Chapter 15: Serenity
"Take me home, father. Please."
Inara brushed the hair out of River's face. River's quarters were a bit crowded with the two of them there, along with Kaylee and Shepherd. Mal leaned in from the doorway. "She's not making eye contact; she's clenching her leg as if someone hurt her… Mal, where's Simon?" Inara said.
"Wish I knew, Inara, wish I knew." He watched as a seizure racked River's body then go limp again. If what he guessed earlier was correct… He hoped he was right and wrong at the same time.
Book looked over his shoulder. "Tried to give her a soother, but she wouldn't have it."
"Don't bother," Mal said, River's body coming back to life. The captain knelt beside her, bracing himself to ask the necessary question.
"I…I need your help, father, please? I'm begging you!"
It pained Mal to hear the desperation in the girl's voice. No pain in the 'verse, save a battlefield, could possibly compare with what he heard and saw. If what he guessed this Gabriel Tam to be like were true, then what in the black could River, Simon or anyone want from a man like him? "Where is he, River?" Mal asked.
"Father? Please? I beg you! Help me!"
Inara struggled to hold River still during the seizure but failed. Zoë took over, not fully restraining the girl, but keeping her from further harm.
"What do we do, Mal?" Inara asked. Alarm was hard to miss in the companion's voice given how long the wrestling had gone on.
Simon would probably know, if he were here, Mal thought ruefully. "River, where is Simon?"
"You'll get the help you deserve," she said in a voice that was not her own. An attack so violent and unexpected forced all in the room to keep the girl from banging into anything. She gained consciousness as quickly as she lost it, each awakening crueler than the previous.
"River! Where's Simon?" He had half a mind to slap her if he thought it would do any good.
She pulled away from him and Zoë and crawled towards the infirmary. When anyone tried to pick her up, she struck back, hard.
Not setting foot within, River pointed into the empty room with a trembling hand and whispered, "No…one…can…help…me." With that, she collapsed momentarily.
After a while, she pulled herself up and made her way to the Bridge, Wash, Mal and the others close on her heels. She punched in some coordinates as Wash took his seat. Finished, she turned to Mal and said, "Save him." At those words, Wash put Serenity into hard burn.
"Almost there, Captain," the pilot said. The idea that Simon could be so close and yet so far… He was just thankful that luck had been with them in leaving New Melbourne and heading in the right direction, given the possibilities; thankful that River was gifted….but what if it would be a curse later on?
Wash looked at the instruments with one eye while his hands fiddled with the cortex in an effort to call anyone there. No ships in orbit, no visible life seen on the screen… Yet Wash couldn't shake the ill feeling…
"What do we have?" Mal asked, leaning over Wash's shoulder.
"Trouble," Wash said. "As in, you guys better bring guns, trouble."
Jayne let out a series of curses in Chinese as he surveyed the scene. Blood and the like was everywhere in the dusty setting. "Ain't no one survive something like this, Mal." Jayne continued to search the room, kicking objects aside as his foot found them. "Looks like a gorram war zone, that's what this is. 'Nough blood to bleed someone bone dry." A pile of cloths were in his way now. They didn't move. "Mal!"
Mal was at his side in an instant. "What-?" As soon as he pulled back the cloth over the unmoving heap, Mal let out a string of curses of his own. "Simon!"
"He's dead, Mal," Jayne said. "Gotta be. Ain't no way anyone could-."
"Shut up!" Mal said, standing up then shoving Jayne clear across the room. "He ain't dead! He ain't!" He dropped to his knees and checked for a pulse. "You better be breathing, son," he whispered.
Zoë's near-silent gasp said it all for Mal as he continued to pull the cloth off the body. The leg wound looked downright nasty as did the rest of the leg. The cheek was open again, too, caked with the dust and dirt of this place. Mal wondered if this was how Shepherd found him after Jayne had beaten the boy up in the alley.
"He's been shot twice," Zoë said, lowering herself for a closer look. "He's lost a lot of blood."
"Let's see if we can't mend him," Mal said.
Jayne grunted. "In this filth? With what, dreams and wishes?"
Zoë added, "How do you know what we've got left to work with?"
River spooked them all as she leaned in, barefoot, and said softly, "Bring him home. There's nothing here."
Jayne took a step forward to follow, but the look Zoë gave him stopped him cold. She followed Mal as he carried Simon back to the ship not taking her eyes off Jayne until he was no longer in view.
Jayne reluctantly stayed behind. "Looks like a gorram war zone," he said to himself again.
He went over to where a cylinder fell, knocked off a counter as Mal carried the boy. Looked a lot like the one that Tracey fella had with him. Knowing the others wouldn't hear it, Jayne pushed play. What he heard made his blood turn cold and his heart burn with vengeance.
Book stood guard at the infirmary door, the Bible in his folded arms. He didn't know who he wanted to kill first – the bounty hunter responsible for this; the father for pushing it to this point; or Jayne for abandoning Simon at the market in the first place.
In another life, Derrial Book would have gone after all three without remorse. As a Shepherd, he knew he should feel guilt over such thoughts. He didn't.
His hands clenched around the Bible a mite tighter than necessary. Looking over his shoulder, he drew solace at the scene before him, both amazing and affectionate. Kaylee slept in a chair she pulled up to the side of the bed, Simon's hand in one of hers. River lay next to Simon, a protective arm across him, her hand overlapping Kaylee's. How River maintained her balance beside her brother on the medical bed was beyond him. How the boy even survived the ordeal was simply a miracle - again.
He had no doubt that River was a reader, given what he knew about her brother. Book suspected that Simon thought that as well, after the earlier results from Ismat's clinic. But the boy said nothing. No need to keep that secret much longer, Book thought. He turned toward the approaching footsteps. "G'evening, Captain."
Mal nodded his greeting. "How is he?"
"As expected, after such an ordeal, I suppose." Both men stepped in, leaned against the countertop, arms folded, and watched the I.V. unit deliver the drugs Simon needed, drop by drop. Neither man said anything to the awe they and the others held as River had taken charge in regards to her brother's surgery; Mal and Zoë following the orders the young girl gave.
Some time passed before Mal spoke up. "What kind of parent does that to their own flesh and blood?"
"One who will die a special kind of death," Book said.
Mal grunted, not surprised by the preacher's comment. "Care if I send him on his ruttin' way, then?"
"If we find him," Book said, eying Mal for a reaction.
"When. I intend to find him and that bounty hunter."
Book shook his head. "Do that, Ahab, and you might be consumed by the whale." Again, Mal grunted. Book continued, "I've been reading the boy's journal and-."
Mal turned at this and in mock admonishment said, "Shame on you, Preacher! Ain't that akin to stealing?"
"Perhaps," Book said. "Then again, thought it might give insight to his actions."
Sitting on the counter, Mal asked, "Why do you think his father left him? If he wanted the boy back so bad, why leave him, if he was indeed there?"
Book shook his head. "Don't know, Mal. As far as that man's actions go, unpredictability would be predictable."
"That be a mite ironic, don't you think?"
Book shrugged. "Right now, I'd say our chief concern would be that bounty hunter's return."
"Think he would?"
"I'm afraid so." Book walked to the bed, adjusted the I.V. unit and then walked back. "I sense this hunter's a bit determined, demented; just like the man who hired him."
"Don't matter which one comes for him, they ain't getting him."
"What if someone comes after River? What if someone within the Alliance knows of her gifts?"
Mal leaned forward, determination in his eyes, looking from one sibling to the other. "Ain't getting her, neither."
Simon woke to see River smiling at him. "Mei-mei," he said returning her smile.
"Hey." She brushed his hair to one side. "Better?
He made a face as he thought about what had happened, aware of the tube in his arm, the lights in the infirmary. It could have been worse, he decided. "Yeah." He took her hand with his free one. "Better." Intertwining his fingers with hers, he continued. "I thought I lost you."
"You thought no one would help you," she added.
He frowned. "That, too."
"Well, then you're a dummy." She kissed him on the cheek. "We won't be lost, ever again."
"I wish I can believe that, River."
"It's true. So, you have to believe it, all right?"
"All right," he said, giving in to the drugs dripping into his system.
Zhi Ismat looked down at the patient he swore he had seen for the last time during their previous visit. It was his luck that his path of travel wasn't too far from Serenity's. At this rate, one of them was bound to end up near Mr. Universe's territory, or worse, Reaver territory.
"What are you trying to do to me, Mal?" the doctor asked, examining the stitches. He was impressed by the precision and felt he knew who was responsible. He adjusted the I.V. that helped replace the remaining lost blood.
"Thought you mighta missed us," Mal deadpanned. "That and the boy only trust you with his pretty face."
Zhi smiled. The stitching job was an improvement from last time. He surveyed the damage, settling on the appropriate splint necessary for the leg. "He's not going to like being immobilized for a spell," Zhi said, handing Mal some stronger painkillers and muscle-builders. "Keep him in one place if possible; none of this traveling up and down stairs, dong le ma?"
Mal gave a chagrinned smile. "That might be easier said than done. But, we'll do it." He took a few steps closer to the patient, still asleep. "Anything else you can tell us?"
Zhi nodded, his mood changing slightly for the better. "You might find these a bit o'help." He gave Mal a duffle bag and some files. "You could stand a chance of getting into St. Lucy's Hospital on Ariel and get a thorough scan of River's brain."
Mal gave him a look as he rummaged through the bag's contents. "With or without Simon, seeing as how he can make sense at them machines they got?"
"Shepherd will take his place. He stands a better chance of recalling that info than Cobb, that's for sure."
Mal shook his head. "How would we get River in there without setting off any alarms?"
Zhi nodded towards the bag. "There are fake idents in there for you all. Just wheel her in as a patient and you should be fine."
Mal looked at the collection. "There ain't one here for the preacher," he said, counting out four badges.
"What you need is there. I've had some pull with a few folks on the inside, too, so you guys will be all right." Before Mal could ask, Zhi explained, "I'd have set you up with this stuff sooner, but I wasn't entirely sure if Cobb could be trusted. Nothing personal, but I made my decision."
Mal nodded. "Any particular speech to memorize or anythin' like that?"
Zhi shook his head. "If you want to keep the boy occupied, you can have him create a script for you. But, my team on the inside will see you through, from start to finish. You, Zoë and Wash should have no problem, fahng-sheen."
"Don't worry?" Mal repeated incredulously. "You're asking me to take my crew into the heart of an Alliance hospital with faith in your people on the other side and you're asking me not to worry." He shook his head. "I can only take so much on-."
"On faith?" Zhi offered.
"On a fella's word," Mal said giving him a look. "Fine. Say we pull this off, get her in there and out again. What does that get us?"
Zhi crossed his arms. "More information that will keep your doctor occupied, which will in turn help you heal the girl. Anything else?"
Mal shook his head again. "Want me to make you king of Persephone, complete with shiny hat while we're at it?" he asked. Seriously, he said, "If you're sure we can do it, we will. But, if anything goes wrong…"
"It won't," Zhi said. "Fahng-sheen."