Old War Horses
Warnings: Dom/sub, sexual confusion


































Chapter One

"Just a little farther," Blair whispered, and Jim tightened his hand around his partner's shoulder, struggling to ignore the sensory flood that threatened to swamp him. That last time was too close, and he was having too much trouble getting the senses back under control after he'd caught the tail-end of that shock wave blast. Cao. If it weren't for Blair, the Alliance would have taken him, but how long could he rely on a psychiatrist to save him from the gorram Alliance? He pushed that despair aside and focused on their immediate needs. Right now, his most important mission was putting one foot in front of the other. They had to keep moving because the government boys were just too damn close on their tails.

"Oh man, it's just adrenaline and reaction. You can control this," Blair muttered.

Jim glared and really wished that Blair could be intimidated. Unfortunately nothing Jim had ever seen, not Alliance scientists or their human experiments or half-dead men crying for help had ever intimidated Blair. They'd made the psychiatrist cry and his heart pound uncontrollably, but nothing ever intimidated him, not even James Joseph Womak in a bad mood.

"How about that one?" Blair asked, nodding toward the oldest piece of gou shi Jim had seen in a long time. The ship was Firefly class, and carrying more replacement parts than original from the look of her. Taking a deep breath, Jim anchored himself with a hand on Blair's shoulder and let his hearing slide out of his body, sending it to crawl across the ground like a snake until he could hear the footfalls of dock workers and the rough Chinese curses of men and the scrape and drag of cargo as it was shifted. The firefly's engines rumbled softly, and Jim could hear the even rhythm. She had a good engineer. Reaching farther, Jim listened to the structure, searching for rattles or groans that could lead to metal blowing out and ships losing atmosphere mid-flight. Nothing.

"She's solid," Jim said tightly. Using his hearing had left his head pounding and he clung to Blair's shoulder.

"Just a little farther. We'll get passage and hole up in a room. You can sleep this off," Blair promised. Blair was good like that, promising something if Jim could make it just a little farther. Get past the perimeter and Blair would be able to remove the pain controller from Jim's neck. Get past the Londinium docks and Alliance guards, and Jim would be free for the first time in years, for the first time since men had shown up requesting that he accompany them back to the core for an experiment. Blair never promised more than he could deliver. After all, he never promised Jim they'd be safe or they'd be able to sit on one planet for more than two days before the gorram Alliance scientists tracked them down

"You folks looking for passage? The Serenity is about the best around. Where you going?" a cheerful voice asked. Jim had let his head hang forward as he stared at the dust of the road, but now he looked up at a girl with a wide smile and thick brown hair. Only that smile was faltering, and she was backing up quick.

"Captain!" she cried out. Jim glanced at Blair who had a panicked expression on his face. Time for an exit. Jim shoved aside the pain and pulled Blair behind him as he turned and hurried down the street. "Captain!" she cried louder. Jim broke into a trot, his hand still clutched around Blair's wrist.

"Hold up right there." A huge man with an enormous gun stepped out from behind a loaded cart, and Jim's hand instinctively fell on the butt of his gun. "Try it and you're dead, dong ma?" he asked.

"Jim?" Blair whispered, his hand resting on Jim's back. Jim carefully let go of his pistol and held his hands out.

"I understand," Jim agreed with the armed thug. "We don't have any problem with you."

"Seems like Kaylee do," the big man insisted. "Let's go back and figure what that is."

Jim watched the man for a second, the way he held the gun, the way his eyes scanned the area without ever losing focus on him and Blair. Soldier or merc, that's for sure. Damn it, either one would turn Jim in faster than a Browncoat could turn tail. Jim started turning and got just far enough that he could make eye contact with his partner. He nodded, and Blair's mouth came open, probably to argue, but Jim didn't give him time.

Throwing himself backwards, he collided with the big guy, grabbing the barrel of the gun and forcing it to the side.

"Run!" he ordered Blair as a fist caught him just under the ribs. The punch made Jim grunt, but he jammed his knee up into an unprotected gut.

"Wang ba dan," the man cursed and then Jim caught a blow upside his head that sent him crashing into a cart before crumpling to the ground with his sense of hearing warbling out of control. Cao. Jim blinked, his hearing totally gone, but at least now he could function. The big guy had Blair by the back of his hair. Jim had told the kid to cut that tzao gao off before someone used it against him, but obviously he hadn't made his point clear enough because the big merc was dragging Blair by it.

Jim reached for his gun, but the merc swung his own gun around so fast that Jim was staring straight down the barrel before he could even get his clear of the holster. And the big bastard still held Blair, even when Blair kicked him in the shin. Jim could see the man's face twist into something ugly and he jerked on Blair's hair hard enough that the small man was almost pulled off his feet.

"Blair, enough," Jim said. Normally Jim could hear the slightest whisper, so the absolute silence made him cringe. Blair was saying something, and Jim squinted as he tried to read his lips, but he couldn't make it out. Another man appeared, a spacer, and he stepped next to the big guy, resting his hand on the big one's arm and saying something that made Blair roll his eyes. Jim still couldn't hear any of it. The barrel of the gun poking at him caught his attention.

The big one said something and from the unhappy expression, he'd said it more than once. Jim cursed his senses to guay as he struggled to figure it out. If he didn't, they were going to shoot him and he didn't even want to think what would happen to Blair. The 'verse wasn't nice to pretty, sly boys this far out on the rim. He'd get sold to some whorehouse, and Jim would have one more life on his conscience. The big guy jerked his gun, and Jim followed his line of sight. Of course. Holding his hands out in surrender, Jim carefully moved toward his belt, undoing it before pulling the leg-tie free and letting his entire gun belt side to the ground.

"Just let Blair go," Jim said. He wasn't in any position to negotiate with a gun in his face and hearing that was currently missing in action, but he had to try something. The big guy looked to the second fellow, and Jim slowly stood up, focusing on the second one. This new guy asked a question, and Jim frowned. Whatever else this one was, he wasn't a merc. Since Jim had been reduced to playing a guessing game, he would say this was either the captain or the second in command of the ship.

Captain jerked his thumb, and Jim started slowly toward the ship, keeping his hands out away from his body. He had a half-dozen weapons in different places, none as easy to get to as the one on his hip had been, but they were there. And the merc behind him would know that, even if the captain didn't. Captain seemed like he might be a little too clean-cut to take a man's head off with a slipwire, but Jim wasn't, and he was betting the merc wasn't either. He just didn't want to give the merc a reason to hurt Blair before he could do some negotiating.

The girl-next door sort with her wide hazel eyes watched as Jim walked up the ramp. Passing her, he could smell engine grease and lube, so this was their mechanic or assistant maybe. A captain didn't usually have the mechanic acting as barker in dock. Mechanic was usually off trying to scrounge ship parts for cheap.

Jim stopped in the middle of the hold and turned around, waiting to see what the two men behind him would do. The captain looked up toward the walk, and Jim looked up to see a dark woman with thick curled hair and a dangerous look come down the stairs. Jim glanced from her to the second man trying to figure out which was the captain and which was the second. The woman stopped in front of the man and they talked as she kept glancing back toward Jim.

When the man stepped forward, Jim pegged him as the captain. He was talking again, and Jim frowned. Suddenly Blair put his elbow into the merc's stomach and jerked away. Blair should have made for the hills, but instead he made for Jim's side, and the mercenary had the gun up and pointed at Blair's back. Stepping forward, Jim put himself in the path, his hands held up in surrender as the mercenary looked to the captain.

Meanwhile, Blair slipped in next to Jim, his arm going around Jim's waist the way he would when Jim's senses had been so thrown out of wack that he couldn't see when he was stumbling on feet that couldn't feel anything. If the kid had any sense, he'd cut Jim loose and find some nice quiet moon where the gorram Alliance wouldn't find him, but the man had no sense of self-preservation. Jim sighed as he slipped an arm around Blair's shoulders and stared at the captain.

Blair tugged on his shirt, and Jim looked down. Blair said something and tugged at his ear.

"Can't hear a gorram thing," Jim admitted. Blair talked on, his mouth silently working, and Jim watched him, catching quick glances at the confused crew as Blair gave him a hopeful look. Finally, Blair reached up and rested his palm on Jim's cheek.

"...on line. You know the drill, man. This is all mind over matter. The brain is just trying to protect you, but you have to take control of it." Blair's words boomed in his head for a second before they slowly settled back down to normal, or normal for Jim anyway.

"Hearing's back," Jim said tersely. This show had just given these people way too much information, but Jim didn't suppose that made much difference now. You took a prisoner, and the first thing you did was check the waves to see if anyone was looking for that prisoner. They went looking for someone with senses as screwed up as a Browncoat's sense of strategy, and they'd find the alert with his name on it... and the reward.

The Alliance had done this to him—they had activated some long dormant genes that turned him into something abnormal. They'd given him senses that could hear a cockroach walking across the floor, but it had also stripped him of the control he'd always had. He'd been an officer. He'd led battalions at the Battles for Du-Khang and New Kashmir. He'd been willing to give his life for the Alliance and the belief that everyone deserved the protection of the law. However, the Alliance hadn't taken his life. They'd found some genetic quirk in his genes and they had taken his freedom and his sanity instead.

"Right then, if you're done being crazy, let's have the rest of the weapons," the captain insisted, his gun still firmly pointed in their direction. The merc stood to the side with a clear shot, and the dark woman had a mighty fine pistol of her own on her hip, her hand resting on it. If it was just him, Jim would take his chances. Dead was better than being back in some Alliance lab, but he had Blair to think of. Blair had sacrificed his career and his life to get Jim out of that hell, and he wasn't putting the man back in there with him.

Jim started reaching for his jacket. "Not you," the captain interrupted. "Have the boy pull 'em out."

Jim glanced down at Blair who had a sour expression at being called a boy. He was older than he looked, and was a doctor to boot, but like Jim kept telling him, having that innocent camouflage was useful. These people were already seeing Jim as the threat and Blair as his boy, which meant Blair still had a chance of getting out of this.

"Jim?" Blair asked quietly. Jim raised his arms level with his shoulders.

"Go on," he told his partner. Blair looked at him for a second with a frown. "Take all of them, Chief," Jim said softly. There were only one or two weapons Blair didn't know about, so that would pretty much strip him, but right now they needed strategy, not brute strength. Jim might take that big merc on a good day, but today wasn't a good day.

He waited as Blair pulled weapon after weapon out of their secret places and handed them over. By the time Blair finished, Jim was left with only a long needle down the back of his boot and a slipwire in his belt.

"What brings you to these parts, Womak?" the captain asked. Jim frowned at the man. Clearly the captain knew him, but Jim couldn't remember ever meeting anyone who looked like him. The man wasn't starched enough for an Alliance officer--too much of the frontier about him--both his way of talking and his dusty, rumpled clothes. But the man looked too much like a straight shooter for him to be anyone Jim had been assigned to investigate before the war. He'd generally been sent after men and women who thought the border moons offered protection from law and justice, and this man didn't have the desperate look of a morally lost man. Now the merc... Jim could imagine himself tracking that one down.

"Do I know you?"

The merc snorted. "Meybe I hit him upside the head to hard. Scrambled some brains. If I hit him again, maybe I'll knock the piece back in."

"Hey," Blair jumped in, both hands held up, "let's not start with--"

Jim cut his partner off by the simple act of grabbing him by the back of the neck and yanking him back. These people needed to see Blair as worthless, as some sly trick Jim had picked up along the way to scratch an itch. Otherwise, Blair was going down with him.

"I don't know who you are," Jim said tightly. If they had his name, they'd find that wave and that reward twice as fast though. "But I'm willing to deal."

"Ain't like you have much to deal with this time, Womak."

"This time?" Jim asked with a sinking feeling. If you had someone with an old run down ship talking about dealing with a Womak, chances were it wasn't Jim they'd run across. So many times Jim wondered what stroke of luck had put him into the Institute's hands instead of his brother, and on his darker days, he suspected that Charles just might have had his hand in it. It would be like him to save his own skin and set Jim up for a fall at the same time. In his more charitable moments, he just figured the Alliance thought they had better control over him.

"You've run into Charlie," Jim said to the captain. He still didn't know what sort of relationship the ship had with Charlie... they could be paying him off or running from him. WIth Charlie, you never knew.

"Who's Charlie?" the merc asked. Funny, most of the time captains kept their mercs on short leashes, having them shoot but not talk. This one was downright talkative.

"Lieutenant Charles Richard Womak, dirty cop," Jim answered when the captain didn't seem to take offense at the merc jumping into the conversation. "I'm not him. And here's the deal," he hurried to say before he could get dragged into that conversation. He didn't want to know how these people knew Charlie. "The reward on me is alive only, so you let Blair walk out and away, and I won't fight you and force you to kill me."

The captain exchanged looks with his second.

"Re-ward?" the merc quickly pounced on that word. "Mal, if'n there's a reward, you're going to remember that I'm the one who brought him in, right?"

"I don't figure you ought to be talking to me about rewards, Jayne," the captain said with a sour expression, and all the avaricious delight in the merc's face just faded into something cold. "And how you figure we're going to collect?"

"Sir," the second in command said, and Mal immediately turned his attention to her. "If they're on a wanted list, maybe we should just dump them off and burn out of here."

"But they need passage," the mechanic now offered. "Maybe we could give 'em passage somewheres further out."

"Ain't like there's a whole lot further out than here," Mal said with a thoughtful expression. That ended when a girl's voice came over the intercom.

"Emergency lift procedures, secure all cargo because we're flying in eight minutes," it offered and the ship's engines started burning hotter.

"Zoe, find out what the guay that girl's doing," Mal demanded and his second went running. "Kaylee, get to the engine room." The girl nodded and hurried off as Jayne glanced back toward the crates sitting in the middle of the hold and Jim. "Get the crates," Mal ordered as he held his own gun a little higher. Jayne backed away several steps before putting his gun on a bench. Jim watched it. In a hard liftoff, things could go flying all sorts of directions, so he just had to keep an eye open.

The voice returned over the intercom. "Two by two, hands of blue," it announced.

Jim's eyes went wide, and he glanced down at Blair who was looking equally shocked. "Oh man," he mouthed. Jim anchored himself with a hand on Blair's shoulder and then reached out with hearing. He ignored Jayne's grunts as he manhandled crates to the side and lashed them with rope, he ignored Zoe up trying to reason with some girl who was just calmly giving the burn countdown, he ignored the soft, cultured curses of some man who was quickly closing drawers. He let his hearing slide outside the ship and search the docks. Two aisles over, he found it--the distinctive whine of those disrupters that could bring Jim to his knees so easily.

"Two aisles over, about half a mile out," Jim said quietly. "Got two government men heading this way, but they're moving slow and methodical, so they don't have our location yet." Mal looked at him real sharp.

"Well cao. That do explain who's looking for you. Jayne, you got that cargo?"

"Would iff'n I had help," he answered. Mal jerked his gun toward Jim. "We know that lot, and I ain't so much in need of money that I'd turn a cow over to them and their gorram experiments. You help Jayne get that cargo secured so we don't all end up crushed against the inside of the cargo hold during lift, and we'll figure the rest out from there."

Jim studied the man for a second, listening to the heartbeat before he decided Mal was telling the truth. "Stay here, Chief," Jim said as he moved to help the merc."

"I could--"

"Stay," Jim growled. He wasn't having the man do manual labor. That wasn't what he'd gone through eleven years of schooling to do.

"Gorram stubborn hwun dan" Blair muttered, but at least he stayed as Jim went and push his shoulder to a crate, helping push it to the side of the wall where Jayne secured it.

Off to the side, Mal was talking into an intercom, probably thinking he had privacy, but with Jim around, privacy was in short supply. Even the Project failed to understand just how little privacy they had with Jim around. He was talking to Zoe, and Jim could hear the woman's voice through the intercom and up in the pilot's seat.

"Got another reader, Zoe. I swear, it's downright creepifying the way they always end up on my boat."

"Must be karma, sir," Zoe answered. Jim just mused over what it meant that Mal thought he was a reader and how exactly they had a second one on board. If they had another sentinel on the run from the Project, Jim wanted information, and right now, playing along was the only way to get that information.

"Mind your knee," the merc offered, but he offered it at the same time he jammed a crate into Jim's knee. The pain lanced up through Jim's leg so that for a second he couldn't tell if he'd broken the kneecap or not.

Before Jim could curse the moron out, Blair was there, his hands on Jim's waist. "Dial it down, Jim. You're all off-balance, but you can control this." Jim leaned into his partner, letting Blair support him as he manhandled his pain, forcing his body to ignore the extra sensory input until he could, once again, feel his whole and unbroken leg and the throbbing lump where the merc had shoved the crate into it.

"Cao. We're all 'bout to get real dead if'n you don't get moving," the merc suggested.

"You are a real asshole," Blair answered, and before Jim could reel him back in, Blair put his hands on a crate in the middle of the bay and shoved it at the merc as hard as he could. It hit the merc on the hip, shoving him to the side.

"You piece of niou se" the merc cursed, and he started coming around the side of the crate, his hands balled up into fists.

Reaching out, Jim caught Blair's arm and pulled him back behind him before squared up against the merc, waiting for the man's first move. How a man swung on his first punch told a lot about who he was, and unless Jim missed his guess, Jayne was big and stupid and likely to come swinging fast and hard. In these close quarters that was going to make him a hard opponent to take down.

"Jayne!" the captain yelled out sharp.

Immediately, Jayne stopped, although his hands didn't come down from their aggressive position. "Mal, that little ji nv shoved the gorram crate into me."

"Get the cargo secured," the captain insisted. The girl's voice over the intercom announced ninety seconds, and with a growl of complaint that would have gotten him put on deck duty on an Alliance ship, Jayne shoved the crate closer to the wall.

"Ain't got time to finish. Should tell Moonbrain to hold on before she crushes us all to death." Jayne muttered the words so that only Jim could hear them, but Jim wasn't disagreeing. If the pilot had any sense, she wouldn't take off until all cargo was secure. He started eyeing secure corners where he could stash Blair if the crates turned into deadly projectiles.

Jim shoved a crate closer to the stairs, and Blair stepped up next to him, adding his own muscle.

"Blair," Jim said wearily.

"Don't say it." Blair's voice was a clear warning. It was pretty obvious that he had run out of patience. "You can be overbearing and overprotective after we get the gorram cargo secure." As much as Jim didn't like to see Blair acting like manual labor, he had to admit that he was being logical. As much as Jim would like to keep Blair, he couldn't. He couldn't protect Blair from the Alliance and he couldn't protect him from doing labor that was beneath his status.

Life was funny. At one point Jim would have called this labor beneath him. He'd been a captain of his own ship, and on the fast track for promotion up the ranks.

His mother's people had been the powerful Womaks, a name that inspired fear in the service. His grandfather had been an admiral and Jim had been chosen to captain the lead ship in the greatest battle between the Alliance and the Browncoat mutts that had challenged them. And Charlie... well, he had used the name to keep himself out of jail more than once.

His father was an Ellison, one of the families that controlled the financing and business in the Core. At one point, Jim would have said his father had the political power to do what even his grandfather couldn't get done with a gun. Of course, that had been before the Alliance had taken him. Either his father couldn't get him out or his father had decided that it wasn't worth the risk to his own financial position to challenge the Institute. God knows their fingers reached deep into a lot of different pockets of power.

But now, now Jim thought of himself more as a damaged test subject. He was an experiment gone wrong, and after being stripped and ordered around, strapped to tables and made to scream in pain--after all that, Jim didn't think of himself as a Womak or an Ellison. Some days he didn't even remember what it felt like to stand in his purple uniform, proud and sure of his place in the uniform as he commanded from the deck of his own ship. Some days he could only remember the Institute and the way he would pray for those days when Blair would come in with his glasses and pretend to record Jim's responses while he whispered reassurances and stroked a single finger over the back of Jim's hand. Those moments had been his one island of sanity, and now he repaid Blair by putting him in danger over and over.

Jim secured the last crate and scanned the room. Unfortunately, the merc with the girl name had already reclaimed the weapon he'd put down earlier, and he had it pointed at them.

"Just because the captain ain't throwin' you out an airlock, don't go thinking I won't gut shoot you and leave you to bleed to death," the merc offered with a grin that made it pretty clear he meant every word of what he said.

Blair sucked in a breath. God help them, Blair always expected the best of people, and he never stopped being surprised when people turned out to be back-stabbing, power-hungry, soul-sucking mercenaries all out for themselves. Jim took a step forward to put himself in the line of fire.

"We're just looking to avoid trouble."

Blair started to say something, and Jim reached over and caught Blair by the back of the neck just as the ship started thrusting against the cold moon. The whole ship shivered, and Jim involuntarily stretched out his hearing, listening as the metal groaned and the engines sang in a particular tone that meant suggested the parts were all well-oiled and well-tuned. For a second, Jim's consciousness seemed too large to fit into his body, as if he was the ship itself and every noise reverberated inside his head.

"Jim!" Blair called, tugging on Jim's arm. Jim blinked, and the hallucination slipped away, leaving him clinging to a staircase with a mercenary's gun pointed at his gut.

"Up the stairs and to the right," Jayne ordered. Jim didn't bother to argue; he'd learned the pointlessness of arguing against orders. Instead he moved his arm to allow Blair to go ahead of him up the stairs.



Chapter Two

"This is another fine mess we've gotten ourselves into," Blair said as he threw himself down on the narrow bunk. From the tone, he was quoting another of his precious tomes from Earth-that-was. The man had a love for history that equaled his love people--only history rarely let him down.

"We do get into them," Jim agreed. He walked to the bunk and pushed Blair's legs to the side so he could have some space. "And someone is going to end up on the floor." The bunks were clearly not designed for two people.

"No way. That floor is cold, and I hate the cold, and you have a very bad habit of just turning down your pain dial. So not safe."

Jim remembered the way his skin had turned black when the Institute had tried their cold experiments. "Not like I had a lot of choice," Jim pointed out.

"Screaming in pain would have been a choice," Blair said dryly.

Jim sighed. He didn't want to have this argument again. Yes, he could have screamed in pain, but unlike Blair, he didn't believe that would have made the researchers cut the experiments short. But he hated to tell Blair everything that had happened in those closed rooms—he didn't want Blair to know the way the same researchers who went out for drinks with him had treated Jim like an animal to be broken. So, if Blair wanted to believe that deep down, every human had some bit of the salt of the earth in them, Jim was going to just keep quiet and allow the man to believe what he wanted. He'd already ruined enough of the man's illusions.

For several minutes, they just sat in the small room where Jayne had locked them. Blair shifted one of his feet so that it was in Jim's lap, and Jim ran his hand up and down Blair's leg. Blair had already kicked off his boots, and Jim traced the edge of his toe. It was the only comfort he could offer in the small space. At least it was clean. The last ship they'd taken passage on had smelled so bad that Jim had spent most of the week either with his sense of smell spiking on the stink of human excrement from inadequate recyclers or he'd just zoned out of self-preservation. This ship was surprisingly clean for a non-Alliance vessel.

After a long silence, Blair asked, "Senses okay?"

"Hearing's still a little unpredictable," Jim confessed.

Blair didn't answer. But then, all his testing equipment was in his pack so he didn't have anything to test Jim's control or to try and help him readjust to normal. Jim just hoped that the captain didn't throw all their possessions out the airlock.

"Oh man." Blair sighed the words and he stared up at the ceiling. Jim stopped stroking Blair's leg and looked over.


"I just..." Blair waved his hands. "Naomi always said to reach out to people... to make a human connection with another soul... but I can't do anything locked in a little room."

"I just hope they dump us at the next stop."

"So, they aren't going to turn us in?" Blair pushed himself up onto his elbows and looked at Jim with hope and fear shining from his expression.

Jim tilted his head and listened to the conversations that he could hear echoing through the ship. The girl, Kaylee, was talking to someone about how cute Blair was. From the sounds, the man she was talking to was about as unamused by that as Jim. Luckily Kaylee was now busy explaining how Blair was also sly, so it meant that she could comment on his cuteness and it didn't mean anything. Clearly those two were sexually involved, and Jim had to wonder if the captain allowed that or if his crew were hiding their relationships. He concentrated, allowing his hearing to slide along the hull where the engine noise purred through the metal until he found new voices.

The pilot wasn't talking, but the captain seemed to be doing a whole lot of talking to her. When Jim had been a captain and someone had displeased him, Jim had talked a lot less and given a whole lot more punishment. From the sounds of it, Mal wasn't handing out any discipline at all. He was pretty much just talking on how much the pilot had displeased him, only he was using pretty colorful language. Actually, he wasn't even accusing the girl of displeasing him; he was just talking about how displeased he was in general while the girl made little affirmative noises that seemed designed to placate the captain more than anything else.

Jim allowed his hearing to slide away again, and for a second, it was like he lost control and he was the ship, hearing out into the black where the pops and faint whistles of space were like a music that was so faint, the notes spaced so far apart, that Jim could feel an almost instinctive need to stretch into it, to reach out into that almost silence. Individual notes struck the hull and left tiny ripples of sound in their wake as they flew through the black and the dust slid over the skin of the ship. The sound grew, like a distant storm heard through the stone walls of his grandfather's hunting house, but then a warm hand rested against his arm. Blair's familiar heartbeat with its low drumming and the rolling thrum of blood through his veins swallowed Jim whole until he lived inside that sound, oblivious to everything else. Blair's heart caught, a single beat slightly out of tempo, and Jim shook himself free of the trap.

"Sorry," he said giving Blair a sheepish look.

"No problem. Hey, it's normal for you. You're just doing your totally amazing thing."

Jim just snorted. Blair could call him amazing, but as far as Jim was concerned, the Alliance doctors had turned him into a freak, and the fact that it was some rare genetic inheritance that made it possible for them to torture him—that just made it worse. It was like he had some culpability in his own torture.

Pushing that thought aside, Jim carefully let his hearing slide out into the ship again, following the heavy struts that carried sound like a tuning fork. However, Jim couldn't hear the woman who was the captain's second or Jayne. He did hear the distinctive sound of gun parts clicking into place, and he tensed in fear, but then another click and a long slide of metal against metal made it pretty clear that someone was cleaning their weapons. That didn't necessarily mean anything, especially out here on the border where a misfiring gun could get you killed.

Pulling his concentration back to his partner, Jim shook his head. "This is the most undisciplined ship I've ever seen, but so far, they don't sound interested in getting rid of us or even talking about us."

Blair sighed. "I really hope that's good."

Jim went back to rubbing Blair's leg. He really didn't have any other way to comfort Blair. As much as he was relieved at the evidence that Blair wasn't the starry-eyed, naive son of a companion he once had been, he hated that Blair was losing some of that love of life. Even worse, Jim and the Alliance he'd once fought for had been the one to strip away Blair's illusions. Cao, Jim had enough illusions of his own stripped away to know how much that hurt.

Blair's hand rested on Jim's shoulder, and Jim stopped rubbing Blair's leg and looked at him. "Hey, we got away again. That's makes twelve."

Twelve close calls. That was about twelve too many. Maybe Blair recognized the look on his face because he aimed a soft punch at Jim's arm.

"Oh no. There will be no brooding. Pissing off the Institute bloodhounds is good. Oh man, they are back there walking those aisles over and over wondering if we're hiding in some damn olive oil barrel again, and here we are, together, in once piece. This is a win. A total win. So do not go looking for reasons to pull out all that tactical errors gou shi."

"Such language," Jim teased. Blair rolled his eyes.

"I know way better words than that. I was raised on the frontier, unlike some people who had to learn their dirty words off some porn wave."

"And my grandfather's diary," Jim offered. "He had creative uses for elephant dung in his expletives."

Blair laughed, and Jim watched as the energy that Blair seemed to always carry inside just unfurled like a sail in the wind. When Blair felt joy, it was like he spread it into the very air around him. "Oh man, I've heard you when you're pissed. That would explain a lot."

"Hey, I don't curse that much," Jim protested. The Alliance trained bad language out of officers with a whole lot of deck duty.

Blair answered with a snort and poked his finger toward Jim stomach in a mock attack. Jim easily caught Blair's wrist.

"Maybe I picked up a few bad habits doing undercover work before the war." Jim smiled. Blair counterattacked with his other hand, and Jim had to twist around to keep from getting attacked with a tickle finger. Blair's laugh filled the room, and he fell back onto the bunk, only because Jim was holding him, that pulled Jim down on top of him. Blair gave an umph as Jim's weight landed on him, but when Jim went to shift off, Blair reached up and caught Jim by the waist and gave a salacious grin.

"Should we?" he asked with a devilish smile.

Part of Jim answered yes immediately, and from the way Blair's smile turned even more salacious, he could feel Jim's cock already starting to press down toward that familiar heat. It took the rest of Jim a few seconds to make a decision about whether he really wanted to have sex locked in a closet-sized room on a bunk narrow enough that they risked back injury. At one point he might have worried about tactical advantages and privacy and psychological vulnerabilities, but those training classes and their Alliance teachers were his past, and in the present, he'd learned to take pleasure and love where he could.

"You are insatiable," Jim accused Blair as he pushed himself up.

"Well, yeah," Blair immediately agreed in a tone that made it pretty clear he thought Jim was silly for even having to say it. "Seriously. I have a lover with the hottest body in the 'verse, and you think I’m not going to take advantage of that? Naomi did not raise a fool."

"Naomi raised an incredibly brilliant, caring, and unashamedly messy man," Jim agreed, a smile tugging on the edges of his lips.

"Dick," Blair called him as he sat up. Jim reached down to pull his shirt off, but Blair reached out for him, settling his own hands on top of Jim's for a moment to stop him. Kneeling up on the bunk, Blair leaned in and kissed Jim. Forgetting the shirt, Jim caught Blair by the back of the neck and pulled him closer, those curls tickling over the back of his fingers and his hand.

Blair continued to kiss him, but his hand slipped down to run under Jim's shirt. The hot trail of fingers over his skin made Jim gasp, breaking the kiss. Taking advantage of Jim's distraction, Blair wiggled away and leaned down to breathe over Jim's skin just over the belly button. Jim could feel his skin contract, the hairs raise and then yield to Blair's breath. Before Jim could gather his thoughts and pull himself out of the sensory feast, Blair had pushed Jim's shirt up so that it gathered under his arms and then Blair ran a tongue across Jim's taut nipple.

Jim's skin cooled so fast that gooseflesh rose on his arms, and then Blair breathed across the skin, warming it with his breath.

"Cao," Jim swore, and Blair chuckled, each sound blowing a little puff of air across Jim's body. Arching his back, Jim grabbed for Blair's shoulders, allowing his partner to pull his shirt off. "I didn't used to be this much of a..." Jim stopped as Blair ran fingers down over his stomach, the heat of them sinking into Jim until he existed only for the sensation of feel. He couldn't hear anything and his vision went dim, but every nerve ending was alive, waiting for touch. Blair pulled on Jim's arm, and he moved when Blair moved him, his skin dancing with heat and the tingling anticipation of release as his cock thickened with need.

A palm pressed into his chest, each finger—each wrinkle on each finger—pressing into his flesh. Jim reached up, capturing Blair's hand. Running his hand up Blair's arm, he explored the curve of muscle and the way Blair's arm had slight tremors that betrayed his own desire. Breathing deep, he tasted the air. Blair's lust was heavy and warm.

"Dial back. Come on, don't lose yourself. Dial back." The words finally trickled in, and Jim reluctantly turned his attention to controlling his sense of touch. Blair had taught him that—to take the senses and limit them so they didn't overpower him. Blair's hand faded so that it was an island of warmth and weight, but the individual press of each cell faded into one general impression.

"I'm fine," Jim said with just a little crankiness. He had been enjoying himself.

Blair rolled his eyes. "I plan to make you a whole lot better than fine, and I really don't want to send you into a zone."

"I'm not going to zone." And since Jim had no better argument, he reached up and captured Blair's face between his hands and pulled him down for a long kiss. Now that Jim's senses were more balanced, he could hear Blair's heart pound out and smell the salt and musk of his body. It was good to know that Jim, for all his flaws and issues, could still inspire that level of lust in someone. He didn't let Blair go until Blair was gasping for air through his nose, his fingers digging into Jim's bare shoulders as he groaned in abject need. Only then did Jim let him go.

"Oh man, I'm going to come in my pants," Blair whispered. He lowered his forehead until it just touched Jim's own, and then he just held himself still, panting as he struggled to get himself under control. Jim tried hard to not smirk. Oh yeah. He might be an old war horse who'd seen one too many wars, but he could still keep up with the younger stallions.

Reaching up, Jim slipped his hand under Blair's shirt and slowly pulled it up and off. Blair's sides were heaving like they had just run a mile, and his eyes were dilated until the blue was a thin wire around a dark center. Then Blair's fingers were working at Jim's pants, pulling the buttons loose. As the fly opened, Jim groaned in pleasure. His cock was definitely feeling neglected.

"Wow. Okay, I am not the only one ready to go off," Blair said with a chuckle.

"Do we have any slick?" Jim asked. They could certainly do frottage, but that wasn't his first choice. Blair knelt on the bunk between Jim's legs and pulled out a small packet.

"No way would I run out of this stuff. Okay, I would because this is my last bit, so after this I'm out, but getting more is a definitely priority."

Obviously, Jim hadn't kissed Blair enough if he could still form complete sentences. However, before Jim could pull him close again, Blair had gotten back to work. Backing up, he pulled Jim's shoes off and then Jim's pants followed. Now he was definitely in a hurry. Jim lay back and let his dial for touch slowly inch up until he could trace the residual heat left every place where Blair had touched him: his thigh, his stomach, his nipple, his arm... they all tingled with warmth.

Finally, Jim's pants were gone, and Jim allowed his legs to fall open. Blair's breath hitched and his heart's rhythm tripped along faster than ever. Jim smiled smugly at the evidence of Blair's arousal. Blair, however, didn't even pause to give Jim shit about being smug. He reached out and ran a finger up the underside of Jim's heavy cock. Hissing with a need to come, Jim threw his hands wide and sent his fingers scrambling over the cold metal wall as he tried to find something to grab before he came all over himself. His whole body was hot, and his cock was the hottest part as it lay against his lower stomach. And now his balls felt heavy. Cao, it had been too long.

"Blair," Jim cried out, and even Blair had to hear the desperation in his tone. Clearly he did because Jim's heat was balanced by a cool finger at his entrance. Jim canted his hips and Blair's slick finger slipped inside without resistance. Jim's awareness narrowed down until he could only feel Blair's hands. One rested on his stomach, and the heat of that was so great that Jim squirmed in need. Blair's other hand was slowly working in and out, and the cool slick quickly warmed. A second and third finger opened Jim. His muscles stretched until he could feel the burn as cells strained.

Jim's cock was almost on fire now. Then a cool dampness stole the heat from him, and Jim gave a hoarse cry. The surprise nearly shocked the orgasm out of him. Opening his eyes, he looked down to find Blair just finishing a long, leisurely lick up the underside of Jim's cock. He looked up with a Cheshire grin on his face. Angling himself between Jim's legs, Blair took his own cock in hand. Jim bent his legs and pushed himself up into a better position before letting his eyes fall closed.

Blair's first press against the muscle stretched Jim just to the point of discomfort. He dialed up on feeling, though, eager for the feeling of Blair all the way inside. Moving slowly, Blair eased inside, his heat nearly too much for Jim. Their bodies merged, and now he could feel Blair's heartbeat within his own body, a strange syncopated rhythm against his own heartbeat. Blair's sweat and his own made their bodies slide together as Jim brought his knees in just enough to trap Blair between them.

When Blair finally pressed up close to Jim's body, Jim's cock throbbed with need. The pressure from inside set him on the knife point of orgasm, but he needed just one touch to finally come. And Blair denied him that touch. Instead Blair slowly slid out, his cock sliding out of Jim's body. Arching his back, Jim gasped and struggled to fight against his own need to just take his cock in hand and finish. He wanted to. And Blair wouldn't stop him, but if he did it, then his senses would reel out of control and he'd be left in a glut of sensations, unable to feel any more. So instead, he pressed his hands to the wall and focused on the cold, unyielding steel under his palms and the hot cock now pressing back into his body.

Blair started moving faster now. The room was a cloud of pheromones that Jim breathed in with every pained gasp. Their flesh slapped together as Blair thrust hard and fast, and now the heat of their bodies mingled until Jim could feel the warmth like the sun beating down. Jim's ass ached with the stretch and his cock was twitching as every thrust pressed up into the prostate. Blair was breathing in little harsh gasps, and then he cried out. The first of his orgasm spilled into Jim, and he could feel the warmth sink deep into him. Blair's cock thickened and then Blair tightened a fist around Jim's cock, and the world exploded.

Jim's orgasm tore through him. He could feel his skin tingle as every cell registered a sensation at once. He was hot and every individual bead of sweat demanded his attention as it slowly trickled down his body. His arm hairs stood at attention, bending one way and then the other as the movement of their bodies created a small weather pattern of gusts and flurries. His legs were burned by Blair's hot palms pressing into them, and his come splattering against his stomach registered with thousands of cells so that Jim could identify each drop, the way each slid between the hairs on his stomach, the shape of each oval as it landed.

Like a fish, Jim opened his mouth and struggled to find air where there was none. His whole body writhed as information crashed over him. Pleasure, love, heat, touch. Blair was a part of him, his body still pressed up so close that Jim could feel his heartbeat through their skin, and the salt-sweat and lust poured from Blair.

Blindly reaching out, Jim caught some part of Blair and pulled him close. The scent of love and lust distracted him from touch enough that Jim realized he had Blair's arm. Tucking his face in close to Blair's shoulder, Jim tasted and scents gathered there, sucking the lust-warm skin and enjoying the saltiness of the moisture that gathered. Running his hand over Blair's chest, Jim felt the heart that had been tripping so wildly out of control start to slow.

Then hearing returned, and the thrump of Blair's heart became an audible presence that matched the feel under Jim's palm. For long minutes, Jim lay still, Blair's warmth slowly fading to a normal temperature. Either Blair's fever-levels of body heat were fading or Jim's senses were. Then, finally, sight returned. Jim blinked as Blair's face came into view. A few sweaty curls were plastered to his forehead, but his expression was still one of bliss.

"Hey," Blair said softly.

"Hey," Jim answered. He stretched and felt his muscles respond lethargically.

"You back?" Blair reached up and ran a thumb over Jim's lip. When he pulled it back, there was a streak of red. Putting his tongue out, Jim realized he had bit his lip. "What's it like for you?" Blair asked curiously.

Jim reached up and wiped away any last blood before he pulled Blair closer for a kiss. "I can't explain it. I just know..." Jim shrugged. "I like it."

"I assumed," Blair said with a laugh. "Any chance you'd share the blanket?"

Jim frowned and then realized that the bunk didn't have a pillow. He'd been lying on the blanket which was folded up, and Blair was pressed with his back against the cold wall.

"Cao. Next time, say something." Jim reached under his head and pulled it out. It was awkward spreading it out with Blair still laying mostly on him, but neither of them seemed inclined to move. Eventually Jim and Blair worked together to get the blanket tucked between Blair and the wall with the rest almost reaching all the way around Jim. He didn't mind the cold though, not like Blair did. Naomi had raised him on one of the hottest parts of Whitefall, a planet that was plenty hot everywhere, and he never seemed to stop missing the heat of his homeworld.

"Too happy, sated, and lazy to say something," Blair finally answered wearily. Before the Serenity, they'd been running for eighteen hours straight trying to get from one port to another without leaving a trace, so Jim figured they both had a right to be downright exhausted. However, that didn't prevent him from lying under Blair, listening to the ship sing and Blair's breathing grow heavy. Jim stood guard as long as he could, and then slowly he slipped into sleep.


Chapter Three

Jim woke as boots stopped outside their small cell.

"Blair, we've got company," Jim said. For a half-second, Blair mumbled and sleepily squirmed against Jim's side, and then Jim's words finally got processed into Blair's awareness, and he snapped into motion with an efficiency he hadn't possessed until they'd been on the run a while.

"Cao, cao, cao, cao," Blair muttered as he scrambled to get his pants on and nearly took off a body part Jim particularly liked with a hasty zipper. Rather than panic, Jim gathered his clothes and carefully shook out his pants. They'd stowed away in the back of a freight hauler and then walked the last ten miles to get to a new port at Dyton, and Jim gave his pants another vigorous shake and dirt drifted into the air and then slowly settled. It was about as clean as he was going to be able to get them.

The hatch cracked open, and Jim noted the care their guard was using. This was a ship used to dealing with prisoners, and he wasn't seeing them making many mistakes.

"Captain wants to talk," Jayne said from the hatch that led out of the tiny room where they'd been imprisoned.

"Hey! We're naked here," Blair protested even though he only had to finish buttoning up his shirt. Jim stood up, still fully naked, and walked over to get toilet paper. The last thing he needed was Blair's come dripping into his pants to distract him at the wrong time. However, giving the merc reason to underestimate him... that had some tactical value. And men did have a mighty foolish habit of assuming that the bottom man in a sly partnership was less than manly. That was sheer idiocy in Jim's book, but he sure didn't mind taking advantage of another's idiocy.

Jayne was now crouched down in the hall above, looking through the hatch at them. Tactically, it was a horrible position for Jim, but the position wasn't all that better for Jayne who had to look down into the cell. The ladder that led up and out of the room was a good seven foot, and if Jim could pull Jayne down head first, that would make for a nasty fall. Then again, Jim would still be left with a ship full of enemy and no way to fly a ship he wasn't rated on. Firefly class were practically antiques. He could probably figure out the controls, but he couldn't guarantee that he'd get everything right before sending them crashing through an asteroid belt.

"Can't say I expected that. I thought the little one would be rollin' over an' playing girl," Jayne said as he watched Jim clean up. Jim could almost taste Blair's fury on the air, and in about two seconds, Blair was going to go off on some verbal tirade to protect Jim's honor.

"Blair, some merc and his mouth doesn't make a bit of difference here. Let it go." Jim dropped the toilet paper into the disposal and pulled his pants on. With his fingertips, he checked the placement of the slipwire in his belt while he pulled his pants up. Blair was muttering under his breath, but he managed to not say anything to antagonize Jayne, and Jim could see that it took him some effort.

For his part, Jim didn't hurry. Jayne wasn't a fool, but he wasn't a trained guard, either. The longer Jim made him wait, the more he was getting mighty uncomfortable, and uncomfortable men rushed and made mistakes.

"Aiya, hurry up," Jayne finally complained. Jim finished pulling his shirt on and gave Blair a little nod. Blair headed for the ladder, but before he even got near, Jayne had backed away from the opening. Clearly, the man wasn't an idiot. Well, actually, he did seem like a bit of an idiot, but he had enough common sense that he wasn't going to fall for the sort of cheap tricks Jim had used on a half dozen people who'd thought they could make easy prey out of him and Blair.

"Down there," Jayne gestured. He had a Callahan Fullbore autolock, which seemed a mite bit overkill for two prisoners. Two prisoners in full body armor, shields, and armed to the teeth might warrant that level of firepower, but Jim couldn't figure if Jayne was the sort to be extra careful or just the sort who liked to have his hands around the biggest gun he could find. Either way, a shell from that would go right through Jim, through Blair and might take out one or two minor interior hulls before stopping. Inside a ship, a sonic rifle would be much less likely to cause friendly fire or damage the ship, and Jim filed that bit of information away for later use. Jayne might be a weakness they could exploit.

For now, Jim just went where ordered, carefully keeping Blair ahead of him. Otherwise, Blair was likely to start saying things to Jayne that Jim just didn't really want said.

"Guess you don't much care who knows you're sly," the merc commented.

Jim sighed. While he could try to have some control over Blair, he clearly couldn't stop Jayne from saying something idiotic.

"Nothing wrong with being sly," Blair immediately shot back.

"For a man like you, most like there isn't," Jayne agreed, but it was Jim he was watching. It was a strange conversation, but then Jim had largely become immune to strange. His life had been nothing but strange ever since two officers had shown up with his transfer papers. Jim still remembered his own stupid pride, thinking that they wanted him to teach military strategy to their precious geniuses or have him work with top officials. Back then he'd had a lot of pride and very little patience for oddities or mercenaries with poor hygiene. Time had taught him differently.

"Can't see that it's anyone's business but mine," Jim commented.

"Except me. As the other half of the sly, it's my business," Blair butted in. "Oh man. You just assume I'm okay being sly because I don't go around metaphorically peeing on trees, but Jim—"

"Ain't nuthing wrong with peeing on trees," Jayne immediately defended himself. Jim almost smiled. For all of his complaints about stereotyping and testosterone poisoning, Blair probably hadn't ever expected a man to literally embrace peeing on his territory. Naomi had been a companion, and that meant something, even on the border planets. The men Blair had been raised around had tried to keep a certain civility around the Sandburgs, and only now was Blair learning just how crude the frontier could be. They were crass and cruel people who would enslave someone or steal a widow's land. Jim had spent his life fighting against that sort of evil, and now he was hiding amongst it.

"You... but... oh man, you actually pee on trees?"

"What else would you pee on?"

"A toilet," Blair suggested.

Jayne snorted. "You and the doc should get along real good. Core-bred dandies." His tone made it pretty clear what he thought of the Alliance. Jim's guts clenched. If these people were die-hard Browncoats, Jim knew just how badly this was going to turn out. Sooner or later one of them was going to remember his name, and he cursed himself as a fool for not giving them some story that didn't include being a Womak. However, he was not going to let their hatred for him spill over onto Blair.

"Blair was actually a Browncoat," Jim pointed out, hiding his desperate hope that Jayne would believe him. Rough men rarely respected desperation.

"I wasn't a Browncoat," Blair disagreed. "I was more a Browncoat sympathizer. Naomi and I patched soldiers up, but we didn't go out and shoot anybody over some stupid war over a big piece of dirt... or several big pieces of dirt."

Jim cringed. It would really help his plan if Blair would just try to gain their captors' sympathy, but calling the war stupid was not going to help on a ship full of Browncoats.

"Gorram right," Jayne said, which was mighty surprising since Jim had him pegged as a Browncoat rebel. "Ain't nothing on a rock worth dying for."

Blair gave Jim a triumphant look, but seeing as how they were still being marched down a corridor with a mercenary's gun at their backs, Jim didn't see they had much to celebrate.

"Now if'n it were a big pile of money, now that would be worthy fightin' for, although I'd still be all for avoiding the dying."

Blair stopped as Jayne made his big announcement, and Jim had to push him to get him to move again. "Not here," Jim whispered hoarsely. The last thing Jim needed was for Blair to start a fight when he didn't have anything bigger than a slipwire to back his partner up.

"Man, your enlightenment is very limited," Blair settled for complaining.

"That sounds like one of Inara's fancy words, and I ain't much on words. I'm more for letting my gun talk for me."

"Inara?" The gears in Blair's head almost clicked as they started turning. Blair was great at weaving a story to distract or even outright lie, but when something caught his curiosity, he couldn't keep his emotion off his face. "Is she one of the crew?"

"Naw. She was a whore who traveled with us some a while back."

"Oh no. No way are you calling a companion a whore. No gorram way." This time Blair did stop, and Jim could not push him into motion again before getting a gun barrel poked in his back. For a half second, Jim calculated his chances with a spin attack, but he still had a ship full of Browncoats, and Jayne had a pistol that he could probably get to before Jim could grab the autolock and get it turned around. It was a gorram big gun.

Blair was oblivious to Jim's dilemma because he was busy tearing into Jayne. "A companion is a spiritual and emotional guide. He or she helps people reach their potential."

Jayne gave Blair a look of disbelief. "They get paid for having sex. That makes 'em whores."

"They accept gifts in return for opening a person to the possibilities." Blair's hands few into the air in exasperation. "Many times that includes sex because sex is part of the basic, fundamental nature of humanity. However, that does not make them whores. They are therapists and spiritual advisers and religious sages and..." Blair waved his arms in dismay as his vocabulary failed him, but Jayne wasn't looking much impressed.

"His mom was a companion," Jim explained.

"Ah." Jayne nodded like that explained everything, and he actually looked a mite big more sympathetic. So, the man had no trouble shooting an unarmed man in the gut, but he had a soft spot for mothers. This ship was just all kinds of confusing.

"Ain't smart to keep the captain waiting." Jayne poked the gun in their direction, and Blair realized that he was not going to convert Jayne, so with a sigh he turned back toward the corridor.

"They aren't whores," he said softly, like a child complaining, but Jim knew that Blair was about as likely to let it drop as a Browncoat was to develop any sense of strategy. A leopard just couldn't change its spots. Oh, Blair would keep his own counsel until he saw an opening, but sure as summer rains, he'd keep gnawing at this until he got Jayne to agree that companions were enlightened bringers of truth and joy.

"In there," Jayne said as they approached an open door. It didn't take much figuring to know that's where they were headed because he could hear the voices so loud that even Blair should be able to hear them even if he couldn't hear what they were saying the way Jim could.

The engineer was in there--Kaylee--with all her stumbling sweetness. She'd almost tripped over her tongue as she tried to reassure her beau that Blair being sly made it okay for her to think him cute. Jim hadn't caught her boyfriend's name, but he was core-trained and educated; Jim could hear that in the tone and cadence of his voice. The captain, Mal, and his second, Zoe were talking quietly in the corner, but Jim could easily hear them discussing their next potential stop. The cargo they were carrying couldn't be delivered until the proper time, and they'd planned to sit planetside until they'd found someone to pay them for a short-haul or passage. Now they were flying with no destination. Jim marveled at the folly of that. Agreeing to haul someone's freight around like a flying storage shed was about as wasteful of ship resources as anything Jim had ever heard. And the pilot was here--a girl with a rabbit-fast heartbeat. Lots of people seemed to talk at her, but she did precious little talking herself. River. The name brought to mind the giant rivers of Osiris that cut across the open plains and cut deep valleys into the land. However, the girl seemed like more of a meandering stream than a river, and from what little she had said, her mind meandered more than most streams.

Blair stopped in front of him so suddenly that Jim walked into him and got a gun barrel in his back again as Jayne didn't stop fast enough. He was getting mighty sick of that.

"River?" Blair asked, shock turning his voice into a whisper.

Jim looked at a girl with long hair and bare feet tucked up under her in a chair. She tilted her head and smiled at him. "The man who thinks too fast."

"Dr. Sandburg?" This time Jim spotted a young man who looked far too core bred for these parts. That would be Kaylee's man.

"Dr. Tam?" Blair sounded shocked, but Jayne was putting the barrel of his gun into Jim's back, and so he pushed his partner into the room.

"Zoe, you feelin' as weirdly left out as I am at this point?" Mal asked. He moved forward toward a table that dominated the center of the room, his second standing just to his side.

"Yes, sir, I think I am," she agreed.

Dr. Tam stepped forward, his eyes still wide with shock. Clearly he had a history with Blair, but then Jim had learned that about half the universe seemed to have history with either Blair or Naomi. The Sandburgs had lived on more planets than Jim had visited in six years of service. "Captain, this is Dr. Blair Sandburg from Londinium Institute of Medicine. He's the one who helped me get River out."

Jim looked at the girl a second time. So, she'd been another of the tortured souls in that place. Most of the Institute's victims were younger than Jim. When his hearing had gone out of control, he'd listen to them crying for parents and screaming in pain. He wondered if he'd ever heard her cries.

"Thought so fast that his brain overloaded and all his moral circuits got rewired," River said with a smile for Blair. Then she looked at Jim, her head tilting to the side in confusion.

"Ignore the crazy," Jayne suggested as he came into the room, his gun still pointed in their general direction.

"I wouldn't call that crazy," Blair said. "My new wiring is a lot more efficient than the old job," he told River.

She turned her gaze back toward him. "New wiring looks like your original wiring with all the illogical whorls all burned up."

"Naomi would probably agree," Blair agreed softly.

"Chief?" Jim asked. Blair looked up at him, and the honest pain he saw reflected in Blair's eyes made him immediately hate this River. River looked at him with her head cocked and slowly smiled.

"I helped Dr. Tam with his sister, but only after I spent three years working on cases for the Institute. I thought I was serving some higher good, but eventually, when I got in so far that they owned my life, I figured out that they weren't about making the world better or helping people. They were taking beautiful young women like River and cutting them up to create something..." Blair stopped and looked at River.

"Abominations," she said softly. Her eyes moved over to Jim.

"No, mei mei, you aren't an abomination," Dr. Tam said as he moved to her side, his hands on her shoulders.

"Course you ain't," Kaylee quickly added. "You're just a girl who ain't had but bad luck her whole life."

"I was the abomination," Blair said softly, "and I've been doing my best to change that, to undo some of the harm I did working for the Institute."

"Two by two, hands of blue," River muttered.

"The stewards," Jim said softly. River nodded.

"I ain't but following about every third word of this, and as the captain, confusing me is not in your best interest right now," Mal interrupted. "Simon, you seem to have some history here, so why don't you start."

Simon nodded. "When I went searching for River, I tried to get into the Academy. I ended up going into a blackout zone where I got introduced to Dr. Sandburg going under the code name Indian Chief. He was treating some of the homeless people in the zone, but more importantly, he was a psychologist attached to the Institute. He provided the information I used to break River out."

"I gave him as much as I could. I should have done more, but by then they were getting suspicious and I couldn't help River." Blair chewed on his lip, and Jim reached out and pulled his partner to his side.

"Not your fault, Chief. You did everything you could."

"Wait," Jayne said. "That little ji nv is a doctor? He ain't even as old as the doc, and I ain't real comfortable when he goes pokin' and proddin' at me."

"I'm equally uncomfortable when forced to poke and prod at you," Simon said dryly, "but Dr. Sandburg is a medical doctor and psychiatrist."

"Who thinks so fast his brain sometimes gets all tangled on itself and trips on iron-heavy feet," River added.

Jim studied the woman. Clearly she was the one they had experimented on, but she wasn't acting like a sentinel. She noticed his gaze and stared up at him. "Another abomination with genes that burn bright," she said.

"Oh?" Mal leaned forward and gave Jim a thoughtful look. "I reckon she's saying there's something about you we should know, like how you knew them hands of blue fellows were at the docks."

"I could hear them," Jim said carefully. He couldn't afford to give them too much; he sure wasn't telling them how vulnerable he was to spikes and zones.

Jayne snorted. The captain just leaned back in his chair and frowned at Jim. "Can't imagine why a man would lie about something like that. Easy enough to check on whether he were telling the truth."

Jim watched this man who had the authority to space him or give him one more head start against the Alliance hunters chasing him. He made his decision. "When you called Zoe on the intercom, you said it was freaky how the readers always found your boat. She suggested it was karma."

Trading shocked expressions, Mal and Zoe both then stared at him.

Under his hands, Blair stiffened and he tried to step forward aggressively, only to have Jim hold him back. "Hey, he's no more a freak than River is. They both just got totally screwed over by the Institute."

Mal shook his head, clearly not happy with any of this. "I'm looking for simple answers because I'm a simple man... a simple man and an annoyed one and getting more annoyed by the second."

Jim stepped forward. "I was assigned to the ninth unit during the war. Shortly after the rebels surrendered, two men requested that I be reassigned to Londinium for follow up testing after a routine scan. I was signed into the Institute three years ago at which time they began a series of experiments designed to reactivate dormant genes that give me an ability to see and hear with far more accuracy than a normal human."

"Weren't hearing too good out there. If they were trying to make you better'n the rest of us, seems like they done fucked up a bit," Jayne pointed out derisively. Jim turned to glare at the merc for a second, but the man obviously wasn't impressed. He just stared back. When Jim turned to focus on Mal again, the captain was pale, his hands braced on the table as he stood and stared at Jim.

"The ninth? James?" he asked darkly. "Don't suppose you're the Jimmy who served at New Kashmir?" Jim stiffened. The second they had his name, this was inevitable.

"Jim?" Blair asked as he looked up. Jim subtly pushed Blair away an inch or two. Whatever was about to happen Blair wasn't a part of it. This was his past come back to haunt him.

"Yes, I am," Jim said clearly. Zoe had been looking confused, but now her eyes went cold, and her hand fell to her gun. Mal outright pulled his gun.

"Blair, go stand with your doctor friend," Jim said as he pushed his partner away another inch.

"Jim, what's going on?" Blair demanded as he got his hands around Jim's arm and held on.

"Aiya. Go stand with the other doctor," Jim said angrily.

"No." Blair didn't beg or plead or offer those long explanations that mostly just wore Jim down so he didn't care anymore and went along with whatever Blair wanted, but this time, the answer was a plain old 'no.'

"Ain't got an issue with you, doc," Mal said, and Jim felt the cold in his spine. "Might be best, though, if you didn't go getting between me and Captain Jimmy here."

"Captain Jimmy?" Simon asked as he stood back up and stared at Jim. For his part, Jim wasn't sure which he resented more, the look of worship on the doc's face or the pure hatred on Mal's. Of course, it was the hatred that was about to get him dead.

"Jim?" Blair was clinging harder now, refusing to let go of Jim's arm.

"This has got nothing to do with Blair. He was out patching up rebels while I was sending them to hell as fast as I could," Jim said. If he was going to die for what he did in the war, he wasn't going to do it begging for his life from a damn Browncoat. Mal's face went just about white, and Jim braced himself for the shot. It was almost a relief after all this time. At least it was going to be some gorram rebel who took him out and not a needle while he was strapped naked to some table. He supposed that was the best end that he could hope for.


Chapter Four

"Mal!" Simon said as he moved to get between them.

"Doc, move yourself to the side. I'd be a mite bit put out if I had to go shooting through you, but that don't mean I wouldn't do it."

Jayne stepped forward and grabbed Simon, pulling him away without even paying attention to the man's struggles. It seemed that the doctor didn't claim much respect, but then Jim didn't expect these sort of crude people to show respect for a man based on his learning. "What about the reward?" Jayne asked. "Seems a waste to go and shoot him. If ya don't like him, I say we get a payday out of it."

Jim tightened his jaw. He'd rather be dead than go back there, but if that's what it took to buy Blair a safe berth, he'd do it.

"Dr. Tam, look after Blair," Jim said as he kept his eyes on the captain. He didn't have a weapon on him that would save him from the captain's six shooter, and he still had the merc to deal with, not to mention the captain's second who had a cold look in her eye, so he had to be realistic about his chances.

"Sir, maybe we all need to calm down," Zoe suggested. She still looked at Jim with hateful eyes, but at least it wasn't a killing hate he saw in her. River stood, and Jim saw the motion out of the corner of his eye. However, he was more focused on the gun in Mal's hand.

"Calm down? Shun-sheng duh gao-wahn. They sing songs about him, and I think we all know that not everyone who goes and gets a song writ about him is exactly hero material. Fact is, from where I stand, seems like the Captain Jimmy who went and gutted our air force is more war criminal than war hero."

"Can't say as I disagree," Zoe said, and Jim could feel Blair's hands tighten, and the man struggled to get closer. Jim held him to the side as best he could. "I just ain't one for shooting an unarmed man."

Mal's jaw tightened. For a second, the entire room was still, and Jim could hear each heartbeat in a complex, twining rhythm. Finally Mal spoke. "Jayne, give him a gun."

"Sir," Zoe objected as Jayne stepped forward.

"What? I'm agreeing with you. Won't shoot an unarmed man," Mal said without the gun wavering.

Jim glanced over, and Jayne was offering him a gun. "Jim, no," Blair hissed, but Jim reached out and took the barrel of the gun in his left hand seeing as how his right was still trying to keep his partner in the clear. He continued to hold the gun by the barrel as he let his arm drop to his side. This wasn't about giving him a chance, and Jim wasn't about to let this chun zi Browncoat lie to himself and pretend that he'd killed a man in a fair fight. There wasn't anything fair in this room.

"I'm armed now," Jim said calmly as he faced the captain. He could hear the blood rushing through his own heart with a sickening wet slurp on each beat, and he wondered briefly if he'd hear the bullet going through his own body.

The girl, River, spinning into the space between them startled Jim so bad he flinched back and ended up with Jayne's gun barrel in his back again. "He sees what you don't," she said.

"He can," Blair blurted, his voice high and strained. Jim hated hearing the fear, but there was precious little he could do to help his partner except die without pulling him into the shit with him. But words kept tumbling out of Blair as if that would make some difference. "He can see riders miles away or see a weak spot in a deck plank with the naked eye. Oh man, do you have any idea how useful that could be? And if you think he did something wrong, he has paid. They experimented on him, so whatever you think he's done, he's paid for it. Oh man, he has no karma at all left after what they've done. You can't just shoot him," Blair pleaded.

"Watch me," Mal said as he came around the table, but River moved into his path again.

"He sees what you all see but you never look at," River said firmly as she reached up and put a hand on Mal's chest.

"I swear, you're almost sane until you go trying to talk about them hands of blue folk," Mal sighed.

"He heard them. He knows their secret names and passageways under the castle walls," River said.

"You mean the Institute?" Blair asked. "Hey, if you have a problem with the Institute, we both know all sorts of information, but if you kill Jim, I will personally--"

"Shut up, Chief," Jim cut that thought off as sharply as he could. The last thing he needed was for Mal to start seeing Blair as any kind of threat. Blair was one of the most courageous men Jim had ever known, and during their escape, he'd watched Blair put a bullet through a guard and he'd watched Blair later light candles and pray for the man's soul; however, his safety depended on these people seeing him as nothing more than a sly trick.

"Captain, if they have information on the people who did this to River, surely we can put aside what might have happened during the war," Simon argued.

"Put aside... you want I should put aside the fact that he done killed thousands of men and women who were trying to protect their way of life?" Mal demanded.

"I fought soldiers, and if they were inadequately trained and prepared for the realities of battle, that is not something I bear responsibility for," Jim said tightly.

He didn't mention guilt because he did carry that. He'd carried guilt from the moment that he had sprung his trap only to find that the ships he intended to engage in battle went down in a disorganized rabble, many not even getting off a shot before they were blown apart. Others hit their own fleet in the panic and fleeing. He'd felt guilt from the first body to slide past the window of his ship, a boy no older than his baby brother. The vacuum of space had bloated his face, but even so, Jim could see that the kid was so young that he should have been home with his mother, not out fighting for a bunch of criminals who were trying to keep the law out of the outer territories.

"Jim, man, you aren't helping," Blair hissed. "Totally not helping. Maybe you can do your self-flagellation later, like when there aren't guns pointed at us."

Jim ignored Blair and focused on the captain. "But Blair was one of yours, so you do what you're going to do and you call it justice or revenge or whatever you want, but you kill Blair, and that's just murder," Jim said firmly.

Mal narrowed his eyes. "That so?"

"Oh man, it's murder no matter who you shoot in this room. I have never met such a stubbornly unenlightened group in... okay, in about two months since that's when we got out of the Institute, and those people? Totally not enlightened." Blair jerked away from Jim, but instead of retreating, he moved toward the captain. "But hey, we all did what we thought was right. Yeah, you and I happen to think Jim's version of right was completely and entirely not right. That does not make him evil. In fact, that doesn't even make us right. The universe is a big place, and for all we know, the Alliance might be the best solution in the long run."

Jim watched the captain's eyes narrow dangerously, and Jim cursed Blair's mouth. The man could fit both feet in it at once and still have enough room to talk around them. And if he kept talking, he was going to get spaced along with Jim.

"At least the Alliance does something to fight the space trash and slavers." Jim spat the words and glared at the captain.

Blair turned around and gave Jim a glare just about as nasty as the one Mal was aiming his way.

"You see?" Blair looked over his shoulder at Mal. "The big chun zi is trying to protect me by getting you pissed at him. That is so not the action of an evil man. An idiot, yes. But not evil."

"Blair," Jim warned darkly. Blair rolled his eyes.

"Not evil? He gorram ambushed the fleet. He sent thousands of men and women to their deaths without ever givin' 'em a chance to even get off a shot," Mal's face twisted in a personal sort of grief. And for a second, Blair's expression mirrored it. The guilt clawed at Jim, but he pushed it aside. There wasn't anything he could do now.

"We all lost someone at New Kashmir." Blair's voice had a rough edge to it before he took a deep breath. "All of us. Good people died, but that was war."

"What he done... that weren't war," Mal said very firmly as he raised his gun. Jim clenched his jaw and struggled to bring his hearing down so that he wouldn't have to hear the bullet coming at him. Hell, in some ways this was a gorram relief. He was ready for this to just be over—the running, the fear, the slow realization that there was no end game. They would always be running and the Institute would always be flushing them out of one cover or another. Death was inevitable, and only the exact details were in question. Now Jim just needed for Mal to pull the trigger before Blair could go and say something unforgivable.

"That was war." Blair whispered the words, but he was also moving fearlessly closer to Mal. The captain's second moved forward, clearly ready to provide backup if Blair proved dangerous. Unfortunately, Blair just wasn't that kind of dangerous, and there wasn't going to be a last-minute save like on the waves he'd watched as a kid.

Mal looked at Jim and then at Blair.

"Before the war," Blair offered, "Jim worked undercover. He specialized in shutting down slavers, and we both know what an ugly world that is. You can't blame him for thinking that any price was worth it to save those poor souls."

Mal snorted. "Alliance ain't done much to stop slaving."

Blair shrugged, and Jim could just imagine the wry look on his face. They'd had this discussion more than once. "Well, yeah. You and I know that. But people from the Core? Oh man, they only see what the official waves say. They think we're all involved in slaving and drugs. And let me tell you, Jim sometimes says some mighty stupid things that prove he grew up listening to those waves."

Mal looked at Blair like he was a piece of cow dung that had gotten stuck on his shoe. "And you think that makes up for him being Captain Jimmy? You like rolling over for a mass murderer?"

Jim tightened his fingers around the barrel of his borrowed gun. Mass murder... it wasn't the epitaph he'd planned when he'd been trying so hard to move up the ranks in the service.

"Ain't the little one what's rolling over," Jayne offered with a smug tone, but Mal pretty much ignored him.

"Now Mal," the starched doctor, Simon, stepped forward, "as much as I respect your point of view..."

"No you don't," the captain interrupted. That seemed to stop Simon for a second.

"Perhaps I don't always agree with you."

Mal gave the doctor an incredulous look.

The doctor's back went even straighter and Kaylee moved closed enough to slip her hand into his. Clearly they were not hiding their relationship. The doctor edited himself. "Perhaps it's fair to say that I rarely agree with you, but given your habit of making very poor choices..."

"Always come out alive at the end." Mal visibly flinched at the end of that sentence, and Jim could see the captain's second emotionally shut down. Her pupils dilated in distress and she took a half-step back, and the engineer, Kaylee, looked to be about two seconds away from crying. "Anyway," Mal kept going, plowing right through the awkward silence that had fallen in the room. "This ain't your business. This is my ship, and I ain't about to let Captain Jimmy hitch a ride."

Blair snorted. "He didn't ask for one. We were trying to leave when you put a gun in our faces." Blair turned toward Simon. "Jim has suffered just as much as River, and whether you think he was a hero or the epitome of evil, there's no way a human being deserves to be hurt like that. And now the captain wants to kill Jim? The karma in this room is so heavy it's about to start generating its own gravity."

The doctor turned toward Mal. "Blair is a friend. I am not about to allow you to shoot him."

Jim frowned, not sure what game Blair was playing. Normally, Blair was a master of manipulation—the Institute had brought him in on the basis of his psychology degree and his ability to talk people into pretty much anything, but this time, Jim had no clue what the man had in mind. If Jim wanted to work on turning one of the crew to their side, the doctor would not be his first choice only because the man didn't seem to have much power to start with. A powerless ally could be more of a hindrance than a help.

"Ain't asking your permission," Mal said with an exaggerated cheerfulness. "'Sides, I'm not planning on shooting your friend, just the murdering son-of-an-Alliance-bitch."

"Sir," the second interrupted. "Maybe we should think this through."

"Oh... tee wuh duh pee-goo. Zoe, he's Captain Jimmy! If you tell me that you ain't thinking on shooting him..."

"I'm thinking it, sir," she agreed, and Jim could feel his headache tighten around his skull. There were entirely too many people who wanted to kill him in too small of a space, and he was just too tired to keep fighting any of them. "I just don't think we should do it," she finished.

"Then Jayne can," Mal said. Jim could hear the snick as Jayne took the safety off his autolock. Clearly Jayne was not planning on having any moral dilemma or debate over the killing.

"No one is shooting them. It's lunchtime." River made that announcement and then twirled in a circle before heading for the kitchen area. The girl was clearly not engaging all her engines.

"Um... Simon, is she okay in there?" Blair asked. Simon looked over where River was happily pulling out cans and carefully peeling off each label before opening it. When he didn't answer, Blair clarified, "I mean with the knives. River and knives were not always such a good combination if you know what I mean."

"She gorram stuck me with a knife," Jayne protested loudly.

"Didn't you use the safeword?" Blair demanded of Simon, horror pretty clear in his voice.

"Thought words like cobwebs, but the knife moved too fast for the utterance of sound." River gave Blair a smile before pulling out a bowl and dumping what looked like peaches in.

"You know about them safewords?" Mal asked, and now he seemed to be totally focused on Blair. Whatever else was going on, River was important to the captain, but Jim couldn't quite figure if it was a good or a bad thing that Blair was tying himself to the girl's history. Jim knew how the Institute had coerced Blair by threatening to take even more drastic action against the subjects, but that didn't mean Captain Mal would understand. He seemed like the sort of man to make up his mind first and ignore all the evidence to the contrary later. Browncoats were like that—rushing in where even angels feared to tread and then wondering why they got their gorram asses kicked every time.

Blair shrugged again. "I designed the failsafe."

"You... you did?" The captain didn't seem to have words for that. River came in and slipped an arm around Blair's waist, resting her cheek on his shoulder.

"The sunlight burns dark."

Blair looked at her. "Why?"

"Mei mei, this is not the time." Simon interrupted their conversation and reached out to physically pull River away. Jim had seen what some of the Institute's projects could do, and he'd try to grab a live bomb and pull it around by the wiring before he try to engage one of them in a physical confrontation. The Institute had turned those young people into stone-cold killers with inhuman strength and accuracy, but River just ignored her brother. "Sometimes she still loses track of reality," Simon offered apologetically.

"No way," Blair contradicted him. "The experiments destroyed her ability to relate to reality and emotionally engage, but it did not cause any sort of hallucinations or delusional episodes. If she says the sunlight is burning dark, then it is. We just need to figure out what that means. Personally, I'm hoping she's not talking about our engines." Blair looked over to Jim, his expression worried.

"Can't hear anything out of the ordinary, Chief," Jim answered.

"Okay, so not the engines," Blair mused.

"Wait." Kaylee looked at Jim searchingly. "You can hear the engines from here?"

"The spinning makes a sort of..." Jim paused, not sure how to explain the warbling note that always make a ship's hull reverberate. In some ships, the note sounded sour and it made the hairs on his arms stand up. On this ship, it was a background hum that was always just at the edge of his awareness.

"A music. She sings," Kaylee finished.

Jim thought about that. "It is a kind of music, a repetitive chord that is playing in the background."

Kaylee's smile lit the room. "I'll be. I thought I was the only one who heard that, or more like that I was just imagining the engine singing at me seein' as how I love 'em so much. But I can always tell when a ship is feeling sickly because her song goes all unpretty."

"Really?" Now Blair's face lit up, and Jim could see the same sort of unmitigated joy there, like nothing the universe threw at him could sully his soul. "Oh man, you must have hypersensitive hearing. On Earth-that-was, sometimes the senses would become naturally hypersensitive, but the Institute always had to genetically trigger the awareness, and Jim was the only one they could ever get to trigger for all five senses. Wow. Does anyone in your family have sensitive hearing or maybe they're extra touchy-feely or have really good vision." From Blair's tone, he was just about to launch into his speech on the amazing adaptability of the human brain.

"Wait one gorram second," the captain stopped him. "We were talking on how we were going to shoot your partner."

"Oh man, we already moved on," Blair said dismissively. "River, what does the sunlight burn?"

She seemed to think about that for a second. "Nuclear fusion in the peaches, all the 'verse is dying of radiation sickness."

"Mei mei?" Simon asked softly.

"We ain't done," Mal warned, his weapon pointing at Jim. "Aiya, get the gun away from him, Jayne," Mal said in a mighty cranky voice.

"Weren't my idea to give it to him at all," Jayne complained so quietly that only Jim could hear, but he took the gun out of Jim's hand without so much as asking, and Jim allowed himself to be disarmed. When Jayne grabbed his wrists, Jim let the man pin his arms behind his back and wrap a length of what felt like leather around his wrists. Seemed like he was less likely to get shot if he was restrained, so protesting would be counter-productive. However, Jim couldn't resist the urge to pull at the bindings to test the strength.

"You ain't pulling out of that," Jayne said smugly. "Well not 'less you got some crazy powers going like Moonbrain over there," he added after a second, and he sounded a whole lot less smug about that part. So clearly, these people did have some clue about what River could do. However, the captain and the doctor were hovering near her like she was a kitten who'd showed up at their doorstep starving and mewing. She might be a kitten, but she was a half-grown saber-tooth kitten who could eat them both if she got it in her mind to do it. And Jim didn't have any illusions about his ability to protect Blair. He hated the bad luck that had put them on his ship.

"Is this about us going to Miranda?" Zoe, the captain's second, asked.

Jim looked at her with horror crawling up through his guts. They'd taken this ship to Miranda... the planet on the far side of Reaver space? They'd faced drug-maddened cannibals that would eat you alive and do it as slow as they could? They'd visited Miranda? Jim always did think of Browncoats as being suicidal and downright stupid when it came to military tactics, but clearly he needed new verbage to describe just how stupid and how suicidal these people were.

River smiled over like Zoe had said something particularly amusing. The girl was mad. She was mad, the crew was suicidal, and Jim was tied up like a hog the day before a Christmas ham dinner.

"I should go check the autopilot. Serenity sometimes just likes to have her settings checked or she picks new headings," River said, and she sounded oddly coherent.

"Okay. But if you can think of new words for this sun that burns dark, you come and tell me, okay?" Blair asked seriously.

She nodded. "You should fix dinner. I'm not hungry." She turned and headed out of the crew area with a downright sane look on her face.

Mal watched her go with worry etched on his face. "Is anyone else startin' to worry about just how permanent River's new gasp on sanity might be?"

"I can review her medication history," Simon suggested. Kaylee was clinging to his arm in clear distress, but Jim couldn't figure if she was afraid of River or afraid for her. If she had any common sense, it'd be the first.

"Whoa, you put her on meds?" Blair demanded.

"Standard anti-psychotics."

"I told you to get her off the medicines."

"She wasn't lucid."

"And if you're drugging her up, she's never going to be lucid. What they did..." Blair swallowed. "It affected her ability to interact with the world. Language centers were damaged and logic completely rerouted, but she is perfectly sane and rational within her own frame of reference."

Mal took a step back and sprawled in one of the dining room chairs. It was a deceptive posture. His arms were thrown wide, one resting on the table and one on the back of the chair, but every muscle was tense and ready for action. Zoe retreated to a spot behind him. "Now see, I have a problem with how much you know and just how involved you were. I don't suppose you had anything to do with the experiments they did on River, now did you?" Mal asked, his voice honeyed, but Jim could see the trap laid out as neatly as could be. And he had no doubt Blair did too.

"I was one of the psychologists on the Project. My job was to make sure that the subjects retained enough sanity for the brainwashing to work," Blair said without apology. "I also designed the safeword so that the people could be immediately disabled."

Simon was turning a shade of green. Clearly he didn't know just how involved Blair was, but that meant he was an idiot. Anyone who knew enough to help him get his sister through all that security had to be gorram high up in the organization.

"Does that mean you can make her less crazified?" Jayne asked.

Blair sighed. "I wish I could. I was brought into the project fairly late... after several test subjects committed suicide and one went into a fugue state. I did my graduate work on the subconscious on Sihnon after the war, and they thought I could stabilize those who were becoming unbalanced. By the time I figured out why all these people were suffering...." Blair shrugged, but he did nothing to hide the dismay and pain on his face. For a second, Jim had truly worried that Blair might be joining him on Mal's hit-list, but now Mal seemed to relax as he rubbed a hand over his face.

"Seems like these folk are good at manipulatin'."

"You have no idea," Blair agreed. "So, Zoe said you had been to Miranda. Does that mean you're the one who released the wave that's pretty much destroyed entire political careers?"

Mal nodded wearily. "Seemed like someone should know what the Alliance is up to." Mal gave Jim a dark look. "Drugging people and hiding the horrible side effects, now there's a government to make a man proud."

"Lost us crew on that," Jayne said softly. It was odd, because Jayne did not strike Jim as a sentimental man, yet he looked almost upset about that.

"Lost too many," Kaylee echoed. "And all them folks dead because the Alliance wanted to find a way to make everybody be all shiny and nice to each other...." She wrinkled her nose.

"It's creepifying," Mal finished. "But the Alliance ain't like to listen to reason. They want their nice clean little universe, and if they have to wipe out entire planets to get what they want, I don't reckon they lose much sleep over it."

The day was that Jim would have argued that. Now... now he wasn't so sure that Mal was wrong.

"Not everyone in the Alliance is like that. A lot of them think they're doing the right thing and protecting people," Blair said softly. Mal's frown made it pretty clear that he didn't want to go back to this conversation, but Jim could testify to just how tenacious Blair could be when he thought someone needed a little re-education. Mal's gaze flicked over to Jim, but then he focused on Blair.

"So, you were part of the team that turned River into who she is. You got any ideas about how to help her?"

Blair slowly shook his head. "I don't know if anyone can change what's been done. Her brain was altered when she was young enough for the synapses to reroute. But now... gametogenesis and its related increase in gonadal steroid hormone secretion is over."

Mal gave Blair the sort of look Jim found himself using a lot when Blair got to talking science. Maybe that's why Blair recognized the confusion.

"She's not an adolescent anymore, so her brain can't heal itself if we try to rewire it again," he translated.

"We could administer a series of hormonal replacements." Simon looked desperate for Blair to agree, but Blair was already shaking his head.

"No way. The Institute tried to use older subjects chemically regressed to adolescence, and it just doesn't work. River is the way she's going to be."

"Crazy," Jayne helpfully offered. He earned a vicious glare from Blair.

"No. She just has her own way of seeing things. It's like someone raised a child and every time they meant 'up' they said 'blue' instead. That person would sound crazy. 'You need to go blue. Go blue. I want it farther blue.'" Blair mimicked someone giving orders. "Totally incomprehensible, unless you have the key. So, if you're asking her about anything she thought about while she was in the institute, you have to figure out the key."

Zoe spoke up. "So if she says the sunlight is giving all of us radiation poisoning?"

"Oh man." Blair made an elaborate grimace. "Something is so about to kill us all, I just have no fucking idea what."

Mal slappped his hand down on the table."Cao," he swore.

Jim couldn't agree more with the captain. Cao.


Chapter Five

"You want I should check things out, look for radiation leaks?" Kaylee asked with a strange sort of enthusiasm that Jim didn't normally associate with major mechanical failings. He also doubted that Kaylee was going to find anything. This Firefly class ship was humming with a music so perfectly tuned that Jim could well believe that she was about the only crew up to Alliance quality. Well, her and the doc. From the looks of it, he was core trained, and those core universities didn't allow someone to call themselves a doctor until they knew their business inside and out. It wasn't like the border planets where someone who knew how to pull a splinter and lance a boil could call themselves a hedge doctor and start charging settlers money for snake oil.

"You'd best," Mal agreed. "Check anything that might get a sudden urge to blow us all to pieces or start leaking radiation."

"You got it, captain," she agreed, and with a quick kiss on the cheek for the doctor, she fairly scampered out of the room. Had Jim been assigned to inspect the crew during a patrol, he would have wondered at her age because she didn't hardly seem old enough to sign a contract to serve on a ship... or she didn't act it anyway.

"You know, we should check the medications you've used on River. Some of those antipsychotics..." Blair whistled to show just how powerful they could be.

"I was acting in her best interest," the doctor said peevishly.

"Totally. I get that," Blair nodded. "You didn't have her full medical history, and her symptoms would have mirrored psychotic episodes."

"I had no medical history at all." From the tone of voice, the doctor clearly assigned some blame for that to Blair. Jim had to swallow a whole lot of angry words about how Blair had put his life and his freedom on the line to get River out at all, medical records be damned.

Blair, however, just gave a little laugh that conveyed more disgust than humor. "No offense, but first, I would have gotten caught if I even looked at her full records much less printed the scans. And second, you would have thrown a fit right there if you'd seen half of what they did, and that was not in anyone's best interest. He who fights and runs like hell before the Alliance troops catch up to him, lives to not get thrown into a itty, bitty little cell," Blair said, mangling the old saying and holding his hands out to show the tiny little cell size they were all going to end up in if they got caught. Jim wasn't going to let that happen. Not to Blair. Not after everything the man had done.

The doctor still didn't look happy, but he also looked like he couldn't argue with that logic. "Besides, I really want to see what has been going on with her blood work now that she isn't getting pumped full of the poisons they were using. Do you have any scans, anything that would show internal brain structure or blood flow through the neural pathways?" Blair's eyes lit up with the joy of science.

That seemed to break the tension that was growing between the two men. "We actually sneaked into an Alliance facility and got a full set of scans." The doctor looked very proud of that, and he should be. Either this crew was a whole lot better than Jim was giving them credit for or Alliance security was getting lax, and the Alliance was not one for letting security go lax.

"Very cool," Blair said enthusiastically. "Come on, Jim."

"Captain Jimmy and I are going to talk," Mal interrupted. Blair had been focused totally on the doctor, or at least he had given every impression of it. Jim figured he had been just as focused on getting Jim out of Mal's immediate vicinity. The man wasn't dumb, and he had to know that Mal wasn't going to let something this big drop. Blair could distract him temporarily, but even Blair's power of manipulation had a limit.

"No way," Blair said stubbornly.

"Blair, go do your thing with the doctor."

"No." Blair glanced at Jim, but his eyes went immediately back to Mal.

"Chief, I am not kidding on this one. My area of expertise, my call. Go." Jim kept his voice steady.

"But Jim..." Blair turned and looked at him with wide eyes. He wanted to stay and fight, but Jim figured most of the danger was past now, and if Mal was still angry enough to kill him, well that just meant the man was never going to calm down and Jim didn't have any shot of getting off this boat alive. If that was the case, he would rather have Blair safely out of the room.

"Go try and help River. She deserves your help just as much as I do. So go do your doctoring thing," Jim said just as firmly.

Blair caught his lower lip between his teeth as he looked from Jim to Mal and back.

"Cao. I ain't planning on gut-shooting him the minute you have your back turned," Mal complained.

"I never said you would!" Blair snapped back. He angled himself so that he squared off against Mal and crossed his arms. "Can I get your word that you don't plan to shoot him anywhere at all?"

Mal narrowed his eyes and really studied Blair. The very fact that he was hesitating meant his word was worth something. It also meant that Mal didn't want to make that promise. "Are you always this annoying?"

"Yes," Jim said at the exact moment Blair gave an indignant, "No!" Blair gave Jim a quick glare. "Hey, I am not the one who kidnaps some poor schmucks who were just trying to outrun Alliance hunters. That was you. That was all you. And killing the poor schmucks you kidnapped would be totally bad karma. Enormously bad karma," Blair said, but he started out of the room, and the core doctor stuck close to him. "And Jim, if you get yourself killed, I am so finding you in your next incarnation and kicking your ass for ordering me out of here." With than, Blair left the room, his back still stiff and his hands clenched tightly.

"And here I thought he was some sly trick." Mal sounded rather disgusted with himself for that misjudgment.

"He is a sly trick. He's just a smart one," Jim pointed out. "Then again, I'm just as sly as he is." Jim raised his chin and just dared Mal to make something out of that.

Mal actually seemed to relax. Maybe it made him feel good to know that the monster of Browncoat nightmares was taking it up the ass. He seemed like the kind of man who might take comfort in that. "So," Mal said slowly, "the great Captain Jimmy is standing in front of me. I never thought this day would come. Did you, Zoe?" Mal leaned back to look at his second who was still standing just behind him.

"No, sir, can't say I ever did."

"Are you looking for an apology?" Jim asked.

"Might make me feel better about not shootin' you."

"Not going to happen." At Jim's words, Mal's whole body tightened.

"Sir," Zoe warned, her tone of voice sounding so much like a chiding mother's that Jim really did have to wonder at the command structure on this ship. For a captain, Mal didn't seem to have much say in what went on.

"Ain't like I was going to shoot him, at least not without having Jayne cut him loose," Mal said with more than a little petulance in his voice. "Shooting a man without giving him any chance to defend himself, that's more Alliance-like than I'm generally comfortable with." Mal glared at Jim.

"I've never shot an unarmed man in my life. And I never shot at ships that weren't under a flag of war looking to shoot at me," Jim pointed out. His jaw was starting to ache from clenching it, but if he truly went off on these people, his life span was going to be unmercifully short, and then Blair... Jim sighed. Blair never did let things lie. As much as Jim didn't want to admit it, Blair would back the gorram captain into a corner until Mal had to shoot him, just out of pure self-defense.

Mal rubbed one hand against his pants. "You ain't sayin' much to make me like you more."

"I don't need you to like me. I figure I just need you to not shoot me until you can drop us off on any planet of your choice."

"Captain Jimmy." Mal shook his head like it was amusing. "The great hero who crippled the rebellion without losing a single man. And look what they've done to their shiny hero. Real nice bunch you work for, Captain Jimmy. Cain't even imagine why someone might go thinking the Alliance are a bunch of yellow-bellied cowards and scum without an ounce of honor."

"I've heard some variation on that from Blair more than once," Jim pointed out dryly. Of course, Blair said it much more diplomatically by talking about propaganda and social pressures, but it came down to the same thing if you read between the lines.

Mal looked at him and leaned back far enough to prop his boot on the chair next to him. "And you're still holding that the Alliance were the right side?"

Jim thought about that. Blair generally talked to him without demanding that Jim admit any fault or make public declarations, but it looked like Mal wanted his pound of metaphorical flesh. Jim gritted his teeth and wished that getting tied up and shoved around by a merc with the intelligence of a common sheepdog was the worst humiliation Mal demanded. However, having to admit that he'd killed for the wrong gorram side... that burned his throat like stomach acid.

"Letting farmers get raided by slavers and abused by landowners who treat them like slaves isn't right either," Jim pointed out.

"Gao yang jong duh goo yang! The rebellion weren't standing up for slavers."

"But you protected them. Slavers paid for your ships."

"The ships you blasted to scrap metal without giving them a chance to fire a single shot." Mal leaped up from his chair, his hand on his gun.

"Sir! Remember, you said you wouldn't shoot a man who had no chance to defend himself."

Mal gave Zoe a nasty look. "I reckon I'm giving him about as much of a chance as he gave our fleet."

If Jim was going to die, he sure as hell wasn't going to die with the bitter taste of confession in his mouth. If Mal was determined to do some killing, Jim was determined to say a few truths. "I'm not the one who sent out crews who didn't know their thrusters from their firing pins." Jim spat the words. "One of the best men I ever served with was in that fleet. Captain Joel Taggart would have fought like hell and taken three or four ships before his one went down, and I knew it. I knew I was going to have a long hard fight against a man I respected, even if I gorram hated the side he took in this war. But he never fired a single shot. Aiya! He was killed by his own. Idiot Browncoat rebels trying to run every direction at the first sign of a fight. Crashing into each other, taking out friendlies instead of focusing on the job at hand. I didn't put green kids and idiots on those ships--the rebellion did."

Mal had turned a special shade of white, and even Zoe had gone ashen-gray, her lips pressed tightly together.

"We came out of that comet cloud blind. One rebel ship ramming us and creating a log jam would have crippled the Alliance fleet. I took a chance hoping to surprise the rebel fleet and minimize the losses. It was a gorram gamble. If Joel had been on the near side of the rebel fleet, I would have lost. He would have rammed the first Alliance cruiser and our formation would have been fractured as every ship was left fighting for itself. That's the briefing I gave the other captains. But Joel was killed by some moron trying to run for cover that didn't exist. So don't make out that I'm the monster that took your precious dream away. Your precious dream was nothing more than smoke defended by untrained chun zi with heads full of glory instead of common sense."

"Seems like you have a whole lot of opinions," Mal said, his voice thick with contained anger.

"Yeah, I do," Jim agreed. "I'm not saying the Alliance is any better, and I figure I've had a good long time to think about that, but don't go claiming some moral high ground."

"I never claimed to be a good man—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Blair hurried right back into the room, his hands help up. "Okay, we all know that Jim has a different point of view. No need to go shooting the big idiot." Blair glared at Jim, but Jim just kept his eyes straight ahead. "Okay, clearly we can't go leaving you two without a minder. Geez. Chill."

"See? Won't stop pulling their carts," River announced as she trailed in after him.

"Blair? What is it?" The doctor trailed after River, like some sort of bizarre train.

"Horses. Whenever she talked about the war, she would use the metaphor of the soldiers as horses," Blair explained to the doctor happily enough, but Jim noticed that the man landed right in Mal's line of fire, and that was not a coincidence. Blair smiled at River. "So when she came hurrying up to us in the hall saying that the horses kept pulling their carts on the same track, I figured Mal and Jim were about ready to start up a new battle between the Alliance and the Browncoats, which is a little amusing because Jim doesn't support the Alliance anymore. He's just too gorram stubborn to admit he was wrong, and he's too gorram right about there being all kinds of shady folk mixed up with the Browncoats.

"There was this one guy... he actually sent two goons to try and grab Naomi. I mean, yeah, she walked away from the Companion Institute and rejected their regimented approach to spirituality, but this guy tried to force her into one of his whore houses. So not cool. So incredibly not cool. Man, she choose who she wanted to be enlightened with, and he was not on that list, but no one would stand up to him because he was some high-muckity-muck. He'd given ships and arms to the cause, and that was supposed to excuse the fact that he was scum. So, we all have not happy memories of the war, and we all need to stop dragging the same carts along the same tracks because, man, that war is done and over."

"All the tracks worn smooth just rut up again in the rain." River said this sadly.

"Totally," Blair agreed. "People suck. They seriously suck. So no more raining out of either of you," Blair pointed first at Mal and then Jim. "Wait. Why are you tied up?" Blair hurried toward Jim. Jim watched Mal, waiting for him to stop Blair, but he didn't comment as Blair reached around and started working the leather. "Aiya. Who did this? This is way too tight for circulation."

"Was more worried about him wiggling free," Jayne pointed out. Blair glared over at him.

"Jim can turn off pain receptors, so you can't trust him to know when something is physically damaging him."

Jim's arms feel to his sides, and Jim cringed when he saw his purpling flesh and the fingers swollen so big they looked like overripe grapes ready to split open.

"Jayne!" the doctor gasped. Mal was looking a little green around the gills, too, but it was the doctor who rushed forward, his mouth still running. "Of all the ignorant, careless things I've seen you do, and I've seen plenty, this is just about the worst. We need to elevate the hands. I'll need to get him back to medical to check for vascular damage and administer painkillers."

"Jim," Blair asked. "Do you need painkillers?"

Jim shrugged. "Tingles a mite. I've had a lot worse."

"Screams echoing down the hallway." River brought her hands up and wrung them. "Scream and scream, and they only record how loud your screams are. 101.2 decibels. 99.7 decibels."

"Yeah, but you can get your revenge by not screaming," Jim told her. River looked at him, her head tilted to the side. "It always pissed them off." Jim could feel a bitter smile tugging the edges of his lips. When you were in hell, you found amusements in the smallest revenge.

She slowly smiled. "Increase pain stimulus over and over, but no scream. Feet black from cold. Dead flesh, but no screaming. Corrupt the datum. Annoy them like fish caught in a hall of mirrors."

"Exactly," Jim agreed. "If you can't fight back, you always try to annoy the torturers." Jim got some satisfaction from Mal's stricken expression. The man might not like Alliance, but he clearly had even bigger issues with torturers. "If you're going down, at least annoy those that are about to take you down," he said with his eyes pinned firmly on the captain. From the way Mal's whole body stiffened, he got Jim's point.

"Jayne," Mal said darkly. "That were stupid. That were more stupid than usual. You want to explain just what you were thinking?"

"He weren't complaining," Jayne defended himself loudly.

"Aiya. It's like a convention of the obdurate and unenlightened." Blair used a hand on Jim's arm to guide him out of the room. "Medical for you. And man, if you can't keep control of the pain dial, you tell me. Do not try and play stoic."

"I'm not actually playing at anything. I don't feel much," Jim defended himself. "You can stop playing mother hen, Sandburg."


"I've been injured far worse."


Blair just kept agreeing with whatever Jim said, but that didn't keep him from guiding Jim with his hands on Jim's elbow or from dropping a thousand soft touches onto Jim's arm. It was mighty hard to argue with a man who just agreed with you and kept right on doing what you were asking him not to do, so Jim finally just gave up and let Blair usher him to a treatment bed. Behind him, Jim could hear Mal and Jayne start in on each other, so maybe one disaster had been averted.

"You really don't feel this?" the doctor asked. He stared at Jim's hands with a familiar fascination that made Jim's stomach tighten into a knot. "Fascinating."

"His pain receptors scream into the dark, but no one is listening," River shouted after them. She was either staying in the mess hall or going back up to pilot the ship, and Jim didn't even want to think about the craziness of allowing one of the Institutes little projects to pilot. At one point, Jim had been a damn fine pilot himself, but he sure would never let himself get behind the controls now... not with his own body so out of control.

Jim looked down. He realized that Dr. Tam was supporting his right arm and Blair was holding his left.

"I can hold my own arms up," Jim said peevishly.

"There's muscular damage. Holding the limbs up will only increase the potential for long-term harm. How can you ignore this?" Dr. Tam bent down to study Jim's purpling flesh.

"Oh man, Jim can do amazing things. This... this is more one of his anti-amazing things, because ignoring pain signals is so not cool. But he can hear a single bolt letting steam escape through the threads when it's down in the middle of a working engine. The Institute was amazed at what he could do. I mean, I can't explain the anatomy of it because my thing was always the psychology, but it's incredible."

"It's not as incredible as it is annoying," Jim disagreed.

Dr. Tam abandoned his attempt to walk and examine the damage at the same time. "Like with River. What she can do is incredible, but I'd rather have her back the way she was," Dr. Tam said quietly, and Jim really couldn't disagree. The Institute thought they were justified. He'd heard them talking in their little gathering rooms with their worthless sound insulated walls that they thought protected them. They thought the test results meant that all the pain was worth it, and they'd grown so used to seeing people as "test subject 57-B-4" that they'd lost track of what they were doing.

"That happens when people get too curious... too fascinated with science," Jim said. He only realized how Blair would hear that when he looked at his lover's guilty expression. Cao. He hadn't meant to dredge up that old guilt; he'd only wanted to make sure that this new doctor didn't show too much interest in Jim's abilities. "Chief," Jim whispered. As far as he was concerned, Blair had nothing to apologize for, but he'd still accepted Blair's apologies over and over until Jim was sure the man couldn't have any guilt left. And still, Blair always found more.

The guilt vanished as Blair gave him a bright smile that might have fooled someone who didn't know him and couldn't see the pain running just under his skin. "No problem. I know what you mean. Oh man, that is going to hurt like a hwun dan when you actually start feeling things again."

"I'll be fine," Jim promised. Blair's snort was not exactly reassuring, but then Blair had been through this with him before. They'd stowed away once, and Jim had been crushed by shifting cargo. Once they'd hit planet side, Jim's pain dial had completely spun out of control. This time would be different though. No way would it hurt as much. The injuries weren't internal, and they certainly weren't as bad as the frostbite that had turned his skin black or the acid burn test that left his skin peeling off in great sheets while the flesh weeped.

"I don't really see how you can say that," Dr. Tam said, leading them into a small examination room. Jim had to grit his teeth and force his fear back just to get himself to lie down on the examination table. Carefully settling Jim's arm at his side, Blair moved closer to his head and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"Hey. How are you doing? Do you think the captain would care if I eviscerated the big, stupid one?" Blair teased.

"Jayne?" Dr. Tam asked as he gathered silver equipment that shone under the medical lights. Jim closed his eyes and tried to strangle the irrational fears that rose. "Some days I wish someone would strangle him. While I believe in charity for my fellow man, Jayne can truly test a man's patience. He would do anything for money. Believe it or not, he tried to turn River and me over to the Alliance, and then he accepted our gratitude for helping us fight our way back out of the detention center where his duplicitous actions had landed us."

"Whoa. Okay, not cool," Blair said. Jim ignored the words and held on to the tone, to the sound of Blair's voice and his heart pounding steadily. "I would think Captain Mal was not exactly the sort to have a sense of humor about that."

"I still don't know what happened between those two, but Jayne is still here."

"But not regular crew? I mean, if he's a regular mercenary, he didn't go with you on a suicide run on Miranda, did he?" Jim could hear Blair's confusion, and he had to admit that Jayne was a hard one to peg. Clearly he was uneducated, bordering on just flat-out stupid, but he was the one the captain trusted to watch prisoners. He got clearly emotional when the subject of the dead came up, but the doctor seemed to think that Jayne valued only the money. Then again, maybe the others couldn't see his emotions. Jim found that sometimes his Sentinel abilities meant that he could read people so well that he didn’t realize he was seeing beyond what others could. He mentally reviewed his observations of Jayne while the doctor did something that made his hands tingle more.

When the subject of their dead came up, Jayne's eyes had dilated and his lips had thinned. He'd been unhappy, and he'd made his profile slightly smaller, pulling his shoulders in. That wasn't exactly the signature of a man who valued money. Of course, any man who wanted money would be wise to steer clear of this ship because this crew was not coming off as any sort of financial masterminds.

"I guess I just don't understand all the crew," Blair said weakly. Jim knew that admission had to hurt because Blair could usually lay out a whole person's life within five minutes of meeting them. His psychological skills were the best or else the Institute would never have hired him.

"They aren't easy people to get to know," Dr. Tam agreed. "Captain Ellison, are you doing okay?"

"It's just Jim." Jim opened his eyes. "I stopped being a captain in the Alliance a long time ago." His hands were actually looking better. Some of the excess blood had been drained so the flesh had an almost normal color and the size had come down. The edges of his nails was flaking, which mean the doctor had been a little too enthusiastic about using the healer. The dried cuticles were going to annoy him for a while.

"Jim," Dr. Tam said almost reverently, and Jim gritted his teeth in the face of that idiotic adoration. "I'm almost done. The surface is going to be tender for a while, but I think I have most of the arterial damage under control."

The pain dial slipped out of Jim's control, and suddenly the slight tingling turned into a living fire that ate its way up his arms. Jim screamed as his nerve endings came to life.

"Whoa." Blair grabbed his shoulder. "Visualize that pain dial. You can see it. Look at the LED indicators on the panel, what do they say?"

"Ten," Jim hissed out.

"Is he okay?" Dr. Tam stood, the healer in his hand and a horrified look on his face. Blair shook his head, but when the doctor pulled back, the air eddies brushed over the skin, and every nerve registered the movement. A single hair moving in its pore felt like an ice pick being pried against his skin and Jim cried out roughly.

"Dial it down to a nine. You can control this. Move it from a ten to a nine. I know it's stuck, but man, you have never backed down to anything, and you will not let a little dial beat you, dong ma?" Blair demanded. Jim struggled. In his imagination, his hands were so badly damaged that he had trouble visualizing himself turning that knob. It stuck. His fingers were so thick with pain that he couldn't bend them around it.

"Come on. Tell me when you get to nine. Blair's voice was a soft curtain that draped over Jim's pain, dulling it like a sheer diffuses the light.

"I can give him a shot of—"

"No. Jim, I know it's bad, but maybe you need to just slide away. Let the pain go. Do you see the switch for touch? Find the power button and just let it go. I'll be here. I'll watch out for you." Jim lost himself to the voice and the struggle to control his senses. "Power it down, Jim. Let us handle this." Jim let his body slide away into a place where he would feel no more pain.


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