead was better than being back in some Alliance lab, but he had Blair to think of. Blair had sacrificed his career and his life to get Jim out of that hell, and he wasn't putting the man back in there with him.
Jim started reaching for his jacket. "Not you," the captain interrupted. "Have the boy pull 'em out."
Jim glanced down at Blair who had a sour expression at being called a boy. He was older than he looked, and was a doctor to boot, but like Jim kept telling him, having that innocent camouflage was useful. These people were already seeing Jim as the threat and Blair as his boy, which meant Blair still had a chance of getting out of this.
"Jim?" Blair asked quietly. Jim raised his arms level with his shoulders.
"Go on," he told his partner. Blair looked at him for a second with a frown. "Take all of them, Chief," Jim said softly. There were only one or two weapons Blair didn't know about, so that would pretty much strip him, but right now they needed strategy, not brute strength. Jim might take that big merc on a good day, but today wasn't a good day.
He waited as Blair pulled weapon after weapon out of their secret places and handed them over. By the time Blair finished, Jim was left with only a long needle down the back of his boot and a slipwire in his belt.
"What brings you to these parts, Womak?" the captain asked. Jim frowned at the man. Clearly the captain knew him, but Jim couldn't remember ever meeting anyone who looked like him. The man wasn't starched enough for an Alliance officer--too much of the frontier about him--both his way of talking and his dusty, rumpled clothes. But the man looked too much like a straight shooter for him to be anyone Jim had been assigned to investigate before the war. He'd generally been sent after men and women who thought the border moons offered protection from law and justice, and this man didn't have the desperate look of a morally lost man. Now the merc... Jim could imagine himself tracking that one down.
"Do I know you?"
The merc snorted. "Meybe I hit him upside the head to hard. Scrambled some brains. If I hit him again, maybe I'll knock the piece back in."
"Hey," Blair jumped in, both hands held up, "let's not start with--"
Jim cut his partner off by the simple act of grabbing him by the back of the neck and yanking him back. These people needed to see Blair as worthless, as some sly trick Jim had picked up along the way to scratch an itch. Otherwise, Blair was going down with him.
"I don't know who you are," Jim said tightly. If they had his name, they'd find that wave and that reward twice as fast though. "But I'm willing to deal."
"Ain't like you have much to deal with this time, Womak."
"This time?" Jim asked with a sinking feeling. If you had someone with an old run down ship talking about dealing with a Womak, chances were it wasn't Jim they'd run across. So many times Jim wondered what stroke of luck had put him into the Institute's hands instead of his brother, and on his darker days, he suspected that Charles just might have had his hand in it. It would be like him to save his own skin and set Jim up for a fall at the same time. In his more charitable moments, he just figured the Alliance thought they had better control over him.
"You've run into Charlie," Jim said to the captain. He still didn't know what sort of relationship the ship had with Charlie... they could be paying him off or running from him. WIth Charlie, you never knew.
"Who's Charlie?" the merc asked. Funny, most of the time captains kept their mercs on short leashes, having them shoot but not talk. This one was downright talkative.
"Lieutenant Charles Richard Womak, dirty cop," Jim answered when the captain didn't seem to take offense at the merc jumping into the conversation. "I'm not him. And here's the deal," he hurried to say before he could get dragged into that conversation. He didn't want to know how these people knew Charlie. "The reward on me is alive only, so you let Blair walk out and away, and I won't fight you and force you to kill me."
The captain exchanged looks with his second.
"Re-ward?" the merc quickly pounced on that word. "Mal, if'n there's a reward, you're going to remember that I'm the one who brought him in, right?"
"I don't figure you ought to be talking to me about rewards, Jayne," the captain said with a sour expression, and all the avaricious delight in the merc's face just faded into something cold. "And how you figure we're going to collect?"
"Sir," the second in command said, and Mal immediately turned his attention to her. "If they're on a wanted list, maybe we should just dump them off and burn out of here."
"But they need passage," the mechanic now offered. "Maybe we could give 'em passage somewheres further out."
"Ain't like there's a whole lot further out than here," Mal said with a thoughtful expression. That ended when a girl's voice came over the intercom.
"Emergency lift procedures, secure all cargo because we're flying in eight minutes," it offered and the ship's engines started burning hotter.
"Zoe, find out what the guay that girl's doing," Mal demanded and his second went running. "Kaylee, get to the engine room." The girl nodded and hurried off as Jayne glanced back toward the crates sitting in the middle of the hold and Jim. "Get the crates," Mal ordered as he held his own gun a little higher. Jayne backed away several steps before putting his gun on a bench. Jim watched it. In a hard liftoff, things could go flying all sorts of directions, so he just had to keep an eye open.
The voice returned over the intercom. "Two by two, hands of blue," it announced.
Jim's eyes went wide, and he glanced down at Blair who was looking equally shocked. "Oh man," he mouthed. Jim anchored himself with a hand on Blair's shoulder and then reached out with hearing. He ignored Jayne's grunts as he manhandled crates to the side and lashed them with rope, he ignored Zoe up trying to reason with some girl who was just calmly giving the burn countdown, he ignored the soft, cultured curses of some man who was quickly closing drawers. He let his hearing slide outside the ship and search the docks. Two aisles over, he found it--the distinctive whine of those disrupters that could bring Jim to his knees so easily.
"Two aisles over, about half a mile out," Jim said quietly. "Got two government men heading this way, but they're moving slow and methodical, so they don't have our location yet." Mal looked at him real sharp.
"Well cao. That do explain who's looking for you. Jayne, you got that cargo?"
"Would iff'n I had help," he answered. Mal jerked his gun toward Jim. "We know that lot, and I ain't so much in need of money that I'd turn a cow over to them and their gorram experiments. You help Jayne get that cargo secured so we don't all end up crushed against the inside of the cargo hold during lift, and we'll figure the rest out from there."
Jim studied the man for a second, listening to the heartbeat before he decided Mal was telling the truth. "Stay here, Chief," Jim said as he moved to help the merc."
"Stay," Jim growled. He wasn't having the man do manual labor. That wasn't what he'd gone through eleven years of schooling to do.
"Gorram stubborn hwun dan" Blair muttered, but at least he stayed as Jim went and push his shoulder to a crate, helping push it to the side of the wall where Jayne secured it.
Off to the side, Mal was talking into an intercom, probably thinking he had privacy, but with Jim around, privacy was in short supply. Even the Project failed to understand just how little privacy they had with Jim around. He was talking to Zoe, and Jim could hear the woman's voice through the intercom and up in the pilot's seat.
"Got another reader, Zoe. I swear, it's downright creepifying the way they always end up on my boat."
"Must be karma, sir," Zoe answered. Jim just mused over what it meant that Mal thought he was a reader and how exactly they had a second one on board. If they had another sentinel on the run from the Project, Jim wanted information, and right now, playing along was the only way to get that information.
"Mind your knee," the merc offered, but he offered it at the same time he jammed a crate into Jim's knee. The pain lanced up through Jim's leg so that for a second he couldn't tell if he'd broken the kneecap or not.
Before Jim could curse the moron out, Blair was there, his hands on Jim's waist. "Dial it down, Jim. You're all off-balance, but you can control this." Jim leaned into his partner, letting Blair support him as he manhandled his pain, forcing his body to ignore the extra sensory input until he could, once again, feel his whole and unbroken leg and the throbbing lump where the merc had shoved the crate into it.
"Cao. We're all 'bout to get real dead if'n you don't get moving," the merc suggested.
"You are a real asshole," Blair answered, and before Jim could reel him back in, Blair put his hands on a crate in the middle of the bay and shoved it at the merc as hard as he could. It hit the merc on the hip, shoving him to the side.
"You piece of niou se" the merc cursed, and he started coming around the side of the crate, his hands balled up into fists.
Reaching out, Jim caught Blair's arm and pulled him back behind him before squared up against the merc, waiting for the man's first move. How a man swung on his first punch told a lot about who he was, and unless Jim missed his guess, Jayne was big and stupid and likely to come swinging fast and hard. In these close quarters that was going to make him a hard opponent to take down.
"Jayne!" the captain yelled out sharp.
Immediately, Jayne stopped, although his hands didn't come down from their aggressive position. "Mal, that little ji nv shoved the gorram crate into me."
"Get the cargo secured," the captain insisted. The girl's voice over the intercom announced ninety seconds, and with a growl of complaint that would have gotten him put on deck duty on an Alliance ship, Jayne shoved the crate closer to the wall.
"Ain't got time to finish. Should tell Moonbrain to hold on before she crushes us all to death." Jayne muttered the words so that only Jim could hear them, but Jim wasn't disagreeing. If the pilot had any sense, she wouldn't take off until all cargo was secure. He started eyeing secure corners where he could stash Blair if the crates turned into deadly projectiles.
Jim shoved a crate closer to the stairs, and Blair stepped up next to him, adding his own muscle.
"Blair," Jim said wearily.
"Don't say it." Blair's voice was a clear warning. It was pretty obvious that he had run out of patience. "You can be overbearing and overprotective after we get the gorram cargo secure." As much as Jim didn't like to see Blair acting like manual labor, he had to admit that he was being logical. As much as Jim would like to keep Blair, he couldn't. He couldn't protect Blair from the Alliance and he couldn't protect him from doing labor that was beneath his status.
Life was funny. At one point Jim would have called this labor beneath him. He'd been a captain of his own ship, and on the fast track for promotion up the ranks.
His mother's people had been the powerful Womaks, a name that inspired fear in the service. His grandfather had been an admiral and Jim had been chosen to captain the lead ship in the greatest battle between the Alliance and the Browncoat mutts that had challenged them. And Charlie... well, he had used the name to keep himself out of jail more than once.
His father was an Ellison, one of the families that controlled the financing and business in the Core. At one point, Jim would have said his father had the political power to do what even his grandfather couldn't get done with a gun. Of course, that had been before the Alliance had taken him. Either his father couldn't get him out or his father had decided that it wasn't worth the risk to his own financial position to challenge the Institute. God knows their fingers reached deep into a lot of different pockets of power.
But now, now Jim thought of himself more as a damaged test subject. He was an experiment gone wrong, and after being stripped and ordered around, strapped to tables and made to scream in pain--after all that, Jim didn't think of himself as a Womak or an Ellison. Some days he didn't even remember what it felt like to stand in his purple uniform, proud and sure of his place in the uniform as he commanded from the deck of his own ship. Some days he could only remember the Institute and the way he would pray for those days when Blair would come in with his glasses and pretend to record Jim's responses while he whispered reassurances and stroked a single finger over the back of Jim's hand. Those moments had been his one island of sanity, and now he repaid Blair by putting him in danger over and over.
Jim secured the last crate and scanned the room. Unfortunately, the merc with the girl name had already reclaimed the weapon he'd put down earlier, and he had it pointed at them.
"Just because the captain ain't throwin' you out an airlock, don't go thinking I won't gut shoot you and leave you to bleed to death," the merc offered with a grin that made it pretty clear he meant every word of what he said.
Blair sucked in a breath. God help them, Blair always expected the best of people, and he never stopped being surprised when people turned out to be back-stabbing, power-hungry, soul-sucking mercenaries all out for themselves. Jim took a step forward to put himself in the line of fire.
"We're just looking to avoid trouble."
Blair started to say something, and Jim reached over and caught Blair by the back of the neck just as the ship started thrusting against the cold moon. The whole ship shivered, and Jim involuntarily stretched out his hearing, listening as the metal groaned and the engines sang in a particular tone that meant suggested the parts were all well-oiled and well-tuned. For a second, Jim's consciousness seemed too large to fit into his body, as if he was the ship itself and every noise reverberated inside his head.
"Jim!" Blair called, tugging on Jim's arm. Jim blinked, and the hallucination slipped away, leaving him clinging to a staircase with a mercenary's gun pointed at his gut.
"Up the stairs and to the right," Jayne ordered. Jim didn't bother to argue; he'd learned the pointlessness of arguing against orders. Instead he moved his arm to allow Blair to go ahead of him up the stairs.