Serenity was screaming into the atmosphere when Simon awoke, the ship shaking around him from the force of the take off.
It only took a second to think past the blinding headache to remember.
"River," he gasped, crashing off the infirmary bed and charging towards the cockpit.
"Captain, we have to go back!" He stumbled up the stairs, shouting. "They have my sister! They took her, and I can’t let them have her again.”
"I know that, Doc." Mal looked up from the co-pilot's seat, frustration written across his face. "But they ain't there no more." He leaned back so Simon could see the console. He pointed. "A ship took off right before we hit atmo. We think River and Jayne might’ve been on board.”
"Where are they going? Are we following them?" Fear churned in Simon’s gut. The chances of getting River back if she wasn’t on planet were slim.
Wash spoke up, an oddly grave look on his face. "They disappeared."
"They what?" Simon looked from the pilot to the captain in desperation. "We have to find them!"
"We're looking, I can promise you that," Mal said firmly. He turned back to the console. "Folks took off with my mercenary. I don't take it kindly when my crew is taken."
"Go get some rest, Doc," Wash said. "We'll call you as soon as we know anything."
And just like that, the matter was closed. Book shut, door slammed, wall erected and reinforced with cement. Simon stared at the view screen and debated arguing with them. They were taking this too calmly. This was his sister. His River.
He’d just gotten her back.
He was supposed to protect her.
"Go lie down, Doctor. That weren’t no little tap on the head I gave you." The protest was stopped on Simon's lips by the captain's soft voice. His teeth clicked shut as Mal turned in his seat and stared at him, and it was only now that Simon saw the weariness on the smuggler's face. "Shoutin' ain't gonna get 'em back any faster, and neither's fallin' over from exhaustion. Let us handle the findin'. You go get her room set to rights. She's gonna be wantin' a good night's sleep when she gets back, I reckon."
Simon nodded dumbly. Quietly, trying very hard not to blink, he turned away and left the bridge. River's bed needed making -- he hadn't bothered to tidy after giving her the shot to put her to sleep.
He'd only meant it to mimic death. He'd never meant to lose her for real.
He spent most of the next few days waiting. He waited in the cockpit until the Captain threw him out. Then he waited in the mess hall, looking up desperately every time Mal or Wash came in. They always avoided his eyes.
Serenity had set down on three separate planets and two different moons in three days, but Mal and Zoë returned from each one with nothing but a head shake and a tight look in their eyes.
Simon could feel time slipping by too quickly. River did not have the luxury of waiting. If they didn’t find her soon, they probably wouldn’t.
Simon’s mind shied away from the thought that it might already be too late.
A week slipped by. Then two.
Mal searched the cortex. Inara tried to pick up information from her clients. Book left to go to a monastery he thought might know something.
Kaylee hovered over everyone, wringing her hands.
Simon took to spending most of his days in River's room. He didn't want to mess up her nicely made bed, so he sat on the floor.
He had found her sketchbook under her pillow, and took to holding it. It was a link to River, more real than the nightmares he had about her in the rare times he slept.
Kaylee would bring him dinner at night, and would sit with him and hold his hand, and lie to him about finding River.
He loved her a little for that.
Finally, after a month went by with no word on River or Jayne, Mal turned off the console.
"We'll keep looking," he said gravely. "But we gotta eat too."
Simon didn’t bother to argue. He didn’t have the energy.
Simon stopped sleeping. Not that he was much anyway. But this way, he could search the cortex himself when everyone else was asleep.
He kept looking for codes.
River was so smart. She would be able to signal him somehow. He just needed to be somewhere that she could find him
He had thought about leaving, had thought about packing his and River's things and looking for her the way he did the way before.
But River knew Serenity. When she managed to get a message out, she would send it here. He didn’t have the money necessary this time to search for her again.
He spent hours poring over video footage of hospitals, researching access codes in mental health centers, attempting to hack into alliance records.
He found nothing.
Life on Serenity wasn't the same anymore. Not for any of them.
River had been a part of Serenity for such a short time, but her absence was everywhere.
Kaylee had taken him gently to her bed at the three month mark, when he had finally broken down at the dinner table and cried.
Jayne's loss was felt as well. Not as much, not the same, because Jayne was never thought to be charming or cute, but the whole ship knew he was gone.
Mal and Zoë were doing all right, generally not needing the backup, but then they went out on a job, and things went bad. Real bad.
If Jayne had been there, it probably wouldn't have mattered.
If Jayne had been there, it probably would’ve been alright.
But Jayne wasn't there. And Zoë nearly died on the infirmary table.
And then six months had gone by, and River still wasn't back and Zoë was hurt and Simon had to learn how to use a gun.
Simon -- as backup. Jayne would’ve laughed himself sick. But, with some help from Wash and a lot of yelling from Mal, Simon got to be a decent shot.
And that was how he found himself with a gun on his hip almost two years later, feet planted in the dust of some backwater planet far out on the rim, walking one pace behind Mal to watch the captain's back
Once upon a time he'd have wondered if this was what Jayne felt like all the time; the second man, a rung down the ladder. The cannon fodder.
Once upon a time. Now he tried not to think too much at all. Especially when he was on a planet and caught sight of a young girl with long dark hair. It was never her, but he couldn’t stop the hope that one day he would find River.
He almost walked head on into Mal's back when the smuggler stopped dead in his tracks. "What the..." Simon sputtered as he stumbled to a halt, trying to hold on to some kind of poise; it didn't do for the hired gun to fall flat on his face like a toddler. "What?"
The captain didn't answer; just stared straight ahead like a man caught in the path of a speeding bullet. Simon frowned at him in confusion before following his gaze.
Almost two years had passed since that day. Zoë still had trouble breathing after she perforated her lung, Simon had calluses on his hands from too many hours of target practice, and Wash's jokes had all but dried up.
But Jayne Cobb's eyes were still blue as cornflowers in the Core.
He was leaner, harder, his eyes were colder, but there was no doubt it was Jayne Cobb.
And there was no doubt he had seen them too.
He froze, eyes flicking over Mal and Simon, and it suddenly occurred to Simon that all of them were vastly under armed for this meeting.
Then Jayne turned, and vanished into the crowd before Simon could do more than take a step towards him.
Simon didn’t even stop to think. He just took off after him. Mal’s shouts echoed in his ears as he crashed through the people in the marketplace, searching for the man who had been taken when River disappeared.
But Jayne was gone.
Simon whirled as a hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Did you see him?” He asked Mal desperately. “Did I imagine it?”
“I saw him,” Mal said soberly. “I also saw him disappear.”
“We have to find him,” Simon said intently.
“I’m not arguing that point,” Mal said. “But we have a job to do first. And it don’t look like Jayne wants to be found right away.”
Simon glared at the Captain. “That man might know what happened to my sister. I’m not just going to let him vanish into thin air.” He made to push through the crowd in the direction the man had disappeared.
Mal shoved him up against the wall of a merchant stall. “We ain’t letting him vanish.” He shook Simon, hands clenched in Simon’s shirt, “we got a job to do, remember? And if we don’t do it, we can’t afford to buy Zoë any medicine, or Kaylee any food.”
Simon fought against him. “I’ll find him myself.”
Mal shook him harder. “Kaylee, eating. You remember Kaylee? Cute little girl who lets a hun dan like you share her bed?”
Simon snarled and shook off the Captain, but he followed willingly enough.
There would be time after the job.
Plenty of time for Simon to search the entire town if necessary.
And he intended to. Until he got some answers.