Nobody moved. For a full minute everyone just looked at each other in stunned silence.
The voice of the Operative came again. "See to the wounded, Lieutenant."
See to the wounded? A minute ago Lieutenant Abral Manders was waiting for a Kill Order and now he's supposed to tend to these people? The same people who are to blame for some major destruction and bloodshed. Two ships destroyed and who knows how many good soldiers died because these stupid people used Reavers to try to escape the Alliance. He exchanged some significant glances with the other members of his unit.
As if he new what Manders was thinking, the Operative calmly repeated the order.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Manders still couldn't believe his ears - or eyes. He glanced around the room. What the hell happened here? There were dead Reavers all over the room with one petite young woman standing in the middle of it. Manders didn't like confusion and at this moment he could hardly think straight. Well, one thing he wasn't confused about was the consequences of disobeying a direct order from an Alliance Operative. He commed the medical unit requesting immediate assistance for the wounded. What the hell happened here?
"Uh…" he started to address the prisoners but stopped. What do you say to the people that the Operative was so recently consumed with pursuing and terminating? None of his training had prepared him for this scenario. "The Med Unit will be here soon. Lower your weapons and no one will be hurt."
Manders looked down the hall as he heard a man's voice speaking quietly. The woman kneeling on the floor looked up at the speaker, held his gaze for a bit, nodded, but didn't reply. She stood and slowly approached the room. At first, she looked unsure about what to do but then her expression changed and she radiated calmness and confidence. As she approached the blast doors she gave him a silent questioning look. Is it alright if I come in? He nodded his assent recognizing that this woman posed no danger.
The woman came in, her eyes only on the girl. Touching the girl's face to get eye contact she smiled reassuringly then calmly took the weapons that were still tightly clenched in blood soaked hands. The clang of the weapons falling to the floor echoed loudly and the noise seemed to rouse the girl from her shock. She began to shake. Her shaking was making him nervous. What the hell happened here?
"Lieutenant, please allow me to take her to our ship. She is young and this has been quite a traumatic experience for her." The woman's voice was not what he expected - calm, cultured, but forceful. The woman's very sereneness was relaxing him a bit. He wanted to let them leave (especially the girl) but his fear of the Operative reminded him of his duty.
"Wait for the medical team. My orders are clear."
The girl was starting to whimper softly.
"It's okay, River. Everything's going to be alright." The woman soothed putting her arms around the girl. Turning to Manders she looked into his eyes. "Please, Lieutenant, she and I do not require any medical attention. It would be better for her not to be here." She looked around at the bodies to emphasize her point.
They moved to leave but he held his arm out to stop them.
"They ain't goin' nowhere but my ship which you mighta noticed ain't leavin' this place anytime soon."
The Lieutenant was surprised – he was so focused on the woman and the girl he had forgotten about the others. He looked at the man who had silently approached. He looked beaten but not helpless.
The woman spoke again, "We aren't going to go anywhere but our ship. I'm sure you understand that you will be better able to do your job without us interfering." The implication was clear. The girl looked like she was going to break down right there. Her shaking had intensified and the whimpering was getting louder. The woman tightened her hold around her and whispered, "Hold on a little longer, Sweetie. You can do it."
Manders spoke into his com unit. "Sir, two of the subjects are requesting to return to their ship. They appear to be uninjured. What are your orders?"
"Allow them to return to their ship. No one is under arrest and present them with your fullest cooperation."
With that the woman nudged the girl around to leave. The girl looked around, stumbled on a bloody Reaver, then slammed her eyes shut.
"Do you require any assistance?" Manders was starting to feel sorry for the young woman. Once she turned around he could see that she was just a kid. A very frightened kid.
"No, thank you, Lieutenant." Keep away from us. He got that message loud and clear.
They slowly maneuvered through the bodies, through his men and then out of sight. The girl still clinging to the woman and resting her head on her shoulder.
After they left, the room was silent again. No one knew what to do next. Manders resisted the absurd impulse to make some kind of small talk. His second nodded in the direction of the blast doors. Manders looked and noticed that two of the group still clutched their weapons.
The man, who appeared to be their leader, also turned to see what they were looking at. He exchanged a look with the woman on the crate. With a curt nod, the woman holstered her gun and then gave a stern look to the big man beside her. After some hesitation, and a glance to the man, he laid down the big gun.
There was a flurry of activity outside – the medical unit had arrived.
Inara and River had barely started up the ramp to Serenity when River collapsed sobbing.
"Sweetie, please, let's get inside."
Get River to Serenity and try to keep the Feds out. I don't want 'em on my boat. Mal had been quietly clear on what he needed her to do.
She managed to get River into the cargo bay. With her arm still holding River, Inara closed the airlock doors. They both sank to the floor. Inara was unable to console the sobbing River as her own emotions overwhelmed her.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds stood back to allow the medical unit access to his crew. He knew he needed help in a bad way but he had to make sure his crew was seen to first. The Lieutenant was looking like he wanted to talk to him. That ain't happening. Mal turned his back to the Officer and tried to assess the situation.
He saw Simon laying on the floor attempting to relay medical information about everyone's condition. Jayne didn't look too bad. Kaylee…well, he wasn't real sure what happened to her. Zoë. Zoë didn't look good at all. Wash... How could he have forgotten? Wash! Oh God, Zoë, I'm so gorramn sorry. He turned away guilt washing over him.
"Here, sit on this stretcher."
"Huh?" Mal looked and saw a young med tech motioning for him to sit down. He sat and passed out.
Inara was emotionally exhausted. She hadn't wanted to give in to the tears that threatened to overwhelm her – she wanted to be strong for River. She didn't know how long she and River sat on the cargo bay floor holding each other but the fact that her leg was asleep led her to believe it had been awhile. She took a deep steadying breath trying to will River into calmness. Her eyes fell to her bare arms and for a moment she was confused. Why I am wearing this?
"Sleeves get in the way." River said. Her voice was quiet and little and not nearly as clear as she had sounded when they left Miranda.
Tightening her arms around River, Inara said, "Let's go see what's left of the common room, okay?"
River nodded. They rose and started for the common area but River stopped and turned around. She was looking in the direction of the bridge.
"He's up there."
At first Inara didn't know what she was talking about. Wash! She and River looked at each other. No tears, just the horror of everything sinking in.
"River stay here. I'm going to check on him. He could need help." Her voice was rising in a very un-Companion like manner. "They may have been mistaken and he just needs help." Even as she said this she knew Mal and Zoë would not be mistaken about such a thing. They had seen too much death not to recognize it. Oh, Zoë!
River just shook her head sadly. "Don't go up there." She held Inara's gaze until the tears filled her eyes and she couldn't see.
Inara looked around at the mess that was the common area. She was alone as River had gone to the passenger showers to get cleaned up. For the first time in her life, Inara absolutely did not want to be alone. Usually, she relished her solitude – time alone with her books, her art, and her thoughts. Now, she didn't know what to do with herself and she certainly didn't want to think.
Unable to think of anything else to do, Inara started to pick up the books that had flown off the shelves. Were these in alphabetical order? Inara smiled at the absurd thought but she didn't fight the compulsion to organize the books properly.
"What the hell are you doing?"
She jumped, startled. So into her mundane task she hadn't heard the cargo bay door open and hadn't heard anyone come in.
She turned to see Jayne standing there.
"Jayne, I'm sorry I didn't hear you."
"Are you reading? Books?"
"No, I'm picking up. I don't know what else to do. It just seemed…." She couldn't finish. She couldn't form any words to explain the stupid task she had to do to keep from thinking.
Jayne nodded seeming to understand. They looked at each other communicating wordlessly more than they had ever communicated verbally. He nodded again and looked around.
Turning a chair over, Jayne sat down with a heavy sigh.
"I don't know. I just can't wrap my head around all this. I ain't never…" He trailed off embarrassed by his emotions.
Inara touched his shoulder. "I don't know what to do. I feel so helpless."
"This is so gorramn awful and unfair and …. How the hell did things get so bad?" He didn't expect an answer. Who had answers for what had happened?
Inara pulled the coffee table closer to his chair and sat down. "How is everyone?" Mal?
"All doped up and fixed up. Mal and Simon got the worst of it. Mal got run through with a sword."
"A sword?" Inara couldn't stop the very inappropriate giggle that escaped her. "He got stabbed with a sword?"
The giggling was really out of control and had turned to full out laughter. Jayne looked at her like she lost her mind.
"I'm sorry," she managed to say. "I know this isn't funny but …." She couldn't continue. Inara covered her face with her hands. Her laughter had turned to crying.
Jayne had never seen Inara anything but the picture of poise and grace. He was a little shocked at the laughing/crying thing. He looked down at the floor feeling helpless. Taking a cue from her earlier actions, he put his hand on her shoulder silently offering some sort of comfort.
Inara sniffed loudly and looked at Jayne. She was a little embarrassed by her emotional outburst.
He grinned at her. "You're nose is runnin' som'in' awful." He went to the Med Bay and handed her some bandages. "Sorry, it's all I could find."
Inara nodded her thanks.
"They're clearing out that poison from her system. She'll be good to go before all the rest of 'em. She's gonna stick around to keep watch"
They fell silent. Both knowing the one person not discussed but not wanting to bring up her name. After a couple of minutes, Jayne had to speak.
"You seen him?"
Inara didn't need to ask who "him" was. She shook her head no. "River says he's in the bridge but we…didn't go up there."
"I think we need to tend to him."
"She don't need to come back and see him as he is."
"Yes, you're right."
With a growl, Jayne abruptly stood up, knocking the chair back. Angry that the chair had tipped over, he kicked it into the wall. Mindlessly, he grabbed debris from the floor and threw whatever he could get his hands on against the wall.
"Godammit it all! Ain't supposed to be this way. Not Wash! Not Book! I'm the merc and who get's it? Our gorramn pilot and our gorramn shepherd! Ain't right! Just ain't right…" His words faded as he punched the nearest wall as hard as he could. His emotions spent, he rested his forehead against the wall.
Inara noticed the blood on his hand. She stepped into the Med Bay and found more bandages that had been scattered around the floor. Jayne didn't even look at her but he offered her his bloody hand. She cleaned and bandaged it the best she could. Then looked up finally meeting his eyes. What she saw there hurt her heart. Pain and unshed tears.
"Nothin's ever goin' to be the same again, is it 'Nara?"
They sat side by side on the common room coffee table. Jayne didn't want to wrestle with that chair again. He looked over at her.
"No use puttin' off what we gotta do."
She nodded unable to speak.
Neither of them moved to get up.
"Hell, let me take care of this. You stay here with River."
"No, you'll need help. You shouldn't have to do this alone."
He nodded glad that she would be there with him.
"Let me check on River and then we'll …."
Jayne watched her walk back to the dorms. He dreaded this task like nothing he had ever dreaded before. He'd rather be back in that room facing off against the Reavers than face what was in the bridge.
He got up and followed Inara to River's room. She was sleeping peacefully. He looked at the girl and tried not to blame her.
Inara saw his look. "It's not her fault."
He had nothing to say about that.
Jayne and Inara were silent all the way to the bridge. They paused in the airlock still not seeing the horror inside. Jayne walked up to the console and looked at Wash. Inara took a deep breath and stepped in. She used all her Companion training to remain calm as she looked at what was left of her friend.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Inara said, "It must have happened right after we landed. He got us all through but …."
They stood quietly mourning their friend. Then, Jayne's practical self returned.
"I need to get a saw to … you know. Will you be alright?"
She nodded. After seeing Wash, she couldn't bear to leave him. How could we have just left him up here alone all that time?
Jayne wasn't gone long. All business, he began the grizzly task of freeing Wash.
They laid Wash out on a stretcher.
"Jayne, go check on River. I'll clean up the rest in here."
Jayne left – relieved that the job was done.
Inara sighed and started cleaning up the blood. She was acutely aware of Wash not three feet from her. As the tears started again, she wondered how any of them would ever get through this. She heard a sound behind her.
"Jayne, please stay with River. I'll take care of this."
When he didn't answer, she looked up. Not Jayne.
Zoë didn't seem to be aware of Inara's presence on the bridge. Stunned at seeing Zoë, Inara froze uncertain about what to do. Companions were trained in offering comfort. They were often engaged at funerals providing grief consolation but this situation was different. These people were her friends…her family.
"Zoë, I'm so so sorry."
Zoë stood with her back to the wall next to the door. Sliding down the wall, she sat on the floor shaking her head. Inara took that as a cue that she needed to be alone. As she walked next to her, she touched her shoulder, and said softly, "If you need anything, I'll be right outside."
Zoë grasped Inara's hand pulling her down to the floor. Still not talking, not looking at anything but Wash, Zoë's grief poured out. Inara did the only thing she could, she held her.
River met Jayne near the passenger dorms. Her peaceful nap had been interrupted by the sound of a saw.
"You're awake, huh?"
River nodded not even giving him a look for his stupid question.
"Let's see if we can get us somethin' to drink. Tea for you and somethin' stronger for me."
They entered the dining area and headed to the galley when River stopped abruptly.
Jayne didn't need to ask who. The look on River's face said it all. Pain, sadness, and guilt? He didn't want a drink anymore. He didn't want anything – just this day to be over.
Jayne was a practical man who liked things uncomplicated and things were about as complicated as they could ever get. Unfamiliar emotions were running high in him and he hated these feelings – couldn't push aside the deep sadness that settled over his head and heart. Twenty-four hours ago he was all on board to do the right thing. Now that the battle was over, he was questioning the rightness of what they had done. The price was too high.
They sat at the dining room table in silence. Jayne was doing his best not to look at River. Having to baby-sit the girl here wasn't helping his disposition any. He was waiting for her eventual meltdown. Hoping that River could wait until Inara got back before losing it, he glanced over at her and a fresh wave of anger washed over him - better to be mad than sad. All your fault. Preacher's dead. Wash's dead. Serenity's near dead. All your fault.
River abruptly jumped up and put her face in her hands. Rocking and whimpering she was on the verge of losing control.
Jayne eyed River warily, unsure of what to do. Inara was still up on the bridge with Zoë and there was no way he was going in there to fetch her. He did not have it in him to console River. If she started to get hysterical, however, he could always slap her. That thought comforted him somewhat until he remembered what she'd done at the Maidenhead and to all those Reavers.
"Calm down, girl!" he growled. "Yer agitatin' me in the worst way with your carryin' on." Best to prevent her from traveling down the road to hysterics.
He glowered at her, silently commanding her to be the hell still.
River quieted and opened her fingers on her face to timidly meet his glare. At the sound of the door to the bridge closing, they both looked to see Inara approaching.
Seeing the look on Inara's face, Jayne forgot about his anger. "Zoë?"
"She needs to be alone with him." Sighing heavily, Inara assessed the River and Jayne situation. "Everything all right here?"
"She was fixin' to get all batty on me."
Inara led River to one of the chairs in the alcove.
"What do we do now, 'Nara?"
The three waited in silence. Inara's presence tempered Jayne's anger and, as a consequence, River's anxiety. No one spoke. Inara and River sat side by side with Inara absently stroking River's hair. Jayne paced and sat and paced and sat. River counted his steps and tried to project the amount of steps he would take before sitting again. Her calculation was interrupted by the sound of the bridge door opening.
No one moved or breathed until they saw Zoë walk through the door. Jayne was most afraid of what he would see. Zoë always kept him in line. She was one of the toughest people he had ever known and he had known plenty of toughies. His respect for her and Mal surprised him since he could count the number of people on one and half hands who had earned his respect. He was afraid she would be broken and defeated. He should have known better.
She appeared expressionless. Before anyone could speak, she immediately started giving orders.
"Jayne, Inara, we're gonna bring Wash down here. Then we'll get some rest and wait for the Captain to come back. I figure we might need to get with the purplebellies to see to Wash properly." As she spoke, she deliberately kept her eyes on Jayne and Inara. "Inara, I'm suggestin' to the Captain that you be the one to talk with them." Not once did she look at River.
Zoë turned to go back to the bridge. Jayne and Inara followed, leaving River alone.
Mal opened his eyes to harsh lights. Blinking in confusion, he looked around trying to remember where he was. A second later, the events of the past several days bombarded him. He wanted to retreat back into sleep but a voice got his attention.
"You alright?" He asked without looking at her.
She didn't sound shiny. Her voice was all Kaylee but the tone was off. He glanced at her. She was smiling at him – a sad, but sincere smile.
"Glad you finally woke up. You been out close to twelve hours."
Hearing that bit of information prompted Mal to attempt sitting up.
"Maybe you shouldn't do that. You sure look a mess, Cap'n."
"Getting' stabbed with a sword is old hat to me, Kaylee. I'm practically an expert sword catcher." He flashed her a quick smile then noticed Simon on the bed on her other side. "How's the doc doin?"
"He was awake for awhile but has settled back into happy sleep once again. He got belly shot, you know. Him and me now have somethin' in common. Although, I guess this ain't such a good thing to have in common. Still –"
Mal stopped her babbling by placing his hand on hers. "You alright?" He asked again looking into her eyes.
"Thought we were goners. That's for sure. River saved us, you know. No power in the 'verse can stop her."
Mal nodded not sure what to say about River at this time.
"She went back to Serenity couple hours ago. Medics here told her to stay put but she just gave them a look then left. No power could stop her either. She didn't talk at all. Didn't say nothin'. Guess she ain't got much conversing in her now…"
He needed to get to her. He couldn't even imagine what she's going through. Should've listened to me in the first place. People in our line of work ain't got no business gambling on happiness like she did. She lost and now she's got a broken heart to show for it. Ain't worth it.
"You heard from Inara?"
"No, but Jayne left almost right after we got here. He got patched up and headed back to Serenity."
By now, Mal had gotten up and was moving around the room looking for his shirt and coat. Kaylee, understanding what he was looking for, got up and handed him his neatly folded shirt.
"One thing about the Alliance, they sure know how to get blood out of clothes."
Mal never dreaded walking into Serenity. Serenity had always been a haven for him. Today, however, as he stood waiting for the cargo bay doors to open, he felt dread. How could he face her? He wished she would rail and scream and hit him but he knew exactly what he would find when he saw her. She wouldn't accuse him or blame him for Wash.
He stepped into the cargo bay and couldn't help a glance in the direction of Shuttle 1. Mal wanted so badly to go there and lose himself in… Shaking his head, he continued to the bridge expecting to find Wash still there but should have known Zoë would have already taken care of removing the body. The door to the mess area was closed. Peering through the window, he could see Wash laid out on the table.
Opening the door, he stepped in.
Zoë had a bowl of water and a cloth and was tending to her husband for the last time. Wash's midsection was wrapped in a colorful fabric that looked to be something from Inara's left behind trunk.
"Never had to tend to a departed this way but it seems right." She didn't look at him as she spoke. "I don't need help for this one, Captain."
Mal felt an irrational surge of satisfaction. She does blame me.
Mal wondered through Serenity taking the long was to Shuttle 1. He paused in front of the closed door debating if this was really the right time to see her. He was weak in so many ways and he didn't want to give too much of himself away – even now in this awful time he had to be strong against her charm but he needed her. Not need. Needing someone is …bad.
Knocking lightly, he opened the door not waiting for a response. Empty. Turning, he headed down the stairs toward the Passenger dorms. Jayne was resting on the couch staring at the ceiling. Seeing Mal, he jerked his head in the direction of Shepherd Book's old room.
Nodding, Mal walked on not knowing what to say to the man whom he should have listened to.
Inara and River were lying on the bunk. River curled against Inara's side with her back to the wall.
Mal sat on the step next to the bunk and rested his head on the wall. His eyes were almost level with Inara's as they held each other's gaze.
River stirred, breaking the moment.
"How is she?"
"I gave her something to help her sleep. She's…" Where to begin describing River's frame of mind. Thankfully, Mal didn't appear as if he required a detailed report of her well being.
"How are you?" He asked the question while staring intently into her eyes.
"I'm fine, Mal. Taking care of River is good for me right now."
"Zoe wants me to talk to the Alliance people about taking …you know…taking care of Wash."
Mal nodded again now staring intently at the floor. "That would probably be best."
"Zoe indicated cremation …" she couldn't finish – couldn't believe what she was saying.
Mal looked up at her abrupt silence. He wanted to comfort her and he knew she wanted to comfort him but he had nothing to offer her and he really had no business taking what she wanted to give him. So, he leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes.