"So why didn't you fill me in on that masterful plan of mine?" Nathan asked.
Around him the "We're-Not-Gonna-Kill-Mal-But-We're-Celebrating-Anyway" party was just getting to the amusing stage where anyone of a sober and conscientious nature had either succumbed to peer pressure or left to hide until it all blew over. About 30 Larkins were doggedly entertaining themselves around the yard. Fresh kegs had been tapped, musicians were playing as if their instruments were on fire (which was, in one case, entirely accurate), and the sporadic dancing had devolved into the rhythmic lurching and vertical foreplay of the determined drunkard. Nathan was sitting at a picnic table with Zoe, Wash, and Simon, who were in various stages of partiness themselves. There was also an unconscious Jake slumped over at the end of the table, nearly covered in paper streamers. Zoe paused with a brimming mug at her lips.
"You just asked me about you and the ex-Jimmy. Never said anything about losing the brain cells had your plan on 'em," she said. "Might have been a good thing to bring up about the time you were walking out into an ambush, though."
"Understandable, really," Simon said, a bit distracted. There was someone missing and he was trying very hard to appear nonchalant about it. "It's not like there was a great deal of plan to forget. 'I'll walk in and explain and they'll kill me.' Must have taken you weeks to get it just right."
Wash took the mug from Zoe. "You should checked around the bridge, you might have jotted it all down on a bottle cap somewhere." Zoe laughed deep in her throat and leaned up against him as he drank deeply.
"Hey, I had contingencies. I had a buttload of contingencies, all mapped out and ready to spring at a moment's notice," Nathan objected. "What with one thing and another, there was never the proper time to spring anything, that's all."
A roar went up from the crowd around the band, where apparently someone was doing something very impressive, very naked, or both. Simon sat up straight to look, for all the world like a neurotic prairie dog.
"So that part where you got your face beat into dog leavings was all accordin' to plan?" Zoe asked.
"Yup. In fact I thought Lost could have hit me a little harder on this cheek, but still, well within parameters."
"I'll mention it to him so's he can practice for next time."
Nathan leaned back and grinned. "Won't be a next time. We—"
"First I have to miss all the slaughterin' and now I got to miss the drunken orgy, too?" Jayne's bellow echoed across the field as he emerged from the woods at the edge. Simon whipped around and then relaxed when River slipped between the trees behind Jayne, apparently unharmed although both of them were sooty and disheveled. Jayne was carrying an empty cloth sack. "Hate to think a man can heroically risk his life to take out a strategic military location all by his lonesome and not get some of the fleshy ree-ward."
"You blew up an apple orchard," Nathan called to him.
"A strategic apple orchard!" Jayne yelled. "Vital to their entire defensive system! No way we woulda won if I hadn't acted fast!" River walked along behind him, happily eating an apple. The dancing caught her attention and she started wandering over to it. Simon awkwardly got up to follow her.
"It's true, sir. If he hadn't been in that field, things might have ended up very differently," Zoe said with a barely concealed smirk.
Nathan nodded good-naturedly and threw a beer at Jayne's head. "Well, then. Hail the conquering hero!" he yelled. The rest of Serenity's crew cheered, with as little sarcasm as they were able to manage. Jayne beamed and threw the sack high in the air as he chugged the beer.
"Not lonesome," came River's distant voice, barely audible from a hundred feet away over the yelling and laughing.
"Huh? Oh, yeah, the twitch helped some. Called out trajectories and suchlike the whole time I was heavin' grenades." Jayne let himself collapse on the bench in Simon's spot. "'Course I didn't pay her no mind. Little girl wouldn't know nuthin' about targeting."
Nathan had been in enough episodes to know what was coming. Instantly he threw himself away from the table just as River's apple core came whizzing in at a respectable fastball speed. Jayne's beer bottle exploded into a thousand pieces. Jayne and Wash both fell over backwards; Jayne because he was startled and Wash because he was laughing too hard to stay upright. Zoe kept her stoic thing going for nearly twenty seconds until Jayne reappeared, staring dazedly at the broken neck of his bottle, when she lost it and fell over on her giggling husband who was kicking his feet at the stars. River had already turned and flounced away.
"AS I was sayin'," Nathan continued, settling himself back on the bench and grabbing a fresh beer. "Won't be no next time. With Jimmy missin' the Larkin family has got a whole lot of love goin' begging, and they're dropping it on me. Got us a job."
Hilarity aside, that got their attention. Jayne leaned forward, a shower of glass dust cascading off his head. "A real job? One where someone promises us money and then they hand us the money and we get to keep the money?"
"Very like," Nathan said happily. It was a good thing most of them were well on their way to being hammered, otherwise they might have noticed how unbelievably smug he was just then. "Mama Larkin was so upset about almost blasting their little mixup – which would have left them broke and sonless and with an awful mess to clean off the carpet – that she just about begged me to haul their next shipment to Persephone right away and she wouldn't hear of me taking less than three times our usual amount. Got her crew, them what ain't pouring booze down their gullets, filling our hold with crate after crate of genuine Larkin Family flobotnam at this actual moment."
Oh, the expressions on their faces was priceless. He wouldn't need to eat for a week, he was so full of himself. Before they could say a word he saluted his crew with his beer and walked on, coolly oblivious to the eruption of cheers and renewed drinking he left behind.
It was a good time to get away; he was starting to feel seriously weirded out. He'd been drunk with all of them before, sort of, but Zoe, Wash, and Jayne drunk were oddly different critters than Gina, Alan, and Adam drunk and he couldn't help feeling like an outsider. Worse, an outsider they thought was an insider.
He must be on a fast train to Sloshville himself, that almost made sense.
Which reminds me, shouldn't I have switched back by now? Problem's solved, I done good, everyone's happy, shouldn't I be quantum leaping or something? He took stock of himself. No blurry vision. No wavering effects. No bursts of blue light. He was solid. He could hear the sounds around him, feel the cool evening breeze blowing over his skin and the solid dirt under his feet, smell the flowers and cut grass and the beer in his mug. A mosquito was busy worrying his arm. He was there, as there as he could be. What if I really am stuck here?
It hit him like a freight train. Up til now he'd been busy freaking out about being here in the first place, and then there was that whole "they're gonna kill me" thing to obsess over, but now he had time to think about it. What if I'm not here to fix something or balance some cosmic scale?
Nathan stumbled to a halt, stunned. Two Larkins, each holding the other one up, lumbered past him on the way to the food. He barely registered their presence. What if that gorram RV guy sent me here and I'm stuck forever?
"Well, captain... oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," Shepherd Book said from behind him. Nathan acknowledged him with a nod as he wiped the dripping beer off his face and chest.
"No problem, shepherd. I understand this stuff is a mocker, anyway. What's on your mind?"
"That's wine, actually. In fact, one of the proverbs advises us to give beer to those who would perish, although the conditions are somewhat different here." He, of course, was not in any way hammered. There may have been religious orders that spent as much time with the spirit of the grape as the spirit of the Lord, but Book was clearly not one of them. "I was just noticing that you seemed awfully pleased with yourself, up until you felt it necessary to wear your beverage."
"You always got to wait until I'm having a good moment to come puncture me, preacher?"
"Of course. Otherwise I lose my union card."
"You're a dedicated man, and you've done your duty. Do I need to sign anything for you, or—"
"But in this case I think a little pride is justified. You did a brave and honorable thing."
The two men stopped by the side of the house and looked out over the goings-on. The crowd had moved back to give River dancing room and she was using every inch of it. Simon was hovering around her like a man trying to catch a suicide jumper, but at least he was probably enjoying himself. As much as he was able to, anyway. The tables by the house were loaded up with foods and delicacies of all kinds, including fresh fruits, which was why Kaylee kept coming back to do her hummingbird imitation around them. At the moment she was taking a break from the dancing to load her plate high; she grinned at Nathan and Book as they came near. She's good people. They all are. "I soothed some people's minds, solved a mystery, and hooked us back up with a valuable business contact. Weren't much honorable about that. Just expedient."
"I meant Inara." Book said. Good thing the only light out there was a flickjering torch; Nathan could feel all the color draining from his face. Book went on, relentless. "Position you two were in, not knowing if you were going to live or die, emotions and adrenaline boiling inside..."
"...candlelight, soft bandages, the bloodcurdling howl of a demented spirit..."
"...all that can make it very easy to take advantage of a woman, and many would say it wasn't taking advantage at all. She might have even agreed. Yet you pushed her away. Harshly, I'm given to understand," Book said, still watching River. "Right this very moment she's back in her shuttle calling you names I'm not supposed to even know, convinced and telling the world that you're the stupidest man alive."
A few feet away Kaylee was still loading her plate but it was obvious she wasn't paying attention to it. Peaches and strawberries were rolling off every which way and twice she missed entirely. "I would never contradict a lady, preacher," Nathan said finally. Book smiled, nodded once, clapped his hand on Nathan's shoulder, and left to find some quiet somewhere in the night, which at this point was probably going to involved a lot of walking. Nathan watched him disappear into the darkness. "Amazing how he does that."
Kaylee was putting an upside-down plate over the heap she was trying to balance in the hopes of getting something she could carry safely. "What's that, cap'n?"
"Make you feel like you just single-handedly saved a hundred orphans from ravenous weasels."
"Oh, that's easy."
Nathan reached over and grabbed a large bowl of bread rolls, dumped the rolls onto the table, and held the bowl out so Kaylee could let the contents of her plates fill it up. "Enlighten me."
"Well, when a bad person tells you you done good, it don't mean much, right? 'Cuz how would they know? But when a good person tells you you done good, it means something, 'cuz they know what it's like and how hard it was and stuff. And the shepherd is good for a living, so if he tells you you done good it's like God tellin' you you done good. You know? Thanks," she said, taking the bowl and beaming. Then her face fell. "I didn't mean to mention God! I'm sorry! Um.. maybe it's just respect weighs more when it comes from someone you respect." She bit her lip, waiting, plainly worried she'd been babbling.
Nathan grabbed her around the waist, causing her to squawk and clutch at her bowl to keep from losing it. He kissed the top of her head. "I need to talk to you more. I need to talk to all of you more. You remind me, OK?" Heck with not changing anything. If I'm truly stuck here, Reynolds is gonna loosen up.
He let go and swung her around until she bumped up against the table again. "I ain't always a mean ol' man, but sometimes I forget. Remind me. That's what you're good at, making people see how happy they could be if they'd quit worrying about how happy they ain't. So that's your job, from this day forward. Keep Serenity in the air and keep the crew cheered up. All you got to do is be you."
The sunrise of Kaylee's smile broke over her face and lit up the backyard. "That is so sweet! I'll do it, cap'n, I'll get right on it!"
"Good!" Nathan grabbed her shoulders and spun her around to face Simon's direction. He was standing by the musicians watching River, looking pensive and proud in roughly equal amounts. What he didn't look, in any manner visible to the human eye, was relaxed. "Start with him," said Nathan. Under his hands Kaylee's shoulders trembled, and even from behind he could feel the heat of her blush spreading from her face.
"Oh, I dunno..."
"That's an order, engineer and official... happy, cheery... person," Nathan said. "There's a boy needs a mess o' cheering. You may have to put in overtime, and use special tools."
He couldn't see her face just then, but he imagined she was eyeing Simon in much the same way she had been eyeing the buffet table. "He does look like he's in a non-regulation unhappy mood, don't he?"
"I knew I could count on you." She pushed her bowl into Nathan's hands without looking and headed off Simonward, a woman on a mission. There we go, Nathan thought smugly, as Kaylee took Simon by the hand and dragged him into the dance circle. Changing peoples' lives is fun!
And I can do it. I know what happens, some of it, I can make this better. First off, when we get back I'm putting a lock on the airlock so we don't get bounty hunters raining in on us in space. And we're stocking up on catalyzers. And from now on dead acquaintances that show up in the mail get shipped right back. And...
His vision swam; images of his girlfriend, his friends, his family, his life, hammered at him like waves crashing over his head. And I'll never get my own life back. From where he stood he could see most of his crew, laughing and making merry amongst themselves. I love these people, more than almost anybody in the world, but--
"You'd play the same part, for the same audience, and the curtain would never, ever come down," said River, startling him. She'd walked up, glowing from her exertions, while he was preoccupied with his panic attack. "Always the same lines, the same cues, the same play, because if you tried to say anything different the 'verse would whisper the correct lines to you from behind the scenery. We'd be a cage to you."
"Does everybody in this place just go around sneaking up on each other?" Nathan said. "It's not the cage thing. Well, it's not entirely the cage thing. Malcolm Reynolds is still the best part I ever played, and I'd play him again in a heartbeat. But there are people in my life I miss and different challenges waiting for me. Besides, it's not fair to you. I'm not him, I don't have his experience and skill, and if I tried to lead anybody anywhere I'd probably get them killed. Except in Halo, of course, because there I'm studly." He paused, thinking. "Although I do tend to get people killed there, too..."
"You could learn." Her face was hopeful.
"Tell me, honestly. Do you want the real Mal back?"
She looked past him, her eyes slightly unfocused. "When daddy gets home, bad children tremble and good children are comforted. The fire is high and the walls are stronger and the house becomes a home again."
"Exactly. I think."
"But the story controls the curtain, not the actors," she told him earnestly. "You can't go until someone else tells you to. None of us can."
Nathan stayed silent. She's right. I don't have a way home. Doesn't look like I'm gonna jump back all by myself, and nothing in this universe can get me back. I'm stuck. Goodbye, honey. Goodbye mom, dad, Jeff. Goodbye career. Goodbye not getting shot at.
Before him the rest of the crew were assembling. Jayne and Wash had spent the time building a beer mug pyramid, using the snoring Jake as the base, but now they stumbled over behind Zoe. Kaylee skipped up, a grin on her face and red spots high on her cheeks, dragging a Simon who looked as though he might have accidentally tripped in some fun.
River took his hand. "You're on," she said.
He took a deep breath and forced the rising panic in the back of his head to simmer down until he could safely have his breakdown back in his bunk. Captains have to look confident. "Time to wrap this up, people. We're leavin' in the early ay em and I need you to be both bright eyed and bushy tailed; there will be an inspection."
"It is the early ay em," Wash pointed out reasonably.
"OK, the not-quite-so-early ay em. And I want you all to know that..." And the buzzing started. A blast of cold swept through Nathan's body and the ground shook slightly. The rest of the crew stared at him as if he was growing an extra head, which he couldn't immediately discount; just then he was too busy feeling like someone was carbonating him.
This was a familiar feeling.
He shoved River carefully into Simon's arms and stepped back to give himself some room. Light began strobing in his eyes and he could faintly hear the sound of a car engine. A feeling of deep, blessed relief set in. He smiled.
"I love each and every one of you, you know that," he said to his confused crew. "And Kaylee?"
"Huh? I mean, yes, cap'n?" she said from behind Simon's protective arm.
Nathan put his hands down at holster level and, as his vision dimmed and the faint rushing noise in his ears became a roar, he quickly pulled his right hand up to point his middle finger at her. She watched, shocked, as he used his other hand like an old West gunfighter, slapping the imaginary hammer of his revolver over and over to shoot rapid fire birds at her. The completely dumbfounded look on her face was the last thing he saw before everything became light.
Been wanting to do that for two days now, he thought happily. Maybe she'll start flipping off Mal now, and good for her. The stars seemed to agree. They came at him faster this time, and they seemed to be welcoming him home...
At least this time when he woke up, he had clothes on.
He was sitting on the ground outside the Hilton, leaning up against the service door. At first it looked completely wrong. The sky was faded out, the air was hazy. Great, where am I now? That's not a real sky, I'm not... oh, wait. It's just L.A. As he watched, the sky brightened. He smiled broadly. Nope, not even that. It's just sunrise.
In time with the rising sun, a feeling of joy and exhilaration grew inside him like a balloon full of adrenaline. That... that had been incredible. No one would ever believe him, if course. Well, maybe Joss, who seemed to live in his own fictional worlds most of the time anyway, and thank god he did, but nobody else.
And if he worked it out correctly, it was Sunday morning and he still had a day of the convention left. He just hoped they weren't too upset about him not showing up Friday or Saturday. Oh, jeez, the guys are going to be so pissed I didn't show. Alan, Adam, Jewel, Mark, and Christina were all supposed to be here, this was a huge deal and some people paid a shitload of money to see their captain. Dammit, I missed the cocktail party and the banquet and the costume contest and most of the autograph signings. There's five thousand people up there gonna tear me a new one. He sighed. I was better off with the Larkins. I'll bet they're already talking about this online...
Employees walked in from the parking lot, looking at him oddly but not saying anything. He nodded and leaned aside so they could get through the door. Ah, there's my car. The amount of relief he felt at seeing it was immense and probably disproportionate, but it made his return real. He was back. His life was back. Unfortunately his life was going to require some fast talking and some good excuses, but he could manage that. It was still easier than facing Inara again. Well, better get this over wi--
The door opened and smacked him in the head.
"Oh, wow, Mr. Fillion, I am so sorry! Are you OK?"
"Yeah, yeah, I never use that side of my brain anyway," he said, rubbing his head. His attacker was an obvious Firefly fan, decked out in tan pants, a maroon shirt, leather suspenders, and a brown coat that looked, if anything, better than the one from the show. This particular Mal was black and about twenty pounds lighter, but that was well within Mal parameters as far as conventions went. There was a "Volunteer" badge on a Firefly lanyard around his neck. Damn. Busted.
The fan's face lit up. "I'm just glad I found you, we've been looking everywhere!"
"Yeah, I'm really sorry about that. See, it was all Joss' fault, he called me at the last minute--"
"I gotta tell you, Mr. Fillion, I've worked a lot of conventions, but this one has been the best ever and it's all because of you."
"—with this emergency Sudoku problem that's had him paralyzed with fright and I had to... say what?"
The fan set down the bag he'd been carrying so he could gesture better. "Are you kidding? I mean, the cast is always great but I've never seen a star stay in character all weekend! It's been unbelievable!"
Nathan sat perfectly still. "I've been here?"
"You've been everywhere! I was working the game room during the Friday night party but I heard you burst in late, ranting about the Alliance blasting your brain like River's and Adam – Mr. Baldwin – tackled you behind the open bar. Everyone kept buying you drinks and telling you not to worry, we'd keep the power-hungry maniac at bay, and finally you started laughing along with us and telling jokes and everything. I heard you spent all night wandering around the hotel talking to fans, and let me tell you everyone really appreciated it, Mr. Fillion."
"Yeah," Nathan said weakly. "I'm a giver. I didn't happen to watch Serenity this weekend, did I?"
"Saturday a few people got annoyed you kept signing autographs 'Malcolm' but everyone else thought it was hilarious. And the way you reacted when you saw Christina Hendricks! God, I thought I was gonna bust a gut laughing when you ran around the dealer run trying to find a gun that wasn't a prop!"
One by one Nathan picked up the pieces of his mind and slotted them back into place. A few didn't fit right anymore. "Did I... did I do anything that maybe I might have to apologize for? Like to an insulted fan?" He swallowed. "Or the police?"
The fan laughed. "Ha! Man, you're a funny guy! But, um, would you mind?" He reached into his bag and pulled out a glossy photo. "This was cool, but I'd like to get your name on there, too," he said, holding it out. Nathan took it gingerly.
It was a photo op picture of the fan in front of a Serenity backdrop with someone who looked an awful lot like Nathan except for the harshness around the mouth and the trapped look in the eyes. He was smiling, though. The photo was signed, "To Jimmy, I guess. Malcolm Reynolds." A chill ran through Nathan's body, as if someone had just autographed his grave.
He stuck the photo against the wall to sign it properly. "Jimmy, huh? You got any brothers?"
"Good. Stay that way. And the other actors didn't notice anything? Didn't say anything, I mean?"
"Most of them tried to stay in character, too, when they saw you doing it, but they kept breaking up and giggling. Then last night that freaky Jackson guy -- the one that kept pushing so hard to get the whole cast here? -- started following you around and acting really nervous. Man, that fight you two had? I never would have thought he'd be in good enough shape to fall down two flights of stairs with you. Pow!" He laughed again. "It really looked like you totally laid into that guy! Then you dragged him outside with you and no one's seen either of you till now. Where'd you go, anyway? We looked everywhere!"
Not everywhere, Nathan thought. He looked out over the parking lot but the RV wasn't there. Still no idea what that whack job had in mind, but it sounds like trading me for the "real" Mal wasn't the plan. At least one of us got to hit him.
Still, I can't say it was all bad, apart from the beaten up part. It's a great place to visit, but...
Nathan drew himself up, handed the photo back, and opened the service entrance door. "Had to go offstage for a minute, that's all. Come on, there's still some weekend left." Inside he could hear sounds of conversation, laughter, excitement, and the palpable love of a shared universe.
"Hey, anyone here play Halo 2?"
I am not affiliated or even acquainted with Nathan Fillion, Joss Whedon, or any of the people involved with Firefly and Serenity and haven't talked to any of the cast for longer than it took to get an autograph. All details included here have been taken from Mr. Fillion's many wonderful interviews where he is either remarkably open about his life or else he's just being Canadian. It's hard to tell.
The Nathan Fillion depicted here is based on his public persona as seen in interviews, premieres, blooper reels, and behind the scenes documentaries. I haven't the faintest idea what the real Nathan would do in this situation.
Be fun to find out, though...
Many thanks to everyone who has commented on my first completed fanfic (flanfic?) and special thanks to my beta reader Shmuel who kept me from looking silly when I didn't mean to.