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Qin Ge

by Jayne Leitch

[Story Headers]

Prologue

The tantrum doesn't last long, and the damage isn't too substantial. They leave Mal in the mess, watching darkly as the others straighten tipped-over chairs and sweep up smashed crockery. There will be words later, but arguing with the captain is inevitable and thus less important right now than other, less certain, things.

The strict rationing of their medical supplies is beginning to take its toll: the smoother is working, albeit less thoroughly than if it had been a full dose. The effect is unnerving: quiet without stillness, restlessness turned sluggish, dark eyes staring with persistent focus and horrified awareness at absolutely nothing.

Nothing River can see, anyway. She's sure there's a vast theatre of atrocities unfolding in front of Simon's eyes, or at least in his brain, after what the Alliance did to him. After they broke him.

She hears the timid shuffle of feet in the corridor--most likely Kaylee, wanting to offer comfort but unsure how or to whom. River closes her eyes and twists a corner of Simon's blanket between her fingers, weighing the appealing warmth of a friendly (if anxious) smile against her need to share the chill of her brother's private nightmares.

As is their custom, Simon makes the decision for her. His long, bony fingers wrap around her wrists, and when she opens her eyes he is looking directly at her, wide-eyed and intent. "They weren't ready yet," he whispers, urgency staining his sunken cheeks a feverish red. "But they got impatient. Looked at their lists--names and numbers, rolls and scores, quantifiable desirability--and got greedy." His gaze unfocuses, his attention caught once more by the things only he can see. When he speaks again, River hears a stranger's appraising words: "'Remarkable children. We'll practise on the first, and perfect the second.'" His hands spasm; River blinks back tears as he comes back to himself (as much as he ever does), his face slack with dawning horror. "Second...two...two by two, hands of blue...River." He focuses on her again, tears welling over; his rail-thin body twitches, the smoother deadening his autonomy. "I can see it, River. You. You were always...it should have been you."

"Yes, qin ge." Gently, River pulls one hand free (his grip tightens painfully on her other; she'll wear bruise bracelets again this week) and leans forward, reaching out to brush his hair off his forehead. He tilts his head into her trembling touch, an involuntary, animalistic motion; she swallows, looks into his eyes, and nods. "Yes, it should have been me."

*

"You could maybe find a place here. 'Til you find a better."

River passes Jayne on the stairs into the bridge and has to sway quickly to the side to avoid running into his hulking shoulder. He scowls at her, his intention thwarted, and his boots ring sullenly all the way to the kitchen.

The captain is in the pilot's chair, his back to her. His shoulders are tense with discomfort she knows has nothing to do with the blood on his torn sleeve; she goes to the co-pilot's chair, sits, and waits, giving him his due to speak first.

"That Fed, Dobson," he says eventually, without turning from the view ahead. "He killed a member of my crew, a good man, on account of you and your brother. That's the reason I got for puttin' the both of you off my boat, maybe before we're done fully stoppin'." Now he turns, locking the controls and levelling her with his full attention. "Give me one just as good why I oughta let you stay."

She refuses to wilt, to flinch or cower or plead; there is no ground here on which to drop to her knees, and besides, she thinks he would only be offended. Instead, she takes the time to plan her words, and answers only after a thoughtful silence. "I don't have one."

He doesn't even blink. In the dark, his eyes reflect a glimmer from the stars. "Oh."

"Not one just as good," she continues evenly, entirely willing to acknowledge the truth of it: someone is dead. She has no right to ask more than that. But Simon still needs help, and they both need to hide, and the captain has asked--which means she does have the right to offer. "But I can give you a few of lesser quality. Ones that might add up."

"I'm listening."

"I told you Simon was a doctor back on Osiris. Once he's better, he could stay on as ship's medic in repayment."

The captain shakes his head. "Way he looked comin' out of that box, 'once he's better's too far off for trade. Out here, folk don't get cash advances on fairy-gold promises."

River relaxes a fraction: she hadn't expected him to approve her first offer, any more than she had wanted to barter with Simon's freedom. Luckily, the captain is the seasoned negotiator she'd presumed him to be, and she settles into the haggling with deliberation. "I have post-graduate credentials in more sciences than you could name. I can be an asset to you in the engine room."

"Already got one there, name of Kaylee." It's a casual refusal; again, what she expected. "She ain't got many credentials, but then she ain't spent her life too stuck in books to learn from experience, neither."

She raises her chin, consciously allowing the naturally privileged attitude she grew up with to assert itself. "I can pay you. I arranged to have access to some money once Simon and I went to ground; I don't have much left, and I can't get it all right away, but if you help us, it's yours."

He narrows his eyes. "In normal times, you won't find me making much objection to straight money payment. But something makes hard coin tougher to spend when it's covered in the blood of me an' mine."

"You need a pilot." She could have tempered it, could have gone a more roundabout way to bringing it up--but he brought them to it first, cleared the way for her to be blunt, and she thinks that's best. It is, after all, the crux of their exchange, in more ways than one. Her superior air evaporates as quickly as it was summoned, and she makes her final offer in quiet earnest: "I can be your pilot."

It's his turn to be silent, to be motionless, to measure her with his glimmering eyes and betray not a twitch of expression. "You seem to have a way 'round the board, any case," he says finally, gruffly, and she feels suddenly lightheaded with the knowledge that this is his assent: their negotiation is over. "I seem to recall some shine 'twixt you and the controls, even with Reavers steppin' on your dress."

"It's all theoretical." At the wary look that crosses his face, a tiny smile slips through her reserve. "What I do, it's all theoretical: numbers and shapes, forces and energy. It's Serenity that flies."

The look softens; he understands, at least a little. "She's a good ship. Deserves a good pilot." He watches her another moment, then turns back to face the window and everything beyond it. "Wash'll be missed by more'n his widow. You be sure of that," he says, and she knows he means it as a statement of fact, not a warning. Knows also, in the private way she has, that there is relief tangled up with everything else he's put into his decision. "You're a mite young still, Certified Genius, but if you can keep my boat in the air, you got somethin' I want. Jun cheng jiao?"

"Xie." Her smile widens, pleased and resolute. It's the first time since leaving home that she's dared to breathe freely; even with the prospect of Simon's recovery ahead of her, ahead of them both, she feels like dancing. "I'll keep her flying."

He nods at the stars. "That's enough."

*

"There's a client. Me. I have a job for you."

Getting into St. Lucy's is less difficult than River expected. It helps that Doctor Jun responded to the old communication protocols River remembered from the weeks leading up to Simon's rescue, when regular updates from the underground were crucial and Zora was her contact; it helps even more that she agreed immediately with River's plan and, with typical efficiency, provided them with everything they needed to pull it off. Including herself.

It feels strange to be on a central planet again, to be in the clean bustle of an Alliance-run facility, to be surrounded by people who've never had to scrape and scrounge and tussle for something to call their own. River prefers the people she's met on Serenity and nearer the rim--she likes their kind of freedom, the plainness of it and how fiercely they guard it--but she knows that if Simon could choose he would be here, in this world, probably working in this very hospital. She glances down at him as they wheel him through the halls and sees his gaze darting from patient to patient in a frenzied version of clinical alertness; it's horrible, like watching a starving child trapped behind glass with a banquet being served on the other side. River bites her lip and looks away, and catches a sidelong glance of understanding from Zora.

Zora's been walking these halls for years and didn't have to forge an ident card; she slips them all past the checkpoints with easy efficiency, trading on her familiarity with the nurses and orderlies they pass. Even Jayne seems impressed, although River can see uneasiness and distrust--and something else, something darker and more malicious--out to play in his eyes. She knows he's still smarting from the cut, and more from the fact that it was Simon wielding the scalpel, but all she can do is hope that the prospect of his share of the take will hold him steady.

Just like she can only hope that the captain and Zoe are pulling off the heist as easily as she, Zora, Simon and Jayne are accessing restricted medical equipment.

The HoloImaging Suite is like a theatre: once they've settled Simon in the chair they all stand back and wait for the show to begin. Zora presses buttons and enters commands, and when the imager projects its holodisplay they all leave the console to take a closer look. As Zora manipulates the display, River risks another glance at Simon and, this time, can't help smiling: he is utterly still, a rapt expression on his face as he stares straight up into the depths of his own brain.

"I'm not a neurologist," Zora says after a few moments, and River looks up to find her inspecting a series of incongruous white lines spread through one section of the display. "But I know that there is no medically-justified reason for cutting into a perfectly healthy brain like this. I can't even tell you exactly how they did it; a lot of these scars don't conform to any surgical techniques I'm familiar with. They just seemed to target the limbic cortex and...cut. Memory centre, fear centre..." A vicious frown twists her mouth, and even Jayne starts a little when she spits, "Zhou ma yao wu!"

River studies the scarring closely, piecing together what she's read in Simon's old textbooks and her own excursions through medical archives on the Cortex, trying to contextualize and make sense of the data. Her impulse is simply to ask Simon; he always said that she was the genius in the family, and she always knew--without hubris--that he was right, but she could never make him understand that her aptitude for medicine didn't amount to half of his. Because she had begun correcting some of his textbooks before he'd even opened them, he'd never believed there was anything she couldn't do. It was an attitude that had frustrated her when he was able to prove himself her better; now, she wishes more than anything that he had been right.

"There's no mediation." Simon's voice, soft yet insistent, pulls River's attention from the display; she meets his gaze and sees anxiety and assurance warring for control. "No filter. Just absolutes, stripped bare. Confrontational. The mercy-killing of the psyche."

Across the room the computer chimes: all the information from the scan has been recorded onto a removable data tab. Jayne lurks behind Zora as she goes to retrieve it, and as they start to argue over whether there's time for her to make a copy for the underground to study, River moves around the side of the chair and lays one hand against Simon's cheek. "It's okay, Simon," she whispers, willing herself to believe in his old, blind trust. "I'll figure it out."

*

"She understands. She doesn't comprehend."

River has one terrifying glimpse of Simon, his back pressed against the far wall of the infirmary as the Alliance man steps inside, before the door slides abruptly shut and the lock clanks into place. Screaming, she throws herself against the door and batters it with her fists; the porthole window is smeared--on the inside--with something thick enough to be opaque, but she scrubs at it with her sleeve anyway, babbling frantically until she is pulled roughly away and spun to face Mal.

"Ji jing, you mei!" The pain of his grip on her arms is enough to focus her attention; she works to calm herself enough to be useful as he looks over her head and takes stock. "What'd he do, pin sheets up over the windows? Kaylee, get the comm in there turned on, patch through to the walkies."

"Yes, Cap'n."

"Zoe, scan for his ship and any others might be in the area. And try to figure out why the proximity alarm ain't workin'."

"Sir."

"River." And she is comforted, very slightly, to see the set of his jaw and the grim determination in his eyes and know they're for her and Simon and their freedom as much as for his crew's. "You tell me who the gorram hell it is got on my ship an' how much we got to worry."

She feels the infirmary looming behind her and the seconds ticking past of Simon on his own again, helpless again, trapped again; she takes a breath and speaks quickly. "He said he was sent by the Alliance to bring Simon back and take me to the authorities."

Mal's eyes widen. "Bounty hunter?"

She shakes her head. "He said he was a doctor. Doctor Dowses. He said he was specially trained to transport people in Simon's c-condition." She refuses to glance over her shoulder toward the useless window. "I don't know how he got in. I was locking the autopilot for the night when he came onto the bridge; he said I was going to help him find Simon and then both of us were going to leave with him." Another breath, shakier than her last. "He has a gun, and a little kit of--of syringes--"

"I saw the gun." Mal lets go of her, finally, and draws himself up to glare at the sealed doors. "Didn't do much about it, though, since your brother seemed to know good and well what he was doing when he told me to clear a path down here."

River stares at him, shocked. "Simon told you to--?"

She is interrupted by an echoing hiss of comm static as the mobile units stored in the cargo hold sputter to life. Footsteps clang hurriedly over their heads and down the stairs, and Kaylee arrives with one of the units and a handful of tools. "Almost got it, Captain," she announces breathlessly as she drops the tools on the couch and begins prying and twisting at the innards of the comm. "Just gotta clear the interference on the right...frequency..."

All at once, the static clears. River's breath catches in the sudden, relative quiet: Simon's voice, his precise tones picked up mid-sentence from the wall unit inside the infirmary, issues from the tinny speaker in Kaylee's hand. "--know you. Wish I didn't, but I do. I can watch you everywhere. You're always on time. Very punctual, even when you're early. I can watch that, too. I can...square peg's in the square hole. Things where they fit, where they're right. Objects in place. You're here, Dowses. With me."

He falls silent; there is the slight whisper of air through the comm. River's fingers curl into the folds of her skirt as she stares at the dirty window and waits.

And then, as smoothly as if there'd been no pause, Simon says, "You can come in now."

She's at the door before Mal's hand clamps on her shoulder; this time she struggles against his grip. "He wouldn't have said it if it weren't safe!" she insists, shrill with desperation.

He pulls her back. "I go first." His expression is hard, brooking nothing; after a second she nods and steps behind him, clearing the space between him and the infirmary. He pulls his gun and holds it ready before reaching out and giving the door handle a careful, experimental tug.

The door slides open effortlessly, and River takes her chance: she ducks around Mal--is momentarily surprised when he doesn't try to stop her--and comes up short at the scene within.

Simon is standing next to an equipment cart on which the contents of Dowses' kit are laid in even, orderly lines. He is composed, his clothes as neat as they ever get, his air one of detached clinical interest as he selects one syringe at a time and holds it up to the light to read its label. Beside him, on the operating table, Dowses lies flat on his back, his eyes closed. There's not a mark on him.

River's indrawn breath makes Simon look up from his task. It takes him a moment to focus; then, "Bu yao zhao ji, mei-mei." A slight smile curves his mouth, and his fingertips brush across the ampoules in their neat little lines. "They're quite harmless."

*

Epilogue

The office was spacious, sparsely opulent and intensely clean. Simon suspected that someone had been brought in to decorate; he couldn't imagine the doctor was the type to involve himself overmuch in such matters. The cleanliness, however...that, Simon was certain, he took care of personally.

The door behind him hissed open--there were sterile locks even in the administrative wing here--and Simon stood at attention, staring straight ahead as the doctor walked around him to settle behind his desk. Once seated, he sorted through some papers, shuffling them into little piles with professional fussiness; he didn't pay Simon any notice until his blotter had been cleared and his hands were folded atop it, and he looked up at him with businesslike expectancy. "Did you write the letter?"

Simon's fingers curled around the folded paper in his hand. "Yes."

"Give it to me."

He handed it over without hesitation. "It says I've accepted the fellowship here, and have decided to start right away," he said as the doctor unfolded it and began to read. "I apologized for the lack of notice and requested a few personal items. Nothing out of the ordinary."

Still scanning, the doctor asked, "Where will your things be sent?"

"General Post."

"I'll arrange for someone to pick them up for you." The doctor nodded, apparently satisfied with the contents of the letter; he folded it closed and placed it to one side of his blotter. When he looked up again it was with an arched brow and the hint of a wry smile. "I really can't change your mind?" he asked, a lightly persuasive tinge to his voice. "You're still our first choice; it'd be a shame if the fellowship went to someone with a less exemplary--"

"No."

The doctor didn't even blink. "Very well, then." Every trace of congeniality disappeared, he turned back to his papers; selecting a sheet from the top of one pile, he placed it at the edge of the desk, facing Simon. "This states that you are a mentally and physically competent adult as explicitly defined in the Alliance Charter of Citizenship; that you understand your rights and actions as a participant in this contract; and that you are submitting to our care freely and of your own volition. Sign at the top and bottom, including thumbprint."

Simon took the proffered stylus and signed, again without hesitation.

When he was finished, the doctor picked up the contract and glanced at it, checking that everything was in order before placing it next to Simon's letter. "That concludes the paperwork," he said, leaning back in his chair with calm satisfaction. "I had hoped I would be welcoming you to this facility as a colleague rather than a subject; nevertheless, if this is the only way we can enjoy the benefit of your talents: welcome. You will be an asset to the project."

Simon met his gaze, level and unblinking. Behind his back, his knuckles were white. "And River?"

Doctor Mathias stared back, just as steady. "Her name will be removed from our list of candidates for the project."

Simon breathed. "Then I thank you for your welcome. I hope my participation will be sufficient for your needs."

"You've already exposed a critical need for security upgrades in our file-storage cortex," Mathias commented idly, "and that was before you decided to work with us. I think your participation will be more than sufficient." Nodding decisively, he returned his attention to his papers. "You may go back to your room," he said briskly, dismissing Simon without bothering to look at him. "Try to get a good night's sleep; you'll have your first session with Doctor Dowses in the morning."

End.

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Fandom:  Firefly
Title:  Qin Ge
Author:  Jayne Leitch   [email]   [website]
Details:  Standalone  |  PG-13  |  gen  |  20k  |  01/12/06
Characters:  River, Simon, Mal
Summary:  It should have been River.
Notes:  Spoilers: through 'Objects in Space'. Vague ones for Serenity (the movie).
Disclaimer/Other:  Disclaimer: if Whedon doesn't want them anymore, can I have them?
Notes: many thanks to MaryKate for the English beta. I can only hope the Chinese is something approximating correct.

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