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Stargate - Jack - mmmm
OK, here it is: the Firefly fic.

Backstory on this. starlet2367 sent along a link to Firefly screenwriter Drew Goddard's [OOPS! New info: Tim Minear's!] recent interview [OOPS! ... oh, hell, see littleheaven70's comment below for the right info! I don't know what I'm talkin' about!], in which he revealed a one-paragraph plot for an episode that they never got to do, as the network decided it was too dark and unsettling.

Um ... you know how much I like the dark and unsettling, right? And complicated? And emotionally charged? Yeah.

So in short, it's all starlet2367's fault. Also at fault: Marla, who doesn't have a LiveJournal although we've been harping at her for years now; littleheaven70, my favorite Kiwi; mistress_mab, queen of all she surveys; psychofilly, my lovely fellow Texan; and Laurie, who has an LJ but my brain suddenly locked and I forgot where I put the key, so please, forgive me.





ICE IN CRYSTAL
Julie Fortune
12/2005

Firefly

Timing: Set after the end of the televised run, before Serenity
Warnings: ANGST. Double-strength, have chocolate standing by. You've been told. Also: MATURE CONTENT AND THEMES ... Oh, and unlike most of my stories, this is told from the point of view of nearly every crew member, with viewpoints shifting at scene breaks. Hopefully, that's not too much of a distraction. But I wanted a Rashomon-like prism effect on the story.

PART 1


what will they say
if our love
stays above the waist?
Will their childish games
ever produce a result?


but if our love
shifts below the waist
they will say: They have never known
that profound touching of souls.


Love, by Song Xiaoxian



Mal ducked the crystal perfume bottle that sailed his way across the scented, dim room. It smashed itself into bitty shiny bits against the bulkhead next to him, and the smell of near-priceless perfumery made his head spin. He was going to smell like a gorram whorehouse for weeks. The thought of what Jayne would make of that, more than anything, made him yell, "Hey! You want to get rid of something that dear, you just let me know and I'll find a gorram buyer for it!"

"If I'd wanted to sell it, I'd have found an honest broker!" Inara flung back, all flashing black eyes and shining hair and gritted teeth. He more or less liked her this way. It stripped off the thick velvet coat of manners and left her bare to the touch. So to speak. "As I was saying, you've got no business trying to tell me who I can and can't -- "

"Not trying to do that. Just trying to understand why you're taking this one on is all."

"It's none of your business why I choose which clients I do. And if you'd keep to a regular schedule, I might be able to be more choosy about who I accept!"

"Well, I understand that whoring's got a schedule to keep and all, but I got a cargo hold full up with unregistered livestock -- "

"Sheep, Mal! You're destroying my business over sheep!"

Well, he couldn't argue that. They were sheep, right enough. But he knew, in ways he just knew things with her, that this fight wasn't about the herd milling around in the hold, and it wasn't even about him trying to tell Inara her business. And right enough, he was, but she had no cause to be taking on a greasy little eel like Royce DeSalle, and still less to be angry with him for pointing it out.

What he sensed from her -- the thing they couldn't talk about, no way in hell -- was that she was scared. And he didn't know why, or of who, and it made him more than a bit chafed that he couldn't even ask.

She got to her feet, glaring -- a tall woman, round in all the right places, burnished and beautiful. She was wearing a velvety thing today, dark like fancy wine, with a wide gold belt all embroidered up with matching wine-red dragons. Bare feet. He kept glancing down at her toes, and he wasn't sure why. They were nice, was all.

"Sheep," she repeated significantly. "You tell me, captain, how am I supposed to entertain respectable clients in a shuttle that smells like a livestock pen?"

"Think you took care of that," Mal said. "Smells like a gorram flower stall now."

She looked around for something else to throw, then got control of herself and put on that tinfoil-thin dignity that irritated him so much. "Fine. I'll just have to entertain Ser DeSalle at his home, then. It's not what I'd prefer, but I'd be grateful if you could lend me the use of the other shuttle -- "

"No," he said, and crossed his arms, looking anywhere but at those lovely, naked feet. Or the swell of her bosoms, all unfairly golden-ripe.

"Mal, he's an influential businessman. It never hurts to have one on your side."

"That how it's done these days? On your side? Huh. Always preferred it face to face. Or -- "

"Mal."

"Can't help you. This is your shuttle, you pay rent for it, so you can take it when and where you want. Other one's still mine. Guess you'll have to get him too sweaty to wonder if you take on other clients of the farm animal persuasion."

"Mal!" He'd turned to leave, thinking that was a real good last word, but she was across the room before he knew it, and she got right in his way. Close. Real close. And again, he sensed that fear, rising off of her in icy waves. She wanted something out of him, but he damn sure didn't know what it was. "Mal, please."

"Please what? Please help you run off and hump a man I'll be damned if I know why you're -- "

"Because he's paying three times the going rate!" she blurted out, desperately. "Because -- because you need -- "

"Don't," he said flatly, and pointed a warning finger at her. "Don't you ever blame your whoring on me or anybody else on this ship. That's your business, just like you said."

She was on the edge of tears, and he had not the bittiest idea why. They'd had worse fights, with no waterworks. "Fine. Just -- I'm doing it because I have to, never mind why. Just -- never mind." She wanted him to go on and ask. Female games.

"Fine," he shot back. "Do what you want."

Her cheeks flared crimson. "I can't do it in this shuttle, not now. Men like Royce expect a certain standard from their Companions. I have a reputation to -- "

"Reputation?" His voice had gone flat, the way it did when he was truly angry. It was the idea of that slick reptile DeSalle bedding her. From everything he'd had to do with the man, which wasn't a heap and wasn't like to be, either, DeSalle made Badger look like a fine lordly gent. "What kind of reputation you looking for, Inara? An on-time thrust or it's free? Go hump him in his own bed, keep the stink of it off my ship."

She slapped him. He blinked, more in surprise than pain; it wasn't that hard a slap, and it wasn't that soft a face. "You will be courteous in my ship," she said. "Whatever you do out there."

His anger sharpened up, and without even thinking, he cut her with it. "You think if you dress up like some fine woman of family, smell up like one, walk and talk like one, makes you the same as. You want to play the fine lah-de-dah lady on Serenity, have all us on our knees and kissing your hand -- "

"I never asked you to kiss my hand!" she shouted.

"-- kiss your hand, but truth is, you're nothing but a whore. A real fine queeny whore, but you spread your legs like -- "

She slapped him again, with muscle behind it, and he had to breathe real slow and careful until the red mist in front of his eyes cleared away.

When it did, he saw that she'd taken a step back from him, and her eyes had gone wider. Inara, scared. He wanted to feel guilty about it, but nothing much came to him.

"You want Royce DeSalle," he said. His voice sounded dangerous, even to his own ears. "I'll deliver you up to him. You can fuck him where and how you please."

He walked away. Didn't hear the muffled thump of his boots on the fine carpets, didn't hear the cold clunk of them on the metal catwalk outside of the shuttle, either. Didn't hear whatever nonsense River mouthed at him as she swung upside down from a tangle of pipes, lithe as a snake.

He wanted time to himself, and after telling Wash, in an unnatural quiet voice, to shift course and pour on the speed, he went to find himself an unoccupied corner.

"Hey," Jayne grinned as he passed him in the corridor. "You smell like a ruttin' -- "

Mal punched him and kept on walking.

###

It hit River in the side of the head, like a spiked fist. Terror. Choking. Blood. Screamingscreamingscreaming, insides all outside and neverliedownneversleepnevernevernever.

She screamed, a full-out ripping scream, and fell from the pipes to thump face down on the cool patterned metal of the catwalk. She pressed her hands to her head, tangled them in her hair, pushing, pulling, yanking, trying to get it out of her head.

"River!" Noise. Babbling noise above her, hands probing at her, she kept screaming and writhed away, shut her eyes against the red wet blur and pulled her knees up against her chest. Protect, because she couldn't shouldn't wouldn't hurt Kaylee, all engine grease and the strawberries she'd snuck out of the galley to nibble on in her hammock. Kaylee smelled like colors and new things, couldn't shouldn't wouldn't hurt ... "River, honey, what's wrong? Did you fall? Did you hit your head?"

The taste of blood was in her mouth, raw and overpowering. Copper-bright and thick.

They were coming.

"Aw, what the hell's wrong with her now?" The sharp smell of male sweat and metal. Fresh blood. Jayne. She opened her eyes and saw the black leather of his boots. His voice sounded muffled. "Girl needs to quit howlin' if there ain't nothing ailin' her. Way she's takin' on, you'd think -- "

"What happened to your nose?" Kaylee interrupted, and pulled River's limp body into her arms. "Hush, mei-mei, it's all gonna be okay. Shiny. Real shiny."

"Never mind my ruttin' nose," Jayne growled, and River was assaulted by a fist slamming into her face, bones cracking, blood flowing. Dark, violent, angry eyes, and a blur of motion walking away. She moaned and hid her face in Kaylee's rough canvas coveralls. "What she on about now?"

"I don't know. Hush, now, baby, you're gonna be safe, everything's -- "

not fine not shiny dead dead dead black in space lost cold screaming screaming all the time

"You'd better get Simon," Kaylee said anxiously, trying to hold her, trying to stop the sounds that boiled out of her like steam under pressure. Too much pain to hold, too much ...

"I ain't the damn comm system. You go get him."

"Jayne!"

"Don't you snap at me, girl. Can't you see I'm havin' a bad damn day?"

"Kaylee?" A new voice, gentle and textured and feminine. The scent of flowers and silk and lotion. Liquid-dark eyes full of concern. "River, what's wrong?"

River looked at Inara, saw what was to come, and screamed until Simon came with his cold needle to take away the pain.

###

She was so fragile, Simon thought, and smoothed his thumb over the back of River's hand, where the skin was thin enough to show the delicate tracery of veins. Looks were deceptive. She'd taken more abuse than a full century of battle-hardened Alliance troopers. She was fragile in her mind, and that -- that was something all his knowledge and all his skill couldn't heal.

It felt horrible to see her like this. It felt like defeat.

Even sedated, she was still fighting -- slow, dreamlike movements of her hands and feet, eyes flickering back and forth behind the closed, translucent lids. She was pallid and sweating, and she smelled of stale sweat and fear. He moved her arm to her side and fastened the restraints, moving as slowly and gently as he could.

"Shhh, mei-mei," he whispered, and dipped the sponge in the metal bowl next to him. Cool, clean water. It seemed to soothe her a little when he wiped her face and arms. "You're safe. There's nothing to be afraid of."

A voice from the doorway of the surgery said, "Don't know about that, doctor." He turned to see Zoe standing. Zoe had legs that seemed to stretch from here to infinity, and that was always the first thing he noticed about her; the second was always the cold distance inside her. She seemed to hold death and violence at arm's length with more detachment than most surgeons he'd ever known. She stepped inside, her dark uptilted eyes studying River and keeping secrets. "Your sister usually knows what she's talking about. We just have a time understanding. What brought it on?"

"I -- don't know. Kaylee found her on the catwalk outside of Inara's shuttle. She was screaming, pounding at her head. I thought it might have been some kind of stroke, but -- " He involuntarily indicated the readouts.

Zoe didn't bother to follow the gesture, just kept her gaze locked on his face. "She having one of her visions?"

"She wasn't making any sense. She was screaming about Inara."

"Inara?" He'd surprised Mal's second in command; surely that had to be some kind of record-setting event. "Why Inara?"

"I have no idea. As I said, she wasn't making any sense. I had to sedate her."

Zoe considered him and River for another long, still moment, then said, "Have you seen the captain?"

"He hasn't been in yet."

She nodded -- one nod only -- and took herself off, heading ... where? In search of the captain, presumably. And now that he thought about it, Simon thought it was a little odd. Mal Reynolds usually was the first to the surgery when one of them needed attention. He always managed to make it seem like casual chance, but Simon understood that Mal cared for them, in his own way. Even if it was just on principle.

Odd, that he hadn't come to see River.

###

Zoe found him in his quarters, earnestly trying to pour an entire bottle of Haven-brewed rotgut whiskey down his throat. He'd only managed a couple of drinks, but she saw the darkness in him the second she set foot on the deck. "Sir," she said, and he glared at her and choked down a finger-length more. "That stuff'll rot the lining of your stomach. If it doesn't make you go blind first."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Finest poison we got. You take a glass?"

"No sir. Figure one of us ought to be fit to run the ship."

Mal was, in general, a good drunk, meaning he didn't usually try to shoot anybody didn't deserve it. But he was in a mood, no doubt about it. She seen it before. Wasn't pretty.

He pointed an index finger at her, still holding his glass. "You saying I'm not fit to run the ship?"

"I'm saying that if you drink another dose of that, you won't be fit for flying, fighting, or -- any other things a man might want to do. If he had somebody he might want to do it with."

Mal stared at her for a long few seconds, then lifted the glass to his mouth and drained it off. Choked a bit, but he got it down his gullet.

Which only confirmed for her what the trouble was. Satisfying, getting that much out of the captain, but worrisome. Real worrisome.

"Sir -- " She stopped, because though they'd been through all flavors of hell together, she'd always left a decent-sized gulf where private lives lay. Had to. Man and woman that they were, and not inclined to be humping each other, it was the only way to manage it. But where it concerned discipline, and the ship ... "Sir, Inara's shuttle's scheduled to leave in fifteen, but she says there's a problem with it. I figure, we need some parts Kaylee's been begging for, and some foodstuffs. I'll take the other shuttle, drop her at her business, and swing back around for her."

"You do that," Mal said. The darkness had seeped all the way into his voice. He started to reach for the bottle again. She crossed the small space, picked up the cork, and slammed it home into the bottle.

Mal rose. The man could just drip menace when he chose, but she'd developed a bit of immunity to it. A bit. Enough to hold her ground and hold his stare. "Trouble's coming," she said. "I can smell it. So can you, if you get your nose out of the bottle."

"Oh, you'd better be going now, Zoe."

"Trouble's coming," she repeated. "River went off, screaming about blood and being inside out and such. And Inara."

That got his attention. He slowly relaxed -- not much, just a few muscles here and there -- and looked at her more like her captain and less like a man looking for trouble. "What about Inara?"

"Don't know. That's why I'm going."

He opened his mouth to say something, likely telling her he'd go in her place, then he checked himself. That told her more than words, about the state of things between the captain and Inara. When he did speak, it was to say something else. "River say anything about what kind of trouble we're lookin' at?"

"Didn't say, sir. But it's all bad when she goes on like that."

He nodded. "Simon got her calmed down?"

"Medded halfway to next week. Calm's another thing."

"Well, you'd best be on your way. Can't keep the Ambassador from her social rounds."

Zoe picked up the whisky and climbed the ladder one-handed. He didn't say anything at all until she was at the top, stepping out into the corridor.

"Zoe."

She leaned back in. "Sir?" He just looked at her, until she smiled. "Yes sir," she said. "You're welcome."

###

Wash was not happy. One, his wife was taking off on some secret mission she wasn't telling him about, other than to tell him that it wasn't secret and wasn't a mission, but he knew that smile too well and there was a mission, and it was a secret. At least from him.

So he hung around her as she preflighted the shuttle -- not that she needed him -- and generally annoyed her with witty repartee. Which she then generally ignored, except to move him aside and say, "Excuse me, honey," when she needed to flip some switches on the panel his behind was blocking.

"What's wrong with Inara's shuttle?" he asked. He knew he sounded whiny, and he wished he would stop, but there were moments when a real man had to whine, and this was one. "She always goes on her own. Why are you going? Especially when I was just getting off -- "

"Without me?"

"Off shift. See? See, you'll miss all the witty repartee if you leave!"

"Witty repartee? Sweetie, have you been reading those old books Simon dragged along? Got no use for a man who's smarter than me."

He snapped his fingers. "Wait, wait -- here's an idea! I could go with you!"

"Serenity don't fly itself," she pointed out. Zoe was, as always, right. Not to mention glassy calm. "I'll be back tomorrow."

"But sweetie, we were going to, you know, cuddle! I was promised cuddling! And possibly spooning."

"And you'll get a sight more than that, if you'll move your cute butt away from my engine panel for a minute."

He abandoned the blocking maneuver -- only partly because of the bribe -- and crouched down so that their eyes were on a level. "Zoe. If there's going to be trouble, you should tell me."

She smiled at him, and his heart melted into a little golden puddle. Which was inconvenient, because hearts had jobs to do. The soft caress of her palm against his face ... he turned toward it and kissed her hand.

"I don't know if there's going to be trouble," she said, and he knew she was telling him the truth. Zoe didn't lie to him. Never to him. She might shave the finer points, maybe ... "But if there is trouble, Inara's going to need someone with her. And it shouldn't be the captain. Not right now."

"You're kidding. Of all the go cao de reasons to be giving up my afternoon love snuggle, it has to be because Mal's throwing a tantrum?"

"It's not a tantrum." Of course it wasn't, because it was Mal, and Zoe would never admit it. She'd cover his pi gu from here to the outer planets, wouldn't she? And never, ever let on it cost her.

Wash was trying not to love that about her.

"Okay," he agreed, for the sake of the smile he knew she would flash him. She had a goddess's smile. "Not a tantrum. A -- difference of opinion. Look, can't Jayne go with her?"

"Jayne can't fly a shuttle."

"Sure he can!"

"Well, he can't land one worth a damn."

Inarguable. And they didn't have a king's ransom of shuttles, either. If Inara's was out of business ...

"Besides," Zoe said, putting the finishing touches on winning her argument, "can you imagine Jayne escorting the Ambassador anywhere? He wouldn't know when to shut his mouth. I'm not talking about sass, either. He could catch flies with that thing, much as he'd be gaping."

"Not to mention that he's not half as decorative as you."

Zoe kissed him. It was one of the moments he lived for, kissing Zoe. All over, if possible. He savored it, as short as it was. "Sweetie, I need to finish."

"I know," he said, and kissed her again, because he was the only one who could without getting a kneecap blown off. "Be safe."

"You too."

He passed Inara on the way in, and she smelled of warm silk and sandalwood and maybe an overabundance of a very fancy perfume. There was color high in her cheeks that he didn't think owed anything to face paint. "Inara," he nodded, and squeezed past. "Don't let my wife shoot up your client list."

"Not without cause," Inara said. She was almost as serene as Zoe, except when it came to Mal Reynolds. Well, he could make anybody crazy. Or in River's case, crazier.

He wandered off toward the flight deck, where his Tyrannosaurus Rex was keeping a steely eye on the flight controls, and five minutes later, cleared Inara and Zoe for takeoff.

###

Inara wondered if anyone could tell just how desperate she felt. How terrified. Wash hadn't noticed, she was sure. Not even Mal had seen past the surface of that stupid argument, so utterly brainlessly stupid ... had she been looking for an excuse? She'd nearly earned herself one. The loss of her shuttle hurt. She'd be weeks cleaning and airing it out, and in spite of what she'd said to Mal -- yelled at him -- it really had been her own fault.

Next to her, Zoe said, "Everything all right?"

"Fine," she said. "I don't need a pilot, Zoe. I've been taking myself to my appointments for years now all by myself."

"Not about that. We need supplies and such, and this is a good place for us to get what we need. Kaylee's particular about her parts, and she's been nagging the captain to set down at Yung Sam's for a while now. Best I put a stop to that while I can, for everybody's sake."

Truthfully, Inara didn't mind the company. Her hands were shaking -- not much, but a fine silvery tremor that betrayed just how distressed she really was, to anyone who had the training to see it. Zoe didn't, which was good, but Zoe was comforting in her own way. Strong, capable, a reminder that there were good people in the 'verse who looked out for her.

And now, Zoe was looking at her, and seeing too much. "You sure you're all right?"

"Yes. Of course. I'm sorry to inconvenience you."

"No inconvenience. Think of it as burning less fuel."

She forced herself back to discipline, order, structure, and called to mind the packing list of necessities she'd brought neatly stowed in the bag settled at her feet. The tea set, of course. Four changes of clothing for the night, and an extra, plainer gown to wear on the ride back. Scents, cosmetics, liqueurs, massage oils, ivory and bone accessories that could be used a variety of ways, depending on a client's tastes.

She'd brought it all because of course it was expected, and because she hadn't yet decided what she was going to do.

I've left something. Something important.

She ran over the list in her mind again and again, increasingly worried as Zoe prepped for separation. Something. Something important. Something vital.

She remembered what it was with a disbelieving shock that felt like being dunked in ice water. How could she have been so stupid? No, she knew. It was another delaying tactic, another way her mind had found to try to turn her away from what she knew she was going to have to do.

"Wait!" she gasped, and unhooked her harness to sprint back to her abundantly-scented shuttle. There, in the drawer just below the shrine to Quan Yin, was the brocade box. She made the proper sign of protection, grabbed it, and hurried back. Zoe was waiting with the impenetrable calm of some ancient monument, but her dark eyes flicked curiously to the box as Inara strapped herself in.

"Must be important," Zoe said.

"Tools of the trade," Inara replied. It wasn't a lie. She never lied unless she could help it, and rarely to her shipmates. Except about Mal, of course. She knew of no other way to deal with the subject of Mal at all.

Zoe nodded and cleared the takeoff with Wash, who wished them a safe flight and good humping, but of course only for Inara and not his wife, because --

Zoe smiled and muted the channel. Inara watched the front view as the shuttle's seals broke, and it floated weightless for a dizzying second before the internal gravity generators took hold. The shuttle oriented itself on the correct Z-axis as Serenity spun above them, tiny in the vast emptiness and glowing warm as home. Zoe touched controls, and the shuttle engaged on course. They both watched Serenity until it disappeared behind them, and the glowing blue ball of the planet appeared in the forward view.

"We've got forty minutes of flight time before we need to start landing protocols. Feel free to roam around if you need to," Zoe said.

Inara had forgotten that the brocade box was in her lap, and as she unhooked the harness, she accidentally sent it tumbling to the deck. It broke open, and she gasped, diving for it.

Zoe got there first. Her long, thin fingers closed around it, turned it face up, and revealed the hypodermic syringe cradled tight in red velvet.

"Is it broken?" Inara asked breathlessly.

"Don't think so," she said. "Companion business, I assume?"

"Yes. Companion business." Inara hesitated, then took the case from Zoe's hand and snapped it shut.

"Didn't think Companions went in for happy juice," Zoe said.

Inara had never, ever spoken of it to anyone beyond the bounds of fellow Companions. But somehow, having Zoe -- Zoe, of all people -- think of her as nothing more than some recreational user ...

"It's not intoxicants," she said. Silence. There wasn't even the reassuring shudder of engine noise, because they were on an apogee drop and the burn wouldn't begin until braking maneuvers kicked in. She knew. She'd charted the course.

"Poison," Zoe guessed. Inara blinked in surprise ... had it been that obvious? Probably. "If you plan on assassinating anybody, better tell me now," Zoe continued. "Best plan is to keep the engines fired up when we land. Fast getaways mostly depend on foresight."

"No. It's not like that. It's -- for special cases. Cases where -- " Inara took in a shuddering breath. She wished she'd never started this conversation. "Zoe, haven't you ever wondered why the Companions are so safe? It's not a safe life, what we do. I don't mean only the diseases, which of course we're protected from ... our clients can be ... unpredictable."

"Figured that you screened out the ones you didn't want."

"Yes, we do. We can post a black mark on a client, and that means no Companion will ever take his custom again. But -- you can't post a black mark if you're dead. Or enslaved. Or disabled in ways that keep you from talking." Inara shook her head and looked away from the understanding she saw on Zoe's face. "New clients, it's always a risk. That's why most Companions stay on the civilized planets. Out here in the black -- "

"No telling what kind of rough trade you might draw," Zoe finished softly. "Even if you're quick and clever. I understand."

"I've been very fortunate. But I know others -- others who haven't been." Inara fingered the brocade of the box, and kept her eyes turned away. "When there's a customer who has a questionable record -- Companions who mysteriously disappear after servicing him, or who've suffered accidents that leave them unfit for service -- there are ways to find out who's truly responsible. And once we know, one of us is chosen."

"Chosen for what?"

Inara tapped the box with one trembling finger. "Chosen to use this. On ourselves."

"You kill yourselves? Funny way to stop a woman-beating fei fei de pi yan."

"We take small doses on a regular basis to build up an immunity to the poison. But it passes by intimate contact."

She said nothing more, letting the picture paint itself. And watched the revulsion flash across Zoe's face. "Cold," Zoe said.

"Yes. It is."

"Just because you poison him don't mean you don't get beat, though. Or worse."

Inara forced a smile. "I never said it was safe."

Zoe studied her for a long, silent second. "You ever done it?"

"No. It's a last resort, believe me. And obviously, we don't like to advertise it." Again, it wasn't a lie. Just half a truth. The better half.

Zoe shook her head, as if she couldn't really believe any of it. "Just when I think I understand you," she said. "You go and get even more complicated, Ambassador."

"I'm not the only complicated one here."

"Oh, I'm simple enough. Captain tells me to kill somebody, I pull my gun and shoot. But it's a death they see coming, like as not. What's in that needle -- " She shook her head again. "Doesn't seem fair, somehow."

"Fair? What's fair about a man whipping a woman to death for his own entertainment? Or beating her until she's gone blind and feeble-minded? Or -- " Inara stopped herself and bit her lip. "Never mind. I wouldn't expect you to understand what it's like, being vulnerable."

Zoe lifted her eyebrows, just a tiny bit, and went back to checking the shuttle's indicator lights.

Inara stuffed the box into her bag, furious with herself. Mal. If I hadn't been so rattled about Mal ...

But like the perfume bottle, it wasn't really Mal's fault at all.

###

Zoe escorted Inara to the mansion on the hill, overlooking the bedsore of a town called Val Paradiso. Clear as day that the man living in that white stone house raked profits from every credit spent, and that he didn't care how many had to die with their noses in the dirt to make it happen.

Typical border lordling. Zoe kept her opinion to herself, even as Inara gave the greasy-haired rat her best professional smile and made him light up like a new engine. She had no doubts as to why Mal had been pitching a black fit over this. She didn't like the look of the man either.

Inara finished her introductions and pulled Zoe aside for a quick word, which involved what time they'd be pulling up stakes. Midnight, as it turned out. Zoe raised her eyebrows. "Weren't you staying the night?"

"I don't think it'll take that long," she said. There was a grim set to her eyes, and Zoe felt an uneasy prickle along her spine.

"I'll keep the comm open," Zoe said. "Got some supplies to procure. See you at midnight." As the other woman started to turn away, she caught her by the wrist. "Inara. Call if you need me."

Inara nodded, and there was a quick flash of gratitude in her eyes, and a ready smile. "I won't. But thank you."

Zoe put the Ambassador's business behind her, and went off to bargain for some surplus engine bits at Yung Sam's. That took a mite longer than it ought; Yung Sam was a hard trader, and blind and half-deaf to boot. Crusty, half-starved old man, surviving on the rusty scraps of the man on the hill. Zoe didn't drive too hard a bargain. Seemed wrong.

She hauled the box of parts back to the shuttle, retrieved the carefully lettered list of kitchen necessaries that Shepherd Book had written out, and made her way through the crowded streets to the market. You could always find the market. It was the most colorful place in town, apart from the whorehouses. This one was an open-air affair with yellow and blue awnings to block out the intense sun, and it smelled like every other market on a border planet she'd seen -- bad. Animal go se. Rotting vegetables. Unwashed skin and badly cured leather. Fresh-dyed fabrics that put out a stench so fierce she wondered if they'd been dipped in corpse juices.

She found the cleanest vegetable stall she could find and picked out the best, filling mesh sacks with butter-yellow squash and pale melons. Tomatoes tempted, but she knew they wouldn't keep proper. Apples and pears and kiwi fruit. A mess of tinned beans, for Jayne, who'd have none of fresh vegetables if he could help it. And a few precious bars of chocolate. One Zoe intended to keep for herself, and share with Wash, if he held up his end of the spooning bargain.

She was halfway back to the ship when she heard the screaming.

Zoe had years of hard training, and she knew not to stand in the streets like the rest of the fools, waiting to see what doom was headed their way. Instead, she double-timed it toward the shuttle, wishing she'd bought less, reluctant to abandon anything unless she had to. They'd cheated and lied and smuggled hard for those vegetables ...

She risked a glance over her shoulder, and saw buildings erupting in flame at the far end of the street. Market awnings were already blazing, trapping those beneath in smoke and fire. People were dying.

And in the next second, she saw why, as a shuttle just a little larger than the one she'd piloted down screamed overhead, trailing muddy smoke. It was painted in rust-red streaks of blood, fouled with welded spikes, and it dangled three fresh-caught corpses.

One of them was still screaming.

Reavers.

Zoe dropped the bags and ran. The streets were chaos, and that slowed her a mite, but she took back alleys and shortcuts back to the port. Some of ships were burning, smashed to junk by Reaver attacks, but Serenity's shuttle was still intact.

She pelted up the ramp, fired the engines, and grabbed the comm. "Inara! Stay where you are, I'm coming!" That wasn't safe, but it was safer than waiting here, a shiny warm target waiting for the Reavers to swarm. Better to keep moving. Any luck at all, they'd be too busy raping and murdering to make it up the hill yet, and Inara's client looked like the kind to have a few dozen private guns on hand. Not that they'd save his life, but they'd slow down his death, anyway.

It would give her time to pull Inara out and get the hell back to the ship.

Wash wouldn't have approved of all the shortcuts she took, but she had the shuttle airborne in under a minute, wobbling a bit but maneuvering. A shadow flashed overhead, and she looked up to see a massive Reaver ship, big as a gorram whale, screaming past, trailing exhaust staining the sky.

This planet was dead. It was just going to be a long, painful process.

Zoe put it out of her mind, and flew the gorram shuttle.

###

"I won't be a minute," Inara told DeSalle, and hurried out of bed. It wasn't proper, but she was at the thin edge of control in any case. The way he plundered her body was sickening. Civilized men understood that a Companion was employed for her skills, not only her physical form, but DeSalle wanted to simply split her until she was raw.

She remembered the fury in Mal's eyes, and everything she hadn't been able to say. Everything she couldn't explain to him.

"Hurry back," DeSalle grinned, and stretched, and arched his hips to show her his zhan dou de yi kuai rou, which was rising again. Drugs, she suspected; no man his age was so randy without them. No, he intended to get his money's worth.

She gave him another polite, empty smile, and shut the door of the washroom behind her. The rooms felt cold. Especially the washroom, with its chill white tile and silver fixtures. She longed to be home, home on Serenity with her things, with warm colors and soft pillows, with people she trusted, with ...

... with Mal.

It was time. She turned on the tap and let it run, and called through the door, "I understand that I'm not the first Companion you've hosted here, Ser Royce."

"Mmmm? Oh, you mean that other one. Vera, or something."

"Verona." Verona, of the soft, short amber hair and waiflike smile, whose specialty was the extraordinary grace of her movements. Who had been found adrift in a shuttle by an Alliance cruiser, dead of twelve stab wounds. Not Reavers. Reavers wouldn't have left her corpse in such good condition.

"Not much good, that one. Not like you. You know how to pleasure a man, Inara. You know what a man wants."

The Chapter House had done its digging, and found four others, none of them Companions. Four dead women, stabbed and dumped like garbage. That was how Royce DeSalle liked to pleasure himself, in blood.

Inara looked at herself in the mirror, at the flawless art of her body and hair, and the lightless silence in her eyes.

There is no going back.

What she was doing was nothing but justice, quiet and sure as a knife in the dark. The only kind of justice that could be done where someone like Royce DeSalle ruled.

She opened the brocade box, pulled the hypodermic free of its clips hidden under the velvet cushion, and did not let herself hesitate. She stabbed it hard into her hip and depressed the plunger. An ice-cold sensation raced through her, and she pulled the needle free and fumbled it back into its case before the nausea hit. Not quite enough to force her to her knees, but bad, far worse than she'd expected.

It will pass. Be patient.

She laved cold water over her wrists, struggling for control. Damp sweat shivered on her back, quickly absorbed by the silk robe. The poison spread quickly through her bloodstream, leaving her cool and weak, shivering a little, but the nausea withdrew its claws. She shut off the taps and opened the bathroom door.

Royce was standing right outside, his member stiff and hard and ready.

"I think," he said, "I'll have you in here now. On the floor."

She forced her cool, frozen lips to smile. "If that pleases you," she said. "Of course."

She heard the comm activate across the room, but the words were muffled.

The tone was not. Zoe wouldn't disturb her without a compelling, dangerous reason. More dangerous than Ser Royce.

"One moment, Ser -- "

"No," he said, and shoved her back. "You can talk when I'm finished with you. I'm paying for your time, and you're not wasting it."

Men were so stupid. Not many of them understood that the training that gave Companions the exquisite control of their bodies in the bed could be used for other things, or that brute force, if a Companion was warned and ready, would not be enough.

She could have killed him three different ways -- a precise strike to drive bone into his brain, or a crushing blow to his throat, or the sharpened steel of the jeweled ornament in her hair through his eye.

But those three still held a chance of failure, and so she let him push her to the cold white tile, and she killed him the fourth, worst way.

###

"Inara!" Zoe kept the comm on as she piloted, dodging the passing shadows of Reaver ships and other frantic civilian craft. One burst into flame off the port bow and tumbled like a lightning-struck bird to the ground. "Inara, listen to me, Reavers are in the port, they're all over the place, I'm coming hard -- "

She'd been saying it for three minutes, one way or another, and she'd lost any hope Inara was going to answer. Maybe she'd hear. That was all she could hope. There was one big Reaver craft she could see, maybe six or seven smaller ones like pilot fish around a shark. Ta ma de, but this was bad. Real bad. Zoe flashed on River, screaming and huddling on the floor, pounding at her head.

Too bad the girl couldn't have made herself plainer.

The white walls of the house were coming up fast, but just as she brought the ship in for a hot landing there was a blur of rust and metal, screaming by so fast that it was just a blur past the forward view, wo de ma, she hadn't even seen it coming ... Zoe wrenched the controls to port, wishing Wash was in the chair because nobody could beat her man in moments like these, nobody breathing ...

The sky spun. She felt something metal scrape the shuttle, and for a heart-busting second she thought she'd bought it, that the Reavers had grappled on, but then the shuttle slipped free, spinning crazily toward the ground.

It wasn't much of a landing. She hit hard, slid, and crashed through the wall in an explosive thunder of bricks and wood.

She was already moving before the shuttle came to a stop, hitting the door switch, jumping down the half-open ramp and running for the entrance hall where she'd last seen Inara. The house staff was in chaos, all screams and frightened faces, running bodies. The guards had guns. She shot two who were fool enough to mistake her for a Reaver. "Inara! Inara, best we grab sky right now!"

She was talking tough to keep her pulse at a reasonable speed. Battle always made her edgy, never more than when there were Reavers coming. And they were coming, no mistake. They'd be done with the town below soon, and looking for fresh meat.

Inara came out of a doorway ahead, looking pale as new milk. Her hands clutched together one of those fancy robes of hers. "Reavers?" she asked. She sounded breathless, but a mite less scared than she ought. "Right now?"

"Now," Zoe agreed grimly. "Come on." She grabbed Inara's arm. Inara pulled back. "No time for this."

"My bag -- "

"No gorram time!" She hauled hard, and Inara stumbled with her down the hallway, looking back over her shoulder. She stank of sex and sweat, which Zoe had never known her to do; clean as a cat, Inara. Just hadn't had time to clean herself, maybe. She kept looking back, and at the turn Zoe looked back too, in time to see that greasy weasel DeSalle stumble out into the hallway, fall to his knees, and vomit up half the blood in his body.

Didn't take a genius like Simon Tam to understand why that was. Not once she'd been shown the fancy little box with its needle and poison.

"Wo de ma," Zoe said, and looked at Inara, who was shaking and shuddering. "You dying on me, Ambassador?"

"No. It'll pass."

"You'll kill us both, you don't keep up."

"At least I'll take some of them with me," Inara said, and smiled. A wrong kind of smile, bad wrong, like part of her had died already. Zoe felt the skin tighten on the back of her neck. There was just no end of the bad to this day.

There was no time to be saying what Zoe wanted to say, about how sorry she was it had worked out this way, that the two of them might be dying like this, so she said the only thing that came to mind. A soldier's comfort.

"Comes to that," Zoe said, "I'll shoot you in the head first. Count on it."

###

The Reavers came from behind them, and the only warning, as before, was the shrieking as people died.

Zoe whirled, blinded by smoke that suddenly seemed to be coming from everywhere, and spotted a hulking, mutilated shape loping toward them with blades in both hands. She fired, kept on firing until it went down. Took too many shots. At this rate, she'd be out of bullets well before they made the shuttle. "Run!" she said, and pushed Inara toward the light, toward the shuttle, toward life. There were more coming. Some were stopping to rip into the unlucky folks who hadn't gotten out; she couldn't let herself care about that. She had to sight down the barrel of her gun and pull the trigger, over and over, going for the precision kills and moving constantly backwards, retreating but not running.

Rearguard actions were the gorram worst.

She dropped the last Reaver in her view and turned.

Two of them had Inara. Two. Not enough time to drop both of them, they were heading for the smoke-filled exit, and no matter how good she was, there were limits.

Inara wasn't screaming. She wasn't struggling. Her eyes were dead, empty, already gone.

Comes to that, Zoe had said not one minute back, I'll shoot you in the head first.

Count on it.


Zoe aimed.

Count on it.

Inara would be easy to kill, so easy. One bullet through the brainpan, and she was beyond what anyone could do her.

Zoe's finger wouldn't pull the trigger, and the second stretched, and stretched, long as suffering could allow, count on it, she'd said, as confident as any Alliance asshole commander, and she'd shot friends before, had to, shouldn't be any different.

It was.

She didn't even know if Inara ever really knew that she'd broken her word, because the second snapped, and the Reavers pulled Inara out of sight, and something flew at Zoe out of the smoke, and she was fighting for her life again, with no thought for anything but the next aching breath.

Inara wasn't in the courtyard, when she limped there trailing blood from a slashed leg. There was a Reaver ship grounded on the other side from the shuttle, and one of the Reavers was down, something bright and jeweled sticking out of his left eye.

Zoe caught a bare glimpse of a bare leg, of aqua silk fluttering in the wind as Inara was hauled aboard, and then the Reaver ship closed up. Its engines rumbled, and it lifted off, burning for space.

She stood there, watching it streak for the sky and leaving a trail of filthy, radioactive smoke behind, and then she limped up the ramp, found two Reavers inside, and killed them. One with his own knife.

She rolled the butchered corpses outside, ignored the reek of blood inside the shuttle, and got it off the ground without letting herself think too far ahead.

Might not make it back. Still a busy sky up there.

But the Reavers were going, only a few still seeking their prey in the sky or on the ground. The rest were running.

She'd made it to space, and good piloting dictated she ought to cut engines and save fuel once she'd lined up the trajectory, but it was a forty-minute inertial flight.

Forty minutes.

Ten if she burned hard.

"Wash," she said, as she programmed the burn. "I'm coming."

"Bao bei!" Wash's shout nearly shorted the speaker. "Oh, thank God, baby, Reavers, we've got Reavers, I've been trying to get you -- "

"Losing blood," she interrupted. Her vision was tunneling in, dark and sparkling as space at the edges. "No time, baby. I'm burning hot, got about ten minutes before I dock. Help me if I go off-line, all right?"

"Zoe -- !"

"No time," she insisted. "Tell the captain we had Reavers all over the damn place. I lost Inara. I lost her. Reavers took her."

"He -- he's right here -- Mal -- " She heard a scuffle over the radio. "Mal, wait! -- Dammit -- Fang xin, baby, I'm here, I'm right here. You're doing fine, trajectory looks good. How bad are you hurt?"

Oh, Wash, sweet man. He loved with all his soul and she heard it in the forced, gentle calm of his voice. It warmed her inside, where she'd gone so very ice-cold. She didn't deserve to be warm again.

"Leg," she said. "Got some fairly impressive blood loss here. Think the hun dan might have nicked something I need. Maybe an artery. I'm going to put pressure on it. Don't you worry, I'll make it."

"I know you will," Wash said. "I'm going to get Simon to the lock. As soon as you dock, you open that door and he'll be right there, dong ma?"

She closed her eyes. The vibration of the engines rattled metal all around her.

"Zoe! Stay with me, baby!"

Almost fell asleep. Bad. She forced herself up, stripped off her jacket, and knotted it painfully tight around her thigh. The blood slowed from a flood to a steady trickle.

Good enough.

"Right here," she murmured. "You keep right on talking."



Go to Part 2 ...

Tags:

Comments

( 29 rants — Rant )
crayonbreakygal
Jan. 2nd, 2006 07:30 pm (UTC)
Ah damn this is good. And you were worried? I so love it. Off to read the second part. So good.

P.S.--There's typo right near the end. She closed here eyes. Should say she closed her eyes. Thought you might want to know just in case you post it elsewhere.
juliefortune
Jan. 2nd, 2006 08:06 pm (UTC)
Oh my, thanks! And thanks for the typo catch -- I amended it.

-- J.
littleheaven70
Jan. 2nd, 2006 10:12 pm (UTC)
LOL - actually it was Tim Minear who spilled the beans on this one, in a "how to break a script" workshop. astridv linked up a report from _eb's journal. Here's the link again, for anyone who is interested. http://www.livejournal.com/users/_eb/83667.html SMOOOOOOCH!

I need Firefly icons...
juliefortune
Jan. 2nd, 2006 11:51 pm (UTC)
DAMMIT! Why did I have it in my head that it was Goddard? :headsmack:

Thanks for that. Heh.

-- J.
littleheaven70
Jan. 3rd, 2006 12:51 am (UTC)
It's all the moonshine, man.
juliefortune
Jan. 3rd, 2006 01:47 am (UTC)
Shaddup.

Oh, wait. You're right. Blackout ...

-- J.
littleheaven70
Jan. 3rd, 2006 03:23 am (UTC)
Your icon makes me want to do bad things.
juliefortune
Jan. 3rd, 2006 03:31 am (UTC)
I'll bet this one does, too.

littleheaven70
Jan. 3rd, 2006 03:43 am (UTC)
Especially if "pretty" is a euphemism for something else ;o)
juliefortune
Jan. 3rd, 2006 03:50 am (UTC)
*ahem*

...

*ahem*

...

I'll be in someody's bunk.

-- J.
littleheaven70
Jan. 3rd, 2006 03:59 am (UTC)
You are trying to kill me, aren't you? ;o)

*gets distracted from River vid*
johnnies_darlin
Jan. 4th, 2006 05:55 am (UTC)
You know, this Daniel-leching somehow makes all the dark scariness okay.

Your characters are beautifully true; I can hear their voices as I read and this flows as a real episode would (though I can see why they nixed the idea).

Off to part two! Chocolate at the ready!
juliefortune
Jan. 4th, 2006 01:49 pm (UTC)
YOUR ICON OMG :SQUEEEEEEEE:!

Sorry. The fluffy got me.

I hope the Daniel-leching helps on Part 2, but I can't guarantee ...

-- J.
johnnies_darlin
Jan. 5th, 2006 01:34 am (UTC)
Yeah, dunno who I stole it from... oops.
fannishnej
Jan. 2nd, 2006 10:24 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow... This is amazing.

I did notice one typo:
"Sir -- " She stopped, because thought they'd been through all flavors of hell together, she'd always left a decent-sized gulf where private lives lay.

Moving on to the next part.
juliefortune
Jan. 2nd, 2006 11:55 pm (UTC)
FIXED! Thank you so much, dear. I really appreciate that.

There's always something. :sigh:

-- J.
rabid1st
Jan. 3rd, 2006 07:17 pm (UTC)
Not usually a fan of the dark fic
But Gobi_Rex recommended this and I must say...Whoa! You write these characters very well. There's a smooth authority to your work. And while it is a harrowing story, it's not overtly graphic...so far...just a real page turner (or whatever it is we do with the pages online ;-D ).

Thanks for writing and posting.

Rae
juliefortune
Jan. 3rd, 2006 08:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Not usually a fan of the dark fic
Thank you! Here's hoping Part 2 isn't too dark and graphic ... but I'm not making any promises.

-- J.
sandandsilk
Jan. 3rd, 2006 11:57 pm (UTC)
I found two typos, but I only remember this one: "She. seemed to hold death and violence at arm's length"

But aside from that, this was absolutely Incredible! I'm certainly saving this in my memories because... WOW.

Can't hardly wait to read the next bit. :D
juliefortune
Jan. 4th, 2006 02:31 am (UTC)
Oh, thank you! Gah, ain't it always the way, you beta and edit and read and read, and there's always something that slips through. Dammit. Will repair.

I really appreciate your kind words about the story -- Part 1, at least! :)

And your icon? May I please run off to Vegas and marry it?

-- J.
sandandsilk
Jan. 4th, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
lol Totally! ;)

I don't mind, the credits are listed in the comments of the icon.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 7th, 2006 04:00 am (UTC)
Oh, this is but good. I love the way you write the characters and how their voices ring true. Your pacing and action are both wonderful. I feel like I'm getting an exta episode, and God knows we'd all love that. I want to savor, but must click the link.

Like now.
juliefortune
Jan. 29th, 2006 04:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much -- I'm really sorry that I didn't reply earlier! Fighting off flu bugs and work, ugh ...

Julie
nzlaura
Jan. 14th, 2006 05:32 am (UTC)
This is so good - the voices and everything is so spot on. Can't wait to see how it all plays out (I read the info in the link, mmmm dark!)
ch1pper
Feb. 1st, 2006 12:05 pm (UTC)
I've said it before and I'll say it again.

FOX is Evil.

Awesome. Love me some dark, dark fic.
lostillusion722
Feb. 5th, 2006 10:43 pm (UTC)
Hey lady! Just wanted to let you know that I nominated this story for Best Firefly/Serenity fic at Majik's World of Fanfic

Feel free to post it there if you'd like (there is a small, new, and very quiet firefly section there, but you don't have to. I wanted people to know that wonderful stories such as yours do exist in the verse.

Good luck!
reve_lucide
Mar. 1st, 2006 08:38 pm (UTC)
Wow. You really pulled off a story that I didn't think could be told this well. Kudos.

Eagerly awaiting any and all of your stories from the 'verse.
nos4a2no9
Mar. 25th, 2006 06:17 pm (UTC)
This is *terrific* I'd read the Minear spoilage and promptly rolled my eyes. But you took that lame-sounding premise and made it feel really gripping and immediate. I like how you set up the plot as well, part of a Companion ritual Inara has to take part in. On paper, it reeks of deus ex machina plotting, but when you're reading it, this story feels anything but contrived. I'm off to read pt. 2!
po_thang
Oct. 23rd, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
Ummm...wow! Just absolutely, flippin' WOW!!!!

You have the characters dead-on. I just showed this to my roommate to read. She hasn't seen Firefly or Serenity...and other than explaining about Companions and Reavers, I don't have to tell her about the characters. That's because you have done such an amazing job with them that they speak for themselves.

Good Firefly fics are so hard to find and this is one of the best, if not THE absolute best, I've ever found.

Of course, you always do an amazing job with any fandom you choose to write in (I first found you while on my Highlander kick. Your Cassandra/Methos is still probably the best HL fics I've ever read.)

By the way, is your website still up? I clicked on the link on your journal for it and it isn't there.

Thank you for this awesome fic.
( 29 rants — Rant )