He'd expected the pain to follow him to sleep. Hadn't expected the torture chamber to come along with.
"Electrocution's a bit unoriginal, don't you think sir?"
The electricity blisters through them, and he grits his teeth and strains against the pain but he will not scream. Won't give Niska the satisfaction or let Zoe see him break when she's doing such a fine job of not crying out her own self.
The pain leaves him panting. "Anticipated a bit more flair." He closes his eyes. "Reputation being what it-"
Current coursing through him, 'til every muscle clenches and burns and he will not yell out.
Wash is standing there when it abates, bundle of cash in hand. When Niska offers him a choice, it doesn't take but a moment and his gaze never leaves Zoe's face. "I'm taking my wife home. Sorry, Mal."
And Mal can't begrudge him that even as the blade cuts into his ear and he wakes up gasping. Each breath a surge of agony as his chest burns and cracked ribs ache and his head throbs. Ain't no part of his body doesn't ache or burn, and he wonders if he shouldn't have told the doc in clipped Chinese just where he could shove those meds. But a captain can't be fuzzy in the head and he just supposes he won't be sleeping any more tonight.
If the crew notices he ain't quite himself the next day, that maybe he's a little short with Kaylee when she starts on about some engine part, they don't say a thing. He isn't surprised, through. Amazing what being tortured to death will inspire some folks to overlook.
The hole in his chest hasn't stopped throbbing by ship's night. He's damn tired of it already, not to mention every other burn and bruise and cut and fracture, and he eases into his bunk grateful for the repose he knows is on its way.
He's tied up next to Kaylee.
"And the – the damper–" she's sobbing too hard to get the words out, slumped against the frame like a ragdoll or perhaps something a bit less cliched. "Damper needs – "
"Come on, little Kaylee, you tell me what's wrong with my–"
Bites down on his cry so hard his jaw's another little burst of pain against the backdrop of agony coursing through him. But what's worse is Kaylee's scream, desperate and ragged for as long as the shock goes on, until it leaves her breathless and sobbing. It ain't right.
When he looks up there's Jayne, moneybag in hand. Look on his face, Mal even entertains the idea he hasn't pocketed any of it.
"Now who will it be? The man who pays you or the sweet little girl?"
Pays you gets Jayne's attention but it's hardly a second before the big man nods to Kaylee. "Lots of folks in this 'verse willing to pay me," he says. Niska lets him take Kaylee up in his arms and he eyes Mal pityingly over her limp body. "Sorry, Mal."
"Kill ya myself you hadn't picked her," Mal says, but his you-done-right smile is paralyzed by the white hot pain of the knife to his ear and he wakes up moaning. He clutches at his aching chest in the dark and supposes he should be glad that even the Jayne of his nightmares chooses right. Still, he ain't getting back to sleep.
He doesn't go up to breakfast but there's a new deal to be made, so he pretties himself up enough to appear respectable despite his face looking like it's been through a meat grinder and spends half the day negotiating with the lady. Later Simon wants to see how his ear's doing but he can't abide the thought of anyone poking and prodding so he walks right past him and lets the hatch to his bunk slam shut.
That night he looks over to see Simon trussed up beside him, weak and panting.
"If not for that sister of yours-"
The agony shears through him, jerking him back and nearly costing him his train of thought. But the boy's fading and so he clenches his teeth and pulls him back the only way he knows.
"-wouldn't have had to deal with this hwun dan to begin with. Plenty more jobs we coulda taken without fugitives on boaarrgh-"
He squeezes his eyes shut and holds the rest of the moan inside. He's getting so damn tired of this he can't hardly see the point. When he opens them there's Kaylee standing there.
"I'm sorry, Cap'n," she says. "But River needs him."
He's beginning to see a pattern.
The next day they're flying deep in the Black and he keeps mainly to his bunk. If the crew notices the dark circles formed 'round his eyes or the way he don't even give half a smile when River makes paper hats and tries to set them atop everyone's heads, they still don't say nothing.
That night it's River, and she endures each shock with a solemn silence that's mightily disturbing in more ways than one. When the zapping ain't going on she talks.
"Electric eels can produce strong electric shocks of around 500 volts for both self-defense and hunting."
Not exactly a thing he wants to know.
"I'm sorry, Mal," is the first thing Simon says when he's offered the choice. It ain't no less than what Mal'd been expecting.
They spend another day in the Black and the only one to come see him is Inara, who has rent to pay and wonders where he's been the past few days. He tells her it ain't none of her business, but that night when she's screaming against the current beside him, River picks her in a second. It's like the girl knows inside his brain.
He doesn't talk to anyone the next day in hopes it'll mean the dreams'll stop.
Instead Inara chooses Book 'cause it's the proper thing to do, saving the weaker man, though Mal takes solace in the tears he sees in her eyes when she does.
Next night, Book picks Jayne because that man is supporting an indigent mother and he's got a sister's not well, did he know. Mal has to agree he ain't there for nobody but himself.
By the day they reach the pick-up planet for their cargo, Mal hasn't slept more'n two hours at a stretch and there ain't nobody he can look at who hasn't left him behind.
Worse, there's not a single one of them he thinks'd be wrong in doing so.
He'd been glad of Zoe's choice when it happened because it was tactical as well as born out of love. He'd known it, and she'd known it, and so he hadn't looked for any regrets on her part nor had she offered any. In any case they'd come back for him and that should've been the end of that.
Still, he's noticed that being more or less alone in the 'verse, useful as it might be sometimes, means he ain't ever going to be the better choice. He reminds himself it's what he wants, not being that special someone to any folks still breathing. Life's far less complicated that way, for him and everyone else. He don't need to be anyone's brother or husband or son, and if the one woman he might have a feeling or two for would choose a man she hardly knew over him, well, it's no less than he'd've expected.
Night after night, though, he's had to admit there's something to be said for not getting left behind.
He waits until supper's over to venture into the mess for a cup of coffee, because he's got a few too many thoughts traipsing through his brain to handle conversating with his crew right now. It's a bit of a surprise to find them all sitting at the table and all staring at him soon as he steps inside.
"Uh...hi," he says. It's tempting to just turn around and leave but he'd find that harder to explain, so he goes to the coffeemaker to pour some processed coffee powder inside. Not a single one of them stops watching him as he picks up the pot to fill it with water and it's more than a bit unsettling.
Then they all glance around the table at each other and it seems to end with Kaylee, who clears her throat. "We're worried about you, Cap'n," she says.
This breaks the silence.
"Most of us haven't seen you in nearly a week," Wash adds.
"You've hardly been eating, or sleeping, or...talking," Simon chimes in.
"I'm thinkin' you're going nuts," Jayne grins.
"Electric eels can produce strong electric shocks of around 500 volts for both self-defense and hunting," River says.
He nearly drops the coffeepot at that one. "And what is this, an intervention?" he says instead.
"Only if you want to call it that," Inara says calmly. "We were simply discussing your well-being over dinner and decided to wait here until you arrived."
"So not an intervention, then."
"What's wrong, Cap'n?" Kaylee asks.
For a few moments, he just looks at them. Worried stares in worried faces all taking in his half-healed injuries, his rumpled clothes, his posture, his silence. Each and every one of 'em just sitting there, thinking of him and caring.
For the first time in days, he lets himself smile. "Ain't nothing wrong, little Kaylee," he says. "Ain't nothing wrong at all." He watches the tentative smile on her face widen as he takes a seat. "Now, any of that dinner left? I do believe I'm starved."
That night, he dreams of being rescued.