Chapter 18: Persephone

River Tam approached the enigma before her, uncertain why useless people like him existed. She was aware of the fact that their host hadn't invited this little, farm-dwelling fire ant in; its wings sorely out of place amongst the butterflies. While he was an ant posturing himself to be what he wasn't, she saw the true threat he possessed – as a wasp. While the wasp might not have admitted it, River knew he realized.

When she glanced at her brother, she knew he'd know, too. Simon did right in what he did, in following her suggestion by accepting Sir Murphy's offer of a place to rest. Now it was her turn to make certain her brother didn't break. If he broke, how would the Butterflies' Ballet continue?

In her best accent fitting this fool's worth, she curtseyed as she said, "Pardon me, sir? Might I have your company?"

Atherton Wing turned and eyed the waif of a girl before him. She was gos se at best, nothing at least. But, she was certainly pleasing to other needs he had in mind. "Certainly," he said, linking arms with her.

River laughed inwardly as she danced around him, before him, above him, but more importantly, beyond him. She knew she was free. He didn't know that he'd no longer be. River was bored by this little man, who was, in her opinion, littler than the one they called pester or badger. At least that one had aimed to better himself and not hide behind a pretense as her parents had.

She knew where he worked, knew he was scheming for an advantage, not realizing he focused on the wrong Tam. River could kill him now if she wanted; she'd be justified, too. Had Sir Murphy not sent for Inara, the Companion would be with this monster instead.

No, there was a time and place for everything. Now, she was done dancing.

When the party returned to the ship, Kaylee happy with the new part for Serenity; Wash and Zoë refreshed from another evening together and Mal and Inara returning argument free, Simon hadn't felt such joy since…

He turned and saw Book standing at the door as if on his way out. "We have a problem."

Simon turned to look for River only to hear her 'tell' him, 'Gone hunting for the hunter.' Simon heard Book say, not in so many words, what he just learned.

"He's found our bounty hunter. I aimed for a knee cap to slow him down, but-."

"How long ago?" Mal said, shedding his Sunday best jacket for his regular one. He double-checked his gun and nodded to Zoë who was already on her way to change.

"You just missed him."

It was then that Simon felt the full wave of pain from their speaker. He bolted for the Shepherd just as the older man began to crumble to the deck.

What had started as a small gunshot wound covered by a jacket on the front looked… Simon muttered first a curse then a prayer as the others helped him rush Book to the infirmary.

It was all Simon could do to focus on his friend before him as he was bombarded by everyone else around him. To make matters worse, his hands began to tremble again. Simon wiped the sweat pouring down his brow as he steadied his focus on the shrapnel just below the Shepherd's heart.

The others were getting in the way, save the Captain who had gone after Jayne. He couldn't get past the anger, the worry, the…

"Everyone out. Now."

Bless Zoë, he thought as the cacophony dwindled down to two different threads - one strong and supportive, the other terribly weak. He felt a hand on his shoulder along with a rush of stability. With a new resolve, Simon set out to do the best he could do save the one who had saved him.

River shielded herself from her brother, knowing that if he knew where she was, and why she had done what she did earlier… No, he needed…. She knew Mal was close by as they ran further and further from any buildings, homes or much of anything else.

She didn't have to ask the Captain permission - knew it before the preacher said it; knew it as it happened, when it happened. River trusted Book not to betray her. Simon would learn when time allowed. Now was not that time.

Jayne was close. The hunter was not. Poor Simon, she thought, knowing Zoë stood by his side during the operation. Soon, there'd be a second patient, in worse condition that first. To make matters worse… The lion limped away wounded.

As River quickened her pace to get to Jayne, she knew Mal was gaining ground, too. He was determined not to lose anyone, dong le ma? She didn't want to tell him the foreboding news.

Wounded animals only got angrier.

Simon held his arms tightly across his chest as he watched his patient rest. Simon hadn't bothered looking at the time, hadn't wanted to know how long this battle had lasted. Thankfully it was Zoë who assisted him, in countless ways. Her speed and efficiency helped him try to keep ahead of the regressing systems…

He was so exhausted that he almost didn't anticipate Wash's approach, startling both of them when Simon jumped.

"Sorry," the pilot said. "Zoë's asleep now, so I thought it was safe to see how you're doing. You should be sleeping, too."

Simon eyed the cup of chamomile tea in the other man's hand. Wash's sincerity was welcoming, comforting, soothing. While the others had crowded Simon in the infirmary, Wash was calmly getting on the Cortex. Simon furrowed his brow at that. He wouldn't have known that if River hadn't-.

"River," he said softly, belying the weight of fear and anticipation of her absence.

Wash cleared his throat. "Um, Mal went after her when she didn't return from the party. Larry's helping with a discrete search. They'll find her, Simon. Don't worry." He paused. "That's my job."

Simon stood numb. "She let me do my job and did nothing…."

"Hold up, now. You… Book needed you. You did what you had to do. No one's going to fault you for that. That means you, too. River… She'll come back."

Simon painfully turned to look at him and asked, "Why are you so sure?"

"I know my family. So should you."

He felt Wash watching him, waiting…for what? As if in response, Simon's body gave out on him completely, starting from the sore leg on up. Wash caught him on the way down…not stopping the exhausted doctor from sleep.

He woke up to see Kaylee looking down at him. "How long?" he asked as he tried to sit up. His muscles ignored his commands.

"More than a day now. Murphy insisted on bringing everyone back to the house, so…"

Simon reflected on that, finally noticing the differences between here and home. There were other voices below, not many, mostly hushed. Simon closed his eyes and thought back to Lucinda, Park and Benat and swallowed back the sadness he didn't have time for.

"Where's Book?" he asked.

"They moved him to a hospital here." Quickly, Kaylee added, "As a precaution, you know."

Simon didn't take it as an insult, if that was what she feared. It was probably for the best – to have all the available tools to assess the Shepherd's condition properly. He closed his eyes again and found Zoë, asleep as well, Wash beside her, concerned as expected.

"Is Inara about?"

"No. She went to see some fella. Didn't hear about what, so…" Kaylee picked up one of his hands and held it close to her. "I'm sorry I weren't any better help when you needed-."

"You did fine," he said. With his free hand, he took her by the chin to look her in the eye. "You did fine." With a thumb, he brushed aside a tear rolling down her face.

"Well…" she said trying to be brave, "so did you. You did better than fine, in fact." They smiled.

"River? Mal?" he asked finally. He didn't sense either one or Jayne.

Kaylee pulled away from him. "You should rest. Yep, you need your rest."

Simon pushed himself up by the elbow. "What's happened, Kaylee?" He was crushed when she didn't answer, feeling her sorrow as it weighed heavily from his heart.

It was well late into the evening before things stirred on the Murphy property - some arguing, some yelling of orders and such.

Simon grabbed his walking stick and made his way to the commotion. He knew what he wanted to see, who he needed to see. Instead of three family members walking back, Simon only saw one. The anger, disappointment, guilt and….all were a spinning turmoil in Simon's mind.

He pushed his way past those clustered at the entrance, past Zoë, past Kaylee. Simon stopped when he caught up with the one person, equally wounded, had stopped. He didn't need to rely on what he felt to hear what wasn't said. The eyes said it all.

'I'm sorry,' Malcolm Reynolds' face said.

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