Chapter 19: Persephone

"Sir?" Zoë asked as she approached him. "What happened?"

Mal looked at Simon a moment longer before answering. "Jayne's been hurt, bad. Took a while for them to find us before taking him to some hospital."

"Where you should be," Wash said noting Mal's injuries.

Mal ignored him. "Tried to go after River next, but… Even one of their farmers with the best gift of trackin' couldn't find… Went far out in the same direction, too… Couldn't hear her one bit. Zoë, she's as good as you, maybe better." He paused. "We're still lookin' for her. No one gitting left."

Simon nodded slowly, making to tend to one of Mal's wounds. Mal pulled away. "Zoë, I want you and the crew to finish the job. Take this here cargo to-."

"Not going without you, Sir," Zoë said. "Besides, Shepherd-."

"I know. I seen him. But, this job gotta deadline and I don't want us being late." He motioned to the rest of the crew. "You all can git there and we'll use a shuttle to catch up." He gestured to the locals gathered around. "We'll find her."

Simon swayed against his cane. Everything he said about the job was a lie - no deadline, no way for the shuttle to get that far out. "You should rest, captain. Try and go out there again in your condition and-."

He moved to one side as Mal's fist came from the other, going full swing before Zoë and Wash could restrain him. "Don't patronize me, boy! She's out there and-."

"And it isn't your fault," Simon said before he could stop himself. This time, he winced as Mal made to charge him, futilely. "She…she knew what she was doing." He turned to walk away. "She knew what she was doing all along."

Kaylee replaced the old catalyzer with the new one, doing her best not to take her frustrations out on Serenity. Ain't the ship's fault they were in the fix they were in. Ain't Simon's fault that… "Gorrammit!"

Inara walked up behind her and pulled her in the direction of the hammock. "It's been a while since I heard you swear, Kaylee."

The mechanic thought about it and realized she was right. "Don't know why," she said. "Ain't like that changed since Shepherd and…." She knew that was a lie. As much as Simon changed to fit in with this family, a bit of him rubbed off on her – something she wasn't about to admit to him or anyone. "Why can't things go smooth like for more than a moment, Inara?"

The companion smiled at her as she sat on the other end of the hammock. "If things were 'perfect' all the time, how would we know or appreciate them? Don't fear the worst, Little Kaylee. That isn't like you."

Kaylee gave a mischievous smile of her own. "That wasn't like Simon to do what he did, neither." She laughed harder as she thought back on it until she was crying. It was from the silliness, she told herself, knowing it was half-true. "Think Cap'n will leave him here on account of it?"

Inara shook her head. "It was either going to be Simon or Zoë to do it. At least a hypo was used to knock him unconscious. If it was me, I would have punched him."

Kaylee looked at her, surprised. "Nah, you wouldn't do that, would you?" Part of her didn't want to know. "Who did you go see earlier?" she asked, hoping for a distraction. As much as she joked with Inara about any possible wealthy handsome men 'rescuing' Inara from this life, Kaylee knew, if she ever left, it would be….

Inara gave a slight smile then said, "It's none of your concern, Little Kaylee. Getting the ship ready for the cargo is. I'll hel-."

"No you won't!" Kaylee thought that was as absurd as…well…. "Wash and I got it just fine. Simon's offered to help."

Inara feigned injury. "You'll accept a crippled one over a Companion. I see how it works." To quickly reassure her, Inara added, "Don't worry, Mal would have done the same thing – saying he wouldn't want me to get 'dirty.'"

Kaylee heard the double-meaning and accepted it. "Think he meant it? Us leaving first thing in the mornin' I mean?"

Sighing, Inara said as she got up, "I've not known Mal to never say what he didn't mean, Kaylee. As much as I disagree with his decision, I know he's right. I'm just glad Zoë managed to buy us an extra day."

Zoë and Wash calmly finished their meal as Mal made his way out of his bunk.

"Mutiny, I tell you! That's what that was," Mal said rubbing the back of his neck. "Remind me to fire that doctor."

"Yes, sir," Zoë said not looking up at him. "I'll let you tend to Jayne and Shepherd then."

He gave her a look. "They're back? When? How? What-?"

"Whoa, careful, Mal," Wash said biting back a laugh. "Too many questions like that and you'll be out again."

"That and I'm not in the mood to help the Doc redo all that work, either," Zoë said. "You throw him off; then you throw me off, Sir."

"And I always follow my wife," Wash added. Seriously, he said, "Larry's guys brought them back, cleared for travel, although, he said he'd gladly work with Warren to change up the deadlines a bit. Shepherd's liable to be on his feet sooner than we thought, though."

"What about Jayne?"

Zoë shook her head. "He'll pull through. They mended him proper."

"He's about as bad as you are, or were," Wash said. "Was just as hellbent on getting back out there and…"

"Don't start with me, Wash," Mal said storming off in the other direction. Before turning the corner, he asked, "We set to go?"

"First thing in the morning," Zoë said.

Wash knew how his wife felt about that, just as well as anyone else on board. It was wrong. They all knew it. But, with no word from Larry's search teams, no new clues, and nothing from Simon… Wash felt as though he told his first lie ever, and he hated it.

Simon sat just outside the ship, a part of him back on another planet with Book and Inara, part of him outside in the garden with his sister. He closed his eyes. He needed to focus. It was any wonder that Mal didn't kill him or slug him after what he had done, but…

No. Now. His sister was close. He knew it, felt it. Murphy's search team would never find her because she excelled at hiding in the open. That had to be something she learned at the Academy, he thought. Slowly, he gleamed a bit more of what had happened there, maybe a tiny measure of it. That wasn't what scared him.

What she had learned; had begun to grow into…that frightened him. As much as he was focused on saving life, protecting it, Simon knew… No, it wasn't her fault. The Academy, the Alliance altered her.

He knew that wasn't entirely true anymore than it was Mal or Serenity's fault that he changed the way he did. Some of it was inevitable. Some of it was… Simon took out the fake ident and looked at the name. It made sense, the new one. Would let him justify using his old one still. He could still go and help others, if possible.

Simon knew he'd remain a doctor for life – at least that's how long he figured it would take to make River whole. Thinking back to the information gathered from Ariel, Simon learned more than he wanted to know and yet it wasn't enough. The surgeries seemed useless at first, until one studied the complete picture.

"They'll get what they deserve, River," he said softly, "every single one of them will."

He looked out into the darkness, aware that Sir Murphy was sincere in his offer of letting the Tams stay, aware that Kaylee wanted him inside the ship, warm and safe, and aware of the guilt and doubt that weigh on Wash's mind.

Simon focused on a tree in the distance, its branches dancing in the breeze as it picked up speed. River danced like that before…

"Stop it," he whispered to himself. "Now. Have to focus on the 'now.'" Simon returned his focus, narrowing it down to one leaf in particular. The stem seemed so fragile, so easy to be torn free of the tree and be lost forever. Yet, he knew looks could be deceiving, that leaves soaring on the wind weren't always lost.

He didn't remember dozing off. He didn't remember giving in to the visions that plagued him. He didn't remember ending up in the void of nothingness that simply held him, simply stopped him until….

The Butterflies Ballet emerged. The unfolding of colorful wings whispering in the once existing emptiness bloomed to life as Simon saw his sister dancing, completely carefree. He'd join her, and for a while keep up with her, until another metamorphosis took place and he was back in the margins, waiting. After a while, his own metamorphosis coming to pass, he'd join her once more, until she leapt beyond him. So was their ballet, of changes and flights that only the other one saw and praised, heard and embraced.

Simon thought back to the party and enjoyed her happiness; even if she thought he didn't know what had tempered it, that Atherton Wing was now the deadly hunter to fear. Jubal Early…

Simon opened his eyes and braced himself as best he could.
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