Title: Mirage
Disclaimer: Joss still owns them.
Keywords: Mal, Saffron, crew.
Pairings: Mal/Inara, Zoe/Wash, but it's not a shippy fic.
Spoilers: Post-Serenity
Summary: What happens to a man who has lost everything?
Prompt: Mal + character of choice – Don't make me make you.
Words: 2,830
A/N: This one is dark. Really dark. Please remember to take your happy pills.

In the heat, blood turned sticky. It wasn't like paint or red wine. It was paste, and it smelled—not just like copper and pain. Like death.

"I didn't mean to… I thought you would find a way out of it. That's what you people are known for, remember? The last-minute rescue, the dramatic reveal. I just got lucky this time, that's all."

Mal had learned important lessons during the war. Idealism meant nothing in the face of power. If there was a God, he only cared for the corrupt.

Had to look out for you and the people tied to you. Love—there wasn't a power in the 'verse that could beat love. Trick was, using it, doing for it. Love could twist a man upside down, inside out.

And leave him with nothing.

"Best I can remember, you got fair warning from me. Don't much like to be played with."

He almost called her "Saffron" but he stopped himself. There was no use calling someone a name that wasn't real.

"Come on, Mal. You can't honestly say you didn't expect this."

"Didn't. Thought maybe you were smarter than this."

Mal had lost everything once before. Battle of Serenity Valley. It never occurred to him to lose the war in such a way—Alliance had the numbers, of course, and Alliance had the fancy weapons, and the new machinery. In the end, that made the difference—not his persistence or leadership. It didn't matter how angry they were with the Alliance, it just kept right on coming until it destroyed every piece of thing around where Mal stood. Everything except for Zoe.

Saffron had an inkling of who he could be, and she was stepping back, eyes clouding, holding her breath, bosom heaving.

"You're the one losing your common sense," she said, batting her eyelashes in a sexual way—and that was a mistake. It showed Mal she still thought it was a game.

He was beyond that.

"They might still be alive, Mal. All you have to do is find them."

After the Alliance wiped them clean, they were left with bodies. They had to crawl, avoiding hands, feet, limbs, blood, disease. They pressed shaking fingers to necks, holding hands, giving comfort—men died around him like flies. Like nothing. Like they were less than human.

"Could be that's true, Saffron." And there—her name slipped out. It was the only name he had for her. "And you're going to tell me what you know."

Her gaze darkened, her hands balling into fists at her sides. "Come on, you know I don't—"

"Don't make me make you."

--

Time of war meant doing any manner of things. For a greater purpose. War of Unification was one of the worst. It was a war fought on ideals and opinions—the most dangerous sorts of stuff.

There was a good chance Saffron hadn't the foggiest notion what had happened to Mal's crew (and he knew she didn't, but it didn't matter). She'd let it happen, anyway.

Mal did not have Niska's fancy torturing cell. It wasn't necessary—torture didn't have to mean fancy toys and electric shock. It just meant a man had to be unafraid of getting his hands dirty.

"That's great, Mal. Really poetic. And just what are you planning on doing with her after you've satisfied that she knows nothing?"

Mal wasn't really surprised. Thinking about Niska always meant he had to think about Wash, and thinking about Wash hadn't been entirely pleasant since Reavers had killed him.

"Ain't you supposed to be out annoying people in the afterlife?" Mal said. "I'm kinda busy now."

Saffron gained a little bit of life. She tugged at her restraints, bloodying her wrists. "Who are you talking to?"

Mal gave Wash an accusing sort of glare. "Great. Now she thinks I'm crazy."

"Yeah, just in case the torture didn't give it away!" Wash said. "This is a fine line, you know. Remember Niska? Remember the pain? You're inflicting that on—"

"I have to!"

"Right! Because no one's ever used that excuse before! 'I had to torture him… for my reputation's sake!'"

"That ain't… Wash, I'm tryin' to find your wife here, you gonna argue with me on that?"

"Wash has got himself a point, Sir," said Zoe's voice, clear as day, like she was standing in the very same room as him.

Mal jumped. "Hell, Zoe, where did you come from?"

"Honey, tell your Captain he's going to a very disturbing place."

Zoe's eyes were cool as she studied Mal. Her posture was the same as it was that first day he met her in the war—like there was a stick jammed up her backside. But she was sharp. Trusted him enough from the start to follow through on his orders. It wasn't something Mal could say for the rest of his platoon.

"Seems an awful lot like you got yourself a revenge vendetta. Ain't exactly your way."

"My way…" Mal trailed off. "Ain't like we never tortured nobody in the war, Zoe."

"Always had a reason for it."

"I got reason!" Mal said. "How come we're forgettin' that she sold us out? Damn it, Zoe, don't you know I wish you was here? Wouldn't be doing this if… my crew, Zoe. My crew."

Zoe inclined her head. "I understand," she said.

Mal felt a rush of relief.

"What?" Wash yelped. "Zoe, come on… you know this isn't right. Remember how it's a dangerous path? Remember how the torture is not a good thing?"

"Captain's gotta do what he sees as right, dear. Ain't up to us to take that away from him."

"I find this whole thing very disturbing," Wash said.

Mal closed his eyes. "Enough."

When he opened them, Zoe and Wash were gone. Only Saffron was left, staring at him through blackened eyes, her face twisted with pain and fear.

"You're cracking up," she murmured. "Let me go, Mal. Please…"

She began to cry.

Mal had never much liked weepy women. His Ma had never shed a tear his whole life, not even when he enlisted. Zoe would soon as cut off her own arm as shed a few tears. Fact was, it was only little Kaylee who could get away with the weeping, and that was only because Mal always felt like he was losing a part of himself when Kaylee was crying.

The sound tore at him, and he was turning around, halfway to desperate (or all the way to desperate, half came a long while ago). "Kaylee… woe duh ma, close your goddamn eyes. That's an order."

Sniffling, Kaylee obeyed, but it did no good. She'd seen it all.

"How could you?" she warbled. "Doin' those sorts of things to her…"

"Kaylee," he said. He moved towards her, placing his hands on her shoulders. "You trust me, don't you?"

She looked up at him, chin trembling. "Course I do, Cap'n."

"Then you know… wouldn't do this unless I had reason."

"But you don't got none!" Kaylee said. "It's like Wash said—you ain't thinking straight."

"Kaylee, you listen to me. It was the cause of Saffron's meddelin' that I lost you and the others. Gotta try'n get y'all back. No matter which way."

"But… it ain't right, Cap'n—you hurtin' her like that. You're a better man. I know so."

Mal tightened his grip on her shoulders. "Ain't never been the man you thought I was, mei-mei. I just… I'm wishin' you never saw any of this."

Saffron's voice startled him. "Look, Mal… we'll call it even, okay? Let me go, find your stupid crew, and I won't ever bother you again."

"Keep your eyes closed, Kaylee," Mal said softly. Kaylee nodded, her entire face contorting with the effort.

Mal released her and stalked his way towards Saffron.

"No," Saffron moaned. "Don't…"

"Bee-jway," Mal snapped. "No more begging or I'll cut your tongue out. Don't got any patience left for it. Dong ma?"

Saffron shut her mouth, choosing instead to go back to her weeping.

"You're are not going to kill her."

"Preacher," Mal said, eyeing the man standing before him. "Was wonderin' when you'd show up. Here to tell me I'm headed straight for hell?"

Book folded his arms, planting himself in the way of Mal's path to Saffron. There was no accusation in Book's eyes, but Mal knew it was there.

"You're certainly nearing it, son."

"Hell, Shepherd," Mal said. "I've been headed for that special place for a long time now."

"Perhaps," Book said, inclining his head. "But… this… this is a path you have not known before."

"Yeah," Mal said. "Suppose it is."

"Recovery will be difficult," Book said. "And… may already be beyond you."

Recovery. That was the last thing Mal was searching for. Recovered from Serenity Valley, hadn't he? Found his ship, his crew, and made himself a home. A thing like that—it wasn't likely to come again, not in his lifetime.

Mal swallowed thickly. "You're talking to a man who don't got much left, Preacher. Don't have a need for your fancy god."

"You're not unfeeling," Book said. "That makes you human."

"Don't got time for this," Mal said. Not that he had anything else to do. Not anymore. "She killed 'em. My crew. None of it seems to…"

"I didn't!" Saffron shrieked. "You would have done the same!"

"None it seems to mean a damn," Mal finished. The Preacher was gone. It was better that way, really. Book had a strange knack for seeing inside Mal. Somehow knowing exactly what he was feeling and why.

Saffron struggled against her bonds again. Amazing, really… all that blood, and she struggled. Desperation could do that to a person. He'd seen it before. Men who walked miles with a bullet in their gut, not willing to lie down and die.

"Honest, Mal, don't see why you haven't put a bullet in her yet." Jayne snapped, cracking his knuckles. He bared his teeth. "Were me, she would've lost her kneecaps long ago."

"Jayne, when have I ever cared to follow your advice?"

Jayne scowled. "Maybe if you had, we'd be doing a mite better'n this. You're the one that married her!"

"Don't you have an elsewhere to be?" Mal said. He almost missed the Preacher's lectures. "

"Nah," Jayne said. "How'd a girl like that get to be so uncaring, do you reckon? Hell, she's more'n a little—"

"She's a gorram lie, Jayne, that's how. No a word that slips by those lips of hers that is the truth."

"Don't make no kinda sense when she could do near anythin' she wanted. Smart too. And it ain't ending particular well for her."

Mal sighed. "Got no reasons for you, Jayne."

"You're DELUSIONAL!" Saffron spat, coughing up blood along with her spittle. Her hair clung to her damp forehead. "Don't you see that, Mal? These people you're talking to… THEY ARE NOT HERE!"

"Yeah?" Mal said. "Not in the habit of fantasizing 'bout Jayne, Saffron."

She shook her head, coughing again. "They're not here! You're ALONE, Mal! You're losing your mind!"

Mal crouched down in front of her. "Seems to me, I said something important about not talking."

Saffron drew her lips together and glared at him, blood dripping down from her nose and staining the front of her jacket. Mal's fist collided with her cheek, crunching something (but he hadn't killed her—not yet), and her head rolled onto her shoulder. Unconscious.

"Just wanted some quiet," Mal mumbled. She was still. He could almost pretend that she was a corpse, even if she was still breathing. Corpses didn't talk back.

Next thing he was aware of was incense. Knew the smell everywhere—kind of thing that could tickle a person's nose and throat. He breathed deeply, letting it wash over him.

"Inara."

She was wearing the peach dress. The one she wore after that duel with Atherton Wing, when they sat up on the catwalk and shared a cup of brew. The one she wore when Serenity's catalyzer broke and he sent them away. Best as he could recall, she'd only ever worn it around the ship. Never to meet clients.

"Oh, Mal," she whispered, her fingers curling up near her throat. He could see the sadness in her eyes, plain as day. Made them a mite wider, shinier. But there was understanding, too. And acceptance.

"I miss you." It tumbled out before he could stop it. "And I'm sorry for all the other times when I should'a said it and didn't."

"That's alright," Inara said. She glanced over her shoulder at Saffron's beaten form. "Is this… helping?"

He shrugged. "It's what I gotta do." Her face continued to be sympathetic and Mal wished he could drown in it. "Should've killed her that first time. It's cause of me, she—"

"You couldn't know," Inara said gently. "She… she was very well schooled at what she did."

"Too many regrets I got in my life, Inara." He shook his head and reached out a hand. "I need to touch you."

She nodded and moved closer. He framed her face, coming closer so she stared up at him from beneath her lashes.

"No other woman ever twisted me up inside same way you did." He said. "And now I ain't ever gonna know…"

She caught his wrist. "Mal—"

"Do you ever think about it? We could'a been something…."

"Of course I think about it," Inara said. "Constantly. Sometimes you get so far inside of me, I feel like I can't breathe."

"I'm gonna kill her."

Inara's voice was soft. "I know."

He leaned over to kiss her then, but she was gone and he was left staring at empty space and wondering if the incense had been there at all.

"She's not dead." And this time it was Simon. He bent down to examine Saffron. "All she needs is some equipment. Drugs, maybe. And a doctor."

"Good thing you ain't here, then," Mal said, more than a little ornery at having Simon instead of Inara. "Mess up all my plans, if you were."

"I have no stomach for letting my patients die," Simon said, and now he had a stethoscope around his neck, and was checking her vitals. Her vitals. Saffron's physical condition seemed clear from where Mal was standing.

"She's not your patient, doc. Fact is, she's the one who ratted us all out. Killed us, might say. Ain't a thing you owe her."

"That may be so," Simon said, standing up and brushing off his pants with a vague hint of disdain.

"Sorry if you find this whole thing unseemly," Mal said. "I can see how a man like you'd have his sensories bothered."

"That's not it," Simon said, coming to a stop in front of Mal. "My sister, Mal. My sister River. Isn't there some part of you that wonders?"

"No."

"She's a psychic."

"I'm well acquainted with that fact, doc."

"Then a part of you wonders. Shouldn't she have known? Or… did she? Did my sister know that Saffron would betray you?"

Mal turned away. "Doesn't matter. Didn't mean a thing in the end. Not when it counted. Past is past."

"You haven't found our bodies, Captain," Simon said. "Logically, that means there's still a chance—"

"I don't give a rutting gorram about bodies!" Mal shouted, getting up into Simon's face. "Only thing I got is Saffron, and I should'a put a bullet in her long ago." Mal paused to collect himself, breathing hard. "If your sister's such a genius, then why ain't she here talking to me her own self?"

Simon shrugged. "Maybe she's put off by your inviting temperament." A shudder passed through Saffron's body, but her eyes remained shut. "You leave her that way, Captain, and she will die. Slowly."

"Painfully," Mal said. "Yeah. Got it. Don't you think I seen it a million times in the war? Sometimes a mercy killing was better'n any alternative."

"Pain means you're still alive," Simon said softly.

Mal ignored him and took a step closer to Saffron. "Don't reckon your sis is gonna be showing up. No point in waiting for her."

"Do you believe she can tell you something you don't already know?"

Mal shrugged. "It's likely. Mind-reader like her, there's a whole 'verse of things she has at her fingertips that I got no comprehension of."

Simon didn't answer and Mal didn't have to turn around to know the doc was gone. Just him, then. Him and Saffron.

Mal pressed his gun to Saffron's temple.

"Figure this is time for me to say something deep and meaningful." Mal paused. "Problem is, I can't think of a thing."