BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

HARRIET VANE

Ties that Bind: Time to Leave
Sunday, May 18, 2003

A great escape, a fist fight, heart reaching confessions, unabashed flirting, and tearful goodbyes . . . what else could you want?


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3348    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY

Chapter Five:

Wednesday

Another gray day on Newhope and in Du Chang in particular, the grayish light shone through the large windows in one of the villa's seemingly countless comfortable sitting rooms. There was a fire in the hearth surrounded by two identical plush couches facing one another and several chairs with end tables designed to hold a cup of tea and a half read book. The room seemed to exude comfort. And even as Simon was lead into it by armed guards and saw his clearly uncomfortable parents sitting stiffly on a dark red velvet couch, he couldn't help but feel slightly more relaxed for being in such a comforting environment. River must have felt the same, he reasoned, she was sound asleep, looking peaceful and perfect, curled up in an overstuffed leather armchair. "What's this?" Simon asked cautiously. "Family story time?" "Don't be sarcastic," Gabriel snapped. "We have something very important to discuss with you." "By discuss I suppose you mean that you'll tell me what you think and expect me to sit quietly and nod my head in shame," Simon said, easing himself carefully down on the other couch, facing his parents. "This is very serious Simon," Regan said. "We are very serious." "I never thought any of this was a joke," The boy assured them honestly. "We've talked it over," his mother continued, "Your father, your godfather and I and . . . we don't want you to get hurt dear." "Good," Simon said, looking at his mother suspiciously, waiting for the other shoe to drop. "I don't want to get hurt." "What your mother is trying to say, son," Gabriel said, in a kinder voice than he’d used with Simon for years, since before River's letters. "Is that we think you need to turn yourself in." "What?" Simon said, exasperated. "Are you totally insane?" "This is something we want you to do of your own volition," Regan said. "We know it would be hard for you but --" "You’re both out of your minds," Simon said, staring at his parents with horror. "Don't you understand what will happen if they get us?" "They?" "The Alliance," Simon said. "They'll send her back to be tortured and . . ." The memory of the guards screams on Ariel started to resonate in his ears again. "And I don't think I'd fare much better." "Simon, sweetheart," his mother said in an unquestionably loving motherly tone, a tone that he'd never been able to say no to growing up, a tone that melted his heart. "I know that this is hard for you but, please, think clearly about what's really best for the whole family." "Please, son," his father added. "It would be so much better for everyone if you would just turn yourself in. Can't you find it within yourself to do the right thing?" Simon starred at his parents, dumbfounded, heartbroken, and absolutely speechless. * * * "Wish I had mittens," Kaylee said, blowing into her bare cupped hands before shoving them deep into the pockets of her raincoat. "It's not so cold out," Book said. The pair was strolling along the shop fronts of Du Chang's tourist district, not far from the Governor's villa. They had an hour to burn until they meet Zoë and hopped on the train back to Sweet Well. "Yeah," the girl said. "I guess I'm just jittery. Every little thing seems big." "I see," Book said wisely. "You're far more content worrying about your cold hands, which you know will be fine, then venturing to worry over what the Captain is doing?" "Just thinking of it makes me sick to my stomach," Kaylee admitted. "My tummy was so tied up in knots this morning that I couldn't even eat breakfast." "Is that a subtle hint that you would like to stop in one of these quaint little coffee shops?" "Well, no," Kaylee said, looking in at the warm surroundings and seeing people holding steaming mugs as they chatted cheerfully without a care in the world. "But, ya know, it'd be kinda nice. Still, we gots sandwiches if we're hungry and . . ." "And a little treat that provided a pleasant distraction would do neither of us harm," Book asserted, placing his hand on her back and gently guiding her into one of the shops. Kaylee offered no resistance. The place was busy, almost crowded, and delightfully bright and warm after the dim coolness of outside. "I'll get a table," Book said, "Why don't you get the drinks?" "What you want?" Kaylee called as the preacher headed into the mass of people, soon to be lost. "Green tea, if they have it. If not, black does just fine." "What about a muffin?" Kaylee persisted, halting Book in his tracks. "Or a roll?" "If they have fresh hard rolls," the older man said, and then, thinking twice, amended, "No, just tea.” Kaylee dutifully retrieved green tea for the good shepherd, and she ordered him a hard roll, which he’d obviously wanted one but, with saintly self-control, declined. She got a croissant for herself, so light and fluffy that she couldn’t help but giggle in anticipation, and a cup of warm milk with honey, to settle her stomach. Best of all, there were small packets of strawberry preserves and lumps of butter. It was the brightest and most cheerful breakfast Kaylee could imagine. It was almost impossible to believe that something bad could happen after a breakfast like this. When Kaylee reached the table, her beaming smile slipped a little. Book had found them a small nook by a window. He was staring out into the grayness of the morning looking introspective and distant. Kaylee hated to interrupt him. But after a second’s hesitation she realized that she could not stand there holding a heavy tray forever. Eventually, she was going to have to sit down, better sooner than later. And if she had to disturb him, she might as well do it properly. “Hey, there, Shepherd,” She said, drawing his attention away from the window and his thoughts. “Ready for breakfast? They had green tea.” “And hard roll’s apparently,” Book said, standing politely as she set the tray on the table. He only sat when she did. “Yeah, thought you might like one. Ain’t every day we get real bread and butter.” “True enough, I suppose,” Book chuckled. “Thank you.” “Well, your welcome,” she said simply before taking the first sip of her sweet, warm, wholesome milk. They ate in silence for a minute. After a bit, Kaylee said, “Were you prayin’?” “What?” “When I came up you were lookin’ out the window all thoughtful and such . . .” “Yes,” Book admitted. “I was.” “What for?” The old man sighed. “I’m not sure.” “Don’t recall?” “No,” Book said tentatively. “It’s just . . . I prayed for protection, for the Captain and for all of us. I just . . . I don’t know what form that protection will take.” “How do you mean?” “In my mind, it’s a struggle,” the shepherd confessed. “I want the captain to be successful in his mission, and indeed, I’ve even helped him to that end. But, what if this is where Simon and River are supposed to be? How arrogant are we, in our small ship, scraping by from job to job, to assume we can do better for them then their own, considerably well off, family?” Kaylee pressed her lips together and nodded sadly. “Do you think God’d mind too much if I prayed those selfish prayers?” Kaylee asked. “I mean, you’re a shepherd, you gotta think those kinda things. But I’m just a girl, you think if I prayed that we get Simon and River back safe, he’d listen? That way you could pray whatever you had to and know that someone, at least, was prayin’ for them to come back ta us.” Book chuckled, “Pray away, sweetheart,” Book chuckled. “I’m sure God is more inclined to answer the heartfelt prayers of a sweet young girl over the overly critical introspections of an old man anyways.” * * * Zoë stepped closer to the red velvet rope separating her from one of the restricted hallways. “What’s down there?” she said loudly. “Ah,” The tour guide said, forcing a too-big smile. “That leads to a series of meeting rooms.” “Can we see them?” Zoë asked, reaching out to unhook the cord. “No!” the guide snapped. At the beginning of the tour their pretty guide had looked prim and composed; every one of her blond hair’s perfectly quaffed into a neat bun, her red uniform pressed and perfect. But now, after nearly endless harassment form an oh-so-innocent Zoë, the poor woman seemed to be frazzled beyond the point of reorganization. The smile she’d held on to so tenaciously for the first half-hour of the tour was now thin and forced. The hands with the beautiful and perfect nails which had been so expressive and so quick to point to areas of interest were now balled into fists, the nails digging into the woman’s poor palms. Mal didn’t quite know how, but even the uniform seemed effected by Zoë’s continual and inane question-asking and total disregard for all civilized rules of tour-taking. It looked wrinkled and the colors seemed to have faded, but that was, perhaps, because the guide’s shoulders were sagging with exhaustion. “Why not?” The firstmate asked innocently. Mal and Jayne had to try very hard not to burst into laughter. “Because it’s off limits.” Zoë’s deep brown eyes widened with amazement. “Is there a meeting going on down there?” she asked, apparently more interested than before. “Something important, with the governor and great captains of industry and such?” “It’s off limits,” the guide said firmly. “Now, if you would just follow me . . .” “But,” Zoë persisted. “There ain’t no reason not to go down there is there? Unless, unless those aren’t really meeting rooms.” For a very brief second Mal thought he’d have to save his firstmate from strangulation by an enraged tour guide. But the woman somehow found her composure. “Miss, please, there is a lot to see yet.” “Really?” Zoë asked, clearly thrilled with the prospect. “We gonna see some rich stuff?” “If you’ll please just follow me,” the guide said, her voice trembling. She was smiling at Zoë, and at the group in general, yet it was clear that her teeth were clenched. Zoë did as she was told, like an over-eager child. Mal and Jayne followed, lagging to the back of the group. No one noticed them, which was a testament to how good Zoë could be at attracting attention to herself, for Jayne was fairly noticeable in any crowd. “I’m kinda worried about leaving Zoë to the mercies of this tour guide,” Mal told his mercenary softly. “Seems like she’s at the edge, any minute she could snap.” “Hell yeah,” Jayne grunted. “Zoë and that tour guide, that’s a fight I’d pay to see.” Mal glared up at the other man, but didn’t comment. “Come on,” he said softly, unhooking the velvet rope and sliding into the hallway. “We ain’t no tourists. We didn’t come here for fun. We got a job to do.” “Right,” Jayne said a little bitterly, following his captain as they started to sneak down the hall towards the guest suites where, according to Inara, Simon and River were being kept. “We gotta go rescue the doctor, a task what gets less fun every time I do it.” “Really?” Mal asked. “For some reason, to me, each time it seems more thrilling.” “Don’t it bother you that the kid keeps gettin’ nabbed?” Jayne snorted. “He’s more trouble than he’s worth.” “There are lots of reasons for you to take that comment back, Jayne,” Mal said, his voice still light and the majority of his focus still on slinking down the empty hallway unnoticed. “In fact, I can’t think of a single reason for you to be talking at all at this juncture.” “I think you like him better ‘n me,” Jayne said gruffly. Mal stopped and, for a second, was totally dumbfounded. He turned to Jayne and looked the brute right in the eyes. “You really just say what I just heard?” Jayne hesitated. After a second he cleared his throat and said, in a very gruff voice, “No.” “I didn’t think so,” Mal said with a cool nod, before he turned and continued to creep down the hallway. * * * "Hey!" Wash said amicably to the guard standing outside the service entrance to the governor’s villa. "State your business," the very stiff guard said. "Ah," Wash fumbled, padding the pockets of his raincoat with his right hand as his left was occupied with carrying a tool chest. "Got a work order here for a shuttle." "We don’t send out work orders," the guard said, a note of condensation in his voice. "We have internal maintenance." "Really?" Wash asked his eyebrows shooting up in feigned amazement. "’Cause, you know, that’s what I thought, but the guy, my boss, you know, he was like, ‘No, Gov.’s Villa’ and so . . ." he finally found the work order. "Here," he said, handing the man a thin, magnetized data chip. The guard looked at Wash’s outstretched hand and the chip in it skeptically. "Come on," Wash said, pleaded, "It’s cold out here. If I’m not supposed to be here, I’m supposed to be someplace else. I don’t got a reader so . . ." "Right," the guard said gruffly, snatching the chip from Wash’s hand and turning to enter the guard house where he could read it. Wash stepped to follow before the man turned and glared at the pilot. "You say out here," he ordered coldly. "Out here," Wash said, as the guard went in and the door closed. "Out here with the cold and the wind. I can stay out here, out here is just great." After a minute, the guard came out again, "Everything seems to be in order," he grumbled. "Apparently you were called in to fix the shuttle of a companion who is visiting the governor." "Ah," the pilot chuckled, "That explains it. Our shop has this agreement with the Companion’s Guild, extremely profitable, getting more by the year, let me tell you. I am surprised though. I always figured the governor wouldn’t be the type to call a companion, you know, real family man." "You will wait here for a guard to escort you to the shuttle," was the guards answer. "Can I wait in the guard house?" Wash asked meekly, eyeing the warm structure. "When you’ve finished with your repairs you will signal a guard and you will be escorted back here." "Great," Wash said, nodding, "Just great." The guard didn’t say anything, he just offered the pilot one last glare and turned back to his post. "So here I wait," Wash muttered switching his tool box from his left hand to his right so he could put that poor, frozen appendage in the relatively unproductive pocket of his raincoat. "Standing in the damp cold, I wait." * * * Bester sat in his office at his desk with the door opened and tinkered with a pile of fried transmitters. The guard and the housekeeping staff used them to send orders and keep in touch while working in the various parts of the large villa, and they had a tendency to drop them and break them. The pile had been building up on his desk for months and, because transmitters were easier to replace than they were to fix, he’d just kept on replacing them. But now that the damned sprained back had him in a wheel chair for up to three weeks and he had to do something. As he was rewiring what felt like the thousandth blown audio circuit, a noise in the hallway distracted him. It was not a loud noise, nor an unusual one, but he dearly longed to be distracted. Putting the transmitter down, he wheeled closer to the door and listened. There were voices, two men talking, coming closer. The voices were hushed and the words were clipped; these men didn’t want to be heard. Bester wheeled himself closer still. Leaning forward as much as his sprained back would let him, he eavesdropped. "Ain’t like . . ." A gruff voice said so softly that Bester could only pick up a word here or there. " . . . . any idea . . . them fay wu . . . " "Well then . . ." another voice said, a voice that, for some reason, Bester thought he should know. Maybe it was one of the guards he’d gotten drunk with one night, or perhaps the sanitary engineer who always swept his office, or that clerk that sent out performance reviews . . . but none of those seemed quite right. He kept listening. " . . . gonna have ta . . . ‘till we . . ." " . . . the guards . . . and ask what the . . . doin’ here." "We’ll just . . . that we got . . . from the tour . . . tryin’ ta find . . . back." "Mao niao , Mal . . ." the gruff voice said. " . . .ain’t never . . . work." Mal! That was it, Bester realized, that was the voice. Malcolm Reynolds, the bastard captain that had tossed him aside in favor of the local slut who, admittedly, was really hot and seemed to know her grav thrust from her power coupling, so Bester couldn’t even really hold a grudge. Still, the opportunity to dump this lame-ass government job and pick up some work with a little zing in it was too good to pass up. Bester swung his wheel chair out into the middle of the hall and scooted after the voices. He found Mal, and another larger man he’d never met before. Perhaps Zoë’s replacement, Bester thought, although Zoë was hot and this ape-man was, to put it succinctly, not. "Hey Mal!" Bester said excitedly, as soon as his old captain was in view. But Reynolds hadn’t expected anyone to sneak up on him, and he certainly didn’t expect anyone to know his name. He pivoted quickly, before Bester even finished his phrase, reaching for his handgun, an action which, under normal circumstances, would have made Bester very nervous. But the villa had a very strict no-gun policy, so the mechanic knew before Mal did that the revolver wasn’t there. When Mal’s hand hit his hip, he was forced to realize he didn’t even have a holster. "Mal, Mal," Bester said, jovially. "Don’t cha remember me?" "Want I should kill him?" the ape-man asked, stepping forward with an eager gleam in his eye. "Gei ji ren zhi fan shi gaung liang !" Mal spat. "Bester, that you?" "Yeah!" the mechanic said excitedly, wheeling his chair a little closer "You remember me?" "Seein’ you and little Kaylee humpin’ in the middle of my engine room is an image that was, regrettably, burned into my mind," Mal said, his tone not quite friendly. "He did Kaylee?" the ape-man asked, his beady eyes widening with the thought. "Jayne, shut-up." Mal snapped to the larger man. Turning to Bester, he said. "What the di yu happened to you?" "Got a job here," Bester explained excitedly. "Top maintenance man. Good pay, you know, but ah, I could be convinced to leave it if . . ." "Sorry," Mal said quickly. He was getting tetchy, Bester could tell, his eyes kept darting back and forth, looking for someone he didn’t want to see. "Kaylee’s workin’ out just great and, as I believe we’ve discussed, I don’t need two mechanics." "Sides, he couldn’t do the job anyways," Jayne said, "Ship’s a maze of stairs, he’d never get out a the cargo bay in that." "What?" Bester asked, "The chair? This is like a week’s gig, tops, you know. Fell out of a ceiling, sprained my back. Then the dai dai gan mei yong yi sheng godson of the governor here, all he does is help me to the bed, you know. My back’s broke and all he can do is help me to bed!" "Mei young yi sheng ?" Mal asked. "I don’t suppose you’d be talkin’ ‘bout Dr. Simon Tam?" "Yeah, I guess," Bester said, not really liking the gleam in Mal’s eyes, like the cargo was on board and all that was left was to get paid. "Tam or Tram or somethin’, we ain’t supposed to be talkin’ ‘bout them." "I don’t suppose you know where they are right now, though, do you?" Mal asked. "I could get in trouble . . ." Bester started, hoping to maybe, manipulate Mal into a more gracious position. "Lot less trouble than you’d get in if I got my hand’s on you," Jayne said fiercely. "How fast you think one a them wheel chairs go ‘fore it hit that far wall down there?" "I would be curious to find out," Mal said casually. "You see, we wouldn’t be askin’ 'cept this is a matter of some personal importance to us. As stupid-fucking-useless as he can sometimes be, Simon is our doctor and we want him back. Don’t we Jayne?" "Yeah, right," Jayne muttered. "Do we ever." "Come on Mal," Bester begged. "It’s boring as hell here. Take me with you." "There’s plenty a ships could use decent mechanics," Mal said. "If you can’t find one, that ain’t my fault. However, if I can’t find Simon, then that is you’re fault. And I have a feelin’ Jayne here really is itching to know how fast one of these here wheelchairs can go." "Bet ‘cha ten credits that I can get it to three kph ‘fore it hits the wall." "Fay hwah ," Mal spat. "Couldn’t get it over one." "Fine," Bester grumbled. "They're in the east sitting room." "And how do we get there?" "Take a right at the end of this hall. It’s ‘bout thirty yards down, on the right. Big wooden doors." "How we know he’s not leadin’ us wrong?" Jayne asked. "Maybe we should give this here chair a test run, make sure." "Nah," Mal said gregariously patting the mechanic on his tattooed cheek. "Bester here’s an old friend. He knows how important staying on good terms with old friends is." "Right," Jayne grunted, putting his rifle over his shoulder. "Well," Mal said crisply. "You’ve been most helpful. We're in your debt. Jayne, come on." He started walking quickly in the direction Bester had recommended. Jayne started to follow, but after a step, hesitated and turned. "So you really do it with Kaylee?" He asked quietly, so Mal couldn’t hear. Bester nodded, more than a little intimidated by the large man with a girl’s name. "Was she good?" Jayne asked. "You know, zai i-tsz good?" "Hell yeah," Bester chuckled, remembering the way she’d moaned, and he’d moaned. "Jayne!" Mal snapped, a little too loudly, as he waved insistently Jayne to follow. "Thanks," Jayne said quickly to Bester before jogging to follow his captain around the corner. Bester watched, a tad resentful for a second, then shrugged as much as his sprained back would allow. "That ship’s still full of freaks.” * * * “No,” Simon gasped. “You can’t . . .” “Can’t what?” his mother said. “All were doing is asking you –“ “To commit suicide?” Simon asked. “To surrender River to a living hell?” “Language, Simon,” Gabriel said with a warning in his voice. “It’s just words, Daddy,” River said softly. No one had realized she was awake, she hadn’t moved. But her voice was still clear and captivating. “River, dear,” Gabriel said. “You shouldn’t defend your brother when you know he’s doing wrong.” “You’re right,” the girl said, pushing herself away from the chair she’d been lying on. Her cheek was red where it was pressed against the chair and there was a clear mark where the seam had been. “Simon is very wrong,” she turned to look at her brother. “I was bitterly disappointed but I’ve rested and I forgive you.” “Forgive me?” Simon asked. “River what did I . . .?” “You didn’t come,” the girl said softly, weakly. “Its teeth sank into me and it swallowed me and the cold choked me. It hurt, Simon, it hurt and I died.” “River, dear, you didn’t die,” Regan said soothingly. “And you didn’t come,” River said, her voice was trembling and tears threatened to spill out of her eyes. “But the walls are thick and the halls are long and I wonder if it didn’t eat you too.” “River,” Gabriel said in his most fatherly tone. “This is serious, stop babbling.” “Don’t treat her like that!” Simon snapped. “If she says something, the least you can do is listen!” “She’s rambling,” Gabriel said, matching his son’s anger notch by notch. “Nothing she says makes sense.” “They’re just words!” River screeched. Her whole face was red and tears were streaming down her cheeks. “It’s talk and talk and someone’s going to do something and we’ll all wish there’d been fewer words.” “River,” Simon said compassionately. He was stood up and moved towards her, but before he got a step closer his father grabbed him by the arm. “You are not her savior, do you understand that?” Gabriel yelled at his son. “I’ll tell you what I understand,” a very calm and cool voice said from the door. The scene stopped, for a heartbeat and everyone turned to look at the doorway. Mal was standing there with the sauntering confidence of a hero. “Who?” Regan breathed. “Mal?” Simon asked, not believing his eyes. “Quiet time,” River said, her sobs turning into gasps. “Shhhhhh!” “Who the hell are you?” Gabriel said, letting go of his son’s arm so he could face this new, foreign threat. “Captain Malcolm Reynolds,” Mal said with a smile as he strolled in casually. “But somewhat less important than my name, I think, is my observation.” “What’s that?” Regan breathed, too shocked by the man’s mere presence to question his authority. “That there’s a frightened little girl right here crying, and ‘stead of rushing ta comfort her, her parents are stopping those who would.” “Oh,” Regan said, truly taken aback. “I’m going to ask again,” Gabriel demanded. “Who the hell are you?” “And I’ll tell you again,” Mal said amiability, pronouncing each syllable very slowly and clearly. “I’m Captain Malcolm Reynolds.” “That does not clarify the issue,” Gabriel said between clenched teeth. “We’re here for yer kids,” Jayne’s rough voice called as he pushed himself forward to stand next to Mal. With or without guns, his presence was still a threat. “What?” Regan gasped, her hands flying to her mouth. “Crude and, ah, heartless, as Jayne is he happens to be absolutely correct. We’re here for the kids.” “Is this a kidnapping attempt?” Gabriel asked with a laugh. “Do you know where you are?” “It’s not a kidnap,” Simon said, his voice sounded a little dazed. “’You're not a prisoner if you don't want to run away.’” River laughed sadly, “The words are falling over themselves, folds and echoes.” “You can’t take them,” Gabriel said furiously. “You can’t stop him,” Simon retorted, having regained possession of himself. “River and I would rather be dead than in the hands of the Alliance. He’s protected us, over and over.” The boy was slowly, defiantly backing away from his father, each step bringing him closer to his captain. “You want me to turn myself in? I can’t do that. If you’re going to stop us, you’re going to have to kill us.” “Well, I’d rather see you dead than a filthy criminal!” “Hey,” Jayne interjected. “I take a bath ‘least once a week.” “I’ll call the guards,” the elder Tam continued, his voice strained with passion. “They will come in hear and shoot anyone who offers resistance.” “Simon,” Mal said, “In the future don’t suggest that people kill us. Tend’s to put bad ideas in the wrong people’s heads.” “He won’t,” Simon said with a sort of nervous confidence in his voice. “Won’t I?” Gabriel spat. “No,” Simon continued. “Because we’re your children. And you love us.” “Simon, please,” Regan sobbed. “I’m sorry, Mom,” the doctor said. “But you have to love us enough let us go. That’s what we need.” “We’re your gifts,” River said with a sniffle. “Some people give money, some give time, but Mommy and Daddy gave us.” She turned to her brother and smiled beautifully, even though her eyes were red with tears. “They gave you to humanity, Simon. You would fix the ‘verse’s ills. You would save lives. You would be important. You would make a difference.” “River,” Gabirel warned, “It would be best for you to say out of this.” “Hey now,” Mal said. “It’s her life. I think she should get her say.” “You were going to give me to the humanities,” River continued telling her father. “A prima ballerina, pretty and perfect. But that changed. They wanted me and you saw what a gift I could be. A politician, a military genius, a leader of men. I was your gift to the Alliance.” River unfolded herself from her chair and started walking towards her father. He was looking at her with his hard gray eyes and very clearly trying hard keep command of this situation. His skin looked ashen and his hands were trembling. “I wanted to be what you saw for me, I wanted you to be proud,” she reached her father and looked up at him, not condemningly, but sadly. Tears were running down her cheeks. “You told your friends I was special, that I’d been picked for a special school. But I couldn’t wear pink, or purple or blue. You swelled with pride when positive evaluations were sent home. But they took away the jumping ropes before they became nooses. You dreamed of my reflected glory. But I only had nightmares.” “River,” Regan said, finally gathering herself together enough to push away from the couch and wrap herself around her daughter. “We only ever wanted what’s best for you. You and Simon both.” “Then let us go,” Simon asked from across the room. The boy’s voice was thin with tears he didn’t want to shed in front of Mal and Jayne. “I can understand how hard this is,” Mal said, his voice was a little dewy as well. “But it is the best way. I will protect your children.” “Take Simon,” Gabriel said harshly. “He’s obviously determined to go. But you both know River needs more than you can give her.” “What River needs is to be with people who love her more than their social position,” Mal retorted. “How dare you!” Regan hissed. “Shhhh,” River said, pulling away from her mother and, like Simon, backing herself closer to Mal and Jayne. “The words are buzzing. They’ll sting.” “I cannot accept that my children would choose you over—”Gabriel started. “What?” Mal interrupted. “Death and torture? You’d be surprised what people will chose over death and torture. Although, having been tortured to death myself, I tend to think it gets a bad rap. Now, can we go?” “Gotta say goodbye,” River muttered, as if the seriousness and finality of the situation had just occurred to her. “Ain’t that what you’ve been doin’?” Jayne asked, annoyed. “Please, Captain,” Simon said softly. “Yes,” Regan called, hurrying towards her children. “Please, Captain Reynolds. Just one last hug, one last kiss. I swear, I’ll let them go. Truly let them go, so long as I can have that.” “Fine,” Mal muttered. “Move it along.” “Oh, River,” Regan said, running forward, once more wrapping her arms around her daughter for what would undoubtedly be the last time. “Oh, River, my baby. And, Simon,” Regan said, looking over her daughter’s shoulder, stretching out her hand to him. Simon reached out tentatively, and took it. “You’ll always be my little boy, my darling.” She squeezed his hand. “I love you and I trust you to take care of her. And yourself.” The young man nodded mutely, too heartbroken to speak. He was still trying not to cry, although that battle was clearly lost. “Here,” Regen said, slipping her hand away from her son and letting her daughter go so she could pull a delicate ring, gold woven like a Celtic knot around a dainty emerald, off her finger. “This ring, do you remember it?” Her voice was broken up with tearful gasps. “Grandmother’s and grandmother’s and grandmother’s before,” River said, clearly in awe of the ring she’d known so well. “From earth-that-was. Emeralds are for memory. They go back and they go forward, aid in knowing the past, aid in knowing the future.” “It’s yours now,” Regan said, slipping the ring on the girl’s hand. “Please remember me. Remember I love you. I love you so much! You won’t forget that, will you, that I love you so much I ache.” River was crying again, what she said came out in jerky gasps: Every child dreams of no greater lover Than the ones provided by sweet fate No embrace more welcome than your mother’s The longing for which never will abate No kiss is gentler than your father’s When sleep is lingering and the hour’s late But of all affections greatest is the brother’s Not bound by chains nor held by any gate For when darkness crashes in on this dream, Darkness I have grown too weak to resist, He is there, with a sword made of light beams That cuts and clears away the mire and the mist So, no matter how desperate my plight may seem I have hope, as long as my brother’s love persists. River smiled at her mother and kissed the older woman simply on the cheek. Then, turning to her father, she ran to him and threw her arms around the older man. He stood there, stoically, unsure if he’d lost everything by his own fault or it had been unjustly taken from him. “I feel you ache too,” River said, kissing him on the cheek. “You would have come if you could have.” She backed away, tears streaming down her face, and was the first to slip into the hallway, turning her back forever on her parents. Jayne turned and followed the girl, eager to leave the room with its rampant and embarrassing emotions. “Doctor,” Mal said, his voice cracking a little. “We gotta go.” “Right,” Simon nodded, his bloodshot eyes locked with his parents, his sobbing mother and his very cold father. “I . . .” he started, then faltered. “I am sorry,” he finally told them. “And . . . if I could have . . .” “Simon,” Regan said, her voice soft and motherly. “An xiao.” The boy smiled, almost, and nodded. The closing his eyes, he turned, and walked out of the room. “I’m not gonna stand here and pretend I understand what you’ve just lost, just let go,” Mal told the Tams softly once he was sure neither River nor Simon could hear. “But I do know how special them kids are. Don’t know how much a comfort this will be, but you both know this hurt them as much as it’s hurting you. Still, for what it’s worth, it was the right thing to do.” “I don’t need a criminal telling me what the right thing to do is,” Gabriel snapped. “No, you don’t,” Mal nodded. “Not now of all time’s, I’m sure. Well, then, zai jien.” * * * Zoë drummed her fingers on her pant legs and looked listlessly out the window. “Nervous?” Shepherd Book asked kindly. He was sitting next to her, on the isle seat. Across from them Kaylee, who’d been lulled fast asleep by the rocking of the train, resting her head on the window, as Newhope’s landscape, now gray under the dark clouds, streamed by. “No,” the firstmate said, sucking in a deep breath and turning to the preacher with a smile on her face. “I’m sure the captain will see that everything’s just fine.” “Of course,” Book nodded. She could tell she hadn’t convinced him, because he went on, “There are other matters though.” “If you want a conversation, preacher, you’re going to have to be a little more clear.” “How are you feeling?” Book asked, with real concern. “All right,” Zoë said, with another large smile. “It’s not good to lie to a preacher,” Book said with playful scolding. “Between the killing and the stealing, I don’t think lying to a preacher’s gonna make that big a difference.” “Oh you’d be surprised,” Book said. “Peter himself wrote, ‘For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.’” “Is this your subtle way of letting me know you’re praying for us?” “Not so subtle, really,” Book said. Zoë chuckled to herself and smiled, this time genuinely. “My back aches,” she admitted. “And my belly. Just pregnancy pains I guess. Most days wouldn’t give them no mind but . . .” Zoë sighed, “You’d rather think about them than worry over the others.” “I should be there, Shepherd.” “You did you’re part,” Book said. “A noisy cat could of done my part.” “The Captain wants you out of harms way.” “And I understand that,” Zoë said with a sigh, “And he is the captain, and I ain’t gonna over worry him by doing anything stupid. But, as is, I ain’t doin’ anything at all.” “You’re keeping where he doesn’t have to worry over you. And I’m sure that’s a great weight off his mind.” “He knows me well enough to know . . .” “You are pregnant, Zoë,” Book said. “I know,” the woman said, letting a little of the pain her stomach and back was giving her flicker into her eyes. “It’s a temporary state,” Book assured her. “When the baby is born . . .” “Mal’s gonna see me like a mother,” Zoë cut him off. “It’s one thing makin’ Wash a widower, it’d be another ta make my child an orphan.” “You don’t know what will happen in the future,” Book said. “No offence, preacher, but that’s pretty weak comfort.” “In that case, everything will be fine. Life will return to normal, we’ll fall into great money and all settle down together on a beautiful ranch somewhere. The Captain will give up thieving. Inara will give up her life as a companion. River will get better. Simon and Kaylee will be married. You and Wash will have more children than you’ve ever dreamed of, and all of them will be happy and healthy.” Zoë couldn’t help but laugh. “Did I leave anything out?” “No,” she chuckled. “I think that ‘bout covers it.” * * * Mal felt that the mad rush from the east sitting room to the shuttle pad did go smooth, although, he couldn’t have said it was easy. Jayne lacked many skills, but finding his way out of dangerous situations was not one of them; so he led the way. He’d spent the better part of the last night memorizing the villa’s layout and he could have found their way to the shuttle from anyplace, be it deepest darkest wine cellar or the highest pinnacle of the carillon. From a centrally placed sitting room, he had no trouble at all. Mal followed, leading River, who was sobbing so fiercely she could barely walk. When he’d exited the room she’d been muttering to herself, and the muttering turned into sniffles and the sniffles into full-fledged weeping. She was blind and deaf to anything but her grief and they didn’t have time to let her compose herself and get over it. So he’d wrapped his arm around the girl’s shoulders and insisted that if she had to cry, she might as well cry and walk. More disconcerting than River’s whaling, however, was Simon’s absolute silence. The boy didn’t even offer a word of comfort to his sister. He didn’t rush to take care of her and relive his captain of the burden. Under normal circumstances, Mal would have been annoyed, but, of course, under normal circumstances, the boy would never let anyone else take responsibility for his sister. Simon’s grief was burning inside of him, consuming him; there wasn’t enough of him at this moment to give any to River. This was a temporary fault which Mal could forgive. To the young doctor’s credit, his broken heart wasn’t slowing them down. Mal could hear his uneven, sniffle-ridden breathing a constant two feet behind them as they kept a fast pace through the maze of marble hallways. The plan was going so smooth, in fact, that Mal was almost relived to see a man, too tall and stocky to be Wash, standing in front of the shuttle in a firm you’ll-never-get-past-me sort of way. Considering Kaylee’d all but spilled the plan, the smoothness of the whole thing was starting to worry Mal. “You would be Mal, I presume,” the man said, stepping forward to greet the rapidly approaching party. “Captain Malcolm Reynolds,” Mal said, he wanted to let go of River but he was afraid if he did she’d fall to the ground, so he made the best of it and hoped that he could look mighty and intimidating even as he tried to comfort a sobbing 17-year-old. “And who might you be?” “Reginald Comworth,” the man said. “I’m the governor of this planet and, coincidentally, Simon’s godfather.” “So you’re him,” Mal said, his voice edgy. This man had won the admiration of both Kaylee and Inara, and it wasn’t hard to see why. He looked just like everybody’s favorite grandfather, jolly and plump, but still firm and strong, his voice was kind yet commanding and he seemed to exude good-will. He didn’t seem like the typical Alliance headpiece, but after all, the man was a politician. “Can’t really say I’m glad to meet you.” “I assume you’ll be taking Simon and River.” “That is the plan,” Mal said. “You gonna try and stop us?” Jayne asked, clearly hoping the answer would be yes. Jayne was disappointed. “No,” Comworth said. “I just wanted to say goodbye.” “Uncle Reggie,” River said, pulling away from the Captain and throwing herself at the older man. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her on the top of her head. “You’ll always be in my prayers, River, dear,” the old man said, choking a little. “Your love didn’t fail,” The girl told the old man, pulling slightly away from him so he could see her smile up at him adoringly. “I take it then,” Mal said, trying not to sound harsh or insensitive. “That you’re just gonna let us go.” “As I told your mechanic, I understand.” “Forgive me if I don’t know the exact meaning of that extremely vague phrase as you’re using it.” “You’ve cared for these children for the past few months, probably the most difficult months of their lives, and you care enough about them to ignore their substantial bounties and risk your lives to steal them away from this place.” “You ain’t telling me anything I don’t already know,” Mal said. “I understand that you are an honorable man. I understand that Simon and River are safer with you than they would be anywhere else. I understand that finding you is probably the best thing that could have happened to them. That is what I understand. And so, similarity, I understand that I have to let them go.” “No,” River whimpered. “The world was tattered and faded but now we’re ripping it apart.” “It’s all right, sweetheart,” Comworth said, stroking her hair lovingly. “Come on, now,” Mal said, stepping closer to the older man and the young girl. There was a second when the captain’s eyes meet the governor’s and then, Comworth looked down at River. “You have to go now,” He told her. “You know you do.” River nodded, and let Mal pull her out of the old man’s arms. “It’s time we’re leavin’,” Mal said, glancing behind him at Jayne and Simon. “Right,” Jayne said, apparently unmoved by or unconcerned with what had just happened. He jogged past Mal and River, hurrying up to the door to the shuttle and pushing in the code. It slid open and Janye jumped in saying, “start her up.” The shuttle came to life, the whole landing pad was filled with the gentle hum of a well maintained engine and there was a sudden warm breeze from the displaced air as the small craft began to hover. “Pleasure meetin’ ya,” Mal said, nodding respectfully towards the governor. “The feeling is mutual,” Comworth said. “Simon,” Mal called over his shoulder, to the near catatonic doctor. “Better say whatever good-byes you have. We can’t dally here.” “Yes, sir,” the boy said, not bothering to look at the captain. His sad gray eyes were fixed on Comworth, unblinking, as tears trickled down his cheeks. Mal nodded and ushered River into the shuttle. “Let’s give your brother some privacy,” he told the girl. “Simon needs more than that,” she whispered. “Can you give him a heart unbroken?” “No,” Mal said, turning River around and sitting her on the companion’s bed. “Ain’t a soul alive who’s got one.” * * * “You’re in every one of my happiest memories,” Simon told his godfather, taking a step closer to the old man once Mal and River were safely in the shuttle. “I thought you were perfect, that everything good and noble about humanity could be found in you. And I want to say I’m sorry.” “For idolizing me?” Comeworth said, somewhat surprised. “For doubting that was true,” Simon corrected. “What you’re doing today . . . letting us go . . .” “Simon,” Comworth said, reaching out and putting his hand on the boy’s moist cheek. “I do love you. And you’re parents, they love you as well.” “I know,” Simon said softly. “I told River she’d be in my prayers. You know you will be as well, twice as often.” “Thank you.” “I’m very proud of you,” Comworth said, pulling the boy into a loving hug. Simon squeezed his eyes shut and tried to find some comfort in this last embrace, but all he could feel was the pain of loss. “Here,” Comworth said after they’d pulled away. His voice cracked and there were tears in his eyes as well. “I want you to have this.” He reached into the pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a small tin box almost exactly like the one in the top drawer of Comworth’s desk, only newer, without any fond dents of memory. “Peppermints?” Simon asked, laughing and crying with the same breath. “A few,” the old man said. “But there are other things, things I want you to have. Things I always meant to give to you. Truthfully, I’m glad I got this chance.” “I’m sorry,” Simon said earnestly, taking the box. “Nothing that’s happened is your fault,” Comworth said. “Not one man in a thousand would have acted as nobly as you.” Simon smiled through his tears. “Thank you . . . for . . . for everything.” “It was all my pleasure,” Comworth said, his voice catching. “But now it’s time for goodbye.” “Yes,” Simon breathed, nodding. He didn’t dare hug his godfather again, or even shake his hand. Instead, he nodded respectfully. “Goodbye, sir.” “Goodbye, Simon,” The governor said, matching the doctor in detachment. It should have made it easier. It didn’t. The second Simon was fully in the shuttle Mal closed the door and locked it. “All aboard, Wash,” he yelled to the pilot in the cockpit. “Take off!” The small shuttle lurched as it rose. The few extra pounds of gravity overwhelmed Simon and he felt his knees give way. He plopped down on the Companion’s bed, and managed to keep himself to a sitting position. Any other day, he would have worried that Mal or Jayne had recognized his weakness for what it was, but his head reeled and all he could think of was that his life was over. He knew it wasn’t, of course. He knew that whatever life he would have lived if he’d stayed with his parents would have been a life of imprisonment and pain. On Serenity, he could live. He could help River, he could flirt with Kaylee, he could learn from Mal, he could do and see and experience more than he’d ever imagined growing up in the prim aristocracy of the Core. His life had become an adventure, Simon realized, exciting and heroic. But presently, that felt like little more than a small bandage for the gapping chest wound he’d suffered. Simon took a deep determined breath and exhaled it evenly. He couldn’t be crippled by his emotions; there were more important things to worry about. “Where’s Kaylee?” he asked. His voice sounded weak and scratchy, even to him. “On a train back to Sweet Well,” Mal said. “Should a left about twenty minutes ago.” “Good,” Simon said, nodding. A quiet grew in the shuttle; the only sound was the engine noise. “So,” Mal finally said, trying to smile cheerily at the doctor. “What’s in that box?” “What?” Simon asked, his mind had been far away, on a train with Kaylee. “That box there,” Mal said, nodding at the tin object Simon had forgotten he was holding. “What’s in it?” “Ah,” Simon said uncertainly. “I’m not sure.” “You gonna open it?” Jayne asked. Simon looked down at the box, seeing his reflection in its smooth surface. “Not yet,” he said softly. “Why not?” Jayne asked. “Because,” Mal said, a good amount of venom in his voice. “How long until we reach Serenity?” Simon asked to change the subject. “’Bout half an hour,” Wash called from the cockpit. “Assuming we don’t run into any torrential rain storms.” “Yeah,” Mal muttered, pushing himself off the couches he’d been sitting on and walking across the room to the cockpit to look over Wash’s shoulder. “Considering the weather these past few days that’s expecting a lot.” “It won’t rain,” River said softly. Simon had almost forgotten that his sister way lying behind him, crying. He was stung by a sudden sharp guilt that, discouragingly, was a relief from the pressing grief. He quickly turned around and stroked his pretty sister’s hair comfortingly. “How you doin’, Mei mei?” “The rain will come at night,” she said. She wasn’t crying, as he’d thought she was, but was curled up in a very tight ball, her hands inches away from her face, playing with the emerald ring between her forefingers and thumbs. “You think its cold now, wait till the darkness.” “You didn’t answer my question,” Simon said, still stroking her hair softly. He wondered if the action was as comforting for her as it was to him. “I don’t want to think about me,” she said. “Then I’ll start to rain.” * * * Kaylee was the first to get off the train. She looked adorable, Mal thought, in her bright yellow raincoat and oversized overalls cuffed half way up her calves. Ridiculous, but adorable. “Hey!” she said, throwing herself at Mal. “You’re back!” “What, you think we’d get caught?” Mal said, hugging the young mechanic warmly. “Not for a minute,” Book assured the captain as he stepped off the train. “Just ‘cause you do somethin’ Little Kaylee, don’t mean that everybody’s gotta do it,” Mal said, letting the girl out of the hug. “You teasing me?” she laughed joyously. Part of that joy might have come from the fact that she was still close enough to dig her elbow into his side for an affectionate rebuke. “There’s my sweet butter ball,” Wash said, rushing forward to help Zoë down the short and unimposing steps off the train. “I am in no way, shape or form, a butter ball,” Zoë said, too relieved by her captain’s and husband’s presence to be properly upset. “That’s subject to change,” Wash said with a little giggle, brushing his face so close to Zoë’s that their noses touched. The first mate broke into a peal of laughter and kissed her husband on the tip of his nose, which only made Wash laugh harder. “Ok, ok,” Mal said, trying not to sound as giddy as he was. “They’ll be plenty of time for that later. We got us a party to go to.” “Party?” Kaylee asked eagerly. “Yeah,” Mal said, his sternness slipping into a smile. “Your parents seem predisposed to celebrate every little thing.” “So, ah,” the girl said, her eyes darting up and down the platform. “Simon and River’ll be there?” “Jayne, too, if you care,” Mal said, giving his mechanic a teasing nudge with his elbow. “’Course I care,” Kaylee said incredulously. “It’s just . . .” “I know,” Mal laughed. “Come on, there’s a party waiting for us.” * * * “This is simply unacceptable,” Inara said. She hoped she looked furious, not worried to death. “I didn’t send out a work order. Why didn’t anyone contact me?” “The paperwork seemed in order,” the sergeant said humbly “And you seem incompetent,” Inara said, lacing her voice with disgust. “I demand to speak to your commander.” “I am the commander in charge of this—” “Than I demand to speak to the governor,” Inara clipped. “Immediately.” “Yes, ma’am,” the sergeant said, bowing and retreating. Inara waited for what seemed like an eternity. It was, in reality, only a few minutes, but the very demeanor of the whole villa was such that time seemed to have slowed to a painfully languid pace. Of course, the whole morning had seemed to crawl by for the anxious companion. She glanced continuously at the clock as Genie did her lessons. 1000: the tour had started the horrible waiting. 1045: Mal and Jayne separate from the group, past the point of no return. 1105: Zoë was meeting Kaylee and Book, all aid out of reach. 1125: the three non-combatants boarded a train for Sweet Well, the end of the timeline Inara could follow. From 1125 until just before noon Inara was torn apart by worry. Genie noticed it and had the very good taste to mention it only once, and drop the subject when Inara made it abundantly clear her nervousness was not a valid topic for discussion. Still, the hardest part of the whole ordeal was when a guard came in to inform her that her shuttle had been stolen. She was instantly filled with joy, so relived that she felt she would burst into tears, and she had to pretend to be shocked, horrified, and furious. A good Companion is always perfectly in control of her emotions, and Inara was a very good companion, but those first fifteen seconds were high on her list from the hardest seconds of her life. She paced as she waited, there was nothing better to do. Genie’s classes had been canceled, again, which wasn’t so bad. There was little more Inara could teach the girl. She’d really already known all the rules of polite society, she’d just never bothered to follow them. And as soon as the girl was surrounded by high society she would undoubtedly pick up the more subtle habits and mannerisms. With that in mind, Inara decided she’d offer to reimburse the Governor for the two days classes had been interrupted by the Tam’s drama and hurry to Sweet Well. She didn’t want to keep up this charade any longer than absolutely necessary. “Ms. Serra,” Comworth’s kind yet authoritative voice said from behind her. Inara swiveled and looked at the Governor with a cold and hard grace, “Would you mind explaining to me what happened to my shuttle?” “No,” Comworth said, stepping properly into the room and walking over to the small table near the window where Genie and Inara had been working. Inara followed him uncertainly, there was something on his mind, and she didn’t think it was grief or guilt over her lost shuttle, nor even over Simon and River. He, like she, was very carefully controlling his emotions. “Well?” Inara demanded, truthfully exasperated. “It was taken,” Comworth said, turning to her. “I gathered that,” Inara snapped. “How?” “By thieves,” the governor said. Inara smiled at him bitterly, “Sir, may I ask how a pack of common thieves with forged papers got past your well trained, well-paid guards?” “I never said common thieves,” Comworth said, picking up a sheet of haikus Genie had been working on: “The joy of her here Gets lost when I see her eyes Which can not see joy” He read aloud. “I take it this is about River.” “I had her write them mostly to practice her calligraphy,” Inara said, forcing herself to stay mad. “Now, about my shuttle?” “It’s gone, I’m afraid,” Comworth sighed. “Absolutely nothing I can do.” Outwardly, Inara sighed in disgust. Inwardly, her heart soared at the realization that the governor wasn’t going to dedicate all his resources to getting the shuttle back. It occurred to her that, maybe, she suggest he ought to, that’s what any person in such a situation would do, but she didn’t want to give him any ideas. “Well,” She spat, figuring a quick change of subject would make her obvious flub a little less obvious. “I can’t stay here any longer.” “You don’t feel safe?” Comworth asked, he sounded almost amused. “Let’s just say I don’t feel very lady-like,” Inara spat. “It won’t make a difference if I leave a few hours early. Genie knows everything; it’s just a matter of practice. She can practice just fine without me.” “Yes, she and River could practice together,” Comworth said flatly. Inara, for all her training and emotional control, couldn’t keep herself from going pale. “That is,” the governor continued, drawing his voice out, clearly meaning to make her wait. “If River hadn’t gone today.” Again, Inara felt relief wash over her, and again she had to force herself not to show it. “Did the Tams leave?” Inara said, trying to fill her voice with detached curiosity. “I would have liked to say goodbye.” “Ms. Serra,” Comworth sighed. “Please. I wanted to see how far you would take this game. Clearly you’ll take it to the very end. Let’s stop playing.” That was a very discouraging thing to hear. Still, Inara pressed on. “What do you mean, game?” she spat. “My shuttle was just stolen and –” “Your shuttle wasn’t stolen,” Comworth said, his patience clearly growing thin. “What do you mean?” She asked cagily. “The guard just said . . .” “The shuttle isn’t, technically, yours, is it?” Comworth asked pointedly. “Fine, so the shuttle I rent was stolen.” “From whom do you rent it?” “The captain,” Inara clipped, terrified of where this conversation was going. “I don’t see what this has to do . . .” “If I’m going to reimburses you for the shuttle, I should know to whom I ought send the money.” That sounded so reasonable. Inara swallowed hard and tried to sound just as reasonable. “I’m sorry, I’m just a little upset. The man’s name is Malcolm Reynolds. Although, if you want to reimburse him you’ll have to give me the cash. He doesn’t trust banks.” “A little paranoid?” “Only when it comes to . . . well, yes, I suppose he is.” “He may be paranoid,” Comworth sighed. “But no one could call him cowardly or fearful.” “That’s true,” Inara said very slowly. “But how . . .” “I just met him,” the governor confessed. “In fact, he just stole Simon and River, if not the shuttle.” “He deng ge e mo e meng ” Inara muttered, sinking into one of the table’s straight backed wooden chairs. “No,” Comworth said, sitting down in the other chair and leaning forward so he could talk to her intimately. “No, I let them go.” “What?” Inara said, truly shocked. “River was tortured,” he said, choking out each word. “And Simon acted notably and courageously to save her, only to have his own life ruined. How could I turn them back to the monsters that destroyed them in the first place? I love those children.” There was no question in her mind that the governor was being sincere. Inara let her relief at hear the shuttle was stolen and the Tams were gone peal out of her in a laugh that was half a sob. But her emotional catharsis was only allowed a second, she took a deep breath and turned to the governor smiling. “You are also a noble and courageous man,” Inara said, reaching out and squeezing the governor’s hand. “I’d be slightly more comforted by that observation if you weren’t presently in my employ,” Comworth said, forcing himself to laugh. Inara smiled at him charmingly. “I quit a minute ago, don’t you remember?” He laughed again, and smiled. “Well, then, I suppose matters should be settled between us and you should find a way back to your ship. I think it might be best if you take public transportation. If one of my gaurds would just happen to see Simon or River near your ship . . .” “Of course,” Inara said. “I actually enjoy train rides. I haven’t had a chance to take one for quite some time.” “Well then, it’s settled,” Comworth said. “I’ll arrange for the tickets.” “That’s very kind of you,” Inara said. “If you’d be so kind as to show me an accessible Cortex screen I’ll reimburse you for the days –” “Nonsense,” Comworth said. “You’ve done a wonderful job. Genie is quite the lady, now, when she chooses to be. Besides, I’m not so sure I want to send her to the Core anymore. I couldn’t for a while, at least.” “You’ve lost a lot in your life,” Inara observed. “Simon and River are not lost,” Comworth said with a deep breath. “Just . . . just hidden.” “Does it help, thinking of it like that?” “I don’t know,” Comworth said. “I think over time, it probably will.” He smiled at Inara, kindly and sadly. Inara smiled back. * * * “Hey you,” Kaylee’s soft, kind voice said just behind Simon. He didn’t turn his head, but continued to stare off into the Frye’s large back yard. It was gray and dull and suited his mood far better than the joyous party going on inside the house behind him. “Ain’t cha cold?” the girl asked, sitting herself down next to him on the old uneven steps between the kitchen door and the yard. Simon didn’t really want to answer the question, but neither did he want to be rude to Kaylee. “I don’t mind,” he said. His voice was soft and hoarse. “Humm,” the girl said softly, reaching out and taking his right hand in both of hers. “Your hand’s like ice,” she said, her voice laced with concern. “Maybe I should have said I don’t care,” Simon said. “Can’t imagine that,” she said, scooting closer to him and wrapping herself around his right arm, which was suddenly pleasantly warm. “You always care. You’re caring.” Simon chuckled bitterly. “Then I think I’ve earned a break.” Kaylee leaned her head on his shoulder, spreading her warmth. “It’s nice and cool out here,” she said conversationally. “It’s all hot and stuffy inside. Loud, too. Every time Zoë opened a present the whole room gasped, like they ain’t never seen baby stuff before. I mean, I guess maybe some of them ain’t – men don’t usually go ta showers, but, I guess you know that.” Simon didn’t answer. The fact was that this was the first baby shower he’d ever been invited to. He felt a little guilty missing it but the few seconds he’d forced himself to be surrounded by over a dozen bright, happy people it felt like someone was taking a hot poker to his heart. He couldn’t stand it. If he hadn’t run out to the cool quiet of the Frye’s back yard he probably would have burst into tears or screamed or done something infinitely more rude and disruptive than not attending. “She did like your present though,” Kaylee said encouragingly. “Didn’t really understand it but figured if ya gave it ta her she must need it.” “B-12 supplements are necessary for the development of a fetus’s brain,” Simon rattled off, turning to look at Kaylee for the first time since the girl had come out to see him. Her eyes were so dark and deep, he felt like he could fall into them, and he wanted to. “I,” he stuttered, coming to himself after a minute, “I didn’t know what to give her.” Kaylee smiled up at him, “She liked it, really.” Simon felt himself smile a little at the pretty girl. He highly doubted Zoë had really liked a bottle of pills, but it was so kind of Kaylee to say. “Course,” Kaylee continued, smiling up at the doctor. “Her favorite gift was that doll River made.” “That must have made River happy,” Simon said. He was starting to get cold and his teeth were threatening to chatter. He hadn’t felt the least bit chilled until Kaylee had come out and made part of him warm. “She spat out a poem, then and there,” Kaylee said. “I . . . I think maybe bein’ reminded of the baby, havin’ this shower, made the day a little easier for her. Redeemed it, ya know?” “Probably,” Simon said, sucking a deep breath in through his teeth. “Where is River?” “Stole away somewhere with Jack,” Kaylee said. “Probably in an out of the way room upstairs. They’ve been told not ta leave the house and, after what happened at our last little outing, I got no doubt they’ll stick close.” “I’m sorry,” Simon said, turning back to look at her. “’Bout what?” “Our last little outing.” Kaylee smiled at him and squeezed his ice cold hand. “I know.” Simon stared at her a moment then closed his eyes and turned away. “So,” he said crisply. “My beautiful, emotionally disturbed, seventeen-year-old sister is alone in a bedroom with a handsome, charming boy the same age.” “Come on, now,” Kaylee urged with a chuckle in her voice. She was rubbing her right hand up and down his arm affectionately, sending delightful shivers through his body each time. “What’s the worse that could happen?” “Humm, interesting question,” Simon said, not quite playfully. “I suppose the worse that could happen would be them having sex.” “Simon,” Kaylee scolded. She stopped stroking his arm, but didn’t let go of his hand. “Well, they could,” the boy said dryly. His eyes were fixed on the edge of the gray wood beyond the gray yard. “If she cuts herself after kissing than the catharsis after intercourse should be something to look forward to.” “Simon,” Kaylee tried again, to no greater avail. “No,” the doctor said, tumbling headlong into his own dark sarcasm. “This, this is a game I should play more often. How bad could River’s life get? How could it get worse?” “What’d she say if she heard you,” Kaylee snapped, sitting up, but not letting go of his hand. “She’d join in,” Simon answered confidently. “Oh, you know what, she could get pregnant,” he said with an edgy laugh. “That would be fun. She and Zoë could have two little babies, same age. Like Paul and Virginia, ‘cause that story had a happy ending.” “Simon, stop it!” Kaylee demanded, pulling her hand out of his. “What are you talkin’ about?” Simon turned to look at her, left cold by her physical retreat. She was mad and upset with her usually wide, brown eyes narrowed into fuming slits and her perpetually smiling mouth pressed into an almost alien scowl. Suddenly his cruel musings seemed distinctly unpalatable; he swallowed hard to get the bitter taste out of his mouth. When he answered her, his voice was soft and tentative, almost apologetic. “They – they were lovers.” He told her, staring into her eyes. “From this old French novel. They, they grew up together, constantly professing their love which was, in a way, incestuous, but if you can get past that to the, well, melodrama . . .” Kaylee laughed forgivingly and slipped her hand back in his, wrapped her arm around his, and rested her chin once again on his shoulder. “Didn’t like it, huh?” “I didn’t see why we couldn’t read something fun, like 2000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Notre Dame du Paris.” “Ya said it didn’t end well,” Kaylee said. “How’s it end?” “She’s sent away,” Simon said, reaching up and brushing a wisps of hair out of the girl’s eyes. In his mind’s eye, he could see her as she was only yesterday, although it seemed like a lifetime ago and a world away, standing in his godfather’s office, small and frightened yet bold and lovely in her bright yellow raincoat and denim jumper. “She swears that she’ll return to him, and for years he waits, burning with love.” Kaylee giggled again; she was a sucker for romance. Simon couldn’t help but smile as he finished the story, although he felt it was somewhat unbefitting of the narrative. “Finally she comes back but they lived on this little tropical island, you see, and the boat, one of those big old wooden boats they had during the colonial period of Earth-that-was . . .” “Yeah,” Kaylee urged, far more interested in the romance than the setting. “It couldn’t dock because there was a hurricane coming. So Paul and this old man, the narrator of the story, they go about half way around the island to see the ship and they do. Virginia’s on the deck and she sees Paul and waves at him and he’s so consumed by his love that he jumps in the water and starts swimming after her. At least, I think he swims, maybe he had a canoe or . . .” “And” the girl prompted. “And the hurricane comes,” he said, managing to keep a sober face, even if she was squeezing his arm a little too tight in the most adorable way. “Paul is dashed against the side of the boat. Virginia is thrown off it.” Kaylee gasped. “Did they . . .” “The old man found Virginia dead on the beach. Paul was alive.” “Oh,” she whimpered. She was so wrapped up in the story that she was squeezing his hand almost painfully. He reveled in it. Still, he managed to finish his story with the proper mournful tone. “But he died, two months later, I think, of a broken heart. And their mothers, who were very good friends, of course, both had the same dream of Paul and Virginia as children playing in a beautiful, tropical garden.” “Oh,” Kaylee said again, disentangling one arm so she could wipe away the tears streaming down her face. It was a sweet moment, a tender moment, and Simon could feel himself being pulled towards the girl. He knew he was going to kiss her because the part of him he considered his ‘better judgment;’ the part that told him not to, that told him he shouldn’t take that step, that told him there wasn’t enough of him to go around, had been worn out by the days traumas. All he could think of was how warm Kaylee was, how soft, how inviting. “Kaylee,” he said, drawing her attention, turning him towards her, as he leaned forward, his intentions clear. And at that moment, the hardest, meanest and most intrusive voice Simon had ever heard demaned, “What’s goin’ on?” * * * The attic of Kaylee’s house was dim and filled with shadows. And after Jack turned on the lights and the dimness seemed a little less pronounced, the shadows just got bigger. “I made somethin’ for ya,” he said eagerly, beaming at her. River smiled at him nervously. She hadn’t gotten a present for a very long time, since before the Academy. Sure, Simon had given her things, cloths, paper and pencils, books. They showed love, but a more steadfast, caring, type of love; the type of love that gives you what you need. Not the type of love that spontaneously gives lavish gifts. Not that Jack could give anything lavish, but anything he would give her would definitely not fall under the category of ‘necessity.’ “I don’t have a gift for you.” “Let me say this first,” Jack said. “I got the whole speech planed out. I don’t want to mess it up.” “Ok,” she said, smiling at him again. He wanted so badly for this to be special for her. He had no idea that just his wanting that was enough for River. “We ain’t known each other long,” Jack said. “And a lotta girls would think me real forward. But when I first saw you I, well, I just knew that you were special, you were different.” River had always known that she was special and different. These were not new fact to her. But she also knew that the way Jack meant it was very, very unlike the way her parents, her teachers, even Simon, meant it. She liked Jack’s way better. It made her blush. “I never,” he faltered a little. River waited eagerly for him to continue. Eventually, he did, “I never kissed a girl ‘till the other night, the night I kissed you. I never wanted to. All the girls, the girls in this town, they’re petty and mean and they want to get husbands and have babies and they don’t care about adventures and dreams or any of that stuff. But you do. And so, and--and by the way,” he quickly interjected as his brown eyes focused very intently on the floorboards at his feet. “I’ll understand perfectly if you say no, I mean, I’m not really thinking you’ll say yes, but, I gotta ask,” he laughed nervously and looked up. “Ya know?” River didn’t know. Her bashful smile slipped into confusion and she shook her head. “Anyways,” he said, clearing his throat. “I wanted to give you this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small wooden ring. “I carved it myself,” he said, looking at it, seeing all the flaws and none of the prettiness. “Hope it fits.” He thrust it towards her the way a patient expecting a shot gives their arm to a doctor, quickly and with clenched teeth. River, however, did not have the cool detachment of a doctor. The violence of his action made her take a startled step back. And then, as he stood there, wooden ring in hand, heart on a platter, she realized what was going on. Or, at least, started to. “I can’t,” she said sadly. “We can’t.” “Can’t what?” Jack asked, lowering the ring, the pathetic look of a rejected man twisting his youthful face. “Can’t be in love,” River said, more firmly. “It’s okay if you’re in the same place. On the same world, on the same ship. But Serenity leaves and I leave. Doesn’t matter whose on this planet. Doesn’t matter who I love.” “Well,” Jack said, a smile quickly spreading across his face. “Well, I know that. I weren’t proposing or anything. This is a promise ring,” he said, holding it out to her again, this time with more grace. “It means you’ll promise not to forget ‘bout me, not so long as you have it.” “Oh,” River said, smiling a little and then laughing sheepishly. “I can remember.” “I thought you could,” Jack said. “Come on, see if it fits.” River picked up the ring and held it in her delicate fingers. It was very simple, a band made of pine and at the top, where a stone would be in a metal ring, there was pretty daisy. The emerald ring had been a little too large for her ring finger, so Simon had put it on her middle finger, where it fit, if not snugly, and nagged her to be extra careful of it. This ring was too small for her ring finger, and just barely fit on her pinky. “It’s beautiful,” she said dreamily, admiring her now-much-adorned hand. “I’m not as good a carver as most,” Jack admitted. “There are some boys who can make vines and roses and . . .” “Daisy is perfect,” River asserted. “Innocent,” she giggled, “Thoughts of absent friends.” “Still,” Jack muttered. “It’s beautiful because you made it,” River said. “You made it for me. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Jack laughed, relieved, “I’m glad you like it. I mean, real glad.” “I wish I had something for you,” River said, suddenly feeling inadequate and unworthy. She wanted to run and hide somewhere and cry. He had made her something and she didn’t have anything to give him back. It took all her strength of will to remember what Simon had said; if she wanted Jack’s attentions, which she did, she would have to deal with these emotions. And she was pretty sure that running and hiding so she could cry would not have been a proper way of dealing. “Well,” Jack explained. “What happens is the boy gives the girl the ring, the promise ring. And I ain’t surprised you don’t know, ‘cause there ain’t any boys on your ship, but then the girl gives the boy some of her hair and he ties it up with a string from her dress or a snip of ribbon and he keeps it in his pocket, so he always is thinking of her.” Relief washed over River like a flood. “I have hair,” she said, almost laughing. She would gladly have given him all of it, and been bald, if that’s what he wanted. “I know,” he replied with a smile. “How much do you need?” she asked. “Just a snip,” he explained. “You can have more,” River said. “I have a lot of hair.” “But it looks so pretty on you,” Jack said. “I couldn’t take more than a snip.” River felt herself blush again. She thought it was the best feeling in the world. * * * Simon and Kaylee were both shocked by the sudden appearance of a third party. They both quickly sat straighter, and turned to look at the interloper. “Henderson Ringwood,” Kaylee spat angrily as the boy, whose hover boat she adored, sauntered towards them. “What the hell you doin’ here” “I came over ta get my ma,” Henderson said. “She came over to cook or sew or something for some party.” “Well, they’re all inside,” Kaylee said cagily, standing up and climbing off the steps to give Henderson a path. Simon did the same, feeling awkward and a little embarrassed at being caught in such a tender moment by a complete stranger. “This is Simon, right?” Henderson said, stepping a little closer to the doctor. “That’s my name, yes,” Simon said forcefully, drawing Henderson’s attention away from Kaylee and back to himself. “And you are?” “Just an old friend,” Henderson shrugged. “With a hover boat,” Simon supplied. “She told you about me?” Henderson said with a tom-cat’s smile. “Actually, yes,” Simon said coldly. “We met, if you’ll remember, sort of.” “Yeah, you came ta fetch her from the shed the other day.” “That’s right.” The tension between the men was all but crackling. Kaylee cleared her throat. “Henderson, why don’t you just go on in and get your ma?” “It ain’t an emergency,” the man said. “I can mind my own business.” “Really?” Simon asked pointedly. “What are you saying?” Henderson demanded. “Boys, don’t,” Kaylee said firmly. “Why don’t you keep out of this, Kay?” Henderson barked at her. “Don’t talk to her like that,” Simon said, rising his voice to match Henderson’s. Henderson laughed, “I’ve said things to this girl you ain’t never gonna say ta her.” “Stop,” Simon warned. “Now.” “You wanna know why she likes that hover boat so much?” “Stop,” Kaylee pleaded. “Turn and leave,” Simon said, his fist balling. “Or what?” Henderson said, “you gonna do this?” With a quick movement, Henderson delivered a gut punch that drove Simon to his knees. For a second, the world in font of the doctor swam, and air refused to enter his lungs. It was almost a blessing that he hadn’t really eaten anything for three days. “Simon!” Kaylee screeched, falling to her knees as well. He felt a supporting hand on his back and another brush his cheek. “You all right?” she asked worriedly. “Fine,” he said softly, between clenched teeth. “Simon,” Kaylee said again. Her voice sounded a little scared. He didn’t really care. He’d taken a break from caring, at least he’d meant to. Taken a break from being reasonable, from being civilized, from being kind and understanding. He had tried to be all those things for the past few days and all that had happened was hurt upon grief upon pain had been piled on him. This one punch was too much. He wasn’t going to stand it, not for another second. “Apologize,” he said, forcing himself to stand without Kaylee’s aid, despite his stomach’s protest. “To you?” Henderson laughed. “To Kaylee,” Simon said. “Why?” “You were being disrespectful.” “I respect her just fine. I give her all the respect a girl like –” He didn’t get to finish the sentence. Simon punched him in the mouth with as much force as he had, throwing not just his arm but also his shoulder and his whole body into it so that he had to stager forward to keep his balance. Henderson fell down and, for second, the world seemed to stand still. All of Simon’s rationality and civility seemed to flood back into him and he forgot any anger he had. “Ow,” was all he said, and even that was half hearted and distracted. “Simon, are you okay?” Kaylee asked, reaching out to him, totally ignoring Henderson out cold on the ground. “That was,” she chuckled. “You were amazing.” She reached out and touched him. Simon took a gaspy breath and staggered back, away from her. The world seemed to be spinning too quickly beneath his feet, spiraling out of orbit and careening towards its sun. Kaylee looked out of focus, blurred, her concerned voice seemed to echo in his head until it was barely understandable. “Kaylee, I . . .” He started, stepping further back, further away. “I didn’t . . . and I . . . I have . . . to . . . but I’m . . . I’m sorry.” “Simon?” she said, stepping closer, reaching out towards him. Simon’s gaze shifted to the unconscious body. He was certainly going to fall off of this swiftly tilting world. They all were. He shook his head, “No.” “Maybe I should go get the Cap’n,” Kaylee offered. “Or Dr. Michels, or . . . or River . . .” “No,” Simon said, more firmly. “I’ve gotta go.” “Go where?” Kaylee asked. She was beginning to be frightened. “I’m not running away,” Simon said. “I’ll come back but I can’t . . . not now.” His chest was heaving; he couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen in his lungs. He was crying and he didn’t know quite why or how to stop. “’Kay,” Kaylee said, nodding. “Don’t go far.” Simon nodded back and then turned and stared walking, very quickly away. Kaylee was plagued by the fear that it would be the last time she’d see him. That he’d go back to his kind godfather or get snatched by someone else who’d seen his warrant and put two and two together or just get really, really lost. “Oh God,” she muttered in a heartfelt, if not formal, prayer. “Let him be okay.” The body at her feet groaned. “I wasn’t talkin’ ‘bout you,” she said. Not quite cruel enough to kick a man when he’s down, which is not to say the idea didn’t cross her mind, she sighed and turned and walked into the warm house to fetch Mrs. Ringwood and Dr. Michels for Henderson. * * * There was a great show of Inara leaving. She was very kind to Genie, but cold to the governor and everyone saw him transfer funds into her account for her trip and her shuttle and repeatedly apologize. She was taken by a guard in the governor’s personal transport straight to the train station where she was going to travel in a first class private car paid for by the governor with his most profound apologies. The trip was uneventful, dull even, which meant that Inara had more than enough time to think about all that had just happened. She found her thoughts drifting to her own family, back on Sihnon. About the way her father beamed when she graduated from the Companion Academy. About the way her mother stared at her when she said she was shipping off with Serenity. About her oldest sister, Rena’s, constant waves about her husband and her children and her home. And the second oldest sister, Adeline’s, constant waves about her insecurities and her worrying and how desperately she longed to have Inara back. When ‘Sweet Well station, next stop’ was announced, Inara’s heart soared. She couldn’t wait to get off the train and away from all the thoughts that made her somehow, at the same time, homesick and glad that she’d left her home only a year ago. Her family had in no way been her reason for leaving, but neither had they been any incentive to stay. Without luggage of any kind, Inara felt somewhat naked exiting the train. She felt that she should have had at least a handbag of some sort, but all that had been in her shuttle when it was ‘stolen’. Comworth, who was over-generous, had given her a few credit bills for the trip. But her long tan skirt with ruffles from the knee to the hem didn’t have pockets, as it would have ruined its simple sheer lines. Neither did her low cut, midnight-blue silk shirt with dark red and green dragons embroidered down the sleeves. So she’d stuffed the bills in her bra clip (a must have for every companion) and she didn’t like the idea of pulling it out at the station so she could get a cabby to take her to the Frye’s house. Come to think of it, she didn’t know how to get to the Frye’s house, or their address, or even if Sweet Well was a large enough town to have cabbies. When she stepped onto the platform of the station, her forehead was creased with worry and her lovely lips were pressed tight as she contemplated what she was going to do next. She hadn’t taken three steps and that question was answered. “Mal!” she said, almost joyously, when she saw the space pirate leaning against the far wall of the station, watching her with a coy smile. “Good day, Miss,” he said, stepping forward and bowing just a little. “What’s a fancy lady like you doing in a backwater town like this?” “Don’t let Kaylee hear you call her home backwater,” Inara said, gladly accepting the arm he offered her. “Nah,” he said with a shrug. “She’d be the first to admit it was.” “How did you know I was coming?” “Governor sent Serenity a wave, as well as a couple thousand credits to ‘cover expenses’ as he said.” “Mal,” Inara gasped. “He paid me for the shuttle already. You knew that.” “I know,” Mal nodded. “And you still accepted it?” “What kind a man you take me for?” Mal asked, his voice high pitched and insulted. “A dishonest thief?” “Oh,” Inara spat. “Where would I get that idea?” “Eventually, River’ll need medicine,” Mal insisted passionately. “What we got ain’t gonna last forever, and that stuff ain’t cheep. And, if or when the time comes for us to part, well, then, I’ll have something to give them so that making their own way will be a little easier.” Mal explained as they walked out of the station and onto Sweet Well’s gray streets. He turned and looked candidly at Inara, “I ain’t gonna use that money for wining and dining, or even fueling and maintenance, that’s for damn sure. That money’s meant for those kids and it’s good that they’ll have it. I hope that meets with your approval.” “I’m sorry,” Inara said. “This whole thing, it just makes me feel rotten inside. I know there is . . . was . . .” she sighed. “Let’s talk about something else.” “Fine,” Mal clipped. “Something else.” There was a moment of silence. “Hope you don’t mind walkin’,” he said abruptly. “The house’s only about quarter mile away.” “Oh,” Inara said, shivers running through her body. “I wish I’d had the presence of mind to grab a coat before you stole my shuttle.” “Cold?” he asked. “Here.” He detangled himself from her so he could slip off his brown Calvary duster and placed it on her shoulders. “Better?” “Now won’t you be cold?” Inara asked, grabbing the lapels of the jacket with either hand and pulling it more tightly around her. “No, ‘cause, you see, women get cold.” “And what do men get?” He thought for a moment before deciding. “Ruggedly uncomfortable.” “Well, aren’t you ruggedly uncomfortable?” “A little,” he admitted. “But it’s fine.” “Mal,” Inara laughed. “As much as I appreciate the jacket, you didn’t have to give it to me. I would have made it the whole quarter mile just fine without.” “You’re clearly not understanding the concept,” Mal said. “You see, if you were to be cold and I had a jacket, I would be a cad for not havin’ given it to you, but seeing as how I did I ain’t only a gentleman but . . .” “But also what?” Inara asked, greatly enjoying the banter. “Damn manly.” She laughed and rehooked her arm in his. “Oh, Captain,” she said with an exaggerated womanly voice. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come to fetch me. Surely wasted away.” It was his turn to laugh. “Glad to be of service, ma’am.” * * * It was well past dark out. As Kaylee tried to look out the kitchen window, seeing more of her reflection than the outside. She couldn't help but worry that the rain was going to turn into slush and the slush into snow. It wasn't that Kaylee didn't like snow, she would have loved it, but Simon hadn't come back yet, and he hadn't taken a coat, and he hadn't eaten all day, and Kaylee couldn't seem to pull her thoughts away from him. There hadn’t been a proper dinner that night; they had been snacking and munching and otherwise eating through Zoë’s shower, so no one was hungry. Had there been a sit-down dinner Kaylee would have had an excuse to brave the cold and the wet to seek Simon out and drag him back into the warm dry house, but as it was she couldn't think of a possible justification, beyond her own worries, to do so, especially considering the doctor probably didn't want to be found. Kaylee sighed heavily and thought of turning around and trying to join into the party, but she just couldn't pull herself a way from the window. "Well, mei mei" Inara's said, her voice was sweet and smooth, just like honey, as she came up behind the young mechanic, and her soft hand touched her shoulder affectionately. "What are we dreaming about?" "Not dreaming," Kaylee said, managing to pry her eyes away from the gray view in front of her to look at her friend. "You can't help Simon by worrying over him," Inara said with a wise smile. "Oh," Kaylee said, her shoulders sagging slightly. "Am I really that obvious?" "Quite transparent," Inara said. "But don't worry; it's endearing." "He's all alone out there," Kaylee said. "Feelin' miserable and cold." "He knows how to come in," Inara reminded her. "He knows he can do it any time." "No, he can't!" River's clear voice said as she bounded down the stairs. She'd been stole away with Jack for nearly two hours, and had finally been sought out by Jack's mother and Captain Reynolds, who both knew enough to know that, after two hours, any efforts for propriety they would be making would most likely be too little too late. Still, too little was better than nothing. Kaylee and Inara both heard River's exclamation, but ignored it, assuming her comments were not part of their conversation. "But what if he got lost, or slipped and got hurt, or ran into another bully like Henderson, or another one a the governor's guards." "He didn't, he didn't, he didn’t, he didn't," River said, hurrying over to their conversation, leaving Mal, Jack and his mother, at the foot of the stairs. "River?" Inara said, smiling at the girl. "I'm glad to see you." "If you look straight at a supernova you'll go blind," River quickly informed the companion before turning to Kaylee. "He's forgetting. You should remind him." "River," Kaylee said, shaking her head. "What are you talking about?" "Simon," River sighed, all but rolling her eyes at her friend's slowness. "You have to remind him." "Remind him of what?" Inara asked, finally recovered from River's odd greeting. "Of him," River said. It was always hard to tell, but Inara was fairly sure she saw sorrow and worry in the girl’s brown eyes. "It's hard to remember, sometimes. I know I forget, but he always reminds me." "You think Simon is forgetting who he is?" Kaylee asked, confused. It was one thing for River, whose brain had been sliced and diced, to suffer temporary bouts of insanity. But Simon was sane almost to a fault. Kaylee couldn't imagine him forgetting his identity any more than she could imagine him forgetting how to walk or speak. "I know he is," River said, very seriously. "I'd go, but I don't want him thinking he's me." "I doubt very much Simon would think he's you," Inara told River with the somewhat superior tone of experience. "He does all the time," River insisted. "When he thinks he's forgetting he thinks of me." Her pretty brow furrowed, "I don't think it's healthy." Neither Kaylee nor Inara had any idea how to respond to River's diagnoses. "But," Kaylee finally managed after a moment. "If Simon confuses himself for," she glanced at Inara --who was just as baffled buy the conversation in general as Kaylee was and had nothing to offer-- "For, well, for you, than won't he do the same with me?" River laughed, just like an adult would laugh at a child's silly question, and shook her head, "No," she said. "He knows exactly what he wants to be when you're around." "That doesn’t mean he knows who he is," Inara observed. River sighed and tilted her head, like a mother explaining something simple to children who weren’t listening, “If horse mates with a donkey what do you get?” Inara and Kaylee looked at each other uncertainly for a moment. Finally, the companion ventured, “A mule?” “Exactly!” River said, beaming. Then turning abruptly, she skipped across the room, back towards Jack, leaving Kaylee and Inara to wonder at her comments. "Maybe I should go look for him," Kaylee said once River was truly gone. Her eyes drifted back to the gray window. "I mean, it's gettin' dark and he might not know his way." Inara smiled at her wisely, "Go on," she said. "You know you'll want to until you do." Kaylee smiled back as she stepped away from the window. "Don't wait up."

To Be Continued . . .

COMMENTS

Monday, May 19, 2003 10:57 AM

MONTESA


You have an incredible knack for writing! I loved the insight into Inara's past, and as always you hit the characters dead on. SHINY! Look forward to the next chapter.

Saturday, January 8, 2005 12:35 PM

PURPLEYOSHI


I'm so sad this story's almost over! I just want it to go on forever.


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