This story is a giftfic for Sue Penkivech. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had writing it!
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction using characters, locations and concepts created by Joss Whedon and belonging to Twentieth Century Fox. No claim of ownership is made or implied by me in using their property. No part of this work is intended for material gain of any kind. It is intended for the sole purpose of creative exercise and the entertainment of others.
"Ai ya, wo mun wan leh."
Wash raked fingers numb with dread through his mess of tawny locks and knew that trouble didn't even begin to describe being stranded on a life raft with Jayne and River. He stared at the empty supply chest at the rear of the raft, as if he could make the missing beacon reappear inside if only he looked at it long enough.
The supply chest remained stubbornly beaconless, leaving Wash with nothing to do but to turn to his companions and say, "It must have fallen out during the storm."
"You think?" Jayne said, glaring at him over his shoulder. A greenish tinge had fallen over his face all the way to his neck, clashing horribly with the rust-colored tee he was wearing. It appeared the burly man and the open sea were having a powerful disagreement with each other. He'd planted himself in the exact center of their oval-shaped craft and kept shifting about at random moments as if it were three sizes too small for him. Wash could almost sympathize with that. He was feeling mighty crowded himself.
River didn't seem all that bothered at the thought of floating in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue, at least. She was lounging at the opposite end of the life raft, one hand tracing lazy trails through the water while she stared up at the sky in silent contemplation. Wash had no idea what the dark-haired girl could be looking at, though, the air around them was so thick with milky fog he could barely see the water lapping below them. It was like floating through a marshmallow.
Damn. Now he wanted marshmallows.
"You doing all right, there, River?" Wash asked, hoping a little concern would help distract him from thoughts of puffy white deliciousness he couldn't have.
"I'm fine," she said without looking back at him. "Just watching the stars."
Jayne snorted in disbelief. "There ain't no stars," he said. Then, more quietly, he added, "Fong luh girl don't even know enough to see where we are."
"Didn't figure you for one to get ready to shuffle this soon," Wash said, hoping the contempt wasn't as obvious as it seemed to him. Some because he didn't want to set him off, some because he wasn't so sure he was exactly wrong in that assessment.
The challenge was answered by a crablike flailing of legs as Jayne turned in his spot to face Wash. "I'm just sayin' what's plain truth," he said. The boat wobbled from his efforts and Jayne paused to wobble himself, eyes and cheeks bulging queasily. "Don't take no genius to tell."
Jayne thrust an accusing finger Wash's way. "I tol' the Captain this was a moonbrained plan."
As much as he hated to admit it, there was some truth to that. They hadn't even planned to be on this drip of a planet for much of a spell, and then the hundan Alliance had to go poking around looking for Jayne, forcing Mal to find a place to stash both him and River.
After all the other close calls, though, the only way they weren't going to be found on board the ship was if they weren't on it. Fortunately, the mist given off by the waters of this rock was made of some mix of gasses that put most sensors in a backward spiral to nowhere.
At least, it had seemed fortunate.
All they'd needed to do was spend one night floating around on the life raft. No ship had a hope of finding anything in this ocean without a beacon to guide it, and wasn't it very nice that they were fresh out of beacon? They'd barely been adrift an hour when the storm had hit, vomiting lightning close enough to reach out and touch and hurtling their meager boat from one broad fist of water to the next. It was like being in the middle of a fierce battle between two sea gods from the old stories. They were lucky the beacon was all they'd lost, if they could really call this luck. He hated the idea, but it was looking much too likely that he was never going to see the black again. Or hear the roar of Serenity's engines. Or play with his favorite toy dinosaurs. Or feel the warm embrace of Zoe. Or smell the clean that was anyplace far from Jayne.
There was no way to guess how long they'd been drifting short of the fact that night hadn't fallen again. Surrounded by fog made it seem like they'd fallen out of time, just three people caught in a pocket of the worst atmo in the galaxy. Wash wasn't even sure if his favorite Hawaiian shirt had dried one ounce since the storm. He must have wrung out the sleeves and the front half a million times and it still clung to him like a second skin.
In the distance something slapped at the water. It was the first sound they'd heard outside of the life raft since the storm finally blew itself out, but when Wash turned toward it and listened for more, all he caught was silence and the ever-growing pulse of isolation. Just a fish, he supposed.
"I tol' the Captain," Jayne repeated from where he sat, hunched over himself, hands clasped together, elbows hinged at his knees. He raised his eyes toward Wash and worked his jaw as if chewing at an overcooked lump of meat. "Things go desperate and I have to make some hard decisions, you remember that it's his fault, not mine."
"Well, things aren't desperate yet." Wash began rifling through the supplies which had survived the storm. There had to be something left they could use. "Just… don't start picking out which of us to eat first when the food runs out just yet, okay?"
Jayne gave him a scandalized look. "Hey, I wouldn't do that," he said. "I ain't no gorram cannibal." He looked Wash over and attempted to look dignified, a gesture that was about as convincing as putting a grizzly bear in a tux and marching it into one of Inara's Grand Balls. "Comes to that, I aim to snap your neck and fish with the bits of you I slice off."
"You're not exactly winning me over with talk that still involves me being eaten by something."
River chose that moment to sit bolt straight, as if someone had flipped a switch on her. "The star wants us to follow it," she said.
Both men regarded her with matching blank stares. Her medicine had to be wearing off, Wash figured. If they get her to the doc for more soon she was certain to get a lot worse. Before Ariel worse. And quickly.
Jayne, of course, had his own take. "Little freak." He glanced at her over his shoulder and said, "You want I should try and throw you to that gôu pì make-believe star, I can maybe oblige. Be doin' us all a favor."
River gave him a curious, moon-eyed stare. "It lost its way," she said. "In the dark."
"Don't pay any attention to him," Wash said to the waifish young woman. Not that claiming a star wanted something didn't rank pretty high on his 'odd things to think' list, but given the circumstances it seemed like the safest course of action was to humor her. "He's just in a bad mood because the boat keeps rocking baaaaack and forth, baaaaaack and forth."
As he'd hoped, Jayne made a slightly strangled noise and lurched toward the side of their raft. After he was done being sick he glared back at Wash. "I ought to rip off your arms for that," he said, wiping his mouth with his arm.
Somehow the theme of removing parts of his body kept coming up, Wash noted. "Or," he said, drawing the word out to indicate he had a much better idea, one which didn't involve amputations of any kind, "we could not try to upset certain people who might be in an unpredictable mood, right?" Especially while they were trapped on a tiny raft with limited exit potential.
"We should hurry," River announced, apparently unconcerned with the discussion Wash and Jayne were having. "Time is moving too fast." She rolled onto her stomach and began to happily paddle through the water with her bare hands. At first the raft seemed indifferent to her efforts, but after a moment it grudgingly plodded forward.
Jayne snorted in contempt and grumbled something that sounded like, "'Tain't worth it." He shifted around until he was laying across the width of the boat and tried to find a comfortable pose to get some shut-eye. The life raft hadn't really been designed for sleeping, so he tossed and turned for a good while before settling on a semi-fetal position with his arms crossed in front of him. A blanket of fog drifted over him as if the very air itself was trying to help lull him asleep.
After the night they'd had, Wash was surprised he wasn't dead tired himself, but he couldn't even imagine taking a nap. There was too much to do, still. He resumed his search through their supplies, hoping he'd stumble across something that he'd find useful. So far the results were proving less than good. For the most part, it was expected that if they ever had to evacuate the ship, it would be while they were in the black. The life raft wasn't stocked for much of a stay, and they hadn't planned to float around for more than a few hours anyway. Other than the beacon, they hadn't grabbed much on the way, and beyond a day or so's worth of rations, Wash found himself sifting through a small collection of mostly useless junk.
A string of Mandarin curses flowed from Wash as he shut the supply chest in disgust. Nobody much seemed to notice; River was busy trying to carry the raft after her phantom star and Jayne was snoozing away in a more or less contented fashion. Serenity had to be looking for them, though. If he kept his ears sharp he might catch it skimming the surface and get its attention some other way. How hard could it be?
The reality set in as soon as that hopeful thought had time to grow a little too much. He knew his ship, and he knew what she could do. Unfortunately that also meant he knew what she couldn't do, and she simply didn't have the fuel to waste combing the ocean looking for them.
Again he tried to find some spark of hope he could cling to, something to preserve the thought that they'd be found. He'd have had better luck trying to catch a fist full of sand in a dust cloud. There was nothing left. Nothing but the waiting.
Without even knowing why, Wash began to softly sing an old tune, something his mother used to sing for him when he was a child. He loved singing it for Zoe, even though it always made her laugh, he couldn't carry a tune and didn't even remember half the words. There was just something about it he'd always liked, though, and it made him feel better to hear it. Even if it was just a little.
The last few words of the song passed into silence, leaving only the sound of River dragging her arms through the water to break in the encroaching silence. That is, until Jayne decided to wake up.
"We got anything to eat?" he said, pushing himself up from where he'd been laying. "I'm starvin'."
Good to know Jayne's concerns were of the more basic variety. After the way he'd emptied his stomach earlier, his hunger came as no surprise. Wash gave him a curt nod and extracted three ration bars from the supply chest. Blue Sun MREs, high in protein and all the flavor of an old boot. He handed one to Jayne and then called to River until he got her attention and tossed the extra one to her. She caught it and peeled away the wrapper, examining it curiously, as if she wasn't sure what to do with it.
"The taste isn't much, but it'll keep you going," Wash assured her. He unwrapped his own bar and examined it, curling his lips in disgust at the grayish color and the little tan flecks that could be seen lurking just below the surface. He'd never actually eaten one himself and was basing the description on what Zoe and Mal had said about them. Zoe and Mal were much tougher than he was, and just because they survived eating these things didn't mean he would.
Jayne didn't seem to mind the flavor. Each bite he took was accompanied by a contented grunt and he chewed away without paying any attention to the other two.
Wash shrugged. How bad could it possibly be? He lifted the bar to his mouth and braced himself as he prepared to take his first bite. His eyes scanned the boat to make sure nobody was watching his display, only to blink in confusion when he noticed that River, instead of eating her bar, was breaking off little pieces of it and collecting them in a pile on the skirt of her dress. He left his bite untaken. "I'm not sure that will do anything to improve the flavor," he told her, but she kept right on working her way through it until she'd torn apart the entire thing.
The comment got Jayne's attention. He'd just finished his own ration and looked to see her put the last nugget on the pile. "Hey, what's she doin'?"
Before either of them could stop her, River scooped up the entire pile and cast them overboard. "Dance!" she said, ignoring the protests from Wash and Jayne while the little chunks described a fanlike arc over the water, vanishing into the thick white mist before they even heard the raindrop sounds of them falling into the ocean, lost forever.
"What'd you go and do that for?" Jayne said, nostrils flaring. "If you didn't want it you coulda given it to me." River ignored him and went back to lying on her stomach and paddling the boat with her arms. Jayne scowled and reached for her. "Now you listen to me-"
"You can have mine," Wash said before Jayne got close enough to grab River. "I'm not all that hungry anyway." It was hard to have much of an appetite when everything seemed pointless. He offered the bar to Jayne, who took it and quickly gnawed off a huge hunk.
Wash couldn't resist, even though he knew it was a bad idea. "I already put it in my mouth, though."
"Gorram it!" Jayne said, spitting out the bite. He glared at Wash and flexed his plentiful muscles menacingly. "You best put an end to agitatin' me or so help me I'll-"
"Or you'll what?" Wash leaned toward him in answer to the challenge, fixing Jayne with a wide, wild-eyed stare of sudden courage that bordered on manic. "Kill me? Look around you, we're already dead! They're never going to find us; we're just going to keep floating in the middle of nowhere until we all starve, so if you want to kill me, then go right on ahead!" Wash blinked as the reality of the words he'd spoken smothered the flame of frustration which had given them birth. He settled back to his seat. "Erm, preferably in a painless, non-fatal way," he hastily added.
Jayne's face squinched up as he looked at Wash with an perplexed expression that was like a dog confronted with a peculiarly aggressive squirrel. "The crazy must be catching," he finally said. "You both belong in a gorram bughouse."
Wash grabbed up one of the oars laying nearby. "Well, then I guess I should be helping her chase that star." He was still feeling just defiant enough to thumb his nose at Jayne a little, even if it didn't much matter. Jayne stared at him a bit longer, but didn't have anything to say other than to repeat his opinion of his boatmates' collective sanity. Wash didn't really care if Jayne thought he was crazy. This was something to do, and that was better than just sitting in the raft and waiting to die.
At first he drew the oar through the water haphazardly, just to feel it drag through the water with each haphazard stroke. Every time it slapped against the surface he felt a cathartic swell, as if he was lashing out at the chain of events which had landed him here in the first place. Eventually he settled into an even tempo, unconsciously following the beat of River's arms through the water. That helped too, he found. There was something soothing about the pattern, the regular motion of each stroke. He looked down to watch the ripples in the water through the veil of mist surrounding him and nearly dropped the oar in surprise when he saw stars, vivid as a in a clear night, reflected on the surface.
Wash snapped his head back up to look at the sky, but all he saw was the same heavy fog as before, blotting out the stars and everything else. When he looked back down at the water, the stars were gone from it as well. Just his imagination, then. He dipped his oar back into the water, and as soon as it broke the surface he saw the reflection return, clear as ever. It was a perfect starscape, every pinpoint of light twinkling proud, with one star just ahead glowing brighter than all the others. His eyes flicked up a little more and caught River looking at him, a pleased smile on her face.
"That's good," she said. "That's very good."
So apparently Jayne was right. He really was as crazy as her now. Shiny.
He wasn't about to tell Jayne what he was seeing, though, and went back to rowing along with River. The stars returned every time he cut through the water, and Wash soon found himself focusing on the bright star ahead. He had no idea why River wanted to get to it, or what she expected them to do when they got closer, but he supposed she'd tell them eventually. It wasn't like the stars were going anywhere, after all.
Actually, the ebb and flow of the water did sort of give the illusion of movement as he studied the reflection of the stars. They shifted around quite a bit, in fact, and not always in the same direction as the water. That was strange. If he didn't know any better, he'd almost swear the bright star was actually coming toward them. And pretty fast, too…
Wash flinched as he looked up again, half expecting they were about to be hit by a meteor. A second later he felt a sharp tug on his oar which nearly wrenched it from his hands. When he lifted it back out of the water, he discovered over half of it had been bitten off, leaving jagged shreds trailing off from the remaining flat edge.
"Oh, juh jen sh guh kwai luh duh jean jan…" Wash looked over at River, who was still busily wading her arms through the water, and all the blood in him seemed to drain right down to his feet. Those hadn't been stars he'd seen reflected in the water he realized. They weren't reflections, either. "River, look out!" He lunged past Jayne, who barked a sharp protest, and practically tackled the woman at the front of the raft. With as much strength as he could summon, Wash pulled River away from the water, nearly pitching himself overboard in the process.
The water in front of Wash erupted in a violent spray and the ugliest fish in the 'verse rose out and snapped at his face, teeth the size of his thumbs grazing just shy of his nose before it flopped back below the surface. River and Wash both screamed, she in alarm, he in horror. The fish, if it could rightly be called that, was as long as his arm and had a squashed-in face like a bulldog. It wore its bones on the outside, long spines ringing it like an armored porcupine. Worst of all, the bones glowed with an eerie light, making each of its razor-sharp teeth seem to pulse with hunger. He could have sworn the thing glared at him with its bulbous eyes before circling around for another pass.
Wash quickly pulled himself away from the edge of the boat before it got a chance to jump for him again. It broke the surface, but instead of going airborne, it hissed, a sound like gurgling lava, and dipped back down.
"The hell was that?" Jayne demanded, suddenly sitting erect and guarded as if ready for an attack from every direction.
Wash gave him a panicked look as he helped River steady herself. "Do I look like a marine biologist to you? It wants to eat us. What else do you need to know?"
"Well, for starters," Jayne said, eyes scanning the water on all sides, "how many of its friends it brought."
Sure enough, when Wash looked around the raft, he saw at least a dozen glowing fish circling it, each one as bloated and savage looking as the one that had tried to eat his face. "Okay," he said in the calmest voice he could manage. "They can't get us while we're in the boat. All we have to do is stay right where we are and we'll be fine."
Something stuck the raft from below with a heavy thump, causing it to lurch violently to one side. A moment later it was hit from the opposite end.
"Aw, not again!" Jayne said. He groaned and clutched at his stomach while all of them desperately tried to keep their balance. The boat rocked wildly as it was buffeted on every side. It was impossible to know which way to look, and whenever they tried to compensate for one impact, another would send them hurtling dangerously close to the edge of the raft.
Several of them hit the boat in a sudden barrage, nearly causing the entire thing to tip over. River clutched desperately to the bench at her feet, but the slick surface rejected her and she fell back with a scream. Without even thinking, Wash dove for her, catching her by the wrist just as the boat righted itself, leaving her dangling over the side.
"I've got you!" Wash told her. "Hold on!"
"Hold on!" he said again. He strained to pull her back onto the raft. The monster fish were sure to notice that she was in the water and would be on her in moments. His footing wasn't good enough for decent leverage, and he could feel her damp wrist slide an inch through his grip. He pulled again and managed to haul her a little ways up. One more ought to do it, he figured.
The boat was hit again, pitching them forward. Wash dug in his feet and pulled as hard as he could, only to feel River's hand slip through his fingers.
Before he could even scream her name, Jayne appeared, whipping his arm out and catching River before she vanished into the water. With a single heave he raised her out of the water and dragged her back onto the raft just as one of the fish made a lunge for her feet. It got a mouthful of shoe, and dug in with its teeth, wriggling violently as if it could pull River back down all by itself. River shrieked and thrashed her foot as she tried to wrestle it free from the fish's mouth, but it held fast and bit down harder. Another moment and it would tear the shoe to shreds and get at her foot.
Wash snatched the damaged oar and brought it down as hard as he could onto the fish, splintering the remaining flat side against its girth. The blow stunned the fish and it fell back, taking River's shoe with it.
The other fish, sensing their prey had eluded them, resumed their assault on the raft. "All right, that is it," Jayne said when the boat lurched again, and unsnapped the lip of one of the long pockets in his pants. He reached inside and withdrew a long, slender tube with a smooth metal surface. Wash recognized what it was immediately, not that he considered that a good thing.
"You brought a grenade?" Wash asked in disbelief.
Jayne gave one end a sharp tug and tossed it overboard. "Best take cover," he said to the others as he curled as much of himself against the bottom of the raft as he could.
"Are you crazy?" Wash yelled as he and River followed his example. They didn't have long to wait, and the raft nearly shot out of the water from the force of the explosion. Water gushed into the air like a geyser, drenching them anew, and the raft landed hard, sending up another fresh spray. It spun in place as if caught in a whirlpool before silence fell and the raft finally eased itself still.
Wash tentatively lifted his head, heart hammering against his chest and watched the sea bubble forth around them with the very lifeless bodies of the fish which had been trying to make a meal out of them. He looked back at Jayne. "You brought a grenade?"
"What? Are you sorry I did?" Jayne wiped rivulets of water away from his stubbly face and leaned over to get his own look at his handiwork. One of the fish bumped harmlessly against the side of the boat and Jayne reached down and grabbed it by one of its bony protrusions. Hauling it onboard, he gave a smug laugh and said, "Now this is what I call dinner."
"You aren't seriously thinking of eating that thing, are you?"
"Sure, why not?" He tossed the uneaten portion of the ration bar to Wash. "You can have this back, if you want." Another pocket produced a long knife and Jayne got to work slicing the fish open. He got about halfway down the belly when the knife hit something with a metallic clang. "Huh?" He cut into it again, easing it around until he had the whole thing opened up and nearly jumped back as a flat metal box tumbled out of it in a meaty plop.
"No way," Wash said, looking from the box to Jayne and back again.
"What?" Jayne asked.
Wash reached out and took hold of the box, which was warm and coated with slimy fish insides, but he didn't care. He prodded each side until he found what he was looking for and pressed down, feeling the familiar click of a button. He held his breath and waited.
"What?" Jayne repeated.
A small red light blinked on next to Wash's thumb and he let out his breath in a victorious whoop. "It's the beacon!" he said. "We're going home!"
River just smiled.
It was roughly an hour before Serenity arrived. Wash tracked the passage of time by watching the steady pulse of the beacon's light. They heard the familiar roar of the ship's engines a good while before they actually saw it, and nearly tipped the raft over standing up and waving their arms happily to get its attention. When the boarding ramp lowered for them, Shepherd was the one waiting to greet them, but the others weren't far behind him. Simon practically crushed River to death hugging her in his gratitude to have his sister back. Zoe was much more restrained, but she was just as glad to see Wash back. He could tell.
"There's towels and a hot meal waiting for you," the Captain said when he finally arrived. "Go get dried up. We got a job to do and we've lost a lot of time."
Wash smiled at Mal. "With all that heat from the Alliance, I'm surprised you didn't just leave us."
While everyone else made assurances that of course they'd never abandon them, Mal gave Wash a level look. "No one gets left behind," he said. "Besides, between the good doctor wanting his sister back and Zoe worrying about you, I'd most likely have a revolt on my hands if I tried."
"Hey," Jayne said, wounded dignity darkening his eyes. "What about me?"
Mal made a show of thinking about it. "I possibly recollect Vera put in a good word for you."
At the mention of Jayne's prize gun, his face split into a wide, scruffy grin. "That's my girl."
It was good to be back.