Ana stopped in the shadow of the doorway that led from the unkempt bedroom back into the bar and took a moment to try to remember just exactly where the hell she was. She glanced around her: it looked like the same dim, smelly saloon in the same poor backwater town on any number of God-forsaken worlds that she'd seen. Her eyes went to the line of grime-smeared workers crowding the bar. Miners. Sure, she was on Hephaestus. That's right. She still couldn't dredge up the name of the town but then decided that it didn't matter. She was gone as soon as she could work up the money to book on the next transport out. She thought that there might have been work here - not the kind she had to resort to last night, but real work. There wasn't. And she'd used all her small savings to get here. She remembered the god-damned hun-dan who assured her with smiles and drinks and a couple pats on the ass that this world was wide-open with opportunity. She rubbed the back of her hand across her forehead as if to wipe out the memory. He was probably a ta-me-de Purple Belly anyway. Fuck 'im. Fuck 'em all.
She closed the door behind her and leaned up against it, willing herself to lose the haze and come up with a plan. Keep moving, Anstice. Always forward. Stumble, but don't fall. You fall, you don't get up. This isn't the place. You'll know it when you see it. Move on.
Last night she stumbled, but it got her a roof over her head and enough coin to keep her belly from screaming for a day or two. It wasn't the first time she let herself get bought for the night, but she could always hope that it was the last. Don't think back! , she growled in her own mind. Think ahead. What next? Her stomach rumbled and answered the immediate question - she needed something to eat. Not here though; too expensive. She could make the money go farther by haggling with some locals.
She pulled herself together - patted the unruly hair down, tucked the shirt into the pants, tried to smooth out the worst of the wrinkles with her palms. With the rueful knowledge that this was as good as it was going to get, she came out from the shadows and started to walk through the saloon, making toward the front door. And stopped dead. Because God was playing another of His cruel jokes. Had to be a joke. But, sweet Jesus, it wasn't. It was Zoe. And Holy Mother of God, sitting across from her was Malcolm. She laughed out loud, because of course Malcolm was there. Where you found one, you found the other. There were still some constants in this Bedlam of a 'verse.
Ana hurried toward the table, but before she had taken three steps, Zoe spied her. Ana saw her freeze for the count of two, and then stand so suddenly that her chair tipped back and over. She could hear Malcolm, "Zoe? What?" His hand was going for his gun. He looked around for the source of the danger and at first passed right over her. Then he did a double-take, eyes so wide she thought it must be painful. "Ana." He said it so softly that she couldn't hear him, but she could read her name on his lips. Then the sight of him was lost because Zoe was there and had caught her up in a bear hug.
"Jie-jie! Jie-jie, it's you."
"Zoe!" She thought she had forgotten what happiness was, but this here and now - this surpassed anything dim memory could offer. She laughed again as Zoe picked her up off her feet and hugged her even closer. The laugh turned to a delighted scream as Malcolm tore her from Zoe's grasp and picked her up in his arms and twirled her like a child.
"Malcolm, put me down!" But she could have stayed in this moment forever. He finally lowered her so she was standing once more, and she reached up and took his face in both her hands and kissed him hard on the lips. "My Malcolm." He beamed at her. Then she turned to Zoe and kissed her just as hard. "My sweet Zoe." As simply as that, she was home.
Wash sat stunned, forgotten at the table. Just a minute before, they had been sitting there, the three of them, working out the details of how to carry off the deal Mal had just made - a local wanted to by-pass the Alliance brokers and sell directly to a client off- world. Simple enough. But then Zoe had gone deathly still, as if she'd been shot through the heart. He was just reaching for her when she bolted up from her chair and rushed to embrace a woman he'd never seen before in his life. It got weirder when Mal just about copied her reaction. He watched from his seat at the table as the three of them lost themselves in what could only be a reunion of some kind. Who was this woman who could make his stoic of a wife turn into a schoolgirl? Wash looked hard at her. This Ana - he thought he heard Mal say that name - looked to be in her early 40s. Shorter than Zoe, but most women were - more around Inara's height. Her skin was the color of cinnamon, her eyes brown and exotic looking, her hair an unruly mess of thick waves cut to about chin length, the brown shot through with gray. You'd never call her beautiful, but she was a handsome looking woman, no doubt about it, even if showing a little ragged around the edges. The scar on the line of her right jawbone only made her look more interesting. He couldn't think of too many women who could carry a mark like that and not have it seem pitiable. He thought his Zoe could, but he hoped never to see that put to the test.
His examination was cut short when Zoe and Mal returned to the table, bringing Ana with them. Mal dragged another chair over and Ana dropped gratefully into it and pulled it up closer to Mal. Zoe returned to her place next to Wash, her face still alight. Ana took Mal's hand in hers then reached her other hand across the table; Zoe reached out and clasped it in her own. Wash was near speechless.
"I never thought to see this day," Ana said quietly. Zoe and Mal offered no response beyond smiling happily at Ana and each other. Wash had never felt so invisible; he was beginning to wonder if he should just leave them to themselves when Zoe turned her thousand watt smile on him. Proudly she told him, "Wash, this is Ana." Turning to Ana, now with a deep laugh running under her words, "Ana, this is Wash. My husband."
And suddenly Wash found himself under the intense focus of those extraordinary eyes. Without realizing what he was doing he sat up straighter in the chair and then felt like a fool for doing it. He was imagining what she must be seeing when she looked at him - a little too gangly, a lot too pale, dressed out of place in his shirt with the palm trees splashed across it. Maybe if he showed her his scars . . . ?
"Wash," Ana acknowledged him. She released Mal and Zoe and proffered a hand now to Wash. He took it and received a strong but comfortable handshake in return. She considered him for a moment more, and then broke the handshake. She turned back to Zoe with a slight nod of her head, "He'll do." Zoe glowed at the both of them, and Wash, without understanding why, felt as if he had just passed some sort of test.
Now that the shock of seeing her again was over, now that they had food and drink in their bellies and the short of it had been told about how they all came to be in this place together, Mal cast a sharper eye at her. She looked tired. No, it was beyond tired. She looked about done in. It knocked him back a bit. She was tough; anyone who made it out of the Valley had to be. When he had called his few remaining squadron leaders back in, ordered them to lay down arms, she was the one had fought him about it. She was heading out to take on the bastards in a one-woman stand when Zoe knocked her out cold. By the time she came to, they were surrounded by armed grunts, prisoners of war.
They had some days to make what personal peace they could with being the vanquished. He still had his duties to perform; he wouldn't add his betrayal of his troops to the betrayal they'd already suffered from their own high command. Zoe was always beside him, the both of them still pushing the Feds to see to it that the needs of his remaining company were seen to. And when they would return to their camp, Ana was always there, making sure that they were fed, badgering them into rest when they were near on to dropping from exhaustion; this was the only fight left to her, and damn if she wasn't going to win this one.
But now . . . Mal settled back in his chair, sipped on his brew, and watched her. Wash was trying to make her laugh - trying too hard if you asked him - and she was obliging him, although to Mal's ears it sounded forced. He'd heard her laugh under fire - a true laugh - and there'd been more joy in that than he was hearing now. She'd put some of her weight back on, as had they all once they left the Valley, but not enough. More worrisome, she looked brittle now, like the next strong wind would break her if she didn't have her guard up.
"Ana," he rode over Wash's monologue. "Where you off to? You said this was just a lay-over. Got plans, do you?"
"No. No plans, Just not here." She took another sip of her whiskey. "I got a place in mind. I'll know it when I see it." She shrugged., "Til then, I keep moving."
"Ah, the motto of our merry band," Wash said brightly.
Mal threw him a brief glare and continued. "I told you I got my own boat, my own crew. Maybe you could have a mind to travel with us awhile, until you find your place." She looked a little startled. "We make our own life away from the Core and the Feds. I won't lie to you - work is sometimes hard to find, and some of it ain't what you'd call exactly legal, but we ain't starved yet. And we're flush right now. Just picked up another job. In fact," looking at Zoe and Wash, "we need to start headin' back." She was still quiet and unreadable. "Just a ride, Ana. Don't mean you gotta stay."
"Malcolm. I . . ." she swallowed, hard. "I'd be most pleased to travel with you. I need to say this first: I've done work that I'm not proud of, and I apologize to no man for it. I did what I had to to keep body and soul together. It sounds like you understand that." Mal kept her in his steady gaze and gave no response. She continued, "I'm a hard worker; you know that. I won't be a burden to you."
"Huh. You gotta actually weigh somethin' to be a burden." That got a rise out of her. Before she could do more than sputter he stood up and threw some credits down on the table to pay the bill. "Let's move then. We're on a schedule." Zoe stood, too, looking very pleased. Wash arose more slowly, unsuccessfully trying to mask some concern. Mal ignored him and faced Ana. "Let's go get your things. You might as well head back with us now."
He could see her set her jaw before she stood to face him. "Everything I got is back there," she nodded toward the darkened doorway to the rear of the bar. He could read the dare in her eyes and met it with calm acceptance. She softened a bit. "It'll just take a minute. I'll meet you outside."
He nodded, turned, and strode back through the door that led out into the late afternoon light. Zoe and Wash followed in his wake. He stood in the fresh air, breathing deep. Zoe was at his side and they exchanged a silent look. Wash, oblivious, muscled his way between the two of them.
"Look, Captain. And Zoe," he gave his wife a worried glance, "I know she's a friend of yours, but do you really think it's a good idea to take on more crew? I mean what with the wanted fugitives onboard and all? You know, the ones that could make us all dead if it gets out they're with us. It's good that you want to help . . ."
"This ain't your decision, Wash. In fact, you ain't got no part of this decision." Mal rounded on him, in his face now. "I say who comes on my boat. I say who goes. Know this for a fact: she'd die before she betrayed one of mine."
Wash didn't back away. "People change, Mal. It's your boat, but it's our lives."
Now Zoe stepped up to Wash, pulling him gently away. "You don't know her. I trust her with my life. And yours. It'll be all right."
That just seemed to rile Wash more. "I don't know her? How could I? I'd never even heard of her before today! Just another secret from the War, right, sweetie?"
Mal had had enough. "Shut up. This is how it is." He could see Ana stepping into the light, carrying a small beat-up duffel bag across one shoulder. He put on a smile. "Ready then? Let's get a move on; daylight's burnin'."
Ana finished putting her few things away in her new quarters. Serenity. Her heart had pounded in her chest when Malcolm so proudly pointed out his ship and she saw the name painted across her hull. Was he crazy? But now that she'd been here, felt the solid mass of her, watched Malcolm walk her decks in perfect harmony with her, she understood. And she approved.
Great. She approved; it didn't appear that the sentiment was shared. Zoe's husband was quiet and tense on the long walk back to the ship; Zoe herself was tight-lipped walking beside him. She could venture a guess as to the cause of the fight. She'd briefly met two of the other crew: a big good-looking merc - she recognized the type - and the young, sweet-faced mechanic. Kaylee. And the other one? Jayne? Yeah. He'd given her a predatory leer that disappeared under a scowl when he heard she was signing on. He kept his mouth shut, though. Kaylee seemed surprised but then offered to help her set up in her new quarters. It had been a long time since she had been on the receiving end of kindness.
She sat on her bunk and held her hand in front of her, watching the faint tremor. She was so tired. She couldn't remember a time when she wasn't so tired. Before the War, surely. She longed to rest. "Soon," came the whisper in her mind. The same promise she'd been hearing for six years now. Soon.
There was a knock on the hatch above her. She recognized Kaylee's voice calling down to her. Everyone was gathered for the evening meal. The Captain said to come join them.
"I'm on my way," she called up. She caught her reflection in the small mirror over the bureau. "I got so old," she thought to herself. "How is that possible?" She shook it off and climbed the ladder to meet the rest of the crew.
Kaylee had been honest - they were all gathered there. And from the feel of it, they'd been there for a while. There'd been a meeting, she guessed. A meeting about her being on Serenity. Times were tough; maybe they weren't happy having another mouth to feed. She decided not to worry about it. If Malcolm ran his ship like he had run his troops, then her place onboard was not a fact up for debate.
Kaylee directed her to a seat between herself and Malcolm. Ana looked around the long table as Kaylee made the introductions. Inara. A Companion? Here? Ana scowled at the young woman before she could control her reaction. Pretty doll playing at games that were life and death for others. Wash and Zoe next; they seemed to have made up, but Wash was still a little restrained. Book. A Shepherd? She slid her eyes back to Malcolm, but he was studiously avoiding looking at her. Back to Book. He'd caught her reaction and gave her a wry smile and a sincere, "Welcome." Simon. Young for a doctor, and he seemed uncomfortable. Maybe that was just his way. River. That's all, no other information. Just River. Pretty little thing. Jayne, a bit more respectful now. Back to Kaylee.
The food was passed and the conversation took on a bantering tone for a while. Kidding among the crew; the chores still needing to be done; the check list before take- off this evening. She'd grinned to see Malcolm teasing Kaylee and being teased in return. She caught Zoe and Wash in one of those public intimate moments that happened between married folk, and she couldn't restrain a pang of envy. She tamped it down and let herself be happy for what Zoe had found. The chatter and the laughter and the comfortable griping rolled over her like a warm breeze; these people - they belonged together. She tried to remember what that was like to belong somewhere. Eventually, though, the attention returned to her. Book started.
"You've known the Captain and Zoe long, I hear."
"We served together during the War."
"Ana here was one of the best squadron leaders in the whole gorram army," Malcolm offered with pride. "Never could get her to address me by rank, though. Nor anyone else for that matter. Stubborn as hell on that point."
"It was a fight for independence, Malcolm. Somehow it didn't seem fitting to equate worth with rank. I respected you. That's all that mattered." It was an old, comfortable routine with them.
"Malcolm," Jayne snorted under his breath.
"You got somethin' you want to say, Jayne?" Ana recognized that voice, and so did Jayne. He backed right down.
"No. I didn't say nothin'."
"It's his given name. I was raised to call a person by his given name. Jayne." She drew out the name and got a laugh from the rest of the crew.
"Yeah, I get it. Ana." He laid it on with her name in return.
"She doesn't play fair, though." Zoe entered the fray. Ana glared at her to no avail. "We never got to call her by her given name. Ain't that so, Anstice?"
"That's because not one of you could pronounce it right. Still can't, by the way."
"Anstice." Book surprised her by getting the sounds perfectly. "It's a lovely name. It's from the old Russian, isn't it? I can't seem to recall what it means, though."
"Resurrected one." River was looking intently at her. "It means resurrected one." Ana felt shivers run through her.
"I'll thank you all to just call me Ana." Her tone was curt. She noticed Zoe and Malcolm exchange looks, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Simon lay his hand protectively on River's arm in what looked to be a gentle warning. She was too young to be his lover. Kin, maybe? In any case, she realized that she had broken the light mood around the table. "I'm sorry. I'm tired, I guess. Worn out from the happiness of running into these two renegades." All she could see now were Malcolm and Zoe. "When they shipped us out of the Valley, sent me off to other end of the 'verse, I never thought to see you again."
"Why would they do that?" Kaylee asked in a little voice. "Why would they make you split up?" Here questions were met with silence from the three of them.
"The Alliance considered them to be . . . insurrectionists," Book carefully answered. "At the end of the War it was Federal policy to split up the remains of units to prevent them from trying to band together again." He addressed Zoe and Mal. "It's a miracle that the two of you weren't sent to opposite ends of the system and dropped off on some anonymous worlds."
"It wasn't a miracle, Shepherd," Ana said quietly. "It was a sheer force of will. Just like it always is for the two of them." They were all staring at Malcolm and Zoe now. Ana tried to lighten it up. "But that was years ago. It's all blood under the bridge, as we used to say." Nobody laughed.
"Yes, it's all in the past. We have the present, we have the future. Let us be thankful for that," Book declared. "And let us be thankful that the three of you survived that terrible battle and are here with us now."
Ana laughed. She couldn't help herself. She gave the preacher a look of pity. "Survived? Nobody survived. Don't you know that?" She heard Kaylee gasp, felt Malcolm's and Zoe's eyes on her. God, she hadn't meant ever to say that out loud. Tired, It was just that she was so tired. She stood, and staring down at the table made her apology. "It was a joke. I guess it wasn't in good taste. It's been a while since I've been with decent folk. I'm sorry." She felt a blinding pain behind her eyes and held her head with her hand, trying to keep her skull from coming apart.
"Ana?" Malcolm was on his feet holding her up. "Doctor." His voice was worried.
"It's all right, Malcolm. It's a migraine. They come on sometimes. I just need to lay down."
Simon was at her other side now. "Can you walk?" She whispered a yes. "Let's get her to the infirmary." Each man took an elbow and supported her carefully until they reached their destination. Malcolm lifted her onto the table and stood close while Simon checked her vital signs.
"Her pupils are fine. Her pulse is a little fast and she has an elevated bp." Her eyes were closed now, but she could hear Malcolm breathe out a sigh of relief. "I'm going to give you something for the pain, Ana. Are you allergic to any drugs?" She whispered a no and seconds later felt the blessed relief coursing through her, blocking out the pain, blocking out the world. She slept.
"Well?" Mal stood watching as Simon checked on his sleeping patient.
"If it is simply a migraine, she'll be on her feet once she gets some sleep and the pain passes.""If?"
"I'm afraid that we don't have the equipment to do the neurological tests to rule out anything more pernicious. Migraines are fairly common in the general population, though; I'd say there's nothing to cause undo worry. Except . . ." He had tilted Ana's head and examined the old scar on her jawbone. "How did she get this? Was there cranial trauma?"
"She got it in a firefight." Both men turned as Zoe entered the infirmary and crossed to stand behind the bed holding Ana. "She didn't even realize it until the shooting stopped. A fraction of an inch, it would have plowed right into her brain." Zoe used her hand to softly comb Ana's hair back from her face. "She laughed about it. You remember, Sir?" Mal nodded. "She was always laughing at stuff that wasn't so funny. But then she'd get you to laughing about it, too, and pretty soon it seemed that her way was the only way to be seein' it."
"Yes, I've heard some of her humor." Simon started to put away the equipment he'd been using.
"That wasn't her. Like she said, she just needs some sleep." Zoe's voice brooked no argument.
"Then I suggest that we let her do that." Simon checked her breathing once more then started toward the exit. He turned back to them at the doorway. "She'll be sleeping for several hours at least, probably straight through until the morning. I'll check back in on her during the night." He left and took the stairs back up to the common area.
"Sir?" Mal looked at her and waited. "What happened to her?"
"Don't suppose we'll ever know. But she's here now. She'll be all right." The words were spoken as a promise to all three of them. But behind the words he felt a stab of fear, and he knew that Zoe's thoughts carried the same fear: why her? Why not me? She was just as strong. It can't happen to me. Can it?
Wash was scared. And it wasn't the kind of scared that he'd grown used to since he signed on to Serenity. He was scared of a past that gave him no information but that seemed to bleed into his life with Zoe like a wound that could never be stopped. This Ana, the living ghost, scared him most of all. "Nobody survived." What the hell was that? Zoe was spooked, even if she wasn't able to tell him that outright. He watched his beautiful, strong, closed-mouthed wife undress as she readied for bed; he breathed in every movement, savored each shift of bone and muscle and tantalizing skin. God, he would never tire of seeing her.
Zoe silently slid in between the sheets next to him, and suddenly Wash was unsure of himself. Leave her to her thoughts? Hold her close? Say something? Anything? Zoe's hand touched his chest and he sighed. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed the palm almost prayerfully. He looked into her eyes and she let him read what she wouldn't say. Her eyes were so sad; he'd never seen her so sad. It hurt his heart to see her like this.
"Zoe, you made it out of there. You survived. Never doubt that. You're my heart, bao-be. You're my life. Whenever you're afraid, you hold onto that. You hold onto me."
She kissed him, and it was beyond romance, it was beyond sex. He sensed she was trying to link their souls. She took his hands and ran them down her body. "Zoe," he breathed. "Zoe." And then she took his breath away.
The crew had finally settled in for the night, and Mal had the chance at last to just sit and think. The infirmary was dark except for the light spilling in from the corridor, the ship quiet except for the sound of Serenity's engines pushing them through the black. He could make out the dim form of Ana lying on the bed, but he couldn't see her chest rise and fall or hear her breathe. Not trusting to the voice inside him that said she was asleep, he rose to check on her. She was sleeping, but not peacefully - even sedated her face seemed to be all hard creased edges. "It's nothin', just a trick of the light," he told himself.
He sat again and tried to put all the pieces together in his mind. Were there signs? He gave a bitter laugh. Signs? They'd been in hell, and he's wondering now if there were signs. No. No signs. You were either strong enough to stand and fight or you broke and died. They stood. The three of them stood.
Afterwards, then. After they laid down their arms, what did he see? What did he miss? Mal steeled himself to think back to the days immediately after the surrender. He didn't like thinking about the past; it made no sense to pull out dead memories and tear at them like a vulture with a carcass. With a curse at himself for acting like a fool, he forced himself to look back and was suddenly left immobile by the onslaught of images - cold, hunger, blood, pain. And emotions - anger, betrayal, grief, defeat, the sounds of screams, the sounds of prayers, moans and whispers and hate-filled laughter.
"Mal?" Who was calling? He couldn't see who was calling his name. "Mal." A hand on his arm and suddenly he was up, his enemy's throat in one hand, the other drawn back ready to slam into flesh and bone. "Mal!" The voice was breathless now and high, a scream with no sound behind it.
"Inara." He released her and she stumbled back, hand to her throat. The infirmary. He was on his ship and oh God what did he do? "Inara!" He started toward her and stopped himself, afraid he would see her retreat. He saw her take her hand from her throat; he could sense her pulling her control around her like one of her silk shawls.
"I'm all right, Mal. You didn't hurt me." She approached him carefully; he could see that she was testing whether he was back to his right mind.
He dropped his hands to his sides and stepped away from the chair, leaving it as an invitation for her to sit now. Someone who didn't know her as well would have missed the small tremor that ran through her body as she took the offered seat.
"What the hell are you doin' here?" His fear made him gruff. He could have killed her and not known 'til her body hit the floor.
Inara looked toward the sleeping Ana. "I know that she's important to you. I couldn't sleep, and I thought I would find you here."
"You found me. What do you want?"
"I want nothing, Mal. I thought you might like some company while you waited. That's all."
"Oh." For a moment he couldn't meet her eyes. He found his voice again. "Yeah, well. I appreciate the offer, but I'm fine alone."
"You don't always have to be 'fine alone,' Mal."
He didn't want to spar with her. Not now. He held his tongue.
"She doesn't like me very much, does she?" Inara was gazing at Ana.
"She don't know you well enough to dislike you." He heard her laugh softly. "That's not what I meant."
"I know what you meant. So if it isn't who I am that she dislikes, it must be what I do." She used a light tone on him, "What is it with you Browncoats and your distaste for Companions?"
If she was looking to tease him to a better mood, she failed. Mal could feel his barely contained anger surge through him.
"Us Browncoats? Maybe there's just some folk who thought that freedom meant more than havin' the right to sell yourself to strangers one night at a time. And maybe there's women who don't consider whorin' themselves to be all that much a privilege." He stopped, hating himself for saying what wasn't his to tell.
The silence surrounded them. Inara's eyes went from Mal to Ana and back again. She stood.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize. I'll go."
"Inara . . ." He wasn't sure what he was going to say, and he was rescued from having to decide by the doctor's sudden appearance at the doorway.
"Captain. Inara." His voice was carefully neutral. He turned on one of the panel lights so a soft glow filled the room. "I'm just here to check on my patient." He crossed to the bed and took Ana's wrist in his hand, feeling for her pulse.
"I was just leaving, Simon." She walked slowly and gracefully across the room. With one hand on the frame of the door she turned and looked back at Mal. "Good night, Captain. I hope she is much improved in the morning." She paused. "She's quite fortunate in her friends."
Mal and Simon could hear the soft rustle of her silk gown recede down the corridor. The doctor gently draped Ana's arm across her waist.
"She's doing well. She must have been exhausted; the analgesic wouldn't account for this deep a sleep."
"It is just sleep?"
"Yes. She's fine, Captain, really. Now if you'll excuse me, unlike you, I need a few hours rest. I take it you'll be staying?"
Mal didn't answer, just turned back to Ana. "Turn out that light."
The doctor hit the panel switch on his way out the door and the room was dim once more. Mal was alone with his thoughts and the specter of his friend, still and draped in white.
"Maybe she was right," he thought morosely. "Maybe there were no survivors."
Shadows and sound and the feeling that she should recognize this place. It was too closed in. God, she couldn't breathe. Move. Go. And always at the edges of her hearing, a voice. Whisper. What? I can't understand you. She should understand the words; she should know the voice. An invitation. Urgent. "You're falling. Not yet." Still whispered. "Wake up."
She awoke soundlessly. Lie still. Remember. Anastice Rao. Feel the lungs fill with air. Where now? She looked to her left. A white room, medical equipment. To her right. Malcolm, asleep in a chair. It was the trigger her memory needed, and the last hours? days? came back to her. No, don't crawl away from the memories, coward! The Ana that was would have wept from shame. Dry-eyed now, she locked her mind in grim determination to make it right with him and Zoe.
She sat up cautiously, waiting for the pain to return. When all she felt was the slight drag left over from the drug, she pulled back the sheet covering her and slipped lightly out of the bed. Malcolm. From the looks of him, he'd had a rough night, too. Because of her. She shouldn't have come. She had no place with them now. But how could she have resisted? Seeing them was like a glimpse of heaven. How could anyone like her turn her back on that?She stood over his sleeping body and resisted the urge to run her fingers across his cheek, push back the lock of hair that had fallen across his forehead. He looked so like a little boy. He could still do that, after everything that happened. It was a marvel to her, and she stood watching him sleep until he started to move, restless in the cramped chair. She backed up against the bed and called his name softly. "Malcolm."
He was instantly alert. He saw her and gave her a smile that almost made it up to his eyes. Ana smiled back. "I should have let you sleep, I'm sorry, but that," pointing to the small chair that held him, "that can't be good for you."
"I've slept in worst places. You're lookin' better. How's your head?" He unfurled himself from the chair and she watched him move his shoulders trying to stretch with the slight movements.
"Still here. Better, thank you. I need to thank Simon, too. Whatever it was he gave me did the trick."
"We do have a hellaciously well-stocked med supply. Remind me to tell you about it sometime."
"Malcolm." She couldn't find the words to apologize so she tried a different tack. "You didn't have to sit up all night with me. I appreciate it, though."
"What? This? No, no I didn't sit up with you. I was just here gettin' a bandage for a cut, see?" He held up a finger that looked perfectly fine to her. "I musta been overcome from the trauma and passed out there for a while. Thank you, by the way, for bringin' me to."
She laughed. OK, if this is how he wanted to play it, she could do this. "You're welcome. So, now what?"
"Now I have to get back to my captainly duties." He looked at the read-out on the clock on the wall. "0527. Folks should be stirrin' soon. We catch breakfast as we can. If you're hungry, make whatever is lookin' good to you. Last one to finish the coffee makes a new pot. It's one of the capital offenses on my boat, so listen up." His smile betrayed him. "I want you to lay low today. Plenty of time to go over your duties later. They'll keep." His tone was light, but she could see the worry there behind them.
"I don't need special treatment, Malcolm. I can do my share."
"Arguin' with me already? I don't give special treatment, Ana; you should know that. Your captain thinks you should take a day to get comfortable with the boat and the crew, get a feel for how it goes here. We gonna have a problem around that?" There was a definite challenge there, although still low-key.
"No. No problem, Malcolm. You're right. As always."
"Glad you remembered that." With a cocky smile he left the infirmary.
"Bastard," she thought with affection as she watched him saunter away.
The truth was that she was glad to have the time. So much had happened; she was having trouble wrapping her mind around it all. Did this change anything? She didn't know. This felt good, but the quiet voice in her mind was still telling her to move. This wasn't the place. She wanted to rebel - just once. Why not here? "This is not for you," came the whisper. "There is a place." Defeated, she sat in the chair that Malcolm had abandoned.
"You're up. Good"
Startled, she surged to her feet. It was Simon.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. How are you feeling? Any pain?" He stood close to her and lifted her wrist to check her pulse again. It was racing, she was sure. She pulled her arm away from him as courteously as she could.
"I'm much better, thank you. I'm sorry to be such a bother."
"No bother. It's rather nice to have something as mundane as a headache to deal with."
The silence dragged out between them. Finally she gathered her courage.
"About last night. I want to aplogize." He didn't respond, just stood there looking at her, face purposefully blank. "I said some things that made you all uncomfortable. I . . . I'm just not used to being around folk, I guess. And I think I scared the little girl. River."
"River wasn't frightened."
"Oh." He wasn't going to make this easy on her. "Simon, I get the feeling that you're not happy I'm onboard, and I understand. You've got this family here, and here I come . . ."
"You're right, but it has nothing to do with our being one happy family, because we're not. Or at least not all the time. The Captain vouched for you, and I have to trust him. You'll forgive me if it takes me somewhat longer to trust you."
The boy's words were like ice. There was something more going on here that she wasn't picking up on. Confused but not wanting a confrontation, she took the easy path.
"Of course. I understand. I hope to earn your trust, Simon. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to my quarters now."
He gave her an almost courtly bow of the head and moved aside to let her pass. She left without a backward glance, feeling his gaze on her all the while.
The map wouldn't stay flattened out, and Mal was about ready to set it on fire. Who rolled maps? Besides the bu tai zheng chang client who hired them. He should charge another 20 per cent just for the aggravation of this gorram map. A shadow across the table stopped his grumbling as he looked up.
"Kaylee - get me somethin' to hold this map down with."
She reappeared with some mugs and a small chopping block and helped him anchor down the edges.
"Thanks." He went back to poring over the map. After a few moments he realized that she was still standing there. "Somethin' I can do for you? I'm kinda busy here."
"No, just wanted to say hello. See how you're doin'." She paused. "How you doin', Cap'n?"
"Fine. I'd be doin' a lot better if I could just get back to work." He turned his attention back to the map. Her shadow never moved. Exasperated, he looked up at her again. "Kaylee!"
"Cap'n?" She had jumped a little.
"What?! What is it? You're makin' me crazy with the standin' and the starin'."
"It's nothin', Cap'n. Just . . . " He was trying to keep his patience, he really was. "Ana came to see me." She had his full attention now.
"She did? What did she want?"
"She wanted to apologize for last night. You know, some of the things she talked about at dinner. I told her she didn't have to, but she wanted to."
"She's a proud woman, Kaylee. She's just doin' what she needs to."
"I know, it's just I feel so sorry for her. I know it was bad for her during the War, for all of you. Well, I don't know really, but I do, you know?" He let her struggle, not wanting to get into this, but unsure of how to get her to stop without making it worse. "But you and Zoe, you're different from her. She's so sad. But you're not. I mean not like that. Right? She even said that nobody survived, but you did. Cap'n? Right?"
He didn't want to have this conversation, especially not with her. What could she know about it? How could she ever understand? He saw her face, all earnest and troubled. He'd never tell her.
"It was just a joke, Kaylee. War humor. Not terribly funny, but it wasn't a funny time. Let it go."
She didn't look convinced, but he could tell that she wasn't going to push it any farther.
"Anything else? Or can I go back to my very important work now?"
"No. Well, it's just . . ." He rolled his eyes. "It's just that I'm glad that you brought her to Serenity." That surprised him, and she saw it. "I think that she's been real lonely. Maybe being here will cheer her up some. I don't know how she made it, all these years by herself. I don't know how I would do it." Her voice trailed off.
"Well you're gonna find out if you don't get back to work and stop torturin' me. I'm just about ready to go find me another genius mechanic. I'm sure there's one hangin' around the docks at our next stop, lookin' for a good job with a first-rate captain." The smile came back to her eyes. "Don't you have a widget to go fix or some such?"
"Yes, Cap'n" With a little wave, she left him.
Mal sat back in his chair, the map forgotten. This wasn't going as smoothly as he wanted. He'd never ask her to leave, but he had a responsibility to his crew already here. They were all jumpy about Ana being onboard, for one reason or another. And she wasn't helping matters with her wild talk. Because that's all it was, he'd decided. Talk. She needed some time to settle in, for the rest of them to get to know her. They'd come to trust her and accept her. It's only been one day, he reminded himself. Can't expect the 'verse to change in one day. Things would all shake out in time. He leaned back over the map. Besides, the 'verse owed him one. It owed him a helluva lot more than that, but this was the chip he'd call in. It was all going to work out. Right, sneered the little voice in the back of his mind, because it always works out. Mal angrily smoothed out the map once more and went back to work.
It wasn't even noon yet by the clock, and she was worn down. One by one she had been tracking down the members of the crew and apologizing for her behavior the night before. Malcolm and Zoe didn't have to take her in, and instead of being quiet and thankful she stumbled and upset everyone. What was she thinking? She knew better than to say those things. Now she had to undo the discomfort she had caused. Doing penance, she'd heard it called.
She went over the list in her head. Simon had been unyielding. Kaylee had tried to assure her that no apology was necessary, then offered to give her a tour of the engine room or just sit and get acquainted. Jayne had barely acknowledged the apology and hurried away from her mumbling something about "another one." Another what? Inara had been a professional; both women had stood tall and proud and polite. You would have thought they were at a church ladies meeting. The thought gave her a small smile.
When she found River, Simon had been with her. As she started her apology he stood protectively by the girl's side, a defiant tilt to his chin. Before she could finish, River had reached out and touched her face, the girl's eyes slightly unfocused. "You don't have to do it. My brother can fix you. Can't you, Simon?" Brother. He gently pulled the girl's hand back. "River." Some of the pieces were falling into place. She had looked at the girl kindly, "Thank you, child, but I'm certain your brother has more important things to see to." The girl seemed together again, and Simon was now looking at Ana with a more questioning gaze, as if he saw something in her that he'd previously missed. Maybe now he would start to believe he could trust her? Maybe not, but something was changing in his attitude toward her.
Book had listened to her apology without interruption. She had trouble looking into his eyes; they seemed to see into her, knowing where the dark places were. He was kind in his acceptance of her words, and asked her if she wanted to go to the galley and get some coffee. Maybe sit and talk. He'd had no recent news of the world, he'd said. She'd be doing him a favor by indulging him in gossip and tales of her travels. Soon, she assured him. She'd find the time soon. But now she had her penance to do. She quickly left him.
Wash and Zoe were all that remained. She wouldn't apologize to Zoe; she knew better than that. But she'd have to find her, let her know that things were back on track, just so she wouldn't worry. Wash then. She tried to remember how to get to the bridge.
Wash was a happy man. He hummed a wordless ditty, entertaining the plastic herd of dinos strewn across the console. Things between him and Zoe were back where they should be. Better than ever, in fact. Last night - he'd never forget last night if he lived to be a thousand. (And right now, he was sure that he would.) It wasn't just the sex, although that had been fantastic beyond his powers to describe. They had reached each other, really reached each other. They didn't even need words. He had never felt so close to another human being; before last night he hadn't even thought that kind of closeness was possible. Yes, he was a very happy man.
"Wash, can I come up?"
It was Ana. Shit. But wait! He should thank her. Really. If it hadn't been for her, last night wouldn't have happened. She had a part to play in it, too. A troubling and crazy part, sure, but nothing was perfect.
"Ana! Come on up. Grab a seat." He swiveled the chair around so that he was facing the stairs as she climbed up to the bridge. "What can I do for you on this glorious afternoon?"
Ana was silent, staring out at the black around them.
"Well, not so much with the sunlight, but afternoon by the clock. 1202. It's official. Really, take a seat."
She was leaning against a bulkhead, fascinated by the dark and the stars. Wash turned back around to see what had captured her attention. Yeah, it was pretty. He took it for granted, he had to admit it.
"It's. . . I've never seen it before." Her voice was hushed, awed.
"Really? I would have thought in the army. . . " Oops, bad subject. "Or, you know, in all your travels." Damn, nothing was going to be a safe topic.
"Troop transports don't have windows. Not for the troops, anyway. And neither does steerage. It was all I could ever afford." She moved closer to the window. "It's so beautiful."
"Yeah, it's a pretty nice view."
"I used to look up at it, every night. We'd be buried just about, bunkers, trenches, bodies. I'd look up and see this beauty. And I could breathe again."
Wash had the feeling that she'd forgotten he was here. He wasn't sure how to respond, so he cleared his throat. She looked at him, as if just realizing that she wasn't alone.
"Zoe, she, uh, doesn't talk all that much about it."
"No, I imagine that she doesn't" Ana had taken a seat next to him and continued to stare out the window. "She didn't talk much under the best of circumstances. Looks like that hasn't changed."
"Yeah, that's my Zoe."
"She'd sing, though."
What? "Zoe doesn't sing." She must have meant another Zoe.
"There were nights when we'd be so cold and so scared that we'd like to die from either one. And then we'd hear Zoe singing. She said it was a song her ma had taught her."
Ana started to sing softly:Down in the valley, the valley so low
"Zoe sang that? Out loud?" Ana was singing to herself now, Wash wasn't even visible to her.
Throw your arms round me, before it's too late
Throw your arms round me, feel my heart break
Feel my heart break, dear, feel my heart break
Throw your arms round me, feel my heart break
The last word was sung at barely a whisper. Wash felt a chill run through his body. Ana suddenly seemed to shake herself out of wherever she had gone. She continued in a normal voice.
"She has a good voice. Strong. A little weak on the high notes."
"Really. I. I had no idea." What could he say?
"We all have secrets, Wash. That one isn't so big."
"But we're married. Married people . . ."
"I understand. I was married." She saw his surprised look. "Or as close as you can get without the papers. We never got the chance." She answered the question before it was asked. "She died. One of the first battles of the War. There wasn't enough left of her to bury." Her voice was flat. She turned to him face on. "And now you know something from the War that Zoe doesn't. Nor Malcolm."
She was staring out the window again, her hand outstretched as if she could feel the stars against her fingertips. "It's a gift. Me to you. We can hold onto things too long, do you understand? There comes a time to lay them down. There comes a place . . ."
He could sense her leaving him again. "Ana?"
She turned to him and it was like he was seeing a different woman. Her face was peaceful, her smile nearly radiant.
"Ana, why did you want to see me? Was there anything in particular?"
"I wanted to thank you, Wash. That's all." She rose from her chair, leaned over him and kissed him tenderly on his forehead. "Thank you." She took another long look out into the black and then left without another word.
Troubling and crazy. Yes, indeed. Without any conscious thought, Wash started humming the tune that Ana had left in his memory. Troubling and crazy.
She was happy. There was no other word for it. All this time. All these years. It was here all along. How many times, and she'd never been able to see it for herself? There were still things to do, though. Don't get ahead of yourself. The hours had flown by. "Why does time go so quickly when you're happy?" she wondered. She'd forgotten that it worked that way. According to what Malcolm had said at dinner last night, they'd be planetside in about 14 more hours. Plenty of time to get ready. She looked around her room; yes, she would be ready. Singing to herself, she went about her tasks.
Mal wasn't sure exactly what had happened during the day, but he was fairly certain that it was a good thing. He looked around the table. Everyone seemed to be as pleasantly surprised as he was. Ana was calm and cheerful. Downright talkative, if the truth be told, mostly drawing out the others in conversation, laughing at their stories or showing sympathy for their exaggerated sorrows. He'd never seen her like this. She'd always kept up a good face, true, and she found something funny at the damnedest times, that was a fact. But he'd never seen her so comfortable before. Well, he'd never seen outside of a war before, either, he admitted. That was it, of course. This was Ana at peace. He smiled at Zoe, pleased with himself and the 'verse. She grinned back, enjoying the sight as much as he was.
The Doctor was looking a little off, but then he was taken to getting sullen at odd moments. The Shepherd sometimes looked at Ana like he was examining a specimen of some kind. Nothing to that, either. Preacher probably thought she was ripe for conversion. He laughed to himself. He wanted a ringside seat for that one. The sound of loud laughter brought him back from his thoughts. It was a shame to end the fun, but there were things still needed doing before they settled in for the night.
"As much as it pains me . . ."
Jayne interrupted loudly, showing off for Ana. "When he starts out like that, it's usually us that has the pain."
Mal just smiled sweetly at him and continued. "We still got things to do. Big day tomorrow. Someone needs to go through and double-check all our supplies for the job. Jayne, I believe that one's yours."
"See," Jayne said over the laughter. "I told ya."
The crew started to gather up their plates, but Ana shooed them away. "I'll see to this. You all have other things to get to." With grateful smiles and thanks they filed out, but not before Kaylee impulsively planted a kiss on her cheek. Surprised, Ana brought her hand up to where the girl's lips had touched her.
"She does that." Mal was grinning, leaning up against the doorway, arms crossed. "She's taken to you. You're in for it now. She'll be ambushin' you regular from now on."
"She's a sweet girl."
"She is that, but you never heard it from me, understand?"
"Malcolm, you're as transparent as a sheet of glass. Anyone with eyes can see that you dote on her. You're an old mother hen. Don't forget, I know you."
"You are feelin' better, aren't you? You had me kinda wonderin' for a while."
"No need to fret, Malcolm. I'm fine. I'm beyond fine. And I owe it all to you." He looked surprised. "You brought me here. Back to Serenity. I've been wandering for a very long time, but now I can rest. I can never repay you for this. I want you to know that."
"You don't have to repay me, Ana. Some things are just meant to be."
"Yes, they are." She walked over to him and placed her palm against his cheek. "Will you remember that?"
"Ana?" He reached up and took her hand from his cheek, but still held it. "What are you trying to tell me?" He searched her eyes, the worry creeping back to him.
"I'm trying to tell you to go about your business and let me finish up in here." She squeezed his hand and then released it. "Go! Be a captain. Oh, one thing." He stopped and turned toward her. "Where do you think Zoe will be? I want to be sure to say good night."
"She'll most likely be in the cargo bay overseein' things for tomorrow." He paused. "Are you sure you're OK?"
"Listen to me. Today has been the happiest day I can remember for a very, very long time. Have I ever lied to you?"
"Then go. And Malcolm? Thank you. Again."
He started through the doorway.
"Good night, Captain."
He brought up short and looked back at her. She was stacking plates, a smile on her face. He shook his head. Women. If he lived to be a hundred, he'd never understand.
The ship was quiet. Serenity was living up to her name. Ana had finished up the dishes without anyone disturbing her. The simple domestic task had been the cap on the near perfect day. No it had been all perfect. She had done her penance; it hadn't been easy, but it had been exactly the right thing to do. She'd made her peace. She could rest now.
It pained her to think that Malcolm and Zoe wouldn't understand. They had given her so much, but never so great a gift as this. She would have liked to go to the bridge once more, to see with her eyes the beautiful black expanse, but she was afraid that there was some sort of perimeter alarm. She was so close; she didn't want to spoil it now by a foolish act. She'd see it soon enough - if not with her eyes, then with her soul.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Her old uniform still fit, and she took great pride in that. It was worse for wear, but she'd tended it as well as she could, abandoning other items over the years, but never this. She ran one hand lovingly across the material of the brown jacket. All the battles, all the pain. They had shared it all, the three of them. It should have been four. Claire. A dull ache returned to her heart. "Soon," whispered in her mind. She knew the voice now, couldn't believe that she hadn't recognized it until now. "Soon," she repeated out loud. She looked again in the mirror and was again taken by how she'd aged. She'd died so long ago, she reasoned to herself. Why did she go on aging?
She turned away from the mirror and checked the room one last time. The bunk was made up Her civilian clothes were neatly folded and lying atop the blanket. She took the note and placed it carefully in the middle of the blanket in plain sight. It was time.
"Captain! Captain, come to the infirmary! Captain!" It was the doctor's voice. Something was very wrong, that was plain. Heart pounding, Mal raced through the corridor, hands fumbling at the buttons of his shirt as he ran. He gave it up as a bad job and used his hands instead to propel himself down the ladder without using the stairs. He rounded the corner into the infirmary, and a cry tore from his lips before he could stop it. "God, no!"
He moved the last short distance feeling as if he were walking under water. Everything felt too heavy: his limbs, his breathing. He wanted to shut his eyes, but the effort was beyond him. The doctor was standing over Ana; he'd torn her shirt open and Mal could see the bruise on her chest where the doctor had tried to start her heart beating again. She was wearing her uniform. Wasn't that strange? The doctor was saying something to him now, and Mal forced himself to concentrate.
". . . massive overdose. I tried to bring her back, but it's too late. I'm sorry, Captain."
"Ana?" This wasn't real. He was still sleeping. He touched her face and the skin was already cool under his hand. It was real.
There was a commotion at the door. The rest of the crew had piled into the corridor, drawn by the alarm in the doctor's voice. Zoe pushed her way through them. Wash foolishly tried to hold her back, and she pushed him away. She stood beside Mal and stared wordlessly at the body of their friend.
Book crossed the threshold into the room. Mal raised his arm toward him, never lifting his gaze from Ana. "Stay away from this, Preacher."
"Captain, if I can . . ."
Mal turned toward him them, his face a solid mask of fury. "If you take one more step toward her, I swear to your God I will end you."
Book raised his hands then, and moved slowly back. Mal turned his attention to the others.
"The rest of you, we still got a job to do. Go do it. We make landfall in an hour. Wash, see to it." They just stared back at him. "Get out of here!" he roared. They broke and moved quickly out of sight, only Wash hanging back looking at Zoe.
She sensed his eyes on her and looked back at him. She nodded to him. "Go on now." He left without saying anything to her.
Mal stood still as stone. "What did it?"
The doctor looked around at the floor briefly and then bent to pick up a spent injector. "This." He read the label on the cartridge. "She would have been dead in seconds. It was very fast, painless."
Mal nodded, acknowledging the information. "Doctor, could you leave us, please."
"Yes, of course. Just let me know when you want me to come back. We'll have to see to the bod . . . we'll have to see to Ana." He hurried from the room.
Neither one of them spoke for a long while. Mal suddenly exploded, slamming his fist over and over into the thin padding of the bed, a steady stream of curses filling the air. Zoe remained still waiting for the storm to finish. When he had quieted at last, she spoke.
/"I don't understand, Sir. She was happy. Wasn't she?"
"She said she was. And I believed her. But she said she never lied to me. And I believed that, too." His voice became bitter. "Everything she said to me last night was a lie."
"Why would she lie? We could have helped her. She knew that."
"She didn't want help, Zoe," he spat the words at her. "She wanted this." His gesture took in Ana's sprawling body. He forced himself to calm, then slowly started to rebutton the shirt that the doctor had torn open. Zoe gently straightened out Ana's legs and when Mal was done, crossed her friend's arms across the waist.
Zoe stepped back and looked around the room. "Was there a note?" Mal glanced around, too. Nothing. "Maybe in her room," she said.
Mal sighed. "Let's go check it out. Tell the doctor to come back."
Zoe got on the intercom. "Simon, she's ready for you now."
Together they walked to the door, and together they paused to look back at the body of their friend and comrade. Silently they left her.
The job had gone off without a hitch. The buyer had never seen such a solemn bunch of smugglers in his life, he said. Mal had told him to shut up and pay him. The buyer had paled and handed over the payment, then scurried out into the light and away from the very dangerous-looking man.
They'd lifted off as soon as Mal and Zoe had returned. There was still one duty to perform. The two of them were suited up now. On the deck lying between them was the body of Anastice Rao, dressed in her uniform and wrapped in a blanket. Rope was looped around her neck and her waist and her ankles. It was what she had wanted. They waited in silence until Wash's voice broke through on their comms. "We should be good. Send her out." The outer door opened slowly and they lifted Ana's body between them, the loss of gravity making it effortless for them. Mal and Zoe looked at each other, and with a nod from Mal they gently pushed Ana out into the black. She tumbled into the darkness and was soon lost to them. Neither of them spoke a word throughout it, but each knew what the other's thoughts were. The letter. It was cut into their memories like an etching on glass.
My dear ones,
Be happy for me. I died a long time ago, with Claire. The War had kept me standing and loving you had kept me fighting. When the War was done and you were gone, I knew it was time for me to find my rest at last. I wandered for six years searching for the place to hold me. I found it here. The thought of being buried gives me the horrors. We've seen too much of dirt and bodies, haven't we? Lay me to rest with the stars in the endless black. Keep it simple. A blanket will do. I always did hate the cold.
I never had much to say to God, but I think now I should thank Him. He brought me back to you. Believe that those last hours with you were the happiest I can remember in too long a time. You saved me from endless wandering. You brought me rest.
Be well. Be whole. Malcolm, the only lie I ever gave you was to say that none of us survived. Forgive me for that. You both survived. More than that, you live. It is the greatest joy that you could have given me.
They must have been standing there for a while, because Wash's voice came to them again, hesitant but with a bit of concern.
"Is everything OK? Zoe, are you there?"
"I'm here," she told him softly.
"Close it up, Wash. She's gone."
The hatch door closed slowly, blotting out the stars. They turned back toward the welcoming light of Serenity and left the black behind them.