Chapter 14: Serenity/Market

Simon had let his hair grow out again, though not as long as before. He didn't think it did much to change his looks and almost gave thought to growing a mustache but Inara convinced him otherwise. He felt comfortable in the clothes he wore, fitting in more with the others than the life he wanted to avoid ever returning to.

He was aware of River standing behind him, appraising him. "Don't think they'd approve, do you?" he asked, not even wanting to mention their parents by title let alone name.

"They don't matter," she said. "They're still out there, but they don't matter."

Simon felt she held something back that something was itching at the back of his mind. "You're right," he said. "What do you say about joining the others when they go to the market?"

River shook her head. "I'd only go if you go. Since you're not, and that isn't fair…"

He smiled. "It isn't fair for you to be tethered to me, either. The Captain has his reasons for wanting me to stay on the ship and I have mine. You should go. According to Wash, there aren't any notices up for you and that's a good sign."

Mal came into the infirmary smiling. "Good news, Doc. You're not on the 'most wanted' list." Simon and River exchanged looks. "That means, you can join us on this field trip, help us do some shoppin' and some plottin' and such. What do you say?"

River's eager smile, yet slightly bleak, made up Simon's mind the instant the question was asked. "I wouldn't miss it," he said.

Mal gave a curt nod. "Good. You get to go with Jayne."

The first place Jayne took Simon to was to a bar for a couple of drinks. Simon kept to his one untouched…he didn't know what it was…drink while Jayne downed his third. It amazed the young man how much Jayne consumed and how it didn't change the other man in the least. The last time Simon had a hard drink, half of one put him under.

"What, the drink's not good enough for you?" Jayne asked indigent.

Simon shook his head. "More the other way around," he said, sliding the cup his protector's way. "I learned my lesson long ago with a Sake or two."

Jayne gave a mischievous smile. "So, what happened, choir boy?"

Before he knew it, Simon had admitted to his 'less-than-perfect' actions as a medcad graduate and how he had possibly bribed an officer not to arrest him or notify his father for singing atop a statue of Hippocrates. Why he confessed it now, let alone to Jayne, he couldn't say. But, the chuckling wasn't malicious or mean; just…Jayne.

"Well, it's good to know you're sober enough to do your trade," said the mercenary.

Simon turned away, aware that the remark wasn't entirely true. "What do we need to get?" he asked, changing the subject.

Jayne took the hint without upset. "You're in charge of infirmary stuffs. Me, I'm looking for some shiny new weapons." He stole a glance before retreating to his drink a spell. "Maybe, you want to look at gettin' a pretty dress."

If anyone else had said that, Simon would have blanched. Instead, he smiled. "I don't know what River might like."

"T'weren't your sister I was thinking of," Jayne said. He paid for the drinks, shaking his head at what the boy didn't drink in before gulping it down himself. "Let's go before Mal gets mad or somethin'."

Simon couldn't shake the uneasiness he felt from Jayne who casually, yet not casually looked over his shoulder repeatedly. The younger man couldn't help but wonder if he chose poorly as he carried the parcels they had purchased.

Jayne took him by the arm and pulled him into a nearby alley. "We're gonna get back to the ship, but not with that fella following, dong ma?"

Simon nodded. He couldn't figure out exactly who they were avoiding, not getting a sense of what he was after. Part of him felt River's concern for him, thankful that she was with Kaylee and Zoë.

"Let's go," Jayne said, dragging him.

Simon didn't see any threatening folks around, in Alliance dress or otherwise. But he trusted Jayne's instincts, thankful that Jayne had his back.

The crowd increased and Simon found himself separated from Jayne despite the other man's hold. Simon did his best to catch up, or at least keep the mercenary in his sights. Someone bumped into him, forcing him into a side alley.

Simon felt himself tense up as he set to holler out to Jayne. Instead, he yelped as a sharp pain ripped through his thigh. He stared at the trail of blood pouring down his left pant leg until he hit the ground a second later. He hadn't been shot before, so the experience was….excruciating. He bit his bottom lip, determined not to scream again, his eyes squinting against the midday sun. Then a shadow swallowed that up.

"You're a troublesome boy to find, Simon Tam."

Simon looked up at the owner of the shadow and saw a tall man dressed in armor. A bit out of place in a setting like this, he thought as the face grew larger.

"Time to take you home," the man said, picking Simon up by the collar of his shirt.

What Simon sensed from the other man made no sense, as if he was, yet wasn't there. That might have explained why Simon couldn't grasp…"Who are-?"

"Name's Early. Jubal Early, Simon. And your father wants to see you."

Simon shook his head as he struggled to free himself. "He doesn't want to see me."

"Calling your father a liar? Doesn't seem right, does it?" Early twisted an arm behind Simon's back and steered him in the direction they were to go. "I'll let you tell him that."

"You're telling me what?"

Zoë shook her head as Jayne repeated himself, dumping the abandoned and battered parcels onto the table. "Boy's gone. I tried to bring him back here safe like and-."

Zoë looked from the captain to the mercenary then back to the captain. She knew Jayne's mistake the moment the dolt did. She would have punched him herself had the captain not beat her to it. She glanced down at the man at her feet before asking, "What do you think we should do, Sir? Marketplace is pretty big."

Book's voice came over the comm. "River's collapsed."

Mal groaned. "Just what we need - two kids down and out."

Wash spoke up. "I can take the mule out there and look for Simon."

Zoë added, "He would have come back on his own if he could."

"Let's look, then, people. No one's getting left."

"Did you think your father would discard you like that?" Early asked as he tied Simon's hands behind his back.

"I don't have a father," Simon said defiantly. It angered him that he failed to get help from other passersby in the market before Early pushed him toward another alley.

"That's unkind of you to say. Fathers are those who make us men. And you, boy, are in sore need of such guidance. Of course, if he hadn't asked me to bring you back alive, I'd probably kill you long ago." He shoved Simon down to the floor. "Then again, he didn't say I had to bring you back in one piece, neither."

Simon looked at him uneasily. Someone who would shoot at an unarmed person in an open market in broad daylight wasn't someone who felt the need to be careful.

"That first shot," Early said pointing with the gun," was from your father. Helps keep you from running. Although, I'd have like to see you try. Would have been interesting."

"You didn't give me a chance then," Simon said.

"Enchantment? What would you need enchantment for?" he asked securing Simon's wrists to one of the side bars.

Simon looked at him confused. "I said 'a chance.'"

Early shook his head. "I would have given you a chance if you asked."

Simon looked around Early's craft. Small, one person vessel with cargo space enough for maybe a crate. He suddenly missed Serenity. "Why are you working for my father?"

"Don't work for you father." Early had the craft in orbit and began resetting dials this way and that.

"You just said-."

"I know what I just said, boy. And if you don't be quiet, you won't be saying much more. Don't get paid enough for this job."

"You're a bounty hunter." Simon needed an out of any kind. If it meant promising Early every credit Simon had left, he'd do it.

"I didn't say that."

Simon felt like he was talking in circles. At least he wasn't kicked yet for talking still.

"I'm a bounty hunter, Simon. And the price on your head's just high enough for me to retire. Even have the exclusive." Early turned towards him. "Of course, I prefer life with work. Don't you?"

Simon drew his knees up to his chest doing the best he could to ignore the searing pain in his leg. There was nothing else to talk about and he didn't feel like talking anymore. At some point, he closed his eyes and tuned out the rest of the world around him.

"So he's probably off-world by now," Mal said. He slammed his fist against the table. "Jayne, so help me, I'll shoot you now if you have-."

"I said I'd protect the boy! Not my fault he and I got separated."

Wash turned away from the Cortex and looked at him, astounded. "Oh, right, just like you had nothing to do with his initial problems, either. Mal, there's got to be a clue of some kind for us to follow. No one can just vanish into thin air like that. Can they?"

This time Inara's voice came over the comm. "Something's wrong with River! Get down here now!"

"Ask and ye shall receive," Mal said bitterly.

Simon recognized a dilapidated clinical setting when he saw one - a place that dealt with life reeking of death. He noted the various canisters that at one time or another would have done someone some good. Where this was, he wasn't sure. He heard his father's voice and felt his hope fall even as Jubal removed the restraints from his wrists.

"We can have a 'father/son' chat without interruption. What do you say?" Gabriel Tam said; his clean-cut dress a sharp contrast to the surroundings.

Not much to lose, Simon thought. "Go to hell, Sir?"

Early punched him in the stomach. "Show him some respect." To Gabriel, he said, "Your son called you a liar."

"See what I mean, Jubal?" Gabriel said, standing in front of Simon. "My son isn't right in the head. I have to make him well at any cost. Thank you for finding him for me."

"Thought you'd have Benat do this for you," Simon said, eyes watering in pain. "Or did he and the others finally leave you?" He knew the answer but felt the urge to ask anyway, just to hear what his father would say.

Gabriel's smile sickened Simon then. "They left, in a manner of speaking; your fault, you know."

Simon shook his head. "You didn't…"

Gabriel's right hand backhanded Simon with enough force to drop him to the floor, hard. Out of conditioned habit, Simon got back up. Gabriel struck him again, the ring cutting into his face as it had before. Doctor Ismat would be saddened to see his work done for naught, Simon thought as he remained laying there.

"Get up."

Simon knew he should comply, but the idea of an escape plan outweighed other concerns at the moment. He felt as if he never left the prison from the past.

"I said get up," Gabriel repeated.

Jubal grabbed Simon's arms from underneath and lifted Simon to his feet. The bounty hunter's hands locked to secure Simon's head in place. Simon clawed at the other man's hands and arms with little success.

"Father, please…don't." Simon stopped counting the strikes as he watched the blood collect on the floor.

"Let him go, Jubal," his father said.

Simon grabbed the side of the counter to keep from falling down. He leaned heavily on his arms, careful not to put any weight on the left leg. It was an awkward balancing act, and he sensed that his father derived pleasure from it.

"Thankfully, your sister's on sabbatical, Simon. Otherwise, I'd be forced to have Jubal look for her and force her home against her will just to prove you wrong. Should I have him look for her, Simon? Do you want me to do that?"

River. His father didn't know about mei-mei, and there Simon drew strength. So long as she was safe with Serenity's crew, whatever happened next wouldn't matter. So he prepared to sell his soul to the devil. "Take me home, father. Please?"

"That's more like it. Of course, it isn't that simple now, is it? You've no idea what you've put your mother and me through. You've no idea what it's been like since you've been gone. And somehow, I doubt you care."

"I…I need your help, father. Please? I'm begging you!" Had River known what he had said aloud, there'd be no doubt which of them was the crazier of the two he thought.

Early kicked the back of Simon's knee. Hands gripping the edge of the counter, Simon pulled himself back up, swearing he'd not let himself pass out from the pain. "Father? Please? I beg you! Help me!"

Gabriel took his son's face with both hands then kissed him on the forehead. "You'll get help, son. You'll get the help you deserve." He took the gun from Early, aimed at Simon's already wounded leg, and fired, forcing the young man to collapse. "That was for the pain you caused your mother."

The older man, returning the gun, stepped back then moved towards the door. To Simon, he said, "It's only fitting that you should suffer here, Simon. Your career, like this place, is nothing more than dust and debris. It's disappointing really, if you think about it." Turning to Jubal Early, he said, "You know what to do." With that, Gabriel turned his back on his son and left.

"Father! No!" Simon body shook as the abandonment set in, left alone with a madman who would have no problem killing him.

"I'm not going to kill you, Simon. Oh, you may wish it, and I may want it, but that's not what your father meant."

Simon did his best to back away from the hunter, subconsciously crawling towards his father, all to no avail.

Early took a recording devise out of his pocket, pressed the record button then began to speak. "I, Jubal Early, will hunt down your sister, Simon Tam, if you should ever try this hide-and-seek game again or cause agony to your parents with this madness. Her body is forfeit to me and I will teach your lesson to her until she cries out for death. By then, you two will be reunited. Her torment will be your fault, and the pain both of you will suffer will end with someone dying. Understand?" He pressed the stop button then placed the device on the counter behind him.

Simon felt the blood boil in his veins. "You sick, twisted, son-of-a-wh-."

Early kicked him in the jaw. "Don't go insult my mother. Don't ever." He knelt down and put his face close to Simon's. "You're going to wish for death. But your father intends to take you home, in time, alive. Not well, but alive."

Simon heard the crashing of containers and shattering of glass as he weaved in and out of consciousness, trying not to choke on his own blood. When Simon hit bottom, Early responded with smelling salts to yank him back. Simon thought it would never end, surprised yet exhausted by the time Early put a pillow under his head and then covered him with a blanket.

"The sweet irony of your father's order was to leave you lying here in this place of healing, in this place where no one can help you. Say it. 'No one can help you.'"

Simon expected to wake up in his prison home and be told all of it was a dream. He expected to learn that Malcolm Reynolds, Shepard Book, Inara and the others were figments of his imagination, that everything that had happened was nothing but the result of a delusional mind.

"Say it."

He thought about where he'd gone wrong, where he made poor choices, bad arguments, and just flat out awful… "No…one…can…help…me."

"That's right. You'll be back where you belong in no time, after you've been given time to think about things. Understand?" Simon nodded, aware of the tears on his face before darkness enveloped him.

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