TITLE: The Cure
DISCLAIMER: Not mine
She knows enough to know she's dreaming. She knows she's really trapped in the twilight between lucidity and insanity. It happens less now, and more often than not she can control it. Sometimes, however, the warring realities become too strong, and she's forced to give herself over so it finishes as quickly as possible.
Vera and Zoe watched as Matthew and Lily splashed in the billabong's shallow water. Lizards baked on nearby rocks, bellies turned to the sun as it slashed through the overhanging branches. The occasional near silent slither of scales on sand would alert them to the presence of snakes, but the middle of the day was no time for hunting.
A short distance away Mattie was pacing carefully towards River, lying carefully on a flat rock, ignoring the burn of the day's heat as it spread across her cheek. He nuzzled her foot, the movement causing an involuntary twitch, and the reaction seemed to comfort him somewhat.
Vera watched as River's eyes became very, very far away.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
At least, they were.
They had been. Once the forest had been filled with danger; biting snakes, hungry wolfhounds, and poisonous spiders. She had loved the danger of the forest; honest and clean, rather than biting tones, hungry eyes and poisonous words.
Now the trees were marked with hand prints, sticking out like dark blue bruises against trunks and branches. She slips carefully through them, letting her feet steal her away.
She knows where she is going.
When she comes to the clearing it is different. There is no lake of crystal water here, only bare ground and two paths.
She studies each path.
The path on the left is clear. The sun shines down on leaves and sticks, guiding her, showing her the way. It's easy to spot pebbles and the occasional fallen branch, easy to avoid pitfalls. The light is so bright.
The path on the right is covered in spider webs, dark and leading into deep woods without light to guide. Each fallen branch is covered in webbing, like thick scars and black ink, obscuring what is underneath. There is a scent of blood in the air, tangy and fresh.
She looks to the first path. The sunshine is so very bright.
Too sharp in its luminosity, looking more artificial than warm. The light is cutting through the trees and causing a haze in fine dust particles. The haze shows her glimpses of the path further down. A hand is visible along the edge of the path, the wrist trailing into a bush. A doll, a miniature version, is slumped against a tree. It has been stripped, left hollow, its expression dull and eyes blank. The harsh lights glint off scalpels, engine parts, there are pieces of silk and deerskin, leather and cheap cotton. The air smells of bleach, medicinal and far too clean.
The second path, with its tang of fresh blood, refuses to reveal what lies ahead. She closes her eyes for a moment, waiting.
It's there; in the distance, in the depths of the deep, dark woods.
She inhales carefully, as if she can draw the sound into herself, convincing herself that it is real.
A child's laughter.
She opens her eyes again and stifles a gasp. He's standing at the fork in the road, huge and terrifying, body humming with energy, breath ragged and voice rasping. His eyes are dark with the effort of keeping his beast at bay.
Those eyes are fixed on her as his words sting the air, ragged and low. "Choose."
She shakes her head. "Too much death, the loss; she can't see-"
The roar shakes the forest around them, and for a second his skin is tattered and torn, extra pieces sewn in, his mouth a horrifically cut rictus grin.
She steps backwards as the dappled light from the canopy ripples across his features, altering them.
The image returns to the scarred, haunted animal watching her with hungry eyes.
No matter the image, the eyes were hungry.
The voice that emerges is tight with lust and pathetic in its self-hatred.
"Run-tse duh shang-dee, ching dai-wuhtzo!"
The words are familiar, previously begged out in a city of white silence, now roared into the forest, a plea filled with hatred and fear.
She takes a step forward, towards neither path, towards him. His image distorts once more, a strong warrior now on his knees, horror and disgust written on his face.
Another step forward. Another distortion, this one filled with laughter and mirth, ready for a tussle of any variety, younger and free. She is reminded of hoop ball, bar fights, easy leers not compounded by guilt or shame.
Step. The bloodied Reaver returns, and then once more he is the haunted fighter combating the call in his blood.
She knows no matter the path she chooses, the reflections will continue to change. Each path holds death, neither comes without a cost.
Everything has a price.
She closes her eyes to shut out the image of a man on his knees, a Reaver ready to attack, a father fighting, a son losing hope. She listens, past the hissed pleas or roared begging, past the clang of medical instruments, past the sound of bodies falling to the floor.
The wind changes, bringing with it that sound once more. Laughter.
She inhales deeply and takes a step to the right.
Vera left Zoe with the children as River stood slowly, the girl turning to face her.
"What'd ya see, darlin'?"
River's skin was like ice and she was shivering despite the baking heat. Mattie whined softly, bumping against Vera's hip for comfort as his friend's voice sounded from very far away.
"Choosing a path."
The brown eyes finally met blue, and Vera swallowed thickly at the sorrow she saw there. She held firm.
"You pick the right one, darlin'?"
River reached out one hand to stroke Mattie's fur, eyes never leaving Vera's where they began to fill with tears.
"Vera! They're back!"
Zoe's voice broke through the moment and Vera turned in time to see Serenity make her landing a few clearings over. She turned back to River, frustrated but unsurprised that the girl's face was no longer clouded with the future.
"Ok darlin', we'll talk 'bout this later?"
River watched as Vera and Mattie began to head back to the house. She bent, stroking one hand through her daughter's hair as she watched the black haired Grandmother stride back through the forest alongside Zoe and Matthew, unaware of the cool, hollow voice heard only by Tali.
Former Lieutenant Womack watched the woman perform onstage. This planet was the back end of hell, and hot as it too, but at least there was no shortage of quim. A serving girl placed his beer in front of him, twitching her hips away from Skunks grabby hands. He ignored his subordinate, continuing to stare at the woman onstage.
He took a sip of the beer. "So, this is Purgatum."
Womack looked at the two men seated across from him. He and his cronies had landed on Purgatum only an hour beforehand, and he already hated it here. The day had been so scorching hot he was already turning an angry shade of red, while the night began to settle in. Still, the bar was well stocked, in more ways than one.
If the men across the table from him were insulted by his lack of eye contact it didn't show.
Of course, very little seemed to.
The taller of the two men nodded. "Indeed. You understand what is needed?"
Womack nodded, watching carefully as the blonde onstage stripped off to a miniscule bra and panties set.
"You boys want a distraction, right?"
The second man nodded, neither of the suits moving their hands from their laps. Womack was annoyed but unsurprised; he had been warned they might be a little fickle. Still, the job would pay more than well, as would the little side errands the other man had him run on his way out here.
After being let go from the force after all that Miranda guay there had seemed little choice but to get into private consultations.
A position that would have been much easier had Captain Reynolds and his go tsao de crew had not ruined his prime collection role by siding with that moron ex-soldier.
A few years of petty jobs involving low end organs and the bodies that carried them meant he was more than happy to sign on for such a big job. He'd never taken live cargo before, especially not like this. He was excited for the challenge.
And if it meant tearing Reynolds to pieces? All the better.
He clicked his fingers at Skunk, still not looking away from the now naked woman undulating onstage.
"Got your play kit?"
He didn't need to turn to see Skunk's wide grin, and the metallic click of the lighter made Womack smile. The two men in suits sitting across the table from him looked at one another, and then back to Womack. The first exacted a precise nod, and the arrangements were set.
Womack stared as the woman ground and writhed.
He still had a few hours to kill.
"What do you mean, help?"
Mal rubbed his temples, looking around at the assembled crew. They had landed back on Purgatum an hour ago. Zoe had quickly disappeared with Wash; he knew they had taken Matthew for a walk, needing to be together. By the time they returned it was dinner, and most of the crew were now seated around the table. River had let Tali run to her father, who had moved to the kitchen with his mother and Mattie. Mal wondered what Jayne had told his mother, and hoped Vera would talk some sense into him.
The trip back from Persephone had been horrible. Jayne had refused, point blank, to discuss the issue until they were back on Purgatum. No matter how right Simon was in reminding the Captain that Jayne needed to breathe and run out the energy before they discussed a thing, Mal was still pissed. Now his merc was sitting heavily, just long enough to eat before he, Vera and Mattie left for their night hunting. Tali stayed comfortable on her father's lap, and Mal suspected River was outside for the moment.
They didn't stay in the same room anymore, not after that night.
"Ain't nuthin' ta discuss; I'm meetin' him."
Mal struggled not to yell. "Jayne, I ain't sayin' we don't want to hear what this fella has to say."
From his position at the end of the galley table Simon's voice was tense. "It took six months to accumulate enough data to even know what The Program was; every person involved went up in the explosion back on Purgatum. How could this man possibly-"
"It's a trap." Book's voice was calm and even, but suddenly Mal was sent back over two years ago.
"It's a trap."
Kaylee's eyes were reproachful.
"How do you know that Inara just don't want to see you? People have feelings sometimes. I'm referring to people here."
His face was unchanged. "Y'all were watchin' I take it?"
They nodded awkwardly, and he pretended not to see the protein snaps. "Did you see us fight?"
Kaylee shook her head. "No."
Mal looked over to Kaylee, his little ray of sunshine. She didn't argue with Book, and when their eyes met Mal knew she was remembering the same moment all that time ago. She was seeing his eyes back then, flat and emotionless and telegraphing everything through their flat emotion. She was seeing him pretend to focus on anything but Inara and the fact that she got away.
Time passes, everything changes, and everything stays the same.
Book continued, unaware of the moments passing between mechanic and Captain. "Somehow this man has obtained information, and he knew Badger would get it to you. Jayne, I cannot possibly see a scenario where this is not a trap."
Wash wasn't looking up from his beer, though Mal was fairly sure he hadn't drunk any yet.
"So what if it's a trap?"
Mal quirked a brow. "Well, those rarely work out so well for us…"
Wash's voice was flat. "And things are working now?"
When Wash looked up Mal was struck by how hollow his face could look, and was reminded of just how much his pilot and first mate still needed answers. Zoe's face was equally firm, and Mal thought about his godson, sleeping soundly in their room.
Wash continued, standing and looking around the table. "Seriously, is this working? Can anyone say they're actually happy?"
His voice was picking up urgency, and Mal studied the faces around the table. No one was arguing.
Why would they?
Wash was becoming more and more agitated. "Can we please just be honest for a minute? This isn't life. This isn't ANYTHING!" Wash's shout made Tali jump, the little girl squirming into her father, who placed an arm around her protectively.
Zoe reached out to her husband, but her reassuring hand did nothing to slow his pace, or his volume. "No, NO. I am done with this; WE'RE WAITING. We're always waiting! Waiting for Simon to make a breakthrough, waiting to figure out how to help MY SON, waiting for Jayne to shoot himself in the gorram head!"
Some of the crew flinched but still no one said a word, not even Jayne. It wasn't like it wasn't true. Every day that passed brought him closer to the edge, and the only thing keeping him back was currently nuzzling into his neck. Mal watched as Wash stood.
"Captain, I'm done. We're done. This…this can't be our life anymore."
He strode to his bedroom, and Zoe stood, eyes locking on to Jayne's while addressing Mal. "It's definitely a trap, sir."
She looked up at the Captain. "I just don't know if that should stop us going."
She followed her husband into the bedroom, the quiet click of the door deafening in the silent room. Kaylee's voice was quiet and filled with worry.
Mal wished he had an answer. He wished he could tell her that now they'd go, find this man, and he'd give them a magic potion. That Jayne and Matthew would be fixed, that River and Natalia would no longer be considered a genetic goldmine, that they could fly off into the Black and live happily ever after, visiting on their terms, when they wanted.
He couldn't think of a thing to say, but someone could.
"We need information." Inara's voice was composed, and he could tell she was doing the calm, overly polite thing that helped her keep her control. It rubbed him all kinds of wrong.
"Oh, it's 'we' now? Though you was leaving."
She looked at him serenely, though he could see the hurt behind her eyes as she stood, moving out of the room without another word. Mal was very briefly tempted to punch himself in the head, but the hurt look his mechanic shot him was doing that just fine.
Ginger's voice was firm and calm from across the table. "You need to contact this man."
Mal watched as Jayne stayed still and silent, one arm slung around Natalia's waist as the other moved gently over her hair. He saw Simon studying the mercenary carefully, and he thought about their earlier conversation on the journey back to Purgatum.
Simon was in the infirmary, carefully repositioning things. Mal knew it was a habit, a way to try to control things when the rest of the world was determined to be out of control. The doctor was currently stacking gauze into neat piles set at varying angles, to make for quicker removal when there was need to use them.
"Doc, a word?"
Simon nodded, continuing with his task. "No one."
Mal stopped by the bed. "Shenme?"
Simon glanced up at him. "You want to know who else might have heard about The Program, if anyone might have been connected to it who Jayne didn't…who is still alive. Off the top of my head; no one."
Mal nodded, sitting on the bed. "Right."
Simon studied him for a moment. "There's no magic cure, Mal."
Mal didn't move, staring at those gauze piles as Simon continued.
"This isn't some disease they've caught. It's bonded with their systems, it's been reinforced and ratified; there is no longer an Ares virus in them, just the results."
Mal looked at Simon's tired eyes. "You don't know what to do, do you?"
Simon shook his head. "No. I don't know how to help them…and I need to help them. Before it's too late. I wish we knew for sure this was all finished."
Book entered on the last note. "We definitely do not."
Mal watched Book turning his head to see them both, patch covering the obliterated eye socket. "Got a view you wanna weigh in here, preacher?"
Book ignored the title. "I would only wonder who instigated everything."
"What do you mean?"
Book leaned heavily in the doorway. "The Academy, The Program, the hunt for River…who pulled the strings there? Was it just higher up members of the Alliance or was it…someone else?"
Mal watched as Book's eye went a little far away. "You got a memory tickling you?"
Book came back to reality. "No, yes…maybe."
Mal watched him for a minute before something Simon said came back to him. "What do you mean, 'too late'?"
Simon inhaled and exhaled very slowly. "We don't know what will happen when Matthew hits puberty. We have no clue what will happen to Tali, either."
Mal watched him very, very carefully. "You're scared Matthew might hurt her?"
Simon held his gaze and didn't say a word.
Mal narrowed his eyes. "No, not just Matthew."
The Captain shook his head. "The records, they make it sound like there ain't no other Breeders left after…"
His voice trailed off under Simon's blank, emotionless stare. No matter what they assumed about The Program, they knew of the existence of one other Mature Alpha Breeder. An MA Breeder who was currently working out in their cargo bay.
"Doc, that…that ain't-"
"We know nothing for certain." Book's voice was firm, almost harsh, and brooked no argument. Simon offered no further discussion, and Mal was able to admit that he wasn't strong enough to continue. As they exited the infirmary they couldn't have known that Wash was moving back to the galley, or that Jayne was leaning against the staircase just outside.
The pilot was quiet over dinner, and Jayne didn't come out of his bunk.
Mal shook his head to come out of his reverie, only to find Jayne's eyes pinning him down. One massive arm tightened around Tali's waist, and Mal knew they were going to Wave this contact.
There was no other choice.
Vera stood. "Can't do nuthin' til y'all have more information. Best ta get some sleep and look over it in the morning."
She moved away from the table as she continued. "Get ta bed, keep warm."
Her eyes rested briefly on her son. "It's going to rain later tonight."
He adjusted the collar of his shirt, double checking his reflection in the window.
He turned to another wave screen where two men in simple suits were waiting for him. He couldn't see their hands but knew they would be covered in the blue body armour that protected the rest of their torsos.
"What do you know?"
The first man nodded politely. "Everything we need to."
The man in the beautiful suit nodded, calmly ignoring the corpse in the background. "And of our soon to be arriving guests?"
The second man nodded. "There may be delays between packages, but everything is falling into place as planned."
The man in the beautiful suit smiled. "And Womack, has he been suitably useful?"
The first man offered a stiff smile. "We believe he will be most distracting indeed."
The man in the beautiful suit gave a charming chuckle. "Wonderful, I'm thrilled."
Both men nodded simultaneously. "We must await our cargo, and begin preparations for transport."
"Excellent, report back when you have things underway."
The wave flicked off at the same time as he flicked on his intercom. "Susan, could you please send me another martini, and put me through to the Tam residence?"
He waited a moment before turning to his last wave screen.
"Regan, darling. How lovely to see you."