Chapter 16: Serenity

"So, this 'fields of copper' bit of your sister's got anything to do with your 'Davy' side of things?" Mal asked. Part of him knew the answer based on the somber mood after they left Nandi, but wanted to let the boy know he knew.

Simon nodded. "She's taking it better than I did," he said.

"You've had more time with them; it's expected," Mal explained. "So, want to hear something funny?" Simon nodded, so Mal told him of the plan Ismat cooked up.

Simon gave Mal a look that almost had the captain laughing in stitches. "You're going to do what?"

"You heard me. Doc's idea, really," Mal said handing Simon the book he was reaching for. "Look, your sister will be fine. Zoë and I will be by her side and Wash is our getaway pilot. What more could you want?"

"Besides foolishly joining this caper?" Simon sighed. "Any concerns about the plan?"

Mal shrugged his shoulders. "We got the costumes, we got the props."

"Do you want a possible script?"

The Captain nodded. "That would be handy coming from you, seeing as how you knowed how things s'posed to sound in there." Simon furrowed his brow. "What is it?" Mal asked pulling up a chair beside the bed.

"Do you want to make this an incredibly profitable job?" Simon asked, a corner of his lip turning up into a wry grin. "There's a med vault filled with liquid straw that you could turn into gold."

Mal folded his arms, curious as to where this could go. "Go on," he said leaning back.

For the next couple of hours, Simon lay out the plan on how to talk the talk, walk the walk, and leave with a mule-full of medicine worth bringing to the rim. Mal couldn't help but leave the young man's room impressed by his crafty plan.

True to Zhi Ismat's word, the experience of getting in and out of the hospital went as planned. Mal was impressed with Doctors Espenson and Whiting, who not only got the team to the level they needed to be, but with Nurse Peristere's offer to help with the operating of the machine. Espenson led Zoë to the med vault. Evidently the good doctor's 'love of the Alliance' in regards to lack of treatment for rim folks left a bitter taste in the doc's craw, too.

The whole process took less time than Mal feared. Again, fate was on their side as the crew got what they needed and left without incident. Of course, the fact that the Shepherd got away with his own ident card was a mite curious for the captain.

Book approached him in the galley that evening. "Seems things are going smoothly," he told Mal as he prepared a light meal.

Mal nodded in agreement. "Don't expect that to last, though." A number of questions arose in regards to the preacher and Mal had yet to decide which ones he wanted answers to first.

"Why not? What's wrong about seeing hope for a change instead of headache?"

"I don't mind when things go smooth," Mal said, "it's just that…It's hard to trust this to last long, that's all." Mal nodded in Book's direction as he prepared a bowl. "How's Simon doing?"

"Quite well, considering," Book said. "He's drinking in that data like a thirsty man would water while in a desert."

Now was the time to ask the other question at hand, Mal decided. "How long have you knowed River to be a reader?"

Book didn't look up. "I didn't. However, if you're interested…" This time, the Shepherd made eye contact. "Simon's an empath."

Mal could have felt his jaw drop to the ground as he caught Zoë walking off to the passenger dorms.

River looked up from her drawing, ready to accept the medicine her brother gave her, but not before sticking her tongue out at him. She had become his eyes and ears while he remained on the cargo bay/dorm room level. Once in a while, she'd catch him trying to walk from one end of the couch in the common area to the other, often without using his crutches. She chided him for this.

"Do you want to be broken again?" she asked, taking the cup of tea in her hands.

Simon gave her a look of annoyance. "I'm fine, mei-mei. Honest." He accepted her offer of the cup; took a sip then gently pushed it towards her. "How are you feeling?"

River nodded, setting the cup down on the table. "Better. The madness isn't as bad as what you faced for me in the dark tomb." She glanced at him with pitying eyes. "You're afraid that the poisons will infect the blood again, confuse the mind." He nodded. "Don't be. You're doing what you're meant to do, even if it isn't where you thought it would be."

With steeled-determination, River kept the tears from streamed down her face as she came to a realization. "You died so I could live. You endured a prison to find us a home."

"Mei-mei!" he cried, pulling her into an embrace. The anger, guilt and admiration he felt from her burned against him. "You saved me. Never forget that. What you endured…" Simon would have felt ashamed for the number of times he had cried had he been in that other life. Here, in the Black, possibilities abounded and judgments were few, thinking back on Kaylee's and Nandi's words.

Arms tightly around his neck, she continued, "The voices aren't as mean as before, either. I still hear them, but only when I sleep badly."

He combed his fingers through her hair. "Any side effects?" he asked, aware that this was probably the fifth time he had changed the combination on her.

She shook her head. "I'll get better. I know it. You'll find a way. So will the others." Pulling away from him, she wiped away his tears. "They know," she said finally.

He gave her a confused look. "Who knows what, River?"

"That you know." She paused, trying not to sigh like an impatient instructor. "You know what others feel. You respond to it, react to it. That's what drains you; strengthens you to heal others so well."

Simon shook his head, not having given it any thought before. It seemed like a mystery or maybe one of her games to distract him from his limited wanderings. "River, I-."

"You know this. You've known yet never questioned it." River trapped his hand as it began to tremor. "Why didn't you listen when you were imprisoned, you're wondering." He looked at her, silently waiting. "You were right; they didn't matter, so there was nothing to see. If you had, you'd have drowned in her tears or burned in his hate."

"River…" He didn't want to dwell on the past. Just having his father confirm his worse fear, despite Shepherd's reassuring words in the beginning… "We're home now," he told her.

She looked at him. "He spoke truth as he knew it then. Had hoped Benat succeeded. Even then, part of him knew time was limited," she said. "His other life… He'll see us through the forest, Simon. He'll keep the lion away from us."

Simon felt her fury at that last item, felt it scald him within and without. He pulled her towards him never the less and held on tightly. "I know, mei-mei. I know." If he could only absorb her pain, he thought; absorb it, make it his own then abolish it completely.

"You don't know," she said. "They never wanted to know. She still doesn't know."

This time, the searing heat pierced him through the heart. "Help me learn, then," he said softly, soothingly. "Please?"

River shook her head vigorously against him. "Don't want you to die."

He smiled grimly. "If I lose you again, I already have," he told her.

Wash sat beside his wife at the table. "What's troubling you, dear?"

Zoë turned to her husband. "Mal."

"Oh," he said with mock dismissal. "Is that all? I'd have worried if he wasn't worrying you."

She slapped him, none to gently either. "We had a talk, about the Tams." Off his look, she added, "I told him how long I suspected, about Simon, I mean. He didn't take too kindly to that. Add that to River's talent…"

Wash took hold of both of her hands. "Sweetheart, that doesn't make either one of them a threat to us or this crew, that they're a part of, may I remind you? So, they're gifted. So's Kaylee. So are you. Me, I'm just lucky."

"What if our luck runs out and someone wants to steal away our gifted ones, Wash? I know I'm ready to fight, but…"

He searched her face, aware of the unspoken fear that had never been discussed often in private. "Dear…"

"What were we fighting for? Huh? Look at what the Alliance decided to go and do to an innocent girl! What if they're still…?" Zoë shook her head in frustration. "I just feel the need to kill someone, honey. Ignore me."

Wash gave her a troubled look. "Not if I'm your intended target, sorry."

She smiled ruefully. "That's the soldier side talking."

"No, that's the maternal side speaking," Wash corrected. "Look, you protect; I worry. It's what we do best. They'll be fine, just as we've always been. You'll see."

Inara finished styling Kaylee's hair. "Is there anything else you'd like for your date this evening?" she asked the mechanic.

Kaylee beamed at the style, never once figurin' on putting her hair up like that. "Just a dress," she said, regretting not owning one.

Inara smiled. "You know, I've the perfect one-," she said, before the captain's voice interrupted them.

"Hey," Mal said, hands behind his back, "I want my hair done, too. Maybe add some color, some curls…" He stopped, given Inara's glare. To Kaylee, he said, "I'm a bit slow and givin' back to folks what's theirs." He held out a dirty package to her. "This might go with your new do."

Kaylee carefully undid the package and then let out a low whistle. "I can't… It's too pretty! I mean it's…" She hugged Inara then Mal before she could say anything else.

Chuckling, Mal said, "You're welcome. Although, I'd save your thanks for a certain doctor downstairs."

Simon would have gladly gone upstairs, crawled even, to join the others for dinner just once. However, his sister, the loveable brat that she was, sat guard daring him to try it. So, he sat in the common area, again, wondering if he could make it over to the weights at least, just for some resistance training.

"Hey, there."

He looked up and saw Kaylee descend the stairs, his mouth opened in awe as he took in her appearance. Closing it before she could see him for the fool he was, he said quickly, "Hey, there yourself." He stood up painfully. "What's the occasion?"

Kaylee sat beside him, amused that he waited for her 'til he sat down himself. "Just figured you don't like bein' alone so often, that's all. That and to thank you for the pretty dress."

"You're welcome." He smiled. "Well, one of these days, I'll find myself out of purgatory and join you in the realm of angels above," he said. "You're as beautiful as one, you know."

She blushed. "Thank you. I, um, didn't bring you supper proper, but figured you might like…like a dessert."

He chuckled, aware that she came down empty-handed. "I'm flattered. Undeserving, actually, but flattered just the same." Simon rose carefully, aware that he should have taken more painkillers had he known this was going to happen. He bowed slightly then asked, "May I have this dance, Ms. Kaywinnit Lee Frye?"

Kaylee let out a squeal as she took his hand and led him to the open space of the common area. The dance was slow, cautious, yet perfect all the same. Even if all they did was two-step from side to side, Kaylee felt as if she were the center of attention at a ball.

Simon smiled at her, feeling her happiness. "Someday," he said, "we should look into attending such a fancy gathering somewhere, maybe on Persephone; don't you think so? Maybe Inara could put in a good word or sneak us in through the back door."

"We don't need to be doin' no sneakin' around," she said, surprised that he spun her around. "We've what we need here."

"That we do," he said, stopping for a moment. Kaylee helped him sit down before joining him.

She looked at him, concerned. "The pain getting better or worse?"

"Better," he lied. "I'd just rather be able to run up and down those stairs sooner than my body, or sister, will allow that's all." He leaned his head back and sighed. "Just when I thought I could finally go forward…. Talk about failing," he said.

"Not so," Kaylee said. "Last time you took baby steps, we only sat and talked. Tonight…" She paused, smiling. "Tonight, we danced."

He smiled back at her, not wanting the moment to end. "And in time, we'll dance even longer," he said before kissing her on the cheek.

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