BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

KAYNARA

Bed and Wine: The Finale, Part 2
Sunday, July 9, 2006

The Big Damn Bed and Wine Finale, Part Deux. NC-17 for a whole galaxy of reasons~


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3365    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Bed and Wine: The Finale, Part 2 By Kaynara *** The Big Damn Bed and Wine Finale, Part Deux. NC-17 for a whole galaxy of reasons~ *** AN1: Wow. This is the end. (Barring the Epilogue, which is coming soon, I swear.) I’d say something more profound, but I’m kind of in shock. For now, I’ll just say thank you. Thanks for reading and for all your incredibly kind words. Your comments mean so very much. Oh yeah: please log in and leave some. ;) AN2: Many, many thanks go to Grimlock. Most of the fight choreo belongs to him, as do some kick-ass lines. He’s also the best beta in the ‘verse. *** The fall from space shook the dinosaurs free. Even the dirt-crawlers were airborne now, rising above the console with newly-acquired aptitude for flight. Zoe stretched out her arm, catching a free-falling triceratops in the palm of her hand. *** Her baby. Someday she’d have a daughter. She’d be real bright. Kaylee always knew she had a gift for machines--her daddy said so when he was alive, and when he was gone, the cap’n said it for him. But when it came to other stuff, non-mechanical stuff, she was just the same as other folk. Not special. Not like Simon and River. Her baby girl would be smart like them, though--she could feel it in her gut. And she’d be a looker, too. Genetics seemed to have blessed the Tams special, and Kaylee knew any baby of Simon’s would be somethin’ to marvel at. She’d love the girl to pieces, and she and Simon would be so proud of her ‘complishments, showering her with praise and encouragement. Yep, she’d have a daughter one day. A bright, beauty of a baby girl. But Serenity would always be her first baby--her eldest. And now that baby was dead. *I’m sorry, girl. I’m sorry they hurt you so bad. And I’m sorry I can’t fix it.* She watched her girl huff smoke and bleed out oil. *Wherever the Cap’n is, he’s real sorry, too, baby. Oh, Cap’n. I’m sorry I failed you, Cap--both of you. ‘Long as you can keep her in the sky.’ Guess that means I’m fired, Cap’n....* A watery smile graced her face. “Kaylee?” “Yeah, Simon?” He didn’t say anything more--no platitudes or assurances. Just took her hand in his, and walked them both away from the wreck that was Serenity. *** “This is wrong. Just plain wrong.” Jayne’s eyes roamed the mostly-deserted halls. “They shoot at us with guns enough to knock the gorramn moon from the gorramn sky, but once we land it’s like, ‘hey, c’mon in and have a latte.’ Hell, that’s just capricious.” Simon arched a brow at both ‘latte’ and ‘capricious’ coming from Jayne’s mouth within the span of a sentence. He reached for Kaylee, molding her hand to his. “Jayne’s right,” Simon said quietly. “Something is very wrong here.”   “Reavers,” River murmured. Beside her, Kaylee shuddered, squeezing Simon’s fingers hard enough to bruise bone. If Kaylee and Simon had a baby, it was bound to be a painful experience all around. Dragon baby. In spite of it all, River smiled. “Guests are trapped in the ballroom,” she said, pronouncing the words slowly. “Ball guests in a barrel.” “River?” Zoe waited for the girl to meet her gaze, and Simon was relieved to find River’s calm and lucid. “How many Reavers?” “Don’t know.” She whipped her head, loosing her hair from Inara’s careful twist. “Too many. Oh, God, Captain and Inara!” Simon started to go to her, but Kaylee beat him to it. “It’ll be okay, sweetie,” she soothed. “Don’t the cap’n always protect us? Keep us safe?” “Safe.” River smiled. “Yes.” Jayne looked at River a long moment before sliding his gaze to Simon.   “Here, Doc.”  Casually, he offered his revolver. “Cady here’s a standup gal.Ya' got nine rounds in the cylinder and one buckshot in the smoothbore under the barrel.” “Thank you.” Simon met the older man’s eyes. “Thank you, Jayne.” He pocked the extra ammo and slid the weapon in the back of his waistband. Beside him, Kaylee accepted Zoe’s revolver. She looked at it a moment before tucking it into her coveralls. “Okay, people,” Zoe began. “Here’s the plan: we find the captain, we find Inara, then we find a way off this rock. Got it?” “Zoe?” Kaylee asked softly.  “Where we gonna go? I mean, Serenity—she ain’t movin’.”  “I don’t know yet, Kaylee. But the captain…Captain’ll think of something.” “Hold on, guys... think I might have an idea.” Kaylee reached out and grabbed a passing Palace Guard by the sleeve. “Gimme an update, mister!”  Jayne looked to Simon, who raised a brow in surprise. *Don’t look at me.* “Lady, are you high or just stupid?”  “Way-wrong answer, pal!” Kaylee bellowed, in a tone considerably louder than Simon would have thought possible. “Word is you boys been humped. BSAF sent us to clean up the mess.” She dug her elbow between her husband’s ribs. “Right, Sergeant?” Simon cleared his throat. “Um, yes? I mean, yes.” Kaylee glared at the rest of the crew, who stood straighter and attempted to look menacing. “Can I have your authori—?”  “Oh, no. I really hope you ain’t askin’ for authorization codes in the midst of a big—crisisy thing! Nuh-uh, mister.  You ain’t even cleared to see our faces!” Kaylee folded her arms over her chest. “Now, what you’re gonna do is you're gonna get me a terminal for the building's security net, and then you're gonna get your sorry ass outta my sight. Dong ma?”  “Yes, ma’am,” the guard answered. “Of course.” Wide-eyed, Simon watched as the guard supplied Kaylee with a wireless sourcebox that tied into building security.  He was about to scamper off when Jayne clamped a meaty fist over his shoulder.   “Hey. Before you go hide in a closet or somethin’... You wouldn't happen to have an armory…?”  “He can't decide what's worse,” River whispered near Simon’s ear. “Jayne with more guns, or Jayne angry.”  “Dammit, River.” Kaylee clamped a hand over the girl’s mouth.  “If we start giggling, this is shot all to hell.”  “You enjoyed that, didn't you,” Zoe said mildly when the guard had gone.  Kaylee looked embarrassed. “Ain’t sure what you mean, Zoe.” Her tone was prim and proper and faintly Inara. Jayne grinned and thrust an elbow into Simon’s ribs, which were really starting to sing from all the attention. “She like that in bed, Doc?”  *** A knock sounded at the door to the emperor’s chambers. Poised to one side, Micah jumped and reached for his weapon.  “ ‘Sokay, Your Majesty.”  Mal crossed the thick Persian rug and held the door for the Guardsmen.  “Reavers don’t knock as a rule.”  “Emperor Chou.  We have confirmation that the Empress Dowager and Prince Raini are en route to the roof.  We’ve managed to release the landlock on one of your ships.  Are you and Prince Micah prepared to evacuate?”  “What’s the status on my wife and daughter?” Chou demanded. The older of the Guardsmen met his eyes. “They’re still in the ballroom, Highness. We haven’t been able to get to them.”  The emperor made a sound like a moan. Mal looked respectively at the floor. “Are they alive?” Chou asked. “Sir...we lost visual five minutes ago.” Chou nodded jerkily before turning to his son.  “Go with them, Micah.  Go with your grandmother and brother.”  Micah shook his head, eyes wary. “What about you?”  Chou frowned at the vid screen.  “I’m not leaving until I’m certain your mother and Amina are safe.  And that help’s on the way for those poor people….”  “Sir,” the Guardsman began. “I’m gonna have to advise against you staying--” “I’ll take your advice under advisement,” the emperor snapped. Then, more gently. “Thank you, John.” “So I’m just supposed to go?”  Micah demanded.  “Leave the rest of you here to...to...?”  “I need you out of harm’s way, Micah.” Chou spoke softly, hands on his son’s shoulders. “If something happens to me...I need to know you’re alright. The people of Sihnon will look to you for leadership.” “Dad--” “I’ll take care of your father,” Mal promised. “Or die in the trying.” Micah lowered his gaze to Mal’s chest, and the burn marks that marred the flesh. “With all due respect, Captain, it’s the dying that worries me.” “Hey.” If he weren’t offended, he might have been amused. Prince had a sense of humor. Hell, if Micah and Nara were somewhat less acquainted, he might have decided to like the kid. “Your daddy comin’ outta this alive is the only chance I got.  He don’t make it, my crew can look forward to a shiny future of government-sponsored torture.” If his crew was still alive. He shoved the thought away the second it took hold--if there was grieving to be done, it would have to wait. “Prison food and cell doors, death by firing squad or somethin’ equally unpleasant.  I want better for them. I want them to have a life.” His tone was even, his gaze fixed on Inara. Micah hesitated, eyes darting between Mal and his father. “Micah.”  Inara laid a soothing hand on his upper arm.  “You can trust Mal.  He’ll keep your father safe.”  “I surely will,” Mal said quietly.  “Just like I know you’ll keep Inara safe.”  Inara turned quickly, understanding dawning as her eyes changed from their usual deep brown to a hot, molten gold. “Mal, no.” “Inara.”  He lifted his fingers to her shoulder and squeezed gently.  “Go with the prince now. Please.”  “I’m not leaving you, Mal!” “Prince Micah, we have to evacuate,” the Guardsman intoned.    “Wait,” Micah commanded. “Inara?” She glanced at Mal, the look in her eyes helpless and hurting and vaguely murderous. Oh, but she wanted to hit him, he mused. She wanted to smack him good and hard, and in someplace that hurt. He seemed to have that effect on women--inspiring them to do violence. He graced her with a wan smile.  “I’m asking you, Inara.  Do this for me.”  Slowly, she shook her head. “Not this time, Mal.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she lifted her fine chin, and when she met his gaze, her own was soft and unwavering. She smiled, and gorrammit, he almost grinned back at her. Forcing Inara to do something she weren’t keen on was one thing. Not always pretty, but well, she didn’t weigh a whole lot--easy enough to pick up and carry her. Askin’ her to do somethin’, though--that’s where the rub came. He winced, realizing he ought not to be pairing Inara and rubbing in his head at a time like this. Was bound to distract a man, and render his judgment blurry. And Mal needed all his wits about him if he was gonna cajole her into-- The sound of gunshots startled them all.  Within seconds, one of the Guardsmen was propelling the prince through a doorway while another herded Mal and Inara back inside the emperor’s chambers.  She fell against him and he squeezed her an extra second, though he half wanted to strangle her. “I do love you, woman,” he said instead, and even though it come out sounding like a threat, she smiled brilliantly. “I know.” *** Behind Kaylee, Zoe dropped to her haunches. She studied the sourcebox screen over the girl’s shoulder. “You in the system yet, Kaylee-bird?” “I’m tryin’ but everything’s all mucked...looks like Kane’s people scrambled the security codes. Keep anyone from comin’ or goin’....” “What about the ‘com system?” Zoe pressed. Kaylee pursed her lips. “Gimme a minute.” “Broadcast our location?” Jayne scoffed.  “Gee, can ya think of a dumber notion?”  “Only way to contact the captain, Jayne.” “Yeah, ‘cept for the part where we don’t got a clue which of these hundred-some-odd rooms he’s holed up.  Or, if he’s even…”  Jayne let the statement trail off into silence.  “Don’t see another way,” Zoe responded, rising.  “Have to buzz every room, starting with the ones most likely…River?”  The girl stood in the center of the room, swaying in time to her own music, or on a breeze whose whisper only she could feel.  “Mei-mei?” Simon tried, reaching out to touch her cheek.  “Hush; we’re talking.”  “River—”  “Rude to interrupt!”  “I—sorry.”  He shrugged at Kaylee, sheepish. “River, honey, can you hear the cap’n?” Kaylee pressed.  “They’re very loud,” she said on a sigh.  A smile split her face before she burst into giggles.  Zoe wondered what Mal said to make the girl laugh so, then wondered if she was going crazy as River.  Maybe they were all of them wrong in the brainpan, but fact of it was Mal seemed to have a special bond with the girl.  “River?”  She opened her eyes.  “Mal won’t leave till the emperor’s safe.  Chou won’t leave till wife and daughter are safe.  They’re in the ballroom.  They were alive ten minutes ago.”  “Trade our family for the lives of some blue bloods?” “Jayne.” Zoe eyed him severely. “You know Mal wouldn’t ask it if there was another way.  We need Chou with us to--” “I know.”  Jayne shrugged.  “Anyway, we got all this fine weaponry.”  He clipped the light machine-gun to his harness, the sides of his face cracking in a grin.  “Be a shame if we didn’t get to use it.”  “Lift’s jammed.”  Kaylee observed, eyes scanning cortex feeds.  “We’ll have to take the stairs.”  “Well, can’t exactly slide on down the banister,” Jayne muttered. “Whole ballroom’s full of Reavers.”  “Can maybe make a decent stand from the second floor balcony.”  Zoe rolled her shoulders.  “Let’s move.” *** Gideon swiped a hand over his temple, mopping away the sheen of sweat slicking the skin. He was distracted, his thoughts spiraling off on any number of strange tangents.   The orange flavor of his mother’s hair, and how it tickled his nose when she kissed him goodnight. The feel of his father’s pocket watch, worn-smooth and heavy in his hand, and how the tick, tick, tick lulled him to sleep. Zoe, her dark eyes wide and unfathomable, watching him make love to her. “Shoot anyone who leaves the ballroom.” “Yes, Commander Gideon.” Hunting with River had been...powerful.  There was no rage in her--no desire for revenge or retribution. In another ‘verse, she’d be a healer like her brother. Or an artist who shepherded in new waves of beauty. But fate made her a killer. In a sense, it was her very purity that drew him. Her hands were so gloriously unsullied, and he thought he could keep the blood from seeping under her fingernails, from staining the white. He wanted to protect her from the darkness, but in the end it was she who tried to protect him. A part of him wished to be like her, and in his more hopeful moments he hoped to find solace--serenity?--between her smooth, untouched thighs. She took him to bed to stop his torment, but the torment raged on.  He wasn’t pure and good--an innocent made to take up arms. He belonged to another class—men and women like Mal, and like Zoe.   Soldiers. Murderers. --You think we’re the same?  --Aren’t we, Mal? --Uh, no.  One key difference betwixt me and you, Gideon.  I’m a man.  And you’re just a sniveling child.  --You’re weak, Mal.  That’s why you’re sitting in a cell somewhere, while I’m out here fighting a war. Your war, Mal. --Uh-uh. This stopped bein’ my war a long while ago, son.  And murder surely ain’t a cause.  You ain’t some patriot.  Fact of it is, you’re just a boy-- --Shut up, Mal. --A boy who’s been duped by men craftier. You’re a pawn to Kane.  When he’s through with you, he’ll throw you away, just like he did Cameron.  --You’re wrong, Mal.  Amos, he cares— --Men like Kane care about one thing and one thing only, son.  Victory.  He’s a fanatic, and he’ll trample over any and every to get what he wants.  --You’re lying. --And you’re crazy!  How long you been residin’ just that side of sane?  Huh? Zoe said Reavers ate your parents, made you watch.  That’s a raw deal, no question.  Still, ain’t exactly an excuse for you goin’ all batty, now, is it? If’n I’d known how nutty you were back when you was on my boat, I woulda beat some sense into you my own self.  Woulda taken my gorramn belt to your sorry--  “Shut up!”  “Commander Gideon?”  Mal was weak, and Zoe was weak for following.  Weakness prompted their failure in the Valley, made them waver at the museum.    Gideon wasn’t weak.    “I’m fine, Ryans.”  Adrenaline flooded his veins, quickening his limbs and infusing all his senses with a beautiful clarity. “We spy a party of Imperials headed for the docking platforms. No confirmation on whether Chou’s with them.”  “Then let’s move.” Skinwalker should have landlocked every ship in the hanger; still, Gideon wasn’t one for taking unnecessary risks. If there was even the slightest possibility of the emperor escaping in an unregistered craft…or employing some special override code of which Kane’s people were unaware…no, best to locate Chou immediately. He just wasn't expecting to find the Imperial Guardsmen so quickly, or so abruptly.  Gideon’s pointman turned the corner and walked belly first into a Guardsman’s extended dao. The blade pierced the ballistic weave, lancing flesh and a few vital organs before emerging again just left of the poor fellow’s spine. Though taken by surprise, his team was ready. “Nail the primary, sir!” his second shouted. “We'll handle the red-shirts.”  His people were skilled--Kane had seen to that. Still, the Imperial Guardsmen were some of the deadliest fighters in the ‘verse. Outside the Academy, of course, a distinction Gideon made blatant when he dove between two Guardsmen, dodging their blades and bullets. Sweeping one blade wide of his body, Gideon whirled and positioned his pistol under the jaw of the second Guardsmen before firing.   “I got visual on Chou, sir!”  From the corner of his eye, Gideon glimpsed the Sihonese emperor, outfitted in Imperial yellow. A Guardsmen was attempting to hustle Chou and two others out a doorway. Gideon smashed the butt of his pistol down on the hand of the man with whom he was grappling. Releasing the Guardsman, he snatched the falling sword from midair. He spun on his heel, decapitated the sword's owner with a smooth arc and flung the ultra-sharp blade at the Emperor's heart.  He intended for the blade to puncture Chou’s heart.  Instead, Gideon watched, helpless, as some lucky fool chose that moment to slam the door.  Even a second later, and the sword would be lodged in the emperor’s chest as opposed to the door where it currently resided.  For a brief moment, Gideon felt a pang of what it must be like for Mal, whose carefully-wrought plans frequently fell apart at a whim of fate.  Kicking down the offending door, Gideon swept the room with his pistol extended. He found three people—Chou, the last Guardsmen, who’d be dead from blood loss in seconds, and a woman…Inara? If the whore was here, then surely Mal couldn’t be far.  Battle-heightened senses discerned the rasp of shoe-leather against hardwood flooring, the rustle of dress clothes on a body not accustomed to such finery. He snapped his head around, catching a flash of color. The color resolved itself into a fist, framed by Malcom Reynolds’ face.  “Hey, there.”  The fist connected with his jaw—bastard had hit him with a closed fist.  “Miss me?”  *** Malcom Reynolds was hardly a pacifist.  Still, beating on some folk was infinitely more satisfying than others.  Bruising Gideon’s pale face was a special kinda pleasure.  “Oh, I’m so gonna kill you. Then I might just have Simon revive you so I can kill you again for fun. Bound to be more creative on the second pass.” Mal managed few more choice hits before Gideon's boot flew off his foot, winged its way around the room and came back to clock him in the head. That had to be it—only logical explanation for how a man standing in front of him could kick him in the back of the head.  He collapsed to his knees, trying not to heave the contents of his stomach all over his very fine suit. “Fitting, Mal.” Gideon was smirking. “You there, on your hand and knees. And here’s me, standing over you about to--” Mal grabbed hold of the Persian rug on which Gideon was planted and yanked. “--fall on your ass?” he finished, as Gideon landed with a thump and a hiss of pain. Had the circumstances been somewhat other, Mal might have winced. As things stood, he wasn’t feeling especially sympathetic. Both men scrambled for breathing room. Gideon came up with a fighting knife in one hand. Mal snatched a spear off a rack on the wall. “Wait!” Chou shouted.   Mal thrust with the spear. Gideon reversed his grip, laying the blade along his forearm and swept his live hand in a tight arc to intercept Mal's attack. Neither was expecting the spear to shatter against the knife blade.  For a moment, both men simply stared.   “Huh,” Mal said, thoughtful.  “I tried to warn you.”  Chou looked sheepish.  “It’s just a replica. Balsa wood.”  “Thanks for the warning,” Mal said dryly. “Nara, get him out o’ here. Junior and me got a full dance card.”   To his supreme relief, Inara obeyed without fuss, pulling the Emperor into the next room.  Gideon took two steps after Chou when an object whizzed past his nose and shattered against the far wall. Slowly, reluctantly, he turned to find Mal standing next to a curio cabinet, full of hand-painted plates.  He was hurling them at Gideon like Frisbees.  “Ow,” Gideon expressed, teeth ground, as a dinner plate connected with the side of his head.  He raised a hand to his hair, and his fingers came away wet.  “Son of a bitch,” he muttered, wiping the blood off on his pants.  Mal was fast running out of ammo.  Seeing as teacups didn’t fly near so well, Mal grabbed up a letter opener from the desk and charged.  Gideon shifted out of Mal's path, slashing with his knife as he sidestepped. Mal swept his arm up, a move that enabled him to block Gideon’s blow and grab hold of the boy. Unable to pull free, Gideon found himself walking right into a stomach punch. He used the opportunity to drive the pommel of his knife into Mal's ribs, cracking a couple in the process. “This isn’t personal, Mal.” “Glad...to hear it.” He had to hold Mal up as the older man gasped for breath.  “Sucker,” Mal taunted. He stepped in close and drove his knee toward Gideon’s crotch.  Gideon twisted his body so Mal’s knee bumped harmlessly over his hip, then kicked the off-balance captain’s other leg out from under him.   “Please, Mal. You taught Zoe that trick, as I recall. And she was thoughtful enough to show me. Hell, Mal, I’d wager you taught the woman everything you know. And she and I...well, we were close.” Mal drew himself up on one knee.   “See there you go again, making wild-ass guesses.”   He exploded from the crouch into an uppercut. Gideon’s face lost all humor as Mal drove his fist up into the boy's groin.   “Seems there's a few things I kept to myself,” Mal remarked as Gideon crumpled to the floor. “You lived on my ship. Slept in a bed I gave you and ate from my table. You laid hands on those I consider family.” His voice lowered to a deathly quiet. “I’m thinkin’ it’s pretty damn personal.” Gideon was wheezing for breath. “You...betrayed our cause!” It took him a good few seconds to get the words out, and when they came they were a good bit higher than usual. Mal shook his head slowly. “No, kid.” He crouched beside him, his tone oddly thoughtful. “Murder ain’t a cause.” Why’d that sound so familiar? Gideon wondered. “You oughta be made to see the horrors no doubt takin’ place in that ballroom nowabouts. People bein’ killed and...suffering fates far worse than killin’. Innocents! If there was a God, He’d make you look it right in the face!”   As if on cue, a trio of Reavers burst into the room. “Oh, hey, that ain’t even funny!” *** On the other side of the door, Inara watched Emperor Chou remove an ancient revolver from a glass-windowed wall case.   He fiddled with the weapon, and she frowned. The piece appeared older than the Lassiter, and she could recall how well *that* worked.  Chou seemed to take note of her anxiety.  “I assure you, my dear; this one is *not* a replica.”  Beyond, the sounds of a battle raged, muffled though not quite silenced by the heavy oaken door.  “Give me the gun, Your Highness.” Without waiting for an answer, Inara lifted the revolver up out of his hands, along with the handful of rounds.  “Miss Serra, I know Captain Reynolds offered me his protection, but...”  The emperor trailed off as Inara quickly and efficiently swung open the cylinder. She cycled the extractor, sliding the rounds into the five holes.   “I understand Companions are well-schooled in many arts…but skill-at-arms?”  “That wasn’t the Guild.” Giving the cylinder a spin, she swung it back into position with a flick of her wrist. “That was Mal.”  The emperor opened his mouth to speak, and she silenced him with a glance.  Pressing her ear to the door, she could almost make out the words.  Dear Buddha, they were going to kill each other.  They’d drag it out with a stream of insults, masculine bravado. But in the end one of them would lie dead, and Mal—despite his resourcefulness, his knack for smashing the emperor’s antiquities and his mastery of the witty comeback—was essentially unarmed.  She curled her hand around the doorknob, wondering if this would be the last time she disobeyed one of his orders.  She was still smiling when the screaming started. The sounds she heard didn’t come from Mal or Gideon.  She wasn’t certain any normal, human male could emit such a sound.  They were wails, high-pitched utterances of pleasure and pain, so mingled together she couldn’t separate one from the other.  They were hunting cries, shrieks for blood and meat and lust.  When the time came, when it got its hands on her, the desires would be unified in its head.  It would seek to fulfill all its desires on her still breathing body.    Almost choking on her fear, Inara forced the image from her head.  She glanced down at the weapon, cool and heavy in the palm of her hand. The name—Smith and Wesson .500 Magnum—didn’t mean much to her, but any idiot could see it was a powerful handgun.  The door splintered under the intruder’s assault, and Inara gasped and jumped back. The gun barrel naturally aligned itself with the Reaver's chest, her hands sliding into proper positioning. The trigger was heavier than that of her small gun—the one Mal made a gift of all those months back.  Lifting her little pistol required less force than pulling the trigger on this antique.  Still, imminent cannibalism was a powerful incentive.  She felt the snap as the trigger released the spring and drove the hammer down upon the firing pin.  She held her breath and waited for the bang.  *** Mal and Gideon exchanged brief, telling glances before propelling themselves out of the savages’ paths. Behind the desk, Mal grappled for a weapon, felt his fingers close over a heavy, glass ashtray. “Heads up, kid,” he called, raising his arm to pitch the weapon. But Gideon seemed to have relocated his knife. Not bad for a guy who just took a sucker punch to the-- “Ow.” Mal blinked, half cross-eyed from the Reaver’s hit. “I’m realizing something, Mal.” Gideon slashed at his Reaver with the blade, while Mal, having regained his equilibrium, began bashing at his own with a desk chair. “Oh, yeah?” He crashed the chair down again, sucking in air as the she-Reaver’s sword slashed his forearm. “What’s that?” It took Gideon a few seconds to answer, “God...doesn’t much like you, Mal.” Mal hissed as claw-like fingernails raked his face. “You don’t say.” With his elbow, Mal caught the wild-eyed female in the face. He was pretty sure the blow cracked her nose, though the pain didn't seem to halt her. If anything it made her all manner of steamed.   “No, really,” he assured, ducking a punch. “Nose like yours--no one’ll even notice!”  He struck out again, and she caught his hand in hers. “Oh, that ain’t good.” Teeth sunk into his wrist, and he let out a yell. He threw a punch with his left, and she was dislodged, if only temporarily. Mal planted his boot on the Reaver's chest and shoved. She grabbed onto his ankle, trying to take him down with her. “Great plan you got going here, Junior.”  Gideon dropped back to a ready stance after a vicious rake-heel kick that snapped the Reaver's head sideways. From the sound of it, he’d cracked its jaw.  “Everything was going just fine till you dropped in to hump it all up.”  “Hey, I was here first!” Mal found himself on the defensive again, his enemy up and swinging.  This time it was shards of glass.  “Watch it, lady!” A particularly well-aimed slice tore open his shirtsleeve. “Hey! This shirt cost me ten platinum!” Mal grabbed the remains of an overstuffed chair and used the seatback as a shield. “Gorramn Reavers, cutting on a man’s clothes. I'm sending you the bill for this, Gideon! Hear me?”  “I'll make sure they bury you in something nice,” Gideon assured before turning his attention back to his own Reaver.   Tired of Gideon’s long-range sniping, the Reaver opted instead to charge, battering Gideon’s body with endless, looping blows.  Instinctively, Gideon curled to shield his face and head from the assault.  Unfortunately, his positioning left him open to a number of punishing body shots.  Metal-studded gloves tore at the flesh of his arms. He never saw the kick coming—a robust roundhouse that buckled his knee and collapsed him to the ground. The snap was his first signal that something was seriously amiss.  The wicked pain served to confirm his suspicion.    *Niou fen.*  “What’s a matter?” Mal fairly groaned the words.  “Not havin’ fun over there?”    “Go hump yourself, Mal.”  “Might not…be so far off.”  Gideon turned to see the female attempting to strip Mal of pesky barriers like his clothes and skin.  A fist in the face focused his attention on the matter at hand, namely the Reaver attempting to eat him alive. Gideon waited for the next punch to come, and when it did he speared the man’s wrist with his knife, dipping the blade between the long bones of his forearm.  With a vicious heave, he splayed the knife along the Reaver's forearm, bisecting flesh the entire way. With the knife still engaged in the Reaver's arm, Gideon drew his spare and slashed upwards along the man's thigh, opening his femoral artery. Ignoring the shower of blood, he pulled both blades free from his victim. Blinking to clear his vision, he reversed both knives and, gripping the blades downward, slid them through the Reaver’s ribcage like it was warm butter. He used the knives like handles to pull himself to his feet. The falling body took one of his blades with it on the way down.  *** The gun didn’t go off. For a second, she stood transfixed.  Then the Reaver let loose a hiss, and Inara snapped back from her reverie. Despite Mal’s rather snide remarks, her heeled sandals were beautifully crafted. Dancing shoes, really. Her pirouette spun her dress into the air and brought her out of the Reaver's line of advance, if only temporarily. She utilized the time to reverse her grip, wrapping her hands around the pistol's long barrel and shouting for the emperor to get back.  The Reaver had the same idea and brought his own improvised club up to strike. Her trigger guard snagged a hook on his club, and both weapons went flying when their owners attempted to pull free. Inara fell back a step and adopted a fighting stance. The Reaver frowned, as though he was unused to unarmed food that fought back.  It’s hesitance gave her a glimmer of hope. Her body seemed to remember her martial arts lessons of long ago. The Reaver charged, and she punched. Her instructors would have been proud. Never mind the teachers, Mal—Mal would have been over the twin moons.  The line from her knuckles to her elbow was dead straight, and the Reaver's nose just crumbled under her fist. She even remembered to keep her guard up.  It was a beautiful hit, and had she been battling men, it might have rendered the desired effect.  But Reavers weren’t men but what came after—or before; Inara wasn’t certain—and the mutilated thing just leaned into the blow, his counter punch brandishing a claw.  The Reaver slashed along her left forearm with an improvised meat hook, tearing a bloody gash into the flesh. She whimpered in pain—shouldn’t she be uttering something witty about now? She’d seen Mal sliced or stabbed time enough—wasn’t that the protocol?  She’d try if it lessened the pain. Merciful Buddha, she was hurting. She glanced at the bloody mess of her arm and wished she hadn’t. The Reaver advanced upon her, seemingly unfazed by the damage done to his face. Cradling her injured arm, she backed away.  With only one hand functioning, she knew it wouldn’t be long.  *I’m sorry, Mal.  I love you.  Tell me you believed that.*    It wouldn't be long before she missed and the Reaver killed her. If he killed her.  Likely, he wouldn’t—not right away.    *Everything that I am is in love with you.  And I wish I’d said it more.  I would have helped you raise your babies.  I would have loved them, Mal.* Everything seemed so simple now—why had they wasted so much time fighting?   But the fighting was fun, too.  She almost smiled now, remembering the sniping and the brawling, the lovemaking that often followed. The first punch she missed was a wild blow to the head that left her dizzy, nauseous. That vertigo saved her life because she stumbled, and the meat hook just grazed her cheek. Her right arm and shoulder were covered with dozens of tiny cuts from the bits of metal embedded in the Reaver's clothing.  *Oh, Mal.  I’m sorry you have to see me this way.*  She wanted to save him that particular memory.  Maybe she was vain, but she didn’t want him to remember her this way--beaten and bloodied.  Violated. In his dreams, she wished to remain beautiful, the way he’d always seen her.  Intercepting a slash with the hook left her open to a savage stomach punch. She fell to her knees, unable to draw breath. For several, terrifying seconds all she could do was focus on her breathing. Rapid blinking cleared the tears from her eyes in time to see the Reaver's hand come down to wrap around her throat. His other hand raised the hook.  *** Wrenching his knife free of the Reaver’s torso, Gideon glanced across the room, saw Mal still grappling with his own bloodthirsty little playmate. The redhead knocked Mal’s shield away with a kick.  “You, Mal, are pathetic.” “Bi zui or help.” It came out like a growl.   Mal reached into the broken display case for the biggest, heaviest thing he could find and came out with a large yellow book. Taking it in both hands he clocked the Reaver hard across the face, first one way, then the other, before she stumbled back. He took a moment to glance back at the display case with its label: Vintage 2006 New York/New Jersey Bell Telephone Directory. Hermetically sealed and preserved since 2010. What, he wondered, was a telephone? Mal only looked away for a second, but that was all the time the Reaver needed to tackle him to the ground. Mal concentrated his efforts on keeping her mouth away from his throat.  He wasn’t entirely certain if she’d loose her lips or her teeth on the sensitive flesh, but was reasonably sure he didn’t wanna find out.  He felt one of her hands yank at his belt buckle, and let out a groan.  “You know, I do got a girlfriend....” The she-Reaver didn’t seem all that dissuaded. Limping across the room took far longer than it should have. Reaching out with one hand, Gideon grabbed a fist full of the Reaver's hair, and yanked backward. In a smooth, fluid motion, he slit her throat and tossed her remains to the floor.  Mal nodded his head by way of thanks and accepted Gideon’s outstretched hand. “Did I mention I hate redheads?”  *** She tried to summon Mal’s visage. If she was to die here, she wanted it to be with his image stamped over her corneas.  Mal’s eyes, soft and languid as she kissed him.  Mal’s mouth, curving into that all-too-familiar smirk as she strapped on her shoes outside the palace gates. Shoes. Shoes! Reaching down, she wiggled the sandal from her foot, grasped it by the toe and swung with the last of her strength.  The carbon-fiber reinforced heel embedded itself clean in the Reaver's knee. This time he definitely noticed, as evidenced by his scream of protest. Releasing Inara, he fell to floor, attempting to pull the stiletto free of his ligaments. Inara grabbed her other shoe and rose up on the balls of her bare feet. She wound up and swung, aiming her blow at the base of the Reaver’s skull. All three inches of her heel buried themselves at the union of the Reaver's neck and skull, tearing through his brain stem. He fell, quite literally a puppet with the strings cut away.  Inara turned to glare at the Emperor.   “Haven’t you any weapons that work?”  Before he could formulate a response, Mal burst through the door.  His eyes raked over Inara and then Chou before surveying the carnage on the carpet.  “Huh.  Nice shoes,” he quipped, throat thick.    Then he dragged her into his arms.  *** The spray of bullets provided a constant backdrop. An unceasing pounding—like rain on metal rooftops. You could go mad from the sound alone, Simon thought.  And the Reavers—Dear God, they never stopped screaming.  Closer, he could hear the whimpers, too, and the sickening sound of metal as it whistled through the air, sliced against silk suits and satin gowns before embedding in their owners’ flesh.  He could hear it all now.  In a way, hearing was worse than seeing.  He wanted to turn the sound down, let the events play out like an old, silent feature with only an orchestra for accompaniment.  Except the musicians had long since abandoned their instruments.    “Simon?”  Beside him, Kaylee wrapped her fingers around his upper arm, applied a gentle squeeze to the bicep.  “You okay, sweetie?”  “Yes.”  He bent his head to kiss her cheek.  “I’m sorry.”  “Whatcha sorry for, Simon?”  “I was just thinking—I never, ever take you anyplace nice.”  “Aw, honey. This place is nice, just...not tonight.” “Still. If we live...I owe you a night out.” “Or...could just have sex,” Kaylee offered. “I’d go with option two,” River advised. “I know I’m goin’ with option two,” Jayne added with a grin. “I really didn’t need to hear that,” Simon groaned. “Bi zui,” Zoe said sharply.  “Focus. Anyone have visual on the girl and the mother?” “Wait!” River grabbed Zoe’s arm to halt her. She cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, "Guardsmen! Friendlies on your 3 o’clock!”  Several of the Guardsmen took aim at their position, before one of them shouted back: “Kilo, Lima, Whiskey, Oscar!”  “Golf, Hotel, Echo, Inda!” River replied.  She turned to Zoe and Jayne, who were staring. “Now they won't shoot us. At least not on purpose.”  “Don’t seem right,” Kaylee whispered.  “Rescuin’ the Imperials and leavin’ the rest o’ these poor people to die.”  River shook her head.   “We aren’t gonna leave them, Kaylee.” *** Mal settled Inara’s limp form on the guest bed, brushing a soft kiss over her forehead. “You jus’ sleep now, beautiful.” Satisfied that Chou would watch over her, he whirled. “Gideon.” “She okay?” “She ain’t your concern. You gotta stop this, kid.” Gideon gave a short, sad laugh. “Can’t do that, Mal.” The captain raised a brow and took a menacing step forward. He didn’t wanna beat on the boy anymore...or get beat on as the case may be. “I ain’t askin’.” Gideon rose, face contorting. Mal knew it must be an effort for the kid not to cry out in pain with his knee ripped half to hell. “Not won’t, Mal. Can’t.” Another hollow laugh. “I think I’m done disobeying your orders.” “What do you mean?” “I mean, they won’t stop. Kane said there was no calling off this one, no matter what. Hell, Mal. They’re Reavers. What do you want me to do--hit their off switch?” “I want you to call off your men! Get ‘em to release the landlocks on the Imperial fleet, maybehaps then we start evac-ing the women and--” “Off switch.” Mal paused, mid-rant. “What?” Dr. Meyers. Ana with hair like Zoe’s only not. What had she told him? *I’ve been working with them going on two years. They’re trained to obey voice commands....* Voice commands. Dear God, he was losing his mind. No one could control these monsters. Trying was foolish, madness. He felt like River suddenly, acutely conscious of his descent into lunacy. River. He was meant to protect her, teach her. He promised Zoe as much. *If you let us take her, I promise I’ll do everything in my power to keep her safe.* He broke his promise. River was downstairs in that hell. “Gideon?” Then, more softly. “You here, kid?” “Shuh muh?” “I’m going after the others, Gideon. Need you to stay and look to Inara.” Mal met the younger man’s gaze. “I’m trusting you to keep her safe.” “No.” “No?” “You’re staying here, Mal.” “Gideon...not really of a mind to argue just now.” “Take care of your kids, Mal. They’re innocents, and...just take care of them.” “Gideon--” Mal took a step toward the door, and Gideon gripped the pommel of his knife. Without a word, he brought it down on Mal’s head. Gideon caught the captain’s body before it slumped to the floor. “Captain Reynolds is going to have one hell of a headache,” he informed the dumbstruck emperor. He laid Mal’s body out beside Inara. “See if you can find him some aspirin.” *** A Guardsmen looking much the worse for wear ascended the last few steps. Appraising the group assembled on the landing, he settled weary eyes on Jayne. Gingerly, he transferred his teenage bundle into the larger man’s arms. “Guard the princess with your life.” “Where the rut are you going?” Jayne demanded. “The princess is safe.” The Guardsmen drew his sword. “There are others who aren’t.” Zoe scrutinized the girl who lay unmoving in Jayne’s arms.  Working with the remaining Guardsmen, they’d finally managed to extract her from the massacre that was the ballroom. With effort, her small chest heaved up and down, eyes flickering open in confusion.  “No!  Stop….”  “You’re okay,” Zoe soothed.  “We’re gonna get you help, Little One.  Simon!”  “Right here.”  “Girl’s wounded, Doctor.”  Zoe motioned at Jayne, and he transferred the girl to Simon’s arms.  “Let’s get you and Kaylee someplace more calm-like to treat her.”  “Alright. River, be careful.” Simon met his sister’s gaze. “All of you, be careful.” “Wait,” the girl whispered. She’d stopped struggling, apparently deciding she was safer here with strangers than she’d been in the ballroom.  “My mother.  Where is she?”  Zoe and Jayne exchanged glances.  “Oh, hell.”  Jayne coughed.  “Think they got her out before you.”  *** Kaylee squeezed the girl’s hand while Simon treated her wounds.  Poor little thing. Her mother was dead, and her daddy--well, god willing the cap’n was keeping him safe. So many lives were riding on the emperor keepin’ his. She handed Simon what supplies he asked for and, in between serving as nurse, tried to distract the girl. Sweetheart looked well-and-truly frightened from out her wits.  Not that Kaylee much blamed her.  Didn’t get any easier, seein’ those monsters more ‘n once.    “This is a real pretty dress,” Kaylee told the girl.  She stroked a hand along the ruined purple fabric.  “What’s your name, honey?”  “I—Amina.”    Disinfectant seeped into her open wound, and the girl let out a gasp.  “I know it hurts, Amina.”  Simon’s voice was soft and full of sympathy.  “But we have to clean the wound.  Dong ma?  Just…try to stay still for me.”  Kaylee stroked Amina’s hair.  She knew why Simon was so worried ‘bout sterilizing.  Cuts on her leg weren’t just ordinary abrasions.  They were bite marks.  “You’re doin’ real good, honey.  Ain’t she, Dr. Tam?”  “Yes.”  Simon smiled at them both.  “Very good.  And I’m almost done.”  “Who…are they?” Amina managed.  “Who’s who, honey?”  The princess rose up on her elbows, trying to get a better look at her leg.  “The ones that got inside.  I saw them kill people.  Kill people and…hurt them.”  She bit her lip to cover a whimper.  “Inside my head, it’s all screaming.” “They’re called Reavers, sweetheart.”  Across the bed, Kaylee met Simon’s eyes.  “They ain’t right in the head no more on account of experiments done to ‘em.”  Amina shuddered.  “They’re monsters.”  Simon applied a gentle pressure to her shoulders, easing her down on the bed.  “Just rest now.”   ***  “Uh, guys?” Jayne lifted a hand and pointed. Beyond the windows were two dozen Feds decked out in riot gear. “Why don’t they come in?” Jayne demanded. “What the rut they waiting for?” “The force-field-weapon-scanner thingamajig.” Zoe looked beyond his fingers. “Ain’t lettin’ ‘em through.” Jayne fairly growled. “Kane’s people musta done it--locked down the security system.” “Gotta get to the panel,” River murmured. “Reset the codes.” “Won’t work, honey. You don’t know the reset sequence.” River made a face. When Zoe just raised a brow, she smiled. “Call me intuitive.” Zoe smirked but shook her head. “No way anyone’s gettin’ to that panel alive.” Jayne squinted out into the crowd. “Guardsmen?” “They’re dead,” River murmured. “Last one fell three minutes ago.” Zoe stared straight ahead. “Just keep tryin’ to take down the ones you can.” River frowned. She didn’t like guns.  She didn’t like the feel of the metal, cold on her palm, or the taste that lingered on her tongue after using one.  It was too easy. She had only to curl a finger, and the next instant a life was seeping out all over the floor.  Rivers of blood, trickling and trailing.  Gushing like the mightiest—  “River.”  Jayne cocked his head, jerked his neck in the direction of the ballroom.  “We need you shooting, girl.”  “Captain Daddy said ‘no touching guns.’ ” “Well, the Captain ain’t here, River.” Zoe met her gaze. “And I’m sayin’ start touching guns.” She lifted the rifle and fired, shot bullets and pain into animals that shrieked and startled but didn’t stop.  She shot again and again, shot until they fell.  She shot predators and, when it couldn’t be helped, she shot their prey, too.  But all were victims, and all were prey, and suddenly she couldn’t tell one from the other, and she let fall the rifle and covered her ears with her hands and dropped to her heels and rocked.  With her eyes squeezed shut, she could still see Zoe’s forehead crinkle in concern.   “Jayne!” Zoe shouted.  “Huh?  Ai ya, what you doin’, girl?”  He squatted beside her and grabbed her shoulders and shook.  “Get the rut up!”  She did.  She opened her eyes slowly, blinking against the chaos until all that was left was clarity.  “Too much pain.  It’s too much!”  She fisted her hands in his hair and tugged him down till their mouths were level.  She kissed his warm Jayne lips and smelled his strong Jayne smell, and she tasted him, and he tasted like Jayne.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered against his throat.  “Tell Simon.”  She took two steps and leapt over the rail.   “River! Get back here!” Zoe shouted.   Jayne didn’t say anything at all.  He just watched her fall.  Her new dress--one Inara picked--floated around her legs like one of Kaylee’s pretty parasols.   He watched her sink to the ground--a breath of cleansing blue in a sea of red. *** Gideon burst out onto the landing in time to see River descend into the throng. “River, no!” Jayne grasped him by the shirtfront, shoved him up against the rail. “What the hell’s he doin’ here?” “Pummel me later, Jayne.” Gideon tried to shake free. “Just give me a weapon, she needs cover.” “I oughta--” “Jayne.” Zoe shook her head. “Give him a gun.” “He might be dead later,” Jayne grumbled, but he handed Gideon River’s discarded rifle. Zoe felt a shudder run through her body, waited till it passed before aiming her assault rifle again.  Trying to target the Reavers in the sea of bodies was bad enough.   But now River was down there, too.  River, who was just a girl, and wanted to be a girl, but already was a woman in more ways than one. She was fighting with swords--girl never did like guns. Weapons of grace. They gave up a lot to prove to the ‘verse that River was more than a weapon. “What's she doin’, Zoe?  Why’d she go and do somethin’ so ruttin’ dumb?”  “Just stay on the line, Jayne.  She’s gonna need--”  Cover. She didn’t have to say it.  Man never once lowered his gun.   At first, Reavers seemed not to realize River was there.  But after a time, they took note, noticed the slip of a girl dancing across the floor of the Ballroom, leaving a trail of severed heads and sliced-out spines in her wake. Reavers mightn’t have been the sanest of folk.  Didn’t mean they were stupid.  When one hunter took out half a pack, the other half was like to raise hell.  Zoe tried to keep River in sight.  Trouble was she moved like a spirit—as though the laws of matter and physics didn’t quite apply in her case.  She musta took down fifteen Reavers in the space of seconds, some of ‘em engaged in acts too hideous to name.  War was full of atrocities, plenty with names and faces.  Early on, Mal tried to shield her from them.  If they came upon something awful—something he saw no sense in her witnessing—he’d push her face away.  “Eyes forward, Zoe.”  At some point, he got it in his head she might as well see.  He figured he couldn’t protect her in the long haul, and by trying, he was making it worse. He was right to stop trying.  Still…if someone had a notion to push her face away now.... But the captain didn’t stand by her side today, hold her hand.  He wasn’t there to block them all from the worst of the ugliness. Point of fact, there wasn’t a single soul to shade her eyes from this view.  So she prayed to Book’s god and Inara’s.  For the hell of it, she prayed to the one Mal forsook. She prayed not to remember any of this when next she held her baby girl in her arms.  If there was a God, then Godwilling he’d let her forget.  River was close now. Six Reavers between her and the panel. Five Reavers. Now two. An oddly gruesome ballet of one. As a little girl, Zoe attended a ballet with her mother once. She’d kiss Jayne’s boots before admitting it, but the prettiness of the dance appealed to her. She liked the girls with their pale tights and pinned hair and delicate faces. She liked watching their bodies move and stretch. It was one of her best memories--maybe the last really vivid one. People lived and breathed freedom on the world where Zoe was from--a quality the Alliance didn’t take kindly to. When times got bad, Zoe’s mama called her brother and sister-in-law. Pirates. They took her away in a big, ugly spaceship against her protests. Three weeks later, the carpet bombers came. Zoe never did see her mama again. Zoe had seen a lot of fights in her time. Heck, she’d been a willing participant in most. But this--River fighting. Damn if it didn’t call to mind that pretty ballet.   She danced as though all the steps were familiar ones, the choreography a practiced routine she’d staged a thousand times over. Parry, thrust, sidestep. She was at the panel now. She fought with her left hand, her right working furiously over the numbers. “You can do this, River.” Zoe wasn’t aware she’d spoken the words aloud until she felt the heat of Jayne’s gaze. “If anyone can do it, it’s you. Come on, honey. River, come on--” The forcefield dissolved and two dozen heavily-armed Federals stormed the Ballroom, stunner rifles... doing whatever it was they did on autofire. Reavers dropped left and right, as did the guests. Feds weren’t particular--they’d sort out who was who later. A couple Reavers actually made it past the stunner blasts, tried jumping the officers Beside her, Jayne snickered, as a Reaver tried gnawing through poly-carb armor and got a shock-rod upside the head for its efforts. Smiling, Zoe returned her gaze to River. She fought her way through the crowd--a fierce, flawless beauty with her hair streaming, her legs fairly flying across the dance floor. Girl really was a sight to behold. She was almost at the stairs when she missed a step--one, trifling flaw in an otherwise perfect performance. *River, behind you!* By the time her lungs gave breath to the words, River was dead. At least her brother didn't see.   It was a bit of mercy that Simon didn’t see them break his sister’s neck. That thought was the first to penetrate the haze occupying Zoe’s brain.  The second was the lack of pause.  River was dead—gone away for good, gone over to a place where she’d never laugh again or play, or tease the captain till he blushed.  River was nineteen years old, and she was dead.  And hardly anyone noticed.  All around her, the battle raged. Voices cried out into the din—noisy, inarticulate. A swarm of Alliance federals cut through the throng, weaving between Reavers and ball guests.  Everywhere Zoe looked she saw blood and gore and the season's finest fashions.  She wondered if this was hell.  Zoe's third coherent thought was: Jayne.  *** He couldn't get to her.  All that mattered now was getting her out, and he couldn't reach her. Were too many between her and him. Gideon was closer. Course Gideon was standing with his thumb up his ass.  “Gideon!”  Nearly ten seconds lost waiting on the boy to look up.  Ten seconds they had their filthy, foul hands on her.    “Gideon! You listen to me, boy!  You gotta take her outta there.” “She's gone, Jayne.”  His tone held a tremor of disbelief, as if he didn't believe for his own self what he was trying to convince Jayne to be true.  "I won't see her ate!” Jayne shouted, and was struck by how true that was.  If they touched her—hurt her more than they had already—he’d go bibbledy with the watching.  Wouldn’t be enough of his brain left after that to scoop off the dance floor.  He’d be mad as the gorramn Reavers.  His words seemed to jar some sense into the boy.  Gideon leaped over bodies of Reavers and ball guests, hacking a path with his knife.  One of the Reavers held her limp form over his head like a trophy.  Gideon gutted him, and when his friend mewled in protest, Gideon cut out his throat.  “River.” She fell into his arms, and Gideon was struck by how warm she was still. The porcelain of her cheeks was still stained red with the flush of battle, and he could feel the heat of her flesh under his hands. With one arm, he supported her prone form, the other combing back the soft, damp tendrils from her forehead. He took her hand in his and squeezed tight to familiar fingers—fingers that had stroked his restless body and soothed his damaged soul.  She tried to make him family.  It wasn’t her fault she’d failed.  He knew she was gone, but it wasn't too late to save her.  He'd protect her from harm, just as his parents protected him once.  A part of him had died when his father hid him away in that trunk, but a part had lived on, become something other.  In that instant, everything was clear and simple and serene.  He could still make this right.   He took a single step before he felt the lash of the sword.  He ran, stumbling, for the staircase, shielding River's body with his own. With the last of his strength, he hoisted her small form up over the railing, pressed her into Jayne’s waiting arms.  The Reavers fell upon him like locusts.  Four of them dragged him back into the throng.  “I got her!”  Jayne shouted.  “I got her, kid.”  He backed away, River’s body cradled to his chest like a child’s.   Gideon was descending into nightmare.  They surrounded him, gnashing and clawing.  He dodged a blow to the nose, took another in the mouth.  He felt his lip split under the metal hooks that lined their fingers.  Blood—his own—flowed in warm, steady rivers down his back. Too much blood, he thought objectively.  He pictured Simon, the young doctor’s face twisted in frown.  *Really, Gideon.  Bleeding that much is unwise.*  Gideon let out a chuckle, then sobered, imagining how Kaylee would scold him.  *Joking at a time like this?*  What did it matter if he jested?  He was dying.  Christ, he didn’t want to go out like this.  Mal?  No, Mal couldn’t help anymore. River called him Captain Daddy. But Mal wasn’t father to Gideon.  Gideon tried to follow Mal and failed in the effort.  *Dammit, Mal.  We can’t all be martyrs. We can’t all be noble and self-sacrificing and given to magnanimous display.*  Damn you, Mal.  Damn you. He could see Mal’s face in his head, Mal’s eyes steady and unwavering. --You did good, son.  Hear me?  You got her out.  And that counts for somethin’.    His voice sounded so close. But Mal was upstairs with his lover, with Inara. Gideon didn’t understand those two, or their absurdist, passion-filled love affair.  But then he’d never been in love.  Still, he was about to get his insides eaten out, and really, when it came right down to it, what was the difference?  He didn’t wanna die like this. He didn’t want to die without having known-- Zoe. He called her name. Their eyes collided, and she hesitated. Then she slid her hand into her belt pouch.  “Gideon, catch.”  Zoe pitched the grenade into his outstretched palm.  She held his gaze for a pair of heartbeats—thud-thump, thud-thump—before the Reavers dragged him to the ground.  They covered him like a coat, wiggling and groaning.  Breathing, if he still was, must feel an effort.  She inhaled and waited, counting each second as it passed.  Blow.  Blow.  Blow, blow, blow— The grenade exploded, and the flames spurted up through the gaps between the bodies.  A rush of hot smoke filled her nostrils, heat licking at her eyes and her tongue.  She coughed and choked, and when she could breathe again, she blinked wildly, struggling to clear her vision.   Gideon was dead.  And he’d taken four of the monsters out with him.   *** Upstairs, Jayne nudged open the door to the first room and kicked it closed behind him. He laid her out on the bed, letting go just long enough to manhandle a dresser to bar the entryway.  Almost reverent-like, he checked her over. They'd only landed a few blows before the fatal one. Rest of her was as unsullied and untouched as the day she showed up on Serenity.  He wouldn't ever forget the day Mal found a naked girl in a box.  Hardly more 'n a kid, even if she had women parts. Parts she let him touch later, alone in the dark when it was just them two. “Soft,” she whispered, and stroked his face. “Jayne ain’t soft,” he growled back and nipped at her fingers. Pearly white skin, translucent as eggshells. Oh, hell, he wanted her to touch him once more. Her eyes were closed, just like she was asleep.  Like she just drifted off in his bed, and she might any minute wake laughing.  He knew she was dead, that she wouldn't wake up laughing or otherwise, but for a minute it didn't matter.  He had her, and that meant those animals wouldn't get the chance to hurt her no more.  She was safe now.  “You're safe now,” he promised.  ”Ain't gonna let them hurt you no more. No one can hurt you.”  He tangled one hand in her hair, the other leveling a gun at the doorway.            “Hear that, girl? Over my dead body do they lay a hand on yours.” *** He rocked her in his arms. Girl was crazed. Batty. He had plenty of time to think on things in the last hour. Some of the things weren’t so nice, so he shifted his brain to other ones. He found himself musing on the last night and Mal’s fei hua dinner party. Girl was nuts alright. She knew gorramn well he hadn’t any restraint when it came to him and her. Him and her. Never in Jayne’s thirty-nine and three quarter years had he been half of a twosome. Been in a few threesomes, but that weren’t the same. Him and her. Mother of a son of a-- “Jayne.” She’d made it ring like bells. “What?” Why, oh why did she have to do this in the hallway? In front of God and Mal.... “Kiss me.” He tore his lips from the spot they’d been sucking on her neck. He looked at her, incredulous. “What’s it look like I’m doin’, girl?” “It’s not enough,” she breathed. “It ain’t?” He wasn’t insulted so much as puzzled. “Know I ain’t skilled fancy, River. Still, never heard no complaints before.” “Jayne.” She caught his cheeks with both hands. “Stop talking.” He nodded, glad to be done with that part. He kissed her with renewed effort, propelling them toward her bunk while she worked at his belt buckle. “Lift me,” she instructed, and he did, feeling those lithe, shapely thighs squeeze his ass like a vice. Secretly, he liked holding her, carrying her about like a doll. Was somethin’ sexy as hell about lifting the light, lethal package of her in his big arms. Sexy as hell. The doc would say it was ironical, as bedding her was like to get him there. “Jayne!” “Huh?” She could always tell if his attention wavered. Course it was a rarity for it to stray to the likes of Simon.... “Tell me I’m pretty.” “You’re pretty,” he ground out, and ground himself against her belly. “Again,” she whimpered. “You’re pretty.” It came out like a growl, but she didn’t seem to mind. “Guay, girl. How many times I gotta tell you?” “Been with a lotta girls.” “Guess I’ve been with my share.” He cocked his head, considering. “More than, maybe.” “Prettier ones?” Why in the nine hells was she askin’ him that? Was it ‘cuz of Mal’s sister? Not like he wanted to run a’path of her. Just that it was a small ship, and people had to eat. “Different pretty,” he admitted, a little tentative, under River’s watchful gaze. River smiled. “Thank you.” “What for?” “Truth.” He shrugged and kissed her nose, which made her giggle. Girl was crazed, alright. Downright batty. Except maybe she wasn’t so mad after all. “Jayne! You in there, Jayne? Open the door.” Mal. Just then, he didn’t have much use for Mal, or his yuh bun duh orders. He told him as much. “Open the gorramn door, Jayne!” Then, more softly. “It’s okay. You got her out, dong ma? It’s okay now.” Slowly, almost reverently, Jayne laid River’s body out on the bedspread. Then he got up to open the door. ***  Didn’t make a lick of sense.  One minute a person was breathin’, rosy cheeks and blood pulsin’.  One minute she was smilin’ and laughin’, and there was life in her.  And the next—the next that life was gone.  The rosy cheeks got pale, and the blood quit pulsin’, and she didn’t smile, and she didn’t laugh.  The parts of her that were sister and daughter and lover floated away, and all that was left was an engine that had long stopped turnin’.  Wasn’t fair, Kaylee mused. Not nothin’ fair about it. “Simon?” she ventured. “Sweetie?” She looked beautiful tonight.  Did he tell her?  He’d meant to say something, meant to tell her how nice she looked in her new dress: how tall and pretty and grown-up. One moment she was vibrant and…fierce, and the next—the next she was broken, splayed like a rag doll: a collapsed dancer who’d danced her last.  It struck him then that she’d never grow up, that she’d forever be young and beautiful and tragic.  People would always remember her death and not her life.  How grossly unjust.  Once, before she became a martyr, she was a girl.  A playful, mischievous girl who read books and had games and told jokes. His beautiful, brainy little sister, laying down her life for the very people whose indifference condemned her to death.  I’m sorry, River.  I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.  I’m sorry I couldn’t stop you.  And most of all, I’m sorry I can’t forgive you.  Because you shouldn’t have gone, mei-mei.  You shouldn’t have let them hurt you so badly that I couldn’t fix you.  River.  River, you really do look pretty tonight….  ***  He wondered who it was bandaged her hurts.  Whoever it was bathed the blood from her skin, too, dressed her up in something soft and silky and golden, combed her hair till it shone.   “Mal.”  Inara.  Of course she’d be the one to do it.  Of course she’d volunteer to save Simon that task.  “Mal, they…”  Her voice was hoarse.  He wondered where she’d gone to cry.  Someplace lonely where she could curl up--she never did like to cry in front of him. “They want to see her, Mal.”  He looked up, seeing her for the first time.  She hadn’t changed out of her ball gown.  Funny, but from a certain angle you couldn’t quite see the blood.  It blended in with the red, though the illusion didn’t make the stains any less real. Her arm was draped in bandages. He felt a prick of guilt for not looking to her injuries earlier, though he was too tired to feel the emotion in earnest. He was so awfully tired. “Who all?” he asked softly. “Who wants to see her?” “Emperor Chou, and and Micah and Amina. Some state officials….The high bishop of Londinium…and just, people, Mal. People from the city, the surrounding towns. She saved a great many lives tonight, and their families want to say thank you.”  “They’re forming a line in the hallway.” Zoe slipped into the bedroom to stand at his side.  “Sir, what should I—?”  “She’s not a damn martyr!”  Inara flinched but was silent.  “This ain't about...Gods and...monsters!  If there is a God, He surely ain't one for meddlin'. Religion’s a lie, and humanity's ever on her lonesome.  Except for sometimes…sometimes we get heroes, plain everyday folk who see this wretched world as fit for savin'.” He stroked a hand over the girl’s hair, smoothed her forehead with the pad of his thumb. “River Tam ain't a martyr. She's a hero, and people…people oughta know that.”  “Yes.” Inara laid her hand on his shoulder. “They should.”  “Where’s Simon?”  “Took off more ‘n an hour ago,” Zoe said softly.  “Kaylee with him.”  He glanced up sharply.  “Where’d they go?”  “Dunno where, sir.  Or when they’ll be back.”  “And River?”  “He wants her laid to rest with Wash and the Shepherd.  Already said his goodbyes.”  “What about Jayne?” Mal asked after a pause. “Left his own self, few hours ago. Just filled a bag with some things and went on his way.” “They’ll come back, Mal.”  Inara met his gaze.  “When they can….”  He shook his head.  “What are they comin’ back to?” he murmured.  “Serenity’s not gonna fly no more, Nara.”  “It’s not Serenity they’ll come back to, Mal.  It’s you.” *** TOWN OF SWEET LEAF, BELLEROPHON, ONE MONTH LATER In the kitchen of his small apartment, Amos Kane prepared a simple supper for himself. He burnt the toast, but the eggs were nice and runny and the asparagus fresh. Kane washed it all down with a glass of Chardonnay, rinsed his plate in the small sink and settled in to watch the Cortex before bed.   He had two messages waiting.  He hadn’t missed the waves—in fact he’d been home all day.  He just wasn’t in the mood for chatter, choosing instead to spend the hours reading. Now, he poured himself a third glass of the wine and touched the icon over the first message.   “Mr. Kane?  It’s Jessamyn.”    He squinted, halfcocked, at the redhead on the screen.  “Mr. Kane.”  Her voice shook noticeably. “I think I’m being followed….”  With clumsy fingers, Kane switched over to the next wave.  “Howdy, Mr. Kane; Mayella here.  Me and Monty, well we just wanted to see how the new room’s suitin’ ya.  Hope you got enough space over there, and that you’re settling in alright….yup, reckon that’s it.  So you just feel free to send me a wave.  Bye, now.”  Disgusted, Kane closed that window as well.  He knew trusting her and Monty was a mistake.  Even now, they were probably thinking on selling him out to the highest bidder. Well, they wouldn’t get their blood money. He’d leave first thing in the morning.  He just needed a few hours rest before he could summon the energy to pack.  Kane put his feet up on the sofa, a battered beige plaid that came free with the apartment.  It was old and battle-scarred, but then so was Amos.  Old age.  She was a wily mistress; in truth, Amos never expected he’d live this long.  Revolutionaries so rarely enjoyed the luxury of longevity.  It was funny, really. In his head, he felt exactly as he had at twenty.  His body, on the other hand….He could recall youth and energy and exuberance like old friends who’d long since stopped calling.       Like Quentin. Lucky bastard got to be young and handsome forever while Amos, Amos was turned old and ugly by the years. --Would you berate me for what I’ve done, Webb? Because I feel no remorse. Not an ounce. Some people have to suffer to be saved. He could imagine Quentin’s laugh--a hollow sound that weaved pale and ghostly through the air, flowed into his ears. --Jesus, Amos.  Do you invent that go suh?  Or did you check out the book?  ‘Illegal Insurrection For Idiots’…. Oh, how he’d missed Quentin all these years. Finding Mal had been a bit like having his best friend back. He saw so much of Quentin in the boy--the quiet strength of his shoulders, that gaze: strong, steady and unwavering. The father was more refined, but the son inherited his magnetism. A raw, rugged quality, aggravatingly attractive. --Quentin...I’m sorry, Quentin. I wanted to bring them down for you. Take down the government that destroyed you, and do it with your boy at my side. Dear God, he was tired. With a soft sigh that barely stirred the air, Kane rested his head on the sunken old armrest.  He dozed, and in his dreams, he dreamed of the old days. He and Quentin and Derrial and Emmy.  Dancing at the Colonade, and that holiday they all took down by the seashore.  Emmy wore that ridiculous hat—the one she insisted was all the rage on Osiris.  And every night they drank mint-mango mojitos till they were good and toasted and sang silly songs and passed out on the sand.... *** Through a dusty, spider-webbed window pane, Jayne watched Amos Kane sleep. The heels of his boots sank into soil still wet from the previous night’s drenching. He crouched behind the brush, still, waiting. In a couple more hours, he’d lose his drunk and be all manner o’ sober. Without the alcohol in his system, he found that breathin’ was a struggle. He planned on being back in his rented room long before sobriety reared her ugly head. He’d get himself a bottle of the amber elixir and maybe a girl with sweet, forgiving eyes. Last night, he tried to find one what looked like her. Worked out okay till she was riding him, and she threw her hair back. She opened her eyes, and what stared back at him weren’t River’s eyes. He went limp as a noodle inside of her. Tonight, he’d find himself a blond, one with big tits and freckles. He’d drive into her until he couldn’t see River’s face no more. Safety off. Inhale, hold, pre-squeeze the trigger. Exhale. By the time the Feds arrived to collect their package, Amos Kane would be naught but a corpse. Good of May to tell Jayne where to find him. She and Mal made it good and easy, settin’ up Kane this way. Almost like Mal wanted Jayne to shoot the bastard. He never meant to love her. Surely he didn’t mean to love her so poorly. Girl was right--wasn’t enough. Not even close. Wiggling his toes a little to return the circulation, Jayne adjusted his stance in the cool, moist dirt. This part, at least, he’d get right. He was always real good with the killing bit. Mal knew it--hell, it was why the cap’n hired him. Ruttin’ stupid to pretend otherwise, to pretend he was a man capable of lovin’ and feelin’--feelin’ somethin’ when someone who mighta meant somethin’ went and got herself dead. Jayne raised Vera and shot a neat little hole through the glass and right through Amos Kane’s heart. He killed for her like he’d killed for her before. He killed because it was the only course left him. What else was there to do? Was his own fault, Jayne figured. His own fault for lovin’ her too much and not near enough.... *** OSIRIS, CAPITAL CITY, TAM FAMILY ESTATE “You wanna go in alone?” His sweet Kaylee, with her lopsided hair twists, her soft blue jacket as familiar as skin. Kaylee, who could make him blush just by *looking* at him. “I don’t. Stay with me...please?” Her brown eyes went soft, and she took a hold of his hand. “Always.” He worried about her for awhile. Even through his own grief, he had the vague, nagging fear that her heart would forever be ruptured: torn down its center like Serenity. Bad poetry and...just plain wrong. But then he’d never been one to use words well. He was a doctor, a man of science. And an atheist, though, unlike Mal who just couldn’t help himself, Simon had been wise enough to keep said information from Book. But he was wrong to think this would destroy her. Kaylee was so, incredibly strong. Stronger than he. “Someone’s coming,” he murmured, squinting through the glass. “I got you, Simon. Not goin’ nowhere.” He had a vague flash of the children they might one day have. A son who looked like his mother. A little boy with Kaylee’s unwavering optimism and her pretty brown eyes. The urge to protect this child was sudden and fierce. It was the first time he’d thought about the future since he kissed his sister’s still blue lips. The door opened, and he saw his mother. He stiffened, feet itching to turn and run. It was only Kaylee’s presence beside him, and the warm press of her fingers on his that kept him from fleeing. Regan Tam looked as though she’d aged ten years in two. She wore plain gray pants and a black sweater that buttoned up over her neck. Even though he could feel the heat emitting from the house, she looked terribly cold. “Simon?” Her voice cracked on the words. “Oh, God, Simon.” Tears filled her eyes, and when she blinked they spilled in twin rivers over her newly lined cheeks. “Simon,” Kaylee whispered, but he couldn’t move. He stood, frozen on the front porch, unable to go to her, take her in his arms. So Kaylee did it for him. “Mrs. Tam?” she murmured, arms extended. He watched his wife enfold his mother in a tight hug, watched his mother squeeze Kaylee like her own daughter. “River...oh, my little girl.” They stood there a long time, embracing on the doorstop. *** BRANDYWINE TOWNSHIP, SILVERHOLD, THREE MONTHS LATER “Nice place you have here, Captain. It’s very...homey.” The shepherd strolled the sun-drenched kitchen, glancing his fingertips over countertops colored the deep blue of the sea. He opened the icebox and peered inside. Mal watched, amused, as he counted the neat row of jams. Brandywine was famous for it’s jam, and Parson’s wife had already sent over a passel. “Yeah, well. Can thank that Trevor fella, seein’ as he’s the one loaned me the credit to buy it. Just a loan, mind you. I ain’t one for acceptin’ charity.” “No, don’t ‘spose you are. Heard you got a new career path, by the by.” “Yeah.” Mal shrugged. “We’ll see how it goes. Just, you know, figured Inara deserves some things. I’m of the mind to give ‘em to her, those I’m able anyways.” Book smiled, and took a seat at the table. “She seems very content with you.” “It’s worth musing on,” Mal agreed, and sat as well. “Don’t know how I keep her my own self.” “Oh, I reckon it goes both ways. Looks like you’ll be having a full house again soon enough.” “Yeah.” Mal hid a smile. “Doc and Lil’ Kaylee’s comin’ back next week. Gonna stay with Nara nd me till they get on their feet.” “Top three percent and the mechanic marvel--I’m sure they’ll find work.” “Yeah, not too worried about them,” Mal agreed. “And Zoe? How are she and little Raven faring?” “Fine. Good. Kid don’t shut up from what I hear.” Book smirked. “Anyway, pair of ‘em ain’t more ‘n a few days ride by boat.” “You miss her.” “Guess that’s so. Zoe and me--we ain’t been apart more ‘n a few weeks since the War. Still, woman wants to try her hand at farming, figure I ain’t got call to stop her. Not that, you know, I could. She hits hard, Preacher.” “Oh, I’ve no doubt.” Book chuckled. “But I was referring to Serenity, Mal.” “Yeah.” Mal cleared his throat. “Miss her, too. But what I got now means more ‘n metal and spinny bits.” “Without question.” “Still...she was one fine boat.” “The finest,” Book agreed. “She carried you here, brought you to the man you are today. And that man--he’s alright, I think.” “Stop that now, I’m like to blush.” Book smiled, one eyebrow cocking curiously. “Any word from Jayne?” “Naw, not yet. Though, to be honest, Preacher, I ain’t expecting it. Figure he’ll come when he’s ready.” “I imagine that’s so.” Book coughed. “Wasn’t sure I’d be welcome here anymore myself, boy. Thought, when you learned the truth, you might not want me dropping by on you.” “Took me some time to come around, Shepherd. But, you and me, we’re good.” “I’m glad, Mal. I knew you had it in you.” “Had what...in me?” Book looked surprised. “Faith, of course.” “Preacher, me and Him are a long way from right. Still, reckon holdin’ your breath won’t hurt you any.”     “Boy, how many ways do I have to say it?  Ain’t about God.  It’s about belief, and, well, hope.” “Hope, huh. Guess I am feelin’ a mite more hopeful these days. Might be things are different here on in.  Folk can’t rightly ignore what went down at that shindig.  Too many corpses, and this time they’re close to home.  Easy enough to deny the truth when you don’t have to look on it every day, when you ain’t seein’ it in your own backyard.  This time, though—seems people are bound to take notice. “As it is, half the bigwigs in Parliament went down at the ball, good bunch of the military heads ‘swell. Could be Alliance sees fit to make some changes, new blood and the like. Maybe it turns out River’s sacrifice weren’t for nothing.  Emperor Chou and his people—they were real grateful.  Wanted her body laid to rest in the Royal Burial Grounds.  Was all we could do to convince ‘em otherwise.  Don’t mean I think it’s a fair trade, but…but maybe it weren’t all for nothin’.  If’n things change even a little, it won’t have been for nothin’.”  “That was all I ever wanted from you, son.  That you believe in *something*…and maybe swear a mite less.”  Mal smirked.  “Do got the tykes to consider now.  Can’t be raisin’ ‘em to curse like space sailors…not that Inara’s like to let me.”  “Something tells me she’ll make those children a fine mama.  River’s glad for that.”  “Yeah.  Figured she would be.  How, uh…”  Mal tugged absently on the bridge of his nose.  “How is she?  Lil’ Albatross….”  “Would you accept my assurances?  After all, you don’t believe I’m really here.”  “Now, now.  No need to get snarky, Shepherd.  Maybehaps you just say your piece, let me work on the whole faith bit.”  Book chuckled, a rolling belly laugh that made Mal smile, too.  The shepherd reclined in his chair, locking his hands behind his head as he pondered.  “She’s alright, I think. I’m not sure how to explain where she is, Mal.  Never did claim to understand the girl.”  He smiled, eyes warm and thoughtful.  “Maybe it’s easier to tell you what’s she not.  She’s not cold or frightened or hurting.  She’s not that innocent child stolen by the Academy, but neither is she the broken one her brother stole back.  She isn’t missing those parts anymore.  She’s well in places pills could never reach, safe beyond the protection of any gun.  In an odd way, she’s exactly as you and Simon wanted her.”   “Except she ain’t breathin’.”  His voice wavered, and he coughed to cover the dip.  “She lonely?”  “She is, Mal.  She’s a little lonely.  But she’s patient, too.  One thing about bein’ where we are—it doesn’t seem so hurried.”    “She deserved, I don’t know, more.  Shoulda got to walk down an aisle in some shiny dress, have a baby if she wanted.  Shoulda had the chance to know the ones she’s already got.”  He shook his head, fury sparking in his eyes.  “Bastard robbed her of that.  Robbed those kids, too.”  “Being angry with God…it’s kinda like being angry at traffic, or the weather…or taxes.  Ain’t exactly gonna accomplish a lot in the long run.”  “Preacher, I been avoiding all three for goin’ on eight years.”  They laughed, together, again.  “Well, boy. It was good to see you.” “Always do enjoy our chats, Preacher.”  “As do I, Mal.”  He patted a hand against the captain’s cheek.  “As do I.  Unfortunately, there’s a couple folk waiting on me.  Think there’s someone waiting on you as well.”  “That a fact?”    “Of course it’s a fact, Mal. Do you think I’d lie to your daughter?” He opened his eyes, squinting into the morning sunlight. Inara lay beside him, her dark, tumbling hair haloed in gold, his infant daughter curled close to her breast. He was fairly certain he hadn’t seen a sweeter sight in all his years. “It’s true, Epiphany.” Inara nuzzled the baby’s neck. “Your father does so snore, doesn’t he, sweetheart?” Mal smirked and sat up, scratching a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, didn’t hear her cryin’.” “She wasn’t. When I woke, you were still sleeping; I thought I’d look in on the twins.” She lifted a shoulder, and the strap of her nightgown inched down her arm. He bent his head to kiss the sun-warmed flesh, and she smiled. “This young lady was awake, watching her stars and moons mobile very intently. I suppose that proves she’s her father’s daughter.” “Guess that’s so.” He stroked the dark, silken strands of the baby’s hair while she dozed. A cry breached the quiet of the bedroom. “That’ll be her brother.” Mal shrugged. “Reckon I oughta go see to the lad.” “Smile any harder and you’ll lose that Cold-as-the-Black reputation.” “Inara...you think I like gettin’ up with ‘em? You think it tickles me that all my good shirts smell of spit-up?” “You don’t have any good shirts, Mal.” She smiled affectionately and traced her fingers over his nose. “And, yes. I think you love it.” “Well...yeah.” He grinned. “Still, this is serious. You realize we ain’t havin’ sex for the next eighteen years.” “We had sex last night, Mal.” “Yeah, but...that was last night.” “You, Captain, are incorrigible.” “If that means horny for ya, then, ya, darlin’; I surely am. I like when you call me ‘Captain’ by the by.” She settled Epiphany’s sleeping form into his arms after pressing one last kiss to the child’s temple. “Hurry back. Captain.” *** Sunlight pierced the curtains, smuggled through the blinds to warm the room and the sheets, Inara’s skin under his fingers. He made love to her mouth, plunging the sweet depths with his tongue in a reverent imitation of their coupling. He filled her slowly, savoring each sweep of her fingers, every breathy moan of pleasure he could pull from her lips. She rose to meet his thrusts, squeezing him with slender, golden thighs, steering him toward his release. “Inara?” Her skin was soft and dewey from sex, eyes easy and languid. He pressed a kiss to the center of her chest. “Inara, tell me somethin’. Truthsome.” “Alright.” “This ain’t the life you dreamt of as a lil’ girl....” She smiled. “No,” she admitted. “It wasn’t this.” “Do you ever--?” She lifted a hand to his lips. “I don’t ever.” She drew her lips over his temple, sliding kisses along his cheeks and chin before settling on his mouth. “No regrets, Mal. Not a single one.” “Yeah. Yeah, me either.” He nuzzled her hair, buried his face in the heady, heavy black and was sated. *** end

Epilogue To Come. Log in and leave me feedback!

COMMENTS

Sunday, July 9, 2006 8:32 PM

WICKEDWMS


I do not remember ever being moved to tears by a fanfiction. Throughout the 2nd half of this chapter I had a painful lump in my throat and tears running down my face. This series was very beautifully done and this chapter was exquisite. Very moving. I hate when writers kill off characters because the writing is usually very sensationalistic. The action taken to move the readers because their own writing cannot. Now I have been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to come up with the words to express how perfectly you wrote every moment and I can't. I'm spent. A writer has to be especially good for me to forgive them for killing a character and you are that good.

Sunday, July 9, 2006 9:30 PM

FRELLINGBLONDE


You...you killed River AND Serenity? I need to go have a cry now.

Beautiful, absolutley...beautiful seems inadequate. But...yeah, wow. Anything else I could say would just be repeating what's already been said.

Epilogue soon? Please?

Monday, July 10, 2006 12:15 AM

TAYEATRA


I can't believe you just did that. I mean, it was incredible and brilliantly written, but still...

Wow.

There are so many poignant lines in this demi-chapter. Too many to comment on. I just want to say a really big thank-you for the entire fic. It's been the highlight of the bluesun room.

Very much looking forward to the final fix of this excellent fanfic.

I *heart* this series!

Monday, July 10, 2006 5:11 AM

LEIASKY


wow. There's so much to comment on, I'm not sure where to even start.

The pace of this chapter was well done. The urgency of the Reaver attack had me sitting on the edge of my seat and holding my breath.

The quickness with which River died shocked me, and was oddly appropriate. Though I did think Simon not staying for a funeral and just taking off was a bit odd.

Mal and Inara caring for the babies was nice, and as always, the banter between all of them was excellent.

I'm glad we'll get an epilogue because this doesn't feel like its quite over yet!

Monday, July 10, 2006 6:07 AM

TAMSIBLING


You killed River - it's going to take me a while to form any other coherent thought ....

There is so much going on here, so many beautiful moments, I don't even know where to begin ... Jayne's grief was pitch perfect as was Mal's conversation with Book.

I love all of your Mal and Inara and her thoughts during the Reaver battle, especially thinking that she should be quipping were terrific!

Kaylee pretending to be in charge just made me giggle out loud ... she can be so downright cute, you just want to pinch her cheeks.

Simon's grief was also terrific, but maybe not enough? I feel he'd have more say, more to feel, be unable in a way to let her go so readily.

I still can't believe you killed River, but out of all our BDHs, she is the one who is always in the most danger and who would so readily sacrifice herself for the others ... although I'll admit, when Jayne was with her after she died, I kept waiting for her eyes to open .... *sniffle*

Post the epilogue soon, please!

Monday, July 10, 2006 4:09 PM

RMMC


First Serenity, now River?! Hate you. ;)
Kidding aside, you did a great job. Lots of good left hooks out of nowhere. (I despise seeing where something' headed. I like surprises...even painful ones.)

I liked Kaylee buffaloing the solider. it made me giggle a lot.

Looking foward to your next endeavor, and well, the epilog, too.

Monday, July 10, 2006 9:53 PM

ERYN


i second wickedwms - you wrote this beautifully! i can't believe how you still surprise me after all these chapters. it may sound trite, but while reading this chapter i cried, i laughed, i sat on the edge of my seat... you write comedy, suspense, drama, romance, angst... all of it, amazingly. you've ended this extrodinary series perfectly - i feel closure, in the midst of my grief.

thank you SO much for sharing with us! you have a wonderful gift.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 4:05 AM

WEREALLJUSTFLOATING


Wow, that was an amazing end to a fantastic series!! Although I'm a more than a little heartbroken at the loss of River and Serenity, it was very beautifully done.

I hope this isn't the last we hear of your stories, as I've so enjoyed them!! Don't quite know how you'd continue, but I hope you do. If not, I can't think of a more poignant and hopeful ending for our heroes!!

Well done Kaynara.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006 5:59 AM

JYNNANTONNYX


I so very much want to hate you for what you just wrote but I can't *sobs*

I was dreading this chapter because I think I knew you were going to kill River off. Logically, she would be the one to make the sacrifice. Serenity died and River died. To me, they represent similar things. I think this is something Joss would do (because he's evil).

Honestly, I read this about 10 hours ago and I'm still finding it hard to express in words how I feel. I'm a River/Jayne shipper foremost, so naturally, this chapter just about broke me. But you wrote it so well. Jayne and Simon's grief was wonderfully written and I'm crying now just thinking about it *cries*

This is one of the best fanfics I've ever read and I'm so sad to see it end. Especially without one of my favourite characters. But there's an epilogue right? :) I'm very much looking forward to it. And anything else you write in the future.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 6:12 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Noooo.....you can't! You can't just off River AND Serenity in one go! That's just evil!

Oh Kaynara....you are one of a rare breed. The sheer energy and focus you have put into this series definitely makes me think you either can channel Joss at will or you have him tied up in your basement...cuz this was so perfect for a post-BDM future, with River making the ultimate sacrifice to stop a madman worse than what the Alliance could field on a good day:D

I can't wait for the epilogue...gotta get the remaining BDHs together and let them find a new path together in this undiscovered country;)

BEB

Thursday, July 13, 2006 8:26 PM

SQUISH


This series (and this chapter) is absolutely the most amazing piece of fanfiction I've ever read! But then I think you know that I've always loved it!

To say I was moved to tears is an understatement. I knew that you had to have character death to make the story true to what you've done with the series (and I'm glad you took that step) I just wasn't sure who it would be. You surprised me. And the swiftness of it was brilliant and excrutiating. As was Jayne's reaction to it.

I loved the part with Kaylee taking charge! And Mal and Gideon fighting! I'm glad that Gideon redeemed himself, I thought you did a wonderful job writing a complex and flawed OC. I also loved the ending, Simon's reactions, his confrontation with his mother (did I interpret it correctly that his mother might have thought Kaylee to be River? If so, that would be fitting in a very ironical way), and Mal's conversation with Book was wonderful. I'm glad he gave Mal some peace about River.

Off to read the epilogue now. I'm sure to leave more glowing praise there!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007 11:21 AM

KADOOGAN


Others have already covered the points I wanted to so I'll simply say this was wonderful.

River is my favourite Firefly character and her death came as a real shock. I had to go back and re-read that section twice just so I could continue the story! It was done so quickly which made it less 'Hollywood' and so more real (which is exactly what I said about Wash's death in the movie).

Thank you for writing this and sharing. I am in awe of your talent.


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