The Operative swallowed hard once more as he left the lift and entered the hall where the crew of Serenity still lay. He could see that most of them had been laid out on crates. There only appeared to be three of them left who were even conscious. Approaching the group he could see that Both the Captain and his first mate were both out of commission, undoubtedly succumbing to their injuries and slipping into comas. With both of them out, the Operative wondered who he could deal with as far as a leader.
"Who's in charge here?" The Operative got out, his voice still raspy from Mal's shot to his throat.
Jayne looked like he might try to volunteer but then out of the corner of his eye the Operative spotted a young women rise from the side of the Captain.
"I am," River said in a calm but forceful manner, quickly silencing any intent Jayne might have had.
The Operative sized her up, she was just a small slip of a girl, but her dress was covered in blood, Reaver blood from what his men told him. River had an equally evaluative expression on her face as she examined this Parliamentary assassin, wondering if his sudden turnabout with the order to let them go could be parleyed into some possible medical assistance.
River was somewhat surprised as she sensed a wave of guilt come over the man as he gazed over the rest of the crew. His remorse became particularly intense when his eyes fell to Mal. She was almost overjoyed as she read the next thoughts coming into the Operative's mind.
"Get our medics down here immediately, these people are to be given VIP medical assistance!" the Operative said in the most forceful voice he could manage.
"Sir?" One of the lieutenants next to him said.
"Don't question my orders lieutenant!" the Operative barked out.
"Right away!" the young officer responded, tearing off down the hallway shouting out commands to other men as he went.
River was still a bit suspicious even as medics arrived. Even if the Operative had a change of heart, some under his command still viewed the crew as enemies. The Operative could detect her misgivings and tried to put her at ease.
"Some of the men are still resentful, but I assure you the medical staff will do their job. They are trained to push aside personal feelings about a patient."
"I know, but I'm still a bit concerned." River responded.
"Don't worry Ms. Tam, you'll be given complete access to your crew I'll see to it your not hindered in away, any major procedures or movement of any of the crew will not be permitted without your expressed consent. I'll also make sure that their all kept a near to each other as possible, and allow them to return to Serenity as soon as their healed."
"Serenity?" River questioned, remembering the ships battered condition, and still a little numb from the whole experience to pull thoughts from his mind.
"Yes Ms. Tam. My men have already secured it, though none have been permitted on board I assure you. When you and your crew are up to it, I intend to supply you with whatever parts and labor you need to get back up in the air again." The Operative said with the slightest hint of a smile spreading across his face.
"Thank you," River whispered gratefully.
"Not at all Ms. Tam, I and my superiors have already cause you and yours more then enough pain, I owe you this much and so much more for making me see the truth."
The Operative then turned to leave to make preparations just as the medics began their work. Contemplating the sudden good fortune for a moment, River then turned back to her crew and started to give orders to the med teams as they began to patch up the battered crew.
River took complete advantage of the wide discretionary powers the Operative had extended to her. She allowed the medics to bring the crew aboard one of the medical ships that had landed outside the main hanger. But once there she ordered all non-medical personnel off the ship along with any weapons on board. The crew of the ship balked but the Operative quickly stepped in to back her.
River watched over the crew like a hawk. Once their conditions had been stabilized she refused to allow and further procedures to be performed without her present to observe their work. She used her own medical skills to their fullest extent as she tried to perform whatever work she could herself before allowing the Alliance doctors to step in. She also insisted that every procedure be explained to her in great detail, making absolutely sure that they made no deviations to the set plan during the operations.
River had a great distrust of Alliance medical personnel after her own experiences with them, and she sensed a great amount of distrust and outright hostility toward the crew from many of the doctors even before she started making demands. She also knew that Mal in particular would want any Alliance personnel to be kept on as short a leash as possible when it came to his crew.
Jayne had been the first to recover from his injuries, needing only a few hours. He had only taken a few shots to the upper arm and shoulder. After the doctors had removed the bullets and patched up the entry wounds he was given a clean bill of health. He had been offered a chance to go back to Serenity to await word on the others but he decided to stay and offer River whatever support she needed, even if it was only to stand behind her and look intimidating while she barked out orders.
Jayne was confused by a lot of what River spoke about with the medical staff, but he was supremely impressed with how she handled the stuffed shirt Alliance doctors. Even though he didn't know a lot about medical procedures, he recognized being talked down to anywhere. River was quick to verbally knock them back down on their butts whenever they tried to belittle her, quickly pointing out several flaws in their proposed procedures. Seeing her in action, Jayne was glad he hadn't tried to take charge.
Inara didn't have any physical injuries to speak of, but the psychological trauma she was suffering from was just as debilitating as any gunshot or knife wound. She had been shaking uncontrollably since they had left that hallway. She felt exhausted but was unable to sleep, the screams of the Reavers sill rattling around in her head. It was only after a few days that she was able to keep down food and get some rest. Once she finally emerged from her seclusion, she joined Jayne and River in looking after the others. Inara too was awed at how River handled herself with the Alliance officials, her presence commanding a great deal more respect then one would expect of someone of her age.
Zoe was the next to come around. Her back injuries healing up enough for her to be up and about after about two weeks. River immediately tried to differ command back to the first mate. But after seeing River in action and hearing how well she had handled herself so far, Zoe allowed her to continue to function as the crew's de facto leader until Wash came around.
Kaylee came around almost the same time as Zoe. Her puncture wounds had healed up rather quickly, but the poison in her system had to be filtered out slowly. But once it had been cleared, she was pretty much healed. She quickly resumed her role as ship's morale officer and decorated everyone's rooms with things from home. After a day or so, River asked her and Jayne to go down to Serenity and try to suss out what kind of repairs they were going to need so she could forward on a list parts and labor requests to the Operative.
Wash was next, his head trauma finally coming down enough for him to regain consciousness. Once he did, he was largely recovered, as his leg wound had healed up on its own while he slept. Once he was up and on his feet again, Zoe began to resume her leadership role, much to the relief of River, who was anxious to spend more time with Simon and Mal. Simon had been in and out as he healed up form his stomach injury. He and River had spoken briefly each time he had been awake, but she hesitated to bring up her and Mal, not wanting to upset him so early in his treatment.
As Simon grew stronger though, River began to spend less time with him and more time at Mal's bedside. This was partly out of concern for Mal, and partly because she just wasn't ready to talk to her brother about her relationship with the Captain. Kaylee was more then happy to pick up the slack however, enjoying a chance to nurse Simon back to health for a change.
Mal had been the worst off by far, most of his injuries administered not by marauding, mindless killing machines like the Reavers, but by the cold surgical precision of the Operative. He had been in a coma ever since he collapsed in the hall. The whole crew was very concerned, but the doctors assured them that he would indeed make a full recovery. River too was hopeful, as she sensed his mind was still intact just under the surface of consciousness, biding its time until his body had healed. River spent almost the entire last week of his coma at his bedside, sending him pleasant dreams and trying to keep him informed about how the crew was doing as best she could. When Mal finally awoke, River's smiling face was the first thing he saw.
"Welcome back." River said, her eyes shining like stars as he slowly blinked awake.
Taking in the sight of her, Mal was almost left breathless; unable to fathom her complete and utter hold on his heart and mind.
"Am I dreaming?" Mal whispered out finally.
River smiled back at him warmly, "We all are."
Mal made a weak attempt at rolling his eyes as he smiled at the memory.
River's face lit up, "Don't make faces."
"The crew?" Mal asked casually, sensing that he somehow already knew they were fine.
"There almost fully recovered, most of them have headed back over to Serenity to start repairs."
"Repairs," Mal asked.
"Yes, the Operative has had a kind of…change of heart….he's given us any resources we ask for to help get the crew healed up and Serenity back on her feet." River said.
River then proceed to let Mal in on the details of the last few weeks. Mal was impressed with how thoroughly she had seen to the crew, handling everything in exactly the manner he would have wanted. After an hour or so, the rest of the crew came by to visit the Captain, including Simon who was now almost fully healed. No one had yet had the heart to tell him of what they had witnessed in the hall, not wanting to be the one to set him off. But a few tense moments arose as the crew told Mal about how River had taken charge.
"Yeah Mal you shoulda seen her," Jayne bellowed out as he related a story where River had forced two Alliances guards off the medical ship after they mistakenly wondered on board.
"Fore the poor bastards had even had time to piss'em selves she'd already taken their guns off'em and kick right down the landing ramp!!"
The whole crew erupted in laughter as Jayne tried to reenact the looks on the guards faces.
"Corse, that weren't the last time she had ta get rough with'em." Jayne said.
"Oh yeah, what about that time she almost killed that doctor?" Kaylee recalled.
"Yeah! Yeah! Dumbass came up here and tried to cut off your gorram leg Mal!" Jayne said turning to Mal.
"WHAT!" Mal exclaimed in disbelief.
"It's true," Inara added.
"Yeah he came in here and took a look at that leg you had been limping on and said that some thing had broke too bad or torn up too much and said it had ta come off," Kaylee said.
"Well River here took a look at them charts a yours and told that hudan he was off his rocker, said she wouldn't let him anywhere near you, ordered him off the whole gorram ship for even suggesting it." Kaylee said.
"Don't think he took it too kindly, didn't like taken orders from our girl here." Jayne continued.
"Tried to force his way into ya room here, but fore he even touched the doors she broke his arm knocked him straight on his ass!" Jayne said, another howl of laughter following.
"Then she nodded over to me, I grabbed him up and tossed him off." Jayne said as his laughter began to ebb.
And awkward silence fell upon the room as the memory trigged thoughts of the kiss that Jayne, Zoe, and Inara had witnessed and related to the others, except Simon. Finally Zoe broke the silence.
"Well, I think it's best we give the Captain some air and rest, need him to be back up and ready once the rest of us get Serenity up and running again." Zoe said in her most official sounding voice.
As the others shuffled out of the room, Zoe remained with River and Mal. Once they were gone she turned back to the couple.
"Your going to need to speak on this eventually sir," Zoe said.
Mal nodded, "I conjure that's true, and I plan on doing just that soon as I'm back on my feet."
"Just wanted to make sure sir." Zoe said reassuringly.
Zoe moved to leave, but shot River a look to follow. Looking back at Mal to reassure him she would return, River followed Zoe out into the hall.
"What's your intent here River," Zoe asked passively.
"I love him." River stated simply.
"You sure bout that?" Zoe pressed.
"With all my heart," River said, her gaze drifting back towards the doors to Mal's room for a moment.
Zoe's expression turned cold for a moment, "Better be, cause I've seen him around you, he's like he was before Serenity Valley. He's like a new man. If you suddenly decide to drop this, it'll destroy him worse then anything in the war. You'll kill him. You do that, and I don't care what kinda fancy fighting training you got, I'll end you faster then you can lift a finger."
River nodded solemnly, "I understand."
Zoe's expression lightened slightly, "Good."
Zoe turned to leave, but just as she reached the end of the hall she turned back slightly, "And River…about Wash….thank you…." She said as a tear tried to form in her eye as she remembered the Javelin piercing Wash's seat just moments after River pulled him out.
"Don't mention it." River said.
Without another word Zoe turned back down the hall and out of sight.
The rest of Mal's recovery went fine, allowing him to return to the ship as the last few repairs were being made. After spending a few more days getting re-acclimated to the ship, Mal decided it was time to confront Simon.
Finding him in the med lab, Mal gulped hard as he stepped inside.
"Hey doc, there's some I been meaning ta talk with you about." Mal got out as he entered.
"What is it Captain, are some of your injuries not healing up correctly?" Simon asked, turning a clinical eye on Mal.
"No, it ain't nothing like that." Mal replied a bit hoarsely.
"Then what is it?" Simon asked.
"Well it's about River." Mal finally got out.
"What about her?" Simon asked, a dark expression starting to ghost across his face.
"Well, ya see, thing is she and I have started kinda seein each other, in a kinda romantic way." Mal blurted out clumsily.
Simon took moment to absorb what Mal had just said, a wave of confusion and anger passing over him briefly for a moment. As Simon began to reflect on the last few weeks he began to see trends ever since the Maidenhead. The way River had clung to him so fiercely afterward. Her frequent disappearances since then, how he had seen the two of them together more and more.
He remembered what River had said to them just before they had landed on Haven, how medicine wasn't what she needed. It was at that moment that Simon realized what had brought her out of her psychosis, no drug or treatment but this man standing before him. Simon unclenched a fist that he had unconsciously balled up as this sudden realization hit him. Upon seeing Simon's expression, Mal began to ease up his rigid stance as he braced for a punch.
Finally regaining his composure, Simon addressed Mal. "I see, well I can't say that your exactly the man I would have chosen for my sister." Simon said calmly
"However, you are a good man. You seem to have had a very positive effect on her, and I can't argue with the effect she's obviously had on you lately." He continued.
"Well, that's um….mighty generous of you Doc…" Mal said hesitantly.
"Make no mistake Captain, if you hurt her in anyway, I can think of thousands of ways to kill you, most of which are unfit for prison executions." Simon said with an edge of steel in his voice.
"Point taken Doc," Mal nodded.
As Mal turned to leave and Simon watched him go. Letting out a long sigh he pondered all the ramifications of his sister involved romantically with the Captain.
As Mal made his way back up to the Bridge he ran into Inara on the catwalk. She looked as if she was ready to say something so he slowed down as he came up to the stairs taking a position next to her as he finally got to her level.
She wouldn't speak for a long while, silently starring out at the empty cargo bay. Then finally mustering the courage to speak she turned to Mal. "You love her don't you?"
Mal nodded, "I do." Mal replied simply.
"I…. believe it when I first realized it, thought you two were all wrong for each other, though I could hardly call myself an impartial judge of course." Inara managed.
"But seeing you two together these last few weeks, I can see that what you have is something very real, more real then anything we….we might…." Inara couldn't bring herself to finish.
Mal gave her a reassuring look, "Hey, don't be dwelling on that too much. You me well, we probly woulda killed each other after too long, figure its best we find people who understand us better."
A single tear escaped Inara's poised expression as she looked at Mal, "Well I don't know about that Mal, but I do know that you two are good for each other….I'm happy for you both."
"Well that's a kindness Inara," Mal replied.
Inara sighed awkwardly, unable to really express any other thoughts at the moment. In an attempt to break the awkwardness Mal, "So you ready to get off this heap and back to your civilized life?"
Inara looked down sadly, "I…ah….I don't know. Things are just so confusing with what I've seen recently, I just don't know if I can bring myself to go back to that prim and proper world and go on pretending like everything is alright anymore…."
Mal shot her an encouraging look, "Good answer."
Inara gave him a weak smile, knowing he was undoubtedly happy to hear her speaking such antiestablishment ideas so similar to his own worldview.
Mal turned to get to the bridge, to prep the ship for take off, giving Inara one last smile as he turned to leave.
Finding that Wash was not at the controls, Mal relished the idea of bringing Serenity back up into the black himself. Setting himself down in the pilot's chair he was so exited he hadn't noticed the other presence in the copilot's chair until he looked up again. Smiling as he saw River punching away at the controls at the other station.
"You gonna help me pilot?" Mal said with a goofy grin still on his face.
River gave him a big grin of her own, "That's the plan."
So saying River turned back to the controls and pulled the stick back, gracefully raising the ship off the ground. Mal watched in amazement, wondering if their was anything the woman did that didn't bear her dancer like poise. Coming back to himself after a moment, Mal grabbed the stick in front of him and started to initialize the atmo breaking sequence.
"You know, it ain't all charts and graphs darlin." Mal said as he focused on the controls.
"You know what the first rule of flying is?" Mal asked
"Well I suppose you do, see as how you already know what I'm going to say." Mal continued.
"I do." River said sweetly adding, "But I still like to hear you say it."
Mal turned to her, his eyes full of compassion and love for the woman in front of him, "Love. You can learn all the math in the verse but you take a boat in the air you don't love she'll shake you loose sure as a turn of the worlds."
"Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she's hurting before she keens, makes her a home." Mal finished breathlessly as he watched her rise from her seat and glide over to him, wrapping her arms around him and staring out into the sky in front of them.
Pausing as she started to see a whole multitude of visions of the crew's future, she said in a far off voice, "Storm's getting worse."
Mal turned to meet her eyes, "We'll pass though it soon."
With that the ship's autopilot engaged and Mal pulled River into one more long, sweet kiss.
Whatever their future would bring, they would face it with renewed hope, together.
Whew! Well there you go guys!! I hope you all enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it!
I want to take time to give special thanks to all of you who provided reviews for this story. Your comments were all extremely important and helpful to me as I wrote and your encouragement is without a doubt what drove me to press forward and keep so focused on this. I don't know if I would have been able to finish this if it weren't for you guys!
I also want to extend an extra special thanks to Just Slummin for all the guidance and advice provided when I first started, not to mention the fantastic stories that provided a much needed respite as I worked on this. Thanks for all your help!
Well that's all for this story, but keep your eye's pealed for upcoming sequels to this. Hope to see all your shiny input on my future works, your guys are the best!