Part XII—Puzzle Pieces
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.
Summary: The crew is reunited, and Mal tries to decipher what has happened.
Zoe pulled Mal into a small alleyway between the storefronts, using the last of her strength to lean him against the wall. She sat down heavily beside him and rested her head against the same wall, drawing in deep breaths for a few minutes. Finally, when she felt she could do so, she turned to him and shook him slightly. "Sir?" she said with as much force as her lungs would allow. "You with me?"
Mal stirred faintly, moaning in his drug-induced sleep. Zoe's heart leapt at the small response. "Sir," she said again, watching him closely. "You gotta wake up."
Mal's eyelids fluttered open and he looked around, disoriented. Zoe continued. "It ain't safe here, out on the street. And I don't have strength enough to carry you."
Mal looked at her with dawning recognition. "Guess I'll have to carry my own self then," he murmured, a slight smile ghosting his lips.
"Reckon you will, at that," Zoe replied blandly.
Mal looked at his surroundings. "How did I…?"
"Don't know, sir," Zoe said. "Jim looked out the hospital window, and there you were, lying in the street."
Mal frowned at the mention of the hospital. "You all right, Zoe?" he asked.
"If you mean, am I gonna live, the answer's yes," Zoe replied evenly. "But I ain't all right by a long shot."
"How long was I…?" Mal asked.
"Six days, best we can figure," Zoe said. "You never showed up at the hospital."
Mal grimaced. "Sorry about that. Meant to be there for the both of you."
Zoe shrugged. "S'all right. Jim and I were together, anyway."
As if her words had conjured him, Jim came haltingly around the corner. Zoe looked up at him, startled. "How did you get here?" she asked.
"Sn..snuck p..past n..n..nurse," Jim admitted.
"Looks like you're well on the mend," Mal said, squinting up at Jim.
Jim nodded, leaning against the wall for support as his balance wavered slightly.
Mal turned back to Zoe. "Best we get you two back to the hospital and wave River at the cabin. She's bound to be worried."
"Not necessary," River's voice preceded her into the alleyway. "We're here."
Simon dropped to his knees beside Mal, quickly assessing his patient. Mal moved to push him away. "That can wait 'til I know what the diyu is goin' on," he said. Looking at River in consternation, he added, "Why ain't you at the cabin, where it's safe?"
"Wasn't safe," River replied, sighing. "Now let Simon do his job."
Mal scowled, but let Simon proceed. "What happened at the cabin?"
River sank down beside him, needing to feel the solidity of him pressed against her side. As Simon worked, she told Mal the story of everything that had happened since his disappearance as quickly as she could.
Zoe and Jim sat open-mouthed beside him, having been unaware of what the others were going through beyond their search for Mal. River looked at them apologetically. "Didn't want to worry you more than was necessary," she said.
"Helluva thing to keep to yourself," Zoe murmured as Jim squeezed her shoulder gently.
"So the hundans know about Adam," Mal said. "All the more reason to stay away from the city."
"He was the only one who could see what was happening to you," River said quietly.
"BlueSun has apparently developed some kind of shield to block River's abilities," Simon added, putting his medical kit away. "I'll need to do some tests on you when we get back to Serenity, but everything looks good so far."
"Then I can get up now?" Mal said, standing up slowly on shaky legs. Realizing it was the first time he'd stood in six days, he felt strangely detached from his body. Leaning heavily on River, he walked out into the bright sunlight of Capitol City, followed somberly by the others.
Having seen Mal safely back to the Osiris docks to Serenity, Zoe and Jim were settling back into their room at the hospital. "Don't seem right," Zoe said darkly. "Ain't likely that they would just leave him lyin' out where we'd be sure to see 'im, less'n they wanted us to."
Jim nodded soberly. "Wh..what d..d..do you th..think..they d…d…d…did to h..h..him?"
Zoe suppressed a shudder. "Don't know. Nothing obvious, so far as Simon could tell. Said he checks out fine."
Jim stared at her, his blue eyes expressive of his worry. "N…n..not l..l..likely," he said.
Zoe returned his gaze. "Best we be gettin' back on our feet sooner rather than later. I don't want to still be in here when the other shoe drops."
Jim nodded his agreement.
Simon replayed the results from the medical scanner, looking intently for anything he might have missed. Sighing, he turned to Mal. "There's just nothing," he said. "Nothing unusual at all. This scan looks exactly like the one I did on you two weeks ago, when you took that tumble in the cargo bay. The only difference is the chafing where you were apparently restrained, and the needle marks."
"And the drugs?" Mal asked.
"Standard sedatives," Simon said, mystified. "Enough of them to knock out an elephant, but just standard sedatives nonetheless."
"So, you got any objection to me sleeping the rest of it off in my own bunk?" Mal asked.
"I'd prefer to have you under observation," Simon said.
"River'll observe me," Mal replied, pushing himself off the exam table quickly.
Unable to think of any reason to keep him, Simon watched Mal walk out into the corridor with more than a little uneasiness.
"Reynolds' ship has left the docks," the younger man reported. "Do you wish us to follow?"
The blue-gloved man said nothing for a moment, until the younger man shifted uneasily on his feet. "No," he said at last. "We will concentrate our resources on the current project. Its success will guarantee that we can reacquire the Tam siblings and their offspring whenever we wish."
The younger man smiled slowly. "Like fish in a barrel, you might say."
The older man smiled thinly. "Indeed," he replied.
Adam climbed down into his parents' bunk, squinting in the low light to make out the silhouette of his father on the bed. "Daddy," he whispered. "Are you asleep?"
"You know already that I'm not," Mal replied, smiling as he held out his arms in welcome.
Adam crawled up onto the bed, curling into his father's strong arms. "Missed you, Daddy," he said.
"Your mother tells me that you saw some of what happened to me," Mal said softly.
"A little," Adam admitted, shivering slightly.
Mal sighed, hating the question he was about to ask. "Did you see what they were trying to do?"
Adam shook his head. "Don't know," he said. "Just saw you." He paused for a moment. "You were afraid."
"Yes," Mal admitted. "I was." Seeing the look in his son's eyes, he added, "It's natural to be afraid when you're facing something you don't know. If people aren't afraid of that, it's 'cause they're not thinkin' straight. And fear can keep you safe sometimes."
"How?" Adam asked, his little brow wrinkled in confusion.
"Because a certain kinda' fear makes you pay attention to what's going on around you. And if you can control it, you can be observant enough to protect yourself from whatever it is that's scaring you, sometimes."
Adam nodded, though he was not thoroughly convinced. "Glad you're home now."
"Me too, little one, me too," Mal said.
Adam looked toward the ladder to see River descending gracefully. "Hey, Mama," he said. "Was just talking to Daddy a minute."
River nodded. "That's good," she said. "But I think Daddy might need to rest."
Kissing Adam's sandy-brown hair, Mal set the boy back on his feet. "'Spect that's so, little one," he said.
"'Night, Daddy," Adam said, walking obediently to the ladder. "See you tomorrow."
Mal nodded, knowing what was needful. "Yes, you will," he confirmed.
River waited until Adam was gone and closed the hatch softly. "Are you all right, ai ren?"
Knowing it was useless to lie to a Reader, Mal replied simply, "Nowhere even close."
River sat on the edge of the bed and pulled her knees up to her chin. "We're in the Black," she offered.
Mal nodded. "Felt the take-off," he said.
They sat for a moment in silence. "Father knows of a place," River said finally. "A kind of wilderness on the other side of Osiris. We should be safe there, until Zoe and Jim are ready to come back aboard." She looked at Mal intently. "Unless you want to leave them here and find work."
Mal shook his head. "Zoe's treatments will be over in a few days, and as I understand it, once Jim's to a certain point, we can do for him here what they're doing for him there. Right?"
"That's right," River confirmed.
Mal let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. "Ain't all that sure about things right now, bao bei," he admitted.
River laid her hand gently across his. "I know," she said simply.
"This whole shielding thing," Mal said. "Is it still there?"
River reached out tentatively with her mind. "I don't think so," she said slowly. "I can hear you now."
Mal sat up eagerly. "Can you see what was done to me?"
"Only your impression of it," River said sadly.
Mal fell back against the bulkhead. "S'what I was afraid of," he said. After a moment, he looked at her hopefully. "Maybehaps you could tell if you really dug deep."
"Tell what, ai ren?" she asked compassionately.
Mal swallowed thickly. "What they did," he answered, a terrible dread in his voice. "River, I don't have any notion as to what was happening. Not really, anyway. I was…asleep, dreaming. Seemed like it was going to last forever, dream after dream until there was no sense of time anymore. And then I'd wake up to that room, that empty white nothingness. They didn't say anything, at least not anything of use. Just kept sticking the gorram needles in and watching their monitors. For all I know, they've changed something important, something deep down inside me, and then covered it up so's I don't even know. And it's the not knowin' that eats at me." His blue eyes flashed with pain. "What am I?"
River placed a gentle head on either side of his face. "You're Mal," she said.
"Am I?" he asked, doubt tingeing his tone. "Read me, darlin'," he said. "Tell me that after you read me."
River closed her eyes, leaning into him as she concentrated all her mental capacity on her husband's mind. She laid her head against his chest, feeling the rhythm of his heart as she searched the mind she knew better than any other save her own. He lay beneath her, doing what he could to aid her search, opening himself to the gentle invasion. The room was quiet for a long time, until finally she stirred. "I see nothing other than you, ai ren," she said.
"No triggers, no tampering, no…whatever?" Mal asked, hardly daring to believe her words.
"No," River answered. "Nothing."
Mal drew her into his arms, feeling suddenly lighter by half. "You're sure?"
"Certain," River replied. "Whatever their purpose, you are still you."
"Good to know, darlin'," he said softly. "Good to know."
Two weeks passed, mercifully uneventfully, and Mal began to feel right again in his own skin. Looking out at the wilderness around them, he smiled at Gabriel. "You ready to get back to Capitol City?"
Gabriel pulled the nettles from his pants leg, where Adam was swinging happily. "I do indeed believe I've had enough of nature to last for awhile," he said.
Mal laughed, catching Adam up into his arms as they walked back up the ramp. "Best you go get washed up," he said as he set Adam down on sturdy legs. "Miss Kaylee's got a stew cooking."
Adam squealed, always eager for Kaylee's fine cooking. Gabriel watched his grandson go with a wistful look. "You won't be back again for a long time, will you?" he asked.
Mal sighed. "Not likely. Best for us to stay away from the Core worlds now they know about Adam."
"I'm sorry, Captain," Gabriel said. "Truly sorry for my part in bringing that knowledge to their attention."
Mal smiled bleakly. "Couldn't have hidden it forever anyway," he said. "And least we know that they know. Can take steps to keep 'im safe."
Gabriel nodded. "There is no one else I would entrust him to," he said. "Buddha knows you've provided safe haven for my own children."
Mal inclined his head, figuring that was all the answer required. Closing the ramp, he hit the comm.. "River, take us back to the city. Jim and Zoe're waiting to be picked up."
Almost immediately, he felt Serenity lift beneath his feet as River complied with his instruction. And walking toward the galley to get his share of Kaylee's stew, he thought about how to protect his family from what he could only assume was a gathering storm.
Author's Note: This ends another arc in the monstrously long Mal/River storyline. BlueSun's true purpose will be revealed, as all villainous plots are, in the course of time. But first, Mal and crew will be meeting up with the crew of the Hit or Miss for another adventure, entitled "Four of a Kind", which I am currently co-writing with the wonderfully talented MidnightObsidian. For those who have stuck with this storyline so far, I applaud your tenacity and I very much appreciate all your support. Until the next arc begins, happy reading and writing to you!