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you can't take the sky from me, eight

Title:  you can't take the sky from me
Rating:  PG
Characters/Pairings:  Ensemble from Firefly/A:tLA, more pairings in this part.  Wash/Zoe returns, as does Wash/Sokka and Sokka/Suki, also with some little hints toward Zuko/Katara and, if you really wanna see it, River/Katara.
Summary:  The Gaang find themselves in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar technology, and must rely on the only kindness they can find.  Unfortunately, kindness appears to be an endangered creature in this new place. x-over with Firefly/Serenity, post-movie, Wash lives!
Chapter Summary:  Suki finds Zoe, Mal continues to lose his temper, Katara and Inara bond, Sokka gets worried, and Katara asks a question that's been simmering for eight chapters.
A/N:  Looooong update here, but I wanted to end the chapter on that note, so it was either one extra-long or two extra-short, so I went with the long.  Also, as before, translations are at the bottom.

one... six. seven. eight. nine. ten.


episode two:
sihnon shuffle

chapter four:
(see the sky)

Suki had been in pain before.  She'd been tortured, she'd been beaten up, she'd been burned, she'd even once taken a very thin knife to her palm.  Pain was, regrettably, very familiar to Suki.

This was her mantra, what kept her going through the horrible pain lancing up and down her thigh every time she shifted even a little bit against the bullet (she swore she could feel exactly where it was in her leg and oh it was not enjoyable) -- she knew, consciously, that she had been through worse.  This had nothing on some of the tortures Azula had come up with.

It was not helping because, in spite of the fact that she'd felt worse before, it still really hurt.

Instead of focusing on the searing pain, she focused on trying to learn her weapons properly.  It would do her a lot of good to have some ranged weapons, and she could even steal the guns off of the dead guards -- might even use them as a bartering chip to keep Mal from murdering her for running off on her own.  She took a few extra moments to scribble down a rough sketch of the identifier underneath the video showing Zoe, and then a few more moments to familiarize herself with the weight of the guards' big guns.  They were heavy, meant for raw force rather than agility or stealth, which made them more of a hindrance than a help to Suki.

Still, considering how many suddenly free, if very confused, prisoners were wandering the halls at the moment, she figured she should keep them around.  She took a tentative step out of the room, arms full of guns, and was almost bowled over by a wide-eyed man wearing handcuffs.

"I've got a deal for you," she said loudly, grasping him by the shoulder and holding up one of the giant guns.  "I give you this, if you tell me where this is," she told him, showing him the sketch of the word.  The man stared at her blankly for a long second, shrugged, and took the paper.

"Down this hall, take a left," he growled,  "You'll see a couple o' stairs.  Go down 'em.  There are two doors on the left -- one's the examination room, the other's the actual interrogation room.  Don't know what you want there."

"Doesn't matter to you.  Have a gun."

He grinned, showing off his terrible oral hygiene.  "Thanks, lady.  You don't look familiar..."

"I'm not from around here," she replied, matching his grin, "but I know the type."

"What'd you do time for?" he asked, possibly hoping to con her out of something else, or maybe something else.  She wasn't overly concerned.

"Prisoner of war," she told him evenly, and his grin vanished abruptly.

"I'm sorry," he said earnestly, and she shrugged.

"It's in the past, now.  I'm just helping out my comrade this time."

"Your comrade being questioned?"

"That's right."

"How's this sound?" he offered, raising an eyebrow.  "I'll get you to the room and get the guards outta your way, if you give me those keys."

She smiled.  "Once I've freed my friend, they're all yours."

--

"Okay, now, things are starting to suck," Sokka said, watching in horror as prisoners flowed out of the stairwell, followed by the panicked shouting of guards and random gunfire from above.  "What do we do?"

Jayne grinned.

--

"Cap'n?  We've got problems."

"Well, who the hell doesn't?" Mal shrieked into the radio.

"What's going on on your end?" Kaylee replied, shocked.

"I'm swimmin' in gorram prisoners, and I ain't got a shee-niou clue where that ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng Suki has run off to!  What is going on?"

"Oh.  Um.  Those men, the ones from the Academy, huntin' for River?  They showed up."

"Baojuhua!" Mal spat, pissed off beyond all reckoning, and about half a second from shooting the hell out of everything in sight.  "Tell me you took care of them!"

"They're subdued!" Kaylee cried.  "But they're here, just... so you know.  And I ain't very good at flying Serenity..."

"Just start comin' this way.  We'll meet you!"

"Okay!" she shouted, sounding terrified.  Which wasn't unreasonable, Mal figured, considering that he was deeply tempted to ram this radio into Suki's throat, assuming he ever found the idiot.

--

"The feds are coming to interrogate you themselves," Hal said, crossing his arms, hoping that this might convince the scary woman to give something up.  Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, she didn't flinch at this either.

"That so?"

"Yes," he replied.  "Now, you tell me what you know, there's a chance I can get you off lightly.  The feds, on the other hand, well..."  He leaned back and shrugged for effect.  "They're not exactly known for their kindness toward murderers."

"They ain't exactly known for their kindness, period," she said coldly.  Hal almost flinched -- definitely a Browncoat to the end.  Not that he was especially surprised by this, either.  But it would have been nice if the woman had shown even a little warmth or compassion towards something.  Her file claimed that she was married -- but that had to be a typo, or a joke, or something, because the idea of this woman being married was downright insane.  Unless she'd tricked him into it, black-widow style, so she could kill him later.  He would not, under any circumstances, put such a thing past Zoe Washburne.

"Listen, lady, I'm trying to help you -- "

"No, you aren't," she cut him off succinctly, raising an eyebrow.  He came up short, hoping for some really clever answer to jump up and overtake his tongue, but nothing came.

"I'll be more helpful to you than the feds will."

"And that's supposed to convince me because?"

"I can get you a shortened sentence."

"But you won't."

He was just about to come up with some new, better, way to convince this woman to freaking talk already, but then a young woman in strange clothes, with blood splattered across her face, hair, and body, wearing a tight, blood-stained bandage on her thigh, burst through the door, an overlarge gun in her hand.  Hal reached for his weapon, but Washburne took that moment to move, lunging across the table and tackling him, pinning him to the ground, snatching his weapon out of his hand and holding it to his head.

"Where's the captain?" Washburne asked, seemingly to thin air.  The new girl looked around.

"I'm not sure.  I split up.  He was taking too long."

Washburne stopped, and then glanced to the girl, and then -- horror of horrors -- she laughed.  "He's gonna kill you."

The girl shrugged.  "I got him some guns to make up for it.  And I found you, so, we're kind of even, right?"

"We'll see about that," Washburne replied, and then pistol-whipped Hal.

--

"Why are there prisoners?" Wash asked blankly, wading through what seemed like an ocean of people, making for the massive bulk of a man that was busy punching his and Sokka's way through the crowd.  "When did prisoners enter the equation?"

"Well, if you want to get technical," Zuko replied, and received a glare.  "I don't know!"

In front of them, Jayne let out a whoop of pure joy, and a grungy-looking man hit the far wall.  "This was a terrible idea.  Whose idea was this?" Wash kept going, frustrated with the lack of Zoe and the sudden complication to the plan.

Zuko managed to catch up with a horrified Sokka, who looked at him and then back at Jayne.  "He's like a walking tank!" Sokka shouted.  "I'm pretty sure he broke a man in half!"

"At least he's on our side.  Which way do we go?"

Sokka shook his head and shrugged.  "I have no idea!  This plan has gone to hell!"

Violent cursing wafted over the heads of the crowd, and Zuko managed to catch the briefest glimpse of Mal, storming toward them from the stairwell.  "Well, this gets better and better," Zuko muttered, and then turned to Wash, who was clearly losing what little patience he had left.  "We have to find Zoe!"

"How?" Sokka replied, flattening against the wall as the guards began to try and force their way through the crowd making a dash for the exit.  "We've got guards incoming, mercenaries shooting at random, prisoners everywhere, and no ideas!"

"You tell me!  You're the idea guy!"

"I am stressed-out!"

"Mal?" Wash cried as the captain reached them.  "What do we do?"

Mal let out more cursing.  "I don't know.  Kaylee's bringin' Serenity, they had problems o' their own.  We might have to -- "

"Captain!" a voice from behind shouted over the din, and there was Suki, dancing unsteadily over the heads of the prisoners, a luminous smile on her face which didn't seemed to dim at all at the look of utter homicidal rage on Mal's face.  "Mission success!" she cried, executing a lopsided flip and coming down hard at Wash's feet.  Up close, blood and sweat was visible all over her body, and she winced in pain.

"Success?" he all-but screamed, but was cut off by Wash's cry of joy.

"Zoe!"

Zoe waded through the crowd, from the same direction Suki had come, a massive, Alliance-issue gun in her hand and an unfamiliar pistol on her hip.  She met up with them and smirked.  "Seems you were missin' me, sir."

"Good to see you, Zoe," Mal said tightly, and glared at the beaming Suki.

--

Inara's shuttle was warm and inviting, draped in silk and satin, richly decorated, with the cloying scent of incense drifting around the room, a calming salve to Katara's frayed nerves.  Inara directed her to the bed, where she all-but collapsed, unable to even cry -- more than attack those men, she had tortured them.  She was no better than Hama, was she?  While Inara made tea, River curled up on the bed next to her.

"Thank you," she whispered, and Katara looked up.  The blind terror had passed, and the sedative was apparently reasserting itself, so River was calm and her smile sweet.  "I know how much it hurts."

"I couldn't let them take you," she replied softly, her mantra somehow insufficient.  River tilted her head.

"You don't even like me."

Katara almost lied to her, but then remembered that River would know.  "It doesn't matter."

River watched her for a moment, and then turned over and appeared to fall asleep, leaving Katara somehow colder than before.  A long, bitter moment passed, and then Inara sat down on the bed, touching her shoulder.  "Mei-mei," she said, and handed her a teacup, "here."

"Thank you," she choked.  The tea was sweet and light, tasting of honey and rose.  She took a deep breath of the steam, and waited for the inevitable barrage of questions.  Surprisingly, though, they didn't come.

"I love this ship," Inara said abruptly, a soft, sad smile on her face.  Katara looked at her in confusion, but she just kept smiling.  "Ever since I first saw it.  It's all heart, and warmth, even when it doesn't seem like it.  It's... It's become home, in more ways than I ever would have thought.  Even moreso than my childhood home.  The people here, they're so..." she trailed off for a moment, lost in thought, and then she turned back to Katara.  "They believe.  In something more than religion or ideals.  They believe in people."

"Why are you telling me this?" Katara asked, and Inara sighed.

"Because it's important.  Over time, I've learned that people are... made up of questions," she said, waving a hand around expansively.  "They're all gray, really, and... nothing about them is necessarily evil or necessarily good.  Does that make sense?"

"I guess."

Inara gave her a look of utmost empathy, so understanding it hurt, and Katara almost burst into tears.  "You're not evil," she insisted, placing a hand under her chin and tilting it up so she could meet her eyes.  "You did what you had to do, in a bad situation.  It doesn't make you bad."

She stared for a half of a second, and then the tears welled up in her eyes.  "I tortured them," she breathed.

"You saved River from enduring far worse."

"Two wrongs don't make a right," she whispered.  "I could have stopped them without -- without -- "

"Did you have another option ready at hand?" Inara asked, laying a manicured hand on Katara's.  "Did you have a better, quicker, safer alternative?"

"No, but I could have -- "

"Everyone could have done something," the other woman insisted, voice soft.  "There are always alternatives to any choice you make, but that doesn't make them all reasonable or possible, given the situation.  You mustn't blame yourself."  Katara stared down into her tea, hoping vaguely that the answers would rise up from it, or, better yet, she would suddenly be back home and all of this would be a bad dream.

"Why did you join the ship?" she asked distantly, more to fill in the silence than because she actually wanted to know.

"Because it's free," Inara replied, and left it at that.

--

"All right," Mal said, ignoring Suki completely, brushing off her peace offering -- even though it was a damn good gun.  Let Jayne take it, he didn't care.  Sure, the girl did good, found Zoe without the help of any of them, and he could respect that.  He could even respect her decision to release the prisoners because, hell, it was keeping the guards and hired mercs off their hands, giving them enough time to possibly survive this intact.

What Mal couldn't respect or forgive, however, was that she had done all of this without telling him.  If she expected to be part of the team, expected him to take her seriously as an equal and an ally, then she had better learn how to open her gorram mouth and explain her plans before running off on her own.

"Jayne, take the head.  Make for the stairs, go," he barked, pushing through the knot of people to join Jayne at the forefront.  Zoe stepped up with him and Zuko beside her, although he didn't appear overly concerned with his guns.  Whatever, Mal figured.  If the boy wanted to get himself killed, then it was out of his hands.  He'd gone far enough for these idiots.

"This is gonna get nasty when we get up a few floors," Jayne growled, and Mal ignored him, pushing forward in both anger and impatience.  Kaylee's distressed voice still rang in his ears, and no doubt Serenity would make a lot of fuss flying around the prison for no apparent reason, especially with ERTs hanging around and mucking up the works.  Time was of the essence, and they'd lost a lot of it in the chaos.

"Sir?  Do we know how to get up to the roof?"  Zoe asked, shouldering the giant gun and tagging a couple of uniforms waiting by the stairwell.  They barreled in and took the moment of peace to reload and recoup.  Zuko still hadn't touched his damn guns.

Mal hesitated at this: surely there was a roof access door, and it was just as surely locked.  "Fan-girl," he said shortly, and Suki limped up, eyes hopeful, clearly praying that he was going to forgive her or, at least, not kill her.  "You got those grenades?"

"Yeah," she replied tiredly, handing them over.  "Couldn't figure out how to use them, so -- "

"Right," he said, cutting her off, and she winced.  "Make for the top, shoot anyone you see.  Zoe," he said, tossing her one of the grenades, "use this on the roof access if it's locked."

"What are you doing?" Sokka asked, but didn't get a chance to hear a response, as Zoe grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him forward, up the stairs, following the rest of the crew.  Mal reined in his desire to scream.

"There a reason you ain't goin' along?"

Zuko shrugged.  "I think you could use my help."

"With those guns you ain't touchin'?"  The stupid fishing wire he was using was tangled up, and his already low reserves of patience just continued to get lower.  Finally, with a growl that would have scared the piss out of a Reaver, he managed to get the wire into a straight enough line.  It didn't have to be perfect.  With his teeth, he tore off a length of wire a bit longer than the width of the door, and was just preparing to set up the trap when the damn door burst open.  "Ta made!" he hissed, and then a wave of flame erupted from somewhere above his head, scaring the hell out of him and the guard trying to make his way through the door as well.

The man let out a shriek, and then toppled over backwards, just as Zuko vaulted over Mal's still crouched form and performed a beautiful coup de grace with one of those swords he carried around, quick, easy, and even pretty bloodless.  Calmly, Zuko returned to the stairwell, closing and barring the door behind him.

Mal blinked. "All right," he conceded, and then set up the grenade trap, so it would go off when the door opened next.  It would have to do.  At the very least, it would give them advance warning.  "I admit, you people are good for some things."

"On occasion," Zuko replied, and Mal decided that he was probably his favorite of all the new people they'd met.  Maybe Toph could challenge him for that title, but as it was, those were the only two he didn't want to throttle, punch, or outright kick out of the airlock, although he admitted a grudging respect for Suki.

"Let's meet up with the others."

--

By the time they reached the roof, Suki's adrenaline rush had worn off, and she was pale with blood loss, starting to visibly fatigue.  Sokka had slung his arm around her and helped her up the last flight of stairs, but she was fading out fast.  He needed to get her to Katara, or maybe that the doctor could do something.  He didn't like the way she was slumped against him, though, not a bit.

"C'mon, Suki," he whispered, and she jerked slightly, gasping for breath.  "Just a little further."

"Just a little further," she repeated faintly, and then appeared to draw on some deep reserve of strength, tightening her grip on his shirt and pulling herself up some.  "Just a little further," she said again, firmer.  Wash glanced at her, and then reached out and took her other arm, helping Sokka support her.

"Simon'll fix you up," Wash murmured, much friendlier now that Zoe was safe.  "You'll be okay, just get there."

"All right," Zoe barked, gesturing to them in the gloom of the night, still dimly lit from Zuko's forest fire, "let's get out of the way so the captain can get through.  Suki, here," she added, warmer, pointing at the wall beside the door, "take a seat."

"I'd rather stand," Suki slurred, clearly worried that if she sat down, she wouldn't stand up again, but Zoe shook her head.

"You need to get your weight off that leg.  Push comes to shove, Jayne'll carry you up into Serenity."

"She's right," Sokka told her gently, helping her to the wall.  She leaned against it, face contorting in pain, and then slid down to the ground, stretching out her leg slowly.  Sokka sat down next to her and took her hand.  "You're amazing, have I ever told you that?"

"Only all the time," she replied with a weak laugh.

"Seriously," he insisted, desperate to keep her talking, keep her conscious.  "You're the most amazing woman I've ever met, and that's saying something, considering my Gran-Gran and Katara.  You practically did all of this yourself!  And you made it through all of this, even with that pain... You're incredible."

"Thanks, I guess," she whispered.

"Hey," Wash said suddenly, sprawling out on the other side of her, "what do you call a fish without an eye?"

She turned to him, confused, and Sokka thought he saw Zoe rolling her eyes.  "What?"

"What do you call a fish without an eye?" he repeated, face earnest.

"I... I don't know," Suki replied.

"A fsssh," Wash told her eagerly, and -- in spite of everything -- Suki laughed.

"Don't encourage him," Zoe said blandly.  "He's got a million of those."

"Ah, don't listen to her," Wash countered.  Sokka elbowed Suki.

"So, this guy goes to a therapist, right?  And he's like, 'I keep having these recurring dreams.  First, I'm a teepee, then I'm a wigwam.  It's driving me crazy!' he says. 'What's wrong with me?'  And the therapist says," here he paused for effect, making sure that Suki and Wash were both paying attention.  "'It's very simple.  You're two tents.'"

Zoe snorted, and Wash snickered, while Suki rolled her eyes.  "You've told me that one before."

"But you're smiling!"

"That's such a bad joke," she insisted, but she looked alive, and that was the important thing.  Just then, as he was trying to come up with another horrible joke to tell her to keep her awake, Mal and Zuko burst through the hole where the door had been.

"Boy, we picked the good grenades, didn't we?" Mal quipped, and then looked to Zoe.  "Kaylee comin'?"

"Yeah," Jayne answered, "and the sooner the better."

Mal looked over to the three seated at the wall.  "You all right?" he asked, as though dearly hoping for a reason to kill them.

"Suki was shot," Sokka replied, bristling in defense of his wounded girlfriend.  It wasn't often that he got the chance to rise up to defend Suki, and he was damned determined to defend the hell out of her.  "She's lost a lot of blood."

"Where?" Mal asked curtly.

"Thigh," Suki replied, just as short.

"Artery intact?"

"She'd be dead if it weren't," Zoe answered for her, glancing up to the sky as Serenity started to come, shakily, into view.  "Doc'll have to take a look when we get back."

Mal nodded slowly, and then appeared to make a decision.  "Jayne," he said, jerking his head toward Suki, "you're going first.  Carry her up when you go, get her straight to the Doc.  We don' want anyone dyin' on us."

"Aww, c'mon..." Jayne started, but Mal silenced him with a look.

"Suki," he said sharply, reloading his pistol and not looking at her, "you and I are gonna have words when this is over, dong le ma?"

"I..." she began, confused, but Wash leaned over and whispered a translation, so she nodded.  "Right.  I understand."

"After Jayne and Suki, Wash is goin' up," Mal went on, as though there had been no interruption, "and you're gonna go straight up to the bridge and make sure things are shiny.  Then, Zoe, followed by you two," he waved a hand towards Zuko and Sokka.  "I'll stay behind 'til all o' you are on, make sure no one follows us, then I'll be up."

"Sir?" Zoe said, "I'd rather stay behind with you."

"I ain't losin' you again," he replied shortly.  "Best you get on up and help Wash."

Sokka raised a hand, and when Mal gave him a you're kidding look, he decided to go ahead and ask, "Uh, just how are we doing this, anyhow?"

"The hard way," Mal answered, but then Serenity was overhead and it was hard to hear anything.  The bottom opened, and Sokka looked up to see Simon, Toph, and Aang gathered around the now-gaping hole.  Simon, looking distinctly ruffled, lowered a harness, and the bottom dropped out of Sokka's gut.

He was reasonably certain that he began cursing at this point, but Serenity was so loud in his ears he couldn't be sure.  No one looked especially happy about this plan, but at least he could take refuge in the fact that Zuko's horrified face was at least twice as pale and terrified than his own.  It was the little things, he figured, that mattered.  Jayne shouted something that was lost in the rush, but his gestures toward Suki were clear enough, so he and Wash helped her to her feet.

There were times that Sokka didn't like Jayne, and the truth was, those were most times.  But he doubted there was anyone else alive who could grasp a harness with one hand and a good 150 pounds of warrior woman in the other and be pulled up into the belly of a ship without his grip wavering on either.  Sometimes, it paid to be allied with a beast-man.

As Jayne and Suki were ascending, Mal started shooting something behind them, and Sokka turned sharply to see a small group of guards taking up defensive positions.  He thought about it quickly -- there was no way he could use his boomerang here to be of any good, and it was too dangerous to go in for close-combat fighting, not will all the bullets flying.  And there were undoubtedly more guards following the ones they were fighting now, which would make getting out even worse.

What they needed was a way for them to all get up in the ship at once.  Sokka cast about in the chaos, and landed on the blasted-away door, which had left lots of wide chunks of concrete, plenty big enough to hold all of them.  Crude, certainly, but if done right, could be effective.  He grabbed Wash by the shirt.  "Rope!" he shouted, at the top of his voice, and Wash leaned forward, so he screamed louder, "Rope!"  Wash shook his head, and Sokka almost screamed in frustration.  Either Suki still had the rope they had used to get in here, or she'd left it at the wall, or she'd given it back to Jayne -- whatever it was, they didn't have any.  Time to go even lower-tech.  "Belt!" he shrieked, and Wash looked at him blankly for a moment, and then seemed to either catch on or realize that it was best not to ask, and started undoing his belt.

He kicked Zuko in the leg, unwittingly upsetting his firebending stance and causing him to fall flat on his face.  Wincing at the violent glare from his best friend, he shouted the same one-word request.  Zuko, however, had a louder voice than Wash.  "What the hell do you need my belt for?" he screamed, and Sokka pointed to the largest piece of concrete, and then up to the open belly of the ship where Jayne and Suki were (maddeningly slowly) disappearing into.  "You're insane!" he shrieked, but began undoing his belt anyway.  When Sokka turned back to Wash, he was holding both his belt and Zoe's suspenders, along with Zoe's empty gun-belt, and was already fashioning them into a makeshift harness.

"Tell Mal!" Sokka cried to Zuko, who rolled his eyes and started shouting across the open hole.  Mal stared at him blankly for a moment, and then to Wash and Sokka making rope with belts, and seemed to get the picture.  Luckily for them, Mal was also wearing suspenders in addition to his gun-belt, and began undoing his to pass along.  With all of the belts and suspenders tied or fixed together, they had a good enough length of rope.

This was a terrible idea.  However, Sokka had learned that terrible ideas were often better than no ideas, and this was their only shot at getting up into the boat with at least some of their body parts intact.  In Serenity, Toph was screaming something, but he couldn't hear her and, frankly, wasn't prepared to listen even if he could.  Sure, this would be easy for her, but the rest of them didn't have the option of raising giant pillars of rock from the...

Sokka was suddenly overcome with the powerful desire to beat his head against a wall until he passed out.

"Get down here!" he yelled at her.  "Get us out of this!"

Toph grinned.

--

"Anyone mind explainin' why we didn't do that first?" Mal asked darkly, as the bottom of Serenity closed and they made a mad dash for not on the planet anymore.  Toph wiggled her toes.

"You didn't ask."

Mal was not amused.  "At least Sokka here was tryin' a do something.  Now, it wasn't a great idea, but he was doin' his damnedest.  You coulda just jumped down and saved us before I wasted all my ammo on idiot guards."

"I tried to tell you I could -- "

"I don't wanna hear it," he cut her off.  "I need a drink."

--

"Is she gonna be okay?" Aang asked.  Sokka, looking exhausted, dirty, and sad, shrugged.

"He wouldn't tell me.  Made me leave."  They both crouched closer to the window, trying to get a better look.  Suki looked oddly serene, laying still on the little infirmary bed, paler than usual, still bloody from the fight, hair fanned out beneath her like a halo.  Simon's body was blocking her leg where he was working, but if Aang tilted his head in the right way, he could catch a glimpse of what he was doing.  He had metal parts, similar to the ones he'd used to patch up Aang's own flirtation with bullets, and he appeared to be digging around in Suki's thigh.  To Aang, it looked like he was making things worse, but then he would pull out a fragment of metal or -- bone? -- and it was clear that he was good at his job.

Aang just didn't like one of his friends needing Simon to be good at his job.  He didn't like the way Suki looked on the bed, like a corpse, and he especially didn't like the hollow, worried look on Sokka's face.  The older man had kept up his strong, warrior facade throughout the whole ordeal of getting everyone onto Serenity, but he'd crumbled when he hit the Infirmary door and saw Suki laying there, forlorn and unconscious.

He wondered if Sokka was thinking of Yue, or of that awful moment on the Day of the Black Sun.  Most likely.

"Don't worry," a voice behind them said, and Kaylee came over, kneeling down between them.  "Simon knows what he's doin'.  He fixed me up good when he was new here, and I were a lot worse off'n Suki is."  She rubbed Sokka's shoulder kindly.  "She'll be fine."

Sokka just swallowed hard and continued to watch.

--

Zoe, Mal, and Zuko were sitting at the table, sharing a few drinks.  Wash was at the helm, Kaylee had gone to the engine room, Jayne was furtively teaching Toph gunplay, Sokka and Aang were waiting at the infirmary for Simon to finish patching up Suki, River was in Inara's shuttle.  Katara, meanwhile, was hesitating.

She knew this had to be done, that this question had to be asked.  She just didn't want to be the one to do it.

Taking a deep breath to steady herself and drown her fear, she walked in and sat down.  What sparse conversation had been floating over the table stopped as all three turned to her.  She drew on her courage, and said, "I want to know about the war."

Mal raised an eyebrow, but didn't respond.  She turned to Zoe, hoping for better.  "Why?" the woman asked.

"I need to.  I don't know what happened then, I don't know who's right or wrong, or what to believe in.  That encyclopedia gives me the Alliance's side, but I want to hear yours.  No," she corrected, staring at her hands, "I need to hear yours, why you fought for the Independents, why you..."

Zoe glanced at Mal, whose expression was dangerously neutral.  The captain returned the glance, then drained his mug and walked out of the room.  Katara slumped in her seat, defeated, until Zoe spoke.  "Battle of Serenity Valley was the last major battle in the war," she said, apparently out of the blue, and Katara's head snapped up.

"You're going to tell me?"

Zoe nodded.  "The captain don't like to talk about the war.  For future reference," she added, raising an eyebrow, "don't bring it up if you don't have to."

"I'm so --"

"Like I said," Zoe interrupted, brushing off her apology, "the Battle of Serenity Valley was the last major one, and one of the bloodiest.  Almost half a million people lay dead by the time it was all over, about two thirds Independents.  It was bad," she added unnecessarily, taking a deep draught from her mug.  "We had to scavenge for weapons and armor.  Had to pile up our dead for cover.  I even saw one guy use a leg as a club once, when things got real desperate."

Katara, in spite of herself, flinched.  Zuko, sitting next to her, squeezed her shoulder.  "You fought under Mal?" he asked, and Zoe nodded.

"He was my sergeant.  Commanded me and thirty other grunts... least, when we shipped out.  Five days in, though, he commanded two thousand."  Zoe took a deep breath.  "He kept us going, through everything, even went so far as to do the worst jobs himself, so we wouldn't have to face it.  He held us together when we should've fallen apart, kept us sane when we were goin' mad."

She paused here, for a long moment.  "What happened?" Katara whispered, and Zoe looked up.

"What d'you think?  They had numbers and technology, all we had was heart and ideals.  We held on for two months," she said, and shook her head slowly, "but it wasn't enough.  They called for peace, and then," she added, in a lower, darker tone, "ran off to Verbena to negotiate it, leaving us there to rot with the dead.  Both sides left us.  Disease killed most who weren't dead already, infection the rest.  You only survived Serenity Valley if you weren't cut up anywhere and had all your parts intact."

"Why did they leave you there?" she asked, horrified, and Zoe turned her hollow eyes onto him.

"'Cause we didn't matter," she replied bitterly.  "We were just grunts, they were the generals, diplomats, leaders.  It took 'em a week to come for us, and by then, only about a hundred and fifty of that two thousand were still alive, and of our original platoon?  Just me."

Zuko looked as though he'd been punched in the gut; Katara felt like it.  But Zoe wasn't finished.  "When I met him, the captain was an idealist.  Believed in what he fought for, in freedom, in... in humanity.  Cared, even, about makin' the world a better place.  He was compassionate, likable, friendly."  She shook her head and sighed.  "But he left all that on the battlefield.  Now, he's got the ship, and us on it.  Nothing else.  We... We're the forgotten," she said slowly, "the ones that survived the battle but lost everything else, even our souls.  They won, and we paid the price."  She fell silent for a moment, and then added, "We're not always right, and we sure as hell ain't always nice, but we are who we are because of the war.  Everyone on this ship's lost something to the Alliance, to their version of right and wrong, but then," she said, shrugging, "war's over.  We got nothing to win by fighting."

"But you do it anyway," Zuko whispered.

"Yeah," a voice said from behind them, and it was Mal, standing at the doorway, eyes clouded.  "We do it anyway.  Someone's got to."

Katara stared at him, and felt something shift between the two of them, something fundamental and familiar -- it was the same thing that had shifted when she'd looked at Zuko under Ba Sing Se.  Understanding.  She understood Mal.  "Why'd you name the ship after that battle?" she asked softly, though she thought she might already know.

He blinked, clutching his mug in his hand like it was a life-line.  "'Cause once you've been at Serenity," he growled, "you never leave.  You just learn to live there."



*shee-niou: cow-sucking
*ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng: frog-humping son of a bitch
*baojuhua: literally "to explode the chrysanthemum," which is a euphemism for ass.
*ta made: shit
*dong le ma: understand?

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
bladegryphon
Sep. 13th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
EXCELLENT chapter. My mind is too far blown to comment on specifics, but EXCELLENT chapter.
andromeda3116
Sep. 14th, 2010 05:08 am (UTC)
Thank you!
jade_sabre_301
Sep. 14th, 2010 04:31 am (UTC)
OKAY SO I am reading this while also watching The Little Mermaid so this review will be briefer than usual.

Suki. Suki. On the one hand, I feel like I should read more fic about her; on the other hand, I'm not sure if anyone else will do as good a job of her as you are.

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS ZOE AND SUKI TOGETHER. WITH GUNS.

and Wash. Bringin' the lulz.

YEAH SUKI, YOU ROCK, AND MAL IS GONNA KILL YOU.

:-D :-D :-D

Inara <3<3<3

MAL AND ZUKO, GRUMPBUDDIES FOREVER

D'AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAW COUPLE BONDING TIME WITH EVERYONE INVOLVED AND WASH AND D'AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAW

oh Sokka <3 you defend your girl

TOPH YOU ARE THE BEST I was wondering when they would wake up and realize that's what they needed to do.

d'aaaaaaaaaaw Aang

this chapter is gloriously long. Gloriously.

oh oh oh oh that line, about understanding Mal, and Zoe's speech, and

Andromeda this fic is so awesome. O_O I am overwhelmed by the awesomeness. It's in-character and fast-paced and takes advantage of all the similarities and differences between all the people and uses everyone to their greatest potential and I. Just. Love this.

:-D
andromeda3116
Sep. 14th, 2010 05:14 am (UTC)
Yesssss Little Mermaid!

I love Suki and writing her has been so much fun.

XD "Grumpbuddies" That describes Zuko and Mal's relationship perfectly!

True story: the concept of Zoe explaining the war to Katara was pretty much the catalyst that made me sit down and start this fic, because I really wanted to get to that scene. That one, and when they find out about Miranda. :D

Thank you! *blush*
tinmiss1939
Sep. 14th, 2010 09:53 pm (UTC)
Suki! She's so earnest and cheerful, and maybe a little impulsive, from needing to go it alone to many times. Love it. I'd like to think she and Mal can work it out, once she figures out how his team works.

Companion training has many uses, including "therapist for sad little waterbenders." Inara counsels Katara very well here; her dialogue well written and it is in-character that those words would make Katara feel better. The tea sounds delicious, BTW. I'd love a cup of it :)

Mal's feelings at the end are interesting, and I'm going to ramble for a bit to make sure I understand what's in his head (LOL, futile, I know):

In the television show he wants to fight, but won't admit it. In the beginning of the movie, he's in such a dark place that he truly has given up. At the end of the movie, we've got a pretty hopeful mood and Mal's demons are quieter. It seems you've stepped to the side a little, to a more realistic place. Mal still has issues, but at least now he can say "We fight anyway, because someone has to." He will admit to those feelings and he will let himself fight, even though it hurts like hell. Am I interpreting him correctly, or am I way off? Y/N?

LOL, Mal. Why do I even bother? He is more fun when we don't understand him, really. He's made to glower and grump at people. Make sure someone lets Zuko know about Mal's duel in "Shindig." ENDLESS possibilities for Mal-grumping if that one gets out, after Zuko's little display here.
andromeda3116
Sep. 17th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
Ah! I'm sorry for the delay in replying to this -- my week has been weird, to say the least!

I honestly love Suki, and I wish we'd had a chance to see more of her in the series, but I'm so glad that she came back and became part of the Gaang! She's like twelve kinds of awesome, and yeah, I think once she and Mal get on the same page, they'll work exceptionally well together.

I don't recall if it's canon that Inara's had some form of training in therapy, but I'm kind of working off the idea that was put up in Forward, where she has, and uses it to help River. I think it would make sense, considering her line of work. I spent a lot of time on that discussion, and rewrote it like five times, because I wanted it to be in-character for both of them and also to help Katara come to terms with bloodbending, which is something that I doubt she would do -- even in the Avatar world -- without counseling. (And yes to the tea. I actually found some green tea with rose, and when you add honey to it, it is so good. :D)

I think you hit Mal right on the nose. I love the scene on Miranda, when he's talking to the crew about the recording and how he aims to misbehave -- it's Mal finding a reason to fight again! After all this time, after everything we saw in the series and movie, he's finally got something to fight for, like he used to. He believes in something again, and I really wanted to show Mal in that light, even though, like you said, it hurts like hell and no one knows that better than he does. I'm planning to have him and Aang talk again, because I want to contrast Mal, who lost his ideals and is trying to regain them, and Aang, who managed to hold onto his. I think there's a lot of potential in the interaction between them, and I really want them to find common ground, because I think it's there, you just have to dig for it.

...Rambley comment is rambley. >
jdphoenix
Sep. 21st, 2010 09:34 pm (UTC)
So much amazingness happened in this chapter that I can't begin to come up with a legitimate review so I'll just say that I loved it. :)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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