BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

GIRLFAN

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapters 31-35
Monday, February 26, 2007

All already posted before, just posted together for convience of new and (re) readers. Overall rating NC-17; this does not apply to all chapters, however. Normally, I post 10 chapters together, but the length of recent chapters makes that seem unwise, so I'll post 36-40 seperate from this. Postive comments perfered; any cease and desists recieved will be complied with, and shown off at parties.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2034    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Chapter Thirty-one: Tolerabiles ineptiae (bearable absurdities) *** *** *** Chapters 1-10, Chapters 11-20, Chapters 21-30 *** *** ***

Jayne stepped into the infirmary. “Hey Simon, River. Kaylee, got them bits done you asked for, and gave Mal the list a’ parts we need. He don’t believe me though that we need ‘em all.”

“Thanks Jayne. I’ll talk to the Cap’n and finish up with the engine. Take over my hand, would ya, til I get back?”

“Ya winning?”

“No.” Jayne looked disappointed, his lips pressing together. “Come on, Jayne! We’re just playing for fun. I’ll be back in a few hands.”

“Okay.” Jayne was agreeable, for Kaylee’s sake. Clearly she didn’t want to leave the doc all alone. Damn, he was more comfortable covering for her at her engine duties than at Simon’s bedside, but Kaylee smiled happily and walked out. Jayne picked up the hand and studied it. River bent to whisper in Simon’s ear. “Hey now, no cheating! Don’t mind ya helpin’ Simon, but ya can’t go… helpin’. Just, ya know, hold his cards. Quiet like.”

River turned a triumphant look on Jayne. “Kaylee doesn’t mind if we cheat.”

Jayne turned his attention back to his cards, to study them. “Yeah, well Kaylee’s probably looking to lose. Probably excited at the prospect of strippin’ off, knowin’ Kaylee.” Jayne looked up from his cards and misinterpreted the horrified look on Simon’s face. “Sorry Simon. Shouldn’t be puttin’ them kinda thoughts into the head of man has no use of his hands.”

“Eeeeewwwwwwwwwww, Jayne! He’s my brother.”

“Sorry River. Woulda thought them sorta thoughts woulda, ya know, made themselves plenty known to ya.” He moved a couple of cards around in his hand before he looked up at the teenager and leered a little. “I’ll make ya deal. No more cheatin’, no more sex talk.”

They played in virtual silence until Kaylee arrived back. “Hey, how come I’m winning?” She asked as Jayne was leaving.

“Ain’t so hard if you don’t let ‘em cheat.”

***

Aren and Mal talk about Simon’s options.

“Mal?” Dr. Wren called from just outside the bridge door.

“You can step in, Aren.” The Captain was seated in the pilot’s chair, piloting Serenity.

“I was wondering if I might have a moment to discuss some treatment options with you.”

“For Simon?”

“Yes.”

“I was wondering if we could stop by one of the border worlds with, say, a mining community?”

Mal turned to a frankly questioning look at the doctor. “You’re being a mite specific there. Can I know why?”

“Well, lumber would also be fine – you know, the kind of places where losing a hand isn’t unknown, it’s something to be prepared for.”

“I thought Simon would need the kind of expert care you can only get in the Core?”

“He does. But right now he was use of neither hand – a temporary replacement for his right hand would be a good step at this point. Physically, he’s certainly rested enough. Mentally – well, it won’t be as good as new, but he’ll be able to start to care for himself.”

“Will this limit his options later?”

“No, quite the opposite. I mean, the surgery is not without risk – but going well, it should make it all the easier to adjust to the better one later. There are always possible problems – but the risk is quite tolerably small. I can do the surgery myself, here, but we will need the part.”

“Alright. We’re not too far out from Triumph.” Mal gestured to the co-pilot’s seat, indicating the cortex link. “Have a look there and see if they’ve got what you want. If so, we can head right there and pick it up in a few hours.” As she tapped away at the console, Mal brought up the conversation – well, one of the conversations – he’d been dreading having. “Any news on where we can go to get the problem fixed permanent-like?”

Aren didn’t look up from her search. “Yes – several good leads, but all in the Core, unsurprisingly, of course. I want to wait until Simon is up to contributing ideas before suggesting any specific course of action. Daring raids on Alliance hospitals on Core worlds wasn’t something they taught in Med school in my day.” The doctor looked up, satisfied. “Good news! Triumph does have what we need.”

“Good.” Mal made the course correction. “Ever been to Triumph, Aren?”

“No, I can’t say I have. Persephone is as far out from the Core as I’ve been, before this.”

“Well, Triumph ain’t the Core. Make sure you don’t frighten the locals, and ah, beware of any women offering you dances or head gear. Men folk maybe too. Might end up married.”

“Might end up married?”

“Ask Inara. I’m sure her version is much funnier than mine.” Mal looked the doctor in the eye. “I’m serious, though. Careful there – Triumph ain’t civilisation, and I reckon you run a bit bolder than the Triumph settlers like to see in women folk.”

“Well – thank you for your warning, Mal, cryptic as it is. I will be on my best behaviour. It should be a short visit, just in and out.”

“Well, good.” Mal nodded at the doctor as she stood and walked from the room, wondering if ‘bolder’ was now code for ‘lesbian’. “Don’t like complications.”

***

“So Zoë, you know what ‘em critters you’s carryin’ is yet?” Jayne asked as he helped himself to another spoonful of red coloured gloop which Mal insisted was tomato flavoured soup. Jayne didn’t mind, it was even sorta tomato-y as far as he was concerned. He did notice, though, that Zoë had her stoical solider ‘I survived worse in the war’ face on, and that Kaylee had the apprehensive look she sometimes got when she was determined to find something cheerful to say, but it just wasn’t coming to her. Inara and Aren were far too well bred to let anything other than the faintest trace of horror cross their features.

So was River, but she didn’t care and announced loudly, “This smells like crotch.”

The defensive look on Mal’s face turned to one of anger. “Jayne!”

“What, Mal? I think it tastes good. Well, ok.” Mal was not appeased.

Zoë threw herself into the breech. “Well, Simon thinks it’s a boy and girl, says that’s the most likely, but we don’t have the equipment to check. One of each would be nice, but I don’t mind so long as they’re healthy.” If she was honest, Zoë wasn’t even sure that she could bring herself to mind even if they weren’t.

“Naw, woman like you? Two girls I think. Warrior women make warrior girl babies.” Jayne’s take on genetics was met with some good natured laughter.

As expected, River interrupted with a science lesson. “Women only have X chromosomes Jayne – men have X and Y. Sperm can be either an X or Y; an X sperm means a girl baby, a Y sperm means a boy baby.”

“So, that mean the father sorta decides?” Jayne said.

“I suppose, that would be one way of looking at it,” Aren said neutrally.

Jayne gave Zoë a meaningful look. “Definitely girl babies for you, then, Zoë.” Zoë took the joke in good part, but gave Jayne a mostly gentle kick to the shin under the table, just to make sure. From someone else, it would have been offensive. From Jayne – well, it mostly just seemed to be a continuation of the long-standing banter with her husband. She laughed.

At the end of lunch, Mal stood. “Ok, ladies and men folk, we’ll be landing on Triumph in a little over an hour. Only gonna be on the ground for a little while, say two hours, so you can stretch your legs but don’t go far. Zoë, you stick with Aren – you’re a proper widow and all, so they won’t take too much notice of anything Aren does funny. Make sure you stick together. Kaylee stick with Jayne. They know you two, shouldn’t be too much hassle. Dress clean and modest, we ain’t arriving as the town heroes this week, don’t want to ruffle any feathers. River, boat’s yours – temporarily – and no muckin’ about with it.” Mal gave her a steady look.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, Captain.”

Mal nodded. “Alright. Inara, you’re with me, if you want to take a walk around, and I could use your help with something if you’re willing.”

“Of course, Mal. Should I change?”

“Wear the plainest thing you’ve got. ‘Course, you can borrow my dress if you like.”

Inara spoke again. “I would like that Mal. Very much.” The others laughed, and Inara smiled deeply at the stunned expression on Mal’s face, but he recovered quickly.

“Well, that’s good. I’ll get that for you then.”

Zoë stood up and more or less excusing herself with a wave of her hand, before hurrying off.

“Oh, shiny!” Kaylee looked thrilled at this turn of events, while the others tried hard not to think about vomit.

“Shiny, Kaylee? I’ll remind ya ya said that when it’s you tossing yer lunch into the head.” Jayne said.

Mal had been about to excuse himself to check on Zoë, but turned back in puzzlement at Kaylee’s comment.

“Not shiny like that Jayne! Just means she’s not here and we all are and we can talk about the baby shower!” Turning a gleeful smile on the others, she continued, “Especially seeing as we’ll be planet side for a bit.”

“No. No, no, no.” Mal was adamant. “Not happenin’, Kaylee. Not one bitty thing gets brought on this boat til the babies are near born. And even then, no party! There will be no tempting fate with Zoë’s babies. Anything needful ya get ya can give ta Simon ta keep in the infirmary til the babies are here.”

“But Cap’n…”

“No, lil’Kaylee – I will not have it on my boat.”

“What if we see something really special though, Cap’n?”

“Then you just walk on by Kaylee. I’m not joking. Not a thing on this boat til Zoë’s in the last three months.” Mal looked deathly serious. “I see anything, it’s going out the airlock, along with the person who brought in on board.” With that last warning, Mal headed off to see if Zoë needed help. Chapter Thirty-Two: Primum non nocere (the first thing is to do no harm – from the Hippocratic oath) Part I

The dull brown dress had been large for her, but Inara merely added some ribbons as make shift ties – when she stepped out of the shuttle in his dress, Mal was pleasantly surprised. He watched her make her way down to the cargo bay with her usual care; she had attached red-brown ribbons not to different from the colour of the bonnet to the upper arms of the dress to shorten the sleeves, and puffed out the extra material over the ribbons in the leg of mutton fashion. Another ribbon wound it’s way around her waist, and the extra material was folded into little gathers and darts. “I shoulda known, Inara, that you could make even that dowdy thing look pretty.” He looked her over critically. “Best fix that bonnet for ya though, ain’t sitting right.” He pulled it forward over her face.

“Mal, I can’t see a damn thing like that!”

“Well, that’s the way you wear ‘em. Probably meant to be horse blinkers for a woman.”

“You’re not serious!” Inara said, though she stood still as Mal continued to make slight adjustments to the bonnet. When he finished, Inara made a backwater style curtsy and smiled at him. “Will I pass?”

He shook his head at her fondly. “No, you’ll still stand out, but I could drag you through town backwards on a horse and you’d manage to make it look elegant.” He took her gallantly by the arm and they strolled off of the ship.

“Mal, it’s very kind of you, what you’re doing for Ceres.”

Mal shook his head again, and spoke seriously “No, it’s not. She’s my prisoner, and it’s my responsibility. Girl needs something to wear and something to do. Besides, she’s tiny, she can’t keep wearing Zoë’s pants with the bottoms turned up as far as the knees. You get a list from her?”

“Yes. She gave me her sizes and some colour preferences.”

“Colour preferences?”

“Yes. She was quite adamant that I avoid purple, grey, brown and any shades of red too similar to the red on the Independent’s uniform. Also blue. And she doesn’t like yellow, but gold, copper, bronze and tan are all right, as long as they’re not encroaching too far on brown.”

“Ya serious? She really thinks I’d care?”

“Mal, you and Zoë are known to favour your old military colours. She isn’t going to trespass on that if she can avoid it, and giving your own preferences, well – wearing grey or purple might come across as… confrontational.” Inara peered around the edge of Mal’s bonnet to catch his eye. “Mal, she’s very insecure. She wants to – well, I can’t say that she wants to please, exactly, but she is trying very hard not to grate on anyone.”

“She’s very contained.”

“Yes.”

“Did she mention any books she wanted or the like?”

“She asked for some craft supplies. She’s very fond of kirigami. Also, she asked, if there was room in the budget, for a few cosmetic supplies. All very simple and reasonably priced, Mal.”

Mal sensed that Inara was bristling defensively. “Just curious, is all. Glad it’s somethin’ simple to get.” Mal fell silent, ambling genially along arm and arm with Inara, and Inara wondered whether Mal had drawn her closer consciously, or unconsciously. Hidden by her bonnet, she smiled a little wider.

A question occurred to Inara. “Does she remind you of River?”

Mal stiffen momentarily, but Inara felt him relax again. “Honestly? No. Not at all.” He was quiet, but Inara knew that he wasn’t finished, just thinking on what he would say next. “River – you’d have to be blind, deaf and more than a little stupid not to know the girl’s a reader. Ceres – even after she’s gone and shown you, it’s still hard to believe. You sort of start to forget it, as soon as you shake the oddness of it. Might be the difference in their ages though – River’s younger, and younger still when you account for all the things she’s only just learning about life now.” He fell silent again.

Inara prompted him gently. “What do you mean, Mal?” She wanted to hear his thoughts, and it seemed he was in a mood to share them. She liked what she hoped was a growing comfort between them.

“Just – well, you asked me if she reminded me of River. She doesn’t. She does remind me more than a mite, though, of Simon.”

That startled Inara; it wasn’t a connection she would have made, but she responded neutrally. “Well, you have spent more time with her than I have.”

“They share a core-bred quiet arrogance in the rightness of their choices.” Mal was silent again. Inara decided not to point out that she knew rim-folk who were plenty arrogant about the rightness of their choices, as it would only spoil the moment they were finally having – and, well, maybe Mal was right; Simon’s arrogance was, at least, usually quiet. “And they share this certainty that they just can’t hide that they really are utterly alone in the cold, dark ‘verse.”

Inara reached across and squeezed Mal’s arm. “Simon doesn’t think like that anymore. He knew we would come for him. River as much as said so.”

“True. Took him a damn long time to get to that place a trust, though, ‘Nara.” Mal continued. “Reminds me a bit of Zoë, too – they’re both so…”

“Contained?”

“I was trying to avoid usin’ that word again, but it does seem to crop up.”

“It’s – appropriate – I guess.”

“Begs the question, ‘containing what?’ though, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“A bit of Saffron, too, I guess.”

“Saffron? Mal…”

“I’m serious, ‘Nara. There’s this competence, and she’s personable enough, if trying a little too hard – but deep down there’s this disturbed craziness. We just haven’t seen it yet. But you know it’s there, you can sense it.” Mal shook his head. “Course, nobody goes through all of what she’s gone through and remains the same. Can’t happen.” Mal paused. “You saw how she acted at breakfast this morning? And the girl’s a reader. Had to know nothing untoward was gonna happen to her.”

“Honestly, Mal? I know that I really thought it might.”

“Jayne doesn’t just hit girls.”

“He slapped River.”

“After she stabbed him! She gave him a chest wound, he gave her a busted lip. Could reasonably be called self-defence. It’s not like he shot her.”

“I understand that, Mal. I’m not suggesting that Jayne would go beating women, just that either he – or indeed Zoë – might have reacted a little – strongly, shall we say – to Ceres trespassing at the table.”

“Zoë handled it very well, I thought.”

“She always does.”

***

“Oh, look! This is perfect for Zoë, don’t ya think? Isn’t this just adorable?” Kaylee’s question was more or less rhetorical, but Jayne replied anyway.

“Look, Mal told ya nothing for the babies. We got the parts we need, let’s just get back to the boat.”

Kaylee put on her best pouty face and most wheedling voice. “Ah, Jayne, we ain’t been in a proper market in an age!”

“Yeah, well, I don’t like markets near as much as I like my blood not boilin’ out my ears.” Jayne’s tone was firm.

“Well, I want to pick up something for Simon and River asked me to get a few things for her, so we can’t go back yet.”

“Alright.” Jayne looked around carefully, and bent down close to Kaylee. “But you try to buy something for them babies on the down low, and I’m picking you up and carrying ya back ta Serenity iffin I have to.”

“I’ll kick and scream.” Kaylee said teasingly.

“And if you do, I’ll pinch yer hamstring so hard that you won’t walk right near on a week.”

“Jayne!” Kaylee mocked offence.

“Go on, move it lil’Kaylee. Simon’s feet are bigger than them there booties. Ain’t nothing ta see here.”

***

“Look, I’ve made you something.” River rolled a tray table over to Simon. Simon neither looked nor felt impressed, but he smiled a little at his sister’s efforts. “I can hear you, you know.” She tapped his temple. “I know it’s not much, but you know the rules – you’re only just off that ghastly tube, so you have to be patient with your stomach.” She continued as she tucked a napkin under his chin, “Anyway, it’s better than what we had for lunch. Mal claims that he made tomato–flavoured soup. Dinner should be nicer. Mal’s picking up real food in the world. ‘Course, that’s supposed to be a surprise.”

Simon rolled his eyes. “I won’t tell.”

“There’s no need to get all ironic on me, ge-ge.” River fiddled a bit with the spoon, trying to decide what the optimum amount of rice at any one time would be. She’d never done this before. “This look about the right amount?” She showed it to Simon.

He nodded, hesitantly. “I don’t,” he began, but it trailed off to a burst of blushing shame; clarity surged ‘no point in trying to hide it’, followed by a struggle of how to ‘say’ what he was trying to ‘say’, without revealing too much of himself, of his thoughts. Not that it mattered – his thoughts were already naked to his sister. He forced himself. “I don’t like this.”

“Simon, you need to eat. And this is real food. You were so happy this morning when she took the tube out.”

“I just – I want to be able to feed myself River. I want to be able to take care of my own body. This is – this is humiliation.”

“No, Simon. No, it’s not. It’s just – bodily functions. You’re a doctor, stop thinking like a normal person.”

Simon turned his face away, and thought quietly. “River, logic – it doesn’t matter at a time like this. It only matters to how you think, it doesn’t change how you feel.”

“Simon, if our positions were reversed, wouldn’t you care for me?”

Simon turned back to her. “Of course, mei mei.” He turned away again. “But this is different.”

“Only different because you are used to being the carer, not the cared for. No other difference. You’ve fed me. Washed me, changed me.”

Simon’s thought interrupted, “As a baby, River!”

But River continued. “Prepped me,” her nose wrinkled at the thought, “for cryo. You’ve seen me with a needle in my brain. You pulled it out. Fed me when I was handcuffed in the pantry. Cleaned up apple bits and fluids that I spewed all over your bed. If you must be proud, be proud of taking care of me, but not too proud to let me take care of you, too.” She could feel him relenting, a little; the turmoil of understanding, and love, and hunger warring with the need to be the protector, the strong one. “Simon, it doesn’t just have to be one way. We can take care of each other.” He turned back to her, face sad; she could feel the sadness that soaked through all of the top layers of his thought. “You’re hungry, Simon, and you need to eat. If you really want, I’ll just… put the tube back in. I won’t force you – it wouldn’t.” She let herself trail off and tried again. “Will you at least try it? I made just for you.”

He hated the damn tube, and she had made an effort. Simon nodded. She mixed the now-cold spoon back in and measured out a new warm one. As she slipped the spoon between his lips, he recalled, vividly, the night on Jiangyin, when she’d hand fed him hodgeberries, and told him they were poison. “This is good, River.” He was a little surprised. “What’s in it?”

“Just rice, garlic and sake.”

“Sake?!” Good god – the meds –

“Don’t be silly. The alcohol has all boiled off.” She readied another spoonful with a smile.

***

Inara found Ceres in the kitchen; the young woman was mopping carefully. Ceres looked up, apprehensively, Inara thought, when the Companion walked into the room. Inara smiled her most relaxed smile and began in a light tone, “I didn’t mean to interrupt. When you are finished, please join me in my shuttle, shuttle one – I have some things for you.”

Inara walked to her shuttle, where she changed out of Mal’s dress – she pulled it close for one last smell before she folded it to give it back. It was strange – the faint smell of Mal’s bunk and strong scent of her perfume mingled together – but she liked it. She placed it on the couch and put the ridiculous bonnet on top of it. She smiled at the memory of Mal manfully carrying her various packages through the little town. He’d insisted on a “break” – and she’d humoured his ruse, as they were having far too much fun not to – and was rewarded by Mal buying her a delightful café glacé in the town’s sweet shop-cum-café. It had been out of character, her decision to wear the dress – the offer a spontaneous half-joke only made worthwhile by his stunned expression at her words – but she was very glad now to have done it. She’d often thought that the words she’d spoken to Kaylee about star-crossed lovers applied to her and Mal – now she was beginning to wonder if it might be alright to surrender, just a little, to hope.

Ceres’ knock was light, but purposeful, rather like a lady-like handshake. Inara filed this away for later reference – it was not the knock she would have expected from the insecure, apprehensive girl she’d seen and spoken to.

“Qing jin.” Ceres stepped through, closing the door behind her. Inara noticed that the girl fell to a parade rest immediately on turning around. “There’s no need to be so formal, Ceres. Come sit.” Inara sat on her sofa and patted the seat next to her. “Would you like some tea?”

“Please.” Inara concentrated on her pouring, and passed the girl one of her delicate cups, she watched as Ceres took it; it was not a hand unused to holding finery, if perhaps somewhat out of practice. “Thank you, Inara. This is… lovely.” Ceres tone betrayed a little wonder.

Inara smiled. “I managed to procure all of the things you wanted, and a few extras. Let’s have a look, shall we?” Inara placed her cup in her saucer and walked toward the bed. She noticed that Ceres took a few more quick sips before rising and wondered if that was a sign of the girl relaxing, or if it was indicative of her assumption that it would be taken away from her. The answer wasn’t obvious. Inara opened the boxes with a tempting expression and started unfolding the clothes – the girl’s curiosity clearly took hold and she stood very close to Inara to look at them. “Two day dresses – moss green and dusty rose. An evening dress – bronze. One little black dress – I think the cut should flatter you.” Inara held it up against the girl’s body. “Yes, very nice.” She continued. “Two pairs of straight trousers in black. Two pairs of cargo pants in green. Four sweaters: moss green, forest green, crimson, and gold. Four tops: cream, dusty rose, copper, and black. One light coat, in cream. One heavy coat, in winter white. Two pairs of pyjamas in pink and cream. Seven sets of matching underwear, four in skin pink, one in black, two in pretty patterns for fun. Two pairs of boots – one black, one brown – no, see? Not that brown. One pair of straw sandals. One pair of evening slippers in bronze, and one pair of dress shoes in black.”

“These are… all very fine, Inara.” The girl looked up puzzled, but her fingers continued to caress the materials.

Inara smiled. “Better a few good quality things than many poor quality things.”

Ceres nodded. “So it is said. But, Inara – these dresses,” and her fingers played across the bronze and black, “when will I have a chance to wear them? Or the coats? I’ll never be off ship.”

“The dresses were my idea – it’s important to have a few beautiful things just for yourself; anyway, you never know on Serenity, they just might come in useful on a caper. The coats were Mal’s idea – in retrospect, a wise one, though I hope you don’t need them. They seem to be sort of bad luck charms in my time here.” Inara reflected on their visit to St. Alban’s and the terror of the downed engine. “Anyway, as I said, I hope you don’t need them.” She shook the creeping morbid feeling, and opened some of the smaller boxes. “Paper and tools for kirigami. Some shampoo, conditioner, soap, razor, towels, witch hazel, cotton balls, body oil, body scent, lip gloss, and eye liner. As I said, there was a little extra, so I bought some powder, some eye colours and a lipstick.” Inara couldn’t help but notice the girl smile at the thought of real lipstick instead of just gloss – so she handed it to the girl, who promptly opened the tube.

“Oh, Inara. This is – oh, it’s just perfect. Thank you.” Inara’s smile deepened as the girl unwound the tube and sniffed the stick of colour. Inara filed that away, too. She was reasonably certain that she’d never seen anyone sniff lipstick before. She wasn’t even sure what they smelled like.

“You’re welcome – though there isn’t much need to thank me. Mal is right, you do need a few things.”

“Most people would not think that a few things include dance slippers and lipstick.”

“Well, Mal knew what he was doing when he asked a Companion to go shopping.”

“I suppose. This really is – well, it’s appreciated. It’s all very extravagant.” Ceres was not uneducated as to quality – and knew that the cost of these things – even if made and purchased out on the rim – was huge. Once the offer was made, Ceres had expected some clothes – all functional, and probably cheaply made – the toiletries, and the craft box. Even a few well made clothes wouldn’t have surprised her. Many rim folk lived by the motto ‘I’m too poor to buy cheap shit.’ But formal dresses and shoes to match? Powder and lipstick? These were, indisputably, luxuries. It would have been a puzzle if she had merely been a charity case, instead of a prisoner; instead, it was unsettling as well as confusing.

“Now, now, we haven’t even gotten to your present yet.”

“A present?” The girl continued to smile, but Inara sensed that the idea of a present was making her nervous.

“Just a little one. To welcome you aboard, I suppose. I know it’s not the life you would have chosen for yourself, but I believe that it’s where we are meant to be. All of us. Even you. If only for a little while.” Inara picked up a small narrow box and handed it to the younger woman.

Ceres unwrapped it slowly. It was probably the first present she’d had in – well, since childhood. The paper gave way to a box, the box to a soft canvas roll – the roll to some make up brushes. “Thank you. This is – well, it’s very kind, Inara.” The girl looked up and repeated herself. “Thank you.”

***

Aren lost no time when she got back. River disappeared with an “I love you, Simon,” leaving the doctor alone with her patient.

“Good news, Simon. I have managed to procure a temporary replacement for your left hand. It’s a C-standard replacement limb, good quality, but of course, not what you’ll ultimately need. I’m sure you understand the risks, but I’ll explain them to you anyway: there is a small risk that the surgery will cause some damage, thus making it more difficult, or impossible, to attach the better replacement later. As I said, the risk is small, and I think it’s worth it. Sign language, written notes – it will open up your avenues of communication – well, except for with Jayne, of course.” Aren noted that Simon didn’t even crack a smile. Not a good sign. “So, would you like some time to think about it? We don’t have to do it immediately.” Simon wiggled his foot.

“Ok. I’ll bring it up again in the morning. I also procured some re-gen tissue boosters and collagen replacements – they were as well equipped on Triumph as I could have dared hope. With your permission, I’d like to begin those treatments now.” Simon wiggled his foot. Aren continued. “I should be completely clear. I’m afraid that this will be uncomfortable, Simon – even, possibly, painful – and it is incredibly important that you put no strain on your vocal cords, if you want to give them a chance to regenerate, instead of having to have them replaced. You understand?” Simon did. She saw that Simon’s eyes had closed – she worried that he was sinking further into depression – and his foot wiggled. “Finally, I will need a nurse, to help move you.”

River appeared at the door, knocked on it, and without waiting for invitation, she slid it open. “I’ll help.”

Aren didn’t bother to scold her. She sensed that it would do no good. “Would you like River to help?” There was a moment’s hesitation, and Aren saw that the girl frowned, but Simon’s foot wiggled. “Very well. I’ll confess that I had someone bigger in mind – Mal perhaps, or Jayne.” Aren turned and hit the blinds for privacy.

“Simon’s not heavy. He’s my brother.”

Aren explained what they would be doing, and what each of them would have to do. River sensed her brother’s fear, both at the thought of more pain, and the thought of damaging whatever progress his vocal cords had had a chance to make in recovering. As Aren moved to place the restraint around Simon’s head, River shook her head and spoke quietly. “No restraints.”

“River –”

“No restraints. They made him watch.” The girl’s soft voice was pleading. Aren could see the warning wet-glassy effect in both Tams’ eyes and wanted to relent.

She tried to make her voice reasonable. “If he moves, the needle could go anywhere, River.”

“He won’t move. I promise. I’ll hold his hand.”

Aren thought that she might be on the verge of tears, too. There wasn’t a thing about this situation that wasn’t wrong, and ugly. “River, he won’t be able to help himself.”

River met the doctor’s eyes. “Four hundred lashes. Fifty-eight broken bones. He never told. He has self-control equal to this moment.”

Aren watched as River returned her gaze to her brother’s face, and moved to take his right hand. “Simon, do you want me to do this, without the aid of a restraint?” She saw his foot wiggle. “Okay.” It was his choice. After everything he had been through, it had to be. She prepped the needle and walked over to his left side.

As the needle slid into his throat, Simon was no longer in his infirmary – but rather back in the hands of his torturers, as their scalpel bit into his neck. From somewhere else, he felt fingernails digging into the skin of his right forearm – and in a moment, he was no longer alone. River was in the room with him, putting bullets to Smith and Hunt. “Light it.” And, in an instant, it was over.

Aren sighed in relief. River had been right. Simon had not moved. Despite all she had seen on his body, all that she’d known he’d survived – that small act had seemed the most extraordinary. If only that was all that she would ask of him, today. With River’s help, Aren rolled Simon onto his stomach. While the doctor prepped needles of re-gen boosters and collagen, River opened her brother’s gown at the back. Chapter Thirty-Three: Primum non nocere (the first thing is to do no harm – from the Hippocratic oath) Part II

Kaylee was surprised not to find River in the infirmary – but then, Inara’s lady doctor was there, and River always left Simon alone for that. Kaylee decided to check the passenger dorms. She knocked on Simon’s door; it seemed very like River to retreat there if she couldn’t be with her brother. “River?”

“Hey Kaylee.” River opened the screen enough for Kaylee to slip in.

“I brought them things you asked for, sweetie.” The girls sat together on Simon’s bed. “Paper and fresh coloured pencils, some charcoals.”

“I didn’t –” River began.

“I know. But I saw them, and I thought that you might like them.”

“Thank you, Kaylee.”

“It’s not a present so much as an apology for being a meiyong de pofu.”

“No, no. Kaylee. I’m not mad. We’re not mad.”

“Ya should be.” Kaylee’s face had lost all of its regained sunshine. “I shoulda – I was –”

“Terrified, miserable, guilt-ridden?” Kaylee nodded, and River drew her into a hug. “I’m glad you haven’t seen so much bad that you can handle it well. That’s a quality to cherish in my brother’s bao bei. We know it, even if you don’t.”

Kaylee managed to hold back her tears. She spoke, to distract herself. “How’d you get to be so wise?” Kaylee handed over another package.

River carefully took the proffered box, “Seen too much bad.” She opened it. “These are perfect.”

Kaylee looked a little uncertain. “I don’t know, but you did say not ripe. The seller was pushed to find a bunch more than three days off ripe, but he found these.”

“No.” River looked up. “No, these are perfect. Simon won’t be able to eat anything like this for a few more days, and he likes hodgeberries – we got into trouble over some at a party, once – so they’re kind of a treat and a way to make him laugh at the same time.”

Kaylee spoke. “He told me about the party.” River looked up. “After that night on Jiangyin. I got them fancy breads you asked for as well.”

River stood up, startled. “Have to go.” She left the room, but turned in the doorway. “Can you bring Simon some toast when the doctor leaves? Only a scrapping of butter.”

“Sure.” Kaylee nodded, pleased to finally feel of some assistance to Simon. River took off at a run.

When the doctor finally finished up in the infirmary, Kaylee brought Simon the toast that River had suggested. “Hey Simon. I brought you some toast. I even cut it up into triangles so that it would be more tasty.”

“Hey, is that pumpernickel?” River’s voice was tired sounding, but contained a little interest.

“Yup. River thought of it, and I managed to get it at the market. I got something else at the market too.”

“For me?”

“Yes.” Kaylee smiled at him and put the plate on his bedside tray table. There was a little box wrapped in paper and string on the plate. “So, ya gonna try some of this toast?”

River could feel Simon’s returning discomfort. He’d already been through all of this once today; but River could also feel Kaylee’s desperate desire to be helpful. And which of them, in truth, was stronger? River slipped off of the counter, and brushed hair off of her brother’s face. “How about I let Kaylee have some time alone with you?” River could feel his embarrassment and fear, but also, his desire to be near to the woman he loved. She could tell that he hadn’t failed to notice Kaylee’s smile at River’s suggestion. Simon nodded. River kissed her brother’s forehead, before she turned and hit the privacy blinds. “I love you, Simon.” And with that, she left.

As she hand fed her lover small triangles of pumpernickel toast, Kaylee spoke to him.

“So, ya wanna hear about my day?” Simon nodded and she continued. “Well, Cap’n gave us all an advance on the money from the Lassiter job – and two whole hours on Triumph to spend it. Well, not two whole hours, ‘cause we all had chores ta do, but as soon as we got the bits for Serenity, we took out for the market. River suggested pickin’ up some bread, and wanted some drawing things for herself – so I got those – oh, and we saw some of the most darling little booties in the ‘verse. And the little hats were so sweet that even Jayne liked ‘em. But he wouldn’t let me get anything, ‘cause Captain Tightpants is being a feifei de pigu.”

Simon was part-listening, and part-enjoying the toast, while simultaneously worrying about how much fixing him up was going to cost – and how long everyone was going to have to wait to get whatever was left of their cuts. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand – Mal’s policy of not dishing out cuts until after major repairs to crew or Serenity were done was the only measure of any kind of insurance that they had out here. Still – the take from the Lassiter… the crew of Serenity could be rich, but instead they were going to have to blow a huge chunk of it on his meiyong de pigu.

Kaylee watched carefully as Simon raised his broken hand and mimicked ‘wind back’. “Captain Tightpants?” Simon nodded and inched his hand forward. “Captain Tightpants is being a feifei de pigu?” Simon nodded and dropped his hand. “Oh, well, turns out our fearless Captain is a superstitious lao baojun who believes a lot of yu ben de fei hua about tempting fate. Thinks us throwing Zoë a baby shower could cause all sorts a untold damage to Zoë or the babies.”

Simon carefully mouthed, “Worried about miscarriage.”

It took Kaylee a moment to parse this. “I know. But Simon, the ‘verse ain’t like that. And Jayne’s nearly as bad. Oh, he claims that he just doesn’t want to go out the airlock, but he was as jumpy as the Cap’n when I suggested a party for Zoë. Men!”

Simon nodded with a mock-serious expression. “Kewu de hundans.”

Kaylee smiled in delight. “Oh, well, if we’re going to get you cussin’ I should reward you.” She planted a light, chaste, kiss on his lips. Simon liked the tickle of her hair brushing off of his skin. He hadn’t realised it, but he had missed it. As she sat back up, he really wished that he could run his fingers through her hair, just once more. She whispered, “Who knew that pretty mouth could talk dirty?” But the expression on his face, as she sat back up, surprised her; he suddenly looked sad. Was it because she’d said ‘talk’? It couldn’t be, could it? What on earth had she done? What could she do? She looked away, confused. When her gaze fell on the little box again, she decided just to move forward. “Here. Let’s get this open and see what it is.” Simon nodded encouragement at her; he hadn’t missed her face fall and he desperately wanted to reach out and hold her hand. He watched her face as she unwrapped the little box slowly, concentrating on undoing the tiny knot that held it closed. After a minute, she looked up proudly. “There. Now see?”

‘My god,’ Simon thought. He mouthed, “You remembered.”

“Well, wouldn’t a thought of it, but I saw it in the bakery when I went to pick up the bread River asked for. And I thought one tiny slice couldn’t hurt. It’s practically bread anyway.”

Simon stared at the slice of poppy-seed cake. It was practically butter, but it was a small slice. And he would be good. He smiled up at her and made a chopping gesture with his bandaged hand, mouthing “Half.”

“No, Simon, it’s so little already!”

“I want you to have half.” He mouthed slowly at her, then smiled.

“If you’re sure.” He nodded. She broke into two pieces and cradled his piece so that the crumbs would fall into her hand as she fed his part to him, before nibbling on her own half. Heart in her throat, she placed the last bit between her lips and bent over Simon, praying that he would share the last bite with her.

***

“Playing dress up.” River stood in Ceres’ doorway.

“Considering asking for a lock for my door.” Ceres answered with a smile.

“You don’t really mind.” River tilted her head to one side, trying to hear the other girl. It was so strange not to be able to hear her.

Ceres let some thoughts float up and out – silver ribbons reaching out to the other reader. Not really, no.

“How do you do that?”

“I’m not sure.” Ceres paused. “It’s like – visualising things – box things behind gates and in chests, then lift lids, shed light in corners when you want to. Sing songs; recite poems to keep other’s thoughts out. I don’t really know why any of it works; I just do it because it helps. It’s hard to explain.”

“Can you show me?” River stepped closer, and reached for the other girl’s hand. Ceres allowed their hands to join, and pictured the silver ribbons arcing across the small space between them. After a moment, River spoke again. “I think you should wear the green dress. To dinner.” She dropped Ceres’ hand.

“I’m cooking. I’m not sure I want the smell of food in my dresses. How hard is it to keep things clean out here?”

“Come on! Say it in my brain. I want to learn.”

Ceres was hesitant – she showed that to River. Are you sure?

Yes. River thought clearly.

The thought came across with the sparkle grey-lilac of excitement. It was also loud, but there was a marked change in focus. Just think at me, not louder. Think of it like a speaker. Change the angle, not the volume.

River tried again. I think you should wear the green dress to dinner. We can wash it later. I’ll show you.

The ribbon of thought wafted a cajoling-spiral-curl. Ceres smiled. You learn fast.

Royal blue and silver: pride. Yes I do. But that isn’t agreement.

Ceres smiled as she picked up the green dress, and started to undress.

***

After dinner, Kaylee and River walked back together to the infirmary. “I was wonderin’ if you’d mind me sleepin’ in the infirmary with Simon tonight.”

“No, I don’t. We can ask Simon if he does.”

“Ya think he’ll agree?”

River shrugged. “I don’t know.” But Simon did agree. Over his fear, his apprehension. Because he couldn’t take the chance that she would think he was rejecting her. River knew all of this; she loved her unbreakable brother – so strong; she squeezed his shoulder tight as he struggled with his answer and patted it gently when he nodded agreement to his love. “I’d better get something for you, so you can wake Kaylee if you need to.” With an “I love you, Simon,” she left the room.

“What da ya think it is she’s getting?” Kaylee asked. Simon shrugged. “Can I talk about dinner or would that be bad?”

Simon smiled at her. “Was it as good as my toast and cake?”

It took Kaylee a second to work out. “No.” She made her face mock serious. “It was alright, though. Cap’n bought real food. The new girl cooked.”

“Ceres, or Aren?”

“Ceres. River been telling you about her?” Simon nodded. “Anyway, she cooked. River helped, probably for the best since turns out Ceres hasn’t cooked anything in two years. Think there’d have been a riot if the first chicken we’d had in the lifetime of a star got ruined. Dinner reminded me a bit of Book. Ceres seems to know an awful lot about herbs. Oh! ‘Nara picked up some clothes for her in the world. Looks much prettier than in Zoë’s clothes. No word of a lie, had to fold up the pants about eight inches.”

Simon smiled. “Poor thing.”

Kaylee nodded agreement. “Yeah, musta felt real stupid. Still, looks right pretty now. ‘Nara knows her stuff.” Kaylee ran her fingers across Simon’s face and hair. “I should ask ‘Nara to come brush your hair tomorrow. It’s always so nice and relaxing. Would you like that?”

“No.” He mouthed, but his tired eyes were smiling. “You can do it.”

As he expected, she smiled happily. “Ok.” She lent down and gave him another kiss. He breathed deep the smell of her hair.

River waited until the moment had passed before returning with the sock Jayne had made for her – it hadn’t seemed right to undo it. Before, it was just a sock and some coins – now, it was a promise of aid. A symbol of trust. She didn’t want to change that, but she could pass it on. She showed it to the pair, before she put it between her brother’s right arm and his hip. “If you want anything, just push it off the bed. It’ll jingle, and Kaylee will know that you need something. Okay?”

Simon stared. Where the hell had his sister learned that – that whore’s trick?

“Not a trick. Symbol of trust.” She kissed her brother. “Sleep well. I love you, Simon.”

Kaylee woke to the sound of the sock hitting the floor, and saw Simon’s face marked clearly with discomfort. “Want me ta get the doctor?” She whispered as she slid from the counter.

Simon nodded. As she dashed away at her ‘oh my god the engine’s going to explode” full-run Simon wished that he had something to throw, and something to throw it with. He settled for banging his head off of his pillow, and cursing.

***

Others woke some small factions of a second before Kaylee, before the sock began it’s short journey to the floor. River padded on bare feet to the lounge to wait for Kaylee to return with the doctor; Ceres, in her mind, gathered shadows to herself, and after she’d head River go past, silently crossed the floor to the dresser that contained those things she needed so very much right now. She knew them by feel, though she’d have preferred to turn the light on; she couldn’t risk being disturbed. Body scent. Cotton balls. Witch hazel. She carefully opened the lid of the craft box, and closed her eyes, picking the one she wanted by feel.

She could have resisted the midnight-blue-black lure of Kaylee’s fear, and the siren-song of River’s silver-teal mist of sorrow; but the brimstone-red-black smoke of Simon’s shame was too much; coupled with green-black-brown bile of disgust and gore-red-brown of pooling anger-pain it was all she could do to keep some semblance of a separate identity.

***

Kaylee returned to the infirmary breathless and with Aren and Inara in tow, to find River sitting quietly in the lounge outside. Aren didn’t break stride, but entered the infirmary and closed the door and the blinds in a few fluid, quick movements.

Kaylee hesitated. Did Simon want to be alone? Probably. Even River hadn’t joined him. She sat next to River, and instinctively caught the other girl’s hand. Inara sank into the seat next to her. “Do you know what’s wrong? Is he in pain?”

River nodded sadly. “Yes. But there’s nothing wrong.”

“Sweetie, I don’t understand.”

River repeated herself. “He’s in pain, but there isn’t anything wrong.” At Kaylee’s puzzled, scared expression, River expanded her explanation. “Natural function. Wants privacy.”

Inara’s eyes fluttered closed in sympathy; Kaylee’s hand just jerked to cover her mouth. River squeezed the hand Kaylee had left in hers. “Easier when it’s just the doctor.” She added in a whisper. “At least a little.”

***

When Aren returned later in the morning, she had to shake Kaylee awake. The girl left with a mumbled “I love ya, Simon.” Aren saw that Simon was already awake.

“Did you manage to get back to sleep?” No wiggle. Well, she’d more or less expected that. “Have you made a decision about surgery this morning?”

Simon had. He’d had hours to ponder the ugliness of his situation. The part of him that was Dr. Tam had put up a small protest about the risk, but it was overruled by the rest of him. Dr. Tam’s complaints of selfishness were also ignored. He wanted to be able to feed himself, care for himself. Touch Kaylee’s hair. Hold a book.

Aren saw his foot wiggle. “Is the decision yes?” Simon’s foot wiggled again. “Okay. How about right after breakfast?” Simon’s foot wiggled. “Good. Will I ask River to play nurse again?” Another wiggle. “Okay. I’m going to grab some food, and then I’ll come straight back and scrub up. Need anything else in the meantime?” No wiggle. “Very well.”

Before Aren left she put up a ‘Nil by mouth’ sign, though she was reasonably certain that Simon could be trusted not to break fast. When Aren returned from breakfast with River in tow, the sign had been replaced with one of a rather battered-looking sad-faced teddy bear and the words “Don’t feed the bear.” Aren thought that River’s expression of innocence was not entirely believable. Simon’s surgery was followed by yet more re-gen boosters and collagen therapy, but he was still sedated, so that round was easier on all concerned. When she and River were finally done, and Simon was sleeping off his anaesthetic, it was well past dinnertime.

Aren left the infirmary feeling far too old to be doing twelve-hour surgeries, only to be faced with most of Serenity’s crew in the lounge. She managed a tired, “It all went well.”

There was a mostly silent collective acknowledgement, before Inara stood and said, “Come along, Aren. Kaylee and I kept some dinner for you and River.”

“River wants to stay with Simon. Which, of course, someone has to, but she really should eat.”

Zoë raised an eyebrow and walked into the infirmary. “Go on, honey, Kaylee’s kept you some dinner. I’ll stay with Simon.”

Aren and Inara watched from the window as River tilted her head to one side and slipped off of the counter. “Thank you Zoë. I love you, Simon.”

River followed Aren and Kaylee to the kitchen, but Inara excused herself from the group; “I’ll join you in a few minutes.”

“Of course, darling.” Aren squeezed her friend’s hand.

Inara watched as Jayne trailed off to the kitchen with the others, and moved closer to Mal. “I was wondering if I might have a few moments of your time?”

“’Course ya can, ‘Nara.” Mal sat back on the couch, and Inara joined him.

They sat together in stillness for a moment; Inara took a deep breath and willed herself to calm. She was frightened. Saying it aloud – well – it made it seem more real. “Mal, I’ve decided not to renew my license this year.”

“Your license?”

“To Companion, as Wash would say.”

Mal nodded silently. He didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t upset her, but he really didn’t want to, especially now – this development he’d barely dared to dream of. “Well now. Any especial reason why you’d care to share?”

Inara let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. This was a promising beginning. She let herself relax a little. “There are a lot of reasons, Mal, not least that I don’t want to be a possible vector for the Alliance to track back to Serenity. With everything that’s happened in the last two months – I can’t – I can’t bear the thought of being a threat to you all – your lives, your safety.”

Mal felt a swell of disappointment, and was angry with himself for it. He should be pleased that she cared, and that she was giving up this thing – which while he hated it, he knew she defined herself by it, as a gesture – more than a gesture – of solidarity with him, with his crew. He pushed the anger and hurt down. “So, you gonna resign?” He worded it carefully, and made his voice deliberately even.

Inara didn’t miss the change of tone, or him stiffening beside her. “I’m not going to resign, Mal. It – it would draw too much attention. I’m just going to let it lapse. It will be several months before that happens, which, of course, may still sometimes come in useful to us. But I wanted to let you know, as I don’t plan on taking any clients, and obviously, we’ll have to – come to some other arrangement.

Of course. It was always going to be about business. About arrangements. Barbs about rent and security deposits flashed through his mind, but he shook his anger off; he was not going to start another fight. “Well, we can talk about that. I’m a mite tired, ‘Nara, so I hope you don’t mind if, ah, I’d like to think on alla this a while.” Without waiting for her leave, he turned away.

“No, no – of course not, Mal.” Inara said softly. What on earth had she done wrong now? She decided that she would skip the kitchen and just go straight to her shuttle. Well, for the while in which it was still her shuttle. She could feel a headache coming on.

Chapter Thirty-Four: Primum non nocere (the first thing is to do no harm – from the Hippocratic oath) Part III

Zoë sat next to Simon’s unconscious form, wondering how long it would take for him to recover fully – well, not fully, they all knew that that was impossible – but recover to the maximum extent that he could. She brushed some hair off of his face, and she noticed, once again, how young he really was. Of course, in absolute terms, they all were young, even those that hadn’t felt it in years, like her and Mal. But in relative terms – well, Dr. Simon Tam really was just a boy – and all the hot housing of his accelerated education had left him, like his sister, with large gaps in his life experience. Yet, simultaneously, he could not be described as sheltered; his war, though more private than her own, was no less brutal, and probably far more lonely. In her mind’s eye she could map the wounds and scars on his body – some years old, some newer; she had more than a passing understanding, too, of the wounds to his mind, his ego; but she wondered how deeply the scars on his heart and soul went. As his eyes began to flutter slightly, she swept her own over his monitors. All still normal.

***

Inara was still sitting up when Aren walked in with her nightly cup of Darjeeling. “Oh, darling, you’re still up. We missed you at supper. I take it that your talk with Mal did not go well?”

“My talk with – was I that obvious?”

“No, darling, not at all. It just seemed the most likely.” Aren sat on the bed and slipped her shoes off.

“It did not go well.” The Companion paused. “I decided to let my license lapse.”

“Really?” The doctor flipped her legs up onto the bed.

“Really. It’s just too risky, Aren. It wouldn’t even be the first time that the Alliance managed to get a handle on Serenity through me – they set a trap at the Training House while I was there.”

Aren took a careful sip. “And is this what you told him?”

“Yes.” Inara looked over to her friend. “But he didn’t react the way I expected him to. I thought that he would be happy – he’s never approved of my work – but instead he seemed, well – disappointed. Bitter, even.”

“Darling, you know I love you, don’t you?”

“Yes.” Inara bowed her head with a smile, remembering a conversation she’d had with Kaylee not so terribly long before, and from where she’d learned it. “And you say this with love.”

“Yes. I say this with love. I think – perhaps – that Mal is disappointed not by your decision to leave, but because of your reasoning. Couldn’t you just tell him the truth?”

“I did tell him the truth, Aren!”

“No, you told him one truth.” She took another sip as she tried to form her thoughts into words. “You know, doctors and Companions are not so dissimilar – both, as the nature of their practice, deal deeply in intimacies. And to protect ourselves – and our patients or clients – we simultaneously create a formal distance from them, and that intimacy. These people are your friends – to the extent that you would lie for them, run from the government with them, call in favours from old friends – and yet you described them, as I recall, as ‘the Captain’, ‘the medic’, ‘the pregnant woman’, and ‘the mentally unstable girl’. You may be giving up your license because you are frightened for their safety, but that just begs the question, why do you care?”

“They’re my friends, Aren.”

“Or, put differently, in no more letters than the total number of people on this boat?”

It was barely a whisper. “I love them.”

“Yes.” Aren put her cup down and moved her fingers to her friend’s neck. “And see, you’re still alive.”

Tears were welling up in Inara’s eyes when her friend gathered her into a tight, warm, hug. “Who’d have thought that a Companion would have intimacy issues?”

“Perhaps you should ask Simon how he feels about being a patient.”

“How is Simon?”

“Better. Zoë’s offered to stay with him while he’s in recovery. Serenity is very lucky to have her – she’s quite the field surgeon.”

***

When he first woke, he complained of being cold, so Zoë rigged up the heating blanket. Clearly, he wasn’t quite done sleeping off the anaesthetic, as, frowning deeply Simon curled up and went back to sleep after a few minutes.

The second time he woke, he kept trying to say something to her, a single word – but completely unintelligible. She coaxed him into writing it down, which he managed to do in appalling, almost childish scrawl: hydroponics. “You’re just higher than a kite, aren’t you, Simon?” But he just frowned again at his sleep being disturbed.

When he finally woke to the point of drowsy-but-definitely-awake, Zoë herself was plenty ready for a night’s sleep, but she smiled as Simon carefully examined the new hand – and she gave him back the pen and paper pad. Under ‘hydroponics’ he scribbled ‘oh! NB: hydroponics! Don’t let me forget that.’

“No, I don’t think I’ll be lettin’ you forget that for a while, Simon.” Simon smiled groggily at Zoë’s humorous tone.

“Funny.” He mouthed, but scribbled: ‘hydroponics for the babies’.

“You want ta use my children ta run a water farm?”

When he stuck his tongue out again, she laughed out loud. She watched as he scribbled, scribbled, scribbled and then flip the pad at her. ‘Hydroponics farm, on Serenity. Legitimate business, lots of fresh food – can do it in the black, sell surplus at markets we’re near to. Less risk, safer Serenity for the babies. Bet Kaylee can rig it up.’

Zoë stared at the scrawl, and read it twice. It was a tian cai idea, no doubt about it. Definitely worth running past Mal. Before she had a chance to tell him so, he was scribbling away again. ‘Where is Kaylee/River?’

“Asleep on the couch, curled together like kittens. So cute Jayne couldn’t resist tuckin’ ‘em in. ‘Course, I don’t think he knows that anyone saw that.” Simon snorted. “Want me to get ‘em for you?” She saw that his hand instinctively ducked under the blanket, checking. “Everything’s fine. You’re fine. Clean and dry.” As she watched, his eyes – his face – closed. She dropped her voice further. “Simon, ya ain’t the first person to be bed bound on this boat, and I’d be more’n little shocked if you were the last.”

He opened his eyes, but his face remained guarded. Scribble, scribble – flip pad. ‘Did you have to?’ At her expression – because she honestly didn’t know rightly how to answer him – he scrawled ‘I’m so sorry, Zoë.’

“Simon, I may not think on it too hard, but I’m well aware that I’ve been out cold in your care for more than a few hours at a time. Also, point of interest: you’ve had your hand further up my yoni than my husband ever did. I’ve told you things about me that I’ve only ever volunteered to two other people, and I think you know who they are.” Simon nodded. “And I’m told childbirth ain’t exactly a dignified process.” Simon did the half nod, half tilt thing he sometimes did when he didn’t particularly want to give a straight yes. “So. Ya gonna have hang ups, don’t have ‘em around me. Would be a damn long time before we were ever even, and I know you’re not keeping track, or you’d already know that. So, quit worrying about it, ‘cause I ain’t keeping track either. Alright?” She smiled a little at his tiny nod. “Now, you want me to go get River or Kaylee?”

‘Let them sleep.’

“Alright. Would you like me to stay?” Zoë asked softly.

He moved his lips rather than his fingers. “Please.”

Zoë moved to the counter and turned back to him with the sock. “River gave this to me for you.” Zoë tried to hide her smile. “And to tell you that it’s not what you think it is.”

Scribble: ‘Where did she get this?’

“Jayne, I believe.”

“Jayne? Jayne?”, then ‘Jayne? Why would he, my sister?’

“Nothing like that. Nothing untoward. Jayne’s kept a close, watchful eye on your girls this whole time. Might say you owe him a beer next time we hit port.”

She saw that he grimaced. ‘I’m never getting off this boat again. Unless I’m ordered.’

If it hadn’t been so sad, she would have smiled at the ‘ordered’ part. Zoë spoke softly. “I’ll get it for you.”

‘Thanks, Zoë. Good night.’

“Good night, Simon.”

***

Simon was pleased. Well, as pleased as anyone in significant pain, tired-but-not-sleepy and bored out of their mind could possibly be. This morning’s ordeal had been the last of his collagen and re-gen treatments, and tonight, he would sleep in his own bed. It would be a damn long time, he suspected, before the infirmary felt like his infirmary again.

“Hello Simon.” Inara was standing in the doorway with a box under her arm. “I know that your fine motor control isn’t perfect yet, but some practice will fix that. Correct?”

He nodded. With a smile she presented the box. “I was wondering if you would like a game of go?”

He smiled and mouthed, “Yes, please.”

Carefully balancing the board on one of the rolling table trays, Inara set up the board. “Now, if I recall the house rules correctly, the person shut up in the infirmary gets to pick his favourite colour and go first.” Simon’s smile went wider – she was pleased to see that his mood was improving, if only for a little while. Simon picked black. He scribbled on his pad, ‘Beautiful board. Antique?’

“Yes. A gift from a client, many years ago.” It had been a bequest, actually. He’d been quite old when Inara met him and thus in need of companionship in its small ‘c’ capacity. She’d been young, and found him sweet and easy to deal with. Days on end spent playing instruments and games of game followed by light lunches and sumptuous dinners, fine wines and listening – truly listening – to his reminisces of times and friends past. She’d mourned him when he was gone, and still thought of him often – not something that happened often with clients, after such a long time in her profession.

Inara moved the board toward Simon, and he quickly executed his opening move.

***

“Walking on your own feet. Feels good.” River supplied as she helped her brother walk the small distance from the infirmary. ‘Yes Mei-mei. Feels good,’ he thought at her.

Kaylee, on Simon’s the other side ducked out from under his arm to pull the door to his room open. Simon’s eyes fell on the changes that his sister had helpfully made – a spare bed made up on the floor, Inara’s go board set up on a side table. Fresh sheets. It was nice. River pulled the bedding down and his ‘girls’ as Zoë had called them, helped him up onto the bed.

As she tucked him in, River stated, “I will be just across the hall, Simon.” He smiled and nodded, and they shared a hug for the first time in – well, too long.

Kaylee waited until River had left to strip down to her underwear, and then pulled on a night shirt. “And I’m gonna be right here, Simon, sweetie,” she said, pointing to the bed on the floor. “Here’s the sock.” Simon rolled his eyes. “Aw, she means well, Simon.” With a gentle kiss, Kaylee tucked his blankets tighter around him, before settling down into her own makeshift bed.

***

Inara was gently brushing her hair for bed when the knock had come to the door. It was Mal’s knock. “Come in.”

“Hey, ‘Nara, wanted to catch you while you were alone, and Aren’s still in the infirmary, squaring things away, I guess.” He scratched behind his ear a little.

“Would you like to sit? Can I offer you some tea?”

As he sat he nodded toward her. “Tea’d be nice, ‘Nara.”

That sat in silence as she served the tea. Mal used the quiet moment to collect his thoughts. “’Nara, I just want to say that I’m sorry that I wasn’t more responsive last night. I’m glad you’ve decided to stay here, and I’m sorry that you think that you’re not being a – legitimate business woman – no more would somehow make you less a part a this crew, ‘cause it don’t. I guess – if you’d permit me to be truthsome for a moment, I guess I was hoping that maybe you’d wanted to stay with us, not just for us. That it was for you, too. That you wanted to be here, not that I find anything objectionable about you caring about us, ‘cause we all care about you too. Just wish it was what you wanted, not something you felt you had ta do.”

Mal’s truthsome tone always scared her a little. That really should have been her first clue that she was having intimacy issues. “Mal, I – I do want to stay for myself. The safety thing – it’s just one reason, not the whole of it. I love Serenity, and her crew. And I want to be here. To be an aid when things are rough, and to share the joy when times are good. And for all the times in between, I guess, well, I just want to be here.” She paused before continuing. “When I brought up the topic of my license it was because I didn’t want to be less than useful. And I know, as much as you’d rather it wasn’t the case, that there were times when my rent made the difference between us flying and us drifting. I don’t suddenly want to become a burden. That’s – that’s not who I am, Mal. But it wasn’t about anything else.” She looked at hands, folded in her lap. She didn’t want to try to meet his eyes.

Mal looked at his own hands, and focused on just stating things true and not looking to create a battle or score points. “I – well, I understand that ‘Nara, and I can’t say as I blame you or that you’re wrong. But it ain’t as if you’d ever let yourself be dead weight around our necks. Wouldn’t happen. But, if it eases your mind some, let’s talk on what you might be able to do here.”

“Well, I recall you mentioning the day we brought Tracey home that me helping out on the Lassiter job didn’t make me a crook. But you know it did, right?” Mal’s head snapped up toward her. “It was a crime, Mal. I committed a crime. Not to mention all the lying to the government to protect Simon and River when we were boarded, not to mention helping storm the Pandora.”

Mal tried to wrap his head around that one. “You wanna be a merc?”

“Not want, particularly, Mal, but just to be of use. In any capacity that I can. Help Zoë with the babies. Help Simon with his recovery, psychologically as well as physically. Just you know generally be there for the crew, be a sort of – I guess – boat’s mother.”

“Including protecting your brood with violence.”

She nodded. “Including protecting my brood with violence, where necessary. Just generally, you know, the role of a Captain’s wife.”

Mal looked stunned, but quickly returned his face to composure. “Well now. Inara Serra, would you be proposing to me?”

Inara smiled, almost blushingly. “Well, it’s not a leap year, so I guess I’m proposing that you propose to me.”

Mal smiled widely in return. “Well then, I accept your proposal to propose to you.” As he spoke, he stood.

Chapter Thirty-Five: Cras amet qui nunquam amavit; Quique amavit, cras amet (May he love tomorrow who has never loved before.)

At the end of breakfast, Mal stood; everyone’s attention turned toward him, and the chatter at the table came to a frowning halt. “Alright, we’ve got some good news. Simon and Aren have managed to get a doctor willing to do Simon’s final surgery. Everything looks above board, but we’re going to have to play things kinda cautious. As we’ve been expecting, it’s gonna mean a trip to the Core. In this case, Osiris.” Mal took a moment to have a look around the table. Zoë, already in the loop, just looked impassive. Aren and Simon, whose plan it was, shared a tense glance. River and Ceres looked politely interested. Kaylee looked frightened, and Jayne looked angry. “The surgeon who’s doing the operation is based outta the Medacad there. Believe he taught Simon for a while.” Simon nodded his assent. “And Aren’s met him at conferences and the like.” Aren also nodded agreement. “That’s the most reassurance we’ve got and it ain’t much. As you’ll likely recall, Osiris is Simon and River’s birth world, and where their parents still reside. Simon went to school and worked there. Keeping a low profile is absolutely critical. Now, money’s changed hands – our contact got half upfront, the rest on delivery. Everything’s been agreed, so I’m splitting what’s left a the Lassiter take. Zoë.” Mal passed her two envelops – the second, clearly, Wash’s share. “Jayne. Kaylee. Simon.” He passed them their envelops; Jayne and Kaylee tore theirs open immediately, like they were candy bars. “’Nara.”

“Mal, I already received my share.”

“No you didn’t. That was a guild fee, and had nothing to do with the Lassiter job. You had an integral role to play, as I said at the time, though I still can’t figure out how you got that gorram gun out of the gorram dumpster without getting anything on yourself. This here is your cut.”

“Thank you, Mal.” She peeked into the envelop with a bemused expression. Clearly, crime did pay.

“And River. Half your normal share, ‘cause you weren’t on the crew for the first part a the job.” River nodded with a wide smile. It was the first time she’d ever actually earned money. It felt nice.

“Now, gonna be a few weeks before we hit Osiris, so we’ll be stopping in a few hours to resupply. Jayne, Kaylee, take the mule, load up on ammo and whatever engine parts it is we need. Speaking of, Jayne, I’d like to acknowledge the fine work you been doing helping out lil’Kaylee – counts as more than pitchin’ in, and I think we all know that. So, there’s a little extra in your envelop this time round, and an offer of an extra two percent if you’re willing on taking up assisting Kaylee permanent like in addition to your regular duties. ‘Magine you’ll wanna think on that some.”

“Na-uh.” Jayne was pretty gleeful looking. “I’ll take it.”

“Well, now, that’s good. Well. Good. Alright. You take the mule, load it up, then leave it with ‘Nara, then you can go about your business, Jayne. ‘Nara as previously mentioned, is official crew now, and I’m formally handing over the duties of quartermaster to her as of this moment. You’ll be in charge of stocking up the boat. Kaylee, if you don’t have any objections, I’d like you to stick around after you’re down getting engine parts and give ‘Nara any help she might need stocking up on things for the water farm.” Kaylee nodded. “Shiny. Make sure she gets a pint a strawberries today ‘Nara.” Kaylee smiled happily. “Aren, you want to take a walk around, that’s fine, but make sure you stick with ‘Nara; else you stay on the boat.” Aren raised her hand. “Go on, Aren.”

“If you have no objections, I’d like to help Inara and Kaylee get the things for the hydroponics farm.”

“’Preciate it, doctor.” Mal nodded. “ Zoë, you’re with me. We’ll be picking up a few things for River’s birthday party tomorrow. Speaking a which, Simon, River and Ceres, you’re not to set foot off of the boat, anything you particularly want, make sure to let Zoë know. River, boat’s yours, and no mucking about.”

***

Mal cracked open the bottle of champagne, and poured glasses around the table.

River spoke, “No thank you. I don’t want that to be my first legal act.”

“Well, now, lil’Albatross, there’s a fine tradition in the having your first legal drink. My first legal act I believe was shot a decent whiskey. Coughed some of it back up, too, as I recall.” Shared laughter went around the table. “Anyone else?”

Inara supplied, “Champagne, at the Training House.”

“The crew shared a gallon a cider my Momma and Daddy had put away last time we hit dirt.” Zoë agreed.

Several eyes fell on Jayne, tucking into another slice of Kaylee’s home-made cake with real flour. It was not like him to not share drinking stories. “Oh! Weren’t nothing special. Been working more ‘an a year ‘fore I turned eighteen, and work means money, and money means being able to sample the delights.” He lifted his eyebrows significantly, but the effect was somewhat ruined by the icing still on his lips.

“Very poetic, Jayne.” Kaylee said. “I suppose I was – uh – sampling the delights some too before my eighteenth.” Kaylee turned to Aren, never liking to see anyone left out. “What about you?”

“Well, it was a long time ago, but I think it was a half-glass of claret and I was gone to God.” Everyone laughed.

Kaylee turned to the others who hadn’t spoken yet. “Ceres? Simon? What did ya do?”

Simon and Ceres exchanged a glance. Simon spoke, “Ladies first.”

With a smile, Ceres spoke. “Thank you, Simon. My first legal act – I made a will.” A few eyes blinked, and a few stared, but Simon spoke first.

“Really? So did I.” All eyes quickly moved to Simon.

Mal was the first to speak. “Well now. If that isn’t – more’an a little morbid an creepifin’.” Inara giggled.

Simon got a little defensive. “Well, I had assets to protect, and if anything happened, I wanted them to go to River. As it stood, my parents would have been my next of kin. It was just a sensible precaution.” Simon glanced to Ceres, clearly hoping for backup.

She nodded. “Something similar. Ah, we didn’t have the best parents, and I was in school, so I had a stipend – and I wanted to make sure that if anything happened, that my siblings would get it.”

“Oldest, huh?” Jayne threw a significant glance at Kaylee.

“Yes.”

Kaylee perked right up – it was also nice to get people talking, hear their stories. “Oh, so where are your sibs now? How many ya got?”

“They predeceased me.” Ceres took a sip of her wine.

“Oh.” Kaylee stared. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You couldn’t know, but thank you.” Ceres decided not to elaborate. It was not really party conversation.

Everyone stared at the table for a moment, but Inara decided to move the party back in a more cheerful direction. “So, River, what are you thinking of making your first legal act?” Inara hoped that River would pick something non-morbid.

“I’m hoping to sample the delights,” River said with a wide smile.

Mal stammered, “Now lil’Albatross…”

Jayne spoke at the same time. “Hey now, mei-mei…” Almost everyone’s head snapped toward Jayne and his spontaneous ‘mei-mei’, then turned to Simon, who had said nothing, but merely dabbed his mouth with his napkin.

Mal waved Jayne to silence, and spoke in his most Captain-y this-is-not-up-for-discussion voice. “Lil’Albatross, we ain’t stopping anywhere for you to go whorin’. Ain’t plannin’ on being dirtside any time soon, and ain’t planning on lettin’ you off the boat where you might be seen.”

“No need to get off of the boat.”

Aiya. Yet another fangzong fengkuang de jie. Mal thought that his head might actually implode. “Now, I think Jayne’s made it pretty clear how he regards you, and it ain’t like that.”

“Wasn’t planning on asking Jayne.” River stated happily, looking at Mal. Mal looked stricken, and most of the others at the table stiffened. “Or, you, either, Captain.” A few eyes furtively glanced towards Simon, who was trying to hide his laughter behind his napkin, and failing miserably.

Simon took the napkin away and grinned at his sister. “I warned you, Mei-mei!”

River rolled her eyes, which somewhat spoiled the effect of her subsequent dignified rise from the table. She held her hand out, invitation-to-dance-style toward Ceres, who smiled and stood. River spoke again, “If you’ll please excuse us.” Both girls picked up their glasses. “Might be my second legal act.”

All eyes, bar her brother’s, followed her out, then snapped to Simon, still grinning happily.

Jayne looked over at Simon in disbelief, confusion etched on his face. “Ain’t ya gonna stop ‘em?”

Simon looked around the table. “Stop them? No. I can’t. And why would I want to?”

Jayne clearly couldn’t wrap his head around that. “Hell, Simon, she’s just…”

Simon spoke slowly, for effect. “Become a legal adult, Jayne.” Simon took another sip of champagne. Mal and Jayne continued to stare at Simon as if he’d gone and grown a second – very ugly, very strange looking – head. “Seriously, what harm is there? It’s not like either of them can get into any trouble.”

Mal scratched his head. “Ain’t there kind of an issue with our prisoner being a mite… infectious?” Mal waved his hand in the direction of under the table. Zoë gave Mal one of her rare death looks.

Simon raised an eyebrow in the Captain’s direction, but answered calmly, “Well, as a rule, I don’t comment on my patients’ situations, but I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t have let someone compromise the health of the crew in that way – especially, you know, my sister.”

Jayne grimaced in sympathy, and nodded understanding. “VD, huh? Ruttin’ guards. Guess that ‘xplains why she ain’t so keen on men-folk.” Jayne dug into his cake again. On catching Kaylee’s distressed look, he swallowed quickly and remarked, “’Course, that don’t exactly make her different from any a th’other women on this boat.”

“Jayne!” Kaylee actually looked a little shocked.

“What? The lady doc likes women-folk, ‘Nara sexes women-folk, Simon and Wash – honorary women-folk. Not a straight girl on this boat.” Zoë, pleased that Jayne had taken the initiative to change the direction of the conversation, didn’t bother to even pretend to take offence. Kaylee, on the other hand, seemed to have taken it upon herself to break Jayne’s shin through repeated kicking.

“Now, now, bao-bei, us lady doctors don’t want to have to leave the party to fix up Jayne’s man-parts,” Simon suggested with an indulgent smile.

With a huff and a final good kick, Kaylee left off.

At Zoë’s look, Mal had remembered himself, and was also grateful to Jayne for his effort to change the topic of conversation. Mal stood and started moving around the table. “Well, seeing as our guest a honour has retired for the night, I don’t think she’ll much mind me commandeering a little a her spotlight.” He paused, and took a sip of the fine champagne Inara had selected. “Inara and I had a talk some weeks back.” Mal stopped and rested his hand on Inara’s shoulder, and she instinctively brought her own up cover it – only to feel something cold pressed into her skin. As Mal moved away, she caught it secretly, and placed her hands in her lap. It was beautiful. A single, perfect ball of heliotrope set into a simple ring of gold. “And I think it’s the right time to announce that we’ve decided to marry.” As he spoke, Inara surreptitiously slipped the ring unto her finger, and raised her hand to her shoulder to show the table. Heliotrope. Bloodstone. Did Mal even have a fraction of an inclination of it’s meaning? But she knew that he must have – Mal would never did anything on only one level of meaning. Mal returned to her side, and she stood with him, and he drew her close.

Kaylee squealed with unbridled delight, while Zoë, who had been with the Captain when he selected the ring, showered a glowing smile on the pair. “Congratulations Sir, Inara.”

Simon agreed. “Congratulations.” He lifted his glass in a salute, and drained it. Aren, with a pleased smile for the pair, followed suit.

Jayne moved straight to the practicalities. “Hey, guess you’ll be getting knocked up next there, ‘Nara.”

“Well now, Jayne, that’s kinda horrific you just bringing that up at the table, but I think we’ll be trying to limit ourselves to one pregnant lady at a time if possible.”

“Aw, Mal, it’s nice when critters have other critters to play with.”

“Zoë’s having twins, Jayne. I don’t think that they’re going to get lonely.”

“I suppose.” Jayne didn’t seem convinced, but he wisely let the matter drop.

*** *** *** Chapters 36-40

Just Chapter 36 *** *** ***

COMMENTS

Monday, February 26, 2007 8:57 AM

GIRLFAN


All the chapters have originally been posted here, singly or occassionally in pairs.

As new chapters go up, I add links between them, and every ten I bunch them together. It may be a personal quirk, but when I first started reading stories that were already long by the time I got there, it was nicer when I didn't have to load lots of pages etc to get each fix. I tend to read straight through. I suppose this second upload is a nod toward readers like myself.

If you perfer to read a bit at a time, the original chapters are still up with the comments they garnered. Please take a moment to read them, too. Sometimes the comments are the funniest bits.

Oh, and if you add your own comments, that would be shiny.

Thank you to all who've shared this with me, and especially to everyone who's commented.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007 1:19 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Another fabulous omnibus of brilliance you got here, girlfan;D

BEB


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