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Julius Chou had felt eyes on him for at least a minute before he decided to look up from his paperwork. He found his new partner watching him with a small grin on her face. She’d rolled her chair over to his desk and was sitting backwards in it, contemplating him.

“Do you want something?” Julius asked, opting for politeness and trying to ignore the fact that Cynthia’s own work was just sitting there on her desk. Unfinished. Come to think of it, in the few days since they’d been assigned together, he’d hardly seen her doing any work that wasn’t field work, which was what she seemed to enjoy with a relish. He had to admit that she was good in that respect, but still… he eyed the paperwork on her desk dubiously.

“I realized that we don’t know each other very well,” Cynthia said conversationally. “Which just won’t do, if we’re gonna be working together.”

Julius’s sigh was very small and contained. “Can’t that wait until after work?” he asked.

“Well, I can already tell you’re a stick in the mud,” Cynthia said, and Julius bristled. “Come on, there’s plenty of time to finish everything! What do you like to do for fun?”

Julius contemplated ignoring or brushing off the question, but he could already tell that Cynthia was not someone who would be deterred easily, at least not from slacking off. Perhaps if he answered quickly and briefly, they could get back to work faster. “I like quiet things,” he said, very pointedly.

“That’s cool,” Cynthia said, and she sounded surprisingly genuine. “Hobbies? TV shows?”

“I don’t watch TV,” Julius said absently, scratching down something on the report in front of him.

He looked up as Cynthia let out an affronted gasp. “Oh my god, are you one of those people?”

“What people?” Julius asked, with a slight scowl.

“The people who think TV is beneath them.”

Julius shrugged. “I just think there are better ways to spend my time.” He made another note on the report.

“You are,” Cynthia said. “I can’t believe this.”

Julius kept writing.

“Come on, everyone has one TV show,” Cynthia said.

“I don’t,” Julius said shortly.

He looked up to find Cynthia shaking her head at him, looking disappointed. “This just won’t do,” she said, and he probably should have been wary of the sudden gleam that entered her eyes, even as she rolled away, back to her own desk.

“What genres do you like?” Cynthia asked the next morning, as she waited behind Julius in the line for the coffee maker.

“What?” he asked, glancing back.

“Of fiction,” she clarified. “Or do you like nonfiction?”

 Julius narrowed his eyes at her in suspicion. “Are you still going on about the TV thing?”

“Maybe,” Cynthia said, in a tone that clearly indicated that it was so.

Julius moved forward and grabbed a cup as the way to the coffee maker cleared. He sighed. He was doing that a lot lately. “Either is fine,” he answered. “Any genre is fine.”

“So you like anything, but you don’t watch TV,” Cynthia said, moving to lean against the counter so that she could face him and shaking her head with a grin. “Amazing.”

“I don’t see why it matters,” Julius said, watching the steam rise as he poured coffee into the cup.

Cynthia shrugged. “It’s a whole storytelling medium, and you’re missing out. Sad, really.” Her head tilted as she regarded him curiously. “Not even TV documentaries? Seems like your style.”

Julius paused before picking up his cup, eyeing her suspiciously again. “Is that because you think I’m a stick in the mud?” he asked wryly.

“No,” Cynthia said. “I like the occasional documentary every now and then, and I’m not a stick in the mud. It just seems like you.”

Julius was silent for a moment. “I have watched a few,” he admitted.

“Hah!” Cynthia said in triumph. “So you have watched some TV. That’s a start.”

Julius had no idea what she meant by that as she shooed him out of the way so that she could get her own coffee.

“So when you say any genre, do you mean it? Or was that just like a generic ‘please go away’ answer?”

It was much later in the day, when they were wrapping up work and preparing to head home. Julius almost found himself laughing at the sudden directness of the question, but he stopped himself.

“I meant it,” he said, shoving a few folders into his bag. “I find genre to be a bit... limiting.”

Cynthia looked intrigued. She had already picked up everything and was waiting for him to finish. “So do I,” she said. “Maybe you’re not a complete stick in the mud.”

“Thanks, I think.”

“So that means you like books? Movies, maybe?”

Julius shouldered his bag, and the two of them fell into step as they left the station. “I read a lot,” he said. “And I do like the occasional movie.”

Cynthia shook her head with an exaggerated sigh. “We’ll set aside a proper appreciation of movies for another day.”

Julius tried not to smile. “So does this mean you’re planning on converting me to the cult of television?”

“You see, you are one of those people,” Cynthia said with a laugh. “Cult, honestly. Only if you’re willing to give it a try. Got any preferences?”

It took Julius a moment to realize that she was back to genre again. Much like the rest of her personality, her conversations tended to move at rapid speeds, with little transition. He shrugged. “Believe it or not, I’m not picky,” he said. When Cynthia glared at him and his lack of a real answer, he added, “And I like sci-fi, probably a bit more than I should.”

Cynthia’s face lit up. “That’s another start,” she said. “Soft sci-fi? Hard?”

“Everything,” Julius said.

“Definitely not a complete stick in the mud, thank god,” Cynthia said.

Julius was beginning to think that was how she delivered compliments.

“I’ll even provide food. And only an idiot would say no to a free meal.”

Julius glanced away from his intense observation of the warehouse for the briefest of moments. “We’ve only been partners for a week, and you’re inviting me to your house?” he asked.

Cynthia shrugged. She was sprawled out in the passenger’s seat, looking far too relaxed for being on a stakeout. “You’re the farthest thing from skeevy that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “And I am an excellent judge of character.”

“You’re very confident,” Julius said, looking back at the warehouse.

“Yes,” Cynthia agreed.

Julius held back a smile. She had invited him to her home for what she called an experimental Friday night TV viewing session, and he was almost tempted. There was something about her that was charmingly irresistible. Not that he would ever admit it out loud.

“I don’t know,” he said instead.

“Just give it a try,” Cynthia said coaxingly. “Just one try, that’s all I ask. I picked the perfect show for you.”

“And you’re certain of that? After what, three conversations about it?”

“I told you,” Cynthia said. “I know people.”

Julius pretended to think about for a while, even though he’d already decided. “Fine,” he said, with another of his frequent sighs. “I guess it can’t hurt.”

He glanced to the side to catch a brilliant grin on Cynthia’s face. It suited her. “Good,” she said. “Friday night at 6, then.”

Shaking his head, Julius turned back to the warehouse. “I can’t believe we’re making plans on a stakeout,” he said. Cynthia’s general air of irresponsibility was rubbing off on him, it seemed.

“We’ve been here for hours,” Cynthia said, and he heard her fiddling with something. “Besides, the dude just walked out.”

“What?!” Julius demanded, doing a double take and finally noticing the furtive figure skulking near the back entrance of the warehouse. Beside him, Cynthia already had her gun out. Julius didn’t understand how she’d noticed before him when she barely seemed to be paying attention in the first place.

“Honestly,” Cynthia said, “you call yourself a detective.”

With a grin, she opened the door on her side of the car, and sighing yet again, Julius followed suit.

As the credits began rolling, Cynthia got up to eject the disk and busied herself with putting it back in the case and putting it away.

“Wait,” Julius said, and Cynthia paused in mid-movement. “Where’s the rest?”

A look of slight alarm flashed across Cynthia’s face. “Didn’t I tell you?” she asked, a bit guiltily.

Julius tried not to feel panic. “Tell me what?”

“Um, well… it got canceled after half a season,” Cynthia said, with the expression of one who had to deliver painful news.

Julius stared at her. Surely he couldn’t have heard that correctly. “What?”

“Poor executive handling and all that. Turned it into a bit of cult legend, actually.” Cynthia was suddenly very busy putting the DVD away. She’d told Julius that some shows you just had to own a physical copy of, and he was beginning to understand why she’d bought this one. “Could have sworn I told you…”

“You didn’t!” Julius said accusingly, leaning back on the sofa in disbelief. “You have got to be kidding me.” There was a note of pleading in the statement. Maybe she was just pulling his leg. It seemed like the sort of thing she would do.

“’Fraid not,” Cynthia said. She smiled weakly. “Told you it was good, though! Knew you’d like it.”

“And that’s it?” Julius demanded, not acknowledging that Cynthia had been right and that maybe television was sometimes a fun thing.

“Worry not,” Cynthia said. “They made a movie to wrap things up.”

Julius glanced at his watch. It was already so late that it was Saturday, after their second experimental Friday night TV viewing session, which he’d agreed to in order to finish the first (and apparently only) season. Though Cynthia seemed perfectly game for a ridiculous amount of binge-watching, she’d told him that he needed to ease his way into it before he reached the level of a pro. As if he’d ever stoop to that... was what he’d thought, at first.

Julius glanced at the TV. Maybe he would.

“I don’t have to be anywhere tomorrow,” he said lightly.

Cynthia grinned and fetched the movie.

As the credits rolled, Julius turned to Cynthia, his face set in a stony glare.

There was a grin dancing at the corners of Cynthia’s mouth that she didn’t bother to contain. “Okay, I purposefully didn’t warn you that time.”

“What the hell,” Julius said.

“You’re welcome!” Cynthia hopped off the couch to retrieve the DVD and avoid Julius’s death glare.

Once again, Julius leaned back in a state of shock. “Why would they do that?” he asked. “I mean, if there’s not going to be any more, why end it like that?”

Cynthia shrugged. “Sometimes I pretend certain things didn’t actually happen. Denial is your best friend when it comes to TV watching.”

“I’m not sure if I want to watch anymore TV,” Julius muttered.

Cynthia closed the DVD case with a snap and looked back at him with another grin. This one was irritatingly knowing. “You sure about that?”

Damn it. Damn it. Julius couldn’t believe he’d let her talk him into this. She’d disarmed his resolve with hardly any effort, and he couldn’t understand how, and now he knew he was lost. He sighed deeply. “Got any more recommendations?” he asked with a groan, hating himself.

Cynthia laughed. “I’ll have to see. That’s for next time, assuming you’d like a next time?”

Julius looked at his watch again. It was so late that by the time he got home, it would practically be light outside. Then he looked back up at Cynthia with a small smile. “Is it okay if I crash here for the rest of the night?” he asked, letting that be his answer.

“The couch is yours,” Cynthia said.

One Of Those People
A slightly late holiday season gift for X-I-L2048This is sort of pre-Julius/Cynthia and set very vaguely in that cop AU you have. (Julius is one of those snobs who thinks watching TV is beneath him until Cynthia drags him over to the dark side.) Thank you for being an amazing friend and being so patient with me and how long it takes me to write stuff, and I hope you like this! (I'm posting it here and on Tumblr for maximum convenience.)
Category: Fanfiction Crossover
Fandom(s): Hetalia | Firefly
Summary: It's been five hundred years since America and China made the decision to abandon Earth. They are the only ones left, and survival is no longer the problem... dying is. But at least the company's good.

Chapter Twelve: A World Apart

"Across the sky, there is a place where the starships fly in a perfect formation and the sun shines in the color blue – a world apart, like me and you."
"Now raise your hands and look to the sky and realize that this is not the last goodbye."

- "Last Goodbye"; I Will Never Be The Same

Daylight was baking Constance, and Mal was dripping sweat and panting as he lugged one of the boxes up the ramp into Serenity's cargo bay. Let it never be said that honest work was any less taxing than work of the more dishonest sort – his back was beginning to ache, and his attitude towards the star of this particular system was decidedly sour. He set the box down with the others, exhaling an explosive sigh, and turned to look at the other crew members engaged in the same activity, clustered around the delivery truck.

Despite the fact that it was midday and the heat was damn near unbearable, the docks were bustling. Mal's eyes automatically scanned the crowds; it was an old habit of his, born of days spent soldiering, and he had never bothered to break it, useful as it could be. It wasn't like he was expecting to see anything of note, subconsciously or otherwise, but something caught his gaze and made his eyes double back – two familiar figures, the taller one expertly shoving through the mass of people to make way for the shorter one.

Mal grinned, heading back down the ramp as Alfred and Yao finally pushed their way through the thickest part of the crowd. Zoe looked up as Mal approached, followed his gaze, and smiled as well, as Alfred waved cheerily at them. "You lost?" Zoe called.

"Oh, hopelessly," Alfred shouted back, over the general din of the docks. "Thank God you fine people are here to rescue us."

Wash and Jayne both returned the wave and called out greetings, while Book eyed the newcomers curiously. "We found you in the registrar's list," Yao said to Mal, as he and Alfred came abreast of the delivery truck. "Are you doing respectable work now?"

"Thievin' don't always pay the bills," Mal answered, shaking hands with them.

"We've taken on supply transport now," Wash added in a strained voice, struggling under a load. "It's very stimulating. Mind helping with these boxes?"

"No thanks," Alfred said with a wink. "As fun as that sounds." He glanced at Mal. "We were wondering if you had in your hearts to give us a lift."

Mal took a moment to look them over. They were the same as ever – a little travel-worn, with only the bags on their backs for luggage, save for a small box tucked under Alfred's arm that bore a food market stamp. As usual, Mal couldn't get much just from looking at them. Even their appearances were oddly secretive, giving away nothing other than the fact that they were obviously travelers. "I dunno," Mal said with a mock sigh, as if internally weighing some great debate. "Zoe? Would it be responsible of me to let these vagabonds onto our highly respectable ship?"

"Absolutely not," Zoe answered, grinning at Alfred and Yao. "Welcome aboard."

"Is that food?" Jayne asked, eyeing the box that Alfred was holding.

"Yes, for Kaylee," Alfred said pointedly, transferring the box into the crook of his other arm. "No touching."

Book set down the box he'd been in the process of lifting and came forward, smiling in greeting. "I don't believe we've met before," he said to the newcomers.

"This here's Shepherd Book," Mal explained. "He's on my crew now."

"A Shepherd?" Yao echoed in surprise; his head tilted in curiosity as he gazed at Book. "I didn't know Shepherds doubled as thieves."

"We generally don't," Book said dryly. "Half the time, I don't even know what I'm doing here. But I do try to bring some measure of morality to the lawlessness of this ship." He smiled and shook both Alfred's and Yao's hands in turn. "Are you friends of the Captain?"

Mal could tell that both men were curious about Book's presence on Serenity – as curious as Mal himself was about the two of them. He watched as they introduced themselves and chatted with the Shepherd and the others, pitching in to help with the boxes as naturally as if they did so every day. They got along so easily with the crew, and once again Mal found himself wondering why they steadfastly refused his offer of joining. They'd only ever given him vague excuses, and while Mal could respect a person's right to privacy, he couldn't deny that his need to know was burning. There had to be a deeper reason – after all, it wasn't just anyone who could get along with him and his crew as if they belonged there.

He shoved the matter to another part of his mind when he realized that Zoe was looking at him. "You're staring," she informed him.

"I'm thinkin'," he said.

"Don't hurt yourself," she advised, and Mal gave her a halfhearted glare.

It turned out that Serenity would be departing that evening, after Mal finalized dealings with the seller who needed his supplies transported to a buyer on Calliope. Yao was glad that he and Alfred had managed to catch the crew before they left; of course, on a planet like this, they could have easily joined up with any number of passenger vessels, but it was much more pleasant with friends. It had been a nice surprise to find Serenity on the dock registrar's list of ships willing to take passengers. It had been a long time since they'd seen the ship and her crew, and a lot had happened since then, to judge by the additional number of crew members.

By the time the crew had finished loading the cargo bay and the last of the supply boxes were stored securely, Inara and Kaylee emerged together from Serenity's depths. "Well, this is a surprise!" Kaylee said delightedly, bouncing down the steps as Inara descended more calmly behind her. Alfred gave them both a theatrical bow and presented his box to Kaylee with a flourish.

"A gift for the beautiful lady, from her two humble servants," he said gallantly, and Inara smiled and shook her head.

"Aw, you shouldn't've," Kaylee said with a wide grin, accepting the box and opening it. Inside were some of the reddest, freshest strawberries that Alfred and Yao had been able to find on short notice. Kaylee's eyes lit up at the sight, and she looked up with a wide smile. "Oh, you," she said, looking between Alfred and Yao. "You know how to make a girl's day." She leaned forward to kiss Alfred on the cheek with a one-armed hug, then crossed the distance to Yao to do the same for him.

Yao smiled. "Be careful, though. Jayne's been eyeing that box since the moment we walked up."

"Oi," Jayne said defensively. "I ain't gonna steal 'em. Leastways not with so many witnesses."

Kaylee took pity on him and offered him a strawberry. As she passed a few more around to the others, Inara came forward to greet nations. "Were you just in the area?" she asked inquiringly.

"Well," Alfred said somewhat guiltily, drawing out the syllable in his reluctance, "we weren't planning on leaving this place so early, but... stuff happened, y'know."

Inara arched an eyebrow at him knowingly and turned to Yao.

"He was hustling pool," Yao clarified. "Like the ruffian he is. The man he was hustling turned out to be the owner of the inn we were staying at."

"He kicked us out," Alfred admitted. "And I guess he's really influential in the town or something, 'cause none of the other inns we tried would let us in after that."

Wash snorted. "Wow," he said, completely deadpan. "What a shock. Guys, I hate to break it to you," he turned to the rest of the crew, "but I fear we have a pair of criminals among us. Don't anybody panic."

"Excuse you," Yao said, dignified. "I had nothing to do with it."

"Oh, but y'know what they say," Mal said, coming up behind him, "birds of a feather 'n all that. Tainted by association. Listen," he directed this at the crew, "I'm headin' to finish the deal with the client. This ship better be rarin' to go by the time I get back."

Zoe stepped up, folding her arms. "Take Jayne with you," she said.

Mal frowned. "This is a completely legal transaction. I don't need backup."

"Never hurts to be careful." Zoe narrowed her eyes at him, and their stare down barely lasted a few seconds.

"Fine," Mal said with a sigh. "But we're turnin' into a bunch of paranoid bastards, we are. Jayne, c'mon. And you can only bring one handgun. No other weapons. We don't need to spook the guy."

Jayne groaned. "Aw, c'mon."

"I mean it."

Grumbling, Jayne handed two pistols and two knives to Zoe. When she gazed at him expectantly, he sighed and handed over a grenade. Yao had to fight back laughter.

When Mal and Jayne had departed, the crew scattered to their respective duties, following Zoe's orders. Watching them and their smooth interactions, Yao felt a strange sort of satisfaction, and he tried to ignore it. He knew what it was, this contentment, and it was dangerous. He and Alfred were only here for passage and some friendly interaction, nothing more.

"Inara, Shepherd," Zoe said, turning to them, "would you mind introducing these two," she gestured to Alfred and Yao, "to Simon and River?"

The Companion and the Shepherd nodded, and with a farewell, Zoe headed off to another part of the ship, leaving the four alone in the cargo bay. Inara turned to the nations with a soft smile. "Simon and River joined the crew at the same time that Shepherd Book did," she said, gesturing to the man. "And, well…" she hesitated, as if trying to find the right words, "River is... different. Just as a warning."

"How so?" Alfred asked.

Inara looked at Book, still hesitant, and the man cleared his throat. "I don't really think it's our story to tell," the Shepherd said diplomatically. "She isn't... quite right in the head, and we'll leave it at that. Just treat her normally. With compassion. Even if she talks or behaves oddly."

Yao exchanged a look with Alfred and nodded. "Of course," he said, his curiosity piqued once again.

"Earth and quintessence," was the first thing River Tam said upon meeting the nations, gazing at them with a cocked head and a very interested expression. "That's what you were born from, isn't it?"

Yao felt his breath catch in his throat, as an old, familiar ache leapt to the forefront of his mind. It had never left, not really, but over the years he'd gotten better at suppressing it. Not right now, however – River's words were like the key to a leaky dam, and for a moment, Yao struggled to breathe.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw much the same reaction in Alfred. The younger nation had gone stiff, eyes widening ever so slightly, as his breathing quickened. But it was only for a moment, and Yao quashed his own reaction viciously, keenly aware of the fact that Inara's eyes had come to rest on him.

"Sorry," Simon said hastily, gently taking River's arm. "She says things like that sometimes, she doesn't mean anything by it."

Yao wasn't so sure, because River was gazing at them with eyes that seemed to know, and indeed, when he looked at her, he got a strong sense of difference. It was not so much the way Inara had meant 'different' as it was the kind of sense that Yao got from humans who were very, very aware. It wasn't a common occurrence, but every so often, he and Alfred came across a human who, on some instinctive level, knew what they were. He was almost positive that Mal was that kind of person, albeit totally unaware of it on a conscious level. But River... well, either her words were a fluke, or she had a lot more awareness than the captain did. And to judge by the sensation in Yao's mind, he was inclined to suspect the latter.

A brief glance exchanged with Alfred told Yao that his partner had arrived at a similar conclusion, but neither of them acted on it. They couldn't, not at the moment. Not, at least, until one of them got a chance to talk to River alone.

"It's alright," Alfred said. He grinned at River. "That's a pretty interesting notion, there."

River returned his smile and tugged herself out of Simon's grasp. She circled Alfred, appraising him, then did the same to Yao. She tilted her head once more as she regarded Yao and reached forward to latch on to his arm. "I like this one," she said. "A lot."

Yao fought back a grimace. For such a small girl, she had a lot of strength. Alfred snickered at Yao's expression.

Simon hurried forward. "Come on, River, let's not scare the nice men," he said, pulling her away from Yao and flashing the nation an apologetic look. "Or break their arms."

"I wouldn't do that," River told him, as if it were obvious. She looked back at the nations in interest. "So you'll be traveling with us?"

"For a few days, yes," Yao answered, studying her with just as much interest. The urge to talk freely with her was strong, but he restrained it for now. He was nothing if not patient.

River nodded in satisfaction. "Good," she said and then, apparently, lost interest in them for the time being.

"Sorry," Simon said again in a low voice; he'd accompanied them to the room where Alfred and Yao would be staying, assuring River that he'd be back soon.

"Hey," Alfred said reassuringly, as he and Yao dropped their bags on their respective beds. "You don't need to apologize. So she's a bit odd; so what? We've seen worse. Much worse." He smiled. "I like her."

Simon nodded gratefully, though he didn't appear to relax very much. "So... what did you say you did, again?" he asked curiously. The question was posed casually, but Yao got the sense that he and Alfred were being vetted.

"We didn't," Yao answered, regarding the young man as closely and inconspicuously as possible. "We do a lot of traveling and odd jobs and such."

"Jacks of all trades, really," Alfred supplemented helpfully.

Inara's hand came to rest briefly on Simon's arm, something that Yao didn't fail to miss. "They're pretty handy in a tight situation," she said. "Remind us to tell you about a robbery job they brought for the crew." Though she sounded amused when she said this, it seemed to Yao that there was something like reassurance in her words, meant only for Simon. What that could be about, he could only guess, but he didn't have time to dwell on it much. After a few minutes of more casual chatting, from which Yao still got the impression that Simon was trying his best to read them, both Simon and Inara excused themselves... Simon to River and Inara to her shuttle.

That left the nations with Book, which didn't help to abate Yao's curiosity. Even a Companion's presence aboard this ship was easier to understand, or, at least, it was in Inara's case.

"Are you hungry?" Book asked.

"Food sounds great," Alfred answered with enthusiasm, never one to turn down an offer. He and Yao fell into step on either side of Book as the three of them left the guest quarters, heading for the kitchen.

Yao cast a sideways glance at Book, unable to resist voicing his curiosity, even if he suspected that it wouldn't pan out. "So..." he said, "what reasons does a Shepherd have for being on a ship like this?"

Book appeared to contemplate this question. "That depends," he said at last, looking between the two nations with a small smile. "What does 'traveling and odd jobs' entail?"

Yao chuckled. The counter-question didn't surprise him; he of all people could understand dodging around questions and not wishing to disclose information. "Fair enough," he acknowledged.

"Although, to be honest," Alfred said, "it's exactly what it sounds like. We could tell you a few tales," he added with a laugh.

Yao watched as Book zeroed in on the fact that Alfred was the kind of person who relished in sharing stories. "I wouldn't mind hearing them," the Shepherd said. "I used to travel somewhat, in my younger days."

Of course, Alfred didn't actually fall for this diversion, but he met Yao's eyes with a small grin and then asked whether Book preferred tales full of dashing heroism or mysterious intrigue. As the younger nation launched into full storyteller mode, Yao reflected on the fact that Serenity had acquired some particularly unusual inhabitants since the last time the nations had seen her.

Calliope was smaller than the kind of destination that either nation had in mind. They had a vague idea of making their meandering way back in the direction of the Border and the Core, having recently spent more than enough time on the Rim. "Oh, any old Border world will do," Alfred said over dinner, when Mal questioned them as to where they were headed. "We're not picky."

Mal arched an eyebrow at them. "You two are the most low-maintenance people I've ever met," he said, and Yao knew that he and Alfred weren't the only people on this ship who were intensely curious about something.

"Comes with the territory," Alfred said, helping himself to mashed potatoes. "Or from not having any territory, really."

"Seems kinda excitin'," said Kaylee, eyes alight with thought. "I mean, long as you got someone to share it with, it don't sound like a bad life at all."

Yao smiled at her. It was freeing, certainly, and in circumstances like his and Alfred's, it was the best they could ask for. They had done and seen much, and in a place as large and vibrant as the 'verse they'd made their own, there was no shortage of distractions. But still... there was always that lurking loneliness, that sense of not belonging anywhere, and it was never more pronounced than in situations like this. It wasn't often that he and Alfred sat down to a meal with so many people in a place as homey as this. As Yao listened to the chatter and watched Alfred talk animatedly to everyone, he found himself bitterly cursing immortality.

"You don't have to be lonely," said River, who had taken a seat next to Yao. His eyes widened, and he stared at her. "It's not a requirement," she continued, in a matter-of-fact tone. "It's something you decided for yourself."

She knew what Yao had been thinking. She knew things that he had not spoken out loud to another soul save for Alfred and the planets. It only took Yao a moment to get over his astonishment; he'd sensed that there was something very different about her before, and he was utterly convinced of it now. "And how would you know that?" he asked lightly, carefully watching her face as his heart pounded.

River grinned at him. It made her look younger. "I just do."

There were too many people around for Yao to probe any further, and now he was impatient. But it was a good feeling, an anticipatory one, and it banished the melancholy he'd been sinking into. After a moment, he returned the grin and let the matter drop.

As it turned out, finding a time and place to talk to River alone was more than a little difficult.

The trip to deliver the supplies wasn't that long, as Constance and Calliope were in the same star system, and Yao quickly learned that Simon was extremely protective of his sister. The young doctor hardly ever let her out of his sight, and it was clear that he didn't trust the nations at all. Oh, he was perfectly friendly and welcoming, but he was guarded, too. There was something that he was concealing, and Yao knew it concerned River. Neither Yao nor Alfred got a chance to speak to River alone before they landed on Calliope, though not for lack of trying.

Despite that particular setback, it was a pleasant trip. Alfred spent much of his time in the engine room with Kaylee or on the bridge with Wash; the younger nation seemed determined to unearth as many of the ship's secrets as he could every time they flew with it. Yao, meanwhile, found himself in an odd routine. Jayne didn't seem to mind when Yao borrowed his workout equipment, and to Yao's surprise, he wasn't the only extra person who used it.

"I find exercise to be stimulating for the mind," Book explained, when Yao found both him and Jayne in the cargo bay.

Yao tried to exercise regularly for the same reason. It wasn't like he needed it, as a normal human would, but it relaxed his mind more than anything save meditation could. "Try telling that to Alfred," Yao said with a snort. His partner was far lazier when it came to that sort of thing. "I can never get him to do this with me."

Jayne let the barbells down with a huff and lifted his head to stare at Yao incredulously. "You're kiddin'," he said. "There's no way that guy doesn't work out."

Yao shrugged. "He is an enigma," he said, trying not to smile. He imagined telling them that Alfred got his strength from being something other than human and found it even harder to contain a grin. "Mind if I join?"

Jayne and Book were the last people Yao expected to find enjoying something together, and the sight of it amused him. It also gave him a chance to talk with the Shepherd more, and it didn't take long for their conversation to gain momentum. Book was well-learned; he seemed to enjoy debate and lengthy discussion, and Yao didn't even realize just how deep they'd gotten until he heard an audible groan from Jayne, who was only half paying attention.

"I don't even think y'all are talkin' English anymore," Jayne said grumpily.

Book turned his head away to hide a smile, and Yao took hold of the conversation and steered it towards something a little more down to earth. He found that he quite liked working out with the two of them. Jayne was still determined to defeat him at a contest of strength at least once, and though Book excused himself from these competitions, citing his age, he looked on with great amusement. Yao, of course, always won.

By the time Calliope was in sight, both Yao and Alfred had once again settled into the rhythm of the ship, and both of them were keenly aware of the fact that they were doing nothing to stop themselves. It didn't matter, Yao told himself. It wasn't like they were staying on permanently, and they deserved a little contentment like this, every once in a while. It didn't matter that Mal accepted it without question when they volunteered to help deliver the supplies to the buyer, as easily as if they were a part of his crew, and that they often took on duties in the ship without being prompted. As long as they could tear themselves away in the end, it didn't matter how much they enjoyed it.

A faint feeling of unease settled in Mal's stomach when they arrived at the meet point – it was deserted and quiet at the moment, with no sign of the buyer they were delivering the supplies to, and though there was no rational reason to be concerned, Mal's instincts were stirring nonetheless. Maybe it was the general atmosphere that this little moon had taken on since he'd last been here, which had been a brief stop a few years ago. He vaguely remembered the impression of open hospitality, the kind that people who romanticized frontier life thought these sorts of places contained, despite the fact that few of them did. He didn't get that impression now. Not a single person on the streets had looked their way.

The meet point was outside of the little town near which Serenity had landed, in a flat area covered with short grass and trees that were spread out too thinly to be considered a forest – more of a tiny wood, really. It was the kind of place in which things could go very badly in a short amount of time, before anyone in the town could notice a disturbance and investigate. Mal noted this grimly, then frowned and tried to shake himself of thoughts like that. Even if this place had become less hospitable over the years, that didn't mean that this job was going to go wrong. It was a legal business transaction, not a scam or heist that they were pulling. He really had to start signing them up for normal jobs more often; looking over his shoulder and worrying was tiresome, and he was far too used to it.

Still, he loosened his gun in its holster, not really listening as the others chatted casually.

"Saylor did say noon, didn't he?" Zoe asked finally, looking at Mal. It was now ten minutes past the rendezvous time, and Mal was beginning to reconsider his earlier idea of taking on more legal jobs. At least with illegal ones, you had a reason to be jumpy.

Mal nodded, casting his eyes around the area. With illegal jobs, he didn't experience this kind of indecision, either.

"Maybe he's just late?" Alfred suggested.

Mal might have agreed with that, had he not had the sense that this moon was no longer as safe as it had once been. "We'll give it five more minutes 'fore going back to the ship," he said at last. "And make sure your weapons are ready, just in case."

Three minutes later, he ended up deeply wishing that they'd just gone back to the ship immediately.

Yao suddenly and noticeably stiffened; Mal glanced at him and saw the alarm on the man's face, which sealed the deal for Mal even before Yao said, "We need to leave now." A moment later, they all heard the unmistakable crack of a gun, and a bullet whizzed through the air somewhere that was too close for comfort.

"Shit," Mal muttered, as he caught sight of several heavily armed men approaching through the trees. It was clear that the first bullet was not a warning shot when two more joined it – one struck the ATV that Yao was sitting on, inches from him, and the other only missed Jayne because he'd moved a second before. These people meant murder, and Mal didn't like the odds of trying to escape on the ATVs with their backs fully exposed to a hail of bullets. There wasn't any time to even get on the ATVs; their attackers were too close.

Shelter behind the two ATVs, return fire. As a plan, it sucked, but it was the best they could do with seconds to spare. Zoe, Alfred, and Yao were already ducking behind the ATVs – Alfred having dragged Yao down after the second bullet had hit – and Jayne was sprinting in their direction. He and Mal had been the farthest from the ATVs, and Mal followed Jayne, blood pounding in his ears, expecting to be hit at any moment.

He didn't know exactly what happened; all he knew was that he saw Jayne diving down behind the ATVs, and suddenly a powerful force hit crashed into Mal. It was enough to arrest his momentum and send him careening backwards; he landed painfully on his back, and something heavy landed halfway on top of him. Dizzy, winded, and more than a little stunned, it took Mal a few moments to realize that Alfred was on top of him.

Mal heard Alfred try to suck in a breath, and the blond man's body seemed to seize up; his breath turned into a ragged, wet cough, and he rolled off of Mal, curling in on himself with a groan of pain. In a flash of panic, during which time seemed to slow down to a crawl, Mal sat up, heedless of the fact that it was likely to get him shot, and looked down at Alfred and the bleeding bullet wound in Alfred's chest, aghast. For a moment, his brain refused to accept it, but the nearness of the still-present danger didn't allow him to indulge in denial for long. "No!" Mal snarled. Shock, anger, and horror bled into his voice and caused it to crack ever so slightly, and time accelerated back to its normal speed. "You idiot!" Because Alfred had taken that bullet for him, had somehow managed to push him out of the way in time, and now there was blood pouring out of his chest.

Not caring if it made him a target, Mal attempted to put pressure on the wound just as he heard a wordless cry of rage, and he looked up to see Yao halfway across the distance to their attackers, when a second before the man had been behind the ATVs. Mal watched, astonished, as Yao covered the remaining distance at a speed that was inhumanly fast. He had a long knife in each hand, and he took advantage of the surprise that his sudden, impossibly fast charge had caused by fluidly taking down two of the gunmen. He moved better than any professional martial artist Mal had ever seen – as lithe and graceful and deadly as a snake.

There were gunshots from their side, now – though Zoe and Jayne looked just as stunned as Mal, they'd risen from their crouched positions and were firing back now that Yao had the attackers thoroughly distracted. The opposing side devolved into madness quickly – some turned their guns on Yao, but were either picked off by Zoe and Jayne or zeroed in on with eerie accuracy by Yao. He seemed to know exactly when he was in excess danger and corrected it faster than Mal could follow, who was watching slack-jawed while still trying to stem the bleeding.

The remaining gunmen soon fled, and Mal could hear their terrified shouting as he turned his full attention back to Alfred, who was fighting a losing battle with unconsciousness. "Come on," Mal muttered, trying not to think about how ashen Alfred's face already was. "Come on! You ain't dyin' on me."

He heard the ATVs rev up, then heard footsteps. Mal looked up to see Zoe, her face set in emergency battlefield medic mode, and Jayne, whose eyes were wide, approaching rapidly. A moment later, Yao dropped to his knees beside Alfred, his face more pale and scared than Mal could ever remember it looking. Mal removed his hands to let Yao examine the wound, and his stomach dropped when Yao's face darkened and then hardened with considerable effort.

"Back to the ship," Yao said shortly. Without wasting a moment, the four of them managed to lift Alfred, carry him to the ATVs, and place him in one of the trailers without jostling him too much. Alfred was somewhere in between waking and unconsciousness, but when they put him down on top of the supply boxes, his eyes suddenly opened wide, gaining a little clarity… only for his face to twist in pain. He started coughing again, this time spitting blood, and Yao vaulted into the trailer, grabbing Alfred's shoulders and forcing him back down when it seemed like Alfred wanted to curl up in agony.

"You have to stay still and flat, xiao laohu," Yao said desperately, but Mal didn't think Alfred could hear him anymore. Climbing into the trailer with the two of them, Mal signaled for Zoe and Jayne to take off, and the ATVs sped back towards the town. The sudden movement seemed to cause Alfred more pain, and a weak, ragged whisper escaped him.

"... Hurts, Yao."

Yao's voice was shaking, and his eyes were wet. "I know," he said despairingly, applying pressure once more.

Mal felt nauseatingly useless, sitting there and watching someone slowly die because of him. "Is there anything I can do?"

Yao shook his head, not taking his eyes off of Alfred.

It took a few minutes to get back to Serenity; both Zoe and Jayne were pushing the ATVs to their limit, but it was still a few minutes too long. By the time they pulled into the cargo bay, Alfred had lost consciousness completely, though he was still breathing. It was a mad rush to get him to the infirmary – Zoe ran for Simon while Mal, Yao, and Jayne lifted Alfred out of the trailer, and Inara came running up to them. She skidded to a halt when she saw Alfred, her eyes widening in horror as they carried him past her towards the infirmary, moving as quickly as possible.

"What happened?" Inara demanded, following them.

"Don't know," Mal grunted, and it was true – he still had no idea what that attack had been or why this perfectly legal job had gone so wrong. He didn't have time to think about it right now. He let Jayne and Yao carry Alfred through the infirmary door and turned to Inara. "I need you to tell Wash to stay on the bridge in case we need to get the hell out of dodge. Someone attacked us, and I don't know if they're gonna want another go."

Inara nodded, taking one last worried look at Alfred before hurrying off. Mal heard running footsteps, and Simon came into view, sprinting at full tilt. Kaylee was right behind him, and Mal caught her shoulders as Simon hurried into the infirmary.

"There's nothing you can do," Mal told her; the less people inside the infirmary to crowd Simon, the better. Kaylee looked horrified, and she covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes watering. Mal kept a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it. "Simon'll be able to fix him right up, you'll see," he said reassuringly, but the words were hollow.

He didn't know if he believed it.

When Alfred had lost consciousness completely, Yao had known with terrifying certainty that he wouldn't make it.

Truthfully, he'd known it the minute he'd noticed that Alfred was reacting to the injury like... well, like a fairly normal human. Their kind was designed to survive what humans could not, but even they had their limits, and Alfred and Yao's limits had grown considerably over the past few centuries. They were weakening over time, slowly but steadily... not enough to die like the other nations of Earth-That-Was, not yet, but enough that wounds that ordinarily wouldn't have killed them had a greater chance of doing just that.

And Yao knew. He could feel it, feel Alfred's life slipping away, even as he steadfastly tried to deny it. Maybe Simon would be able to do something, he thought over and over again, but as Yao watched Simon extract the bullet - the boy's face pale and growing more and more despairing, as if he knew it was impossible – Yao almost wanted to tell him to stop. To spare him the misplaced guilt of not being able to save a patient.

But no, it would be more than a little inconvenient for Alfred to wake up with a bullet inside of him. And it was only by imagining Alfred's reaction to that kind of situation that Yao stopped himself from breaking down, as he felt the last of Alfred's life slip away. He wanted to reach out, to physically stop it, but he remained rigid, staring down at Alfred as his partner's chest ceased movement. Yao felt it – a ragged, shooting pain through his own chest and an overwhelming sense of emptiness, as if something vital had been snatched away permanently. Though the rational part of his mind knew that this was only temporary, that Alfred would revive with time, a greater part wanted to panic. To grab Alfred's shoulders and shake him and demand and beg that he come back. To sob with the acute sense of empty loneliness that was already tearing through him with terrifying speed.

"He's dead," Simon whispered, taking a half-step back from the operating chair with a wide-eyed look of horror on his face.

Yao only stared, his hands trembling with the sheer effort of holding back the tide of emotion. It wasn't rational, he told himself over and over again, bracing himself against it. It was a side-effect of the fact that he and Alfred were connected far more than any two nations should ever be; it was just a reaction to that connection being temporarily severed. It wasn't rational because he knew that Alfred would come back to him soon enough, and yet it hurt so much. Oh, it felt like he was being swallowed by misery, and it was all he could do not to lose control right then and there, and...

Distantly, Yao was aware of Simon still staring down at Alfred, still holding the bloody bullet – resigned to the fact that it hadn't been possible to save him and yet still shocked. Yao tried to look up at him, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from Alfred. He couldn't think straight. He felt like he was drowning in his own emotions, his own sense of loss, and he could barely breathe. "Yao?" Kaylee's voice was small and shaking, with tears in her voice, and it snapped Yao back into some semblance of reality. Reason won out, and he gripped it firmly, using Kaylee's voice as an anchor. There were other people present. The crew.

The crew. How was he supposed to explain this to them? For a wild moment, Yao considered taking Alfred and leaving the ship, finding some private place to wait out however long it took for Alfred to revive. But no – it would take all of Yao's energy just to face the others, locked in battle as he was with the draining sensation of Alfred's absence. Reality itself seemed to be bent around Yao's unmoving partner, straining to restore him; Yao didn't think he could fight against that force long enough to bring Alfred anywhere. He also didn't think Alfred would forgive him for running from friends – because friends they were, however much the nations had tried to avoid it. Running meant that they would have to keep running. Besides, it would be cruel to let Mal think that Alfred had died because of him, to let Simon think that he'd lost a patient on the operating table.

That left the truth, and Yao had to bite back a hysterical laugh. There were few things as convincing as a dead man reviving; he didn't think swallowing the concept of nations personified would be too far of a leap, after that. But the idea of letting the truth get out as messily as this, of letting go of lies and concealment in favor of open honesty, was almost frightening. What would these humans think? They would not be able to look at him and Alfred in the same way, that was for sure, and the thought left a sour taste in Yao's mouth.

It took a great deal of effort to lift his head to look at them, to fight through the fog of misery that threatened to drown him if he gave it an inch of leeway, but he managed. He saw Simon still standing there, face twisted in guilt. He saw Mal, Kaylee, Jayne, and Inara just outside the infirmary, in various states of shocked grief.

"I need to be alone," Yao said, almost inaudibly. They heard him clearly enough, however; dead silence filled the infirmary. Yao determinedly avoided their eyes, especially Kaylee's – that is, until he realized that everyone was hesitating. Briefly, he sought out Mal and met his gaze, silently pleading.

Mal nodded. "Clear out," he said harshly, though there was no real fire behind the words. He looked haunted; though he was clearly trying to contain himself, there were cracks in his façade, and Yao could see the guilt roiling beneath. Not for much longer, Yao thought, turning back to Alfred.

A moment later, he realized that Simon was not moving. The boy seemed rooted to the spot, and when Yao looked up once more, he saw anguish in Simon's face.

"I'm sorry," Simon whispered, staring down at Alfred. "I... I tried, but..."

"Don't," Yao said, perhaps more severely than he intended. "Don't blame yourself. You did everything you could. This is not your fault."

As Yao spoke, he sensed more than saw River poke her head through the doorway; he turned his head to watch her slip into the infirmary and grasp Simon's hand, stroking it.

"It will be alright, Simon," River said soothingly. She met Yao's gaze unflinchingly, seeming unaffected by the morose atmosphere that had descended upon everyone else, and Yao got the distinct impression that she knew. "Come." River tugged on Simon's hand, and he followed her silently out of the infirmary, looking back with guilt written across his face.

It would indeed be cruel to run.

Yao found a rickety stool in one of the infirmary's closets, pulled it up next to the operating table, and sat. He dropped his head into hands that still shook, sighing deeply and struggling to maintain composure. Even alone as he was, he refused to lose control; losing it meant fully embracing that horrible, soul-deep sensation of being utterly alone in the universe, and he would not bend to that. No, when the two of them went, it would be together, or else the 'verse would just have to be stuck with them for the rest of eternity. That was what he told himself, over and over again. Alfred would not stay dead because the two of them were intrinsically connected, and since Yao was still here, it meant that Alfred would come back. The 'verse wasn't finished with them.

And it would be expending energy to bring Alfred back, too, though sluggishly. When a nation's physical body died, the time took to revive it depended on how strong that nation was – not so much physically as politically. Alfred and Yao were essentially relics, alive only by virtue of how deeply their cultures and identities were imprinted on the 'verse that they had created, but the civilization that had emerged from humanity's desperate flight from Earth-That-Was wasn't really theirs anymore. It belonged to their children, now – to Julius, most of all. The 'verse would spare no time or effort in reviving him, Yao thought rather bitterly, but Alfred and Yao would only be a reluctant afterthought. There was no telling how much time it would take or the effect that it would have on the land and the people, though Yao took some small comfort from the likelihood that it would not damage anyone or anything too badly. The energy expended to revive someone like the Alliance himself would have devastating consequences, but for half-forgotten beings such as themselves… it would not nearly be so bad.

Yao wondered if any of their children would feel it, if enough of a connection even existed there anymore. He wondered how long it would take for Alfred to come back to him. He wondered how he and Alfred were going to explain everything to the crew. He wondered a great many things, as he sat there and clutched Alfred's hand as if it was a lifeline, and he sighed again. It was hard to breathe through the heavy emptiness that sat on his chest, and the sigh was almost choked as it left him. "Why do you do these things to me, xiao laohu?"

In another part of the 'verse, Julius Chou halted in mid-sentence, his breath catching in his throat as a horrible sensation swept through him - a harrowing, dizzying sense of loss that burned in his chest. He'd felt it a few times before, and it was not an experience he'd wanted to repeat. Though it was different this time, more muted and distant and less painful, he knew it for what it was immediately – one of his family members had died.

And he knew who it was. This was different from losing one of his siblings – this was losing a predecessor, and the sensation leapt through him like a cold knife. Before he remembered that he wasn't supposed to care, the loss cut Julius sharply, and the breath that had gotten stuck in his throat had a hard time coming out. I don't care, he told himself savagely, pushing the feeling away. It's not like he's permanently dead, anyway.

All the same, he wondered what situation could have gotten Alfred killed, how bad it had been. Alfred had an overwhelming tendency to risk his life for other people, and it was probably something along those lines. No doubt Yao would have trounced whoever the perpetrator was, by now. It wasn't likely to be a situation out of their control, Julius told himself.

"Uh... Mr. Chou? Are you alright?"

With a start, Julius realized that everyone in the room was staring at him, and he remembered that he was in the middle of a state meeting. He nodded, trying to pull himself together and wondering just how much unguarded emotion had crossed his face. That wasn't good, particularly not in a room full of what essentially amounted to vultures. "I'm fine," he said coolly, because showing overt amounts of weakness in front of these people was like asking them to pounce. He resumed his previous speech without any explanation for his abrupt stop, but his attention was no longer on the topic at hand.

He wondered if Akiko or Winston or any of the others knew... and if they didn't, he debated the merits of telling them. They would certainly want to know. But despite the differences that Julius and his predecessors had, it was extraordinarily easy to get into their heads and consider what they would do in this situation. Alfred and Yao would not want any of their children to know and to worry, and that, at least, was something Julius could understand perfectly.

He decided to keep it to himself, should it turn out that he was the only one aware of it. There was no need to upset his siblings when Alfred would be fine soon enough. This way, no one had to worry, as it wasn't like Julius cared.

After he'd snapped at someone a third time, the men and women present at the meeting tread very carefully around him for the rest of the day.

Mal had told Wash to get them away from Calliope; anywhere would do, anywhere that wasn't that damn moon. They'd have to bring the supplies back to Saylor eventually - unless he'd set them up, but Mal didn't think so. More likely, Calliope had become like many other sparsely inhabited moons and planets so far from the Core - inhospitable and full of infighting. If Mal had to guess, he'd say that Saylor's buyer was dead, probably in some kind of power struggle, and Serenity's crew had been unfortunate enough to be associated with him. But that was only a guess. They'd have to settle for contacting Saylor first and trying to sort out the whole mess, but Mal was in no mood to do that. He wasn't in a mood to do anything.

"Is he still in the infirmary?" Wash asked quietly as he came into the dining room, having checked up on the bridge – he'd set Serenity to gentle drifting some time ago.

Mal knew he meant Yao, who had refused to leave Alfred's side. It had been several hours now. Mal nodded.

"We shouldn't push him," Inara advised, her voice catching slightly. "He needs time to grieve."

Mal looked around at the others present in the room. Wash sat down and leaned against Zoe, sighing. Across from them, Inara was sitting beside Simon, who was staring at the table clutching an untouched mug of tea. He hadn't talked much at all. River was in the kitchen, examining things – she was the only one who didn't seem very perturbed, and Mal envied her.

Kaylee had gone into her room and hadn't come out. Jayne had been working out in the cargo bay for at least two hours now. Book had left the room a few minutes ago, without a word.

A pall seemed to have come over Mal's crew, over the entire damn ship. Alfred had been the second cheeriest person Mal knew, after Kaylee. He could brighten a room by merely entering it, and now, it seemed, he could darken a ship with his absence. Mal also felt physically miserable – his eyes itched, his throat ached, and his head felt thick and stuffy. Wash had started coughing not too long ago, and Mal wondered if they hadn't managed to pick up and spread around a cold as well. Because that was just what they gorram needed.

Mal rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes. "I shoulda just gotten us out of there," he muttered. "I knew something felt wrong, but I didn't…"

He trailed off. He could feel everyone looking at him. It was the first time he'd spoken about the incident, besides explaining it for those who hadn't been there.

"You can't blame yourself," Zoe said. She had put an arm around Wash's shoulders, and her face looked very drawn and tired.

"But I knew it, the moment we got there," Mal said. "And I didn't act on it. And then Alfred went and took a gorram bullet for me."

It was his job to protect his crew. It didn't matter that Alfred and Yao kept refusing him – he still considered them a part of his crew, and now he'd gone and gotten one of them killed. How was he supposed to face Yao after this? He and Inara had tried to get Yao to leave the infirmary a few hours ago and come eat something, but Yao had declined, asking them to leave. He hadn't met either of their gazes.

No one spoke. Wash coughed again, but that was the only sound that broke the silence apart from River's faint humming. Mal was used to her eccentricities by now, but it was still a little unnerving to see how unaffected she was.

And yet, he wished he could share it. He felt tired and empty, as though he was being drained, and he couldn't stop replaying the scene over and over in his mind. Every time he tried to think about something else, the guilt festering within him would grow stronger, and as if it were some kind of twisted punishment he was inflicting on himself, he would again start reflecting on what had happened and what he could have done differently.

The silence that filled the dining room continued unbroken for a long time.

Yao heard someone enter the infirmary – Book, he thought, as the man softly cleared his throat to announce his presence. Yao didn't look up. He didn't want to have to interact with anyone for an extended period of time, because it was all he could do to keep fighting off the awful sensation of Alfred's absence and he didn't feel like fending off awkward questions just yet. He didn't know how long he could keep stalling.

"Do you need anything?" Book asked, sounding concerned.

Yao shook his head. "No, thank you." His voice was still shaking, even hours later. He couldn't control that.

Book came to stand near him, but kept a respectful distance. "I've seen much grief in my lifetime," he said, somewhat hesitantly. "And I know that the tendency to want to shoulder it alone is strong, for some people."

Yao smiled faintly and looked up at Book at last. "I've seen my fair share, too," he said. "Enough for many lifetimes." He knew that Book was trying to help, but it wasn't the kind of help Yao needed. He wasn't grieving Alfred – he didn't need to. No, he was waiting and attempting to fend off a sensation worse than grief, and that wasn't something that anyone could help him with. The only thing keeping him sane was the knowledge that it would end.

"That doesn't mean you should have to deal with it alone," Book said.

Yao felt a sense of gratitude towards the man. They hardly knew each other, and yet here Book was, offering to help him mourn a loss. Yao supposed that was the Shepherd in him. "I know," Yao said. "Maybe I'll rejoin the living tomorrow." And maybe Alfred would have done the same, by then. Please.

"Alright," Book said gently, knowing when to back off. "But if you need to talk, I can listen."

When Book had gone, Yao turned back to Alfred and, like he had done a thousand times already, silently begged for him to wake up. It had already been hours, and every minute more made it feel as if Yao's soul was crumbling, barely holding on to itself. It was growing worse and worse, and with it came the strongest sense of loss that Yao had felt in a long, long time. It was the loss of Earth-That-Was, of their fellow nations, and it tore through him mercilessly, making every breath difficult. He tried not to think about Kiku and the rest, but it was about as effective as trying to stop a leaky dam with a tissue. Memories filled his mind and taunted him and made his chest ache with the pain of it, and above it all was the haunting sense of Alfred's absence, like a gaping wound in Yao's very existence.

Mal hadn't thought it was possible to feel worse than he already did.

It had been almost a full day since Alfred's death, and Mal was seriously beginning to worry about Yao. The man had taken one meal several hours ago – more to placate Inara than because he was actually hungry, Mal suspected – but he hadn't left the infirmary yet. He hadn't let them touch Alfred's body, and when Zoe had tentatively asked him where he wanted to bury Alfred, Yao had dodged the question. Eventually, they'd had to leave him alone; his stubborn and increasingly sharp-tempered resistance to their advances was impossible to push through, and Mal felt too guilty to press the issue, besides. But they couldn't let him sit in there forever.

"I'll do it," Mal said, more harshly than he intended, and the others' whispers fell silent. He, Zoe, Inara, and Book had been discussing how to approach Yao; they kept their voices low, so as not to disturb Kaylee with the subject. Inara had managed to coax Kaylee out of her room some time ago, and the girl was currently eating rather listlessly at the kitchen table, her eyes red-rimmed. Next to her, Wash and Jayne were arguing the specifics of a comical story involving one of Jayne's taller tales. The motivation behind it was transparent to everyone, but Mal was gratified to see that it seemed to be working, somewhat – Kaylee was listening, and the the corners of her mouth would occasionally turn upward.

"It's my fault," Mal continued. "So I'll talk to him." He wasn't exactly keen on facing Yao alone, but he had to – for his own sake as well as Yao's.

Inara looked doubtful. "Are you sure?" she asked. "You're not exactly... well, sensitive."

"Maybe he doesn't need sensitive," Mal said. He was well aware of the fact that Inara and Book were far more suited to the task than he was, but it didn't matter. He had to face the person who'd cared about Alfred the most, and if Yao needed to yell at him or punch him in order to get some catharsis, then so be it. Hell, it wasn't like Mal would stop him. "Look.. I'll try. If it doesn't work, then you two can step in."

He ignored the looks they were giving him. His intentions were about as transparent as Wash and Jayne's, but he wasn't going to elaborate any further.

"I say we let him try," Zoe said at last, glancing away from him to Inara and Book.

"Perhaps it would be for the best," Book said, whose look was far too knowing for Mal's comfort.

After giving it another moment's thought, Inara nodded somewhat reluctantly in assent, her face tight with concern, and Mal found himself heading to the infirmary. His stomach churned more and more unpleasantly with every step. It was one thing to volunteer out of some twisted need to take responsibility and quite another thing to actually face the prospect of confronting someone who had every reason to hate him now. What the hell was he supposed to say? 'I'm sorry' seemed horribly inadequate, 'please feel free to punch me in the face' was too pathetic, and 'it doesn't matter how upset you are, you can't just waste away in this room' had a level of insensitivity that would likely earn him death glares from Inara for weeks, even if it was what Yao needed to hear. Mal's throat tightened as he neared the infirmary, and he realized that he did not want to see Alfred's body again. Even facing Yao seemed easier than that. But he steeled himself and continued, thinking hard about what he was going to say.

Yao had been staring dully at the wall for some time, trying not to think about anything, when he felt Alfred's hand twitch. He jumped, and the sensation of a dead weight on his chest vanished as completely as if it had never been there in the first place. He felt them reconnect, felt Alfred's life returning as surely as if had returned to Yao himself. It was a heady sensation, almost dizzying in its magnitude, and a powerful sense of relief swept through Yao; emotion clogged his throat, and his eyes stung. Alfred twitched again, hand closing tightly around Yao's, and then it was wrenched away as he sat up violently, sucking in desperate breaths. His entire body shook as he coughed and gasped, and Yao jumped off of the stool, grabbed one of his arms, and rubbed his back, murmuring soothing nothings in Mandarin.

"God," Alfred rasped, casting a sideways glance at Yao with a half-hearted grin as soon as he had reassured himself that he could indeed breathe. "I feel horrible."

Yao had never been so glad to see that stupid smile. "You idiot," he said fiercely, pulling Alfred into as tight of a hug as he dared. The tension in Alfred's frame was palpable; though he was trying to be lighthearted, it was obvious that he was shaken up and weak. Yao was determined to not let go until he felt Alfred relax somewhat.

The younger nation buried his head in Yao's shoulder, sighing. "Sorry," Alfred muttered, after several moments of silence. "Sorry. I couldn't let him get hurt. Better us than any of them."

"I know," Yao said quietly. "I would have done the same, in your position."

"I didn't mean to scare you."

"I know," Yao murmured. After a few moments, he pulled back reluctantly, though he kept a hand on Alfred's arm to reassure himself of the younger nation's solid warmth. "I forgive you."

Alfred smiled weakly, though it faded almost as soon as it appeared. He suddenly looked nervous. "Did you tell them anything?"

"How could I, without proof?" Yao asked, with a shake of his head. "It was hard enough to avoid telling them what I wanted to do with your body. It's been twenty-four hours." He smiled without humor, thinking of the misplaced concern that had been directed towards him. "They must think I've lost reason, by now."

"Well, they're gonna be in for a shock," Alfred said lightly. He looked down at his bandaged chest, grimacing. "Oh, that hurts." He moved his arms and legs experimentally, stiff and without vigor, as Yao watched rather anxiously. "Everything hurts. What's the point of immortality if it hurts like hell to come back? This is some bullshit, I tell ya."

Yao couldn't help it; he smiled happily as relief once again swept through him. Alfred coming back had been inevitable, but that hadn't stopped Yao from imagining the worst case scenario over and over again. It was actually a little terrifying to know how dependent he'd become on Alfred's companionship, because the thought of walking this world without him filled Yao with a deep, nameless despair. He could no longer imagine life without his idiot partner's energy and spirit, and nothing, nothing scared him more than the thought of being the very last nation of Earth-That-Was.

"Don't laugh at my pain," Alfred said indignantly, with a crooked smile of his own.

"I'll laugh at whatever I want," Yao replied. "I'm an old man, remember?"

Alfred smirked, but it was followed by a melancholy sigh. "We both are. I am feeling it right now."

The effects of death were always debilitating to a nation's body, and Yao looked Alfred over in concern. He could see that Alfred's hands had not stopped trembling. "I need to know," Yao said shortly, in a voice that meant business. "I need to know how bad it is. If you lie, it'll only make me worry more. So don't you dare try to hide anything, because you're a terrible liar."

Alfred heard the gravity in his words and didn't try to joke his way through it. He frowned thoughtfully, moving his limbs one by one without trying to move himself from his sitting position. "It just... aches. My whole body. And it feels... weak. Really weak." A note of disgust had entered his voice; Alfred hated feeling powerless. "Like I'm getting over the worst case of pneumonia you've ever seen. I don't think I could walk right now, if I tried."

Yao nodded. He'd expected as much, but he was grateful for Alfred's honesty. Getting the younger nation to admit any sort of pain or weakness was a chore at times, but perhaps Alfred was mindful of the fact that he'd already put Yao through enough for a while.

"It'll take some time before you're back to normal," Yao warned. Alfred was already aware of that, but Yao felt the need to reinforce it out loud. The real work would be keeping Alfred in a resting state for longer than a day or so. "And you're not to move from this spot until I say you can," Yao added threateningly, fixing Alfred with his most powerful and effective glare.

"Okay, okay... Jesus, Yao," Alfred said hastily. "I get it. You know, you could probably kill plants and small animals with that look."

Yao snorted in amusement, which ruined the effect of his glare, and Alfred grinned in triumph. Watching him, Yao was overcome with that indescribable relief again. The memory of what it felt like to have his partner ripped away was still vivid and as fresh as an open wound, even if he felt wonderfully whole again, and he leaned forward suddenly, wrapping his arms around Alfred in another hug, careful not to jostle him too much.

"Sorry," Alfred said again, his voice uncharacteristically quiet.

Both of them stiffened when they heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Yao let go of Alfred and exchanged a wordless look of apprehension with him. The idea that the truth was going to come spilling out in the next minute had a tinge of unreality to it, and Yao's stomach clenched in anticipation. While waiting for Alfred to revive, he'd thought about how to explain, of course, but every option he'd considered had seemed... inadequate. And there was always the chance that they wouldn't be believed, at least about the nation thing. Yao had tried not to think about that possibility. Knowing that the crew already thought him a little unbalanced by his "grief" had not been pleasant to think about; he had to wonder what they'd thought when they'd seen how he'd cleaned and bandaged Alfred's wound. It had been necessary, of course, for someone who was not going to stay dead, but they didn't know that. And even when they saw that Alfred was alive and well... would it be enough?

"Here we go," Alfred murmured, looking towards the infirmary door.

Mal came into view and stopped dead.

Irresistible Force - Ch. 12
Chapters: One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten | Eleven | Twelve

Chinese Translations:
xiǎo lǎohǔ - little tiger

So I started writing this ages ago, and it took me a lot longer than I thought because, among other reasons, it just kept getting bigger and bigger. Therefore, most of the next chapter was originally part of this one, until I sat back and thought "this is ridiculous." When you get above 10k words, it's probably best to end it.

Disclaimer: Julius (the Alliance) is an OC created by myself and X-I-L2048. Everything else belongs to Hidekaz Himaruya and Joss Whedon.


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ScarletteDiscord Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
I'm sorry for not being very all ^^; But I hope everything is awesome for your big day!!!!
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ellymango Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Happy Birthday! :heart:
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SpeedyAlchemist Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2015  Student Writer
Happy Birthday! PartyHave your cake and eat it too
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pyromist Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
this is unacceptable.
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X-I-L2048 Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
(I still have a couple minutes to spare!  The internet did not want to cooperate with me tonight. :iconrelievedplz:)

For you! I hope you had a wonderful birthday, darling! :iconmabelhugplz:
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ellymango Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy Birthday~! :heart:
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papajack1 Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday!
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SpeedyAlchemist Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2014  Student Writer
Happy Birthday! :cake:
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64SuperNintendo Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2014  Student Traditional Artist
Happy birthday!
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Thanks for the fave! :la:
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