Part I—Turn of the Wheel
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters. I just like to play with them occasionally.
Author's Note: Set one year after "Holding Pattern".
Summary: As political unrest grips the 'verse, Serenity's crew deals with unrest of its own.
"Wheel never stops turning, Badger," Mal had once said.
"That only matters to the people on the Rim," had come the short-sighted reply.
But Malcolm Reynolds knew differently. Having seen and experienced more than most men would dare to even contemplate, he knew the bitter truth that things set in motion, either by design or unwittingly, had far-reaching consequences, just as a turning wheel often leads one on unanticipated journeys.
He looked at the cortex screen with the weight of worry pressing heavily on his shoulders. Day by day, it seemed, more and more worlds embraced the thought of revolution against the Alliance, the fire fueled by news reports of atrocities committed throughout the 'verse.
Some would argue that the Miranda Wave had sparked the current unrest, and Mal had to admit it was at least partially true. But he could clearly divine the Operative's hand in the slant of the information being reported so rabidly by the newly emboldened press. The Operative had a subtle mind, and Mal could see the 'verse laid out before him like so many chess pieces on a checkered board, each piece being maneuvered carefully toward an ultimate check-mate.
And while Mal had no doubt about which pieces should prevail, it filled him with a sense of dread that his family and crew were, of necessity, probably going to be drawn into the deadly game. Years ago now, he had purchased Serenity with the idea that the Black held freedom, away from the iron grip of the Alliance, but he had come to realize how very naïve such a thought could be. Even before the current civil unrest, time and again he had found himself pulled into one confrontation or another with the repressive regime. And now, as the Alliance began to make its presence even more aggressively known, Mal could practically feel the noose tightening around his neck.
Wearily, he turned off the screen, and slipped quietly into bed beside his sleeping wife. Inhaling River's clean, fresh scent, he fell into a fitful sleep.
Inara, too, sat at her cortex screen, skimming through the messages of prospective clients. She knew that the current political climate did nothing to increase Mal's business prospects, nor did it help her own. She found that she could scarcely stomach taking on Alliance clients now, but unfortunately, they made up the vast majority of prospects with coin enough to afford her services.
Inara, like Mal, had no desire to see the 'verse engulfed in another war. She had spent the first war in relative ease on Sihnon, perfecting her craft in the presence of charmingly handsome Alliance officers. Unification had seemed the only sane choice, the best possible future for all worlds spinning. But time and circumstance had shown her how thin the veneer of respectability could be, and association with Mal and Serenity's crew had taught her the cost of war in very human terms.
Sighing, she narrowed down her prospective client list to three and sat back to watch each one again. She had become increasingly careful about new clients since her brutal assault at the hands of Andrew Chau and Atherton Wing, partially for her own sense of well-being but also to accommodate her growing attachment to Jayne. There were unspoken rules between them, lines neither had the inclination to cross. Inara did not question what Jayne did as Serenity's resident muscle, and Jayne did not ask her anymore about the particulars of her work either. But Inara was acutely aware that if she chose a client poorly, and was hurt in the process, Jayne could not be deterred from taking matters into his own hands. And she knew, though she tried not to dwell on it, how very dangerous those hands could be. So, for his sake and her own, she chose more carefully now than ever before.
As she was entering the confirmation code for her selected client, she heard a light knock on her shuttle door.
"Ching jin," she called, expecting Mal to enter. Now that he was a husband and father, he was less inclined to enter uninvited.
She was surprised to see Jayne standing at her door instead. He stood uncertainly, barely containing the urge to shift from foot to foot. Inara's welcoming smile released him from his unaccustomed awkwardness, and he walked into the room.
"Hey, 'Nara," he said.
"Good evening, Jayne," she answered, as easily as if he came to her shuttle uninvited every day. "Won't you sit down?" she offered, gesturing to the couch.
"No,…No, I weren't aimin' to stay," he said hastily, standing in the middle of the room like a schoolboy called before his head mistress. He cleared his throat. "Was just wonderin' if you were, maybe, plannin' on comin' to my bunk tonight, is all."
Inara's elegant eyebrow lifted in surprise. In the year and a half that she and Jayne had been together, he had never once openly asked her to come to him, and he had not once taken the initiative to come to her in the night either. Of course, she thought wryly, he had also never turned her away when she came to him of her own accord. "Did you want me to come?" she asked softly.
"Well, yeah," Jayne said. "I mean, if'n you want to."
Inara regarded her lover seriously. "Is there something wrong, Jayne?"
"Naw, nothin's wrong," he said. "It's just, well…," He stroked his goatee thoughtfully. "It's just I ain't been sleepin' so good here lately, with Mal in such a tetchy mood all the time. Sleep better when you're in my bed."
Inara smiled brightly, thinking that the simple admission from Jayne was tantamount to an effusive declaration of undying love from any other man. "I was just finishing up here. Can I join you in a few minutes?'
Jayne grinned, relieved to have gambled and won. "I'll be waitin'," he said, striding out of the shuttle, his confidence bolstered by success.
Simon left the infirmary and tiptoed quietly into the passenger dorm that had been converted into Adam Reynolds' new room. Careful not to make enough noise to trigger the sensitive baby monitor whose mate resided in the Captain's bunk, he looked at his sleeping nephew. Adam lay curled into a ball, his little pink lips working at his thumb even in sleep. Simon smiled, thinking about how Mal and River were attempting to curb that habit in the child, with obviously limited success. He checked the railing that had been attached to the bed, though he knew it had already been checked repeatedly by River. Satisfied that it was secure, he stood quietly beside the bed just looking at the little boy. So much innocence, he thought achingly. Innocence such as had been ripped so cruelly from his sister by the Academy. Innocence such as he'd lost in the bloody mud of Athens, never to be regained. Closing his eyes against the horrors of those memories, he shuddered to think what the future might hold for this youngest of their family. Slipping back out of the room silently, he made his way through Serenity's darkened corridors and into the soothing arms of Kaylee.
Mal walked through Serenity Valley once again, the sound of firefights long gone now, leaving nothing but the moaning pleas of dying men and the crunch of his boots on the rocky soil. The stench of rotting flesh was so thick in the air that he could literally taste it, smoky, earthy, vaguely metallic on his tongue.
He found a solitary spot behind a boulder, with nothing but a corpse for company. Leaning back against the rock, he reached, by force of long habit, under his collar to finger the cross that hung there. He felt its smooth edges, worn down by years of desperate strokes in times of need. Suddenly bitter beyond all reason, he yanked the chain off his neck. He was pleased with the resultant sting to his skin. It confirmed that he was still alive. In disillusionment, he hurled the chain as far away as he could manage.
He looked up to see River standing a distance away, her long, dark hair blowing in the fetid breeze. She floated just off the ground, never quite touching the decay strewn at her feet. Swathed in a translucent dress that clung to her curves like a second skin, she was a vision of life in stark contrast to the death around them. She approached him slowly, his discarded cross catching the last light of the day as it dangled on its chain from her slim fingers.
"Don't want it back," he said, his voice full of gruff disenchantment.
"You will," she answered compassionately. "And I will keep it safe until you need it."
He heard the sound of bullet hitting bone and saw a spot of ruby-red blossoming on River's chest. Crying out in anguish, he saw her fall backward and dissolve into the sea of bodies at her feet, the chain the last thing to disappear into the unholy heap.
"No," he screamed, clawing through the rotting corpses frantically.
He awoke, panting and sweat-soaked, in his bunk. River stirred beside him, reaching out instinctively to calm him. Struggling to control his wildly beating heart, he pulled her close, reassured to feel her warmth against his skin.
"You were dreaming again, weren't you?" she asked, her voice filled with concern. 'Dreaming of Serenity Valley."
"Yes," he rasped, the images still too freshly horrifying to dismiss.
River laid her head against his chest, listening to the staccato beat of his tortured heart. "You think it will all happen again," she said. "Think there will be another war."
"Yes," he acknowledged, the word sticking in his throat.
"And you believe the outcome will be no better the second time," River pressed on.
Mal was silent for a long while before he answered. "Can't see as how it can be much different the second time around."
'Will be different," River asserted. "Can not possibly be exactly the same."
Mal regarded her soberly. "You see somethin' I should know about?" he asked quietly.
River gazed at him, her large eyes sad in the low light of their bunk. "No, ai ren. I see nothing but shadows, changing shapes without substance. Nothing is set. Too many variables."
Mal nodded. "If you did see something, would you tell me?"
"Yes," she whispered. "If it would help you to know."
They lay together quietly until River could feel Mal's heartbeat slow to its normal, steady rhythm. "If war does come, what will you do?" she asked, her own heart hammering in her chest unnaturally.
"What would you have me do?" Mal asked.
"Can't answer," River replied sadly. "Your decision."
Mal sighed, running his fingertips along the silky skin of her back. "Don't know, bao bei," he said. "And I hope to all that's holy, I ain't got to find out."
River's arm around him tightened, as she prayed that he would be spared the decision somehow, and that, if not, she would have the strength to help him live with the consequences of his choices, whatever they were.
"Please, sir…please, I've told you everything I know. I swear. Please don't…" she paused, drawing a shuddering breath. "Don't hurt me anymore," she finished pitifully.
Jared Thompson gazed down at the woman who knelt before him, thinking idly that she had looked considerably better two days ago. She looked up at him, eyes pleading for mercy she had yet to see.
He reached out and touched her battered face almost tenderly with his fingertips. "Have you really?" he asked mildly. "Told me everything you know?'
Trembling, she began to cry long gasping sobs that only come from the truly broken. Over the course of the last two days, she had made the transformation from a moderately successful low-level technician for the underground movement on Osiris to the cowering wreck of a human before him.
"You're quite positive you know nothing more about the whereabouts of this so-called 'Operative'?" he asked gently.
She shook her head, the motion causing pain to her newly-misshapen face. "Nothing," she answered. "He doesn't reveal that even to the leaders of the movement."
"Whose names you've provided quite generously," Thompson commended. "That, and the information about the Academy students has earned you my mercy, my dear. You needn't worry that your indiscretions will come to light. Your secrets are perfectly safe with me."
She clung to his leg, weeping in shaky relief. "Th-Th-Thank you, sir," she stammered.
"You're welcome." He nodded once at the heavily muscled man standing impassively behind the woman. Pulling a short, thin wire from his pocket, the man slipped it quickly around the woman's neck and jerked her away from his boss with one vicious tug. Tender flesh cut to the bone, she clawed frantically for a moment before slumping soundlessly to the floor, her face set in a mask of betrayed terror.
Looking down at the stain of her blood and tears on the knee of his trouser leg, Thompson hissed in irritation. He stepped to an intercom and buzzed his assistant. "Tell the Senator I'll be delayed. And I'll need a fresh suit sent up immediately."
"Yes, sir," came the tinny reply.
Turning back to his man, he said, "Leave her at the docks. Make it look like a typical assault. Then, come back here. I'll want you with me when I meet with the Senator." He looked critically at his most trusted employee. "And take a few minutes afterward to clean up. Suit and tie. Wouldn't want to offend the good Senator's delicate sensibilities."
"Yes, sir," replied the large man, with just a trace of a smile on his thin, cruel lips.
To be continued