Chapter One

He pulled into the back parking lot of the hotel a bit faster than he really needed to, but that was probably because the adrenaline was already buzzing in his veins. This was a rush, no two ways about it, and he'd do it for a living if acting wasn't so much fun. Besides, he was supposed to be faster, more dynamic than regular guys. Nathan Fillion was an action star. As he saw it, he had a certain responsibility to his fans to be reckless and entertaining.

Fortunately for his sanity, his girlfriend had a more pragmatic view of fame. "Don't let 'em go to your head, Captain Tightpants," she had said an hour previous, smiling and looking all beautiful.

"Me? Get a swelled head? I'm just the humblest, most modest god-like man you'll ever meet," Nathan had replied. "I'll see you next week." He'd kissed the top of her head and peeled out of the driveway, already picturing spaceflight and dire situations in his mind. And now he stood alone, an overnight bag slung over his shoulder, before the less-than-majestic service delivery door of the Hilton Burbank Hotel, the home for the next three days for himself and a few thousand screaming fans. Oh, to be adored by so many. The things I put up with... Grinning, he stepped forward.

The door opened before he reached it to reveal a pudgy, middle-aged fan. Granted, that was probably stereotyping the poor guy, who was almost certainly one of the convention organizers, but he had the intense and slightly off-center expression that only comes from devoting your life to a fictional universe. "Mr. Fillion?" he said. "You're early, excellent, that's excellent."

Nathan took a deep breath and readied himself to be led around by other people for three days. Doing appearances at conventions was a rush, and a stressful hassle, and an incredible ego-boost, and conventions such as the Big Damn Flanvention were all that doubled and squared because instead of being about an entire genre like most conventions they were solely devoted to a single TV show and movie. The TV show was Firefly, and the movie was Serenity, and together they had been the greatest experiences of his acting career.

And many people agreed. Already he could see, past the big air conditioning machines, crowds streaming across the sidewalks towards the front of the hotel. Many of them wore long brown coats or fuzzy orange hats. Soon this hotel would be filled to overflowing with thousands of screaming fans of all ages who would all gladly commit several mortal sins just to get near his own actual body.

But that was fine, because Nathan knew a secret: He was as big a fan of Joss Whedon's creation as anyone in there, and any praise sent his way was accepted as praise for the dream they shared. They weren't the only ones to devote their lives to a fictional universe.

"Hey, how you doing?" he said, holding out a hand. The fan started nervously, then grabbed Nathan's hand in both of his and shook it back and forth. "You the one in charge of me?"

"Um, yes, I'm Jackson, I'll be, um, guiding you. First let me show you where you'll be doing your, um, photo ops." This was one of the star-struck fans, then. He could barely get his words out, he was so excited. No worries, Nathan was good at making people comfortable. He was a pretty big-time dork himself, his mother always said, he just looked mainstream. "We have, um, we have a Serenity set over here—"

Nathan slung his bag to one side and settled his shoulders. "Lead on, MacDuff. I'm all yours. Just don't leave any marks I'll have to explain later."

Lurching forward, Jackson walked him around the side of the building and across two parking lots, moving farther and farther away from the hotel. "You know, if you're taking me across state lines I have to call my parole officer first," Nathan said, smiling. "It's not a big deal, just a formality, really..."

"It's just over here, sir," Jackson said. "The people who bought the annual passes get photos with you away from the crowds. It's a, you know, a perk. Just right this way."

"People pay a lot for this?"

"Oh, yes, sir. There are people who have gone to great lengths to get you where you belong. I mean," he said, stammering, "there are people who care very much about Firefly and Serenity. The 'verse must continue. It must!"

"Easy, boy. Happens I agree with you, and not just because I could use the work. I miss that boat. And a big chunk of the con money goes to charity, anyway." That was another great thing about Firefly fans; they gave to people. And they recognized genius. Ahem.

Jackson smiled at him. "If you don't mind my asking... would you do it again? Would you be Captain Malcolm Reynolds?"

"In a heartbeat. I'm up for a sequel, a trilogy, more TV shows, cartoons, whatever. As long as Joss is in charge and the rest of the crew are in, I'm there." Nathan grinned. "I have never played a character like Mal before or since, and he'll always be my favorite. He's... intense. I'd actually like to do two more movies and then have Mal die at the end just so no one else can play him, you know, the way they do with James Bond. He's mine! Although I'd love to play James Bond..."

"Oh, Mal can't die," Jackson said, horrified. "He can't! He's got to go on and he has to be you." He clutched at Nathan's sleeves, clearly distraught.

"Hey, hey, it's OK, I ain't going anywhere. And Joss would never put anyone else in the coat, or I'll release the pictures I have of him with Boreanaz."

Jackson relaxed, as much as he was capable of, and smiled a watery smile. "Yes, well, we'll get you back onboard as soon as we can. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised." They arrived at the desolate end of the last parking lot, where sat a massive motor home that had apparently collided with a nuclear power plant. A network of cables and pipes crisscrossed the sides and met on top, and the dashboard lights visible through the windshield looked a lot more complicated than the usual Airstream. There was an amateurish Serenity logo painted on the side. "Check this out," Jackson said proudly, and he swung the door open wide. Inside was... a memory.

Nathan stepped up into the motor home, astounded. A great deal of time and attention had been applied to the inside of this cramped place to make it a pretty decent, scaled-down replica of his character's bunk on Serenity. The bed, the desk, the curved wall on one side, the sink, the ladder, the maps on the wall, it was as accurate as could be imagined in a recreational vehicle.

His face split into a wide smile. "This is... this is something," he said. "Did you do this?"

Jackson nodded. "I've been working on it for a couple years, now. It's based on the show, I didn't have time to change it to match the movie, I hope that's OK."

"No, no, this is, this is really something. Really takes me back, you know. This is where they're gonna do the photos?"

"Hmm? Oh, yes, you'll be sitting at your desk and I'll, I'll control the camera from the dashboard. I'd like to get some test shots, if you didn't mind. Now?"

Nathan plopped down into the wooden chair in front of the desk and waggled his hands at the fidgeting fan. "Knock yourself out. I'll just make some captainy poses." He threw an arm over the back of the chair and assumed a serious expression. "Ooh, broody. Hey, which way should I be facing? I don't see the lens."

Jackson stumbled awkwardly through the small doorway to the driver's seat and closed the door behind him. After a moment his reedy voice came over a speaker on the desk. "OK, here we go, this is it, it's really going to happen. Are you ready to be Mal again?"

"I am devilishly handsome, your camera loves me," Nathan called out. "Wherever it is."

"Then here we go. Captain Reynolds, I salute you."

Nathan would have wondered more at that phrasing but he was distracted by the low hum that suddenly kicked in all around him, and the flashing lights that were running along the floorboards. "Whoa, special effects!" The lights whipped past faster and faster as the motor home started shaking slightly. "Hey, is this ship OSHA approved? If we crash this thing you make sure you tell people you were driving." He chuckled to himself, but the shaking was getting to him. If this was how all the pictures were going to go he was going to have to insist on Polaroids, this was way too—

A blinding flash of light slashed across his eyes and a wave of crackling heat passed completely through his body, doubling him over with pain that continued to hammer at every inch of him. He yelled in surprise. The motor home was gone. All he could see were stars, bright and beautiful and sparkling in the inky black of space that wrapped around him and squeezed all the breath out of his chest until he gasped and wheezed and tried to scream. And then the stars crashed down on him.

His eyes opened, finally, to a very fuzzy world. His back was ice cold and he was shivering, but that didn't make sense. Why would he be...

He sat up abruptly. He was naked. This was not the very best way to wake up at a convention. Oh, God, what had he done? Did they get him drunk? Free drinks were the devil to turn down and they always worked faster than the other kind. What else had happened? He put his head in his hands and moaned. He was about to have his first scandal, and he'd promised his parents he wouldn't be one of those kinds of actors. Damn, damn, damn.

Nathan lifted his head, warily, to see where he was.

Where he was, was impossible.

He was on the floor of his bunk. That is, he was on the floor in Malcolm Reynolds' bunk, with a blanket wrapped around his legs like he'd just fallen out of bed. On the Serenity. A fictional spaceship, the made-up kind that nevertheless seemed to be real and hard under his backside. He put his hand on the curved wall to steady himself as he stood up and nearly recoiled from the cold seeping through it.

This had to be a joke. Joss or Tim or Barry must have gotten up some cash and made a perfect replica to stick him in. They were probably watching him on a hidden camera somewhere. Bastards. Nice job, though, they'd really gone all out. Unlike the motor home version this room was perfect, solid, an exact copy of the set from the show, except this time there weren't any removable ceiling panels to accommodate lighting and sound booms. There was the constant rumble of a distant engine, though, and a very slight sense of movement that was truly impressing him. Once he got over being pissed he was probably going to laugh harder than anybody. He flipped a bird to any hidden cameras that might exist and hunted around for some clothes.

Of course, a Mal costume. Nathan shrugged and pulled it on. Same tight canvas pants, same suspenders, same boots, same holster rig. Different gun. It looked the same, but it was heavier, with a strong smell of oil. This must have cost Joss a fortune! Hell with the gag, he was keeping this gun and no two ways about it.

He holstered the gun with a practiced movement and stood before the steel mirror over his sink, just as he'd done a thousand times in his bathroom in Los Angeles. "'You willing to die for that belief,'" he asked himself, with a precise accent. "'I am,'" he quoted in his own voice, and quick-drew his gun out to point at the person in the mirror. "'Of course, that ain't exactly Plan—'"

The noise of the gun firing was painfully loud, with pinging ricochets coming from around the room that coincided with shattering glasses and exploding cabinets. He threw himself to the floor, trying to ignore the relentless ringing in his ears, and fought desperately to attain some sort of equilibrium.

"What the hell is this? They gave me live ammo? What the fuck were they—"

"Captain? Everything all right?"

The voice coming from above was his costar Gina Torres, and that made sense. She was in on it, the bitch. He chuckled to himself. Well, if she could stay in character, so could he. "Everything's fine, just a little target practice. Nothin' to see here."

"Kind of a short firing range, isn't it, sir? Or were you just evening out your toenails?"

Nathan laughed and holstered the gun. Then he pulled it back out and put the safety on before holstering it again. "Some of them toenails can rise up and attack a man, you know," he called. "They go feral." Time to face the music and see how far this charade went. He scrambled up the ladder and pulled the hatch to his room open. Well, whoever built the place screwed up there, the hatch was heavy and tried to stick. Gina was waiting for him in the hallway, in costume, in makeup, and totally in character. With her hip cocked and that knowing, amused expression on her face he could easily believe she was Zoe Washburne, a deadly fighter and his loyal right hand. He stepped up onto the hallway and stumbled, catching himself with one hand on her shoulder. She remained rock steady. It was like bracing yourself on a statue.

Nathan let his head drop down onto his chest and chuckled. Another blown scene. Somewhere cameramen and PAs were groaning and getting ready to start over again. Well, only one traditional way to finish it. "Summer!" he yelled to the ceiling, casting the usual unwarranted blame towards the brilliant young actor who so rarely screwed up.

Gina – Zoe – stared at him. "Captain? You shoot yourself somewhere that don't show? Should I call the doc?"

Nathan took a deep breath and settled back into his Mal-space, turning towards the bridge. "No, no, I'm fine. So," he said, smiling and clapping his hands together, "got your corpsified husband cleared out yet?"

Zoe stopped dead. He looked back to see her glaring at him in a way that made him decidedly uneasy. "Is that supposed to be funny, sir? 'Cuz I ain't seeing the humorous element."

"You know!" He made stabbing gestures towards his chest. "Wash, and the thing, with the leaf on the thing? Wash-ka-bob? Seriously, this is great, but who set this all up? Was it Joss? Is he here somewhere?" He looked around in case anyone was in the process of jumping out and yelling surprise! "How did they do that rumbling thing?"

"Sir, I'm thinking we need to go see the doctor." Zoe reached out and gently turned him away from the bridge. "He can tell you all about the rumbling thing, all right? And then you can tell him why you've gone all insane."

"Hey, I am your captain, you shouldn't be patronizing me like that. I'll tell Larry." Nathan pulled away and ran back towards the bridge. If the rest of the set was this good, what was the bridge like?

He stepped over the doorway and nearly staggered. A blonde man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jumpsuit was piloting what appeared to be the actual Serenity in what appeared to be actual deep space. The detail of the room was astounding. Every button, every panel, every plastic dinosaur was in place. The painted starfield backdrop outside the windshield looked amazingly real. It even smelled like an old spaceship, full of sweat and ionized air and recycled oxygen. "I heard shooting?" the blonde man said. "Those nightmares can get awful scary, captain, but they really can't hurt you. Honest."


"Excuse me?"


"Are we getting nicknames now? Because I always wanted to be called 'Killer.' I think it suits my prison-yard reputation," Wash said. He made a small adjustment to the wheel and Nathan felt the ship respond under his feet, with a tiny and slightly nauseating sense of vertigo as gravity adjusted itself to catch up. Wash pushed another few buttons and let the wheel slip out of his hands. "Can I pick Jayne's new name? I'm thinking something flowery, something romantic."

From behind Nathan Zoe spoke up. "Honey, might not be a good time to rile the captain." She stepped in behind him, never taking her eyes off his face like she expected him to pull his gun again. She might as well have not bothered; Nathan felt completely numb. Somewhere inside his head he was adding up construction costs and special effects budgets and they weren't coming out even. This wasn't possible. It simply wasn't possible. If Joss had had this much money to blow he'd have made another movie.

He stepped past the piloting helms like a man in a dream and jumped down the short ladder to stand in front of the windshield. It was cold. Bitterly cold. Colder than December in California, colder than winter in Edmonton. The kind of cold glass might be if, say, one side of it was exposed to the freezing vacuum of space. He noted, with a disconnected sense of reality, that there was no painted backdrop, power cables, or concrete floor outside, and the endless black just wrapped all the way around.

"Holy gorram shit," he muttered.