Chapter 20: Serenity

"River," he said as he got up slowly, determined not to let the wave of emotions coursing through him knock him down. No matter what happened or what had changed, he would always be there for her, even after death, if he had to.

She approached him, forever his little sister, ready for a hug. He obliged, fighting the tears that would fall with hers – his from relief, hers from exhaustion. She folded into him yet barely weighted a thing as he led her to her room.

He carefully got her ready for bed before gently laying her down and then tucking her in. Simon knew. He knew part of what Mal's eyes had said the other night; knew Book's aching heart was from more than just the wounds. Simon turned to look over his shoulder at the origin of the shadow cast from the doorway. "We can go now," Simon said.

Mal grunted. "You sure I ought not to leave you here, seein' as how you did what you done?" It wasn't said with disappointment, anger, guilt or sadness – as his parents would have done, certainly. It was just…said, in Mal's way of…It was Mal's way.

Simon looked back at River. "Those wounds would have seen a worse infection and you knowed it."

Mal's sharp laugh broke the uneasiness in the room even as River slept. "You've been on this boat too long, boy." There was a pause, then a scrap of a chair against the floor. "Thank you just the same, though."

They sat there in silence for quite some time, both of them aware that rest would come in handy, their cargo restless in the bay below.

"You know," Mal said pulling a part of the blanket up off the floor, "I'd have seen to that Early fella if-."

"He would have killed you," Simon said matter-of-factly. "It's any wonder Jayne's still alive, truth be told."

Mal looked at him. "Thought you were the target."

"I was," Simon said. "I don't know how or why he came here. I'm sure whatever planet we would have stopped off next would have been perfect for him. I mean…I don't know what I mean," he said. Simon held his sister's hand, circling his thumb atop it ever so softly. "Jayne had his reason for doing it," he said. "Knew something you didn't."

Mal bristled beside him. "Was this somethin' you knew, too?" Simon nodded. "Think it might be worth telling me 'bout it now?"

Simon knew the unspoken plea with the thinly veiled command and decided he owed it to the captain. When he had finished telling Mal the details of the 'conversation' that Simon had with Jubal Early, and what he felt of Jayne's reaction – burning him almost as badly as River's ever had – it was all Mal could do not to overreact.

"Reason enough, I suppose," he said at last. "This the last time we're dealin' with this nonsense?"

Simon knew Mal knew the answer; knew he wouldn't tell the others unless they had to know. "Yes," he said.

"Git some sleep, then, Doc," Mal said, getting up to leave. "You still got patients to see after."

"Never in want of work," Simon said.

Zoë looked at Mal as he took over the flying duties. "Double-checked the Cortex myself, Sir," she said, checking other information now. "No sign of him."

Mal nodded. "For now. Let's hope it lasts." He glanced to her. "Think things gonna get worse for us, Zoë?"

"Hard to when you're already at the bottom, Sir," she said. "Then again, been a while since we've been in that kind of valley."

He thought about it a moment. "You're right. Been a while indeed." He paused. "Think we did wrong by the kids?"

"No, sir."

He smiled, liking the speed and certainty of the answer. "Me, neither." It would be a long time 'til they got to where they were going. Plenty of time to converse and reflect and all that, he figured. "Zoë?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Ever shoot me with a hypo like that again, you mind if I git mad at you?"

Zoë deadpanned, "Only if I mess it up."

"Fair 'nough." He looked out at the stars, thanking Buddha - and that was a surprise – that they hadn't seen hide nor hair of Reavers or Alliance so far. The former was something the kids could go without seeing, avoid having a myth of theirs shattered a while longer. The latter, well, given Mr. Murphy's card and Mr. Universe's expertise, Simon Tam was as good as dead now on the Cortex.

"Think he's given up?"

Mal looked at her, knowing whom she was referring to. "For now. Wait 'til he's bored for somethin' to do and we go at it again."

"Thinking about killing him, Sir?"

He wanted to, more than he realized. Then again, Malcolm Reynolds wasn't the type to shoot an unarmed man – no matter how much a pain in the backside he was – without provocation. Depended on how Gabriel Tam tipped that scale, he decided. "Not my place," Mal said at last. He'd leave that up to Simon and River, knowing Simon had earned the greater say in his right; River in hers.

Simon hadn't moved from where he sat the entire time she slept. For the first time ever, he could hear all of her thoughts, her nightmares, and her ramblings. He kept his eyes closed as he held her hand in both of his. No barriers, no secrets this time. Simon felt himself drowning in the deluge of details, both concrete and conceptual. He doubted any earlier medical training had prepared him for what lay in store. He shivered. Someone was there.

Simon opened his eyes and saw the last person he expected on his feet. Part of him wanted to order the patient back to bed, knowing full well that would never happen.

"How is she?" Jayne asked not setting foot across the threshold.

"Recovering," he said. "How are you doing?" Jayne shrugged. "I'd have checked up on you sooner," Simon offered.

"Nah. Them docs did alrigh' – not like you'da done, but…" Jayne looked at the ground. "I shoulda had him. Shoulda killed him instead of-."

"What happened, happened," Simon said. "Things have a reason for happening."

Jayne shook his head. "That be nonsense and you're soundin' like Kaylee now."

"She has a way of seeing the sunny side of things," Simon said. He made a note of reminding her of that, among other things, soon.

"Well, you know, I could use a day without that kinda sun, you know. Because, you know, a day without sun is like…."

Simon looked at him, knowing the mercenary meant well in his own way. "Night?" Simon offered.

"Yeah, g'night," Jayne said then left.

Simon shook his head, wondering at what step Jayne would get the meaning of what was said. Regretfully, he let go of his sister's hand and went to see to the other patients.

Shepherd Book turned slowly to his visitor and set his bible down. "Hello," he said.

"Hello," Inara said as she took the corner of his bed. "Did the doctor give you a clean bill of health?"

"Yes," Book said nodding. "Simon's quite diligent in his orders of rest and recuperation. I wish he'd follow that same advice."

Inara agreed. "It's to be expected, I suppose."

"I suppose," repeated Book. "But, that's not why you're here. What's on your mind?"

Inara got up, closed the door, and then sat down again, a confession to make.

Kaylee set a bowl down in front of Simon and waited. After a sip or two and still more silence, he finally spoke.

"Kaylee? I love you."

She beamed. "That's a nice thing to hear, especially from you," she said. "Wondered how long it would be, though."

"I'm shy?" he offered as a defense.

Kaylee shook her head. "Gorrammit, Simon! If you're shy, then I'm a klutz!" She held up a hand before he could protest. "And the fact that you done said what you said…" she shook her head, torn between huggin' and kissin' him or asking him to marry her. "I… I love you, too, Simon."

"If I could promise you a bit more stability, security and the like, I'd…" He shook his head. That wasn't what supported a marriage, he thought. Simon knew what she wanted to hear, what he wanted to say. But he couldn't do it. Not yet, not now. Maybe when they landed…

"I knowed. You've got another woman in your life in more need of you than me," she said, not meaning the hurt to pour through the way it did.

Sick with guilt, he put the bowl down and left.

Kaylee all but ran to her bunk, nearly knocking Wash over in the process. He followed her down to see what was the matter. Through the tears and hiccups, he heard a partial answer of sorts.

"He wants what's best for you," Wash said. "I'm sure he'd ask you to marry him. It's just…"

"He don't want someone like me or a life like this," Kaylee said, "not really."

"Nonsense! Kaylee, he loves you. I can see that and I'm not him. But, a guy like me….knows. Want a second opinion?" Kaylee shook her head. "Too bad." With that, he sought the most knowledgeable person he knew who'd get the topic.

Darn Wash! That's all Mal could think of as he sought his mechanic now hiding in the engine room. "Kaylee?" Why didn't Wash get his wife for this? "Kaylee!" Or better still, the preacher? "Kaylee!?"

She lay on her hammock fingering a broken button between her fingers in front of her. "Cap'n," she said at last.

"We'll be there a week's time and you don't give me no updates on how the ship or cargo are holdin' up," he said by way of easing into the topic. "Whole point of knowin' the…the other half of one's bein' is to…know. You know?"

Kaylee chuckled. "Serenity's just fine, cap'n. Had she been hurtin' she'd a told me long ago." She waited. "Wash sent ya?"

"Nope," he said. "Curious as to how you're fairin' with the doctor, is all." He wanted to punch the boy if the 'mother hennin' continued one more time. Zoë's look changed that, of course.

"He almos' asked me to marry him," she said. "Changed his mind."

Mal put a hand on her shoulder. "Little Kaylee, no man in their right mind would change theirs on account of asking you to marry 'em, dong ma? He'll ask you."

"How do you know?"

"I just do," he said. Of course, he knew rightly a many different things, not all of them having to be shared aloud. One of them bordered on revelation, but that depended on Kaylee. "He still has to pass my pre-marital prep course, so, that might be holdin' him up some," Mal said. "Always gits himself in trouble with the 'when can I kill ya' part."

Kaylee laughed this time. "He won't hurt me, Mal," she said. "I knowed that with all my heart. Hurtin' others isn't his way."

Mal kept a steady gaze as he said, "He won't hurt you, Little Kaylee."

Simon imagined himself extracting the cancerous cells of her being, absorbing them into himself. He knew what happened to Jubal Early, had seen and felt everything that transpired through her eyes. He knew there was more to Shepherd Book than some others, yet this…. Simon 'followed' Jayne in his pursuits, aware of the blow-by-blow that followed far from where anyone else could see or hear.

Simon closed his eyes tighter as he followed his sister, who had 'gone after the hunter.' Had he paid attention then, Simon chided himself. It was a cat-and-mouse game, River and Early taking turns, with Early clueless as to the reason of this unknown hunter-prey. Another bounty had brought that hunter to Persephone; a mercenary's need for vengeance brought him to the hunter.

Swaying a moment, Simon felt the death blows, saw the nonchalant manner in which the body was disposed. No one would really miss Jubal Early. Otherwise, he would have lived. No. Out there, dead completely as their parents were emotionally, lay Jubal Early, most likely never to be found by or sought for by anyone.

River opened her eyes. "You shouldn't have done that," she said.

"Had to," he said. "Have to help heal you." Simon knew she knew, had been completely aware in her own way.

She shook her head. "Can't cut the assassin out from me," she said. "Butterflies' Ballet."

He didn't want to admit defeat to the point. "Me to life, you to death," he said shaking his head. "That doesn't make sense, River. When would it end?"

Without a beat, she said, "You know."

He answered, "No, I don't." Simon took her hand. "I know you haven't killed anyone else, River. We could stop this, here, now."

River put a hand to his cheek and looked at him sadly. "It will end when it ends," she said. "Like your tremors, though, that will be never." Of course, she heard his pleas in her mind, his reach for hope. "They can be controlled," she said. "You have a key for when necessary."

"I don't want to use it, though, mei-mei." He looked her in the eye and added, "Please, don't make me." He was thankful that she respected him enough not to pry the key phrase from him or worse, make it mute. Then again, he felt guilt about what he had gotten away with these last couple of weeks.

"You had to," she said. "I'll still let you. One more week until we land, until the creatures below are finally free. Right now, they're frustrated, confused, confined."

"What about you, River," he asked, ignoring the other emotions around him for the moment. "How are you feeling?"

Pulling herself up into a sitting position, she held onto his shoulders and said, "I feel what you feel what I feel."

He narrowed his eyes, confused and concerned. "River…"

"Don't make a face. You know it's true," she said then kissed him on the cheek. "No soother. I'll sleep." She kissed his other cheek, then lay down, turning her back to him.

The landing at Jiangyin was smooth as was the releasing of the cargo. Shepherd and Jayne were well enough to lend a hand. Mal watched as his family worked, thinking back to what Inara had said about him owning a ranch by now. It was a dream of his that was second after Serenity – a distant second. But, some year, he knew he'd settle down, want a place like what he had on Shadow. For now, he was content with having family nearby.

He turned to see the sheriff of the town approaching him. "Howdy," the man said, tipping his hat.

"Howdy yourself," Mal said tipping an imaginary one. "Here they are as promised."

The sheriff and his team walked around the corral inspecting. "They all seem fine," the sheriff said approvingly, "lean, but fine. Tell your man Murphy we thank him plenty."

"Oh, I'm sure he know that," Mal said. "Sorry we were a bit delayed and all-."

The sheriff waved him off. "We're thankful to you, too. Curious," he said taking a money bag from his inside pocket, "you folks gotta doctor on board?"

Mal looked at him apprehensively. "Why?"

"Just got us some ill and injured folk who need looking after. Our doc's fallen ill with a powerful virus. That, and Stark, a fella who speaks for one of the villages on the hill, he sent word down that they could use some help, too. Their doctor was lost to the last plague they had come through."

Mal thought it over, not feeling all out uneasy about the request. "Seems to me you'd need more than one doctor for all them."

"Well," the sheriff admitted, "figured we'd aim high then work our way down, hoping for some medicine if you've any to spare."

Mal noticed Zoë going up the walk, presumably to Simon's room. Knowing his first officer and doctor, they'd say 'yes' since Jiangyin wasn't exactly a hotbed of trouble like some other planets. Add to that a need to be planet-side after so long with a restless cargo... A quick glance to Book confirmed his notions. "See what we can do," Mal said. "In the meantime, you folks need help in shepherding these critters to town?"

"No. We'll get it just fine. If any of you and your crew want, town's just on the other side of them hills and we've a festival going on."

Mal smiled. Seemed he and his had a mite bit of good timin' with these festivals. "I'll check with the crew."

"I don't think it's right, that's all." Jayne said walking with Inara, Zoë, and Wash to town. "What's in it for us?"

Zoë slugged him, careful not to break the packages she, Wash and Inara had picked up per Mal's instructions; plus adding a few of their own. "It doesn't have to always involve money, Jayne. And it ain't everyday we could be big damn heroes. Besides, it might do him some good, a variety of non-life-threatening illnesses."

"Seeing you in action in a similar situation, dear," Wash said, "will be just as good. I've practice being a nurse."

Inara chuckled at Jayne's expression. "I'll help any way I can, too," she offered. How many patients do you think we'll have?"

"Fewer than Simon will probably see in the village," Zoë said. She was thankful that Mal was up to acting second medic there.

Simon felt more despair than he thought possible as they came closer and closer to the village, following this Stark's lead. It wasn't total helplessness as it was fatigue from some who had fought for so long. Upon entering the village, Mal and Book in the lead, leading a couple of cows each, a surge of hope and happiness rose.

He turned to Kaylee who walked beside him, taking it all in as he did. Her brightness barely dimmed even as they entered the village proper. River…was River.

"Where's your medical house?" Simon asked Stark once they crossed the bridge. Either by neglect or lack of energy and resources, most of the homes were overcome by vegetation. Stark motioned for Simon to follow. He knew who followed him and why and said nothing.

Upon entering the darken shack, he was amazed at how many ill and wounded were crowded in on cots and the dirt floor. He steeled himself to the task at hand, aware that his companion had done the same, but having had more experience with it. A triage in place, he and Mal treated the many as best and fast as they could. As he was after operating on Book, Simon was exhausted, but this was different, rejuvenating, if that made sense.

"I know how you feel, son," Mal said, washing up beside him. "Good to know this did some good. No problem sleeping for any of us, I'm sure."

Simon looked around in search of River. Kaylee put her arms around Simon's shoulders. "She and Shepherd are putting a fence up around a garden they planted. Stark and I fixed some things around here, so…" She rested her head against his back. "Think we earned a proper rest?"

Mal shook his head. "Kids, rest, play, eat, I don't care. Just…take it elsewhere, all right?" He even gave them a push to send them on their way.

He heard footsteps behind him, someone watching them then him. "What can I do for you?" Mal asked.

The other man put out his hand. "I'm the patron of this village. I wanted to thank you for the good works you've done here today. Ordinarily, we don't ask for help. We…um..."

"Take what you need as you need it," Mal said, saving the man's dignity and impressed with the honesty. "Look, we can stay here a couple days; help you where you need it. Right now, I'm taking my doctor home for proper rest."

The patron looked at him sagely. "You're a good father to your crew."

"And I protect like a good father, too. Don't you forget that."

Shepherd Book set down a plate before Simon. "Seems we all had a busy day today," he said sitting across from him.

"Thank you," Simon said, "for taking River under your wing."

Book shook his head. "Oh, no, son. I may have had my share of the garden at the abbey, but River's knowledge far surpasses mine. I learned a thing or two from her, I promise you."

Simon studied the older man and pondered something. "How did you know to find me, that night in the alley?" He sensed there was more to Derrial Book than he let on, but knew it wasn't his place to pry. There were boundaries to respect, especially from one's elders. Yet somehow…

Book merely smiled. "This would be a good place for River to rest a spell, too, I'd think. Little conflict, no major threats…that we can't handle at least." Off of Simon's look, Book gestured behind him. "Miss Doralee has a…unique perspective on life. So do many of the others there. Doubt they'd understand some of the…talents, that you, River and Kaylee possess. I'd suggest we don't wander too far from one another, regardless of what the Patron says."

"River would enjoy it, I'm sure." He sighed. "I don't know. I confess… I'll feel more at home when we get back in the air. There's something to be said for Serenity's song," he said. "I know what to expect there. Anywhere else and…" Simon knew he wasn't xenophobic or anything. It was just that he knew what he was used to, could count on. So what if a few mysteries still existed. If they were meant for revelation, they would be.


Simon's cheeks reddened. Had he been paying attention, he wouldn't have been caught off guard. "Now, before you go making fun of me…"

"But, that's the sweetest thing you've ever said," Kaylee cooed before giving him a kiss.

He shook his head. "Think I can top it," he said, returning the kiss. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear.

She pulled away, blushing. "Yes. And yes, you did top it."

The common meal around the table was more festive than Simon expected. How the others knew so quickly, he couldn't say. Everyone had contributed something to the gifts, including Jayne. A ceramic plate entitled 'Jiangyin Paradise' was Simon and Kaylee's favorite, a gift from Mal, despite Inara's lighthearted protests. 'Somethin' simple,' he had said. Wash and Zoë's gifts were equally meaningful and treasured. Inara's gift didn't disappoint, nor was it something they'd dare frown at, given the sacrifice given for it. Book's was as obvious yet mysterious as the giver.

The question remaining was where to…

No, that was a silly question, Simon told himself. Everything was here along with everyone who mattered. As soon as they took to the air again, perhaps...

River slipped into Simon's room, looking graceful as ever, he thought. "It's about time," she said.

"I know, mei-mei, I know," he said. "I should have asked-."

"You already knew the answer. We all did. Had to wait for you to ask the question." She took his hand. "You deserve this. Release your fear and hold on to what you hold dear. I'll be fine. We'll be fine."

Simon shook his head, amazed at her certainty even as he 'heard' her say he shouldn't be. "Are you sure, mei-mei? I mean, I've not asked you what you-."

"I want what you've always wanted for me – happiness."

"I thought you said emotion-."

"And you're supposed to be smart enough to know what is worth knowing and where truth lies."

He made a face, aware of a double meaning in there of sorts. She was so good at that, he thought. "River...," he shook his head, "I don't know how hard this is going to be.

"It's up to you to put together this family," she said.

The End

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