Dead Cert

Author’s note: the first of a series of character background pieces set in the Firefly universe.

Zenda Military Spaceport, Ariel, May 7 2507

“Lt. Constance Saint, reporting for duty, sir.” She snapped off a crisp, correct salute to the slightly harassed looking Captain waiting on the ramp of the IAV Tsinghai.

“You’re late, Saint.” It was hard to tell how displeased Captain Mike Lewins was, but, come what may, it wasn’t an auspicious start.

“Yes sir.” Connie bit her lip, nodded.

“No excuses?” enquired Lewins, one eyebrow arched questioningly.

Connie shrugged. “Not really, sir. My watch died on me.”

To her relief, he laughed. “I’ve heard that enough times, I’m seriously considering a complaint to stores for the number of standard issue chronos that don’t last a year.” He gestured up the ramp. “Come aboard. Best meet your new shipmates.”

“And…” Lewins paused before the last of the Tsinghai’s bridge crew. “This is Lt . Danny Ellis: he’s our pilot.”

Ellis had a mop of sandy hair, impossibly blue eyes, a ready smile, and a definite soft Irish accent. “Hi. You’ll be our new navigator, then?”

“I…” Connie caught herself before she stammered, shook his hand. “Yes. I guess we’ll be working together.” Those eyes,…

He smiled, hanging on to her hand for just an instant longer than was completely necessary. “I’m sure I’ll cope.”

Hangar Deck, IAV Tsinghai, Greenleaf orbit, June 1 2507

“Bet she’s sly.” The voice drifted from the far side of one of the Tsinghai’s shuttles, as Connie walked up the length of the hangar deck. It was Ensign Lao, one of the regular shuttle pilots.

“Don’t be stupid.” The other voice was Danny Ellis. “Pretty redhead like that? Could have any guy she wanted.” It was evident they were talking about her, and, despite herself, her footsteps slowed.

Lao snorted. “And doesn’t, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Give the lass a break. She’s not been with us a month.”  Ellis’ accent, she’d already noticed, grew more pronounced when he was in some way agitated.

“Ah, you’re losing your touch. What happened to the Danny Ellis I went to the Academy with?” He laughed. “You’d have had her in your bunk weeks ago, like you did with Dane.” He’d dated Monica Dane? Connie blinked. The Tsinghai’s platinum blonde, severe First Officer just… didn’t strike her as the type.

Danny made a rude noise. “In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a war on… ‘Sides, there’s plenty of time.”

She kept walking.

Bridge, IAV Tsinghai, in transit to Beaumonde, December 9 2507

“Incoming.” Connie kept her voice remarkably calm. “Two unidentified bogies, 34 mark 24, speed 3450, range 550 and 580.” Right out of the asteroid field they were skirting the edge of.

This was it. Their first combat since she’d come aboard. They’d had exercises, patrols, board-and-search operations, and she’d acquitted herself well, but… this was it.

“No IFF.” Monica Dane looked up from her display, currently mirroring Connie’s. “Assume hostile.” Her silvery hair, as ever, was scraped back from her face in a tight ponytail that swung between her shoulder blades. There was an uncharacteristic tautness in her voice and coldness in her ice-blue eyes, both of which made Connie frown.

“Clarke, ready weapons.” Lewins snapped, curtly. “Saint, plot us an intercept.”

Her “Yessir,” overlapped with Matthew Clarke’s up in fire control. Green eyes flicked to her display, ran some mental calculations as she punched in the commands. The two traces on her screen began to diverge, and she stopped for a second. Danny Ellis glanced across, expectantly, and she swallowed, rechecked her display, hit the keys afresh. “41 mark 20 at hard burn.” That’d intercept the nearer of the two.

“Thanks, Connie.” In… what? six months?… he’d not made a pass at her, not been anything but friendly. “Stand by for hard burn.”

She felt as much as heard the push at her back as the Tsinghai accelerated out of its fuel-saving cruise speed.

Connie had often wondered how she’d handle combat. To her considerable surprise, she found herself strangely clear headed, analytic, detached. She fed Ellis a continual stream of updates as they engaged the nearer Independent destroyer, gratified to find him able to process them while putting the Tsinghai through manoeuvres that she’d though impossible for a vessel that big.

The second Independent vessel was taking insane risks, weaving amid the asteroid field, and her main preoccupation was not losing track of it. There were several moments when she was holding in her head three or four possible courses it could have followed, dropping them as it reappeared, re-evaluating them when it vanished again.

A whoop of delight, sharply cut off, from Matthew Clarke heralded the first vessel’s demise, blossoming in a scarlet fireball. Monica, uncharacteristically, was rising out of her seat, a fist clenched, and an expression on her face, almost a snarl, of mixed hatred and triumph. She tuned it all out, concentrating on the shifting data in front of her. The other ship was somewhere… there, there or… “Danny. Break high port. NOW.”

The Tsinghai pulled up and to the left, a scream of protesting thrusters heralding a turn that probably no-one but Danny could have coaxed out of her. Connie actually had to hang on to the console for a second, as the ship lurched. Monica Dane wasn’t so lucky. Still half out of her chair, she staggered, lost her balance, cracked her head with a sickening thud on the corner of the Captain’s console and slumped to the deck, fresh blood darkening silver hair.

Medical bay, IAV Tsinghai, Beaumonde orbit, early December 10 2507

“Ellis?”

He was sitting beside Monica Dane’s bed, head in hands. Had been, she knew, for the last four hours. The Tsinghai’s first officer was pale, motionless, hooked up to the Alliance Navy’s best medical technology, her silvery hair spread across the pillow. His blue eyes, suspiciously bright, lifted to her. “D’you… think she’ll be OK?”

She rested a hand on his shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault.”

He swallowed, nodded. Quietly, “Her brother was killed on the first day of the war. Surprise attack. I… it ate away at her…”

Connie nodded. “You were fond of her.” It started out as a question, but she realised as she formed the words that it was true, that, for all his reputation as a womaniser, he’d genuinely cared for Monica.

He didn’t trust himself to reply, simply reached up and squeezed her hand. They remained like that for a long while, before she finally slid hers free. “Get some rest, Ellis.”

Bridge, IAV Tsinghai, Ariel orbit, January 4 2508

“Congratulations, Lt. Commander.” Mike Lewins pinned her new rank insignia to her uniform, and shook her hand.

Monica wasn’t coming back.

“Thank you, sir.” Despite herself, she looked across, almost guiltily, to Ellis. He had, simply by length of service, as much right to Monica Dale’s position and rank as she did, if not more. Lewins had made his reasons very clear, though, and they had nothing to do with her father.

Blue eyes caught her green ones, and he smiled, nodded. Mouthed “You earned it.”

Messroom, IAV Tsinghai, Shinon orbit, March 23 2508

She was engrossed in a book, nursing a coffee, when she became aware of the conversation behind her.

“You could always try the XO.” Ensign Lao’s voice, as if she couldn’t have guessed. Talking to the new Ensign, Mackay. “Never know your luck. And she’s a goer.”

“I…” Mackay stammered. “Do you… really…?”

She sighed, inwardly. Lao just couldn’t get his head round the idea that she wasn’t looking for a relationship. Least of all with anyone on board.

A third voice, the accent soft, familiar, Irish, joined in. “No, he doesn’t.” Surprisingly firm. “He’s winding you and the exec up. Drop it, Ensigns. That’s an order.”

The startled silence suggested they’d shared Connie’s reaction –  the easy-going Danny Ellis very rarely exercised his rank. He walked away, passing her as he did so. Their eyes met, and his gaze slid away, colouring slightly, keeping walking. “Ma’am.”

Lao’s voice from behind her, a lazy, amused, almost sneering drawl, and pitched to carry. “Of course, it could just be that he’s sweet on her.”

Medical bay, IAV Tsinghai, Zenda Military Spaceport, Ariel, December 19 2508

“Here,” Leigh-Anne Duckworth, the Tsinghai’s medical officer, handed her a glass of water and two painkillers. “And happy birthday for yesterday. Was it fun?”

Connie leaned against the bulkhead just inside the door of the medbay and willed her head to stop pounding. “It… I think so. At least, I’d hate to feel this bad for nothing.” Accepting the tablets gratefully, she dry-swallowed them, as was her wont, trying not to gag, and chased the water down hurriedly afterwards.

The older woman tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear. “That’s a hangover, honey. Caused by…”

She found a laugh. “I know. Dehydration, due to the alcohol in my system.” A sigh. “Don’t actually remember making it to my cabin.”

Leigh-Anne laughed, not unkindly. “I believe Lt. Ellis put you to bed. Shortly before he came here to get his hand seen to.”

Connie blinked. “His hand? What happened?” Ellis put her to bed?

“He wouldn’t say. An accident.” The doctor’s brown eyes twinkled with amusement. “But I had Ensign Lao in a while later with a broken nose.”

“Oh…” Danny undressed her and put her to bed? Connie swallowed. “I see.”

The other woman chuckled. “Keep that one, honey. He’s worth it.”

“I…” Huh? “I wasn’t… I mean…. we aren’t….” She brought a hand to touch her lips, a hazy memory of a feather-light kiss and a soft ‘Goodnight’ troubling the corners of her mind. “We aren’t,” she repeated.

Leigh-Anne smiled. “I’d do something about that if I were you.”

Messroom, IAV Tsinghai, Greenleaf orbit, January 1 2509

“Happy New Year, Commander.”

Connie started, looked up. Somehow, while she’d been engrossed in one of her favourite books, a history of early spaceflight, the messroom had gradually emptied, leaving just her, a cold mug of coffee, and, apparently, Danny Ellis. “Thank you, Lieutenant. And the same to you.”

He sat down opposite her. “You’re welcome.” A pause, and, just as she was lowering her eyes to the book again, a question. “Commander? Would you be avoiding me?” That accent was strong today.

“I…” What? “No.” Yes.

He nodded, blue eyes twinkling. “Ah. And here I was thinking….” Gently, “Just so we’re clear, and in case, saints preserve us, you might have been doing such a thing, which surely you weren’t…” She could listen to that soft lilt all day. “I was figuring you might be a little bothered about… us, after what happened on your birthday.”

Connie set her book down. “Since I don’t remember what happened on my birthday…” This was, pretty much, the first time they’d spoken, outside of professional necessity, since.

A soft chuckle. “I figured that.” Blue eyes found hers. “Nothing at all happened you need to worry yourself about. Just made sure you were safe in your own bed.”

She could feel her cheeks redden. “I…” A breath, then, quietly, “Thank you.”

“Welcome. And… Connie? just so we’re clear.” He smiled, straightened up. “If all you’re looking for is a friend, I’m fine with that.”

She found herself staring open mouthed at his retreating back until he left the mess. Maybe friends wasn’t a bad place to start.

Officers’ Ready Room, IAV Tsinghai, Persephone orbit, July 29 2509

“You’re bluffing, Commander.” Danny grinned, slid his stack of chips up to meet hers. “I’ll see you, and raise you forty.”

Connie, despite herself, peeked under her two hole cards again, in the vain hope they’d turn into something useful. She sighed, tossed them into the middle. “Fold.”

Mike Lewins chuckled. “He got you again.”

Danny flipped his own cards over, the heavy-looking, non-standard issue watch on his left wrist glinting in the lights. “Can’t out-blarney an Irishman.”

Connie stared. They were worse than the ones she’d thrown in. “You…”

He laughed. “You smile.”

“Huh?”

Danny raked in the chips. “When you’re bluffing. Your mouth curls up in a little smile.” His eyes met hers, likewise smiling. Soft, warm. “Every time.”

Again, her cheeks warmed with a blush. “Does not.”

Leigh-Anne laughed. “Does. Especially when you’re bluffing him.”

Connie eyed the pitiful remains of her stack of chips. “I… think I’ll call it a night.” She stood, conscious of Danny’s slightly bemused expression. “Kinda late, and I’m tired.”

Blue eyes followed her. “You OK?”

“I’m fine,” she lied.

Manu de Ciel restaurant, Zenda City, Ariel, August 3 2509

“So spill.” Leigh-Anne nodded her thanks to the waitress, and leaned back in her chair with a grin at Connie.

She blinked, bemused. “Spill what?”

“You and Danny. You are, right?”

“Are what?”

The doctor looked at her with an amused expression. “You are so naive sometimes, Connie.” She shook her head, chuckling. “OK. In simple words. Are you and Danny dating? Seeing each other? An item? Intimate?”

“I… uh… no.” Connie stammered. “No. Just friends. He said.”

“Connie…” Leigh-Anne sighed. “The poor guy worships the ground you walk on…”

She stared at her coffee for a long time. “I….” A shake of her head. “I don’t know….”

“Honey…” Leigh-Anne took her hands, gently. “What do you want out of this?”

She sighed, repeated “I don’t know.” Looking down at their joined hands, she noticed the mark on the other woman’s left hand where a ring had once been. “I…”

Leigh-Anne smiled at her. “Ever had a boyfriend?”

Connie nodded. “Once… he… my dad sent him away.”

The doctor’s work-worn hands squeezed hers. “Ouch. What happened?”

She swallowed. “He was the year above me in the Academy. Just graduated. Came round to call on me at home, dad answered the door and told him I didn’t want to see him.” Vice-Admiral Liam Saint had told her, point blank, that he wasn’t good enough for her. “And…” She licked her lips. “He had him transferred inside a week, before I even got to see him and explain.”

Leigh-Anne made a face. “Arranged marriages not dead in the Fleet, then?”

Connie sighed and shook her head. “Spent the rest of my Academy career avoiding eager young men who wanted to date the Admiral’s daughter with the Admiral’s blessing.”

“Mm. So, what’s wrong with Danny. Apart from that your father won’t approve.”

She bit her lip. “I… I dunno. Just….” Scared. Scared it would go wrong again. In the end, she just shook her head.

“OK.” Leigh-Anne smiled. “Honey, let me give you some advice.” She freed one hand to tuck hair behind her ear. “There are no dead certs in this life. If you wait till you’re sure, you’ll be an old maid.” Fingers squeezed Connie’s again, and she quoted, softly, “‘”To love… is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one. It will not be broken. It will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable…'”

Connie blinked. “I… where’s that from?”

“An Earth-That-Was author from five centuries ago.” She smiled. “You’re too warm a person to end up like that.”

She worried at her lip again. “But…”

“Connie, honey. He’s waited two years for you to notice  He’s kept the likes of Lao off your cute and skinny rear for ever, without expecting any thanks or even wanting you to know. He hasn’t dated anyone since Monica.” She stared at Leigh-Anne. “There aren’t many guys in the Fleet would do that. Not in wartime.” Softly, “Live a little, sweetheart.”

Crew deck, IAV Tsignhai, Ariel orbit, evening, August 13 2509

“You were late.”

She laughed up at him, just a little drunk and giddy. “I told you. my watch packed up. That and I don’t like heights.”

He snorted with amusement. “That’s the third in two years, isn’t it? You should get a proper watch like mine.”

She caught his wrist. “I could report you for that. Non-standard equipment.”

“You wouldn’t.” Laughing. “Not after I bought you dinner.”

His fingers turned to hold her hand, and her eyes lifted to his. “For which, thank you. That was wonderful.”

“Good.”

They stood there, outside her cabin door, for what seemed like forever, before, hand trembling slightly, she reached up and touched his cheek, whispered “Thank you.”

His lips curved in a smile. “You said that.”

She shook her head. “Not for that. For being patient. For waiting.”

“Oh…” He shook his head. “Seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Mm.” Again, silence, his blue eyes looking down into her green ones. She swallowed, let the hand on his cheek slide round his neck and the other join it. “Danny…”

He smiled. “Hush. It’s all right.”

Perhaps it was, after all. She stretched up on tiptoe, and kissed him.

“Danny?” It seemed like forever later, his arms round her, when her awareness of anything beyond the kiss returned.

“Mm…”

“We…” She swallowed, not entirely sure of what she was asking. “My cabin…”

He shook his head, kissed her gently again. “No.” A finger on her lips. “I’ve waited this long. Another day won’t hurt.” Quietly. “And I’d not want you wondering if it was the wine.”

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