Title: The Cure
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Connor swallowed thickly.
The air in the room was heavy, though the two men standing in front of him seemed utterly unaffected by the stagnant heat.
His wrists chaffed against the plastic ties; he'd long since learned that excess movement only tightened them, causing them to bite into his skin.
Connor wouldn't cry.
His throat felt raw from screaming, his mouth tasting of bile and blood, hot and metallic.
Connor wouldn't cry.
Sweat was carving a slow, painfully warm path down his neck, his back, his legs. The liquid tracked down his cheeks alongside the red trails leaking from his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth.
Connor wouldn't cry.
The taller man stepped forward, his shorter companion remaining seated. Not a drop of sweat was visible, despite Purgatum's heat turning this little room into a sauna.
"Your loyalty is commendable, Connor. However, this does not need to continue."
Connor felt himself flinch as that gloved hand brought up the thin silver rod, pressing the centre so the ends extended, revealing those blue conductors.
Connor inhaled shakily, barely able to speak.
The taller man paused, tilting his head to the side, his companion mimicking the movement perfectly. Connor begged his mind to give him something, anything, anything but throwing those people to these wolves. Begged his head to throw up some idea other than telling these men about the crew, the dark haired girl and the little secrets they kept.
A thumb gloved in blue gently caressed the button at the centre of the device, and Connor swallowed again.
As he began to speak, Connor thought about his father's beliefs about Cobb, about everything he had been taught about honour. Late nights spent by the fire, both as a boy and as a young man, as his father educated him on the important of loyalty, integrity.
The importance of doing what is right.
His mouth tore that education away with every word.
And Connor cried.
Vera watched, sipping her coffee as River settled Tali into her carrier. The little girl waved a hand at her grandmother from where she was safely held to her mother's back by a bolt of thin cotton. River adjusted the knife attached to a thigh holster, another at her boot. Purgatum's forests were enough of a danger to require some protection, but she wouldn't carry a gun. She didn't want to feel any more restricted.
The combat boots, though well worn, were still in excellent condition. The thin tunic was made from well softened leather, a concession to her brother's concern. Curling brown hair was pulled back into a loose braid down one side of her head.
She wouldn't take anything else out with her, and Vera knew better than to force her to carry a pack. There were still days when River's mind refused to let her focus long enough on mundane tasks such as eating and sleeping, when her concern for her own physical condition was too much of an effort to focus. Now, however, there was Natalia.
River had to eat to be strong for Natalia. She had to sleep to be rested for Natalia. She had to take heed of changing weather and the need for fresh water for Natalia.
Though River's troubled mind meant she still had moments of difficultly in looking after herself, she had no trouble caring for her daughter. She'd tried to explain it to Simon once.
"Perfect clarity. No thinking required; she breathes, I breathe. She hungers, I offer my breast. She needs, I give. She smiles, I smile."
Simon watched her carefully. "You're saying you don't need to think about it, so it doesn't matter what kind of state you're in?"
She shot him a smirk. "Mama wolf looks after her cub."
He'd chuckled, running one hand over Tali's brown curls, the same curls to be found on her mother.
Vera finished her coffee and stood. "We takin' Mattie?"
River looked to where the giant wolfhound was lolling in a sunbeam, Matthew Washburne scratching at his belly with glee. He was tall for a three year old, though whether this was genetics or another side effect of the Ares virus was unknown. He looked up as his mother entered the room, also dressed for the forest.
Zoe accepted a cup of coffee from Vera as she stroked Matthew's hair, answering the older woman.
"Think we will, if it's alright with you?"
Vera shrugged. "It's never up to me."
Mattie rolled onto his feet, whuffing at Vera reproachfully. She couldn't help but laugh as he trotted over to River, licking one of Tali's bare feet before sitting tall beside them. The little girl giggled, struggling for a moment to reach down, little fingers wrapping around his tufted ears.
Zoe would have sworn the damn dog raised an eyebrow, and Vera rolled her eyes.
"Oh, is that right?"
Mattie whuffed, pleased with himself as River picked up her water canteen and attached it to her holster. Vera knew where that holster had come from; she'd taught the maker everything he knew about leather.
When the dust had settled after the late night 'encounter' that shattered their previous détente, Vera started to visit Jayne in his cabin. His new house (not home, never home) was kept bare but for his hunting gear, clothing, a thin mattress and a few captures of his daughter. There had been a bed once, and a chair, but one too many nightmares had resulted in their accidental destruction.
When Tali came to visit the gear was packed away, and if the little girl wondered why her father had no furniture she never asked.
She'd wait until the crew were settled, heading out into the darkness, Mattie striding beside her. Sometimes their visits were light.
"I ain't never seen a shirt that gorram ugly in my life; throw that thing out."
"But nuthin'! Wash told me all about the adventure y'all had at the House of Gold on Red Rock. Know the thing that stuck out the most?"
He'd sat heavily on the floor and shook his head.
"That they've seen that ruttin' shirt enough ta call it yer 'Whorin' shirt."
Mattie gave what could almost have been a snicker as Jayne's face warred between embarrassment and pride. She whacked him over the back of the head.
He rolled his eyes, and for a minute she remembered a moody pre-teen who used to do that when asked to watch his mouth. When he'd pointed out that she swore too, Vera had struggled to hold her tongue for a day while Ginger deliberately riled her up.
He tossed it into the trash as she continued to rummage.
They both knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to tease him, to tell him nice girls didn't dance with men who had whoring shirts. She wanted to ask if he'd been swimming lately and watch his face turn red.
She didn't say anything.
She knew if she did his face would fall, dark clouds passing over his eyes. Whatever mirth he'd have momentarily would fade entirely, and she would see longing and loneliness.
Try as she might, Vera would never be strong enough to deal with that look.
She wished him chocolate curls and rain.
Inara accepted the coffee offered by Ginger, sipping at the hot liquid and looking down to where River and Zoe were prepping for their fishing trip in the yard. The former House Mistress tucked a dusty red curl behind her ear, also looking into the courtyard.
Inara wondered if she would ever be able to look at that courtyard without seeing Jayne, chained and horrified, as Kaylee told him he was a father.
Ginger seemed to read her mind. "Some memories might be best left behind."
Inara smiled politely. "It will be sad to leave this place; strange as it is, Purgatum has been my home for two years."
Ginger glanced at her sideways, and for a second Inara thought the older woman was going to ask her to stay. To tell her she was needed. To order her to fight and claw desperately at what she wanted.
Instead the auburn haired beauty shrugged. "Home is not a place; it's a feeling."
Inara nodded, relieved that she hadn't told her to stay.
And wishing she had.
Zoe pulled Matthew onto her back, deftly wrapping the bolt of strong fabric she'd use to carry him. The second they hit the forest he'd want to bolt, ready to burn off the excess energy slowly building in his system. Hours later, though, she'd need to take home an exhausted three year old, and that's where the carrier was handy.
She looked at River.
The younger woman was stroking her daughter's hair, brown eyes locked with blue, not a word passing. They rarely needed to trade words; whatever dubious Gift given to River had passed to her daughter, though without the ongoing threat of insanity and instability.
The younger woman cocked her head to the side, a gesture eerily similar to one performed by a broken man who had once been a mercenary full of life. Zoe felt a tug; she missed Wash already. She wondered whether River ever felt that tug while Jayne was in space.
The younger woman shook her head, "No tug, but tearing. Bloody and painful."
Zoe nodded, and hoped that it would rain when the crew arrived back from their journey.
River's eyes seemed clouded as she looked over the horizon, and Zoe waited patiently.
"Somethin' up ahead, little one?"
Strange to call her that; she was a mother, and a damn good one. But old habits die hard.
Her voice was low and tense. "Nothing can stay the same, it isn't safe."
Zoe looked around. "Isn't safe here for us?"
River turned to face her, eyes flat and dark. "For our souls."
The meet with Badger was quick; they always were. By now their run was easy; Purgatum's towns made their requests, provided the cashy credits, and Serenity picked up their orders from Badger. It was reasonably lucrative, enough that every crew member was paid their cut and enough for Mal to have created contingency plans. It was a good run.
Mal looked to the sky as Jayne, Book and Kaylee loaded the mule.
It was just so gorram boring.
Mal would never, ever admit it, but he missed his old life. He missed the occasional gun fight to make him feel alive, missed plotting and executing brilliant schemes.
He ignored a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Zoe ask him when exactly said schemes worked out.
He didn't miss not knowing when they'd eat next, he didn't miss running from the Alliance, and he'd never get over the smell of fresh coffee, real eggs and bacon. He was the first to say that Vera went above and beyond in helping them, even though they paid their way now.
But the Black…
Slim fingers trailed over his hair as smooth lips curved into a sultry smile.
"It's in your blood; you need it."
He grinned, laying back with one hand behind his head. The other stroked over her bare back, flawless skin, enjoying the feel of her nails tracing battle scars. He lived for moments like this, disappearing into the quiet aftermath as the sweat on their bodies cooled and her hair was still a mess of inky curls.
"Might be right, but this ain't bad."
Neither addressed the fact that he'd left off the words "for now". Purgatum had been a haven, a place to escape and heal. Now, as Matthew and Natalia grew, it felt less like a point of safety and healing.
It felt like chains.
The Black called out to him, humming in his veins, and he knew he wasn't the only one who felt the tug. The forests and deserts might have offered respite to the wilder members of his crew, but every single one of them missed the sky. The land was good, the land was harsh but giving, and the House of Night had given them shelter from a storm unlike any they'd ever faced.
Mal felt Simon studying him in between running over the medical supplies they were bringing to Purgatum. He knew the doctor felt the weight of the land on his shoulders, knew that the slight silvering at his temples wasn't due to old age. He was barely thirty.
But even the doctor, formerly of the lily-white hands, felt the tug of the Black.
Simon watched Mal and knew the Captain wasn't sleeping enough. This life they were leading felt like a holding pattern, twos years of waiting, hoping for a breakthrough that would let them head back to the Black. Back to the sky.
"You're lost in the woods. We all are. Even the Captain. Only difference is, he likes it that way."
Inara's words caused a pang of regret in Simon's chest. This last two years had cost them all, some more than others.
"Oy, Cobb." Badger still rarely addressed Jayne unless absolutely necessary; the big man knew full well that he was not the preferred gunhand of the little Dytonian, and he snarled low under his breath.
Badger flashed him a snake's grin. "'ere now, no need ta get snippy. Got a message for ya, someone reckons they can help."
Jayne narrowed his eyes. "Ain't wantin' any-"
Badger's scoff caused the big man's lip the curl, and Simon moved to stand near the mercenary.
"Now now, we both know that ain't true." The smile disappeared. "We both know you need 'elp."
Mal and Book had stopped loading the mule as Kaylee and Wash stopped searching through parts, every present crewmember listening intently.
Mal studied Badger carefully. The little man had been a loyal business partner for a long time now, one of the few people he counted as a friend of Serenity, if not the Captain himself. It was no secret that Badger was no fan of Jayne's; the little man rarely addressed him at all, and in some ways Mal didn't blame him.
He'd been there when the gates of hell had opened.
Still, the mercenary was Natalia's father, and Badger played nice. Mal suspected River had given him some kind of warning about that a few months back. She rarely needed to speak to the little man to get her point across, but Mal was no fool; he knew who was in charge between them.
Badger nodded. "Seems this fella wants a meeting, reckons he knows how to right some wrongs."
Mal shook his head as Jayne stayed silent. "Ain't lookin' for vendettas, tell 'em-"
"He reckons," Badger continued as if Mal hadn't spoken. "He knows a lil somethin' about The Program. Reckons he knows a lil somethin' 'bout your…issues."
The little man's eyes grew hard. "I reckon said issues could be easily fixed by a bullet, but that ain't a popular view, apparently."
Book stepped forward, watching Jayne carefully. The mercenary was still, too still.
"Who is this person?"
Badger shrugged. "Didn' wanna leave a name, lil mysterious ta be honest. But he sounded sure of 'imself."
Jayne's voice was rough, and Simon recognised the attempt at control.
Badger's smirk didn't help. "Left details ta set somethin' up, got 'em round 'ere somewhere."
Badger moved away from the taught man carefully, walking into the building.
Mal shook his head. "Jayne, we don't know-"
Mal scowled. "Need I remind you we ain't exactly got an abundance of people wantin' ta help us, and almost every person who knew about The Program is dead?"
Jayne looked up at him blankly.
Of course Jayne knew.
Jayne knew better than anyone.
Book's voice was low and calm. "Son, I know you want-"
"You got no idea how much I want."
The voice was low and harsh, Book would have flinched if he had been at all surprised.
Mal shook his head. "We can't just-"
Jayne moved faster than anyone could blink, snatching the panels of Mal's jacket. Mal saw the desperation, the horrific, pathetic desire. It was more emotion than he'd seen in his mercenary for months, hot and violent and ready to snap anything in its path.
Mal saw everything there, and it made him ill.
"Fine, we'll go. But we're headin' home first, dong ma?"
Jayne nodded, lowering his Captain but not having the sense to look even mildly apologetic.
As the bigger man moved to help Kaylee, needing the sweetness for a moment, Wash moved next to the Captain.
"You know he's only agreeing to go back first because of the rainy season?"
Mal nodded. "That may be, but it'll give him some measure of calm."
Simon watched the tautness in Jayne's muscles. Simon knew how his own emotions had leaped on the idea that someone, anyone, could shed light on the situation, give them more information. Possibly even a cure? He knew what it would mean to have their ship back, to have Purgatum as an occasional stop over without being a home base, to have the Black back in their sights.
He knew what it would mean to have the whole crew in the same living quarters, to not fear the horrific violence that would ensue if Jayne ever lost himself again, if River fell back to her programming once more. To not fear for their children's futures.
He knew how he felt.
He could only imagine what Jayne was experiencing.
The man known only as The Operative studied the man across the table.
"So, he agreed to the meeting?"
The other man shook his head, adjusting his leather jacket with a scowl. "Not yet, but he will."
The Operative nodded. "Yes, I believe you are right about that."
The other man stood, not bothering to throw any credits on the table where their empty glasses were gathering condensation.
"This better pay as well as yer man seems ta think it should."
The Operative stared blankly ahead. "This should indeed be enriching."
The other man stared at him for a moment before rolling his eyes and walking away. The Operative watched him leave, studying the gait, watching as he collected his two goons at the door. The long leather jacket was out on place on Purgatum, and though the man had previous experience dealing with matters considered by many to be…indelicate…The Operative did not like him.
"You don't have to like him."
The Operative nodded, knowing the security feed was being picked up, ignoring the hum of the earwig.
The cultured voice humming in his ear held a hint of chuckle. "You're uncomfortable."
The Operative didn't bother correcting the man on the other end of the line, who continued. "Womack has experience in moving cargo of a less traditional nature. And he's dealt with Reynolds before."
The Operative nodded again, and the cultured voice gave a gently exasperated sigh. "And yet, you remain uncomfortable."
"Yes. After Miranda-"
The cultured voice was polite but firm, and The Operative detected a sharp edge. "Need I remind you that the Blue Sun Corporation did not create Miranda, nor did we create The Program."
On the other end of the earwig, far away in Osiris, a man in a beautiful suit studied The Operative's expressions via a wave vid. The Operative's face was a blank canvas, but the man in the beautiful suit knew just how to read him. He knew how uncomfortable the other man was with his mission, but he knew something else.
The training would hold.
He smiled. "The Blue Sun Corporation has no interest in the mistakes of the Alliance."
The Operative nodded as their connection was switched off.
The man in his beautiful suit, in his beautiful office, looked out over the beautiful view below.
"We just want to reap the benefits."