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When Heroes Fall

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Prologue

He should have listened to Jayne.

It was the only time Simon had ever decided listening to something Jayne had to say would be beneficial to him, but right then as he lay on the cold damp and dirty floor with a musty smell lingering in the air around him, he wished with every fiber of his being that he HAD listened to Jayne. He wished he had swallowed his pride and his annoyance and gave Jayne the benefit of the doubt that maybe just maybe that crazy tah mah duh hwoon dawn [mother humping son of a bitch] had been speaking logic after all. Simon wished he had paid heed to Jayne's persistent disapproval towards his decision to venture off the ship mere hours before they were due to break atmo. Even Mal voiced his opinion on the matter, called the idea absurd, and threatened to leave Simon on that Gorram rock if the doctor stepped even one foot off of Serenity. Simon had called the captain's bluff though and knew the threat was empty. Mal would never leave Simon behind, especially not with Kaylee's current condition. Their resident mechanic would have the captain's head on a platter for that betrayal alone.

Simon should have listened to Mal if no one else, but now he knew he should have listened to Jayne most of all. That foul-mouthed, pride-filled hwun dan [bastard] was smart. In fact, Jayne was very smart, smarter than most gave him credit for, but he brought that upon himself. He'd been dumbing himself down for so long that Simon suspected Jayne had truly begun to believe it also, forgotten the capacity of intelligence his brain actually held. That's why it didn't pass Simon to even give his griping a second thought. He didn't like to admit when Jayne was right, but if only he could see him right now, Simon would tell him how much he wished he WOULD have listened.

There was a flare of pain that started at the end of Simon's tail bone and spread without mercy up his spine and he curled in on himself. His eyes clenched shut, as if the darkness of no sight would somehow dim the consequences of his injuries. Foolish thinking that was. If anything, seeing nothing but a black void only heightened Simon's senses even more. It took all he had within him to swallow the groan of authentic hurt that was bubbling up his throat and even so, the faintest of whimpers passed his lips, just loud enough for his ears to register. Simon wasn't one to vocally or visually express pain. He prided himself in being strong that way. But now, now he couldn't stop the bitter tears of agony from springing to the corners of his eyes.

Simon's arms curled delicately around his bruised abdomen as he pried his eyes open with considerable effort. There was no getting comfortable on the cold, hard ground. His prison. Sleep wasn't a willing option either. He would lay there until his body gave out and finally succumbed to exhaustion, just as he had every night since being thrown into this living Hell. It would be useless though because they would come to claim Simon, his captors, and torture him until he was certain he could withstand the abuse no more. Their laughter and heartless statements would haunt him long after they had tossed him like a rag doll back into his crude cell. Day in and day out, the routine was the same. They were just as cruel from one day to the next and Simon could tell by looking into their eyes that they had no intentions of stopping.

Ruthless is what many would call them and it seemed they openly embraced that title with pride. Thugs of the worst kind, bandits who took pleasure in their crimes and sought the pay out simply in the pain they afflicted on others. Simon's pleas for them to let him go went unheard, or rather ignored in the most blatant way. At first, he tried reasoning with them. He had a sister that needed looking after and a fiance ready to give birth to his first child at any moment. Those confessions only made them beat him more and harder too, if that were possible. Even offers of monetary value (something Simon had no way of paying since the Alliance had locked him out of access to his funds ages ago) were disregarded. Simon's captors simply didn't care. They wanted to see him bleed. They wanted to hear him cry out for mercy and see the recognition in his eyes that that mercy would never come.

It was only a matter of time before they returned.

The air in the cell was cold and felt as if it were getting colder by the minute. Simon couldn't stop his teeth from chattering as the moments passed. The ripped shirt and pants he wore did very little to keep the dropping temperature from clawing at his insides. If only he had thought to dress a little warmer before leaving Serenity. That was a ridiculous thought though. The weather on Jirah had been stifling and unseasonably warm for the Outer rim planet, so much so that Simon had felt uncomfortably over dressed when he stepped off the ship in a pair of neatly pressed trousers and an ironed long sleeve button down. Some of Simon's finer clothing that he wore on occasion and Mal hadn't failed to claim a good five minutes of making fun at Simon's expense.

If only Simon had known.

If only Simon had bothered to listen when it mattered most.

An image of Kaylee's sweet smile flashed through Simon's mind and he closed his eyes again in a grappling attempt to grasp hold of the image. The thought of Kaylee caused the fading swell of hope to flutter to life in him again. Sweet, sweet Kaylee, the only one Simon had ever known who had been able to make him weak in the knees with an innocent glance. She had from the first moment Simon had laid eyes on her back on that fateful day on Persephone, even if it took him far too long to admit such a fact to himself.

And their relationship had been strained from the start. Kaylee was too eager and Simon was...well, he was stiff just as Kaylee had accurately put it. Put off and intimidated was accurate as well. But more so, Simon had been so occupied with River and staying out from under the radar of the Alliance (which proved to be down right impossible regardless of who he was in the company of), that he'd unintentionally ignored the natural attraction of polar opposites between doctor and mechanic. Not to mention that Simon had never been an expert when it came to talking to girls. Kaylee proved to be no expection to the rule and it only made Simon fall for the woman harder.

Simon's heart lept into his throat and he swallowed thickly at the thoughts. 'Oh God, Kaylee' he thought as his shoulders began to quake with silent sobs that only brought him more physical pain. 'I'm so sorry. Forgive me. I never should have left you. I should have listened to Jayne.'

Kaylee would be devastated right now. She would be stricken with panic and grief from Simon's absence and it was the last thing she needed in her fragile state when she was so close to giving birth. It was supposed to be a joyous time for them both and Simon had managed to screw that up in the most royal way. Simon may be a genius, but he had proved himself to be the biggest idiot of them all.

Simon's eyes became heavier and he found it more difficult to keep them open. It wasn't sleep that was taking him. The pain was too much. How much more would he actually be able to take? He needed the crew of Serenity more than ever in that moment, he need a miracle, and he was losing hope that salvation for him was nothing more than a fleeting thought. Simon wanted to believe that Mal and the others were looking for him. He wanted to believe that they were compiling a grand scheme to rescue him from his biggest mistake, but as his eyes finally fluttered shut and the darkness swallowed him whole, even Simon couldn't find it in himself to believe that.

'I'm sorry I didn't listen...'

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter One

* Three days prior*

River awoke with a scream so shattering that it echoed through the walls of Serenity and awoke the whole of the crew right along with her. Simon catapulted from the bed he shared with Kaylee before his senses quite caught up with his actions and he half stumbled-half raced out of their living quarters across the way to River's quarters where his sister was sitting upright stiff as a board in her bed.

Simon approached her with quick caution, his hands slightly raised, his heart racing in his chest. "River?" he called out with well deserved apprehension. River's body jolted at the sound of Simon's voice and she released a scream even more startling than the first. Simon wasted no time closing the distance between them and climbed onto her bed. He took her hands in his, trying to grab her attentoon, but she immediately began to fight him off. "Mei Mei, calm down! It's just me! It's Simon!"

River's eyes snapped to his as her body stopped thrashing and for a moment she stared at him with an utterly terrified gaze. Then she began to shake her head vehemently and tears of distress sprang from her eyes. "S-Simon?" she stuttered as if in disbelief and she yanked her hands from his, only to throw her arms around his neck urgently. She clung to him and Simon could feel her trembling in his embrace.

"Mei Mei, it's okay. You're okay," Simon assured her as he delicately rubbed her back. "Whatever it was, it was just a nightmare."

"No!" River's voice quaked as she responded to him. "Simon, no, you can't-"

"What's all this Gorram ruckus?!" Jayne's voice bellowed from elsewhere on the ship. Simon frowned when he heard him and looked back over his shoulder towards the doorway as if expecting Jayne to burst into the room at any moment. "That kwong-juh duh [nuts] girl is gonna wake this whole Gorram rock if she keeps screaming like that!"

Mal's voice could be heard firmly silencing Jayne, but Simon couldn't make out the muffled words. His attention had already returned to River who had now pulled away from him and had her face pressed tightly to her hands. She was mumbling incoherently and her mannerisms were nervous, a tell all sign that she was far from okay in that moment, but Simon didn't understand it. It was never easy to understand his sister when she slipped into these mindsets. He sighed and placed a gentle hand on River's shoulder, waiting for her to work through the moment, prepared to sit there as long as it took or until Mal or Jayne came barging in with a demand for an explanation...whichever came first.

"Simon?" Kaylee's tired voice called out to him from the doorway. "Is she okay?"

Simon looked in her direction to find her wrapping a silk robe around her swollen stomach as she leaned against the door frame. Kaylee's hair was mussed and her cheeks tinted red from sleep and she couldn't hide her exhaustion these days even if she wanted to. But Simon couldn't help thinking in all her pregnant glory, Kaylee had never looked so beautiful to him. He tried telling her that too, but she was easily moody and quick to tell him how biased he was, like he HAD to tell her that. Of course, it never helped his argument when he chuckled at her disposition. That was HIS Kaylee...

"Catastrophe," River muttered. She wrenched away from Simon's touch, wincing. "I'm fine."

"Oh, sweetie...did you have a nightmare?" Kaylee questioned with genuine concern. She flit her eyes from Simon to River as she pushed away from the door frame and stepped into the room. Simon noticed how she waddled more in her steps these days with the extra weight she carried.

River moved further away from Simon and laid down on her side with her back to the two of them. She yanked the blankets up over her head and mumbled something that sounded like a mix between a distressed cry and an angry curse in Chinese. Simon didn't know whether to chuckle at his sister's antics right then or be more concerned.

"Are you sure she's okay?" Kaylee asked Simon again, only quieter this time.

'When is River ever okay?' Simon thought but he nodded nonetheless and rose from the bed. "She's fine. Just...a nightmare, I suppose. She'll be okay in a moment. You should go back to bed and lay down."

Kaylee frowned, her hand resting on the swell of her stomach. "I can stand on my own two feet, Simon," she replied to him defiantly. "Ain't hurt. Been laying down enough."

"Your condition though-" Simon tried to reason with her.

"My condition?" Kaylee looked offended. She always looked offended when he brought it up this way. "It isn't a condition. I'm pregnant. I'm not...I'm not dying."

"No, no, of course not. I didn't mean it like that." Simon shook his head and reached out a hand to place it against Kaylee's stomach, but she swatted it away.

"I think you did," Kaylee spoke indignantly. "You sure look at me like you meant it that way." Frowning, Kaylee turned from Simon and swiftly left the room, disappearing across the way into their quarters once more.

"Death can't carry life," River mumbled beneath the blankets. "You're such a boob."

Simon released a shallow sigh beneath his breath and running a hand through his hair, he began to leave River's room. Zoe interjected him just outside with a knowing glance and he felt the heat ignite in his cheeks immediately.

"Strike out again, doctor?" Zoe guessed. There was a faint smile toying at the corners of her mouth, but she wouldn't laugh at Simon for the mishap and he appreciated her for that.

Simon sort of shrugged. "I, um..."

Zoe patted his shoulder. "A war of words with a pregnant woman is no easy feat," she replied.

"I suspect I am losing," Simon said as the heat in his cheeks intensified.

"Hormones, doctor. She'll be over it before you know it," Zoe answered and stepped past him to continue on her way to the kitchen. She stopped a bit of ways away and turned back to face him, a fleeting glance of apprehension passing over her face. It wasn't something the crew was used to seeing, but Simon had noticed it a lot more since Wash had been gone. Zoe bit her bottom lip for a moment. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble...would you mind taking a look at Emma when she wakes up? She had a rough night last night and I think she has a bit of a temperature."

Simon's expression relaxed at the request as Zoe spoke of her daughter with uncertainty. As a woman of war who was typically so strong in demeanor, the Washburne toddler had softened the woman dramatically. Of course, Simon thought a lot of that had to do with the untimely death of Zoe's husband and the prospect of raising their child on her own, but she filled the shoes of both mother and father wonderfully. Emma was never lacking a pair of caring hands and she had more love surrounding her than any child would know what to do with. It would never make up for the fact that Emma would never know her father, but she would be alright. The crew of Serenity, especially Mal, saw to that.

"I'm probably overreacting, but I just want to make sure," Zoe continued.

"She's teething. You can expect her temperature to spike sporadically," Simon explained, if anything to put Zoe's mind at ease. "Bring her to the infirmary once we break atmo. I'll be happy to examine her."

Zoe nodded firmly, pleased with answer. "Thank you," she said and she was gone from sight within seconds.

Simon turned to the closed door of his quarters and sighed again. Kaylee was clearly angry at him and rightfully so. He worried too much about her and the baby, but he couldn't help it. Their lifestyle didn't allow him to relax though and his and River's history of running from the Alliance left no room for error. It would kill Simon if something ever happened to Kaylee and their child. Inhaling deeply, Simon opened the door to step inside the room, silently preparing an apology he hoped Kaylee would find suitable.

Just the start to another typical day on board Serenity...

*****

"Wuh de ma [Mother of God], are you out of your mind?!" Jayne shouted in annoyance as he sat heavily at one end of the table in the kitchen. Gripping an apple in one hand, he dramatically stabbed his knife into the center of it and narrowed his eyes at Simon where the doctor was standing at the other end of the table, rolling the sleeves of his dress shirt up to his elbows. "Ain't you learned a Gorram thing yet?"

Zoe shot him a warning glance, but it went unnoticed. She looked at Simon as well, her face stoic. "I hate to admit it, doctor, but Jayne has a point. Venturing off on your own in this place isn't your smartest idea. I wouldn't recommend it."

"More like pretty boy here asking to get himself jumped by a band of no-gooders looking for an easy target," Jayne gruffed. "You looking to get yourself killed? Especially dressed like that? Ain't you supposed to be smart or somethin'?"

"Don't be dramatic," Simon calmly responded without so much as affording a glance in Jayne's direction.

"Dramatic," Jayne scuffed and rolled his eyes. "I'm not the one who's talking all crazy-like."

"Crazy is a perspective," River murmured. She lingered nearby, absently running the tips of her fingers along the edge of the counter. "You wouldn't understand."

Jayne snapped his attention to her, glaring. "Don't think I asked for your opinion."

"Jayne..." Zoe warned.

"You're being a ruttin' fool," Jayne snapped as he hastily cut a slice off the apple and shoved it in his mouth. He talked around it as he chewed. "Gonna get yourself into a load of trouble."

"Catastrophe," River spoke up again. Simon looked to her to see the familiar glaze of concern in her eyes and it made him think back to when she had awoken screaming from her nightmare. "Jayne is crazy, but it is a catastrophe."

Jayne growled. "Thought I said I didn't ask for your opinion!"

Simon opened his mouth with a sharp rebuttal, but Mal strolled into the kitchen at that moment before he could get the words to project. The captain looked at all of them with a brow raised as he tucked his shirt into his pants. "We got a problem in here?"

Jayne sat up straighter, clearly hoping to take hold of the opportunity to bring Mal onto his side of the matter. "Yeah, we got us a ruttin' problem, alright. Doc here is actin' all fong luh [loopy in the head]."

"Don't think much I understand what you're running your mouth about, Jayne," Mal said with a casual shrug of his shoulders. "Someone wanna give me an explanation that I can actually make some sense of?"

"I'm trying to tell you!" Jayne snapped again. "Doc's got the grand idea-"

"I'm not looking for your approval," Simon interrupted him.

Jayne rose to his feet as he slammed the apple and knife on the table. "I ain't giving it to you!"

"This is what you walked into, sir," Zoe provided.

"You ain't leaving this Gorram ship!" Jayne looked determined in his statement. It was almost comical the way he squared his shoulders, but it didn't phase Simon any. If anything, it only made the tension rise even further between everyone else.

Mal stepped forward quickly between them, less than amused. "Ta ma de! Nimen de bizui [Everybody shut the Hell up!]!" His sharp voice echoed around the kitchen, causing the silence to fall over the area just as fast as it had risen. "Ain't nobody leaving this ship."

"Actually..." Simon inhaled deeply. He grabbed a brown leather satchel Inara had given to him months back and draped the strap diagonally across his chest. "I am."

Mal blinked. "Come again?"

Simon's posture straightened both visually and diplomatically, even though staring Mal down was not only unpleasant but also at the bottom of a list of his best interests. "I have a run I need to make. It won't take me long."

"That ain't gonna happen, Doc," Mal answered him plainly. "We break atmo in just over two hours. Plenty of preparation still left to do. Don't need anyone running off right now. Least of all you." Mal turned to where Inara, who had yet to speak up, was standing behind the counter fixing herself a cup of tea. He snatched it from her without second thought and swallowed a sip, only to choke and cough as his eyes bulged. "Aiya  [Damn!]! That's hot!"

"Next time you'll keep your thieving hands to yourself," Inara told him and took the cup back. She muttered to herself and turned her back to him, dumping the liquid out in the sink to prepare a fresh cup.

Mal watched her for a moment before returning his attention to Simon who was still staring at him pointedly. "Now, don't you go looking at me like that. I don't have any plans to stick around on this go se [crap] planet any longer than I need to. You all have your jobs and I expect you to do them. Dong ma [Understand?]?"

"My job right now is to see to it that Kaylee is happy and provided for," Simon told him. "And that's what I intend to do, whether you like it or not. Like I said, I won't be gone long. I just need to get a few things." His eyes flit to River who was watching him nervously. He offered her an awkward smile. "I'll be back soon, Mei Mei. You don't need to worry. Be good while I'm gone and I'll bring you back something." He gently pat her shoulder and proceeded to leave the kitchen.

Mal stared after Simon in disbelief. "Gwai-gwai long duh dong [What the hell!]!" he exclaimed, motioning with his hands to Zoe. "Was he arguing with me? He was just arguing with me."

Zoe slowly rose to her feet, fighting a small grin of amusement towards Mal's bewildered expression. "I do believe he's also about to step off this ship." She cleared her throat and forced her face to become more serious. "Sir."

"Don't much like being put in your place," River snickered as she brushed past Mal and skipped off to disappear elsewhere on the ship.

Mal stormed towards the cargo bay, releasing a sharp string of curses in Chinese under his breath. By the time he reached the area, Simon was already in the process of opening the air lock door. Mal wasted no time closing the distance between them. "This is absurd," he said. "You set one foot off this ship, doctor, and I will leave you here on this Gorram rock."

"Juh jen sh guh kwai luh duh jean jan... [This is a happy development...]" Jayne chuckled as he lingered a few feet behind with Zoe at his side.

Simon turned to face Mal. "No, I don't think you will," he answered calmly. He crossed his arms over his chest, challenging the captain's authority. There was no doubt in his mind that the threat on Mal's part was an empty one. Mal wouldn't chance enduring Kaylee's wrath if Simon got left behind, nonetheless for something so trivial. Simon knew it as much as Mal knew it as well.

Mal appeared taken aback for the briefest of seconds. "I don't think you much wanna test that theory."

"And I don't think you want to breach that betrayal with Kaylee. You leave me behind, Captain, and she will have your head on a platter." Simon had to fight his lips wanting to curl up in a smirk with the way the flash of realization spread across Mal's eyes. The argument was already won and it wasn't in the captain's favor. "I'll be back in an hour."

Jayne huffed when Simon began to depart from Serenity. He wanted to wipe that proud little smirk off the doctor's face. "Zhu yi [Watch your back!]!" Jayne yelled after him. Then he stepped up to Mal and together, they watched Simon's retreating form. "Y'know, for someone bein' jen duh sh tyen tsai [an absolute genius], he's actin' like a ruttin' fool right now. I warned him. You heard me, I warned him."

Mal shook his head. "Go do your job, Jayne," he spoke as he shifted his attention to the mercenary. "We leave in an hour, with or without the doctor."

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

By the time Kaylee had begun to lull into a peaceful daze that was just this side of actual sleeping, her irrational anger towards Simon had waned to the point that she almost felt guilty about the bitterness she had expressed to him when he returned to their quarters earlier to dress for the day. The encounter had been less than pleasant, that was for sure. But even so, Simon had been just as patient with her as always, caring and delicate despite the way she attempted to brush him off. Kaylee had done all of the talking, even went so far as to tell him how ridiculous he was and that she was getting fed up with it some. Told him she wasn't River and didn't need looking after in that way. Kaylee could tell that last one had hurt Simon, honestly stung him in a way he hadn't deserved, but he didn't admit to it. Instead, Simon had simply leaned over the bed, told Kaylee he loved her (he said it a lot these days), and kissed her on the forehead before leaving the room.

Now, as Kaylee lay in the middle of their bed with Simon's familiar scent surrounding her, she knew she owed him an apology for her behavior. Simon had always confounded Kaylee in some way. It had been that way since their first encounter and maybe that was part of the reason she had fallen head over heels for the doctor in the first place. He kept Kaylee guessing at every turn and it was downright frustrating at times; she just didn't understand how someone who was so brilliant could be so ignorant to what was right in front of him. Of course, Kaylee's eagerness was hard to contain. Perhaps that had worked against her favor in some ways.

But then, after the events brought about by what had been discovered on Miranda, Simon had changed, at least towards Kaylee. He was still stiff, overly proper, and typically awkward in every other way when it came to the rest of the crew. But when it came to Kaylee, Simon was a completely different person. Through his honesty, she saw him in a new light. She understood more now than she thought she used to before. Kaylee realized she knew very little about Simon before. He may have been ignorant, but she had been naive and too eager.

Their relationship and intimacy had developed quickly, but it was welcomed and everything they both were in need of. Kaylee was Simon's escape, the one thing that kept him sane in their turbulent life. For Kaylee though, Simon became the piece of her existence she'd never realized she'd been missing. They taught each other what love was. They completed what was incomplete. They just...fit.

A soft smile curled Kaylee's lips as she pushed the blankets away from her body and gazed longingly down at the swell of her stomach. It wouldn't be much longer now before the arrival of their little one. A fluttering of anticipation and excitement had been nestling itself at Kaylee's core for weeks now, but she was nervous and even a little bit terrified at the idea of actually becoming a mother. Not to mention the whole act of giving birth was something she tried not to think about as it made her insides turn. Zoe tries to put the younger woman's concerns at ease and sure, Kaylee had spent her fair share of time around little Emma Washburne, but still, she had her doubts. What if she wasn't cut out to be a mother? She was haphazard sometimes and covered in engine grease more often than not. She knew engine parts and tools and how to keep Serenity running. Kaylee really didn't know the first thing about taking care of a baby.

Her and Simon's baby.

Kaylee's mind drifted in thought and she began to hum a quiet tune familiar only to herself as she gently caressed her stomach. Simon was confident in their abilities to parent their child together, but there was no denying that he was nervous too. A baby was a Hell of a lot more different than what Simon was used to with taking care of River. There was a lot more at stake. Less room for error and so much more that could go wrong. Kaylee needed Simon just as much as he needed her. They were in this together.

A quiet knock on the door drew Kaylee out of her reverie and with her eyes still intently focused on her stomach, she called out in response to her visitor. "Qing jin [Come in.]."

Inara let herself into the room, carefully balancing a silver tray of various lotions and oils in both hands. "I was hoping you wouldn't be sleeping," she greeted with a polite smile. She glided in her steps towards the bed. "Simon mentioned you were tired."

"Simon overreacts," Kaylee dismissed with a small sigh  and started to push herself up into an upright position.

Inara stopped her with a gentle hand on her shoulder as she sat on the edge of the bed. "Don't sit up," she told her with a small laugh. Setting the tray carefully beside her, Inara focused her attention on Kaylee. "You know his intentions are pure."

Kaylee settled herself back against her pillow and absentmindedly pulled Simon's pillow closer to her. "He's just so overbearing, 'Nara. And he doesn't listen when I tell him I'm fine and shiny. It just...frustrates me some."

"Oh, bao bay... [sweetheart...]," Inara laughed softly. She reached out to brush some stray hair away from Kaylee's face. "He means well. He just doesn't react to you being stubborn very good."

Kaylee huffed under her breath, even though she knew Inara's point was valid. "He's just as stubborn at times."

"Yes," Inara nodded with a humored glint in her eyes. "One cannot deny that about the doctor. But you also can't deny that you would still be up to your elbows in engine grease at this very moment if you knew Simon and Mal wouldn't pitch so much as a fit about it."

Kaylee looked ready to argue her case, but she fumbled silently over her words and her cheeks warmed with a crimson glow. "It's what I'm good at."

"It's not the only thing you're good at, Mei Mei." Inara lifted one of the bottles of lotion from the tray and unscrewed the cap, lifting it to her nose to inhale the scent of it fondly. It was one of Kaylee's favorites - lavender and chamomile with just a hint of a honey undertone. "How is the little one today?" she asked.

"Sleeping right now, I think," Kaylee murmured in thought as her gaze focused on her stomach again. Her smile grew and was radiant for a moment. "It wouldn't stop moving around earlier when Simon was here. S'always like that, y'know? Whenever Simon is near or speaks, it just gets so crazy. Moves around like it's doing a fancy dance or something."

"That's endearing," Inara smiled. She carefully lifted Kaylee's shirt to expose her stomach and applied some of the lotion, then began to gently massage it into her skin.

Kaylee's eyes lit up with wonder and even a bit of hope. "Do you think it knows?" she asked and bit sheepishly on her bottom lip. "That Simon is its father, I mean, and that's why it goes so crazy when he's near."

Inara always enjoyed listening to Kaylee speak in this manner. Sometimes Kaylee needed the moment to speak freely of the matter and revel in the pride that shown true in her eyes. Like right then, which was a clear cover up for the inner guilt she was dealing with. It truly was endearing. "What do you think?"

Kaylee's expression relaxed and her eyes sparkled as she stared up at Inara. "I believe it knows," she whispered.

Inara continued to massage the lotion into Kaylee's stomach. "He or she will be very lucky to have you and Simon for parents," she told her. "A little less lucky to have a shiong-mung duh kwong-run [violent lunatic] like Jayne for a surrogate uncle, but..." Inara laughed as she cracked a smile. "There's always Mal. He has his good days."

Kaylee pondered the thought. "Captain has a softer heart than he much cares to portray."

Inara nodded. "He does."

A heavy sigh passed Kaylee's lips and she allowed her eyes to flutter shut. "Oh, 'Nara, I was so horrible to Simon this morning," she frowned to herself. "He's just been so...so...uppity. Won't relax for nothin'. Keeps callin' this baby a condition, like I'm dyin' or somethin'. I didn't mean what I said to him though. And I feel horrible."

Inara's hands came to a stand still on Kaylee's stomach in hopes of feeling the infant move from within. "Does he know that?"

Kaylee shook her head. "I don't suppose he does. I wasn't exactly inviting."

"I'm sure he understands, Kaylee," Inara assured her. "Talk to Simon about it when he gets back-"

Kaylee's eyes snapped open. "When he gets back?" she repeated. "He left?"

Inara slowly withdrew her hands. "I'm sorry. I thought he told you..."

Grunting, Kaylee pushed herself to sit upright, hastily pulling her shirt down over her stomach. "He didn't tell me anything. Where did Simon go, Inara?"

"I assume to the little block of shops about a quarter of a mile from here. He said something about needing to get something for you."

"Tell me he didn't go alone..."

Inara looked away from Kaylee as she replaced the cap on the bottle of lotion and set it back onto the tray. "He wouldn't take no for an answer. Mal and Jayne tried to stop him." She took the woman's hands in her own to prevent her from bolting off the bed. "You need to remain calm. Simon said he would only be gone an hour. We expect his return any moment now."

Kaylee appeared flustered as she braced a hand against her forehead. "I think I need to lay down again..."

Inara helped her get comfortable and draped the blankets over her. She didn't move from the bed though. Even when Kaylee closed her eyes, she remained dutifully perched at her side, understanding the sudden rise in the woman's anxiety. Kaylee didn't need to be alone in the moment and Inara had some choice words for Simon when he finally returned.

*****

Simon didn't think to bring a bigger more sufficient bag when he chose to use the satchel before leaving Serenity. Now it hung uncomfortably at his side, weighed down to capacity with more than he had anticipated on purchasing during his venture out. And he was late returning to the ship. The hour Simon had initially planned on had passed quickly when he found himself distracted in several of the shops, but he figured he could squeeze in a little extra time to spare. According to Simon's mental calculations, they weren't due to break atmo for another forty five minutes. Mal would be angry he was late getting back, but the captain would get over it. Simon was confident.

He had managed to find a little something for everyone on board Serenity, even Jayne, mostly as a peace offering. The shops didn't provide much to offer and the trinkets weren't of much monetary value to most, but it meant something to Simon. What mattered most to Simon though were his provisions for Kaylee and River. His sister would be happy with anything he presented her with and Simon made sure it was something that would keep her distracted, at least for a short while. It was something to make her think, a puzzle of sorts, and it wouldn't take her long to figure it out, but it would be worth the amusement in the end when she decided to "fix" it.

Kaylee, however, was someone Simon had spared no expense on. Most of the trinkets in the satchel were for her. She had her collection that she was always adding to, something that irritated Mal to no end because he referred to Kaylee's priceless treasures as nothing but unnecessary clutter. Kaylee always just laughed the captain off when he griped about it. It's not like Mal ever made her get rid of anything. Simon had seen to it that she would have plenty more. And he was especially pleased with the bundle of multi-colored glass roses gripped in his right hand. Kaylee would adore them...at least he hoped she would.

Simon's mind kept wandering back to Kaylee's anger that morning and his guilt for bringing it on. Lately it seemed like he didn't think enough before he spoke and he did more harm than good for Kaylee's mood. She was miserable, feeling horrible, and there wasn't much Simon could do to change that. His intentions were good. He only meant the best for her. Still, he managed to make things worse. Simon just wanted to make it up to her. He wanted everything to be okay. So he hoped this would be a sufficeable start at the very least. The glass roses WERE attractive...

Before his confidence could diminish, Simon came upon the tiny market he'd taken notice of when first reaching the block of shops. Kaylee had been craving strawberries like mad for months now and the crew had been coming up empty handed on each run made. Simon was really hoping, more than anything, that he could change that streak of bad luck right now. A batch of Kaylee's favorite fruit would be sure to get him back on the right track with her. And then maybe, just maybe, they'd be able to talk and Simon would be able to adequately apologize.

'You're such a boob' River's voice chided Simon in his mind as he swiped his free hand against the sweat accumulating on his forehead and made the short trek up the set of wooden steps. A bell over the door chimed to announce his arrival as he opened it and a blast of cold refreshing air hit him square in the face. Simon sighed in relief and took a moment to inhale the delectable aromas of the fresh produce surrounding him. It was a bit surprising, really. He hadn't expected this much just from the appearance of the shop on the outside.

Stepping further inside, Simon stopped at a display of bright red apples and lifted one for closer inspection. It was free of blemishes and nicer than any of the apples he and the rest of the crew had been procuring recently. It wouldn't hurt to purchase a few of them to take back to the ship for everyone to enjoy. Who knew when the next opportunity would arrive for them to have such a treat. Not to mention the kitchen on board Serenity had certainly been lacking. Simon's stomach rumbled at the thought.

"Those are some mighty fine apples you're looking at," an old woman's voice spoke up from Simon's right. He looked at her and smiled politely; she had kind grayish-blue eyes, silver hair that flowed out of control down her back, and weathered skin littered wrinkles. She was frail too and seemed harmless enough. Lonely, even.

"They do look very nice," Simon agreed with a nod.

"Best ones you're gonna find in this here part of the verse," the woman stated proudly. "Don't care much what anyone else has to say about it."

Simon cracked a small smile. "Perhaps I can bother you for a basket of some sorts to hold these in for now? I would like to purchase some."

"Of course," the woman answered eagerly. She turned and disappeared through a doorway nearby, returning with a small wicker basket. "This should do. Folk like to run off with these. Keep 'em hidden 'til they're needed."

Simon took the basket from her and placed enough apples in it to share evenly with the others.

"What's a young man like yourself doing in the area?" the woman asked. "I don't believe I've seen you in these parts before."

"I'm just passing through," Simon answered her simply. He knew never to indulge too much information in others, something he'd learned on his own and something Mal had made it a point to drill into Simon's head as well.

"Fancy clothes like you're wearing must mean you're far from home," the woman guessed.

Simon wasn't sure how to answer that one. Nothing he had to say about it was anything he wanted the old woman to know, so when she continued to stare at him waiting for a response, he instead bypassed the question all together with a question of his own. "I am looking for strawberries for my fiancee. She's a mite pregnant and she's been craving them for months now. Would you happen to have any?"

The old woman's eyes lit up and she grabbed hold of Simon's arm, pulling him across the shop. "Over here. Best in all the verse. Even better than those apples you're getting."

This time, Simon's lips curled into an honest grin. "Kaylee will be very happy," he thought out loud and he knew without a doubt that was true when he saw the display of fresh strawberries. The old lady wasn't lying. They were some of plumpest most juicy sweet looking strawberries Simon had laid his eyes on in a long time.

The old woman plucked one of the strawberries from the pile and held it out to Simon. "Try it. On the house."

Simon brought the strawberry to his mouth and took a careful bite, savoring the sweet flavor as it washed through his mouth. Swallowing, he nodded. "These are perfect. How much?"

"For you, young man, I will cut you a deal. With fine glass roses like those and these strawberries, you must really be trying to impress your lady. She is very lucky," the woman approved with a smile.

"She is very important to me," Simon chuckled sheepishly.

The old woman carefully bent down and grabbed a medium sized rectangular wooden box from beneath the strawberry display. "I'll fill this here box up with as many of these strawberries as it'll hold. Only charge you half the cost I normally would. Won't find a better deal, young man."

A short time later, Simon stood at the counter with the old woman as he handed her the cost of his purchase. The box of strawberries and bag of apples would take a lot of effort to carry back to the ship, but Simon had no regrets. It would be worth it. Kaylee's smile alone would be worth it. He thanked the old woman and promptly left the shop with all of his belongings, grunting under the added weight.

Frowning as the box began to slip from beneath his arm, Simon stopped in mid-step off to the side of the shop and set everything on the ground, rethinking how he was going to haul everything back to the ship. And the heat was definitely going to make it even more of a task to accomplish. The old woman had packed that box full of those strawberries, to the point that Simon tried to tell her she was providing him with too much, but she would hear none of it. 'Fei hau [Nonsense]' she had told him, leaving no further room for argument.

"'Ey! You there!"

Simon looked up at the sound of the gruff voice calling out for attention. It was thick with an accent Simon didn't recognize and seeing no one else around, he turned with the assumption the voice was talking to him. "Duibuqi? [I'm sorry?]" he said and bit back a frown when he took notice of two burly in stature men approaching him. One was a tad bit shorter than the other, but both had a certain menacing quality about them with the same stringy black hair hanging against the sides of their faces. Simon didn't trust them immediately.

The taller of the two nodded to Simon's belongings on the ground. "Yeh need a helping hand there, lad," he smirked.

"No, I can manage on my own. Thank you," Simon answered shortly and started to gather everything off the ground once more.

"Aye, Jethro. Good help these days is under'preciated," the other man spoke up with a menacing smirk that matched the first. "Pretty boy like 'imself don't want our help."

"Aye," the man now known as Jethro nodded. "S'bad manners."

Simon looked between the two of them, keeping his face calm. "I mean no disrespect, gentlemen. I must be on my way."

Jethro took a step closer. "Don't trust the local folk, do yeh, lad," he continued to smirk. "Think yer a mite better than 'em. Fancy get up like that. Big purchases. Rich lad from the core?"

Simon shook his head, avoiding the eye contact. "I really must be going," he murmured and started to step away from the two of them.

"'Ey, we ain't done talkin' to yeh," Jethro snapped and sent his booted foot sharply into Simon's backside, knocking him off his feet.

The box of strawberries and bag of apples sailed from Simon's hands along with the glass roses as his knees impacted the ground hard, sending a shockwave of pain radiated through his knees and up his legs. "You're fahng-tzong fung-kwong duh jeh! [a knot of self-indulgent lunacy!" he shouted before he could stop himself and tried to scramble to his feet, but the second man already yanked him up and pinned his arms behind his back. "Let me go!"

Jethro stepped in front of Simon, his glance menacing. "Not the way to be talkin' now, lad," he growled.

Simon wheezed as the breath left his lungs when Jethro's fist connected roughly with his stomach. The man holding his arms in place threw him to the ground and Simon gasped as he landed. He cursed, watching as Jethro's boot came slamming down on one of the glass roses, smashing it. "Are you out of your mind?!"

"Pretty boy don't know how to keep his mouth shut," the second one chuckled. "Needs a good lesson in manners."

"Aye," Jethro chuckled as well and crouched down, yanking Simon's head back by his hair. "Don't like yeh much now, lad. Bad mistake on yer part."

Simon's eyes locked with Jethro's as he fumbled over his words. Before he could make his voice project though, darkness over took him as the man's fist slammed into Simon's temple and he slumped to the ground without another sound.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

 

"Little Albatross. Trust you ain't doing anything in here you ain't supposed to be doing."

River kept her eyes trained on the control panel as Mal walked into the cockpit. She had heard him coming before he even headed her way, so his arrival was no less than anticipated, even if he thought he had caught her by surprise. They never took River by surprise. She just never told them that much. Let them think what they want. Makes them feel better. "Albatross is doing her job," River answered casually.

Mal eyed her for a moment, but her demeanor was unreadable, much like it always was. He cleared his throat and stepped over to lean against his side of the control panels. "Right, because that is what you're supposed to be doing and that's what I expect you to do," he said and crossed his arms over his chest. "...What are you doing?"

River offered him a glance that was on the border of disbelief and exasperation. It only lasted a moment before she shifted her eyes back to the control panel to dismiss the question. Stupid questions didn't warrant answers and River didn't have the patience for stupid questions right then. Her mind was crowded; everyone was thinking too loud and thinking nothing at the same time. Everyone but Simon. Her brother was quiet and it made River nervous, more nervous than she normally was. It made her head hurt the more she listened and the more his silence closed in on her. Simon was rarely ever quiet. It made no sense for Simon to be quiet right now. He had been so loud earlier. "The silence is too quiet. It isn't right."

"I reckon silence is meant to be quiet," Mal replied with a simple shrug of his shoulders. He'd caught sight of the barely noticeable change in River's demeanor, not that he was quite sure what to make of it. Mal usually left the figuring out to Simon when it came to the younger Tam. It just wasn't Mal's area of expertise and he didn't much care for it to be either. "I like the quiet. Don't get much of it around here."

"Jayne is loud," River said. "Even when he is sleeping. A big child, he is. He didn't learn to grow."

Mal afforded a small half grin that curled the left corner of his mouth. "Now if that ain't as accurate a description as any I've ever heard..."

Zoe entered the cockpit with Emma perched tightly on her right hip. Motherhood seemed to come so natural to her at times, that Mal still found it weird and hard to believe in some moments that the strong hardened by war woman was indeed a mother now, like that moment for instance. But there wasn't a trace of relaxation on her face. It was business as usual and serious business at that by the looks of it. Zoe glanced briefly at River before returning her attention to Mal. "Sir. No sign of him yet."

Even Mal couldn't fight the frown he felt surfacing at the mention of Simon's continued absence. Truth be told, Mal was still just as pissed that the doctor had defied his orders and walked right off the ship despite their impending departure. He'd spent a good deal of time right after storming around Serenity and cursing under his breath and at first he'd had every intention of holding true to his threat of leaving Simon behind if he wasn't back within the hour. Let him crap his britches and then come back around to pick him up. The doctor needed a good lesson. Of course, Mal knew he wouldn't have actually gone through with that, because Simon was right. Kaylee would have his head on a platter if they left the good doctor behind, even only temporarily. That pissed him off even more; damn know it all.

Then the first hour had come and gone and when Simon hadn't shown up, it was Zoe who reasoned that he'd probably gotten himself distracted in the block of shops. Probably was enjoying the fresh air as well; Simon was one who had been cooped up on Serenity for a long period of time now, so it made sense he'd want a little extra time. 'Give him the benefit of the doubt, sir' Zoe had said and Mal gave him another hour, called it charity and held steady that he wouldn't allow Simon a minute more.

That hour had also come and gone.

It had been just over three hours since Simon's departure.

"Sir?" Zoe called out when Mal didn't respond to her.

River looked out the front end of Serenity just as a spark of lightning flashed across the sky. The weather on Jirah had taken a drastic turn from sunny and sweltering to cool and overcast with a storm suddenly moving in. Seconds later, rain began to splat against the window, slowly and sporadically at first and then more steadily. "Simon's not coming," she murmured, her forehead creasing. "Can't."

"That ain't something I wanna be hearing right now," Mal muttered. He looked between River, the now downpour of rain outside, and Zoe's raised brows. "I wanna hear his proper self is walking on board my ship right now so we can get off this Gorram rock."

"'Fraid that ain't the case, sir," Zoe answered him and lifted Emma to cradle her against her chest when the toddler began to whine quietly.

Mal gruffed to himself. "Well, who let him off the ship in first place?" he scowled.

"Actually...that was you," Zoe answered again with a hardened stare.

River brought her hands up to the sides of her head, frowning harder. "Not right. It ain't right."

"Now ain't the time to be losing your marbles even more," Mal stated pointedly at her. His eyes snapped to the window at the loud Crack of thunder and winced when the sound caused Emma to cry out in fright. "Ta ma de... [Damnit...]"

"What's moonbrain girl going on about now?" Jayne rasped as he strolled into the cockpit. He appeared annoyed and distracted more than normal, something that wasn't much of a surprise. He looked at Zoe and Emma. "Aiya! [Damn!] The kid's cryin' again. This party ain't lookin' like much fun. Why didn't I get an invite?"

Mal ignored him and walked over to the intercom mounted on the wall. He connected to the intercom in Kaylee and Simon's room where he last remembered Inara being. "Inara."

It took a second before Inara's voice filtered through the speaker. "Keep your voice down. Kaylee doesn't need to be awake right now."

Mal bit back a curse. "That's all shiny and everything, but I need you in the cockpit for a word, dong ma? [understand?]"

Inara sighed and answered him, "I'll be right there."

Turning back to the others, Mal crossed his arms over his chest again. "Clearly we got ourselves a problem right now."

"Ya think?" Jayne snapped. He pointed at Emma whose whines had turned into full-blown wails of distress to which Zoe was having sufficient difficulty calming her down from. "That kid is making my ears bleed, Mal."

"Ain't nothing you don't do to me every time you run your mouth," Mal told him stiffly.

River drew her knees up to her chest on the seat and gripped her head tighter, her fingers tangling in her hair. "It's not okay. I told him it was a catastrophe. No no no. It's too quiet."

"With all due respect, sir..." Zoe interjected as she bounced Emma in her arms to soothe the child, but it did little good and her voice fell short.

Inara arrived in the cockpit soon after, flustered and breathless. "Tell me this is not about Simon still being gone," she said.

Jayne rolled his eyes at her. "Why? Mal interrupt one of your little tea parties or something? Guess I didn't get an invite to that either."

Inara narrowed her eyes at him. "Would it pain you to act human for five seconds, you liou coe shway duh biao-tze duh ur-tze? [stupid son of a drooling whore and a monkey?]"

"Huh..." Mal cocked his head to the side, a little taken aback. "Didn't see that one coming..."

Jayne grumbled under his breath and leaned back against the wall.

Inara stepped closer to Mal. "Something's not right with Kaylee. You can tell just by looking at her. She's in pain. Where's Simon?"

"Don't seem anyone knows where the doctor's at at the current," Mal told her.

"This is not the time to be joking-"

"I ain't jokin', Inara."

They stared at each other for a long moment while Emma's wails finally began to cease before Inara pulled the silk shawl she wore closer around her shoulders. "Then why are we just standing here? Clearly he's been gone too long. And if something happened-"

"Nobody's saying anything happened-" Mal started to say.

Inara narrowed her gaze at him and hushed her voice. "I can see it in your eyes that you believe otherwise."

Mal's shoulders dropped under the weight of Inara's stare. It took him a moment before he spoke up again. "You and Zoe keep Kaylee calm if she wakes up. Lie to her if you have to. Jayne and I will head into town, find Simon, and drag him home. Until then, it's business as usual. Do I make myself clear?"

"Hey, I hate to be the bearer of bad news," Jayne piped up and nodded to the window. "But it's really raining outside. I don't wanna go out in the rain, Mal. This is a solo run."

Mal's glance turned steely in Jayne's direction. "I'll make this a solo run for you if I hear that come out of your mouth again. Now go armor up. Keep it small. I don't anticipate we'll need use unless it's an absolute necessity."

"This is a new Gorram shirt," Jayne muttered as he stormed out of the cockpit.

"It smells like sweat and liquor! You'll be doing it and us a service!" Mal called after him.

"You sure this is such a good plan?" Zoe asked and handed Emma over to Inara. "I should go with."

"I need you here this time, Zoe," Mal said with a firm shake of his head. "Help Inara with Kaylee. She's the one who needs lookin' after." He turned to find River looking at him with a knowing glance. It bothered him more than he could express and he sure as Hell wasn't going to admit to it. "And don't you worry either, Little Albatross. I know that look."

"Albatross already knows," River whispered in return.

"That's the problem," Mal grunted and turned swiftly to leave the cockpit.

*****

The sound of distant voices yanked Simon abruptly out of a dark safe place where nothing worse could happen. At first, he couldn't make sense of anything; the pain that swarmed his body from head to toe, the air around him that chilled him to the core, or why everything was still so dark. Then he pried his eyes open and inhaled a shallow breath. The act made his chest and stomach hurt. Bruising, it felt like bruising both internal and external, but why? It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense right then.

Simon grimaced and shifted his eyes sporadically to take in his surroundings. It was almost as dark as it had been when his eyes were shut, but as his vision slowly began to adjust to the lack of lighting, so did his awareness. He was surrounded on all sides, as far as he could tell, by crudely constructed stone walls that lead up to a wooden ceiling not too far above him. It was maybe just high enough for him to be able to stand up right without hitting his head, though Simon couldn't be sure about the accuracy of that assumption. He was too disoriented to tell. His head was killing him with a dizzying throbbing pulse.

Clenching his eyes shut, Simon swallowed thickly and rolled from his back over onto his hands and knees. The movement left him breathless for a moment and he nearly toppled over as the room swayed around him. It felt like the worst intoxication spell he could imagine, but that wasn't right. Simon hadn't had a drop of liquor in his system for weeks now. He wasn't drunk. He was in pain, a great deal of pain. And probably suffering from a highly likely concussion sustained from the blow to his temple.

The thought had the breath catching in Simon's lungs. Images flashed through his mind like a cinematic feature, blending one into the other. The faces of the crew of Serenity...Kaylee...his sister River. She didn't want Simon to go. And then faces Simon didn't recognize brought him back to the events that led him to where he was. Those accents he couldn't recognize. The mistake he had made. The trouble he was now in.

Simon tried to push himself up onto his feet, but his knees hit the ground again in seconds and he found himself retching, spewing bile as the nausea over took him. His throat burned the more he gasped for breath and his arms quaked under his weight, threatening to give out at a moment's notice.

'Catastrophe...' River's warning echoed in Simon's head. He brought a hand up to slowly swipe it against his mouth. His face stung to the touch and when Simon withdrew his hand, he noticed the streaks of blood marking his skin. There was no pinpointing where it came from without seeing a reflection of himself, but there was also no mistaking it was from him.

The voices could be heard again, the ones that had brought Simon back into a state of consciousness, and the more he listened, the better he was able to tell where they were coming from. Directly over head. Those unfamiliar accents and a couple of other voices Simon didn't remember from before. Their footsteps were heavy and echoed across the ceiling, giving Simon a better idea of where they were, not that it made him feel the least bit better. They were close by and they meant no good.

He needed a way out. He needed to get back to Serenity.

Simon needed the room to stop spinning around him.

Swallowing thickly again, Simon summoned as much energy as he could muster and slowly rose to his feet. He quickly braced a hand against the closest wall as he teetered and turned just as slowly, looking for a doorway, a window, anything that served as a means of escape. Across the room, he caught sight of a small door with tiny slivers of golden light seeping into the room beneath it. The only in and out as far as Simon could tell, which left him with very limited options, if there were even any to begin with.

Simon kept his hand braced against the wall as he carefully crept forward, placing a good deal of his concentration on his steps alone. It was hard to walk; his legs trembled and threatened to give out just like his arms had. They tempted him to lay down and close his eyes again to shut out the world. He couldn't do that though. He wouldnt. Simon had to get out. He had to get back to Kaylee and River like he promised he would.

Reaching the door, he fumbled to grab hold of the handle and when he finally managed to tug on it, the door didn't budge. Had he really been expecting it to? Simon's captors obviously weren't idiots; they wouldn't just toss him in and walk away with the door unlocked. It didn't stop him from yanking on it again and then again before a curse of frustration and even desperation passed Simon's lips.

The voices and footsteps above Simon ceased, causing him to freeze as well. He held his breath and strained his ears to listen and it seemed like the hammering sound of his heart in his chest only grew louder in his ears. It wasn't long before he heard their footsteps again and this time, the sound quickly traveled across the ceiling. Simon's hand dropped away from the door handle, his eyes drawn upward.

"A mouthy lad he is," Simon heard one of them say as the foot steps steadily approached the door. Jethro, the only name Simon remembered. He took a few unsteady steps back from the door, searching his foggy mind for a plan of action. There was no doubt they were coming for him right then and if only he could figure out a way to take them off guard and get out the door...

"Don't reckon we could get our hands on a good ransom for him, do ya?" another voice, this one deeper and raspier than Jethro's, spoke up.

"Alone, he was," Jethro answered. "Dressed fancy. Looks made a'money. Little on him though. Not from around here."

They stopped outside the door at that point and Simon took another step back.

"Got ourselves a fancy feather on our hands. Could have fun with that, money or not," the second voice chuckled. The sound sent a chill down Simon's spine.

A key was slipped into the lock on the other side of the door and the handle jiggled. Simon pressed his back against the wall, bracing himself as he watched with bated breath.

"Bleeds easy, this one," Jethro spoke again. He started to open the door. "Knocked 'im out cold with one blow to the head. Easy target, aye."

The door opened further, sending a flood of light washing into the room. Simon pressed back into the shadows as the two men stepped inside, looking around for him. They were clearly baffled when they didn't see him sprawled out on the floor like they expected. Jethro turned to the other, scowling.

"Left 'im right there!" he stated in annoyance as he jabbed a finger at the ground.

"Then where is he?" the other one asked. "Didn't lock the door all the way, did ya."

Jethro cursed sharply. "Go and get Titus. See what he knows about it. Grimy bastard better not have been down here unattended and let the lad a way out."

The second man mumbled something under his breath  that Simon wasn't able to make out before leaving the room. Jethro remained standing in place for another moment before turning to follow him out and Simon took the opportunity without further thought to lunge out of the shadows at him.

He collided roughly with Jethro, taking him off guard, and the two of them fell through the doorway onto the ground outside of the room. Jethro shouted a loud curse as Simon's fist connected with his head before he managed to throw the doctor off of him. But with the adrenaline surging through Simon's veins, he scrambled to his feet and turned to dash down the small hallway leading towards a set of stairs.

Simon never saw the swinging rock coming towards his head, or the second man on the other end of it who had never gone up the stairs after all. Fiery pain exploded behind Simon's eyes and he slumped to the ground limply. It was River's voice he heard in his head before the darkness took over him once again.

'Catastrophe...' she said.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

 

"This rain is really starting to damage my calm, Mal. Doc better be laying somewhere bleeding to get us out like this."

Mal ignored Jayne as the man continued to grumble about his displeasure and focused on the ground ahead of them. Serenity was a slight distance behind them and the block of shops was a bit of ways ahead. Seemed a lot further the more the mercenary opened his mouth though, but Mal couldn't blame him. Not really. Mal, himself, had expected them to be long gone by now, soaring through the Black towards their next destination, wherever that might be.

Of course, the doctor had to go and muddle those plans right up and put them all behind schedule. This wasn't how Mal liked to do things and he sure as Hell didn't like his authority being challenged, which is exactly what Simon managed to do by defying direct orders. That proper hwun dan [bastard] was really beginning to grate on the captain's last nerves again. And he was putting them all in a bad position if he'd gotten himself in a troubled situation, especially Kaylee. Mal wasn't sure which he was more annoyed about, the fact that Simon had actually left or the fact that Simon had left Kaylee knowing she needed him there every possible moment right now.

The sound of a gun cocking drew Mal's attention to the mercenary and he found him scowling as he handled one of his favorite guns fondly. Their clothes were both soaked through already from the downpour as they trudged along the sodden ground. It made the terrain a little more difficult to traverse and Mal had caught sight of Jayne scrambling to keep from losing his footing more than once. The two of them looked like a couple of miserable stragglers right about then, which was another something that struck a chord in Mal's annoyance.

He returned his attention forward as they came upon a dense patch of trees, separating them and the final stretch of ground that led to the block of shops. "What part of keep it small didn't you understand, Jayne?" Mal  asked blandly. His foot caught in a small dip in the ground and he cursed sharply as he righted himself.

"Ah, c'mon, Mal," Jayne answered him and held the gun up with a stern glance. "This one here ain't even my biggest."

"But you're packing it heavy." Mal was talking about the two other guns and the knife he knew Jayne had undoubtedly hidden beneath his jacket. He grimaced at the way the rain methodically rolled down his forehead and into his eyes, making it irritatingly more difficult for him to see. "This isn't a job run. We go in, find the doctor, and we get out. Don't expect us to find no trouble. Don't think much I have the patience to deal with trouble right now."

Jayne snorted inwardly and slipped the gun back into the holster on his hip. "Trying telling that to the doc. His ruttin' fault that we're out here like a bunch of...a bunch of..." He huffed. "A bunch of something, that's what."

Mal exhaled a hard breath through his nose. "Yeah, well...I got me a word or two for the doctor when we find him," he muttered.

They stepped into the patch of trees which allowed some for the rain to ease up on them. Mal lifted a hand to wipe the water from his eyes, looking around them in case there was any unwanted company wandering about. It was quiet, save for the occasional crack of thunder, but as far as he could tell, they were alone.

"Gorram fool," Jayne growled and kicked a fallen branch out of his way. "Don't listen good for nothin'."

"Think we already came to that conclusion a long time ago," Mal said. "Ain't no use in wasting your breath running the point into the ground."

"Why you trying to be the voice of reason?" Jayne looked at him pointedly. He swiped a hand out to keep a tree branch from smacking him in the face. "Hasn't changed one bit. Been trouble from the start. Shoulda seen the doc and his moonbrain sister off a long time ago. Been telling you that since they took up residence."

"It's my Gorram ship, Jayne. Do you good to keep remembering that," Mal answered him with patience that had begun to wear thinner than it already was.

Jayne was quiet for a moment. "...I'm just saying. We coulda done with a lot less of their trouble, Mal. Got enough of our own without them adding to it."

"Are you still talking? Cause the pain in my head says you're still talking."

They walked in silence until they finally stepped out of the patch of trees. The rain attacked them immediately once again, but this time Mal didn't pay it much attention. Instead, his gaze was now focused on the block of shops directly ahead of them. He hadn't anticipated coming back into the area once they'd finished their run the previous day. Hell, he hadn't planned on spending any more time on this go se [crap] planet than they needed to.

Damn troublesome doctor.

Kaylee was gonna have Mal's head...

Jayne stepped up beside Mal where the captain had stopped in place. The mercenary surveyed the area just as intently. "Looks a mite dead, don't it?" he mentioned. "Expected a few more folk about. Ain't seein' a one of 'em."

"Expect that has something to do with the weather," Mal muttered.

"Probably all keeping shelter 'til it blows over," Jayne suggested. "Probably what the doc's doing. We should just head back to the ship."

Mal continued on ahead of them without answering. Jayne would follow because Jayne knew better than to not follow. It didn't take them long before they reached the block of shops and Mal studied the first one with a fair but of scrutiny while Jayne wandered off around the side of the building. "Retha's Fresh Goods" the crudely hand painted sign on the front post of the building read. He remembered seeing it during their first jaunt through the town, but hadn't really given it much thought at the time...they weren't there for goods or a pleasure run, even if Serenity was lacking a bit in supplies.

'Where did you go, doc...' Mal wondered in thought as his eyes flit around their surroundings.

"Mal!" Jayne suddenly called out urgently. "I found something!"

The captain snapped his head in the direction he heard Jayne's voice come from and hurried that way. When he reached him, he saw the mercenary crouched low to the ground, surrounded by an overturned box of strawberries and a bag of apples scattered about. Broken glass was littered at his feet. "What in the..." Mal started to say.

Jayne held up a brown leather satchel and shook it upside down. "Doc's bag. Not a Gorram thing left in it."

Mal stepped forward and yanked the satchel out of Jayne's hand, looking it over. That's when he took notice of the various trinkets littering the ground as well. He released a low string of curses under his breath and joined Jayne in a crouching position. "Don't figure Simon just abandoned this stuff here on his own will."

"Hell, even I know that," Jayne stated as a matter of fact. He lifted a broken glass rose for close inspection, but it was the streaks of muddied red on the bottom of the strawberry box that stole his attention instead. "If I ain't blind, that there's not juice from those ruttin' strawberries. That's blood."

That was the last thing Mal wanted to hear and see in that moment. But even with the force of the rain having washed the streaks of red into a faint trace, he knew Jayne was right. "Things just got a lot more complicated," he said.

"You thinking the doc went and got himself taken?" Jayne asked.

"I'm thinking we got more than just a problem on our hands." Mal stood straight again. "He was here. Dunno how long ago. Dunno how bad it was either."

"This is exactly what I warned him about," Jayne gruffed. "Thinks he can just walk into a hostile area looking like he don't belong and not find trouble." He looked up to find Mal walking away from him and stood sharply. "Hey! Where you going?"

Mal didn't falter in his steps as he continued forward towards the front of the building. Gripping the leather satchel tightly in his hand, he transcended the stairs in two steps and pulled the door open to move inside. The cool air that hit him made him shiver involuntarily at first as he looked around at the various displays of produce, something more impressive than Mal was initially expecting. The bell above the door jingled again when Jayne joined him a moment later and Mal held a hand up to keep him silent.

"Can I help the two of you?" an apprehensive voice called out to them. "I'm afraid we're not open for business. Closed because of the weather."

Mal looked towards the source of the voice, a frail old woman behind the counter who was staring at them with distrustful eyes. He took a step forward. "We ain't here for that kinda business."

"Well then you'll just have to see to it that you seek shelter elsewhere," the old woman replied. "Kindly see yourselves on your way gentleman."

Jayne stood a step behind Mal. "I don't like her, Mal. She's old and cranky. Probably don't even know who Simon is."

Mal had to fight inwardly to keep from rolling his eyes at Jayne's remark as he approached the counter. There was no missing the way the old woman shrunk back from him and when he set the leather satchel on the surface of the counter, she looked at it nervously, but there was a hint of recognition in her eyes. "See, we got ourselves a problem and I'm thinking you may be able to help us." The sound of a gun cocking behind him had his irritation rising and it was all he had in him not to turn around and give the mercenary a steady glare when the old woman gasped. "Put the gun away, Jayne. I don't reckon any shooting to take place."

"Please, I don't want any trouble," the old woman told him fearfully. "You can have what you want, just go."

"He's not gonna shoot you," Mal assured her. "You're not gonna shoot her, are you Jayne."

"Not unless I find reason to," Jayne muttered. He didn't return the gun to its holster, only kept it pointed at the floor and nodded towards the display of red apples. "How much for one of them apples? Got me a mite bit of hunger right now."

Mal pointed at the satchel on the counter. "That there belongs to a friend of mine. I suspect he may have been in here earlier. Spark a recognition?"

The old woman looked at it again, wringing her hands together. "Nice looking young man came in here a few hours back with a bag like that," she answered with a small nod.

"About this tall?" Mal questioned again and motioned with his hand. "Dark hair. Talks all proper like."

"Came in and purchased a bag of apples and a box of strawberries. Said the strawberries were for his pregnant fiancee," the old woman told him. Her grayish-blue eyes shifted back to Mal. "Kaylee? He said the name Kaylee, but I didn't pry. Don't care none to pry with folk who ain't from around here."

"Simon," Mal pressed. "His name is Simon."

"He didn't tell me his name and I didn't see no reason to ask for it," she said.

Jayne plucked an apple from the display and stared at it intently. "People gonna rob you blind if you don't pay better attention," he said before taking a large bite from the apple.

"Did he say where he was going when he left here?" Mal interjected.

The old woman watched Jayne wearily. "Didn't say a word about that. Just paid for his purchases and left. He was polite."

"Imagine that," Jayne said around a mouthful.

"Something happened?" the old woman asked Mal.

"Could be. Found his bag and other things littering the ground outside your shop," Mal answered. "Don't concern you none though. Just trying to figure out where he may be."

"Oh dear..." The old woman looked genuinely concerned. "Such a nice boy. These parts ain't safe for those who ain't local folk."

Mal grabbed the satchel off of the counter. "I suggest you lock your door if you're not open," he mustered and turned to make his way towards the door, no less frustrated than he was before walking into the shop.

Jayne plucked another apple from the display and gave the old woman a hasty stare. "I'll be taking this," he stated and turned to follow the captain out.

The rain was still falling just as heavily as it had been when they'd gone inside the shop. Mal stopped on the top step of the porch, just under the overhang, and looked out over the sodden ground. He didn't speak until Jayne joined him. "This was his last stop. He wouldn't have had all that junk on him if he wasn't fixing to head back to Serenity."

Jayne looked at him, chewing obnoxiously. "And that helps us how?"

"It doesn't," Mal told him. "That's the problem."

Jayne threw the finished apple core away from him. "What do you suggest?"

"We get wet again, for starters." Mal stepped down off the porch without waiting for a response. Behind him, he could hear Jayne grumbling about the rain once again before the man started following him. The old shop keep had been no help, not that Mal had really been expecting her to be. Still, knowing what he DID know didn't make him any less anxious about the situation. Mal wouldn't vocalize it, but something told him Simon had gotten himself into a whole heap of ruttin' trouble that wasn't going to leave the crew much time to get him out of.

And that was another problem all on its own.

*****

"How is she?"

Zoe looked away from the scene before her when Inara spoke to her and she focused her attention on the classy dignified companion as she approached. On all surface levels, Inara looked calm and composed as she carefully grasped a cup of tea in her hands, but one look into her dark eyes told Zoe otherwise. She was concerned and that concern was steadily mounting. Not just for Kaylee, but for Simon as well, and rightfully so it seemed. There had been no word from Mal or Jayne yet. No sign of the doctor either.

"She's calm now," Zoe answered her as her eyes shifted back into Kaylee and Simon's room where River had diligently perched herself at Kaylee's side and was singing softly to her. "Stopped crying. River has her distracted pretty well. For now, at least."

"That is good," Inara said with a gentle nod of her head. "She needs to remain calm, for her and the baby."

"River's doing a good job seeing to that," Zoe affirmed and it was true. It was the first time Zoe had ever seen the young girl so lucid and attentive and for a lack of better words...sane.

Inara stepped up beside Zoe in the quarter's doorway and looked in on the two, taking note of every detail she could. River sat beside Kaylee on the bed with her hand tenderly massaging the swell of the woman's stomach. It was hard to tell what River was singing, but whatever it was, it had captivated Kaylee and lulled her into a comfortable daze. "I made her a cup of tea," Inara mentioned a moment later. "To sooth her stomach. She needs to stay hydrated."

"The issue is whether or not she can keep it down," Zoe murmured with a hardened frown. "The pain is making her sick. Doc didn't say anything about what he's been giving her."

"And no word from Mal yet?" Inara knew the answer even as she asked the question, but she couldn't help herself from saying it.

Zoe shook her head. "Radio silence."

"They've been gone a long time. Too long," Inara murmured before she eased her way into the room. River looked up at her as the song came to a fading end and smiled. Inara offered a small smile in return and lowered herself to take a careful seat on the bed on the other side of Kaylee. The tired woman's eyes turned to her and Inara gently pat her arm. "I brought you some tea, Mei Mei. It should help ease your stomach. Just sip it slowly."

Kaylee sighed quietly as she took the cup from Inara, staring down at the liquid contents dismally. "Thanks, 'Nara..." she whispered, but she made no move to sip it as she'd been told.

Inara stared at her with sympathy; not only was Kaylee feeling miserable physically, but her concerns for Simon's well being was beginning to take its toll. Lying to her had done no good. Kaylee had refused to believe what she was told and she knew better, knew something was not right about the fact that Simon had yet to return. And she had demanded they tell her the truth until they finally obliged. Her demeanor became withdrawn after that and the sound of her guilty sobs were more than painful to listen to.

Offering Kaylee a tight smile, Inara looked at River who was just as attentively seeing to it that the blankets were straightened out and adequately covering Kaylee's lower half. "That was a very beautiful song, River," she told her. "Where did you learn it?"

"Simon," River answered simply. It didn't show on her face, but there was a fluctuation of concern for her brother in her voice. "Used to sing it to me when we were little. He doesn't sing it well though."

Inara swallowed a quiet chuckle as she reached out to brush sweaty hair out of Kaylee's face. "Some people were not born to sing," she noted in amusement. "That is why Simon's talents lay elsewhere. You sing it beautifully, though."

River resumed rubbing Kaylee's stomach, her gaze intently focused. "The baby loves it. It calms him."

"Him?" Inara questioned in surprise. She looked to Kaylee for confirmation, but the mechanic shrugged. "I apologize. I just thought that you and Simon agreed to not know what the baby was until the birth."

Kaylee broke her gaze from Inara. "We don't know. It's just what River is insisting..."

"Males have one Y chromosome and one X chromosome, while females have two X chromosomes," River stated casually. "You should drink your tea."

Inara noticed the anxiety that passed over Kaylee's face. She looked to the younger Tam calmly. "River, will you give Kaylee and I a moment alone?"

River stood from the bed wordlessly and left the room, passing Zoe in the door way without a glance. Inara waited until they were alone before focusing her attention on Kaylee again. "She only means well," she started. "River is just worried too."

"He's been gone too long," Kaylee said and her voice trembled as she spoke. "And the captain ain't callin'."

Inara took the cup of tea from Kaylee when it was obvious she had no interest in it and set it on the nightstand. "Sometimes no news is good news, Mei Mei."

Kaylee rest her hand on the peak of her stomach, grimacing. "Something just ain't right. I know it."

"How is the pain right now?" Inara asked as her hand came to rest beside Kaylee's.

"It's getting worse," Kaylee answered. "Comes and goes in these horrible waves."

'Contractions' Inara thought. She wasn't an expert in child bearing, but she had listened to Simon enough over the months to have learned a thing or two and knew that it was only a matter of time before those contractions Kaylee was experiencing would usher in the arrival of her child, which meant that they were all in even more desperate of a need for Simon to come back. It didn't matter how much the doctor had been preparing Kaylee for what was to come...she needed him there when it happened, medically and emotionally.

"Do you think he's okay?" Kaylee asked as she shifted in the bed in an attempt to get comfortable. It didn't appear to be working. "Captain's gonna find him, right? And bring him back?"

"Mal and Jayne are doing everything they can," Inara assured her.

"That don't mean they'll bring him back," Kaylee whispered as her voice broke. "Or that they'll even be able to find him."

Inara gently caressed Kaylee's cheek as their eyes locked. "They will find Simon, Mei Mei."

"I was so mean to him, Inara," Kaylee suddenly choked. "I was so stupid. I know he's only trying. I wasn't being thankful. I was being mean. How could I be so stupid."

"Oh bao bay... [sweetheart...]" Inara murmured. She shifted on the bed and wrapped Kaylee in a tender embrace. "It will be okay. I promise. The captain will have him back before you know it."

"It just hurts so much." Kaylee sunk into Inara's embrace. "I don't know what to do."

"Relax," Inara soothed. "Think of the baby and relax. It is the best thing you can do right now."

It didn't take long before Kaylee was comfortably resting and Inara felt safe enough leaving her be. Besides, she knew River would return to Kaylee's side before long and she was thankful for that. Affording a final glance in the sleeping woman's direction, Inara left the room and made her way to the galley where Zoe was sitting at the table. She took a seat across from her and stared at her hands. "Anything?"

Before Zoe could speak up, the radio on the table crackled to life and Mal's voice came over the speaker. "Zoe."

Zoe snatched the radio off the table and brought it up to her mouth. "Read you loud and clear, sir."

"Heading your way," Mal stated.

"An update, sir?" Zoe asked.

It took a moment before Mal spoke again and it was the opposite of what Zoe and Inara wanted to hear. "No update to give."

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

 

'Simon...'

River's voice was innocent and playful as it called out to him. She sounded so far away and yet right there with him at the same time and he couldn't see her, but he could feel her near. Still, Simon had a hard time focusing on the sound of his sister's voice with the way the exhaustion weighed him down like a heavy comforting blanket. He wanted to sleep, to ignore everything that was around him and just...forget.

'Simon...' she called out to him again. This time it was as if she was right there next to him, her familiar presence beckoning him to pay attention. It was hard though, so hard, and try as he might, Simon felt himself slipping further away. The black void surrounding him was overwhelming and impossible to ignore. Something told Simon to turn away and seek River out, but the temptation of the unaware was difficult to fight. There was no pain in the dark, no trouble to be faced with, nothing at all.

It was tempting and Simon didn't want to feel anymore.

'Simon!' River spoke more urgently this time and if Simon thought about it hard enough, he could almost feel his sister shaking his shoulder in annoyance as she demanded his attention.

'Not now, River...' he answered her quietly. His voice barely projected. It sounded off and unlike him, distorted. 'I'm so tired...'

'We're in trouble, Simon,' River insisted with a laughter like quality to her voice. 'We got cut off.'

A faint smile curled Simon's lips as his focus caught onto what River was saying. Of course she had a way of drawing him in to whatever her imagination was cooking up, and this scenario was nothing out of the ordinary. It warmed Simon from the inside out, made him feel safe and began to beckon him more than the dark did. 'Cut off from what?' he humored her.

'Our platoon, Simon,' River answered him with a barely audible giggle of delight now that she had caught Simon's attention. 'We got outflanked by the independent squad, and we're never gonna make it back to our platoon.' She paused briefly before adding in a rather serious matter-of-fact tone, 'We need to resort to cannibalism.'

'That was fast,' Simon chuckled in response out of habit. He searched through the dark for any trace of his sister and found none. The exhaustion began to creep in on him again and he tried harder this time to fight it off. 'Don't we have rations or anything?'

'They got lost. We're gonna have to eat the men.'

Simon gasped awake suddenly and felt the wash of pain flood back into his body from head to toe. He tried to curl in on himself, but the attempt was a bitter mistake and a quiet groan of distress passed his lips. To say he felt awful was an understatement and it left him reeling with a shortness of breath, his lungs on fire and aching from a lack of sufficient oxygen. Simon clenched his teeth together and willed the flare of pain to pass him.

"River..." he murmured, but she was no where to be found. The sound of his sister's voice, nothing more than a memory in that moment, had faded away into the darkest recesses of Simon's mind. It had been nothing more than a dream. River wasn't there; she was nowhere near and that one sliver of safety Simon could rely on in his sister was something just out of his grasp.

It took Simon a bit to finally be able to pry his eyes open and regain his bearings and when he did, it made him sick to his stomach to see the crudely constructed stone walls still surrounding him. The air was chilled, colder than he remembered, and it penetrated every inch of him. His clothing did little good, even without the tears now littering the material. How much time had passed? How long had Simon been stuck in this Hell?

The room teetered around Simon as he tried to push himself to sit upright. His body wouldn't cooperate though. The energy he needed to do so just wasn't there. So he laid there on the damp ground in a loose fetal position and attempted to take stock of everything he could assess was wrong with him. His head, for starters, felt like it was splitting open from the base of his skull in the back to the front point of his forehead. That thought alone made it a wonder that Simon was even conscious. A concussion of that magnitude was dangerous almost more so than any other injury he had sustained. And then there was the fiery pain spreading through his mid section. Bruising with the possibility of internal hemorrhaging. Damage to his organs was a fear becoming reality. If that happened, Simon would be in real trouble and the time he would have would be cut considerably short.

Simon swallowed thickly and tried to pull his wits about him. He remembered trying to escape when two of his captors had come into the room, but that had quickly turned against Simon's favor. He'd never even made it to the stairs before they'd over taken him and the last thing Simon remembered was the splitting pain exploding in his head that had brought him right back to where he was laying in his cold dark cell. It was then he realized there wasn't a way out, not on his own.

Where was the crew of Serenity? Had they even started looking for Simon yet? Certainly they wouldn't just let his absence go and move on. Kaylee would never allow that and River...Simon suspected his sister would set out on her own to seek him out if the others didn't do something. She had tried to warn Simon that morning; he should have known better. And he should have listened to Jayne. Why didn't he just listen to Jayne?

Foot steps approached the cell and the sound was like an ominous echo around him. Simon tensed as he listened; they were coming for him again and he feared their arrival unlike anything he had ever feared before. Seeing them would bring more pain. Simon was sure of it. And then the lock on the door jiggled and the door was thrown open roughly, causing Simon to jolt out of reflex as Jethro stepped into the room with a sinister smirk.

"Our little rebel lad is awake," Jethro spoke as he moved forward, his steps very calculated. Another man stepped into the room behind him and Simon recognized him as the one who had been accompanying Jethro when they'd taken him from outside the produce shop.

"Thinks he a smart one," the second man spoke. He came over to Simon and yanked him harshly off the ground. "Yer not too smart, are yeh?"

Simon grimaced as the man pinned his arms behind his back, immobilizing him to the point that he couldn't even struggle against the hold. "Please..." he croaked as his eyes lifted to meet Jethro's. "Please don't do this. Let me go."

"Let yeh go?" Jethro repeated. A corner of his mouth slowly curled upwards. "Why would we do that?" Simon tried to look away from him, but Jethro gripped his chin and yanked his attention back. "'Ey! I'm talkin' to yeh!"

Simon felt his legs quaking and wanting to give out and the smell of the man's breath - a heavy mixture of stale tobacco and cheap whiskey - made his stomach churn and threaten to rise at any given moment. He stared wearily back at Jethro, pleading with his captor silently. "...Please, I am begging you," Simon started to reason. "My fiancee is waiting for me. She...she is about to give birth to our first child...at any moment. And my sister...she needs looking after. They need me. Please...let me go."

Jethro chuckled and slammed his fist into Simon's stomach harder than he had before. It left the doctor wheezing for breath with bulging eyes of discomfort. "Pathetic," he hissed at him. "Don' care much who is waiting for yeh."

The second man kneed Simon hard in the back side, making his knees buckle. He held the sagging doctor upright. "Aye, none that now."

Jethro gripped Simon's hair and yanked his head up, snarling at him. "Yer a fool teh think we will let you go, lad. Can't have that now, can we? Don't know who yeh run with. Don't need that trouble."

"I...I can give you money," Simon sputtered as he gasped. "Any price."

"Now yeh done angered meh," Jethro growled. He tugged Simon out of the second man's grip and threw the ragged doctor into the closest wall. Stepping over to Simon, he crouched low to his crumpled form. "Don't want yer bloody money. Yeh rich folk think yer money can buy yer way outta anythin'. Not with ol' Jethro. We're gonna have us some fun and yer gonna realize help won't be comin' for yeh by the time I'm done with yeh, lad. Course, yeh'll be good and dead by then."

Simon shook his head sluggishly as his vision swam in and out of focus. "Stop...I...I'm begging you..."

"S'not in my vocabulary."

The first few blows left Simon reeling from the excruciating pain until finally his body began to numb towards the offensive hits. The cruel words and laughter from his captors was nothing more than jumbled background noise the more they continued. Eventually, Simon ceased from crying out and prayed for the darkness to take over him again, hoping he would find River waiting there for him once more. And maybe Kaylee would be there as well.

*****

Mal had lost track of the time he'd spent pacing the corridors of Serenity, but he hadn't slept since returning to the ship late the night before and the lack of sleep was really beginning to have its effect on the captain. Zoe and Inara had cornered him the moment he stepped foot back on board despite the fact that he had told them over the radio that there was nothing he could tell. And even more curious to them was why Jayne hadn't returned as well. But it had been the mercenary who had insisted on staying behind to keep searching for their missing ship mate and Mal hadn't been able to find it in himself to argue. Part of Mal suspected that Jayne felt guilty Simon was even missing, which was unusual for the normally gruff and hardened man, so Mal had given him the permission to do so, welcomed it even.

At one point, Inara had approached Mal and insisted he needed to go sit with Kaylee. He was avoiding her, Inara said, and it wasn't going to do any of them any good if he continued to do so. Kaylee would want to talk to Mal and maybe he would be able to put the poor woman at ease, but if anything, Inara also said, it was Mal's job. His responsibility. Kaylee had questions needing answered that the rest of them couldn't or didn't know how to answer. Maybe they were just avoiding it too. Mal grudgingly knew that Inara was right though. Kaylee had always looked to him and he knew he owed her this much.

It had taken Mal time yet to build up the nerve to even venture to the passenger quarters where Kaylee had been sharing a room with Simon. When he arrived, Mal found River obediently close to the mechanic's side as the woman slept. The younger Tam, however, was wide awake and no closer to sleeping than Mal was. She didn't mention it, but River was troubled over the situation with her brother in her own particular way. It took a great deal of convincing for Mal to dismiss her from the room, but he was thankful when she finally crept away to seek refuge elsewhere on the ship, probably in the cockpit if he didn't know any better. Mal was glad when River was gone; he didn't have the patience for her odd quirks at the moment.

Sometime in the early morning hours, Zoe came by the room to check on the two of them on her way to the galley with Emma for breakfast, but Mal had sent her away quickly, told her to wait on word from Jayne. Whether that word would ever come, Mal couldn't be sure. He just didn't need Zoe breathing down his neck when there was nothing else he could do and he sure as Hell could make do with much less distraction from the toddler. Thankfully enough, Zoe didn't argue with him either.

So Mal spent his time pacing the small living quarters and the space just outside the room with only his sullen thoughts to keep him company. It was weird to consider how lonely it actually made Mal feel while Kaylee fitfully slept when it was supposed to be HIM comforting her. There would be no avoiding their talk once she finally awoke and he knew she would have questions. He knew she would demand answers. That's because everyone looked to Mal when it came to needing answers. But how was he supposed to give Kaylee any Gorram answers when he didn't know the answers himself?

Mal wanted to curse the doctor for being stupid, just like he had been since that first hour had come and gone. Guy was supposed to be a self-proclaimed tyen tsai [genius], but his recent decisions sure didn't make him seem like it. Simon was too damn ignorant, Mal decided. He didn't think like the rest of them did and that only brought more trouble his way. Still, Simon had been with the crew long enough that he should have known better.

Mal cursed under his breath and stood from the chair beside Kaylee's bed to resume pacing the room. It surprised him enough that she slept through out the night, but it was a restless slumber and on several occasions, Kaylee had whimpered in pain and quietly cried out for Simon. She never awoke though and had saved Mal from a whole lot of awkward moments when he took it upon himself to sit beside her on the bed and try to comfort her while she slept. The acts of kindness may have sufficed for the time being, but it wasn't really what Kaylee needed. Not by a long shot.

"...Captain?"

Mal stopped in mid step and slowly turned to find Kaylee's tired eyes open and staring at him wearily. He offered her a small calm smile, just enough that the expression surfaced and she was able to see it. "Hey there, Little Kaylee," Mal greeted her quietly and stepped back over to bed. He sat carefully on the edge and reached out to pat her hand, albeit awkwardly. "How ya doin'?"

"Not so shiny," Kaylee answered him and her voice sounded so feeble. Her eyes were bloodshot and her skin held a certain palor appearance that had her looking even worse for wear. "Can't say I'm A-OK right now."

"Now that's not what I like to hear," Mal told her. He covered her hand with his and gave it a small squeeze. "...You're not looking so well."

"Just hurts some, that's all," Kaylee murmured, but Mal could tell it was more than that. The mechanic just didn't want to admit to it. Still, her eyes said more than her voice actually did. It bothered Mal some the way she disregarded her current state, yet at the same time he couldn't really blame her. It was Kaylee's way of coping, even if it wasn't the right way.

"I want you to be honest with me," Mal told her. "I know I ain't much for comfortin', but I want you to tell me how much it really hurts."

Kaylee's frown was undeniable and the sadness flashed across her eyes. "It hurts real bad, captain. Something don't feel right and the baby ain't been moving none."

"You been taking it easy?" he asked her expectantly. He attempted to crack a small grin. "Don't wanna hear about you busying yourself in the engine room. Ain't proper to be covered in engine grease when your mini comes."

Kaylee didn't smile in return. If anything, she looked more withdrawn and run down. "Don't much think I can do anything else but lay here," she replied. "Don't have the energy and...'Nara wouldn't be happy if I tried to get up."

"No," Mal agreed with a firm shake of his head. "Inara is right. You're doing what you're supposed to be doing right now."

"...Where is he, captain?" Kaylee asked with a quake in her voice. She gripped Mal's hand in hers, her eyes pleading with him for an answer.

Mal looked away to keep her from seeing the anxiety in his glance, but he kept his voice calm. "Jayne's still looking."

"Something happened to him," Kaylee said. "He's hurt, ain't he. Someone did something to him and...and that's why he hasn't come back. Captain, he's not okay-"

"Hey," Mal interrupted her as her voice rose with urgency. He clasped her hand in both of his, his eyes returning to hers and locking. "No talking like that, dong ma? [understand?] Now, I know you're worried about Simon and rightfully so. But he's a well to do adult and he can handle himself. May be a few screws short of hairbrained at times, but...he's gonna be fine. And even if that ain't the case, Kaylee, well we'll get him back. Don't matter none if he's banged up a bit. Point is, we'll get him back."

Kaylee stared up at Mal for a long while before a tear of distress made the long trek down her cheek. "What if he doesn't come back?" she whispered brokenly.

"Doc can't stay away from you for too long. Figure that's on account of how crazy he is about ya," Mal replied. He reached out to gently brush the tear from Kaylee's cheek. "Besides, he knows I'd hunt him down to the end of the Verse if I had to if he broke your heart. Wouldn't have let this little arrangement proceed if he didn't understand that much."

Kaylee sniffled. "You wouldn't have been able to stop us."

Mal chuckled sheepishly. "I suppose you're right. Don't stop me none from hoping though."

"You still don't like him..." Kaylee's eyes flit away from Mal as she spoke.

"I like the doc just fine," Mal huffed inwardly. "He just has a fine way of irking me some. Always has."

"And you've always been too hard on Simon, ever since him and River took up residence on Serenity. It ain't right," Kaylee told him pointedly.

"Yeah, well...guess I'm just a kuh-ooh duh lao bao jurn... [horrible old tyrant...]" Mal mustered with a crooked smile.

Kaylee managed a faint smile this time. "You just don't like to admit that you're soft."

"Me? Soft?" Mal made a face and shook his head. "I'm not soft, Kaylee. Calloused is more like. Heartless even."

"You're not heartless, captain..." Kaylee murmured. She grimaced and brought a hand to her stomach, her forehead creasing as she whimpered. A quick string of curses passed her lips. "Ow. Captain..."

Mal studied Kaylee carefully, feeling the way her hand tensed in his. "Tzuh muh luh? [What's going on?]" he asked.

Kaylee cried out sharply this time and brought both hands to her stomach as a flood of warm fluid flushed between her legs beneath the blankets. Her eyes widened in honest fear and she looked to Mal when a stronger wave of pain came over her. "My...my water...I think it just broke-"

Mal blinked at her stupidly. "You're what?"

"My-" Kaylee couldn't finish the statement before she cried out again. "The baby-"

"Wuh de tyen, ah... [Dear God in Heaven...]" Mal muttered as he jumped up from the bed. "Okay, uh...EE-chee shung-hoo-shee! [Let's take a deep breath!] Don't move." He turned quickly from the bed and hurried over to the intercom mounted on the wall, jabbing at the screen. "Zoe! Get Inara. All hands in the infirmary. Now."

"Captain-" Kaylee panicked.

Mal turned back to her and returned to her side, yanking the blankets away from her body. "Don't you worry, Little Kaylee," he assured her as he lifted her from the bed into his arms. "Everything's gonna be just fine." Not wasting another moment, he turned and swiftly carried Kaylee out of the room towards the infirmary.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

 

The burn of the cheap whiskey should have worked to put Jayne to sleep as it filtered through his blood stream, but it proved to have the opposite effect. Instead, it woke him up and made his senses sharper. Might of had something to do with the fact that it was a piss poor excuse for whiskey, though not much more could be expected for quality on an outer rim planet. Still, Jayne was in desperate need for a pick-me-up after he'd spent the better part of the previous night and the current day staking out multiple areas of the town in his quest to locate the missing doctor. So far, he'd come up empty handed and it was really running his patience thin. How many Gorram places could one person possibly be?

Jayne grumbled to himself as he lifted the rim of the glass to his lips. The tavern was crowded for the hour, dimly lit, and smelt overwhelmingly like body odor. Even for someone like Jayne who didn't give a damn where he got a cold drink normally, it was low class. It was loud, too. Obnoxious, even. And to put it lightly, Jayne didn't trust a single one of the rowdy patrons just by looking at them. But who was he to complain at the moment. As long as he got a break, regrouped himself, and got back out to continue looking.

Not to mention no harm done if Mal didn't find out, right?

Swallowing the rest of the liquor in the glass, he slammed it down on the bar top and nodded to the bar keep for another round when the bar keep looked in his direction. Jayne's mind wandered as he waited for the refill. Simon had been missing going on two days now. Two days was a Hell of a long time, especially when it came to their lifestyle. Then again, going missing for any length of time never meant good news, not for anyone. Part of Jayne, the negative part, wanted to automatically jump to less than happy conclusions. The other side of him, though, was Hell bent on finding the hwun dans [bastards] who'd been stupid enough to take the doctor in the first place. And if Jayne got his hands on them, well...

The bar keep set a full glass of whiskey in front of Jayne on the bar top and turned away without so much as a word. Jayne snorted under his breath and drew the glass closer, his mind wandering further as he stared down at the amber liquor. He sometimes had an imagination that liked to run wild, but something told Jayne that Simon's disappearance was more than just simple and that if he or any of the other crew members managed to locate him, there was a good chance that Simon would be in incredibly bad shape or worst case, not all in one piece.

Jayne actually shivered at the thought. He may have liked to get under the doctor's skin and annoy him as much as possible, and true to fact they had gone rounds and never really seen eye to eye, but Jayne wasn't so heartless that he wanted something like this to happen. Not to mention the loss. Losing Serenity's resident medic would be damaging enough, but for Kaylee, Jayne was no fool to know that the loss would be devastating. And it had been hard enough watching the aftermath of losing Wash following the Miranda events as it was.

The whiskey burned Jayne's throat as he swallowed a sip and surveyed his surroundings. Seemed the later it got, the more people that ushered into the establishment. A local favorite, maybe? Not like they had many other choices, anyway. Actually, it looked a lot like the kind of place him and Mal would be privy to starting a fight in, though that was the last thing Jayne needed at that moment, even if THAT thought made him chuckle a little. 'Sorry, Mal...I WAS looking for the doc, but then the local watering hole called my name and well, I ain't planned none for a fight, but you know what we plan and what happens ain't ever similar...'

The fact of the matter was that Jayne was just as lost as him and Mal had been when they were searching together. Going back to corner the old lady who owned the produce shop proved useless when she damn near had a heart attack at the sight of Jayne's gun. Visiting every shop the mercenary figured Simon would have an interest in and then some produced no results as well. Either they hadn't seen the doctor, thought Jayne was out of his mind, or just didn't care. The people of the town were shady too and they seemed apt to avoid ones that weren't their own, so it was no wonder Jayne was having no luck.

He shot the whiskey back quickly and swallowed it in one large gulp, swiping a calloused hand across his mouth. Jayne's eyes shifted momentarily to the radio fastened to his hip but it hadn't crackled to life in hours and the last one to contact him had been Inara hoping for an update. He hadn't been able to tell her anything then just like he wouldn't be able to tell her or any of them anything now. Jayne was especially glad that it hadn't been Kaylee contacting him; there wasn't a part of him that was sure he could front that conversation.

The door to the tavern slammed open and a small group of burly men shoved their way inside, their bellowing voices cutting through everything around them. Jayne looked in their direction and decided he hated them upon first glance; by appearance alone, they were the type he would brawl with. They were the kind that made Jayne's blood boil and the kind that Mal said would one day get Jayne into trouble he might not be able to get himself out of. Of course that had never stopped Jayne in the past from swinging his fist. No shame in a little fist swinging fun.

The tallest of them pushed through the throng of people to make his way up to the bar. He stood directly to Jayne's right and slammed his hand down on the bar top. "Aye, bar keep!" the man bellowed with a cocky smirk. "A round'a cold ones for the gang, ol' lad!"

It took the bar keep a bit before he came over, but when he did, he set four frothing metal mugs on the bar top and looked at the man with a fair bit of recognition passing over his face. "Didn't reckon I'd see you in here tonight, Jethro."

"Missing ol' Jethro, are yeh?" the man assumed as he took two of the mugs in each of his hands.

The bar keep looked less than amused. "Get that big head of yours outta your ass," he answered with a hard scowl. "I look forward to the less trouble that occurs when you ain't around."

Jethro chuckled and tipped his head in a nod. "Keep 'em coming and there be no trouble to be had."

The bar keep grumbled under his breath and turned to walk away.

Jethro turned to find Jayne looking at him. "What are yeh looking at, lad?"

"Hard to tell from where I'm sitting," Jayne told him with a stiff stare.

"Watch yer mouth," Jethro hissed and brushed past Jayne, knocking into him on purpose.

"Yu bun duh, hwun dan, [Stupid bastard]," Jayne muttered to himself. He squared his shoulders and lifted his glass to get the bar keep's attention again. Didn't figure one more drink would hurt none and then he'd get back to the job. Like looking for a needle in a damn haystack.

This wasn't Jayne's idea of a good, proper job. A job of crime was his thing. Making runs was his thing. Not bleeding too much was his thing. Running around in circles looking for their doctor was not Jayne's thing. He didn't sign on to be no babysitter. So maybe he was a little more bitter about all of it than he originally assessed. And he had every right to be. They should have been off this Gorram planet a long time ago. Hell, they should have ditched the doctor and his moonbrained sister a long time ago too.

"What're we gonna do with 'im, Jethro? S'only so much one can take 'fore the body gives out. He's already a bloody mess as it is."

"Keep yer voice down, yeh bloody idiot!"

Jayne didn't glance over his shoulder when he heard the bickering, but his ears perked up at what was being said. It seemed Jethro and his gang had commandeered a table not too far from where Jayne, himself, was sitting and it made it easy to over hear. He hunched over on his stool, leaning against the edge of the bar top, and feigned deep interest in the glass of whiskey set before him.

"I'm telling yeh, I'll do whatever I damn well please," Jethro continued. "For however long I want to."

"Poor bastard don't have much life left in 'im if you keep up the way yeh are," another voice at the table said.

"Don't suppose I care for that, no," Jethro answered nonchalantly.

"If yer gonna kill 'im, then just kill 'im already, yeh crazy idiot," a third voice said.

"Bite yer tongue, Titus, 'fore I cut it outta yer mouth," Jethro snapped at him.

The second voice chuckled. "Aye, Titus has a point, Jethro. The three of us are wondering if yeh kidnapped the poor bastard just to make 'im yer play toy. Not that we haven't enjoyed beating 'im ourselves or anything."

"Didn't have enough bloody money on 'im for two pots to shit in," Jethro gruffed. "Didn't have no use for that fruit of his either. Stupid glass roses. Crap. Can't be picky for pleasure."

"A stroke of bad luck for 'im, then," Titus said.

"Aye," Jethro agreed, his voice smug. "He's as good as dead in a day or two when I'm done with 'im."

Jayne's posture tensed as he listened intently, but it was quickly after that that he lost focus on what else was said. Without saying a word to the bar keep, he slid off the stool and made his way stiffly towards the tavern door. The cool night air greeted him as he stepped outside and he hurried away from the building with more than a turbulent twist in the pit of his stomach that couldn't be attributed to only the cheap whiskey.

There wasn't a doubt in Jayne's mind at that moment that those tyen-sah duh UH-muo [Goddamn monsters] were talking about the doctor and by the sounds of it, Simon was in pretty bad shape. Would be in even worse shape soon if Jayne or the others didn't get to him, which was exactly the last thing Jayne had wanted to hear. It would have been easier to deal with the local lawman having taken Simon some where. That break out would be easy. But this was looking more and more like a full-fledged rescue effort.

Jayne looked around him and ducked into the shadows against the next building over. Crouching low to the ground to wait, he unclipped the radio from his hip and brought it quickly to his mouth. "Mal, come in," he spoke as he kept his eyes glued on the tavern.

His brows furled as several moments passed by with nothing but silence as his answer. "Mal, come in. I got a lead on the doc." Jayne watched as the door to the tavern burst open and a couple of intoxicated individuals stumbled out, jovially singing as they continued on their way. He waited until they were gone and their drunken voices had faded in the distance before he looked back to the tavern and spoke again. "Gorramit, is anybody listening to me right now? Mal? Zoe? I got a lead on the doc. Over heard a couple of hwun dans [bastards] at the local tavern braggin' about what they done. Dunno how bad it is, but it don't sound good. I'm staking out the tavern right now. Waiting for 'em to leave, then I'm gonna follow 'em."

Jayne paused and when he still received no response, he reclipped the radio to his hip and press his back against the wall, prepared to wait however long he needed to.

*****

Mal found himself pacing again, this time just outside of the ship's infirmary. The sound of Kaylee's whimpers of distress from inside the room had him on edge and he hadn't been able to sit still even if he wanted to...not that he wanted to anyway. Moving kept him busy and in that moment, Mal needed to stay busy. He had too much on his mind and not enough brain space to think about all of it.

He had learned a whole new level of respect for Zoe when she quickly took control of the situation the moment she'd arrived at the infirmary. It's not something Mal could have expected. None of them truly knew what to do in this situation because they hadn't forseen the event of Simon's absence. But having gone through the birth of her daughter Emma, Zoe was the closest one qualified to take the doctor's place and she hadn't left room for argument before doing so. Mal was thankful; he couldn't help Kaylee and it more than just bothered him some.

Hours had passed since the natural breaking of Kaylee's water (whatever that meant, because Mal still wasn't sure he understood it) and she had since gone into what Zoe had referred to as active labor. The woman had rattled off a whole bunch of medical jargon Mal assumed she had memorized from Simon during her birthing experience and did what she could to ease Kaylee's discomfort. It just wasn't quite enough, though. Even despite the fact that Simon had prepared the infirmary in advance for the birth of his child, Mal could tell Zoe was on the border of running out of resources and it was testing her calm. Zoe was determined to help, but how much could they really expect her to do?

Kaylee, on the other hand, was an utter mess. She was inconsolable and the stress of it all was really beginning to takes its toll on her, not just mentally, but physically as well. Mal might not have been an expert and he certainly hadn't been prepared for this to occur as such, but he suspected it wasn't supposed to be like this. The weight of Kaylee's stress was too much and it showed the closer she got to actually ushering that baby into life. Mal hated the idea of it. He'd spent more than enough time silently cursing the circumstances and the fact that it felt like he was losing control of his entire crew.

It never showed outright on his face though.

On the outside, Mal appeared eerily calm. Inara had even questioned how he could be so collected in the moment when she herself couldn't hide her concern if her life depended on it. Mal just didn't know what to tell her. He couldn't help matters either. He couldn't do a Gorram thing.

Stopping a few feet away from the infirmary entrance, Mal turned to face what was going on inside. Zoe had just finished "examining" Kaylee to assess her progress and now stood at her right side while River stood a bit of ways to Kaylee's left. The younger Tam was ghastly quiet and had been for a while, which under any other circumstances could have been considered normal. Now, however, Mal knew different. He could see the problem in River's eyes and he knew it was directly related to her brother. There was a storm brewing in River just beneath the surface and it was only a matter of time before that storm exploded.

"Mal..." Inara called out to him softly. He turned to face her and found her slowly approaching with some of her softest sheets folded delicately in her hands. Inara was the epitome of poise in the way she carried herself, but there was no mistaking the creases of anxiety at the corners of her eyes. "What are you doing?"

Mal fumbled over his answer at first. There was a deep swelling urge in him to reach out and pull Inara close, although he wasn't sure whose benefit it would be for, his or hers. So he kept his arms firmly planted at his sides. "Keeping myself busy," he muttered.

"You keep pacing like that," Inara started to reply as she smoothed her hand over the top sheet, "And you'll be sure to wear a new hole in the floor."

"She's sustained worse," Mal spoke absently of the ship. He looked away from Inara and paced a few steps to the side of her.

"...We're all worried, Mal," Inara spoke up again.

"This ain't worried," he told her.

Inara looked at the floor around her feet. "No...of course not," she murmured.

Mal ran a hand through his hair and felt the frustration surge through him. It wasn't Inara's fault, but by God if she wasn't testing his patience right then. Didn't matter to Mal that deep inside he knew she only meant well. "Shouldn't you be in the infirmary with Kaylee?" he asked.

"Zoe asked me to gather some sheets," Inara answered him. Her eyes lifted from the floor to watch as he continued to pace. "I thought...well, I thought perhaps..."

Mal looked at her expectantly when she didn't finish her statement. Their eyes locked briefly and his shoulders sank just enough that Inara noticed it. "Good...that's good."

Inara looked back over her shoulder into the infirmary with thought. "...You should be in there with her too."

"Place ain't big enough for a gathering, Inara," Mal mustered. "Kaylee don't need me smothering her either."

"What Kaylee wants and what Kaylee needs are two very different things," Inara said. When she looked at Mal again, a frown had surfaced on her delicate features. "Kaylee may not be able to have what she wants right now...but she can and should have what she needs."

Mal cowered inwardly under the weight of Inara's stare. Outwardly, he squared his shoulders and crossed his arms over his chest. "What do you know about it, huh? There's not a Gorram thing I can say or do in there that will make her feel any better."

Inara stared back at him indignantly. "You could start by having a heart," she replied and turned to calmly enter the infirmary.

Mal watched her retreating form, his forehead creasing in a frown, and then slowly followed her into the infirmary. At first, he lingered near the doorway, uncertain of what exactly he could really do. He wasn't good for comforting and everyone knew he was no good with words when it really mattered. Not to mention doctoring was out of the question too, so Zoe was on her own with that. Yet, when Kaylee called out to him wearily, Mal's feet carried him to her side without hesitation.

"Captain..." Kaylee's hand fumbled to grab hold of Mal's. Her tired eyes were wide with anxiety and glistened along the edges, but they were vacant of their normal exuberant hue.

Mal offered Kaylee a crooked smile for her benefit, his thumb brushing across the back of her hand. "How're you feeling, Kaylee?"

"I'm scared," Kaylee whispered only to choke on a muffled sob before she had spoken completely.

"I reckon I'd be worried some if you weren't," Mal told her calmly. He squeezed her hand. "That's what we're here for though. So you don't have to worry none about being scared. You just do what you have to, Kaylee. We'll take care of the rest."

"Won't be much longer, sir," Zoe mentioned.

Kaylee cursed sharply as another apparent contraction came over her. Inara dabbed a damp cloth gently against the mechanic's forehead. "Deep breaths, Mei Mei," she encouraged her softly.

"It hurts, 'Nara," Kaylee whimpered breathlessly.

River stepped wordlessly around to Kaylee's feet and slowly bent over at the waist as she lifted the sheet that was covering Kaylee's lower half. Her forehead was creased in concentration and deep curiosity and she tilted her head to the side. Mal watched her with growing uncertainty. "Uh...what is she doing?" he asked Zoe.

"The baby moves down the birth canal and he is stressed," River said before Zoe could form an answer. "I am looking for him."

"River, honey..." Zoe started. She approached River and tried to pull her back. "Let's give Kaylee a little more space."

"It's invasive," River told her. "He doesn't like it."

Kaylee cried out again, her face flushing red with sudden heat of exertion. "Zoe!"

Zoe didn't give River a chance to argue as she nudged her out of the way and sat down on the stool she'd left at the foot of the examining table. "Steady breaths, Kaylee," she instructed the mechanic and pushed the sheet up, draping it above Kaylee's knees so her lower half was exposed.

"God, I don't need to see that!" Mal exclaimed as his eyes grew wide. He tried to yank his hand away so he could back up, but Kaylee refused to let go of it.

"Now is not the time to be worrying about indecency, sir," Zoe told him distractedly. She grabbed a pair of exam gloves and slipped her hands into them. "Try to relax, Kaylee. I'm going to examine you again."

"The baby is impatient," River murmured as she paced behind Zoe. "He wants to find Simon. He needs Simon. Doesn't understand why Simon isn't here."

"What is she going on about?" Mal demanded.

"R-River, stop, please-" Kaylee whimpered again before clenching her eyes shut. Her face turned a deeper shade of crimson as she suddenly beared down, crying out.

Zoe withdrew her hand quickly from the examination and flit her eyes to the captain. "She's fully dilated, sir."

Mal furled his brows, fighting to keep from wincing when Kaylee's hand clenched around his with strength he hadn't anticipated. "In English, Zoe!"

"It means the baby is coming," Inara interjected sharply. She gently caressed her hand against Kaylee's forehead, murmuring to her soothingly.

"Now?" Mal asked, only to curse loudly when Kaylee yanked on his hand. "Ta ma de! [Damnit!]"

"C-Captain, I can't-" Kaylee stuttered fearfully as her eyes jumped to him.

Mal struggled to keep from grimacing as their eyes locked. "I know otherwise, kid. You can do this."

"I need you to focus, Kaylee," Zoe instructed her with a firmly focused gaze on the task at hand. "Deep breath and push."

Kaylee's scream as she did what she was told was shattering and echoed around the infirmary. Mal hated the sound of it, didn't think it sounded natural at all. Then again, he wasn't sure what he had been expecting. He'd chosen not to be present for Emma's birth and in fact had steered clear of the infirmary during that time, taking refuge in his bunk until the process was complete. Mal had no plans of being present this time either, but he also hadn't counted on Simon not being present as well.

"There's only so much pain the human body can endure," River announced. She had taken to cowering back against one of the counters, her face contorted uncomfortably. "The body screams but the pain has nowhere to go."

"Really don't think that talk like is helping, darlin'," Mal snapped at her.

"You're doing real good, Kaylee," Zoe spoke above him. "Give me another push."

Kaylee panted as she beared down again and released another shattering scream of distress. Sweat accumulated along her forehead, heating her skin and making her appear sickly despite the circumstances. Inara gently dabbed at Kaylee's forehead with the damp cloth and spoke to her encouragingly, but it seemed to do little good because it wasn't long before the mechanic was sobbing.

"Okay, okay...relax," Zoe said urgently as she looked up at Kaylee's face, swallowing her frown of concern.

Kaylee gasped for breath, her eyes relatively unfocused and glistening with tears. "I can't do this!" she pleaded desperately. "I need Simon! He...he's supposed to be here!"

"You can't be focusing on that right now," Zoe told her sternly. "Simon ain't here and there's nothing we can do about that. I need you to focus on this baby and work with me on getting it out."

"Listen to her, Mei Mei," Inara encouraged. "You have to do this."

"Another push," Zoe instructed again. "Ma-shong! [Now!]"

The more Kaylee pushed and the more she screamed in response, the more light-headed Mal felt himself become. His hand had since grown numb to the pain of Kaylee squeezing it and he'd stopped focusing on anything that was being said. For a moment, everything around him became muted and Mal found himself wondering just when his ship and crew had gone from a life of crime to missing doctors and giving birth to babies. God, he was starting to feel dizzy and it was becoming stifling hot in the infirmary...

"That's it, Kaylee!" Zoe approved as she nodded her head. Her hands were poised and ready and suddenly all sound rushed back into Mal's ear. "The baby's head is starting to crown. I can see it. Give me another big push."

Inara moved to stand at Kaylee's side across from Mal, taking hold of the woman's other hand. "You are doing very well, Kaylee. It will not be much longer now."

Kaylee was breathless and sweating profusely. "I...I don't know if I can," she stuttered with a weak shake of her head. She pushed again before she could say another word when the urge came over her, a startling scream tearing from her throat.

"Good! The baby's head is out," Zoe encouraged and looked up at Kaylee another time. "You're almost there. Another big push."

"Wuh de tyen, ah... [Dear God in Heaven...]" Mal muttered when he glanced down just as the infant's shoulders came into view. It was another moment more before Zoe was carefully sliding the baby the rest of the way out and a sharp startled cry filled the whole of the infirmary.

"Oh dear..." Inara murmured in awe.

"We have a boy!" Zoe announced as she reached for the suctioner on the tray near by. She worked carefully to suction the infant's nostrils and mouth, struggling internally to remember everything Simon had ever told her about the process. Her heart had yet to cease from racing when she looked quickly to Mal. "Cut the chord, sir. Inara, get a sheet ready."

It took Mal a moment to realize that Kaylee had released his hand as she slumped back against the examining table and he stumbled back as Zoe fastened a clamp onto the infant's umbilical chord and held a pair of surgical scissors out to him. He couldn't keep his eyes off of the wailing infant or even wrap his mind around the fact that his talented resident mechanic had indeed just given birth. Missing doctors and babies...when did this happen?

"Sir!" Zoe called out to him and Mal snapped to attention. He took the surgical scissors and without second thought, sliced right through the umbilical chord.

Everything happened in a blur after that. Kaylee's sobs of relief were drowned out beneath the hammering of the captain's heart as she protectively held her son to her chest. Zoe and Inara were both quick to take control of the situation, allowing Mal to finally step back into the background as River nervously spoke about the baby not looking good in red. And then, unable to handle the intensity of the moment any longer, Mal turned sharply and promptly left the room.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

Kaylee was unable to recall a time in her life when she had ever felt so exhausted. It was hard to keep her heavy eyes open and yet, she found herself unable to peel her gaze away from the soundly sleeping infant tucked safely in her arms. Awe and pride didn't accurately describe the emotions swelling within her and disbelief kept her from completely wrapping her mind around the fact that that baby she held was hers...her son. Not just her son, but Simon's son as well.

Little Sebastian Oliver Tam...

Sebastian was a gorgeous baby, unlike any Kaylee had ever been able to imagine. He had a mop of soft dark hair - so dark it was almost black - atop his head that she couldn't seem to run her fingers through enough and his facial features were so incredibly like his father's, that it made Kaylee's heart ache with sadness.  Simon had no idea about any of it. They were supposed to have shared in these joyous moments together and there Kaylee was, alone and broken hearted. She had spent so much time dreaming of this moment and now it was nothing like how she thought it would be.

Kaylee was angry at Simon, no matter how irrational that sounded. She was angry that Simon hadn't been there to help her through the birth of their son like he had promised he would be. She was angry that she felt so empty inside when she knew she had one solid reason to still feel happy. And she was angry that Sebastian had been born without the skilled and carefully guiding hands of his father to usher him into life. But mostly, Kaylee was angry that she didn't know if Sebastian would ever have the chance to meet his father.

The captain and the others were confident they would get Simon back. But Kaylee suspected they were doing nothing more than avoiding reality and ignoring what felt more like the inevitable. It made Kaylee's confidence wane and life around her seem so much darker. Simon's absence wasn't just a void...it was a literal piece of Kaylee that was missing. It didn't matter how much the others were confident; they would never understand. Well, nobody but Zoe...

Kaylee shivered a little as she brushed the pad of her thumb delicately across Sebastian's brows. It was cold in the infirmary now, unlike how it had been earlier. Of course, everything had been so crazy then and she had felt feverish through the exertion it took to give birth. Not to mention everyone crowded around her. Now it felt as if she couldn't retain an ounce of body heat. Not Sebastian though. Inara had tightly swaddled him in a soft blanket to assure he was warm and cozy after cleaning him up. He'd been soundly asleep ever since and Kaylee was more than thankful for that. The event had been just as stressful for him as it had been for her.

Zoe insisted that Kaylee and Sebastian remain in the infirmary for the time being, at least to give her body a chance to begin recuperating before she attempted to move herself. Kaylee didn't have the strength to argue that, even if it pained her being in the infirmary any longer than she wanted to be where there were too many memories of Simon haunting her. It was his space, his corner of Serenity that provided him with a little taste of what his life had been like before coming into their lives. It didn't feel right now, knowing he was gone.

Kaylee sighed quietly and caressed Sebastian's cheek with the tips of her fingers. The silence in the room felt like a suffocating weight pressing in on her and part of her vaguely wondered where everyone had run off too. Sometime after Sebastian's birth, Zoe had sternly ushered everyone out of the infirmary to give the mechanic the chance to rest. She had even brought the bassinet in for Sebastian to sleep in, but Kaylee refused to put him down. Maybe there was more comfort from having Sebastian in her arms than she realized or even cared to admit.

Was it really possible to love someone so much already? Kaylee pondered it as she stared down at the sleeping infant in her arms. Of course she'd fallen in love with her child the moment she found out she was pregnant, but that was natural. And she had spent the entirety of her pregnancy bonding with the baby she carried on an emotional level. But now it felt so completely different. Sebastian was only a few hours old and already Kaylee vowed she would go to the ends of the Verse for him and die for him in an instant if she had to.

She was a mother now.

"May I come in?" Inara's soft voice called out to her, drawing Kaylee from the depths of her thoughts. She pulled her attention away from the infant long enough to look up at the companion and give her permission to enter with a nod of her head. Inara stepped into the infirmary and approached the examining table with a warm smile. "How is he?" she asked curiously.

Kaylee's gaze was focused on Sebastian again, and despite her inner turmoil, she managed a small smile. "He's perfect," she murmured as she once again caressed Sebastian's cheek. "Been sleeping soundly since he's been in my arms."

Inara stopped at Kaylee's side and gazed down at the infant. "He's content," she noted. "And so gorgeous. I am very happy for you, Mei Mei."

"He looks just like his daddy," Kaylee whispered as she inhaled a shallow breath in an attempt to keep herself calm. "I knew he would. Simon has such strong features. I knew this baby would look just like him."

"And I am certain Simon will feel the same way when he sees him," Inara tried to encourage but she could tell even as she said it that it did little good. Kaylee was grieving and Inara couldn't change that.

"Don't say that," Kaylee told her with a tight shake of her head. "I mean...you can't, because you don't know. Captain don't know either."

Inara reached a hand out to gently brush her fingers against the baby's cheek. His skin was so soft and delicate; it awed her. "I can only have faith in saying it."

"Faith isn't gonna bring Simon back, 'Nara," Kaylee sniffled.

Inara shifted her attention to the tired mechanic's face, her expression calm for Kaylee's sake. "Faith keeps hope alive."

"It just ain't right," Kaylee told her tearfully. "I didn't think it would be like this. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He wouldn't have left if I hadn't been so mean to him, making him think I was...I was so mad at him."

"It was a misunderstanding, bao bay [sweetheart]," Inara consoled. "I am certain Simon knows that, too."

Kaylee looked away from her. "It doesn't matter. He's not here because of me."

Sebastian wriggled in Kaylee's arms, letting loose a quiet whine before settling again, his face returning to peaceful. Inara smoothed the hair back from Kaylee's face with a soft sigh, knowing there was no way she could possibly begin to understand the woman's inner torment. Kaylee was gonna feel guilty regardless of what any of them said and it was destroying her joy when she should have been celebrating and enjoying being a new mother. "What did you name him?" Inara finally asked a moment later in an effort to draw the mechanic's mind elsewhere.

Kaylee sniffled again as she studied the infant's innocent facial features. So peaceful without any idea of what was going on around him. "...Sebastian Oliver Tam," she answered quietly. "S'what Simon wanted to name him if he was a boy."

"It is a strong and elegant name befitting of a perfect little prince," Inara nodded her head in approval. "May I hold him?"

Kaylee hesitated at first as she pursed her lips together but she eventually nodded and slowly transferred Sebastian into Inara's awaiting arms. Bitter cold flooded her body as soon as her arms were empty and she fidgeted nervously with the blanket covering her lap. "Captain was hoping for a namesake if it was a boy," she spoke in an unsteady voice.

Inara smiled down at the sleeping infant as she cradled him carefully. "That buffoon would have the entire Verse revolve around him if it were possible," she mused. "I suspect Jayne would want the same. But the name you and Simon chose for this little one is perfect. You should be very proud."

"Oh, 'Nara..." Kaylee sighed with a frown. "I am. I don't mean to make like I'm not."

"I know," Inara replied. She pressed a tender kiss to Sebastian's forehead. "No one is blaming you for how you feel."

Silence fell over the infirmary as Kaylee's mind wandered and Inara saw to the care of little Sebastian. It wasn't a comfortable silence either, but instead filled with tension neither of them wanted to speak of. Even with Inara and Sebastian in the room with her, Kaylee couldn't ignore how alone she truly felt. It was hard to breathe and the more she thought about it, the tighter her chest began to feel. Kaylee's eyes eventually returned to the companion, glistening again. "Where's River? Is she okay?"

Inara looked at Kaylee in question, but moved her gaze away quickly again. "River has been keeping to herself. I believe she was a bit distraught when Zoe would not allow her to return to be with you."

The creases of concern at the corners of Kaylee's eyes became more pronounced. "She must be so upset right now, with Simon being gone and ain't no one paying attention to that. Someone needs to see to her too, 'Nara."

"Can't hear him..." River's meek voice called out from the infirmary doorway, announcing her sudden presence. Inara and Kaylee looked to find the young woman lingering just within the doorway as she tugged lightly at the material of her faded powder blue dress. The frock had been a hand-me-down from Kaylee the year prior and was more grayish than blue with age. River's eyes were glossed over and unfocused with a far-away glance. "I call out to him and he doesn't answer. The silence is loud. It's too cold."

Kaylee sat up a little more, holding the blanket on her lap to keep it from slipping off. "River?" she called out to her.

River winced at the sound of her name. Her breath was shallow and she looked on the verge of another one of her infamous meltdowns. "He's never this silent. They make you quiet and they laugh. Think it's funny what they done."

Kaylee looked to Inara in confusion. "I...I don't understand."

"It hurts," River insisted in a voice that trembled and threatened to give out. "It's too much darkness. They come and they go. Over and over. It never ends until they end it."

"Here..." Inara murmured to Kaylee. She carefully returned Sebastian to the mechanic's arms and turned to River to approach her. "Sweetie, come with me. We will go make some tea so Kaylee and Sebastian can rest."

River half heartedly fought Inara as the companion started to lead her from the infirmary. Her stormy eyes tried to keep sight of Kaylee and the infant. "Simon's name. It's Simon's name."

A muffled sob bubbled up Kaylee's throat as soon as she was alone in the infirmary once again. She could hear River arguing frantically a distance away, desperate for Inara to understand her, and then there was silence. Thick suffocating silence that settled over the infirmary and had hot tears of distress making long tracks down Kaylee's cheeks. She looked down at Sebastian to find his tired eyes peeking open at her and felt the tug on her heart, which only made her cry harder.

"I...I'm so sorry, Sebastian," she stuttered. "This is all my fault."

*****

Zoe tried to shut out the sound of River's distant yammering as she sat in the pilot's seat of the cockpit, but try as she might, her effort proved useless. And by the sounds of it, Inara was having little luck at calming the younger Tam from her current episode. The shouting came and went in varying volumes and echoed against the walls of Serenity like a horrible out of tune symphony. Zoe felt for the poor girl, she really did -it was a wonder River had held herself together this long with her brother being gone- but she just couldn't handle River's intensity at the moment. There wasn't much in the Verse Zoe was confident she could handle right then.

Emma was curled comfortably on her lap and fast asleep, with her thumb stuck in her mouth and one of her father's plastic dinosaurs clutched securely in her other hand. Those Gorram dinosaurs Wash had refused to ever part with. Zoe used to hate them and think they were so useless. There were times she would get annoyed when she would catch Wash playing with them when he was alone in the cockpit, and oh how those animated voices her late husband would make used to grate on her nerves. Now...Zoe wished with everything she was made of that she could see Wash playing with those dinosaurs one more time or watch the way his eyes lit up with animation as he amused himself.

It was ironic to consider the silver lining those little dinosaurs had when it came to her daughter though. Of course, Emma was far too young to comprehend their symbolism, but she had always naturally gravitated to them and there was no denying the cockpit was Emma's favorite place to be on Serenity. It tended to be the place Zoe took her whenever the toddler had a melt down or couldn't sleep and like a calming force, it calmed Emma immediately.

Tonight was a prime example of that. Emma had awoken screaming when Zoe came to check on her after everything had settled down following the birth of Kaylee's son. Zoe's nerves had been roughly on edge and to hear the way her daughter screamed inconsolably had nearly thrown her overboard. So she'd scooped her up and retreated them both to the solitude of the cockpit without a word to anyone. It didn't take long for Emma to calm and before Zoe knew it, her daughter was once again sleeping peacefully on her lap while clutching one of Wash's dinosaurs in her tiny hand.

It was a bittersweet sight to see, almost like Emma knew, but she couldn't. She would never know her father the way Zoe had. Emma had been robbed of that opportunity prior to her birth. So many nights Zoe had laid awake in the bed she once shared with Wash and found herself wondering what it would have been like if things had turned out differently. She wondered what kind of father Wash would have been. A damn good one, that much Zoe was certain of. She dreamed of it sometimes too, images of Wash holding their daughter and playing with her, and each time Zoe woke up just as bitter that that would never be reality. Part of her figured she would always be bitter about it. It wasn't just Emma who had been robbed...Zoe had been robbed too. There wasn't enough time that could mend that hole in Zoe's heart.

Her eyes shut tightly at the thought as a stirring of emotions welled within her. The others may not have been aware, but there were moments Zoe was honestly afraid she would no longer be able to keep it together. There were those moments when the weight on her chest felt so incredibly heavy, it was almost suffocating. Those were the moments when she wanted to just hide away and sob until she could sob no more, or scream until she was red in the face because she missed Wash that Gorram much.

Sitting in Wash's seat in the cockpit didn't mend Zoe's heartache and never would, but it brought her the littlest bit of solace and she wasn't going to let that go.

"Zoe!"

Zoe pried her eyes open at the sound of the captain's voice yelling out to her and she stared blandly forward through the window. Couldn't see much of anything with the dark, but she wasn't there to appreciate the landscape or be star gazing. She just wanted Emma to be calm and gain herself a moment to hopefully swallow the bitter emotions the Tam baby's birth had ignited in her. Why couldn't Mal just leave her to that? Then again, that would require him to stop running his mouth long enough to be able to do so.

"Zoe!" Mal yelled louder this time. His voice was sharper as he approached.

"Not now, sir..." Zoe whispered in response as she brushed her hand down Emma's back, willing herself to remain calm.

Mal's footsteps could be heard quickly coming up the stairs into the cockpit. "Zoe! What in the sphincter of Hell are you-" His voice cut out abruptly when he came to a stand still beside her and looked down at Emma. "Oh..."

Zoe sighed quietly, still not looking at him. "Problem, sir?"

"Well...no," Mal awkwardly replied and took a step back. He turned and sat in the co-pilot's seat, appearing a little out of place. "Was figuring we oughta think about moving Kaylee and the little one out of the infirmary soon, get them more comfortable like. I don't reckon keeping them in there any longer than they need to be is gonna do them any good."

"Whatever you say, sir," Zoe murmured.

Mal glanced in her direction, taken aback by her shortness. "Something bothering you?"

"No," Zoe shook her head. "No bother."

Mal's forehead creased in thought. "Now, I know you better than that, Zoe. Can tell you got trouble in your eyes and not our good kinda trouble either."

"Just tired, sir," Zoe answered flatly.

"We've all been a mite tired lately," Mal agreed, but his tone was disbelieving of Zoe's explanation. "But that ain't what this is."

"What is it then?"

Mal leaned back in the co-pilot's seat, his gaze shifting out the window. "Wouldn't be asking you if I knew, not rightfully."

Zoe sighed again and studied Emma as she slept. "...It's nothing that needs talked about."

"I reckon otherwise," Mal told her.

"That doesn't make you right," Zoe returned.

"...It's about Wash, isn't it..."

Zoe pursed her lips tightly together and kept her guilty eyes away from the captain. "I said it don't need talked about, sir."

"That's what you always say about it," Mal replied calmly. "Don't make it any more right than I am wrong, Zoe. Can't keep doing that to yourself either. Sooner or later, it's gonna catch up to you and I don't reckon it'll be pretty."

"Won't make no difference," Zoe answered with a hard exhale through her nose. She couldn't look at Mal; she was afraid to look at him, afraid that he would be able to see how much pain was really in her eyes. Zoe didn't want him knowing. She didn't want any one for that matter knowing it, because if they figured it out, then eventually Emma would figure out how weak her mother really was.

Mal knew better than to argue with her. Zoe's brief statement had been all the answer he'd needed. Admittedly, this was the point in time when Mal stopped pressing her for information, not that he ever really needed to. She always seemed to neglect the fact that he really did know her better than she gave him credit for. And he wasn't a fool either. Mal noticed more than Zoe realized. Those temporary breaks in her composure were always about Wash. Only the problem was that she refused to face the matter. Zoe refused to cope and Mal was beginning to wonder if she even knew how to.

"You know...what you did for Kaylee back there was really admirable," he spoke up a while later. "Don't figure much Inara or I coulda handled it like you did."

Zoe gently brushed silken hair away from Emma's forehead, her shoulders sinking under the pressure of her thoughts. "Somebody had to step up. I was just doing my job."

"Maybe so, but you did a job the rest of us couldn't do."

"It wasn't a job I had any business doing, sir. Could have turned out a lot worse than it did."

Mal frowned lightly. "But it didn't," he said and looked at her. "And I'm thankful it didn't. I know Kaylee is too. You did a good service."

"Thank you, sir," Zoe answered, but her voice remained void of accepting Mal's praise. She lifted Emma from her lap and cradled the toddler against her chest, then started to rise from the pilot's seat. "I should put her to bed."

Mal stood quickly. "Zoe, wait-"

The radio attached to Mal's hip crackled, interrupting him. Zoe looked at him in question, and then Jayne's voice filtered through the speakers before either of them could say anything.

"Gorramit, Mal? Zoe? Somebody better be listening to me this time," the mercenary grunted.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

 

At first, Jayne jumped to the assumption that nobody had heard his call once again and he'd be damned if that didn't work to irritate him some. This was a time he honestly needed someone to answer him; Jayne had lost count of the hours he'd spent staking out the tavern while waiting for Jethro and his crooks to finally emerge. Not to mention when the rain began to fall once more, it had made Jayne feel like he'd waited even longer. To say he was the slightest bit grumpy didn't even begin to cover it.

"Jayne!" Mal's voiced snapped at him through the speaker of the radio. The captain sounded more than a little annoyed and Jayne was glad the captain wasn't there to see the mercenary rolling his eyes in response. "Where the Hell have you been? I allowed you to stay behind for a Gorram reason, not to drop off the face of the Verse!"

"Ta ma de [Damnit], Mal! Would you lower your voice?" Jayne growled out in return. His eyes held a steady gaze on the building in front of him with a fair deal of contempt. "Been doing my damn job, just like you said to do."

There was a prolonged pause on Mal's end as if the captain was contemplating his response. "You ain't been answering my calls. Now I don't recall that being part of the agreement."

"Had the radio off," Jayne answered him simply.

"Jayne," Zoe's voice cut in sharply and impatiently. He could hear Mal muttering a curse in the background and a startled cry from Emma who was clearly nearby her mother. "We don't have time for games. What's your update?"

"Been trailing a small group of hwun dans [bastards] for the last couple hours. Four of them, far as I can tell," Jayne answered her. "Ran into them at the local tavern."

Mal was on the radio again in a split second. To say he was angry and frustrated put it lightly and Jayne actually winced. "Coulda sworn I just heard you say you was in a tavern."

"Yeah, y'know..." Jayne stumbled over his response and huffed out his chest, his shoulders rigid in defense towards the verbal reprimand. "Been walking around for a fair 'mount of hours and I thought I'd check- Well, Hell, Mal...I was thirsty. And there ain't been no sight of the doc. I was just checkin' my options. Like to keep my options open."

"What part of those options included drinking the time away?" Mal demanded. "Time that we DON'T have, Jayne!"

The button on the radio must have stuck because Jayne could hear Zoe snap at the captain that he was currently wasting just as much time as Jayne had by arguing with him. Not that he had appreciated that assertion much. But Zoe did have a point when she reiterated just what little time they had and Jayne felt smug when she noted that maybe Jayne's visit to the tavern was as good an option as any other. He waited until the radio fell silent before speaking. "Zoe's got her a point, Mal. The whiskey was cheap and more like shiong mao niao [panda urine]."

"Get to the point," Mal barked impatiently.

"There was four of 'em," Jayne started to explain. "Overheard thems braggin' 'bout what they done. Took a poor bastard captive. Buncha low life crooks. Laughin' 'bout how they're beatin' him to a bloody mess. 'Specially the one named Jethro. Think that was his name, anyway. It's the doc, I'm tellin' ya. Described him to a tee. Don't reckon they needed to say his name for me to know they was talking about him. Not that they know his name. Don't think much they bothered to ask him."

"You're sure about this?" Zoe interrogated.

"'Course I'm sure 'bout it," Jayne gruffed in return. "I'm no ruttin' fool."

"Where are you now?" she pressed.

That was a good question and not one Jayne could easily answer. He swept his eyes over his surroundings. "Far end of the shopping district," he assessed. "Dunno much more than that. It's run down. Buildings are thin. I followed 'em to some house like. It ain't much for braggin' though. Two levels. Made'a wood. They went inside a bit ago. Been deciding my options since."

Mal came on the radio again with an authoritative tone. "Stand back, Jayne. Zoe and I are heading your way."

Jayne's brows furled. "I don't need no reinforcements, Mal. Fancy myself goin' in alone. I'll get the doc out and we can finally blast off this piece of luh suh [garbage] rock."

The sound of Emma's whining faded and it became evident that Zoe had left Mal to his own. "You're gonna wait for us and that's an order. Dong ma, [understand,] Jayne? Last thing I need right now is you taking on a buncha savages all hot headed and such 'cause you have a guilty conscious."

Jayne grunted under his breath and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Mal didn't have the slightest about what Jayne really wanted to do at that moment and it sure didn't include nothing about a fair fight. He squared his shoulders and narrowed his gaze at the derelict house. "This is a buncha yuh bun duh fei hau [stupid nonsense]," he gritted out. "Gonna get the doc back before Kaylee pops that kid of his out. Ain't gonna wait around for you and Zoe just to do it."

"Kaylee had the baby hours ago," Mal all but shouted. His words were almost jumbled with movement and Jayne suspected the captain was making his way through Serenity to keep good on his promise to join Jayne in his rescue efforts. "Doc missed that ride."

"Kaylee had the baby?" Jayne stuttered.

"Few hours back," Mal told him.

"And?" Jayne pressed as he looked away from the house.

Mal paused. "...And what?"

There was a flickering of unusual concern within Jayne before his gruff tone returned. "Well, are they okay?"

"The kid is fine. Zoe delivered him. Kaylee's a different story."

Jayne muttered a string of unintelligible curses under his breath in response to Mal's cryptic answer. He didn't have the patience to question him though or the patience to stand around any longer. "I'm turning off the radio now," he muttered.

"Jayne? Gorramit, Jayne, if you-"

Jayne quickly switched the radio off before Mal could say another word and clipped it back onto his hip. There was no doubt in his mind that the captain would be pissed about it, but that was the least of Jayne's worries at the moment. They'd all wasted enough time as it was and Jayne would be damned if he just stood around any longer and didn't actually do something about it.

He started to move forward steadily without another thought and kept his gaze firmly focused on the house in front of him. Jayne couldn't really say he had a plan of action, because he didn't, and he figured with the way their lack of cards were stacking up, storming in guns blazing would be just as conducive to the cause as it would be if he waited around for Mal and Zoe to show up. He'd spent plenty of time sizing up the building from the outside and that gave him a vague idea of what he was looking at. It was once inside that could pose the potential problem. Of course there was always the chance that Jayne was off his knocker by suspecting Simon was anywhere inside anyway. Damned if he did anything and damned if he didn't. Jayne wanted real crime, not this. Give him a heist any day.

Jayne listened closely as he reached the house, but didn't hear a thing coming from inside. There was a faint golden glow eminating from several of the rickety windows, one on the lower level and two on the upper level, though no signs of movement or life as far as he could see. He stepped up onto the porch and inched his way along the front of the house, attempting to assess his best point of entry, but already Jayne could tell his options weren't many.

Eventually, he came upon some uneven siding that was littered with wild weeds growing uncontrollably up the contours of the house. Truth be told, it didn't look like it would take much to destroy the unstable structure. There was no telling how old it was either. Such was the typical hideout for a band of bushwhackers. Affording it a brief thought, Jayne tugged lightly on the siding to assure it wouldn't give way and braced a foot on one of the edges to hoist himself up.

The second landing -a crudely constructed half deck- was approximately eight feet above Jayne's head and he maneuvered his way upwards toward it. It didn't take him long to reach the top and by the time he hoisted himself up over the railing, he could feel the burn in his muscles from the strain of the climb. Jayne took a moment to roll his shoulders before pulling one of his guns from its holster and stepped slowly towards a solitary door that appeared to be the only entry point from the second floor.

Jayne paused just to the side of it and cautiously peered around the edge of the little glass window that was fixed towards the top of the door. It lead into a vacant open room scattered with a few crates, but there was nobody inside it. Gripping the door handle, Jayne found it locked and gruffed quietly as he reached for his knife. It took a little effort to pop the lock on the door before he was able to quietly push it open and slip inside the house.

Leaving the door ajar, Jayne strained his ears to listen as he crouched low to the floor. It took some time for his eyes to adequately adjust to the poor lighting and the longer he stayed in that position, he begun to hear the echoes of several voices coming from a different room. It sounded like they were on the second floor also or at least near by, even if Jayne couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. He didn’t care much to, at that.

Jayne crept silently over the floor to the open doorway across the room. It lead out to a short narrow hallway with one door on each side; both doors were closed. Exiting the room, he listened more intensely and came to the conclusion there were at least two other people behind the door to the right and they were speaking in a language Jayne himself didn't recognize. He passed by the room without thought and when he reached an even narrower staircase, he started to descend it.

The house smelt strongly and oddly of mold and decay, a sure sign that it was rarely ever clean or never had been. It made Jayne appreciate how tidy Kaylee tried to keep Serenity, especially ever since Emma's arrival and once she learned of conceiving a child of her own. Not that cleanliness had ever been a strong suit of Jayne's, but this even had him turning his nose up at the disgusting nature of the house. The quicker he was in and out, the better.

The stairs creaked under each of Jayne's steps, making him cringe and slow his pace. When he finally reached the bottom, he paused long enough to take a good look around, noting every detail he could. The flooring was littered with trash and the air smelt even worse than it had upstairs. Who the Hell were these tyen-sah duh UH-muo [goddamn monsters]? They sure didn't seem to give a damn about their living environment, which shouldn't have come as a surprise given their unsightly appearance.

Jayne muttered his annoyance under his breath as he passed carefully through the next uninhabited room and then came upon what his best guess was the kitchen or really a sorry excuse for a kitchen that he'd ever seen. That room was even trashier than any other part of the house Jayne had seen so far. There was over turned cups and empty bottles of liquor littering the table and counter space and abandoned half-eaten food hanging off of chipped plates. Lazy sonsofbitches these guys were. Jayne shook his head and swept his eyes around the room.

There was a closed door on the opposite side of the kitchen that beckoned his attention and he moved towards it, keeping his ears tuned into any possible movement around him. Jayne heard nothing though and considered the idea that it had been almost too easy to slip into the house as unnoticed as he did. If they had heard Jayne, they certainly weren't making it known, which only made him want to finish scoping the place and get out of there even faster.

Opening the door when he reached it, Jayne's eyes fell upon a steep stone staircase that led down into a thick consuming darkness. Jayne narrowed his eyes and unclipped a small flashlight from his belt. The thin beam of light barely penetrated the black before him, but Jayne pressed forward into it. It was easier to move down them without making any sound this time. The air grew considerably colder the further down he went with a heavier dank stench that lingered in the air. It made Jayne's stomach turn a bit.

The dirt ground was damp when Jayne's boots landed on it after stepping off the bottom stair. He swept the beam of the flashlight around him, surveying his newest surroundings distastefully. There wasn't much to see, just a narrow hallway with stone walls and a few broken wood crates pushed up against one of the walls. About half way down the walk way, Jayne caught sight of a heavy-looking wooden door and crossed the distance to it. It had to be some sort of storage cellar or something of the sorts given the location, but there was also that nagging little voice in the back of Jayne's mind that said it was the perfect place to hide the battered body of a Core doctor who'd gone and gotten himself kidnapped after Jayne had warned him. Not that Jayne was much for kidnapping, not like this.

He gripped the handle of the door when he came upon it, but one solid tug found it securely locked. The door barely budged and the sound of it echoed around him. Jayne cringed and shifted his eyes to the ground around his feet. That's when he noticed the streaks of crimson mixing in with the dirt and leading under the bottom crack of the door. It appeared fresh too, like it hadn't been there that long. The doctor. Had to be. There wasn't a doubt in Jayne's mind, except his determination that he was right about following Jethro and his crooks back to this place. He wanted to be right about it.

"Doc?" Jayne hissed as he pressed close to the door and listened for any response. "You in there?"

An explosive pain in his head like none other came over Jayne at a moment he least expected it and he slumped to the ground in a crumpled heap, never seeing the burly man that had snuck up behind him.

*****

Inara decided there was something extra peculiar and disturbing about River's current behavior as she moved calmly about her shuttle, immersing herself in the endeavor to light some soothing incense. It was all Inara could really do to keep herself focused and in the moment when the last thing she really felt was collected and not on the verge of falling apart. River, on the other hand, sat rigidly on the foot of Inara's bed and had taken to rocking back and forth as she mumbled incoherently to herself. The nature of her speech was indecipherable and made no sense and the poor girl refused to let the companion come anywhere near her. And to make matters worse, the captain had rushed in moments before, staying just long enough to bark a few orders that let Inara know she was in charge until he and Zoe returned, hopefully with Jayne and Simon in tow. There wasn't much more than that that Inara had been able to get out of him. Mal didn't stick around to answer any of her questions either.

She was about at her wits end and that didn't even begin to cover it. What had started out as stupid decision making had turned into panic and then turned into desperate cluelessness. Of course it didn't help matters any that Mal was proving to be of no use and Inara just couldn't seem to wrap her mind around what had come over the captain to cause him to think letting Jayne handle the situation on his own would be a grand idea. Nothing about knowing Jayne was out there on his own still looking for the doctor set Inara's mind at ease. That was almost as bad as letting little Emma sit in the pilot seat and man Serenity while they were in mid-flight. As far as Inara was concerned, Mal was out of his God forsaken mind.

Sighing, Inara lit another stick of incense and inhaled the sweet scent of vanilla and lavender, willing it to calm her nerves if even just a little. There was no telling how long she could expect Mal and Zoe to be gone. Part of her had been hoping Jayne would have returned long before this point, but that hope had been quickly dashed as the hours passed. That left Inara with her caring abilities tested to the limit and wondering how exactly she was going to handle the situation when Kaylee called for her again. There was only so much she could do for the new mother and only so much she could offer when it came to caring for baby Sebastian. They would need to be moved out of the infirmary soon, though. Inara couldn't imagine Kaylee and the infant would remain very comfortable in the med bay for long. But would Kaylee even desire returning to the room she shared with Simon, knowing he wasn't there to welcome her? Perhaps it would be a better idea if Inara convinced her to take up residence in her shuttle for the time being, at least until other decisions could be made...

Inara pursed her lips tightly together in an effort to keep her dwindling reserve in tact before her increasing concerns could shatter it beyond repair. She was tired too, beyond exhausted actually, and that didn't help matters any. None of them had managed to sleep much over the past few days since Simon had gone missing. It went without saying that the troublesome parallel to their routine weighed heavily on the heart of Serenity and affected each of them differently, yet all the same at the same time. There was no way things would smooth out until things were back in working order with all pieces in place and if that weren't possible, well...

Inara shut the box of incense she held in one hand and turned to carry it back to its storage case. However, a tight gasp left her lips when she turned and she jumped upon seeing River standing stiffly before her. The young girl's stare was blank, void of all expression and it didn't appear like she was even looking at Inara. It was eery on account that Inara hadn't even heard her rise from the bed, let alone cross the distance separating them. Inara inhaled deeply, waiting for the surprised hammering of her heart to subside. "River...?" she questioned with uncertainty.

For a moment, River continued to stare emotionless and unblinking. Then her eyes slowly shifted to focus on the companion. "They lead him to a trap like they lead a mouse to a trap with cheese," she spoke crypticly in an even, unwavering voice. "He didn't listen. Thought he knows, but he doesn't know anything. Thought he can, but he can't."

It was hard to fight the frown that immediately wanted to surface. Inara tightened her grip on the box of incense. "I'm not certain what you mean..."

River fidgeted in spot and looked down at the floor. "Lure him in with the promise of a prize," she told Inara. "It's not a prize. It's a trap and he didn't listen."

Hesitantly, Inara reached a hand out to place it on River's shoulder, but the girl flinched away from the touch. "River...perhaps we should sit down again."

"It's just more darkness!" River insisted sharply as she began to pace back and forth. "Over and over! It hurts! They come two by two! Can't breathe! They like red!"

"Who likes red?" Inara asked. Carefully, she set the box of incense down without taking her eyes off of River.

River tugged her loose fitting sweater tighter around her thin frame, shaking her head anxiously. "Can't breathe. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to move. Dig a grave. Say goodbye."

Inara removed the silk shawl from around her shoulders and carefully draped it over River's shoulders, hoping to provide her with a slight resemblance of comfort. "Honey, what you are saying right now is not making much sense," she replied calmly and turned River to lead her over to the bed. She carefully made River sit and took a seat beside her. "Take a deep breath."

"Tick tock. The clock slows down." River drew her feet up onto the bed and hugged her knees to her chest. She clenched her eyes shut, grimacing as she pressed her face to her knees. "What am I saying? I don't know what I'm saying."

Inara gently rubbed River's back, much in the same way she would to sooth a client, but this was far different. "Is this...about Simon?" she questioned her quietly. "River...are you able to feel him?"

"It's too much pain. Red from the inside out," River cried out. Her body trembled with the words she spoke and she hugged her knees tighter to her chest. "No way out. Another one in. Trapped."

"Jayne is looking," Inara tried to assure her. "The captain and Zoe are doing the same. Jayne may have found Simon."

"Jayne can't find himself," River insisted. "His ego gets him in trouble. Sees red now too. Won't talk. Too quiet. It's too quiet."

Inara wrapped her arms securely around the trembling girl and was surprised when River sank into her embrace willingly. "Do you know where they are, River?"

River clung to her. "Jayne is with Simon. He looks asleep, but...but he's not sleeping."

"Jayne found him?" Inara clarified as her lips curled into a frown.

River lifted her head to look up at the companion. "Jayne wanted to be the hero. Now he needs a hero too."

Mal's vague explanation of his actions with Zoe replayed in Inara's mind and now they made a little more sense. Jayne HAD found the missing doctor, but more troublesome was River's view on the matter. And just like that, River's incessant mutterings started to make more sense too. It should have come as no surprise that the young girl would see more into it, but it seemed even her insights were limited this time, which didn't make Inara feel any better. It didn't sound good. It COULDN'T be good. River's reaction told her that.

River pulled away from Inara and fiddled with the silk shawl that was draped around her shoulders. Her eyes were squinted with anxiety and she appeared to do her best to look anywhere but at the companion. "There's no time," she mumbled. "Won't last long. Too much hurt."

"I'm choosing to believe in a different outcome, River," Inara answered her as she stared down at her hands for a moment. "The captain will see to it."

"Captain is determined," River huffed, but her voice quivered all the same. "But Simon's too tired. I can't hear him. I can always hear him, but now I can't."

Inara's mouth opened to respond, but her words failed her and she sighed quietly. What could she possibly say to express her sympathy when there was no way for her to comprehend what it was that River was experiencing? Without being able to see into River's thoughts? Slowly, Inara rose to her feet and paced away from the bed, losing herself to her thoughts.

"Baby..." River murmured absently before she curled onto her side in the middle of the bed and threaded the material of the shawl between her fingers.

Inara looked back at her, distracted. "I'm sorry?"

River pointed to the intercom on the wall across the shuttle just as it came to life and the sound of Sebastian's wails filtered through with Kaylee's distressed voice calling out for Inara. Inara nodded at the young and turned swiftly to leave the shuttle with her troubled thoughts.

'Wuh de tyen ah, Mal, [Dear God in Heaven, Mal],' she thought as she left. 'May you return with the doctor soon.'

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

 

Jayne wasn't sure what brought him back into a state of consciousness, but he awoke with such a sharp jolt that he nearly jumped off the cold hard ground he was sprawled upon. If it wasn't for the fact that he was considerably disoriented, he probably would have too, but instead he remained stretched out on his back and blinked groggily at whatever was above him. Jayne couldn't see much though and he had a Hell of a time getting his eyes to adjust to the poor lighting surrounding him. Not to mention that his mind was one big jumbled mess of foggy memories that didn't make a lick of sense. What in the name of all things holy had happened?

Lifting his head slightly off the ground, Jayne brought a hand around back to tenderly prod at the noticeable knot that had formed, the epicenter of where the excruciating pain in his head originated from. Come to think of it, Jayne realized the whole of his body hurt and it felt like he'd tumbled head first down an entire flight of stairs. Almost as if he'd managed to get himself into a drunken stupor, but Jayne couldn't recall drinking THAT much at the tavern. He may have lost count of how many piss poor whiskeys he'd imbibed, but this...this felt like something completely different.

Jayne carefully eased his head back upon the ground again. The movement sent a shockwave of pulsing pain spreading through his skull and he grimaced as his body tensed in response. 'Think, Jayne...' his mind coaxed him but he could come up with very little as far as comprehensive thoughts went. But something he did know was this, his current predicament, was far from right and normal and-

Jayne's mind snapped to attention and he immediately reached for one of his guns, only to find it missing from the holster on his hip. Flipping over onto his stomach, Jayne grappled for the other two guns and knife fastened to his back, but they were missing as well. A hissing curse left his lips and he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, wildly surveying the darkness around him. Those Gorram bushwhackers had- He could hardly control his thoughts at that moment as he came to a full realization. This had definitely not been a part of Jayne's plans.

"Doc?" Jayne croaked out as he turned in a full circle on the ground. His eyes were more adjusted to the darkness now, but he could tell he was alone in the room. Another curse slipped past his lips. "Ta ma de! [Damnit!]" he growled. His voice echoed around him briefly and he took a moment to study the crudely constructed stone walls surrounding him. It had to be that room he'd come upon, right before the surprise onslaught of pain had taken over him and ushered in the darkness. And by the looks of it, Jayne was trapped.

Oh yeah...Mal was really gonna love this one...

Jayne stumbled onto his feet and braced a hand against the nearest wall to give himself a moment to gather his bearings, just long enough until the room stopped teetering from one side to the other. This was definitely not what he'd had in mind. He'd seen things playing out just a little differently, maybe with a bit of gun slinging and a hooray for Jayne saving the day. Jayne figured he could probably not count on either of those things now on account that he was weapon less and by the looks of it would need saving himself.

He sure as Hell wouldn't be admitting to that last one though. He'd go down swinging if he had to and when Mal finally burst in, IF Mal managed to find the place, Jayne would insist until he was blue in the face that it was all part of his master plan. Jayne ALWAYS had a master plan...or so he would say. Scowling at the thought, he reached a hand up to prod at the knot on the back of his head again.

Just his luck, things had gone gone from pretty bad to even worse. Jayne was no amateur, but this was messed up even for him. It wasn't exactly something he was proud of either. He could already imagine what Mal would have to say about it, the lectures, the berating, the general poking fun of. Zoe would probably have something to say about it too, but she had a way of saying it that cut a lot deeper with less words involved.

The sound of footsteps approaching the room caught Jayne's attention and he stiffened in defense as he turned towards the sound. There was a door across the room and within moments, it was yanked open with a thunderous boom before a large burly man entered and Jayne immediately recognized him as Jethro from the tavern. But that wasn't what had the breath catching in the mercenary's throat. It was the fact that Jethro had dragged in the limp body of Serenity's resident doctor and tossed him carelessly onto the ground. The sound of Simon's body hitting the ground heavily echoed around the room, but he didn't move. He was clearly unconscious and Jayne couldn't tell if the doctor was even breathing.

Jethro sneered in Jayne's direction as he sent a sharp kick into Simon's side. "What are yeh bloody lookin' at?" he demanded with a snort of annoyance. "Can't mind yer own business, now can yeh. Knew yeh was trouble in the tavern."

Jayne's eyes shifted between Simon's crumpled form and the bastard towering over him. "Gotta problem picking on someone your own size?" he gruffed as his hands clenched at his sides.

Jethro's head tilted to the side, his stringy onyx hair dangling and catching reflection of the golden light just outside the room. "Like yerself, lad?" he chortled and stepped around Simon to move closer. "Got a mouth on yeh, do yeh?"

"Don't reckon it matters much right now," Jayne told him pointedly. "Don't reckon you care, either."

"Aye," Jethro nodded, sneering again. "More reason for me to ignore yer little friend for a bit and focus on yeh. S'why yer here, yes? Snoopin' around where yeh don' belong."

Jayne clenched his jaw for a moment, nearly grimacing from the stench of stale tobacco and cheap whiskey that wafted through the air when Jethro drew closer. "Now you listen here, you monkeyshittin' sonofabitch," he growled. "You took what's not yours and I'm taking it back."

"Are yeh..." Jethro drawled. He took a final step closer and swiftly sent a clenched fist colliding with Jayne's stomach. "I don't think yeh are."

Jayne doubled over as the breath left his lungs and dropped quickly to his knees, gasping. "You Gorram yu bun duh [stupid] ugly-" he choked out.

Jethro shoved his boot into Jayne's side, knocking him over. He crouched low to him and yanked his head off the ground by his hair. "I don't take kindly to the likes of yeh," he snarled. "That smart mouth of yers will only kill yeh faster, like yer friend over there. I'm gonna enjoy that."

"Piss off," Jayne grit through clenched teeth.

The corner of Jethro's mouth curled up into a sharper smirk. "Don't get too comfortable. I'll be back for yeh soon enough."

Jayne gasped again as Jethro slammed his head back to the ground. His vision swam around him with the return of the disorientation and he laid there rigidly while the man finally backed away, seemingly pleased with the small infliction of pain. It also seemed to suffice enough that Jethro ignored Simon as he stepped over his still unmoving body and left the room, chuckling to himself. When the door finally slammed shut once more, Jayne struggled to sit upright, ignoring the way the room spun around him.

"Doc?" he called out to Simon and blinked rapidly to clear his vision. Jayne heard nothing but silence in response and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness yet again, he could see that Simon hadn't moved an inch.

Simon's face appeared so badly beaten that at first Jayne had a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that the man laying before him was indeed their missing doctor and the same one Jayne went out of his way to annoy and give a hard time at all costs. Simon's usually well kept hair was matted to his head with dried and freshly oozing blood and his right eye was blatantly swollen shut. A deep gash extended from the edge of his right brow down to the crest of his cheek bone and coupled with the other multiple facial lacerations, even Jayne couldn't deny how grotesque Simon's appearance was. The guilt that spread through Jayne was surprising.

Ignoring the dizziness, Jayne shifted onto his hands and knees and crawled over to the doctor. "Hey, doc?" he called out hesitantly. When he still received no response, he pressed two fingers lightly to the pulse point on Simon's neck, hoping above all other that he'd feel something, anything that told him Jethro was wrong about Simon's apparent demise. Simon's pulse was faint and sluggish, but Jayne felt it almost immediately. A still beating heart was at least something. It meant he was breathing too. "Gorammit, doc. What kinda ruttin' fool are ya?"

Jayne started to roll Simon over onto his back but stopped with uncertainty. There was no telling just how badly injured Simon really was and Jayne wasn't a fool enough to not know that moving the doctor could hurt him even more. Holding the tips of his fingers under Simon's nose, he could feel the soft puffs of warm breaths. They were weak and shallow. Jayne placed a hand on Simon's shoulder. "You in there? I know ya are. Won't be thinking I came here for nothing, doc. I know we ain't friends or the like, but this is ridiculous. I told ya to listen to me."

The silence that answered Jayne was thick and heavy and he found himself frowning. He looked around them for a moment, searching for a way out, but found none other than the door Jethro had entered and exited through. It would be locked, that was for sure, which left Jayne with no Gorram options. He returned his attention to Simon. "Need you to open your eyes or say something," he said. "Don't know much what I'm supposed to do right now."

Simon's hand flexed slightly beside his head and his good eye fluttered beneath his closed lid. Jayne took notice of it and gently squeezed the doctor's shoulder. It took a bit before Simon's eye barely parted open, but it was unfocused and Jayne wasn't sure just how much he really saw. He watched him closer. "Can't have you checkin' out just yet, doc. Kaylee done had the baby and kinda needs you to come back and that moonbrained sister of yours is gonna drive everyone across the Verse crazy if we don't bring you back. Or if you die or something. You hear me?"

Simon's hand flexed again, but it was even weaker this time. His eye started to flutter shut until Jayne suddenly grabbed his hand to keep his attention. Simon's lips, split and swollen, parted as if to speak, but the only sound that emitted was a barely heard wet rattling breath. His pain was evident on his face and it appeared difficult to inhale and exhale each breath he took. Too much blood, Jayne decided. There was too much blood coming from the doctor and there was no telling just how much beating his insides had taken.

"I ain't no babysitter," Jayne growled when Simon's eye finally shut again. He kept the man's hand clutched in his own without giving it any thought. "You die on my watch and that's blood on my hands. I don't want that sorta messy."

Simon didn't respond and Jayne sat back on the ground as the dizziness washed over him. The pounding in his head intensified and made it difficult to remain upright; laying down and shutting himself off was tempting, but Jayne wouldn't do that. So he closed his eyes and mentally willed the pain away. "Mal and Zoe are on their way, doc. We're gonna get ya outta this..." he muttered.

*****

"Do we have a plan or are we going in this blind, sir?"

Mal kept his attention firmly focused ahead when Zoe's voice broke through the wind whipping around them as the mule drew closer to the block of shops. They hadn't spoken a word to each other since leaving Serenity, but Mal figured there wasn't much that needed said at the current. Frustrated didn't accurately describe how Mal was truly feeling right then and the explosive anger festering within him was barely contained just below the surface. He was more than ready to wring Jayne's neck the moment he saw the mercenary and put the man in his place for having defied direct orders. Jayne had a penchant for ignoring things Mal had to say, that was for sure and it grated on Mal's nerves to no end, but this was testing limits none of them could afford to test. They all knew there was no room for error and Mal's renewed determination wasn't a force to be reckoned with. This would end now and Mal refused to return to the ship until he saw to that and his crew was fully intact.

"A little insight would do us both some good." Gripping the controls of the mule tightly, Zoe glanced in Mal's direction in hopes of grabbing his attention. She had no such luck when she found him sufficiently stuck in his own mindset, his forehead creased in that tell-all way that he was thinking too hard and his anger was starting to get the better of him. That in itself wouldn't be pleasant, but Zoe least of all had the patience for it. She was just as frustrated as the captain was and more than ready to get this taken care of so they could break atmo and blast far away from the piece of luh suh [garbage] rock they'd been stuck on, but Mal's silence wouldn't do either of them any good and it wouldn't help Zoe grasp a better handle on the matter. "SIR!"

"WHAT?!" Mal's voice was a little more snappish than he'd intended for it to be and when his eyes locked with Zoe's, he cowered back a bit. Their eye contact didn't last long before Mal returned his attention forward. His expression softened just enough that Zoe noticed it and he grunted under his breath. "When do we ever have a plan?"

"Most times," Zoe answered him stiffly.

Mal released a short sarcastic chuckle. "When do we ever have a plan that goes according to plan?"

"...That would be never, sir."

"Right." Mal cleared his throat and looked around them. "And on account that Jayne went and muddled up any chance of us having a plan, we can count on it not going smoothly. Well not that anything ever goes smoothly, but-"

"Trap?" Zoe interrupted him. She looked at Mal again just as she began to slow the mule down.

"Anything involving Jayne on his own is a trap," Mal conceded. "Being as he don't listen, I don't see this as any different."

Zoe brought the mule to a complete stop at the edge of the block of shops. "Not that I make it a habit to defend Jayne, sir, but in his defense-" she started to say.

Mal grumbled and couldn't stop himself from rolling his eyes openly. "Any statement that starts out with in Jayne's defense is sure to make my ears bleed," he said. "Ain't really something I wanna hear either."

"With all due respect, what were you expecting?" Zoe asked with brows raised. There was almost a hint of disbelieving laughter around the edges of her voice, but it never showed on her face. Her gaze surveyed the area, searching for possible trouble. "I'm just saying, you left Jayne to his own devices. Couldn't have expected that to turn out well. Except he found the doctor."

"He THINKS he found the doc," Mal countered. "What Jayne thinks and what Jayne knows are two completely different things. Would have done him good to wait for us to show up and..."

"And what?"

"Well I'm still working on that part."

Zoe shook her head and sent the mule lurching forward, only slower this time. The street was deserted with very few lights on in the buildings on both sides, but given the late hour, Zoe had been expecting as much. Preferred it that way, really. Less distractions and easier to navigate. And given how much they were up against, Zoe didn't figure they had time for distractions. They had little to work on and even less time to work on it, so it was an absolute necessity that they got in and got out. Simon's life, Zoe suspected, depended on that very fact alone and that was banking on Jayne's hunch being correct. Of course, that was if her and Mal could even locate the two of them. It had been radio silence on Jayne's end since he'd called them earlier.

"Take us to that tavern we passed by the other day," Mal spoke up a few moments later. His tone was gruff and evident that he was thinking along the same lines Zoe was. "Don't suspect it's too far from the end of the shopping district. Best bet is to go in, get our insight, and be on our merry."

Zoe nodded. "Expecting them to tell us what direction Jayne went?"

"I don't expect they'll wanna tell us much of anything," Mal answered her. "But...nothing a little ensuing violence and force can't rectify."

"Of course, sir," Zoe replied. "Let us stir up more than we already have."

Mal felt his patience wane further. "If you got yourself a finer idea, now would be the time to speak it, Zoe."

Zoe didn't answer him. Truth was that she didn't have any better well thought out plans of action to offer. Far as she figured, they were already grasping at straws as it was. So she continued to creep the mule along, keeping her eye out until they eventually saw the sign for the tavern approaching ahead of them. When they reached it, Zoe brought the mule to a stop and looked at Mal. "This is the place."

Mal nodded and hopped out of the mule. His booted feet hit the ground with a loud thud, but he paid it no attention as he swiftly moved towards the door of the tavern. Zoe was quick to follow close behind and they entered the building one after the other.

Inside, the lighting was dimmer than Mal and Zoe had expected and there were very few people inside, just a few drunken patrons slouched over some of the tables while the bar keep busied himself disinterestedly behind the bar. Mal nodded in his direction and began to make his way over. The bar keep glanced up at them as they approached and scowled a bit as he half heartedly wiped clean a metal beer mug.

"We ain't open for serving," the bar keep told them.

"We ain't here for serving," Mal answered. He stepped up to the bar and placed his hand on the counter. "Just have us a few questions needing asked and we'll be on our way."

The bar keep gruffed and started to turn his back to them. "I ain't interested. Now get out."

Mal pulled his gun from its holster, cocked it, and set it on the counter with an expression that remained deadly calm. "Afraid that's not gonna work," he casually said. The bar keep turned back to them, glanced briefly at the gun, and then narrowed his eyes at Mal. "Way I see it is you don't want any trouble and neither do we. We ask the questions, you answer those questions, and there won't be any said trouble."

"Quite the business man, are ya?" the bar keep sarcastically asked as he set the beer mug down and draped the rag over his shoulder.

"Stubborn and reckless is more accurate," Zoe interjected. "Don't care much for pleasantries either."

Mal shrugged and kept his hand firmly on top of his gun. "We happen to be looking for someone."

The bar keep raised a brow. "It's slim pickin', but..." He motioned to the drunken patrons lingering in the tavern. "What you see is what you get."

Zoe's face stiffened in annoyance and she nudged Mal out of the way. "We don't have patience to be tested," she said in a tone that was harsh in her own steady way. Mal looked at her, almost surprised, but he appreciated her for it. That was the Zoe he preferred. "Now unless one of these yu bun duh hwun dans [stupid bastards] go by the name of Jethro, then we ain't interested in them."

"Jethro?" the bar keep repeated in surprise. "What do the two of you want with the likes of Jethro?"

"You know him?" Mal asked.

"Do I know him?" the bar keep responded indignantly. "Whole town knows him. A waste of breathing space he is. Causes more trouble than we care to deal with."

"Now we're on the same page," Mal nodded. He flexed his hand on the gun just to get his point across. "We need to know where to find him."

The bar keep narrowed his eyes at him. "You're asking me to tell you where you can find Jethro?"

Zoe quickly pulled her gun out and leveled it with the bar keep's head. "We're not ASKING you to."

Mal snorted and leaned against the edge of the counter. "She's a feisty lady."

"Jethro ain't here," the bar keep scowled. "And I prefer it that way."

"But he was here earlier," Mal pressed. "Know it for a fact."

The bar keep narrowed his eyes again with distrust. "I don't recall you being in here earlier to know that."

"We weren't," Mal continued. Keeping his eyes focused on the bar keep, he reached over and forced Zoe to lower her gun. "But a friend of ours was. Over heard Jethro running his mouth about some guy he took captive a few days back. That guy happens to be another friend of ours."

"Heard Jethro saying something about it," the bar keep nodded. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked back and forth between Mal and Zoe. "Didn't give it much thought. Jethro likes to run his mouth. Couldn't get the tavern to listen to him either. Figured it was another one of his tales. Got that gang of his he runs around with."

"Tale or not, we think it's worthy looking in to," Mal told him pointedly. "Both of 'em are missing now and that poses me and mine a problem. That's two of my crew I can't rightfully have gone."

"Man should keep his house in order," the bar keep dismissed. "S'not my problem."

Zoe lifted her gun again, cocking it. "I can and will make it your problem. Won't bother me none."

Mal offered the bar keep a sarcastic smile. "She has no sense of humor. Can't control what she does either. I'd listen to her if I were you."

The bar keep appeared to stumble over his words at first and not very confident that Zoe wouldn't end up shooting him regardless of what he told them. Finally, he shook his head and relented. "Jethro and his gang shack up in a run down house at the far end of the shopping district. Can't really miss the place. Looks like it's on its last leg. Brown. Two story."

"Just like Jayne said," Mal muttered to Zoe.

"This ain't the first time Jethro done ran his mouth about something of the sorts," the bar keep continued. "But if it's true and he's done what he said he has, your friends are already as good as dead."

"Not on my watch." Mal swiped his gun off the counter and returned it to its holster. "Not unless I conjure they are."

"That way of thinking is considered foolish in these parts," the bar keep said.

Mal turned from the counter and started to make his way towards the door without another word spoken. He slammed the door open when he reached it, stepping back out into the cold night air with a muttering of curses beneath his breath. Zoe was soon to join him as she still brandished her gun. "What happened to no violence or force?" he asked her.

"Just playing the part, sir," she answered.

"Thinking we got ourselves an even bigger problem on our hands now."

"More violence and force?"

"...My favorite thing, next to crime."

"Try not to rip Jayne apart until we're back on the ship."

"You don't give me enough credit-" Mal started to say, but Zoe had already stepped past him to climb back into the mule. Making a face, he followed her without argument. Mal was really beginning to hate this Gorram planet.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

 

The dark was even blacker than the deep of the Verse and all consuming. It felt like it had swallowed Simon whole, merciless in its captivation, and unrelenting in its strong hold. Simon tried to fight it. He clawed and grasped at nothing and cried out for someone to hear his pleas, but silence was his only companion. Like an entity all in its own, the silence mocked Simon and made it clear that it had no intentions of letting him go. The more he fought it, the tighter it grabbed hold of him and the more tired Simon became. The darkness laughed at his determination to break free and yet soothed him at the same time, telling him it would all be okay if he just stopped...fighting.

Every inch of his being told Simon to just let go. The fight wasn't worth the pain. Give up and give in, the darkness insisted. Your time is done; this isn't a battle you can win. You're no hero and you have no hero to save you now. It was cruel and haunting in its torment. How easy it would be to stop struggling to reach the surface he wasn't even sure still existed. But there was a fire still in him, a fire that burned with small flames of hope. Simon didn't want to give up. Something at the core of his soul told him to keep fighting. He had to.

River...Kaylee...

Simon grappled for the surface again only to feel as if he were sinking further. The despair welled within him as he tried to picture their faces, but the darkness closed in more. It was them he kept searching for, them he needed to reach, and they only seemed to get further and further away. How could he do this to them? And his child. Simon needed to get to his child. Everything just hurt too much. So easy it would be give up and stop fighting...

'Simon...' River's voice called out to him. It echoed through the darkness and stirred the pain. 'I wanna help you.'

'River?' Simon tried to call back to her. 'River...I...I can't...' He stopped moving and attempted to curl in on himself, begged the dark to leave him be. Sleep. Peaceful, unfeeling sleep. Nothing would be able to hurt him anymore if Simon allowed himself to let go. No more pain, the darkness assured him. 'River, I'm sorry. Tell Kaylee I'm sorry.'

An image of Kaylee's sweet face flashed through Simon's mind suddenly and her expression of sorrow jolted him with regret. It happened so quickly and then he saw nothing more once again. 'Kaylee?' he choked out desperately, needing her more than he ever thought he could possibly need someone. 'Forgive me. I'm so sorry.'

'Simon, you're gonna be okay,' River told him. Her voice sounded like it was circling around him, echoing on all sides. 'Have to be okay. Come home.'

Simon curled in on himself more and clenched his eyes shut. The darkness was no different now than it had been before. 'I'm so tired, River...' he told her weakly. 'It hurts. I didn't mean for this to happen.'

'Serenity is hurting, too,' River insisted. There was a fretful quality to her voice and Simon wanted to make sense of it, but he couldn't. He didn't understand why his sister sounded as if she were so far away. It was the unending torture of the darkness, the mind games it liked to play, giving Simon that taste of hope before yanking it back from him.

'R-River?' His voice trembled and the sound of it barely projected. 'I can't...I can't do this.'

'Have to,' River answered him sternly. 'Have to because I had to.'

This was all Simon's fault and maybe in the end it was truly what he deserved. He had managed to mess so much up, even though his intentions had never been to do so in the first place. Simon's perception had become clouded, though he'd just wanted to make everything better. That's all he ever wanted to do, make things better. Simon wanted to fix what was broken. That had started with River when he'd rescued her from the Academy and now had ended with Kaylee all because Simon had proven just how foolish he really was. He couldn't fix anything after all.

'You're wrong,' River's voice broke through Simon's thoughts once more. Simon could only imagine her stubborn nature had she actually been beside him in that moment. It was almost bittersweet. 'Can't always be right. Not this time.'

'Mei Mei...' he whispered. It was harder to form clear thoughts and try as he might to continue listening for her, Simon began to slip deeper into the defeaning weight of the darkness. 'I...I love you. I'm sorry I failed.'

'No, Simon,' River answered him urgently. 'Still need you. Sebastian needs you.'

Simon's unswollen eye pried part way open abruptly as the sound of River's voice faded completely. The name spoken remained at the forefront of his mind and tugged at his heart, ushering in the overwhelming guilt. Simon knew that name but his sluggish mind couldn't wrap around it. Inhaling a shallow breath, a muffled groan passed his lips, accompanied by the pain that flared through out his body. He tried to speak, but he couldn't get his voice to project and the next breath he took hurt so bad, it felt like his chest was on fire.

A hand gripped Simon's shoulder and he summoned just enough energy to shift his blurred gaze upward. Jayne was kneeling beside him and the sight of him confused the doctor. The mercenary couldn't possibly be there with him. Simon had long since resigned to the idea that the crew of Serenity wouldn't be coming for him like he hoped. The image of Jayne had to be nothing more than a delusional vision, which made no sense because Jayne was the last one Simon suspected would ever come to his rescue. The captain and Zoe maybe, but Jayne...

The mercenary looked worse for wear too as his lips moved in silent speech that Simon was unable to hear.  A dried stream of crimson seeped from his nose and his bottom lip was busted. Simon couldn't clear his vision enough to make an adequate assessment, but it also appeared that there was some bruising discoloration to Jayne's left temple. He looked tired and hurt and Simon couldn't recall many times he remembered seeing Jayne in a state of vulnerability, but this was one of those moments.

A vision of Jayne was not who Simon wanted to see when he was knocking on death's door...

"You listenin' to me, doc?" Jayne's voice suddenly became unmuted and was too loud, too gruff. It hurt Simon's ears. "Can't have you checkin' out. Ain't taken a beating for you for nothin'. Understand?"

No, Simon didn't understand and he couldn't find his voice to question what Jayne meant either. It didn't matter though. Soon enough, nothing would matter. The vision of Jayne would fade and Simon knew he would no longer have the energy to keep fighting. The darkness would beckon him again and this time he wouldn't be able to turn back from it.

"You ain't listenin'!" Jayne spoke sharply. "Just like you didn't listen before. You're supposed to be some gorram genius, but if you give up now, that just makes you a ruttin' fool. And I don't fight for no ruttin' fools."

Jayne's attention snapped in a direction Simon was unable to see just as it sounded like a door was slammed open. Simon recognized that sound and knew what it meant. It always ushered in more pain and brought the reality of death that much closer. He wanted to warn Jayne, tell him that he needed to do something to protect himself, but Simon couldn't get his voice to project. No, that wasn't right, because any moment now, the vision of Jayne would disappear and he would be left to face the torture again on his own.

"Well ain't you relentless," Jayne growled as the corner of his mouth curled up in annoyance. He pulled away from Simon and started to rise to his feet. "I'll take me a fair fight."

Simon watched through fading vision as Jayne hit the ground hard and a pair of black muddied boots moved towards him. "Still don't know how to keep that mouth of yer's shut," a heavily accented voice spoke up. Thick hands reached down to yank Jayne off the ground by the collar of his shirt.

"Ma reckoned I was born stubborn," Jayne snorted in return. He struggled to dislodge the man's hands from his shirt. "Pretty sure I said a fair fight."

"If yeh consider killin' yeh a fair fight," the voice snarled.

"I do fancy me a challenge," Jayne returned, only to double over in clear pain when a knee roughly connected with his stomach. He cursed in an unintelligible manner as he was knocked back to the ground. "Not what I had in mind."

"Aye, lad," the man replied and Simon finally placed the voice as belonging to Jethro, the one who had reigned plenty of terror upon him. "Guttin' yeh is more of what I have in mind."

Jayne spat at the ground. "Dirty play. I can handle that." He groaned when Jethro kicked him over again.

Jethro pulled a gun from the holster on his hip and pointed it in Simon's direction as his eyes turned dark with sinister intention. "Don't figure yeh have words for yer friend now, do yeh?"

"Now wait just a gorram minute!" Jayne growled as he tried to push himself upward. "Why you wanna be shootin' him for?"

"That's simple," Jethro answered as he leveled the gun with Simon's head. "He ain't dead."

Jayne struggled to keep the anxious fear from showing on his face. "He'll be dead soon enough! You wanna put a bullet in someone, you put a bullet in me!"

Jethro shook his head. "'Fraid you ain't the one giving the orders 'round here, lad. Say goodbye."

Simon knew what was about to happen and he eased his good eye shut to prepare for the blow when the bullet pierced him. It would be a fatal shot; he had no doubt about that and there was not a thing him or the vision of Jayne could do to stop it. All he could hope was that it would be quick. As he heard the sound of the gun cocking, he inhaled a final shallow breath and allowed his mind to drift to one last peaceful thought of Kaylee and River. 'I love you both,' Simon thought. 'I'm sorry this happened. Forgive me.'

The last thing Simon heard was the sound of River's terrified screaming in his head.

*****

Mal wasted no time jumping out of the mule when Zoe brought it to a stop outside of the rickety run down house just on the far edge of the shopping district. Just as both Jayne and the bar keep had described, it hadn't taken him and Zoe long to locate it. Now it was a matter of getting in, finding Jayne and Simon, and getting them both out and back to the ship. Didn't help matters none that they would have very little time to do that and who knew what kind of trouble they would find themselves faced with when they made it inside.

Zoe's feet hit the ground with a thud as she hopped out of the mule and came around to join Mal at the front of it just as he was pulling his gun out of its holster and checking it over. "How many are we looking at, sir?" she asked as she focused her gaze on the house.

"Three or four," Mal answered her distractedly before looking at the house also. "No telling really. Jayne mentioned four. So at a minimum, that's what we're looking at."

"Should be an easy take down," Zoe nodded.

"We've managed worse," Mal agreed. "Expecting bullets to fly if necessary, so you keep yourself covered."

"Don't think you need to be worrying about me, sir," Zoe told him and it took all she had not to roll her eyes at his statement. "Just consider this routine. We get in and we get out. Don't be making any stupid moves."

"Me? Make stupid moves?" Mal scuffed inwardly. "Have a little more faith."

"That's what worries me," Zoe chuckled dryly. She checked the gun fastened to her hip and the back up knife she'd brought with her. She didn't anticipate needing it, but she wasn't about to take any chances going in unprepared and something told her there was a chance of needing more than one option if Mal went in all hot headed like he seemed to be ready to do.

Mal gripped his gun tightly in his hand and nodded towards the house. "Don't figure sneaking in is an option. Seems to be very few entry points just by looking at it."

"Bust in through the front unannounced?" Zoe suggested.

"Surprise factor," Mal grinned. "I like your way of thinking, Zoe."

Zoe shook her head. "Just said what you were thinking, sir."

Mal squared his shoulders and gave a firm nod. He lips parted to speak, but the sound of a gun firing from within the house cut him off before he could get a word to project. His eyes snapped back to Zoe briefly and he quickly started to move towards the house without further hesitation. Mal didn't wait for Zoe to follow. He knew she would be quick in his wake and she was damn near at the front door of the house before he was. When they reached it, Mal lifted a foot and roughly kicked the door open, paying no heed to the way the intrusive sound echoed loudly and the door frame splintered from the force.

Zoe shoved herself past him into the house and held her gun up, poised and ready for use. It wasn't long before a thundering of foot steps could be heard racing down the stairs from the upper floor and another shot was fired from down below them. Three stocky dirty looking men stormed into the room where Mal and Zoe were at and shouted in surprise upon seeing them.

Mal aimed his gun at the men as Zoe did the same. "Hey there, fellas. Are we late for the party?"

"Jethro!" one of them yelled out in a voice that was heavily laden with an accent. The other two scrambled to grab guns from the waistband of their pants.

Zoe cocked her gun threateningly. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."

The first bullet that rang out came so close to hitting Mal that he felt the buzz of it as it flew past his face. He fired his gun out of reflex, which quickly ignited an explosion of chaos. Within moments, bullets were flying on both sides and both Mal and Zoe found themselves taking cover behind a wooden bench that had clearly seen better days. Mal looked at her. "Friendly bunch," he gruffed and lifted his gun to fire a haphazard shot over the top of the bench.

Zoe scowled as the men shouted at them. "First shot we heard came from below. My guess is a cellar. Could be where Jayne and Simon are."

Mal fired another shot over the top of the bench, his face flustered. "Problem posed is getting past these kwong-juh duh [crazy] idiots."

"Go and I'll cover your back," Zoe told him before peering around the edge of the bench and firing a calculated shot. The bullet pierced the chest of one of the men creeping towards the bench and he dropped to the ground unmoving. The other two started cursing in an unfamiliar language, giving Zoe the opportunity to glare at Mal. "I said go, sir!"

Mal hesitated for only a second before he scrambled to his feet and raced towards the closest open doorway, narrowly dodging a bullet that flew in his direction. It ricocheted off the door frame he passed through and he whipped around to fire his own gun defensively in return. He didn't wait around to see if it did any good though as he caught sight of another open doorway across what appeared to be a cluttered kitchen in disarray.

Gripping his gun even tighter, Mal crossed the kitchen and stepped through the slanted doorway. His boots echoed against the stone stairs leading downward and he moved slowly in effort to quiet his approach, but it did little good even with the periodic gun fire coming from above in the living room. The air dropped in temperature the further down Mal went. However, it wasn't until he reached the very bottom that he realized there was no sound coming from the area like he'd initially expected. No gun fire. No chaos. Just utterly odd stillness.

Keeping his posture defensive, Mal crept along the hallway, looking behind him once to assure he wasn't being followed by one of the men from upstairs. Mal didn't trust the silence or the stillness surrounding him or why nobody had followed him down. Eventually he came upon a partially opened heavy doorway and poising his gun ready for action, Mal reached out and gripped the handle to yank the door all the way open. He nearly stumbled over the body sprawled out on the ground in front of him as he whipped into the room, prepared to start firing if the need arose. Mal afforded one glance down at the man whose vacant eyes stared up at the ceiling, dead from a single gun shot to the forehead.

"'Bout gorram time you showed up," Jayne's familiar voice called out to him. Mal turned to find the mercenary on the ground not too far away, leaning against the stone wall as he gripped his left bicep with a grimace. "Sonofabitch shot me, Mal."

Mal was at his side within moments and crouched down next to Jayne to look him over. "I don't suspect he shot himself afterwards."

Jayne managed to smirk lightly within his grimace. "He was gonna shoot the doc. Couldn't rightfully have that happen on my watch. Too damn messy."

"Where's the doc, Jayne?" Mal demanded.

The mercenary nodded to a spot behind Mal. "Over there...if he ain't dead yet."

Slowly standing straight, Mal turned again to search where Jayne had motioned to. Sure enough, it didn't take long for his eyes to fall upon the crumpled form of the ship's resident doctor and from where Mal stood, he couldn't help but question how true Jayne's ending statement really was. Simon wasn't moving and there was no way of telling from where Mal stood if the doctor was even breathing. Mal cursed under his breath and approached him. "How bad is it?" he questioned back over his shoulder.

"He wasn't doing good when I found him," Jayne answered and slumped a bit against the wall. A single gun shot fired on the floor above them and then heavy silence fell. Jayne looked towards the ceiling. "Zoe up there?"

"She's taking care of it," Mal muttered as he kneeled down next to Simon. "Doc?"

"You left her up there?" Jayne hissed in disbelief.

"I did what I had to do. Zoe can handle her own," Mal dismissed him. He pressed two fingers to the pulse point on Simon's neck and frowned openly when he couldn't register a pulse of any kind. Mal shook his head, pressing his fingers a little harder against Simon's pulse point. "C'mon, doc..." he muttered.

"Is he breathin'?" Jayne called out to him.

Mal withdrew his hand and carefully rolled Simon over onto his back, taking in the extent of his appearance. Simon was so badly bruised and bloodied, that the captain barely recognized him. There wasn't much that shocked Mal these days, but this proved more than an exception. It made his stomach clench as he pressed his fingers to the pulse point on Simon's neck again.

"Gorramnit, Mal! Is he breathin'?" Jayne shouted at him.

Mal leaned his head in close to Simon's mouth, searching for evidence of any kind of life, but the more the seconds passed, the more he realized he wasn't feeling the soft puffs of breaths coming from Simon's mouth or nose. Simon had no pulse and it was clear he wasn't breathing, which was exactly what Mal had feared he would find. "Doc ain't breathing-"

Zoe stepped into the room at that moment, breathless from exertion. "Sir?" she questioned when she saw Mal kneeling beside Simon.

Mal looked at her knowingly and shook his head.

Zoe's face became unreadable as she came over and kneeled on the the ground opposite of Mal. She gently placed her hand against Simon's cheek. "He ain't cold yet," she noted before she positioned her hands against the doctor's chest in determination. Mal immediately recognized the look in her eyes. He'd seen it many times before and for plenty of reasons, but this time felt different and Mal couldn't blame her, nor could he tell Zoe to stop when she began to perform a series of chest compressions on the doctor.

"Is the doc dead?" Jayne timidly asked.

Mal scowled, keeping his back to the mercenary as he watched Zoe work. "I'm not losing another one of my crew."

"Go fire up the mule, Jayne," Zoe commanded. She leaned down, closed off the airway to Simon's nose, and blew a breath into his mouth.

"Do what she said, Jayne!" Mal growled when Jayne began to argue about the order. The mercenary looked ready to argue some more, but he struggled to his feet and hobbled out of the room.

Blowing another breath into Simon's mouth, Zoe resumed the chest compressions with continued determination. "C'mon, doctor, I know you're in there," she mustered and pursed her lips tightly together with each compression. "You're not leaving this crew. You're not leaving Kaylee and that baby either. I won't allow it. They're not gonna go through what Emma and I had to go through."

Mal watched the confliction pass over his first mate's face. "Zoe-"

Simon released a sudden gasp for breath and Zoe stopped the chest compressions to press her fingers to his neck. "He's got a pulse, sir. It's weak," she stated and finally looked at Mal. "There's a shot of adrenaline in his med bag on the mule. I brought it with. We need to get him back to the ship."

Mal wanted to ask Zoe if she was okay, but he stopped the words from projecting and followed suit when Zoe began to lift Simon's body carefully off the ground. There was no time to be wasted on unnecessary conversation. Something told Mal that Simon didn't have that time to spare.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

 

When River began screaming hysterically, Inara assumed the young girl had yet again slipped into another one of her psychotic fits. But there was something different about it this time that Inara hadn't been able to pinpoint exactly. Something about the way River abruptly dropped to the floor screaming and crying out for Simon as she gripped her head. Panicked and inconsolable didn't even begin to describe River's state of being and nothing Inara had tried to say to her calmed the poor girl. It had sent Kaylee into a state of panic as well. The mechanic had begged the younger Tam to calm down and tell her what was wrong, but River only screamed louder and Little Sebastian's resulting wails of distress nearly drove Kaylee right over the edge of her sanity. It had taken all that Inara had to grasp hold of her own calm and control the situation. By the time she convinced Kaylee to remain in her bed in the shuttle, Inara had managed to soothe Sebastian back into a peaceful state of sleep, all the while River remained on the floor, rocking back and forth in a near catatonic state as she mumbled to herself.

It was quiet now, as quiet as Inara could expect the near deserted ship to be. River hadn't spoken a word for some time and Kaylee had taken to curling up against the pillows on Inara's bed in a numb fashion. Periodically, Inara heard her begin to cry softly, but she didn't question it and she knew that Kaylee needed the outlet to freely release her worries without holding back. Sebastian was soundly asleep in Inara's arms, which she was more than thankful for and in some ways, Inara had found comfort in cradling the infant, focusing on him when there was nothing else she could productively focus on.

Inara paced the shuttle slowly, her gaze set on Sebastian as she hummed to him quietly. He couldn't hear her from within his sleep of course, but it gave Inara the peace she sought and Kaylee had yet to voice her opposition of not having her son tucked safely in her own arms. How much time had passed, Inara couldn't be sure, and her mind kept drifting to Mal and Zoe and whether or not they had been able to successfully locate Jayne and Simon. It was the not knowing what was going on that bothered Inara the most. The situation was dire and had been since Simon first went missing, but there was no ignoring how much worse it had become.

Pressing a tender kiss to Sebastian's forehead, Inara turned to look over at Kaylee and found the mechanic staring back at her dismally. They exchanged a silent gaze for a few moments before Inara slowly approached the bed and sat beside her on the edge of it. "Sebastian will need to be nursed when he wakes up," she noted softly in hopes of drawing Kaylee into a conversation that would lift her mood slightly. "I am certain he would love for his mother to hold him as well."

Kaylee's eyes were bloodshot shot from a lack of sleep and the tears she had shed and she glanced over in River's direction where the young girl was huddled in a corner, keeping to herself. "He didn't nurse much earlier," she replied quietly and pushed herself to sit upright. "Didn't seem interested in it none."

Inara carefully transferred Sebastian to Kaylee's arms without waking him and made sure the blanket he was wrapped in was tight enough to keep him warm. "It will take him a while, Mei Mei," she assured and brushed the tips of her fingers against Sebastian's cheek. "As long as you try and he feels safe with you, he will be fine."

"It's not enough," Kaylee murmured in return. She shifted Sebastian to cradle him against her chest and rested her cheek against the top of his head. "It won't be enough, 'Nara."

"You are more than enough for Sebastian right now," Inara countered.

Kaylee's brows furled as she delicately rubbed Sebastian's back through the blanket. "I don't mean right now," she whispered dully.

Inara smoothed the messy hair back from Kaylee's face and tucked it behind her ear. "The future is not what you should be focusing on," she told her gently. "It is the here and now that matters the most. For you and for Sebastian."

"How can I not think about the future?" Kaylee questioned. Her voice trembled and threatened to break and once again the bitter tears surfaced to her eyes. "It's cruel, what's happened. And it ain't right."

Inara sighed quietly enough that she hoped Kaylee couldn't hear it. "That will change soon. You just have to be patient for a little while longer."

"What am I gonna do, 'Nara?" Kaylee sniffled. "I ain't strong like Zoe. I can't do this on my own. Serenity is my home and the captain won't wanna keep me around no more with Sebastian if Simon ain't here with us."

"Fei hau [Nonsense]," Inara said as she shook her head. She reached out to brush away the tear that began to slide down the mechanic's cheek. "You are the one that keeps Serenity running the way Mal needs it to. He can't afford to lose you."

Kaylee exhaled a shallow breath. "There's plenty'a other mechanics in the Verse. Ones that don't have a baby and...and..."

Inara drew Kaylee close to her as the woman began to sob just audibly. The sound of it pained the companion because it wasn't like the Kaylee she was used to. Granted, Kaylee had always been a bit on the sensitive side but fairly easy going and only temperamental when she felt it necessary. But this was something completely different. Inara recognized how real the fear was for Kaylee, even if she couldn't relate and couldn't completely understand it herself. The fear of losing Simon and losing her home on Serenity which meant so much. It was more than Kaylee needed to deal with; it was too much for her to handle.

"Mei Mei..." Inara spoke up as she tightened her embrace around the mechanic. "I promise you that you will always have a home here on Serenity and I am confident Mal would tell you the same. You are no more a liability than the rest of us are."

"It don't feel that way right now," Kaylee swallowed thickly in response. She kissed the top of Sebastian's head in an effort to calm herself. "Captain would be right to send me back home to my folks."

"You must stop thinking that way," Inara reasoned with her. "Mal is unpredictably cold at times and unforgiving, but he would not see to you leaving. He does have a heart and I refuse to believe he would allow it."

Kaylee shifted her gaze with uncertainty to River, the anxiety passing over her face. "But River..." she whispered and quickly looked back to Inara again. "What will happen to her? She'll have no one, 'Nara."

Inara's expression was calmly stern. "She has us, Mei Mei," she answered and afforded a small encouraging smile. "And she will still have Simon as well."

"But..." Kaylee started to shake her head as another tear slipped down her cheek.

"No," Inara interrupted her firmly. "River will still have Simon, just like you and Sebastian will still have Simon."

Little Sebastian released a tiny whine and wriggled a bit against Kaylee's chest, signaling his awakening. Kaylee frowned as she looked down at him. "He sounds so sad..."

"He is probably hungry," Inara suggested.

Kaylee exhaled a soft sigh through her nose and started to adjust her shirt, speaking absently. "Simon was insistent that breastfeedin' was the healthiest option for the baby," she explained as Inara respectfully  draped a solid colored shawl over Sebastian and Kaylee's chest. "Even got this pump thing, like what Zoe had, so he could help with the feedings. He had so many things he wanted to do."

Inara smiled politely and propped the pillows up behind Kaylee. "Simon is very thoughtful."

Feeling Sebastian latch onto her, Kaylee allowed herself to gradually relax back against the pillows. Her tired distraught eyes drooped slightly, expressing her exhaustion. "He always has been, 'Nara..."

"You are very lucky to have him, Mei Mei," Inara agreed with a nod. "And he is even luckier to have you."

River rose to her feet rather abruptly and turned to move towards the shuttle doorway, muttering under her breath. Inara caught sight of the movement and watched her with a glance of increasing concern. "River?" she called out to her. "Where are you-"

"Simon," River cut her off without so much as a glance back over her shoulder before she hurried out of the shuttle.

Kaylee stared up at Inara in confusion. "What is she talking about?"

"I don't know," Inara answered and returned her attention to Kaylee with a calm smile. "I am going to go check on her. Just stay here and relax with Sebastian. I will not be gone long."

By the time Inara made it out of her shuttle, River was already racing across the cargo bay towards the air lock door with a renewed streak of determination. Inara hurried after her, the beads on her dress clinking against the metal stairs as she flew down them. "River, wait!" she called after her in confusion. "What is going on?"

River stopped at the control for the air lock door and looked back at Inara calmly. "Simon," she answered and pressed her hand against the button to cause the door to open.

Inara slowed her pace considerably as the air lock door opened and approached River with apprehension. The darkness outside was daunting and it made her want to grab River protectively and pull the young girl back, but by River's posture alone, Inara knew that would be impossible. River stood there, staring hard out into the darkness with anticipation and maybe even a little bit of hope. Inara couldn't be sure. She didn't know what River was looking for or what had caused her to dart down to the cargo bay so quickly.

River took a step closer to the opening of the ship, her wide eyes shifting back and forth as she searched the darkness. "The captain's anxious," she said. "Zoe's scared. Doesn't show it, but she's scared."

Inara stepped up beside River, frowning. "Are they coming?"

"Jayne sees his own red," River answered.

The familiar sound of the mule approaching drew Inara's attention out into the darkness just as the lights broke through up ahead. She quickly pulled her and River out of the way, watching as a disheveled Jayne directed the mule haphazardly inside and brought it to a stop before it could crash into the far end of the cargo bay. River tore out of Inara's grasp before she could protest the action and slapped the button for the air lock door. "River, wait-"

"Need to get him to the infirmary!" Mal ordered as he and Zoe began to lift Simon's battered limp body out of the mule. "You too Jayne!"

Inara rose a hand to her mouth in shock at the sight. "Oh God..."

"Simon!" River cried out. She tried to get to her brother once Mal and Zoe were on their feet, but Jayne blocked her path.

"Get my gorram ship in the air!" Mal demanded.

"What's going on?" Kaylee's voice rang out from above them. She cradled Sebastian protectively against her chest as she stepped out into the open, her eyes wide with fear and concern. And then her gaze fell on what was happening in the cargo bay below and she froze in spot. "Simon?!"

Mal's attention shifted to her sharply while he and Zoe began to maneuver their way in the direction of the infirmary. "Get Kaylee out of here, Inara!"

"Is he okay?!" Kaylee panicked as she started to stumble down the first set of stairs, her fretful eyes glued to the doctor. "Is he breathin'?! Is he alive?!"

"Ta ma de [Damnit], Inara!" Mal shouted. "I said get Kaylee out of here! Ma-shong! [Now!]"

Inara turned swiftly and met Kaylee when she was half way down the stairs. She turned the mechanic to keep her from proceeding further. "Bao bay [Sweetheart], c'mon...the captain and Zoe are going to take care of him."

Kaylee struggled against her, her voice trembling on the verge of tears. "He's bleedin'! Why's he bleedin'?!"

"Sir!" Zoe urged.

Jayne grimaced as he pushed an emotionally unstable River towards the cockpit. "Gorramit, girl. You wanna help your brother, then get to the bridge like Mal said. Get us in the air."

"T-there's so much blood!" Kaylee stuttered as Inara ushered her back up the stairs. She kept looking back over her shoulder, trying to keep sight of Simon before Mal and Zoe carried him away, but they were already gone and Jayne was forcing River to the cockpit. "I have to see him, Inara!"

Inara didn't answer her, only continued to hurry Kaylee back to her shuttle where she could shelter them both from the horror of what they'd seen.

*****

Jayne cursed so harshly and quickly that Mal had no honest idea what the mercenary said. He didn't figure much that it was important and it was pretty colorful just by the sound of it, but it made the task at hand all the more difficult. Jayne wouldn't sit still where he and Mal were at just outside of the infirmary and despite the considerable amount of pain he was in, his attention remained focused past Mal inside the infirmary. The captain couldn't blame him. He caught himself periodically glancing back over his shoulder where Zoe was diligently working on stabilizing their resident doctor, but even that did little to calm Mal's nerves. He knew there was only so much Zoe would be able to do and he knew even more that unless they got Simon the help he actually needed, what Zoe could do would be too limited and not enough.

"Gorramit, Mal!" Jayne hissed as he jumped from a fiery sting of pain that raced the entire length of his arm. He grit his teeth together, inhaling and exhaling dramatically through his nose. His nostrils flared from the action as he attempted to yank his arm away, but Mal gripped it tightly to keep it in place. "You're trying to tear my arm up!"

"I'm trying to keep you from bleeding out all over the place!" Mal growled in annoyance. He reached for another piece of medical gauze and dabbed it against the seeping bullet wound on Jayne's bicep.

Jayne gripped a flask of liquor tighter in his good hand and brought it up to his mouth for a hasty drink. "Can't you give me a smoother or something?"

"I already gave you one, Jayne," Mal answered stiffly before pulling the gauze away and discarding it on the metal tray beside him.

"Well it ain't enough!" Jayne insisted and released another sharp string of curses.

"What ain't enough is the fact that my Gorram ship keeps falling apart!" Mal's eyes met Jayne's and they glared hard at each other, but it didn't take long for the expression to break. As his shoulders slumped a bit, Mal looked everywhere but at Jayne's face and then gradually refocused his attention on tending to the mercenary's injury. "You did an honorable thing for the Doc and I recognize that. I ain't too tickled you defied my direct orders to do it, but...reckon the Doc would thank you himself if he could."

"Don't need no thanks for it," Jayne muttered. He swallowed another hasty sip from the flask and once again tried to peer into the infirmary.

"Fine, but Simon would be sure as dead right now if you hadn't intervened," Mal continued. He lifted the roll of medical gauze from the tray and began to carefully wrap it around Jayne's bicep; the injury would require actual trained medical attention to remove the bullet embedded in the muscle, but there was nothing Mal could do about that at the moment. "And I've already lost enough crew members. Can't afford to lose another one."

Jayne clenched his jaw from a flare of pain. "Ain't gonna do him a lick of good if we don't get him somewhere. Zoe ain't a doctor."

Mal sat back from Jayne when he finished securing the gauze in place. "I don't need reminding of that," he said and removed the protective gloves from his hands. He rose to his feet and turned towards the infirmary. "It's plenty troubling that the doctor needs doctoring."

"It ain't just that," Jayne grunted as he pushed himself onto his feet. The mercenary swayed in spot momentarily, his hand darting out to grab hold of something to right himself with. "Doc dies and Kaylee'll go bat shit crazy, Mal. Not to mention his moonbrained sister ain't so sound either."

Mal exhaled a hard breath through his nose. "She got us in the air without crashing my ship. That's a start I'll take."

Jayne collapsed back onto the couch as the room teetered around him and it became apparent just how pale he was right then. Mal hadn't given it much notice before, but Jayne didn't look to be doing so well. His skin was clammy and his eyes were relatively unfocused, all things considered, and the longer he sat there, the more he started to slump over. "Could really use another smoother, Mal..." Jayne slurred.

"Keep drinking from that flask and you'll smooth yourself over just fine," Mal told him before making his way into the infirmary. Zoe's back was to him as she hovered over Simon's body on the exam table and as he slowly approached, he couldn't mistaken the stress she was under. He cleared his throat quietly. "Zoe. Update."

It took a bit before Zoe withdrew from the task at hand and when she turned to Mal, she was holding a bloodied rag she'd been using to clean up the lacerations on Simon's face. The doctor still looked ghastly though and if it were possible, worse than when they'd first found him in the cellar of that house back on Jirah. He was paler than Jayne even, something Mal supposed was attributed to the trauma and blood loss Simon sustained and now that he was shirtless, Mal could see just how extensive the damage really was. Didn't look like there was very much surface area on Simon's body that wasn't discolored from some sort of bruising or injury. Mal would be damned if he didn't actually feel bad about it too.

Zoe looked back down at Simon and adjusted the IV tubing she had connected to him, keeping it from tangling with the wires that were hooked up to the machine monitoring Simon's vitals. "I got him stabilized best I could," she answered and set the rag aside. "It isn't enough though, sir. Simon's blood pressure isn't holding steady, pulse is weak, his oxygen levels are low, and there's signs of internal bleeding that need tending to. Head trauma that could be causing swelling. He needs help that I can't give him.”

"That's not the answer I want," Mal gruffed as he stepped to the other side of the exam table. Crossing his arms over his chest, he stared down at Simon, wincing.

"It's the answer I have, Sir," Zoe affirmed.

"Can you keep him alive for one more day?" Inara's voice questioned from the doorway as she stepped into the infirmary. She pursed her lips tightly together, looking between Mal and Zoe with hope.

Mal's gaze shifted to the companion. "Zoe ain't making it sound like Simon has another day to spare."

"That's not what I asked," Inara told him pointedly. She avoided his gaze as she stepped up to Simon's side and lightly placed her hand on top of his.

"Unless you have a grand idea, Inara, I'm not interested in hearing what you have to say right now."

"Let her talk, sir," Zoe interjected with a hard frown of disapproval.

Inara gently squeezed Simon's hand, studying his battered features. Zoe had done a fair job cleaning him up, but it was still difficult to look at him and see him so broken and vulnerable. This wasn't the Simon Tam that Inara had come to respect and admire. "We are a day's ride from Sheydra's training house, maybe less if we burn hard," she started to explain. She caressed the back of Simon's hand as she spoke, swallowing the sickness in her stomach.

Mal scowled at her. "Time's get hard and you're looking to jump ship again?"

Inara inhaled a deep breath to keep her calm before her piercing eyes moved to set upon the captain. "There is a medical facility that is located nearby the training house," she returned steadily, mentally willing him to just listen to her without judgment for once. "If we set course now, I can send a wave ahead to Sheydra and she can contact the facility for us. She can pull some strings to get Simon the treatment he needs."

"You're asking me to set course for a place that gives me no guarantee we'll even find help at," Mal responded. "That's a mite bit of fuel to be wasting too, fuel I might add that we can't afford to be wasting right now."

"I am asking you to have faith, Mal!" Inara snapped at him. "Look at Simon and tell me he's not dying right now."

"She's right, sir," Zoe interjected.

"It's a hunch," Mal argued. "Especially when it comes to a companion medical facility. Doc's life won't sustain on a hunch."

"I'm still bleedin'!" Jayne's slurred voice called to them from just outside of the infirmary.

Mal motioned in that direction. "And he won't stop running his mouth. It's a minor bullet wound. He's overreacting."

Zoe stepped over to the captain, her face more authoritative than it had been in a long time. "Simon WILL die without proper medical care, sir. There's only so much I can do here and you know that," she stated in a harsh lowered tone. "And right now we don't have many other options and even less time to decide on what option we're going to take. So if there is even a SMALL chance that the medical facility near Sheydra's training house can help us out, then we need to take that chance...whether it's a hunch or not."

Mal tried to stare her down because he didn't care much for his authority being challenged, but there was something in Zoe's eyes that had his shoulders sinking in defeat. He knew both Zoe and Inara were right; Simon wouldn't live much longer if he wasn't tended to properly. Even if they did set course for the training house, there was no guarantee the doctor would live long enough for them to reach it. Slowly, Mal nodded as he focused his attention on Simon in troubled thought. "Send the wave, Inara," he muttered.

Inara opened her mouth to respond, but thought against it and turned to swiftly leave the infirmary.

"We don't have any other choice right now, sir," Zoe said to him, calmer this time.

Mal ignored her statement. "Make sure the doc's stable and go see your daughter," he said. "I'll sit with him once we're on course for the training house." Affording Zoe a glance that told her a lot more than his words could, Mal turned from the exam table to make his way to the cockpit.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

 

Kaylee wasn't sure how much time had passed, but she couldn't find it in herself to sit still any longer. Sebastian's wails of distress had long since faded into her memories where she hoped they would remain for the time being; as long as he was quiet and asleep, Kaylee was able to start to regain organization of her thoughts. They were dark and smothered in fear - where had her sense of hope gone? - and try as Inara had, nothing said or done could put her at ease. Not after she had spent days worrying herself sick over Simon's well being and then seeing him so lifeless as he was carried to the infirmary. Inara tried to keep her in the shuttle, but it wasn't right. None of it was right.

Kaylee had left no room for argument when she finally gathered the energy to get back on her feet and Inara had been respectful enough to stand out of her way when she insisted on making her exit. She knew Inara's intentions were pure and that the companion was simply following the captain's orders, but even assuring Kaylee that they were setting course to a place to get Simon the help he needed did nothing to ease the fear Kaylee felt torturing her. She needed to see Simon for herself, no matter how bad off he really was. And if Simon's time truly was short, Kaylee would never forgive herself for allowing any of them to deny her the right to have her last moment with him. She owed Simon that much after all he had done for her.

The thought sent a painfully regretful shiver racing the length of Kaylee's spine. She protectively cradled Sebastian to her chest as she quietly and carefully made her way towards the infirmary. Perhaps she had no right taking Sebastian with her. Inara had wanted to keep him in the shuttle for the time being, but Kaylee just couldn't find it in herself to let him go. Sleeping or not and unaware of his surroundings, Sebastian deserved to have a moment with his father as well, even if it was his only chance. That thought alone was horrific and hard to even comprehend the possibility of it.

Kaylee wasn't Zoe. She wasn't strong enough to survive alone like Zoe was.

Sighing quietly as she came upon the infirmary, Kaylee hesitated near the doorway. It was open and she could just start to see the captain sitting inside on a stool with his back to her, but it was more difficult than she had expected to get herself to walk inside, especially as her gaze fell upon Simon limply laying on the exam table. The breath caught in Kaylee's throat. There was no way she could have prepared herself for the moment she actually saw him, no way she could steel herself against the sight of his broken appearance. All she could think about was the blood that had been covering Simon when Mal and Zoe got him back onto Serenity and the fact that he'd seemed so lifeless then just like he did now. It wasn't right. How could any of this be right?

Kaylee must have made a noise to signal her presence because Mal suddenly sat up straighter on the stool and slowly looked back over his shoulder in her direction. His eyes were conflicted when they met hers and at first he seemed unsure of what to say, then he rose to his feet and turned to face her. "Kaylee..." Mal started to say.

Kaylee pursed her lips tightly together to quell the sob she felt welling in her throat. She swallowed thickly and took a step forward into the infirmary, her embrace around Sebastian tightening. "Captain," she whispered and her eyes flit to Simon once again with a visible trembling of her shoulders.

Mal approached her. "Little Kaylee...maybe you shouldn't be in here right now," he suggested calmly.

Pausing mid-step, Kaylee felt the warm tears gather at the brim of her eyes. "No, I need to be," she replied with a weak, yet defiant shake of her head. Kaylee couldn't tear her gaze away from Simon; she was afraid to, afraid that if she did, he would disappear once again and this time he wouldn't return. "Simon needs me here. I...I should be."

"It might be that you feel that way and I ain't disregarding that," Mal nodded and withdrew a step back. "Now I mean this respectfully, but I don't reckon you're in any condition to be on your feet much at the current and seeing as how we got enough trouble on our hands, I'd feel a mite better if you saw to it that you weren't."

"Ain't gonna do me any better laying in bed than being in here," Kaylee told him. Her shoulders slumped under the weight of her emotional stress and she took another step closer to the exam table. "Simon wouldn't be here like this if it weren't for me."

Mal frowned and moved to stand beside the mechanic, but she wasn't looking at him to catch sight of the expression. "Blame can be a tricky thing, but I ain't believing this is yours to take."

"I made him think I was so angry at him. That's why he went out and it wasn't fair of me."

"Doc made his own decision to go out that day. Wasn't nothing you told him to do. Wouldn't even listen to us when we warned him not to."

"He was only trying to help me," Kaylee answered forlornly. "And...and I took it for granted, captain. Took him for granted."

Mal placed a gentle hand on Kaylee's shoulder. "Don't think the doc sees it that way."

Kaylee looked at him, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Simon's gonna die, isn't he..."

"Don't you say that," Mal answered her firmly. He turned Kaylee to face him completely, recognizing her fragility with the situation. "I told you I would bring Simon back and I did. Now I ain't just gonna give him a free pass to call it quits, dong ma? [Understand?]"

"He looks so bad," Kaylee sniffled as she leaned into the captain. "There was so much blood, captain. How can he be okay?"

"He's gonna be okay if I conjure he will be," Mal reaffirmed. There was a small part of him that remotely felt guilty for even saying it because the truth was that he had no way of knowing if Simon would survive the ordeal, but the last thing Kaylee needed to hear was just that. She, most of all, needed that solid foundation of faith to get her through, even if the rest of them were lacking it, especially Mal himself.

"He don't look it," Kaylee whispered brokenly.

"That's because this shoddy little infirmary ain't what the doc needs," Mal said. His arm curled protectively around Kaylee's shoulders to provide her shelter. "And that's why we're taking him elsewhere."

Kaylee nodded weakly. "Overheard 'Nara sending a wave to Sheydra..."

"Inara knows of a medical facility located near the training house. She thinks they can help and right now, that's the best shot we've got. Doc just needs to hold out 'til we get there."

Kaylee pulled back from him and looked down at Sebastian peacefully sleeping in her embrace. "He...he has to. Sebastian needs him."

Mal fell silent for a moment as he watched the two of them. It was troubling when put into perspective how much Kaylee longed for Simon to be well and at her side because of the arrival of their son. And maybe Mal couldn't relate, but it made sense and he knew that's the way it should have been. He'd already seen Zoe go through the same thing when Emma was born months following Wash's death. His first mate had been a mirrored reflection of the way Kaylee was now, only then Zoe had been a hundred times worse because there was no bringing Wash back like she clearly longed for. Simon, on the other hand, still had a chance and that's what Kaylee needed to cling to.

Clearing his throat, Mal shoved his thoughts to the back recesses of his mind. "Listen... How about ya give me the little one so you can spend some time in here alone with the doc. I'll take Sebastian up to the bridge to see River, it might do the girl some good as I figure she ain't holding up that well, and then I'll hand him off to Inara. You don't need extra worrying about him right now."

Kaylee's gaze shifted to the captain and he nearly winced from the despair he saw reflecting in her eyes. "...Okay," she finally whispered and reluctantly transferred Sebastian into Mal's safe awaiting arms. The infant's bottom lip puckered out in distress and he began to whine, but much to Kaylee's surprise and relief, Mal was able to comfort Sebastian quickly until he was quiet again.

"Sit with the doc, Little Kaylee. I reckon it'll do him some good," Mal told her and stepped past to take him and Sebastian out of the infirmary.

Kaylee watched them go and it wasn't until they were gone that the first tear slid down her cheek. She slowly turned back to the exam table and sat on the stool Mal had been using before she reached out and took Simon's hand into both of hers. His skin was so cold to the touch and lacked its normal healthy glow. Never a time could she remember Simon looking so pale and sickly as he did right then and it made Kaylee sick to her stomach. "Oh, Simon..." she whispered as another tear slid down her cheek.

She figured it was Zoe who had cleaned Simon up, but the evidence of his injuries was still very much present. So many facial lacerations. The bruising was extensive. Simon's right eye was black and blue and blatantly swollen shut, so had he even been conscious, he wouldn't have been able to open it. What kind of tyen-sah duh UH-muo [Goddamn monsters] could do this to someone? Kaylee was no fool. She could tell just by looking at Simon that whoever had taken him captive had intended to kill him as well. Simon wasn't supposed to be alive still.

Kaylee squeezed Simon's hand gently, watching his face intently. "I'm so sorry this happened to you," she murmured as her chest tightened. "You went out 'cause of me and you shouldn't have. You were only trying to care, Simon, and I treated you wrong. I wasn't nice. And now this-"

Her voice fell short with the rising of a sob. She brought Simon's hand up to her mouth to kiss it gently, feeling her shoulders beginning to quake. "You can't leave me and Sebastian, Simon. We need you. River needs you too," Kaylee stammered and held Simon's hand against her cheek. "I can't do this without you. I'm not strong like Zoe is."

The sound of the machine monitoring Simon's vitals was quiet, but it still haunted Kaylee deeply. It did nothing to ease her, not even the readings on the screen made her feel any better. His vitals were weak and unsteady. Kaylee didn't need any medical training to know that much. She swallowed thickly and reached a hand out to gently brush the tips of her fingers against Simon's cheek. "We have a son, Simon. His name is Sebastian, just like you wanted it to be, and...and he looks just like you. I knew he would."

Her fingers lightly grazed the bruising on Simon's temple. "Captain says we're taking you somewhere to get you help, but you just gotta hold on until we get there. You're strong, Simon. I know you are. You just gotta remember that you are. Please...remember that you are."

Kaylee allowed her voice to fade into silence and she sagged against the edge of the exam table, keeping Simon's hand tightly clutched in her own. Her tears flowed freely, but she gave no effort to stop them. There was no use in trying to. They would only continue to fall. Kaylee could only hope that once they had Simon planet-side, her tears would finally cease.

*****

The darkness had turned its back on Simon and called him foolish for still holding out hope. Even after the vision of Jayne faded and the expected fatal gun shot to the head never came, Simon had made one last grappling attempt to keep hold of his hope. At first, the darkness attacked him with vengeance, swarming around Simon and reminding him just how tired he really was. It insisted he give up and finally stop fighting so everything could all just go away. Simon thought he had, but there was something that didn't seem right. It was something that made him question everything he was certain of and left him unsure of a single thing.

That's when the loneliness of his despair crept in. Even with the all consuming nature of the darkness, it didn't feel natural and Simon couldn't begin to pin point what the worst about it was. And then there was Death just out of sight. Death was laughing at him, mocking and beckoning him closer. The time would come, Death assured Simon, when it would finally welcome him in a tight embrace that Simon would not be able to break free from or turn his back to. This is what his life had become and there wasn't a part of him that wasn't questioning if it wasn't truly what he deserved.

'Kaylee...' his mind called out weakly, but try as he might this time, Simon couldn't conjure a visual image of the mechanic's sweet face. There was nothing but a black void as far as he could see and it felt so cold and so empty. How he longed to see Kaylee just one more time and feel the warmth of her touch before he was gone for good. He wanted to tell her how sorry he really was for everything that had gone wrong by fault of his own, though Simon was sure there weren't enough words in the Verse to help him adequately convey his regrets.

And then there was River too. His dear sweet sister who Simon had managed to let down in the worst ways possible. He failed her when she still so desperately needed him the most and that about killed Simon inside. River was his responsibility and he had made a point of that for as long as he could remember. When he was gone, who would River have? Who would look after her? Kaylee would be there, but it wouldn't make up for Simon's permanent absence and as much as he wanted to believe that Mal had enough of a heart to not ship River off somewhere, there was in all honesty no reason for the captain to keep River around any longer. She had no home to go to if the crew of Serenity didn't want her and if that happened, Simon had no doubts that the Alliance would eventually grab hold of her once again.

Simon started to plead with Death to take him because the guilt had become even more all consuming than the nature of the darkness. He just wanted to keep River safe. He wanted to be what Kaylee needed. He wanted to be a good father to their child. But no, Simon was nothing more than a failure. For someone who had started out with such a promising future, Simon had managed to amount to nothing.

If only Simon's mother and father could see him now. What a real joke he would be to them, the now black sheep of THEIR seemingly perfect existence.

Warmth, surprising and unexpected, began to gather around Simon on all sides and called out to him comfortingly. It felt like a soothing lullaby that relaxed him from head to toe, drawing him in to a protective embrace and telling him everything would be okay from that point on. Simon didn't have to worry anymore, it said. He had done enough and it was time to rest. The darkness no longer had claim to him. For once, he welcomed the feeling.

Simon pried his eyes open at that moment and immediately had to squint from the glaringly bright sunlight overhead. He found himself standing upright and his body void of the pain he'd become accustomed to, a change he wasn't sure what to make of. Slowly Simon shifted his gaze to his surroundings; there wasn't a hint of the darkness left. Instead, he took in the sight of the familiar sprawling well kept estate with the acres of perfectly groomed lush green lawns and the extravagant garden that lead up to the looming multilevel mansion. Simon recognized his surroundings all too well and he stood there taking it all in.

It baffled Simon greatly to see it, but there was no mistaking where he was. Home, or at least the place he had once considered his home, the place where he and River had been raised on their home planet of Osiris and admittedly so, there had been a time when Simon enjoyed being there. That of course was in the past and it had been quite some time since he'd been able to consider the Tam family estate his home and even longer still since he'd been able to say he had a home of any kind. But on those nights when Simon lay awake in bed unable to sleep, especially after a particularly difficult day handling River's tantrums and other mental break downs, he would recall his fondest memories of his time spent at home on Osiris.

Simon's gaze studied the towering mansion ahead of him with careful scrutiny, appreciating the red brick structure. It certainly was impressive and truth be told, his family's estate had been the subject of many of his friends' envy while growing up, which never really made sense to Simon considering that he and River had been raised in an elite social group where status and money was held to a high level of importance and meant nearly everything. Simon was no stranger to sprawling mansions, acres upon acres of land that most people didn't know what to do with, and fancy dinner parties. It was what he knew while growing up and for most of his life it was what Simon thought defined him. He would be a talented and respected surgeon at the hospital in Capital City and be placed high upon the social pedestal alongside his parents. It was his parents' expectations Simon would live up to.

That belief, however, had been before Simon realized his parents' loyalty never truly laid with him and River, when they refused to believe their daughter was in any sort of danger in the Alliance funded Academy after Simon repeatedly voiced his concerns. Simon wanted to believe that Gabriel and Regan Tam loved their children, but their love for money and social status kept it from mattering in the end. And that damaged Simon, truly broke a part of his very being on the inside. Osiris was no longer his home, and while he was grateful that Serenity and its crew was as close to a surrogate home and family that he and River had, it was what life had come to for him.

River and Kaylee were his true family now and Simon had failed them both.

A flock of birds flew overhead and drew Simon's attention upward. The sun was still just as bright, but his eyes had become more acclimated and he watched in awe for a few moments. There was a slight breeze in the air that played with Simon's hair, although the weather was considerably warm for Osiris. Simon suspected it had to be early to mid Summer, right around the time when most preferred to remain indoors to seek relief from the rising temperatures of the afternoon sun. Not Simon, though. No, he'd always enjoyed spending as much time outdoors as he could and more often than not, it was the solitude of the grand Tam garden Simon would seek while he focused on his studies. Those were some of his favorite moments.

There was a gentle melody carried on the breeze that originated from the garden and Simon shifted his gaze in that direction to where the elegantly carved water fountain ran at full capacity. He caught sight of a young girl, no more than ten years of age, who was slowly performing a series of perfectly executed pirouettes and beginning to take steps toward the garden, Simon watched her fondly. Her rich dark brown hair was almost black in appearance as it flowed freely down her back in bouncing loose curls and her royal blue sleeveless dress was a stark contrast against the backdrop of her pale skin.

“River,” Simon whispered in recognition and the corners of his mouth curled upward in a soft smile.

Young River Tam twirled along the front of the fountain and glanced in Simon's direction as if she had heard him whisper her name. Her returning smile was infectious when their eyes met and it brought a familiar comforting warmth flooding into Simon's system that had his steps quickening towards the garden. “River!” he called out to her with a grin that widened gradually. Within moments, Simon crossed the expanse of the lawn and stepped through the opening of the wrought iron fence surrounding the perimeter of the garden.

River turned to him and bowed gracefully with a quiet giggle of delight now that he was closer to her. “You're so slow, Simon,” she told him before stepping up onto the stone ledge of the fountain, skipping along the edge of it.

Simon kept a short distance away from her to watch her every move carefully. “You've always been faster than me, Mei Mei,” he replied with his head tilted to the side in further awe.

“And smarter, too,” River pointed out with another giggle. “Always smarter.”

“Yes,” Simon chuckled. “You always have been.”

“Puts you to shame, right?” River asked him with a hint of humor twinkling in her eyes.

“Only by you,” Simon answered with a single knowing nod of his head.

“Silly, Simon,” River teased and bowed gracefully once more.

Simon chuckled again and allowed himself to look around the garden, taking a moment to truly admire the beauty surrounding him. “Shouldn't you be doing your studies?” he asked after a while. “Mother will expect you to have them done before Dad arrives home.”

River shrugged him off as if the notion was no big deal. “Mother's too busy preparing for the dinner party tonight,” she dismissed. Balancing her weight on one foot, she bent at the waist and reached down to touch the tips of her bare toes. “I already finished my studies,” she continued. “Corrected yours, too.”

“That should not surprise me.” Simon's smile was crooked and sheepish as he reached up to run a hand through his hair, only to fight a sudden uncertain frown. “What are you doing right now?”

“Preparing for my recital,” River answered him simply. “You should sit down, Simon. You're tired.”

Simon's lips parted to question her, but he couldn't get his voice to project and he lowered himself to sit slowly on a nearby elegantly carved wooden bench. It was River's insistence that made Simon realize that the exhaustion had once again crept over him and although the darkness had yet to return and he still didn't understand what he was doing there, how tired he felt didn't seem right either. Simon's shoulders sank a little as he re-focused his attention on River. “I'm very tired, River,” he mustered quietly.

River stood straight again and hopped off the ledge of the fountain to approach Simon. “I know,” she said with a sad smile and sat down beside him. “You're tired because you're hurting. You were hurt bad. It wasn't the dinosaurs this time and our platoon is still intact.”

“River, I...I don't understand,” Simon stuttered with a heavy sigh. He looked down at his hands, searching for evidence of the pain that had begun to faintly flair beneath the surface of his skin. Simon saw none though and his head swam as he tried to mentally gather scenarios and explanations he could actually make sense of. “Everything got out of hand. I tried to stop it, but I couldn't.”

“You wanted to make Kaylee happy because you made her sad,” River asserted as she reached a hand up to delicately flutter the tips of her fingers against Simon's temple in contemplation. He nearly winced from the gentle touch but relaxed into it. It made him remember how sincerely caring his sister was as a young child. “Simon has a good heart. Kaylee knows that.”

“I loved her, Mei Mei,” Simon told her with a regretful frown. “I truly did.”

River's eyes were locked with his and widened with innocent encouragement. “You still do, Simon,” she said and withdrew her hand.

Simon quietly sighed this time and kept his eyes on River. “I'm afraid it doesn't matter now,” he murmured.

“You're wrong,” River chided him with a huff. Her stare was disapproving as she stood from the bench and skipped along the ground over to a nearby rose bush where she bent at the waist to pluck one of the flowers. Simon recognized the stubborn side of River's demeanor all too well. It was something that had never changed over the years, even after the damage his sister had sustained at the hands of the Alliance. For a short time the silence settled between them and then River returned to stand in front of Simon with the rose carefully clutched in an attentive hand. “Sometimes you don't think correctly.”

“Not everyone can be as smart as my sister,” Simon offered wryly in return, but his intended smile never quite reached his face.

“Smell it,” River suggested as she held the rose out to Simon expectantly.

Simon stared back at her curiously and slowly leaned in to inhale the scent of the rose. The fragrance was intoxicating, invading his nostrils with familiarity. Kaylee would have really loved the roses from his family's garden. “A beautiful rose just like my beautiful sister,” he mused when he returned his gaze to River.

River set the rose beside Simon on the bench and took hold of his hand. “Come on,” she told him and tugged Simon to bring him to his feet.

Simon obliged and slowly stood, allowing his hand to conform to hers. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“Asking questions doesn't always give you answers, Simon,” River answered him.

Simon didn't respond to her, mostly for the fact that he couldn't make much sense of what she said. His thoughts were so muddled and his head had started to hurt the more he tried to think. And so they walked in silence for a while, traversing the expanse of the garden in the solitude of each others company as another flock of birds flew overhead.

Eventually, Simon stopped them though, after his feet began to drag with each consecutive step he took and he found it suddenly harder to keep upright. “River, I...I think I need to sit down,” he mustered just above a whisper and before he could manage another word, Simon felt himself sinking towards the ground. The soft manicured grass cushioned his fall as he sunk just to the side of the gravel walk way. Simon lifted his eyes to River towering over him.

Above them, Simon was vaguely aware of the way the sunlight began to fade beneath the blanket of angry gray storm clouds that were rolling in. His head lulled forward and his chin dipped towards his chest. Simon's eyes were so heavy now that he could barely keep them open and the urge to allow them to just close was overwhelming. Perhaps the darkness hadn't abandoned him after all...

River's delicate hands gently cupped Simon's cheeks and lifted his chin so their gazes could meet once again. She had kneeled before him and her expression was neither relaxed or concerned, but the reflection in her eyes spoke more volumes than her silence did.

Simon raised a trembling hand to cover River's with his own. “I just wanted to keep you safe, Mei Mei,” he said in a voice that had become increasingly weak as the moments passed. “I always wanted to keep you safe...and make Kaylee happy.”

“You make Kaylee very happy,” River answered him with an assuring smile. “She smiles in her heart because of you.”

“I've abandoned her now,” Simon whispered as he leaned into River's comforting touch. “I didn't mean to leave her like this.”

“But you haven't left Kaylee,” River said. “Because you're strong, Simon. You just have to remember.”

“It's too late,” Simon whispered again.

'You can't leave me and Sebastian, Simon. We need you. River needs you too,' Kaylee's voice echoed from all around them. It made Simon ache on the inside because she sounded so far away and he longed to see her. Home was where River and Kaylee were. He needed them.

Droplets of rain began to land upon Simon, slowly at first and then more steadily until his hair became matted to his forehead and the material of his clothing was soaked clear through. “Kaylee,” he choked out with a shallow breath. He became unable to keep his eyes open any longer and felt himself swaying forward into River's waiting embrace. A broken sob just audibly passed Simon's lips.

'I can't do this without you. I'm not strong like Zoe is,' Kaylee called out again.

“Kaylee, I love you...” Simon murmured as he slumped against River's tiny frame.

“It's going to be okay, Simon,” River's voice assured him while his awareness began to steadily fade.

“I'm so tired, River,” Simon slurred.

“Rest, da-ghuh (big brother),” River urged him. “You're safe now.”

As young River and the familiarity of his family's estate on Osiris began to dissolve around him, Simon finally allowed himself to let go. This time, the darkness as Simon knew it didn't return to draw him into a final oblivion nor did Death make its appearance to beckon him in. Instead, it was a calming silence that washed over him and the knowledge of his sister's assurance that everything would be okay that soothed Simon until he was aware no more.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

 

The companion medical facility wasn't at all what Mal had expected. Then again, he wasn't really sure what he had been expecting aside from a general distrust on both ends when they finally arrived and the truth was, there wasn't a moment before when Mal honestly believed they would find the help there that they needed. But Sheydra had proved more than capable at assisting when she was found already waiting with medical personnel for the crew of Serenity at the selected landing site located near by the training house.

 

Inara had told Mal to have faith after sending the wave ahead to Sheydra and Mal, lacking all traces of patience by that point, had snapped in return that the companion had too much damn faith to begin with. Faith was not something Mal had an unending supply of and if he really thought about it, it had been that way since the battle of Serenity Valley during the Unification war. Faith was not the captain's strong point and maybe it never had been.

 

Exhaustion had become an unnerving regularity of Mal's demeanor and as the minutes and hours turned into days that blended one into the other, he became that much closer to wearing himself thin. What more could he do though? It was more than just running on adrenaline, because running on adrenaline was something Mal did when they were in the midst of some kwong-juh duh [crazy] heist or some other daring job that more often than not caused him and the crew a fair deal of headache, but at least it kept them soaring through the Black. And that's what Mal liked doing most. That's what kept him feeling like he still had some bit of control. As long as Serenity was kept in the air and running smoothly, then Mal was satisfied.

 

Right now, though, Mal wanted nothing more than to seek refuge in his bunk and sleep an entire week, shut out the whole of the Verse and refuse any sort of respectable responsibility. Even acquiring a few minutes of shut eye on multiple occasions as he had in whatever quiet corner of the medical facility he could find hadn't been sufficient. Someone always sought Mal out in one way or another and it was never to the captain's benefit.

 

First it had been liability release forms Mal needed to sign on Simon's behalf while Serenity's resident doctor was in the midst of an emergency surgery that was meant to save his life. Mal really hadn't understood that one because Simon wasn't HIS responsibility, but he'd signed the forms anyway. Then it was Jayne running his loud mouth after receiving medical treatment of his own for the bullet wound to his right bicep. It hadn't been life threatening by any means, but the mercenary milked his predicament for all that it was worth and once he realized no nurse or companion in their right mind would be giving him a sponge bath of any kind, Mal had had no choice but to quickly usher him back to their awaiting ship before he could cause any medically induced ruckus.

 

The crew of Serenity had no business being in a Companion medical facility, Mal knew that all too well, and Sheydra had to pull strings just to get them through the door. The last thing Mal needed was someone like Jayne screwing that up for them before Simon was a good distance away from knocking on Death's door.

 

Mal just needed everything to go back to normal, as normal as normal was for them.

 

Simon's surgery had taken place three days prior and the damage their injured doctor had sustained was more extensive than any of them had stopped to consider. It was a wonder Simon's life force had held on as long as it had, which had only baffled the medical personnel seeing to his care. Simon shouldn't have arrived to the facility alive, they said. Mal was almost certain Simon shouldn't have made it off of Jirah alive either, but somehow he had.

 

A lot of medical jargon had been passed around after the surgery concluded when the head surgeon came to speak to both Mal and Zoe and neither of them understood the majority of it. Zoe listened more intently while Mal stood numbly by and let his mind wander for the most part, but the captain did catch the gist of the main issues. Too much internal and external bleeding needing extended blood transfusions to replenish what was lost. Multiple rib fractures, one that had come dangerously close to piercing one of Simon's lungs. A fractured left leg and ankle, although superficial compared to the rest of the injuries, would still require weeks to heal and would probably cause Simon some sort of periodic discomfort for the rest of his life.

 

Serenity's doctor needed serious doctoring and there was so much irony in that thought that Mal wanted to laugh bitterly at it. Of course it just didn't help that he really had reached the point of exhaustion where he was nearly delirious and he was certain he could find the irony in almost anything by that point. It didn't help matters any and didn't make Mal a very sound choice to turn to either.

 

Pinching at the bridge of his nose, Mal turned with a heavy sigh from where he had paced to the end of the hallway and allowed his weary gaze to shift around him. He'd been wandering the halls for a while to keep to himself as Inara saw to her business at the training house and Zoe tended to Emma's care back on the ship. Even Kaylee's presence had been scarce around Mal because of her obligation to Sebastian. Sheydra had been kind enough to set up a room for Kaylee's use while they were planet-side, an accommodation that did the mechanic good and was something that Mal was honestly thankful for. She appeared as exhausted as Mal himself felt and considering he had not seen her in quite a while, Mal could only hope she was finally allowing herself a few moments rest. She wouldn't stay gone for long though. Mal knew that much. Eventually, he would once again find her at Simon's side with River.

 

Mal's brows lightly furled as he glanced down the hallway towards the open doorway of Simon's room. A nurse exited the room with medical charts tucked under her arm and she offered Mal a kind smile of recognition before heading in the opposite direction. Mal had seen her on more than one occasion over the previous days, deciding after the first encounter that she didn't look like she belonged in a companion medical facility. Inara had chided him for that assumption.

 

Mal waited for the nurse to disappear from sight, then began to make his way down the hallway towards Simon's room.

 

As far as Mal knew, River hadn't left her brother's side since their arrival once the surgery concluded. There was determined dedication in the younger Tam's demeanor that even Mal found endearing and it reflected much upon the dedication Simon had always shown for his sister. However, Mal wondered how long it would be before he would have to assert his authority and see to it that River properly rested as well. If that were even possible, because River often drifted upon her own disconnected way of thinking and the only one remotely capable of handling that was still teetering on the brink without a solid guarantee.

 

Who was Mal trying to fool? River would end up doing what kept her calm and the captain knew that meant remaining at her brother's side until he opened his eyes and assured her himself that everything was going to be okay.

 

Somehow in the midst of it all, Mal started to psycho-analyze moonbrained River Tam. What was the Verse coming to? Or had Mal finally lost his Gorramn mind?

 

When he reached the room, Mal paused in the doorway and took a bit of time to silently observe. River was perched diligently in the chair at Simon's bedside, sitting so still that it was eery, her gaze focused and her eyes unblinking. Simon, on the other hand, hadn't changed much either. Mal wanted to look away because Simon's appearance bothered him that much, but try as he might, he couldn't. Simon was ghastly still and despite the now steady holding of his vitals, it was no more reassuring. Simon Tam wasn't Mal's responsibility, so why did he feel so Gorramn guilty and responsible for what happened?

 

'Battle of Serenity, Mal. Besides Zoe here, how many men in your platoon came out of there alive?'

 

Mal winced as Jayne's accusatory voice rang out in his head and River sat up straighter in her chair, reaching out to delicately take Simon's hand into hers. “You're wrong,” she told Mal.

 

Frowning, Mal slowly stepped into the room. “Come again?” he asked warily in return.

 

“The war,” River answered him quietly. “Wasn't your fault what happened, not really. It still haunts you and you take responsibility.”

 

Mal shook his head and didn't answer at first as he rubbed a hand over his face. Stepping around to the opposite side of the bed as River, he stared down at Simon. “Fahng-sheen, [Don't worry,] Little Albatross,” he muttered dismissively. “I'm fine. And it would do you a fair bit of good to stay out of my head. You should be worrying about your brother instead.”

 

River's voice was even quieter when she spoke up again, clearly conveying just how troubled she really was by what had happened to her brother. “He got lost,” she explained with confliction passing over her face. “The compass breaks and you can't find your way. He didn't know how.”

 

Mal sighed under his breath. “I mean this kindly, darlin', but I ain't got the brain power to be decoding your riddles right now.”

 

River finally shifted her eyes to the captain. “Simon just needed to find his way home, for Kaylee and Sebastian.”

 

The captain nodded as if he understood. “I reckon for you as well.”

 

“He worries too much,” River whispered. “But not about himself. He never does.”

 

Mal watched the younger Tam as she spoke, but her eyes were no longer upon him and he suddenly felt just as equally responsible for her as well. His crew... His family... Mal crossed his arms over his chest and returned his attention to Simon. “Your brother is gonna be just fine. He just needs some time. They're taking good care of him here.”

 

“You speak but you don't believe,” River told him distractedly. “Try to convince yourself, searching for confidence, but finding none. You're lost too. Don't know what to think. Losing control. Still not your fault.”

 

“I think that's questionable,” Mal answered with a faint crooked smile.

 

“Your crew,” River acknowledged. She looked at Mal once again and smiled shyly. “...Your family.”

 

“I reckon we're a dysfunctional bunch at best.” Mal reached out to gently place his hand on Simon's shoulder. “Doc's gonna be back to himself in no time.”

 

River nodded. “Gotta watch after his moon brained sister. Keep her functioning so she can fly the ship.”

 

Mal considered River for a moment and recognized that the statement was her attempt at light hearted humor. He appreciated her for it too. They didn't give River enough credit at times. It was just...hard to connect with the girl, especially when there was no telling when she would fly off the handle next. Mal was no good at damage control when it came to that. Another one of Simon's areas of expertise. “How're you doing, River? Don't suspect much anyone's been asking you that.”

 

“Living,” River answered simply. Her hand extended to smooth the hair away from Simon's forehead much in the same manner a mother would do for a sick or hurting child. “Heart beats a rhythm and blood flows through veins to the dance of life.”

 

“I suppose it's a safe bet to say there's more than a little going on inside that head of yours right now,” Mal guessed and he wasn't sure exactly why he said it, if only for the sake of making conversation to keep the room from becoming too quiet. River nodded nonetheless and withdrew both of her hands to her lap.

 

“Chaos...” she murmured in response. “It's always too loud.”

 

“Yeah, well...” Mal shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “It may sound like it's asking a lot, all things considered, but I need you to trust me when it comes to what's going on with your brother at the current.”

 

“The sheep trust the shepherd to lead them where they need to go,” River said. “Albatross trusts the captain like the sheep trust the shepherd.”

 

“...Mal?”

 

Mal turned his attention to the doorway when he heard the gentle sound of Inara's voice call out to him. Surprisingly enough, it warmed Mal from the inside out to hear it and he relaxed at the sight of the companion. Inara's expression was as calm as he was used to seeing it. Her poise was still to perfection, despite her distress, right down to the beaded burgundy silk dress she wore. Mal almost hated himself for appreciating her beauty in that moment – appropriate had never exactly been his forte – but Inara didn't allow him the chance to afford it another thought when she entered the room politely.

 

“If it is possible, I would like to request a word with you in private,” she stated.

 

Mal stared back at her, a mite uncertain of her intentions. Most times, he would have been quick with his wit and sarcasm, but this time that ploy failed him. His hesitation was temporary though and he motioned with his head towards the doorway for the two of them to convene in the hall. He didn't speak up until they were alone together. “Didn't think I would be seeing much of you while we're here.”

 

Inara's head tilted to the side, the soft curls of her dark hair framing her face delicately. “What are you doing, Mal?” she asked him as her intense gaze studied his tired facial features closely.

 

“For starters?” Mal raised his brows. “Looks like I'm standing here talking to you.”

 

“That's not what I meant,” Inara countered just as quietly as before. Her fingers absently glided over the low cut neck line of her dress. “I'm asking what it is you think you are doing to yourself.”

 

“Myself?” Mal repeated. “Now this don't sound like the start of a very pleasant conversation I want to take part in. Don't you have some companion-like stuff you need to be doing? Whoring to be teaching?”

 

It took all Inara had not to roll her eyes in annoyance. She had moved past the point of offense a long time ago every time Mal made a personal attack against her profession of choice. There was no ignorance towards the fact that he still didn't approve after all this time. She didn't care though; that wasn't the concern right then.

 

“Ta ma de, [Damnit,] Mal,” Inara snapped in a hushed voice. “I know it pains you to stop acting yo cho yo ying [stubborn] for one second, but could you please act like a normal human being right now?”

 

Mal released a sharp string of curses beneath his breath and turned from Inara to pace away. “No...no, I am not interested in having this kind of conversation with you.”

 

“Is that the truth or are you just too afraid to admit to the guilt complex that is eating you alive inside?”

 

With his back to Inara, Mal let loose a short sarcastic scuff. “That ain't a subject you want to be breaching when it's nothing you know about,” he answered stiffly. “Don't matter to me none that you think you know, because you don't. I sure would appreciate it if you would keep mind of that.”

 

Inara nearly shrunk back a step from Mal's bitter tone, but she held her ground firmly and her expression softened. “I'm not speaking of anything I can't clearly see for myself,” she stated, her tone significantly more patient. “It's a pattern, Mal. I've seen it from you before. You don't hide it. You just try to deny it, especially to yourself.”

 

“What in God's name are you even talking about, Inara?” Mal demanded in a low voice that betrayed his typical authority as he turned to face the companion. For a brief moment, they stared back at each other, eyes equally blazing with a withering resolve until Mal finally looked away at a loss for words.

 

Inara's hand gently pressed upon the captain's arm in hopes that she could gain his attention once more. It did little good though and made her heart sink in concern when he refused to look at her. “You're over thinking everything...”

 

“It's what I do,” Mal muttered.

 

“And it drives you to the brink of insanity every time.”

 

“This doesn't concern you!”

 

Inara nearly choked on a surprised breath, her eyes widening slightly in disbelief. “Qing zaishuo yibian? [I beg your pardon?]” she whispered. If she hadn't been offended before, she was certainly more than a little offended right then with the way that Mal insinuated she was less than important in the grand scheme of things, particularly when it came to him. His dismissal more than just stung.

 

Mal's lips parted to speak further, but his voice didn't project and his shoulders sank under the weight of Inara's betrayed stare. His words had been a mistake, that much was clear, not that he'd really given them much thought before they slipped from his mouth. Inara's intentions towards him were harmless. Mal just didn't want to hear it though. It wouldn't make a difference and she would never understand the way she thought she did. It was chaos, just like River said.

 

Inara's gaze flit towards the open doorway of Simon's room. “You've done everything you can, Mal...” she murmured.

 

Stepping around her, Mal leaned against the wall to relieve the pressure of the weight on his body. “That ain't the way I see it,” he said. “There's always something. May not be what you think. Don't expect you to understand none either.”

 

The soft sound of River's voice singing to her brother floated out into the hall, grabbing Inara's attention further. She immediately recognized it as the same song River had sang to Kaylee prior to Sebastian's birth and it was just as relaxing to hear it now as it was the first time she heard it. Inara smiled pleasantly. “...I know you're afraid,” she spoke to Mal as she kept her eyes glued to the doorway. “Of what happened and what could have happened.”

 

“This has nothing to do with fear, Inara. I'm tired of liability,” Mal told her. “And I'm tired of casualties. Can't do my job none. Could do with less of the headache. Would be better off.”

 

Inara's eyes rotated back to Mal. “You don't mean that,” she returned.

 

“My whole Gorramn crew is falling apart,” Mal hissed.

 

“What good is having a crew without a captain?” Inara closed the distance between them, fighting the urge to lift a hand a gently caress Mal's pale cheek. “Your anger will eventually destroy you if you continue like this. You confuse me, Mal. You are so quick to say how much you detest Simon and River, but you are even quicker to take the blame and responsibility when something goes wrong or something happens to them. Your mouth betrays what your heart truly feels.”

 

Mal berated himself internally for appearing as particularly vulnerable right then because the last thing he really wanted to convey to Inara was that she was right. The flooring around his feet suddenly became interesting and he afforded great focus on it. “Zoe have you do this?” he questioned.

 

“Shuh-muh? [What?]” Inara tried to clarify.

 

“Zoe...did she have you do this?” Mal repeated. He kicked at the floor absently with the tip of his boot. “Talk to me, I mean. It'd be something she would do. 'Course, I don't reckon it makes any sense why she wouldn't just do it herself.”

 

“Kaylee asked me to speak to you,” Inara answered. She turned from Mal and stepped over to the open doorway to peer inside the room, observing the way River tended to her brother carefully. “She has been worrying herself sick for days now...about Simon, Sebastian, River, Jayne...you.”

 

“Me?” Mal chuckled shortly. “Kaylee don't need to be worrying about me none.”

 

Inara smiled fondly at the thought. “Kaylee worries about everyone, including you. She always has.”

 

Mal gruffed. “Don't mean she doesn't already have enough to be worrying about without adding me to it. I'm fine, Inara. You can tell her that.”

 

“Are you?” When Inara turned back to Mal, she found him watching her intently. For the first time, she took note of just how run down Mal actually looked, how exhausted and broken he appeared to be. Inara didn't take a step towards him though, fearing that if she were to close the distance between them, it would see the captain off once again. “Mal...you have barely slept in days and you have eaten even less. What you are doing to yourself will only bring you harm.”

 

What could Mal possibly say to that? He grumbled under his breath and rubbed a hand over his face. “Don't know much what you're expecting from me right now, Inara,” he muttered.

 

“It's not what I'm expecting you to do,” Inara calmly replied. “It's what I'm hoping you will do, that you will listen to reason for once instead of turning a deaf ear.”

 

“I'm listening right now, aren't I? I'm not arguing,” Mal returned, but when Inara stared back at him pointedly with waning patience, he scowled. “I'm not arguing!”

 

A nurse who had appeared at the end of the hallway and began to approach offered them both a stern glance of warning that silenced Mal quickly. Inara bowed her head and smiled apologetically at her and then waited for the nurse to turn into Simon's room before she re-focused her attention on the captain. “Go back to the training house. Sheydra has prepared you a room suitable for your needs and she will provide you with a sufficing meal. You need rest and you will find it there.”

 

“...Are you ordering me around?” Mal cocked a less than amused brow. “'Cause I don't take kindly to people who order me around.”

 

It took all Inara had to swallow the curse wanting to surface and keep her voice calm and steady. “If you don't go back to the training house, I will speak to Sheydra and have her see to it personally that you never be allowed to set foot inside this facility again.”

 

Mal pushed away from the wall. “Now you've taken to threatening me?”

 

Inara shook her head and spoke softly. “I am making you a promise.”

 

If ever there was a time that Mal hated Inara outsmarting him, that moment was no exception. She was good for her word too; there wasn't a doubt in his mind that the companion would march straight to the head of the training house if he even thought about defying her wishes for him. So, squaring his shoulders and his jaw, Mal started to move past her without so much as a parting glance.

 

“Mal...” Inara started to call after him, but she didn't take a step to follow.

 

“I don't have time for you right now, Inara,” Mal interrupted her as he continued walking. “Don't wanna listen to another one of your lectures either. Makes my head spin, just like you always do to me.”

 

Inara's mouth opened and quickly shut wordlessly as Mal moved further down the hall away from her. Before long, he disappeared from sight around the corner at the far end and Inara's face fell under the weight of her concern for the captain. It didn't matter how much he frustrated her to no end at times, his naturally stubborn nature was sufficiently infuriating, but...Mal's well being meant more to Inara than she could possibly convey. Especially now when she knew full well he was once again inadvertently punishing himself for the tragedy that had befallen them.

 

“Oh, Mal...” she murmured to the empty air around her. “I wish you could see I truly care...”

 

*****

 

Zoe had never been much of a tea connoisseur. She preferred a harder drink, the kind that warmed the blood pumping through her veins and numbed her anxiety to the point that she could still function. That had especially been true through the war, in the thick of battle when they were taking cover from the rain of fire coming from the opposition, the Gorram Alliance that wanted to see each and every one of the Independents burn in defeat. During those days that saw natural light fading into the black of night and then something much much darker, Zoe sought the periodic solace from the tiny flask she kept hidden with her supplies, just enough to take the edge off of the realization that they were indeed on the losing end, no matter how much they wanted to believe otherwise.

 

Mal knew a lot about Zoe, they had developed too much history for him not to know most of his first mate's deepest and darkest secrets, but he didn't know that. There were still a few inner demons Zoe preferred to keep to herself, ones that she was certain would have the captain frowning upon her in disappointment, because sometimes she truly wondered if Mal believed she could do no wrong. Of course, it hadn't always been that way. They'd learned to recognize each others faults over the years, but things had certainly changed since Miranda. Mal had become softer around Zoe...as if he were afraid she were on the verge of shattering at any given second.

 

If only Mal truly knew...he would see Zoe for what she really was, broken and unworthy.

 

It had been particularly rough those first few months after losing Wash. Up in the Black, keeping track of the passing time almost seemed useless outside of their travels and Zoe had usually left that detail to Mal in the past anyway. Though finding herself alone with Wash no longer by her side, Zoe lost all concept of time as it was known. When she wasn't needed for duties, she found herself locked securely in the room she once shared with her beloved husband, curled up in the middle of their bed where so much love and passion had been made while she sobbed through her grief.

 

Those days had felt suffocating and on more than one occasion, when her heart ached so much and she barely felt like a shred of the woman she once was, Zoe honestly began to wonder if she would make it through the pain of her loss. She became a master of deceit to keep herself shielded from the concerned stares of the rest of the crew. Zoe never wanted their pity. She didn't want to be looked upon any differently either, but how could she expect them not to look at her differently when she couldn't even afford herself the same? In fact, their best of intentions only made the bitterness swell in Zoe more and she hated them for it. The Verse had broken to pieces and they were hoping she would just...move on.

 

Zoe didn't remember much from those first few days when they finally got Serenity back in the air again. The extensive repairs to the ship had taken a long time to complete and Zoe had welcomed the distraction. It didn't allow her much time to think when she kept busy, as long as she steered clear of the cock pit where the memories of her husband's life and death were strongest. She'd only spent one day in there completing repairs and that had left her in a puddle of misery. Then came the first shutter of the ship's walls when the engine roared to life once more and the gravitational pull as they lifted off the ground did more than just tug naturally at Zoe's insides. It was just another reminder of what she'd once had and what had been stolen from her.

 

'Think she'll hold together?'

 

'She's tore up plenty, but she'll fly true.'

 

They had been talking about the ship, Zoe and Mal, but looking back now, the contrast between the fragility of Serenity and Zoe's mental state was astonishing. She had been battered and broken in the after math and despite it all, she still remained loyal and true to the crew regardless of how empty she was inside. Part of Zoe figured that would never change, even if she found herself simply just going through the motions like she had been for quite some time. That was Zoe Alleyne, though – the woman who survived the Unification war. Zoe Washburne felt as if she had died right along with her husband.

 

Inara had tried to draw close to Zoe during those first few days out in the Black once Mr. Universe's moon and her husband's memorial site were far behind them, mostly for the fact that the first mate had all but shut everyone out around her, even Mal. Zoe wasn't proud of it, but she had been the most hateful to the captain out of them all. She had said things that left HER in disbelief, hurtful and mean things that were undeserving. Mal, being the honorable and devoted captain that he was took it all in stride, but Zoe didn't go without noticing the scar it left in his eyes. The companion had been the only one thereafter brave enough to approach Zoe in her weakest moments, not that Zoe could blame the rest of the crew for straying. If she could have abandoned herself, she would have.

 

Maybe in some ways, she had...

 

It was a cup of tea Inara brought Zoe on the third day. Cradling a beautifully designed gold-rimmed porcelain cup in delicate hands -her fine china that was usually reserved for sessions with her clients- Inara had gracefully entered Zoe's living quarters with respectfully quiet steps. The companion's demeanor was noticeably more tentative than normal, but trained in detaching from feelings that were her own, she only let it show momentarily. Zoe hadn't partaken in dinner with the rest of the crew that evening and it had left everyone equally taken aback and concerned, although Kaylee had been the only one to voice her opinion on the matter. She spoke what the rest of them were thinking. And so Inara had volunteered to check on the wellness of the ship's first mate.

 

The tea was meant to be a peace offering, though Zoe couldn't be sure what the peace offering was for. Or perhaps the drink served no more purpose than to merely guide the companion in for polite interaction. Zoe hadn't wanted anything to do with Inara's efforts and had she been asked, she wouldn't have been able to recall a majority of what Inara had said to her that night. She'd been less than welcoming too. Barely a foot into the room, Zoe had made it abundantly clear that Inara wasn't welcomed there. But it wasn't the sight of the companion that bothered Zoe the most...it was the thought of letting the woman see her cry. That wasn't the Zoe they all knew and she'd be damned if she willingly gave them a reason to believe otherwise.

 

Inara had been patient, far more patient than Zoe deserved. She spoke with acceptance of the woman's disposition in the situation and she even offered to let Zoe unleash everything on her, but her efforts had gone without reward. Eventually, it was Zoe's calculated cruelty that had Inara making her exit from the room, and when she was alone once again, not even the shattering of the porcelain tea cup against the wall could free Zoe from the bonds of her misery.

 

Wash had loved tea.

 

Zoe hated it even more because of that.

 

She decided that night that there wasn't enough alcohol in the Verse to calm the turbulent storm tearing apart her soul, but it didn't stop Zoe from trying to drink her sorrows away. For the first time in her life, she felt more than she cared to feel and she thought more than she wanted to think. The pressure was too much to handle and so she searched for solace in the specialty bottle of liquor Wash had been keeping hidden away for whatever special occasion arose in the future. Mal would have thrown a Gorram fit had he ever found out the large chunk of credit Wash spent for the purchase, but Zoe had allowed her husband the fun of keeping the secret, let him think he had one up on the captain.

 

It was a sweet tasting bourbon with honey undertones that slid far too easily and smoothly down Zoe's throat. The guilt with the first drink had been overwhelming; it felt more like she was drinking to the death of her husband and God, she dreaded the thought of what Wash would think about it. He wouldn't be...proud to say the least. He'd probably even ask Zoe just what exactly it was that she was trying to do. 'You are stronger than this, Zo' he would say. 'You're my strong delicate autumn flower.' But the fact of the matter was, Zoe wasn't strong and delicate didn't even begin to explain it.

 

Before she knew it, there was just under a quarter of the bottle contents remaining and Zoe's heart was just as shattered.

 

She still kept the bottle stowed in a trunk in her living quarters, but she hadn't touched it since that night...and she wouldn't. Not again.

A week after the event, Zoe found herself more ill than she could ever recall herself being before. Couldn't rightfully blame it on some lingering hangover either, not like she originally thought. The morning after her drinking binge had been spent in the lavatory while Zoe's insides waged war against her pity-induced stupidity. By day seven, she couldn't get herself out of bed without the whole of the Verse turning upside down on her. As if Hell was slashing at her with its claws of torture, Zoe began to wonder if it were even possible for things to get any worse.

 

Simon had been keeping a close watch on the ship's first mate at the nagging insistence of the captain. The doctor dutifully checked in on Zoe once in the morning, another time at mid-day, and finally before he, himself, turned in for the evening. Zoe had honestly respected him for it too, no matter how much she wasn't able to voice her gratitude. Simon did what he could to ease the physical discomfort of her ailment, but he never tried to pry and get Zoe to open up about the emotional demons she was battling on the inside. It wasn't the good doctor's way.

 

Until Simon approached Zoe on the eighth morning with a startling suspicion that Zoe had never stopped to consider. There hadn't been a shred of the doctor that hadn't been serious as he sat on the edge of Zoe's bed and took his time explaining his reasoning. But how could it possibly be? The exhaustion, the continual sickness, the absence of her monthly cycle... Perhaps Zoe had been in denial all along. She'd explained the changes away due to the emotional and physical stress that had taken over her life. Not once did Zoe think it could be as simple as Simon was saying it was.

 

Numbly, Zoe had allowed Simon to take her to the infirmary that morning before the rest of the crew had roused. She couldn't wrap her mind around the implications of what the doctor sought to find out. How could Wash, her beloved husband, have done this to her and left her on her own to pick up the pieces without him? It was supposed to be a journey they would eventually take together and now she was looking at taking that journey alone.

 

The infirmary felt colder than normal and Simon hadn't spoken a word as he carefully administered the simple test, acquiring a small sample of Zoe's blood to gather the data he needed. It took all of a few moments for the results to surface, but by God if those moments didn't feel like the longest of her life, and when they did, Zoe was left without a doubt when Simon slowly turned to face her. She could read the revelation in his eyes.

 

She was pregnant.

 

Zoe didn't respond at first. In fact, Simon had questioned if Zoe even heard him to begin with. She couldn't find her voice though; what was he expecting her to say anyway? Was she expected to jump for joy and thank the Heavens for the opportunity to finally become a mother when it was those same Heavens that had ripped her husband away from her? No, she couldn't and she wouldn't do any of that. Instead, Zoe bitterly cursed Wash beneath her breath, eased herself off the exam table and made her exit from the infirmary without another word.

 

Mal found her a short time later, sitting numbly on the edge of her bed in her living quarters. He sat beside her and for quite a long while, neither one of them spoke. There weren't many things the captain could think of to say that would adequately bring the comfort he knew Zoe so desperately needed, so when the woman finally collapsed into his arms, he merely held her protectively and allowed her to sob in her despair without an ounce of judgment.

 

The moment of Zoe's vulnerability didn't last long, perhaps minutes or hours though she was too beside herself to really be sure of much, but when they finally pulled from the embrace, there was mutual agreement in their silence that Zoe's show of weakness would never be spoken of again once Mal left the room. One look into the captain's eyes told her that he would keep her secret safe as long as she needed him to. They would get through it, Mal assured her. Some way, some how, just like they'd gotten through the war.

 

The bottle of honey tinted bourbon had been tempting that day when Zoe found herself alone once again. There wasn't enough left in the bottle to begin to put a dent in her pain, even if she could have sought the cowardice to harm the life now growing within her. But Zoe couldn't do that. Her unborn child deserved a better fighting chance and she'd be damned to do that to her husband's memory, no matter the bitter anger festering within her.

 

That was the day Zoe stowed the bourbon bottle inside the trunk and locked the lid without further regard. It was no longer about her; she vowed that no matter what, no matter the cost, she would always protect her child. And so she started acting on that vow by seeking out a cup of hot herbal tea from the ship's companion.

 

The smell and the taste made Zoe's stomach churn, but she drank until there wasn't a drop left in the bottom of the cup. Life would go on.

 

Zoe exhaled a quiet breath as she slowly shifted her eyes down to the cup of tea she held in her hands. It wasn't her first choice and she wasn't exactly fond of it either, but she hadn't been able to tell the nurse no when the petite woman brought it as a polite offering. As if it were an act against the medical facility's rules, the nurse had entered Simon's hospital room quietly and drawn to Zoe's side with a wordless understanding. Bringing the tea wasn't typical procedure, she'd said. In fact, if Zoe didn't know better, she suspected the nurse had gone to great lengths for the extra show of hospitality and Zoe was thankful.

 

The cup was only half empty now, or was it half full? The centuries old riddle made Zoe's head hurt as she contemplated it and eventually she reached out to set the cup upon the tray beside Simon's hospital bed, no longer able to stomach the thought of drinking the now cold liquid. She wasn't a tea connoisseur. She hated tea.

 

Slowly, Zoe brought her gaze to Simon's frail form laying in the hospital bed and took a careful mental inventory of his condition. The medical facility had been keeping the doctor in a carefully monitored medically induced coma as an effort to allow his body the adequate chance to heal the way it needed to. Five days now. It had been five long days since the surgery that had been performed to save Simon's life and now the doctors overseeing his care said it was up to him to do the rest. Zoe had been informed shortly after arriving to visit that evening that Simon had finally been taken off of the medication keeping him in an unconscious state. His body needed time to work it out of his system and IF he woke up, they would then truly know the extent of the damage that had been done.

 

If...

 

Zoe had replayed that statement countless times in her mind, but she refused to believe it. She refused to believe that the strong willed man before her who had risked everything to rescue his sister and keep her safe would simply give up without a fight. Not when he still had so much to live for. Zoe refused to believe that Simon would turn his back on his sister, on Kaylee, on his child. She refused to believe that he would turn his back on all of them, just like she refused to believe her joint efforts with Mal to bring Simon back were made in vain. Simon just needed to wake up and prove Zoe wrong that the still fresh pain of her own loss wasn't happening once again...this time to Kaylee and Sebastian.

 

Simon had the chance that Wash didn't get.

 

His appearance had improved over the passing days and it made Zoe wonder about the extent and intensity of the medications they were giving him. Not that Simon didn't still look like Death was just lingering on the other side of the door until it came time to call, because he did, but at least now he looked like he had life left in him. The bruising on his face was still very much present, but his skin had begun to regain some of its healthy color and his right eye wasn't nearly as swollen as it had been. Even the facial lacerations weren't as pronounced. His injuries were there, but now Simon just looked...sick and nothing like the man who had patiently spent countless nights with Zoe in the infirmary during her pregnancy, teaching her things she needed to know and things she was simply curious to learn about when it came to his field of expertise.

 

Watching Simon laying there broken made Zoe realize just how much of an asset he truly was.

 

River stirred in her sleep on the other side of Simon's bed where she was curled up in a chair, delicately holding her brother's hand in her own. She didn't look comfortable cramped in that chair where she'd spent most of her time over the passing days, but not once did River Tam complain. Zoe wasn't even sure if she'd left her bed side vigil for any given time since Simon had been at the medical facility, rather she kept a close watch just like the same had been done for her in the beginning when Simon got her back.

 

It made Zoe feel for the poor girl though. How River was keeping herself so remarkably together was an utter mystery. Still it made them all wonder if she would eventually crack under the pressure, and if that were to happen, who would be able to put her pieces back together again?

 

Let her innocence mend...

 

Maybe it was just as well that River sought her solace beside her brother right then. It did them all a world of good without having to be on edge looking after her. And considering “normal” wasn't exactly her forte, what all did they have to lose without River running around causing her own unique kind of trouble? As remotely guilty as Zoe felt for thinking it, River's silence was a relief and she prayed it remained that way for a while longer.

 

A knock in the doorway brought Zoe's attention across the room just as a haggard looking Jayne stepped inside. It was almost comical the way he shuffled in, his right arm cradled securely in a sling so as not to further injure his healing bicep and his normally hardened expression was softened and withdrawn. His eyes were flighty in the way they flitted nervously around the room and if Zoe studied him closely enough, she could tell the discomfort he was in.

 

It took a bit before their gazes met in a slow hard stare; Zoe waited patiently for him to speak up and Jayne stared back at her apprehensively, as if he'd just been caught sneaking off somewhere he ain't meant to be. Nonetheless, Zoe motioned with her head to usher the mercenary further into the room and held her hand up for him to tread quietly. The last thing she really wanted him to do was get ahead of himself and cause a ruckus, which she knew would only cause chaos to break out in the room.

 

Jayne came to stand stiffly at the foot of Simon's bed and as he stood there in the soft glow of the wall mounted lights, it was eerie to Zoe how unlike himself he really was in that moment. There was rarely ever a time Jayne walked around without confidence and even then it was the result of a bickering match with Mal for one reason or another. But this was something entirely different. Confidence was the last thing on Jayne's mind by the looks of it as he stared at Simon in silence.

 

“Shouldn't you be on the ship?” Zoe spoke up as the silence lingered too long for her liking. She eyed Jayne wearily from where she sat, studying him with careful consideration.

 

“Got restless,” Jayne gruffed with a simple shrug of his left shoulder. “Didn't care much to be sitting alone in the silence anymore. It was getting too loud.”

 

“The silence is prevalent here,” Zoe countered with a gaze that shifted back to Simon and River. “You should be resting while you can anyway. Keep from hurting that arm more than it already is. Captain will be expecting you back to work soon enough.”

 

Jayne ignored Zoe's attempt to brush him off and send him on his way back to the ship. He really didn't care much for her trying to mother him either, which was an awkward action on Zoe's part. Jayne still hadn't managed to wrap his mind around the fact that she'd entered into full motherhood. It was weird for him to even think about. Fact of the matter was, Jayne preferred Zoe as Mal's shadow with a voice of reason as opposed to the nervous overbearing woman she'd become.

 

“Jayne...” Zoe drawled patiently.

 

“I have just as much right to be here,” Jayne snapped in return. His eyes remained steadily focused on their fallen comrade in the bed and his expression became stagnant. “Weren't for me, he wouldn't be here right now.”

 

It took a great deal of effort for Zoe to swallow her sigh, but she managed to and sat up a little straighter in the chair. “No one is saying otherwise. You did a great service. Risked a lot.”

 

Jayne shook his head slowly. “That's not what I'm talking about,” he muttered. “This ruttin' fool wouldn't be here dyin' on us if he'd have just listened to me.”

 

Zoe gradually returned her attention to the mercenary and was surprised to find the enormous amount of guilt reflecting in his eyes. “Simon made his own decisions. The consequences are his...not yours.”

 

“The consequences ain't just his if he's part of this crew.” Jayne shifted his weight from one foot to the other, clenching and unclenching the hand that was hanging out of the sling. “He's supposed to be a genius, but he's an idiot at the same time. Now you tell me how that makes sense. 'Cause it don't. He ain't as smart as he claims to be.”

 

“He made a mistake,” Zoe responded with a tight shake of her head. “We're all guilty of that, more than our fair share.”

 

“It don't make it right.” Jayne rolled his shoulders and grimaced visibly as he turned his attention to Zoe. His eyes were tired and his features weathered; it wasn't the Jayne Zoe was used to seeing and she couldn't say she was happy to see him that way now. Jayne exhaled a rough sigh through his nose. “Guess I just needed to see for myself that the doc was still breathing and all.”

 

“He's still banged up some,” Zoe noted and it was hard for her not to fall back into a less than optimistic mindset as she said it. “The doctors have done what they can. The rest is up to him.”

 

Jayne felt a flare of pain spread through his right bicep, causing him to subconsciously reach for the troublesome injury. The longer he stared at Simon's broken image, the further back he receded into his thoughts where he'd first found the battered doctor on the dirty floor of that cold cellar until finally he had to force himself to look away to clear his thoughts. “She been here this entire time?” he questioned dully with an absent nod of his head in River's direction.

 

Zoe nodded and although she wasn't sure if Jayne saw the motion, it didn't bother her none. “It's kept her calm and that's a far cry better than her slipping into a melt down not one of us can handle.”

 

“Bit obsessed the way they look after one another,” Jayne huffed before he stepped over to lean against the closest wall. “Think I'll take my ease here for a while.”

 

“...I'm not so sure that's a good idea, Jayne,” Zoe started to say. “Captain don't want no trouble caused.”

 

“Ain't planning to cause no trouble,” Jayne answered. He even looked a little put off by Zoe's assumption that he would consider causing a ruckus right then. Just the last thing he wanted to do was go back to Serenity alone where he couldn't stop his mind from getting away from him. “Figured I can sit with them a while. Let you get along to Emma, wherever the little ankle biter is.”

 

Zoe's brow rose, the corner of her mouth twitching in a faint smile as she fought her surprise. “You feeling alright, Jayne? It's not like you to have a compassionate heart for these two. I think you might have hit your head.”

 

“Makes me wish I DID hit my head,” Jayne all but snorted. He adjusted the strap of the sling against his shoulder and allowed his body to sag a bit. “I still don't like 'em. Think we would have been better off without 'em a long time ago. Mal don't listen.”

 

“Maybe Mal finally seen into it what you can't,” Zoe replied as she slowly rose to her feet. She turned to move towards the doorway, suddenly anxious to get to where she'd left her daughter with Inara at the training house. “Don't cause any trouble, Jayne. You'll be on your own if you do.”

 

Jayne muttered an unintelligible response, but he said nothing more as Zoe left the room. The echo of her boots carrying her down the hall faded gradually until all that Jayne heard were the soft breaths River inhaled and exhaled as she slept.

 

Pushing away from the wall, he quietly stepped over to the chair Zoe had vacated and lowered himself into it. His eyes flit to Simon in the bed once more, silently cursing the way the doctor had gone and gotten himself this side of killed because it sure as Hell had screwed them all over and then some. The crew should have been securing their next job and flying towards it days ago, not wasting their time in some whore training house medical facility while the doctor got himself patched up.

 

And yet, Jayne couldn't move himself past how Gorram guilty he felt for all of it.

 

Jayne grunted under his breath at the thought and rubbed tenderly at the dull ache in his forehead. “Couldn't find it in yourself to just listen to me,” he muttered. “The Hell was you thinking? All proper and educated that you are. I tried to tell you. You wouldn't have gotten caught up with those wang bao dahn [dirty bastards sons of bitches] if you would have listened to me.”

 

“He knows he should have listened.”

 

The sound of River's voice echoed oddly and out of place in the room and caused Jayne to jump a bit in the chair. Turning his head to look at River, he found her sitting rigidly upright with eyes that were wide open and focused on him. Jayne scowled, his heart skipping a beat from the unexpected disturbance. “Shouldn't you still be sleeping?” he demanded.

 

River stared back at him, unblinking. “Sleep is a naturally recurring state of mind characterized by altered consciousness, relatively inhibited sensory activity, inhibition of nearly all voluntary muscles, and reduced interactions with surroundings,” she stated blandly. “I'm not tired.”

 

Jayne was a little baffled and taken aback, enough that he stumbled over his response at first and shifted uncomfortably in the chair under the scrutiny of River's stare. “...Well I ain't looking to be educated by no babbling fei hau [nonsense] coming out of your mouth,” he said with an air of indifference. “Best you just keep it to yourself.”

 

River tilted her head to the side in quiet wonder. “You hurt...” she murmured. “The pain is there, coming and going. It keeps reminding you.”

 

“Now I'm just so enlightened,” Jayne snorted sarcastically.

 

River appeared unphased by Jayne's brash demeanor as she drew her knees up to her chest in the chair. “You're angry.”

 

“You're gorram right I am,” Jayne muttered, although his voice betrayed him in the way it projected. And he couldn't get himself to look at River as he spoke either. There was something about the way she stared at him that unnerved Jayne, more so than her typical unwavering robotic-like stare that had a habit of surfacing when she slipped into one of her silent captive mind states. Although, those weren't nearly as frequent those days. Yet it still didn't keep Jayne from believing that the girl was just as crazy as he'd always known her to be though. He didn't think that would ever change, no matter how much Simon wanted to believe he could fix his sister.

 

River absently twirled a string of her dark hair around her index finger; her hair looked to be in desperate need of washing, more than usual. Her troubled eyes remained fixated on Jayne with calculated interest. “You saved Simon,” she stated firmly.

 

Jayne's brows furled and creases of stress appeared in his forehead. “I didn't do nothing,” he said stiffly.

 

“You're wrong,” River answered him with a frown that was clearly visible, almost as if she disapproved of his choice of response. “You took his bullet...saved his life. You tell yourself you did it so the captain won't be angry, but you did it because you feel guilty...because Simon didn't listen.”

 

“Don't make no difference, one way or the other,” Jayne replied as he shook his head.

 

“...You did it because you care,” River added quietly a moment later.

 

“You don't understand nothin' 'bout carin',” Jayne told her pointedly. “And there ain't a gorram part of me that cares about you or your brother. Not a power in the Verse that can change that either. Ya hear me?”

 

River shrunk a bit in the chair from the acidity in Jayne's tone. She nodded as she returned her attention to Simon. “Moonbrain hears and comprehends...” she murmured, her tone no longer sounding certain.

 

If Jayne didn't admit that he actually felt guilty right then for how he'd just spoken, then he would have been lying. What he said wasn't entirely true, not now at least, but it wasn't something he'd readily admit to. He didn't care much for realizing that maybe he had developed a minimal soft spot for the Tam siblings after all and River was right...Jayne had done everything in his power down in that cellar to take that bullet that had been intended for Simon. That still didn't mean they were by any means his favorite people. Jayne didn't have favorite people. He had a favorite gun and that was about as far as his favorites went.

 

Jayne wanted to say he was sorry, but he couldn't, not when he couldn't even forgive himself for anything.

 

The silence didn't last for long before River's voice penetrated the room again. “Zoe was right. You should rest. She's a good mother. Has to be extra good without Wash. Kaylee worries about you too.”

 

“I don't need no one worrying about me,” Jayne relented with a considerably softer demeanor than before. He ran a hand wearily over his face and rest his eyes shut for a spell. “Especially you, when you go off talking all crazy like.”

 

“You have a very complex brain, Jayne,” River returned with a soft laugh that barely penetrated the air. “It's interesting, like a puzzle. I like puzzles.”

 

Jayne snorted inwardly and pried his eyes open. “What'd I say about you talking all crazy like?”

 

“Your brain says more than your mouth. It betrays you, just like your heart does,” River said.

 

“Gorramit, girl. You're starting to anger me...” Jayne's voice trailed off in warning. “Don't reckon I have me the patience to listen to any more of your mouth running.”

 

“I know,” River shrugged. “But your mind is loud. It's never quiet.”

 

“Stay out of my head,” Jayne snapped.

 

“The Verse would like to stay out of your head. It's a storm of catastrophes,” River casually quipped.

 

Riddles. Jayne swore up and down that River only spoke in riddles and ones that he couldn't make much sense of. Senseless mutterings they often sounded like. It left Jayne wondering if River was capable of speaking in any other way or had she always spoken in that manner? It didn't matter none, he supposed. River would still be an utter mystery to him and she would still cause him headaches when he actually tried to figure her out.

 

“I'm not making sense,” River sighed when Jayne failed to respond to her. She fidgeted nervously in her chair and Jayne briefly wondered if she was on the brink of another mental break down. “The human mind can only take so much. It's information overload.”

 

“Then how's about you stop talking before you go waking this whole place? Disturbing the patients and the people doing the doctoring. Can't nobody get any rest in this place with your constant yammering,” Jayne said and then muttered in addition, “Problem is you're still too fong luh [loopy in the head].”

 

“Simon can't fix me...” River whispered. “He has to fix himself...”

 

They didn't speak anymore after that and fell into a comfortable silence, as comfortable of a silence as Jayne could perceive it to be. So long as River stopped talking and allowed him the chance to fall back into the dark depths of his murky thoughts, a place Jayne had been drowning in for days. It didn't make him feel any better though and right then, Jayne wasn't sure what would or if he'd be able to handle his guilt much longer.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

 

Simon could still remember the moment the bullet from Dobson's gun pierced Kaylee's abdomen so clearly that at times, it felt like the event had just occurred the day prior. The horror had been excruciatingly real to watch the way she had fallen to the ground and the terror in Kaylee's eyes had struck a chord so foreign in Simon, that he hadn't known how to react to it.

 

At the time, he barely knew the woman past a new acquaintance and surely hadn't been able to foresee the way the future would unfold for them, but in that moment he knew without a doubt that he would stop at nothing to save her. It was more than meeting the moral obligations of his duty and holding steadfast to the oath he had taken as a doctor. Kaylee deserved to live just as much as Simon deserved to save her. It would be a long time before he realized it, but Simon had made Kaylee a promise in that moment.

 

He would keep her safe.

 

Sometimes, Simon still thought about that night when he laid beside Kaylee and watched her as she peacefully slept. She had put the incident behind her as quickly as the rest of the crew had, but not Simon. The memory of it haunted him more than he cared to admit and it wasn't the last time they were faced with a perilous situation, but there was something about it that had always stuck with him. Something that constantly reminded him how unstable their safety really was and it unnerved Simon. Rightfully so, maybe.

 

Of course, Simon never spoke of his troubles to Kaylee or any of the crew for that matter. He knew it would only make him appear weak and he couldn't afford that. Especially not after the Miranda events. Not when they all had their own scars and demons to battle with. And try he did to move past all of it, to forget the troubles they were faced with on a daily basis.

 

They were never 'safe' in the conventional sense of the word, not really because danger was an expected and accepted aspect of their lifestyle. Simon had learned that quickly when he became part of Serenity's crew. Perhaps he had even learned it when he'd risked both his and River's lives to rescue her from the Academy, which in turn had made them sought after fugitives by the Alliance. The one thing Simon hadn't done was learn to accept it himself and he wasn't sure if he would ever be able to. It was truth that Simon had become hardened since his time on Serenity began, but there were still parts of him – those parts that were Core bred and filled with morals – that would always remain intact if he had anything to do with it.

 

Simon had very little out in the Black that meant anything, but he had those parts of himself and he'd be damned if he ever let them go. Like his desire to be proper at all costs in the way he dressed and conducted himself and his strive to treat those around him with respect, even Jayne, though the mercenary more often than not didn't deserve an ounce of Simon's respect. There were times when Kaylee still didn't understand that part of Simon either. After all this time, she still tried to get him to loosen up, although Simon had come to the point where he'd given up trying to make her understand what it meant to him. Simon knew he would never be able to completely go back to being who he once was – that part of him had been abandoned the moment he left Osiris behind – but he would never be able to forget.

 

Simon had also become well acquainted with the nightmares that haunted him during countless nights. The kind that had him jolting awake and gasping for breath with his mind reeling and unable to decipher the difference between what was reality and what was a thought of the past. More troubling yet was when the nightmares left him with resounding pain spreading through his body, troubling Simon and making him sick to his stomach with dread, as if he were reliving those moments all over again.

 

River trapped in the Alliance-run Academy and begging Simon for help through secret messages he had to decode.

 

Kaylee nearly dying because of a bullet wound from Dobson's gun.

 

River's horrific memories from her time spent at the Academy.

 

Kaylee being held captive and nearly violated by Jubal Early.

 

River's mind deteriorating further despite Simon's best efforts to fix her.

 

The small needle-like spikes piercing Kaylee's neck and rendering her paralyzed during the final show down with the Reavers after the Miranda events.

 

'Spent so much time on Serenity ignoring anything I wanted for myself. My one regret in all of this is never being with you...'

 

The fiery explosion of pain that spread throughout Simon as the bullet pierced his body after he and the crew had retreated to that corridor in a last ditch effort to hold the Reavers at bay long enough for Mal to send the signal out into the Verse. And they had succeeded in doing so, somewhat at least, albeit with numerous injuries that left them all in bad shape. How they had even survived (Jayne with a gun shot wound of his own, Zoe with a spinal injury, and Mal had taken quite a beating from the Operative) was a miracle all in itself, but it was the price they chose to pay.

 

Though it was the moment the bullet had struck him that Simon resigned to the idea that he had actually reached the end of the line. That was how his life would end, lying amidst utter destruction with the crew that had become like family to him as he bled out. He would join their fallen pilot Wash and their fallen Shepherd Book on the list of casualties and as time passed, Simon would become nothing more than a failed memory. His mind quickly became clouded with each and every one of his regrets as he looked to River and tried to tell her how sorry he was for failing her. He didn't want to leave her vulnerable and disappointed in him, but even as he spoke to her, Simon's mind drifted to Kaylee.

 

Kaylee really was Simon's biggest regret in that moment as he recalled their brief conversation prior to all Hell breaking loose. Being so caught up in his endeavors to fix his sister and insure her safety, Simon had honestly ignored his own desire to be happy and his entitlement to achieve that state of being. It had taken him too long to recognize that he had begun to find that happiness and security of his own in Kaylee's presence. His attraction and desire for Serenity's mechanic had been shoved beneath his devotion to his troubled sister and although Simon had always had the best of intentions in everything he did, he not only did Kaylee a great injustice of disrespect but himself as well.

 

Simon would die regretting it with every fiber of his being.

 

Only Simon didn't succumb to his injury like he believed he would. Against all odds, they'd made it through their perilous journey alive with only the deaths of Wash and Shepherd Book weighing on their conscious. It had taken the crew a long time to recover in the aftermath of the ordeal and truth be told, there wasn't a single one of them that would ever truly be the same again. They had seen too much, experienced too much pain and rather like the War of Independence that Mal and Zoe had fought together in, the crew of Serenity had fought their own war. But they had been given a second chance to continue on and they would keep fighting if and when the need arose. That was who they had become.

 

So, Simon had wasted no time in exploring his desires towards Kaylee. He'd been given the opportunity to actually see her for who she really was to him and it wasn't long before they grew closer to each other than ever before. For once, Simon allowed himself to open up completely to the mechanic, to let her into his world where he was most vulnerable and raw. It was the side of him that Simon rarely ever let anyone see; it was how he was raised. But Kaylee had welcomed him with open arms, without prejudice.

 

Their relationship flourished quickly, both emotionally and physically. That carnal need for one another exploded in unbridled late night rendezvous when the rest of the crew were sound asleep. Even learning to challenge boundaries when the others were around became a pleasurable game of sorts for Simon and Kaylee and it had almost gotten them in trouble on more than one occasion, especially with the captain who happened to have the worst timing ever. Mal's disapproval of the pair's sudden union didn't mean a thing to Simon, though. He refused to allow Mal's distaste for on ship relations come between what he knew both he and Kaylee deserved. Simon wouldn't make the same mistake twice.

 

Of course, neither of them had planned for the point in time that Kaylee became pregnant. It hadn't been a fore thought when they first began their union. In fact, they had neglected the proper precautions to keep it from happening, too caught up in a whirlwind romance that seemed long over due, all things considered. Simon would never forget the moment Kaylee sought him in the infirmary when he was neck deep in taking inventory of his supplies (the crew had managed to swindle him quite the collection after their most recent heist; a bonus Mal had called it).

 

The terror in Kaylee's eyes was unforgettable as she approached him, cheeks rosy in color and if he wasn't mistaken, stained with dried streaks of tears. She stuttered as she tried to speak until finally she just threw herself into Simon's arms and admitted through her sobs that her monthly cycle was absent and had been for a couple of months. Simon hadn't really been sure what to say as he tried to wrap his mind around what had come out of Kaylee's mouth. Perhaps numb was a way to describe how he felt, but no, that didn't even begin to adequately put it. Nor did the way Kaylee profusely apologized for being so reckless make him feel any better. They were both just as responsible and yet...Simon realized he wasn't in the least bit sorry for it, no matter how much they weren't in any position to be bringing a child into their chaotic lives.

 

Simon loved Kaylee. God, he loved her.

 

It took moments for the initial shock to wear off before the medical side of Simon's personality kicked into gear. Assuring Kaylee that all would be okay, a promise that Simon insisted he would see through, he calmly administered a simple test just to be certain that she wasn't wrong. Not that there was a part of him that didn't believe her, he just knew neither of them would be at ease without one hundred percent certainty. And so they had waited in the silence of the ship's infirmary, Kaylee huddled on the exam table and Simon across the room analyzing the results and when he finally turned to her with the definitive answer in his eyes, Kaylee began to sob once more.

 

Try as they did to keep Kaylee's pregnancy a secret for the time being, it wasn't long before the rest of the crew became aware. Mixed feelings towards the matter shifted throughout the ship, but it was Mal who seemed to take the news the hardest. The captain all but ostracized Simon in the wake of the couple's revelation and he didn't speak to either of them for a week. Not one word. River looked at it as a puzzle that needed solving. Jayne muttered constantly under his breath about reckless behavior and extra liability and Inara did her best to merely go about business as usual. She neither approved nor disapproved of what had come to pass. Zoe, on the other hand, drew closer to Kaylee because she understood, because she could relate to the idea of motherhood with having a child of her own. As long as Kaylee had the support she needed, that's what mattered to Simon the most.

 

Simon didn't know the first thing about being a father. His own father had often times been detached and disassociated at best from his parental duties and that was mostly because Gabriel Tam cared more about his social standing and business obligations. Priorities were never a strong suit for the elder Tam, at least not when it came to his children. And Simon, well, he had done plenty when it came to raising River. It was part of the reason they were so close and he'd spent plenty of time around young Emma Washburne, but that still didn't mean he knew what to do when it came to having a child. Simon knew how to care for people from a doctor's stand point, but he didn't know how to be a father.

 

Would he even be able to do his child justice? Especially when he wondered if he had failed at doing his own sister justice?

 

Sometimes Kaylee had too much faith in him, Simon suspected. Optimism had always been a pivotal aspect of Kaylee's personality, so it should have come as no surprise that she believed in Simon's potential, in everything he did. Doctoring. Caring. Loving. And soon parenting. They were in it together and Kaylee trusted Simon without reserve. He just needed to trust in himself, she told him. Trust in himself like she trusted in him. Like River trusted in him. Like the rest of the crew trusted in him, although Simon believed that last one was suspiciously questionable.

 

Simon tried to trust in himself, to take Kaylee's faith in him at face value. What other choice did he have? But in the midst of it all, Simon had managed to destroy everything he and Kaylee had built together. All in one moment of bad judgment because he chose not to listen when he should have.

 

His intentions were pure.

 

He was just trying to have faith like Kaylee had.

 

The things his parents would say if they knew how much of a disappointment Simon had truly become...

 

What Simon wouldn't do to turn back time just enough so he could fix his mistakes and refrain from wasting another moment not telling Kaylee how much she meant to him and he would show her too, every chance he got. If Simon had another chance, he knew he would respect what he'd been given, more than he ever had before. He would cherish what his life was, because now that Simon thought about it, his life wasn't that bad. In fact, it was more than good. Perfect, even. And if Simon had one more chance, he would be there to hold his child in his arms and admit that he may not know what he was doing, but he would never give up...

 

...Because that's what a father's love was all about and that was one thing Simon had to give that his own father didn't.

 

The sudden sound of an infant wailing drew Simon out of a thick suffocating state of unconsciousness. At first, he didn't understand what he was hearing and the intensity of the sound was like shattering glass inside his ears. It was hard for Simon to even comprehend because while it seemed like his mind had been a collection of fleeting thoughts only moments before, now he couldn't control the sensory sparks surging through his brain.

 

And there was pain too, incredible amounts of pain that threatened to send Simon right back into the world of black that previously engulfed him. It spread through Simon from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, some places more than others. Even his lungs felt like they were on fire with every breath he inhaled and his chest ached like it was caving in on itself.

 

Yet, Simon's senses came rushing back all at once.

 

Garnering what strength he could, Simon weakly blinked his eyes open. His vision was blurry at best, with very little decipherable color and shape at first until gradually his eyes began to clear little by little. Simon's surroundings molded into an unfamiliar setting, stark white bland walls surrounding him, screen mounted on the wall across from him that displayed his name and various other pieces of information. His medical information.

 

The infant's wailing grew shriller in volume yet and Simon shifted his weary disoriented gaze in the direction of the sound. It didn't take long for his eyes to fall upon Kaylee's hunched form where she sat huddled in a chair at his bedside, cradling a blanket swaddled baby in her embrace. Simon was aware of her tears immediately just by the way Kaylee's shoulders shook, even with her head bowed and face held from view. The woman's distress was more than apparent and it caused an entirely different wave of pain to roll through him.

 

“Oh, Sebastian, please... I don't know what to do to make you feel better,” Kaylee sobbed in a voice that projected with instability. “Please stop crying. I don't know what to do...”

 

Simon felt his vision blur again, but this time it was from a warm wetness that welled in the corners of his dry eyes. Parting his lips to speak, Simon couldn't get his voice to emit from deep in his throat. The pain flared in his chest with another breath and he lifted a trembling hand to extend it towards the bundled infant, the thought that THIS was his son infiltrating his clouded mind.

 

Simon brushed the tips of his fingers against the tiny hand protruding from an opening in the blanket and instantly those tiny fingers closed around one of his own as the distressed cries came to a slow stop. The grip was surprisingly strong and radiated comfort that wasn't only meant for the child alone; it relaxed Simon immensely, clearing his senses enough to ease his pain and confusion.

 

Simon swallowed thickly, ignoring the way his dry throat burned as he studied the infant. Swaddled in a soft light blue blanket, the infant finally looked peacefully and content, the only trace of his cries the fading red in his cherubic cheeks.

 

Sebastian...

 

The name flooded Simon's mind with a warm pride and despite his ever present pain, he still managed a faint smile. His son. That child in Kaylee's arms was actually HIS son. It was mind boggling to think about, because despite all the time Simon had in the months leading up to Sebastian's birth, he knew there wasn't enough time in the Verse to prepare for this moment, especially under these circumstances.

 

And now, the first thing Simon saw clearly upon awakening was the son he'd spent so many nights dreaming about and the woman he loved more than anything holding that little bundle of life that united them together. Simon may have still been disoriented, but in that moment he knew that vision was the epitome of perfection.

 

“Sebastian...” he finally whispered.

 

Kaylee released an abrupt gasp of surprise that barely penetrated the air around them, but it was enough to grab Simon's attention and he looked away from Sebastian to find the mechanic's bloodshot eyes focused on him. For a silent moment they just stared back at each other, Simon's eyes drooping in exhaustion that he had a hard time fighting against, before Kaylee lifted a hand to her mouth to stifle another sob.

 

“S-Simon...” her voice was muffled and broken as it projected behind her hand. A tear of both despair and relief slipped down Kaylee's cheek, but she made no move to wipe it away. There wasn't much Kaylee could think of doing right then and she was terrified at the thought of even looking away from Simon, nor could she wrap her mind around the fact that his eyes were actually open and staring back at her, the evidence of which was clearly visible in her distraught gaze.

 

Simon's eyes fluttered shut briefly as he felt Sebastian's tiny hand flex around his finger, opening only again when the infant sighed in his sleep. His lips parted to speak, though he was once again unable to cause his voice to project. It was Kaylee's name that got lodged in Simon's throat and with a frown of discomfort, he shifted his head against the pillow, tilting his face away from Kaylee.

 

Part of him wanted to slip into a peaceful sleep and then wake up to find that this had all been some horrible nightmare, something that Simon could just put behind him and forget about. Then there was the part of him that was fearful that he was still stuck in a horrific nightmare where nothing was right and Kaylee wasn't sitting inches from him to make everything okay again. The only thing that made Simon question the validity of it all was the feel of Sebastian's hand still wrapped around his finger. Never had Simon even felt something more real and secure. He vowed then in the less than clear state of his mind that given the opportunity, he would never let that go.

 

The gentle fluttering of Kaylee's fingertips against his cheek was a welcomed feeling seconds later. It was a familiar comfort that relaxed Simon and significantly reduced the pain coursing through every inch of his body as more of his senses awakened. Exhaling a shallow breath, Simon returned his gaze to Kaylee and barely leaned his cheek into the touch of her hand.

 

'I'm sorry, Kaylee. Please forgive me,' his sluggish mind pleaded, but his mouth refused to cooperate and Simon wasn't sure he could get Kaylee to understand just how sorry he truly was even if he could vocally express what he was thinking.

 

Kaylee's hand rest flat against Simon's cheek, her thumb tenderly brushing over the purple tinge of a fading bruise. “Simon? ...Can you hear me?” she questioned with apprehension. The creases of concern at the corners of her eyes became more pronounced when he failed to respond to her. Kaylee swallowed thickly and it was all she could do not to sob again as her voice trembled. “I love you so much, Simon. Please don't leave me.”

 

The sound of Kaylee's plea was all it took for Simon to muster the energy needed to part his lips and find his voice deep within. “Kaylee...” he all but stuttered in a whisper, barely recognizing the sound that passed his lips. And it hurt too, made his lungs feel like they were lit aflame. Simon's gaze, as tired as he was, fixated on Kaylee with determination. “...I love you...”

 

A quiet sob of reflief escaped Kaylee's mouth and she leaned in to pepper Simon's forehead with feather-soft kisses as if to convince herself that what she was seeing and hearing was true to reality. “Your doctor,” she suddenly insisted as she withdrew from him. “I need to get your doctor. They need to check you. They need to see that you're finally awake.”

 

Fear was an unexpected reaction that passed over Simon's eyes. He recoiled on the inside as he tried to process the thought because what he really wanted and what he needed in that moment was Kaylee to remain right there by his side. Simon feared the pain that would overwhelm him when he was alone once again and more so, he feared he would slip right back into the darkness. Simon didn't trust himself to be able to keep fighting and resurface from it if that were to happen.

 

Sliding his finger as carefully from Sebastian's hand as he could manage without disturbing the infant, Simon fumbled to grab hold of Kaylee's hand. His grip was weak but desperate and he seemed to stumble over any words he was trying to say before he managed to croak out a single word, “Stay.”

 

“Shhh...don't try to talk right now.” Kaylee lifted Simon's hand to her mouth and kissed his knuckles gently. “Lao-tyen [Oh God], Simon. I've been so worried about you. Everybody has, even Jayne. Everything's just been so wrong since you were taken and I didn't know what to do. I tried to be strong but I just...and then Sebastian came and you weren't there like you were supposed to be and...and...”

 

Tears were making steady streaks down Kaylee's reddened cheeks as she lost control of her voice and her words blended into unintelligible ramblings Simon couldn't make sense of. He tried to squeeze her hand in an attempt to comfort her, but his hand wouldn't cooperate and he soon realized that it was Kaylee who was already squeezing his hand tightly, maybe to comfort him or maybe to comfort herself. Simon wasn't really sure.

 

Had everything really fallen apart in his absence? What kind of trouble had Simon really caused when he left Serenity days before? And that was another troubling question Simon didn't know the answer to. How many days had it really been since he'd been gone? Losing the time was disturbing, almost as much as it was not knowing how he'd even made it back. The last thing Simon remembered was laying on the cold ground of that cellar back on Jirah as he barely clung to life – even he knew how close he was to dying then – and the unbelievable vision of Jayne to keep him company in his dying moments. Jayne, the bigoted mercenary who was the last hallucination Simon ever expected to have before the afterlife came to call.

 

But no, that couldn't be right. Of all the recollections Simon could dig up right then, the vision of Jayne was one of the most clear and about the only one that didn't cause the anxiety to spike through his system. Jayne...was it at all plausible to say that Simon's vision of the mercenary hadn't been a hallucination after all and that Jayne had indeed come to his aid when Simon needed it the most? If that was the case, Jayne had found himself in just as much trouble with Simon's captors. Where was Jayne now? Was he okay? Was he even alive?

 

Simon's breathing became a little more shallow and a little more ragged as the onslaught of thoughts rushed through his mind, leaving him incapable of processing everything that came to the surface of his conscious. He shifted with a grimace of pain in the bed, the movement barely noticeable. Everything that went wrong was because of him. One moment of Simon's ignorance had placed more than one of the crew in jeopardy, worst of all Kaylee and their son Sebastian. How could he forgive himself for that?

 

Kaylee took notice of the change in Simon's demeanor and watched him frantically. Her eyes grew wider as she held his hand securely in hers. “Are you hurting? Gosh, you must be hurting,” she stuttered worriedly. “You look so horrible, Simon. We almost lost you.”

 

Simon's eyes rolled in Kaylee's direction sluggishly. She had no idea of the intensity of the pain that was taking hold of his body or just how difficult and excruciating it was to inhale and exhale each breath. He wanted to beg her to help him, to make it all just go away, but try as he might, not a word would pass his lips. All Simon could do was lay there and feel as if he were drowning in it all while the seconds ticked past him. Just how many seconds did he really have? The fragility of life, especially his, was all so blatantly real to him now.

 

“Just...just try to relax,” Kaylee attempted to coach Simon soothingly. She kept Simon's hand securely enclosed in hers, all the while she carefully and tentatively had Sebastian cradled in the crook of her free arm. And the infant was none the more wiser about what was going on around him. That was for the best. Sebastian was far too young to know and the situation wasn't fair to him.

 

This wasn't what Simon had planned for the beginning of his child's life.

 

Before Kaylee could even think further about calling for Simon's doctor, the door to the room opened and a petite young nurse entered with a warm sympathetic smile. Kaylee remembered her from earlier that morning, when she arrived with Sebastian before the natural light had even begun to peek over the horizon. She remembered thinking how elegant the young nurse looked with her deep mahogany hair perfectly curled and pulled back atop her head. Even the medical facility issued uniform that the nurse worse made her beautiful. But now, the nurse stopped abruptly after only a few feet into the room and her smile of sympathy for Kaylee turned into a look of absolute surprise when she saw that Simon's eyes were open.

 

“Mr. Tam is awake,” she spoke the obvious, nearly dropping the medical charts she carried with her.

 

“He hasn't been awake long,” Kaylee responded to her with a calm yet desperate glance. “I think he's in a lot of pain.”

 

The nurse swiftly approached Simon's bed and leaned over to a panel of buttons on the wall to the side of it. Pressing one of the buttons, she spoke hurriedly in Chinese into the intercom, no doubt informing someone of Simon's awakening. When it was apparent she had said what needed to be relayed, the nurse pulled back from the wall and turned to look down at Simon.

 

“Mr. Tam, can you hear me? My name is Shenzi,” she told him with a soothing smile. “The doctor overseeing your care will be here shortly to examine you. It is such a relief to see that you are awake.”

 

Simon stared up at her. A relief? How long had he been unconscious? Inside Simon's head was the intention to nod that he could hear and understand her, but he was certain he was unable to get the movement to project forth. He lacked the energy to even answer her, not to mention how unbearably dry his mouth and throat were. Simon had so many questions that he wanted and needed answers to.

 

It wasn't long before an older man of medical stature entered the room with a purposeful agenda. Standing tall and lean in build, he had kind grayish-blue eyes and peppered graying hair that was swept neatly back and styled without a strand out of place. The doctor promptly approached the bed as he pulled a standardized stethoscope from around his neck.

 

“Mr. Tam, I'm Doctor Hammond, chief medical examiner at this facility,” he introduced himself and politely nodded in Kaylee's direction. Simon's weary gaze followed the doctor's every movement, almost distrustful in nature and if Kaylee didn't know any better, she swore she saw Simon flinch the moment the doctor extended his hand with the end of the stethoscope towards his chest.

 

For a while, Doctor Hammond stood there silently at Simon's bedside, listening intently to the sound of Simon's heartbeat while periodically looking to the screen on the wall that displayed his vitals information. “Cardiac rhythm is steady and strong,” he murmured thoughtfully a moment later. “Oxygen level is a bit low so we will continue with the oxygen therapy through the nasal cannula until the level returns to normal. Mr. Tam, you need to relax.”

 

Kaylee focused her full attention on Simon again to find his eyes fearfully glued on the doctor as he inhaled and exhaled ragged shallow breaths. “Simon, honey, it's okay,” she attempted to soothe him with a calming voice of reassurance. “You're okay. Doctor Hammond is a good man. He and the nurses here have been taking good care of you.”

 

Doctor Hammond removed the end of the stethoscope from Simon's chest and draped it over his neck again. “I am certain your level of pain is currently intolerable as is expected,” he noted. “But it is promising to see you awake, Mr. Tam. You are very lucky to be alive and even luckier that your family brought you here when they did. They are good people. And you can rest assured knowing that you are in good hands here.”

 

“Captain's gonna wanna know about this.” Kaylee sat up a bit straighter in the chair, looking between Simon and Doctor Hammond. “This means that Simon is gonna be okay, right?”

 

“We will adjust Mr. Tam's medications accordingly and I will have Shenzi administer a medication to help alleviate the pain he is experiencing. I am going to order another brain scan to take place this evening that will allow us to rule out any lasting brain trauma, should there be none present,” Doctor Hammond answered her with a light nod of his head. “Blood work will be able to tell us if there is any infection still present in his system. As of right now, the best thing for Mr. Tam is unhindered rest so his body can heal the way it needs to.”

 

“And you will keep him closely monitored,” Kaylee asserted, although her voice wasn't nearly as strong as she intended it to be.

 

“Of course, Mrs. Tam,” Doctor Hammond replied and in the moment he gently squeezed her shoulder, Kaylee didn't have it in herself to correct the doctor's mistake towards her identity. He turned to the nurse Shenzi where she stood fussing with Simon's IV tubing. “Shenzi,” he instructed. “A dosage of Hydrozopan should take a well edge off of Mr. Tam's pain and make it possible for him to continue to rest. Get him some water as well. His hydration needs to be monitored.”

 

Shenzi nodded and promptly left the room to fetch the medication.

 

Doctor Hammond afforded another look down at Simon. “Mr. Tam, your body has been put through quite the trauma, not only from your injuries but the surgery as well,” he explained. “We will speak of it once you are more rested. Time is on your side now. You are well taken care of here.”

 

“Thank you, Doctor Hammond,” Kaylee whispered before the doctor excused himself from the room with the promise to return later that day.

 

It didn't take long for Shenzi to return and when she did, she quickly administered the dosage of Hydrozopan into Simon's IV, explaining the pain killer's effects, mostly to satisfy Kaylee's curiosity. In very little time, Simon would be much more at ease physically which calmed the turmoil of concern bothering Kaylee internally. So when Simon visibly began to relax as the medication began to work its way through his system, Kaylee was finally able to relax as well, shutting herself off to the tension that threatened to resurface at any moment.

 

Sebastian was still sound asleep in the crook of Kaylee's arm by the time she rose from the chair and positioned herself close to Simon on the edge of his bed. “We'll get you back to normal in no time. Captain and Inara will see to it that you're taken care of good,” she spoke to him quietly as she reached for the cup of water Shenzi had placed on the bedside tray. Kaylee brought it to Simon's lips. “Here, you need to take a drink. It's important you get enough fluids.”

 

Simon wanted to laugh at the irony of Kaylee's statement, but he didn't have the energy to argue with her and instead welcomed the rim of the cup against his lips. To say he was parched was an understatement; his throat felt as if it were coated heavily in a layer of gritty sandpaper. Worse yet, the water caused him to gag and choke as it slid down his throat, resulting in a chest racking cough that had Simon's face twisting in pain.

 

Kaylee pulled the cup away immediately, discarding it to rest her hand against Simon's cheek until the coughing spell ceased. “That was too much,” she assessed with a tight frown as she delicately caressed the crest of Simon's cheekbone. “I'm so sorry, sweetie...”

 

Grimacing, Simon swallowed thickly and willed his breathing under control with what little energy he had in him. “Go shi [Shit], it hurts to breathe,” he managed to croak out in a raspy tone that was much unlike the typical steady sound of his voice. Simon's eyes rolled shut and he let them rest that way momentarily.

 

“Rib fractures,” Kaylee told him softly. “That's what the captain said the doctor told him. Gonna hurt to breathe for a while, I'm afraid. Gotta let your ribs heal.”

 

“Six weeks...” Simon murmured in response, the medical fact rolling off his tongue out of sheer habit. A whole slew of medical information and facts filtered through his hazy mind, but he kept that to himself. “...More water.”

 

With a fair bit of uncertainty, Kaylee brought the cup back to Simon's lips and helped him slowly sip the water. “Easy now, sweetie...” she coached him with watchful eyes.

 

Simon relaxed back into the pillow and turned his face from the cup of water when he'd had enough. He'd barely drank any of it, but it was sufficient to coat his throat and made it a little more bearable to speak. Prying his eyes part way open, he looked up at Kaylee. “Hydrozopan...works like Morphine...” he slurred. “Less side effects...”

 

“Well that's good,” Kaylee smiled for Simon's sake. She discarded the cup of water once more. “It'll make you hurt less and you can rest.”

 

“Afraid...” Simon whispered, his eyes rolling again as he fought to keep them open.

 

Kaylee shook her head and placed her hand upon Simon's. “Don't got no reason to be afraid no more, Simon. You're safe now.”

 

Simon hooked his thumb against Kaylee's hand as he felt the effects of the medication beginning to take hold of him, dulling his pain further and lulling him back towards a calm state of unconsciousness where Simon hoped he would sleep without dreams. “River...” he mustered on the tail end of an exhaled breath. “...Where's River?”

 

“Inara is looking after River right now,” Kaylee explained to him, watching Simon's eyes flutter shut and knowing it wouldn't be long before he was sleeping once more. “She's been by your side this whole time. Been really quiet too. And...she ain't been eating like she should. So I convinced her to go with Inara for some food and proper rest. I don't figure River'll be gone long though. Took a mite bit of talking just to get her out the door.”

 

“Need to look after her...” Simon's voice floated on a barely audible whisper as his capacity to think became muddled and the thought of his sister became fleeting. It left him quickly when the warm blanket of peaceful sleep finally took over him, allowing him to drift without concern knowing that Kaylee was there at his side to look over him. No nightmares, pray the medication keeps the nightmares at bay.

 

Kaylee watched Simon for a long while, even once it was evident he was no longer awake. But for the first time since the Captain and Zoe had brought Simon back, she was okay with his eyes being closed, okay with the fact that it would be some time before he responded to her again. Hearing Simon's voice and seeing the life returning to his eyes had been enough to assure Kaylee that what she thought was lost was not lost after all. Simon would be okay. She had to believe that.

 

Shifting herself off the edge of the bed, Kaylee returned to the chair she'd been previously occupying and carefully moved Sebastian to cradle him against her chest without waking him. It felt much easier to relax now and Kaylee welcomed that, enough so that when she looked down at her son, her lips curled into the first honest smile she'd been able to produce in weeks. Rubbing Sebastian's back as he slept, Kaylee pressed a gentle kiss to the top of his head.

 

“Everything's gonna be okay, Sebastian...” she murmured. “Your daddy is gonna be just fine...”

 

*****

 

Sitting on the edge of a stone step outside of the training house, Mal's mind wandered in the solitude of his thoughts. Maybe the steps were granite or perhaps even marble, but that sort of detail wasn't something Mal cared to bother himself with. The multiple shades of gray swirling together – and was that light sepia mixed in as well? - didn't even register with him. It all looked the same as far as he was concerned, all fancified and above his taste in décor. The captain preferred the simplicity of plain décor, part of the reason he was so enamored with the interior of Serenity. The ship was home and Mal was in no position to try to impress anyone with the interior hull, nor did he really care to. All that mattered to Mal was that it was home. He didn't give a good Gorram what anyone else thought about it.

 

Could be why he in all honesty felt out of place at Sheydra's training house. It wasn't just because it was awkward being there with Inara's ties to the place, but Mal knew he didn't belong. He had no business being there. The rest of the crew didn't either. Where Inara appeared well at home walking the halls of the training house, Mal and the others looked like they were extraterrestrials from another world outside of the solar system. The looks of curiosity and utter disdain from those training to be companions, the ones who especially didn't understand what was going on, made Mal more than uncomfortable. He didn't want attention, had far more on his plate than he knew what to do with and patience wasn't something Mal had an overabundance of at the current.

 

Allowing a grimace to surface on his face, Mal swept his gaze out over the sprawling landscape in front of him. The sky overhead had become grayish with a light rain that fell upon the land as day turned into early evening and it made him irritated and more on edge as the time wore on, though on the outside Mal appeared no different than he typically was. Short and sarcastic with just enough humor to deflect attention away from what was really bothering him on the inside. Being stuck planet-side for going on over a week wasn't doing Mal a lick of good.

 

“Need a good Gorram job to get us back on track,” Mal muttered to himself and lifted the tea cup he was holding to his lips for a sip. The liquid was bitter as it slid down his throat and that was because Mal had more than sufficiently spiced the drink with the liquor from his flask the moment Inara had walked away after bringing it to him. He wouldn't admit to her that he desired a numbing buzz, but Mal figured Inara suspected it anyway. As it was, the companion had stopped questioning him and for the most part left him to his own vices, even if she did seem to still keep a watchful eye on him from a distance.

 

Inara may have been affording Mal his space, but one thing he wouldn't admit to her most of all was that he wished she would stay closer. He never had admitted it and he'd be damned if he ever did.

 

Malcolm Reynolds didn't do vulnerability.

 

In one swift movement, Mal tipped his head back and swallowed the remainder of the liquor infused tea, exhaling a quiet sigh through his nose. It really hadn't been enough to take the edge off the tension, but it would have to do for now. Later that evening, he would seek more, may even retreat to the solitude of his bunk back on the ship where he had less of a chance of being bothered by unwanted company. Except Jayne, but even the mercenary had done a fair bit of avoiding the captain lately. Probably wanted to try to keep himself out of trouble for once. Big surprise there. Jayne and trouble usually went hand in hand.

 

“You shouldn't be sitting all alone looking like you got so much on your mind.”

 

Mal shifted his attention away from the now empty cup and looked up to his left to find Kaylee slowly approaching with Emma's hand clutched carefully in her own. The toddler wobbled in her steps alongside the woman and it was the first time Mal had seen Kaylee without Sebastian tucked in her embrace, but there was something different about her that he noticed immediately. She walked lighter now, the anxiety and tension all but gone. Mal suspected that had something to do on account that Simon had recently awoken just over twenty four hours prior and now the mechanic walked as if on ground as light as air.

 

He liked seeing that, preferred it that way, really. Kaylee was often times what some would call sensitive and easily emotional. She wore her heart on her sleeve more times than not and invested herself in matters more than she should. It was a part of what made Kaylee who she was, but Mal didn't always feel equipped to deal with it. Kaylee was very dear to him, like the little sister he never had, and had been since he caught her in a very compromising position with Bester years before in the engine room.

 

Now THAT was a memory that caused Mal to shiver in disgust; he never had trusted Bester the mechanic, not completely. Perhaps that was why it had been so easy to let the guy go. So truthfully, Kaylee had come as a blessing...if Mal chose to believe in blessings. Religion and faith wasn't his thing. It hadn't been for a long time.

 

None of that mattered now, though. Kaylee would always be a priority to him. There wasn't a Gorram power in the Verse that could stop Mal from feeling that way and he was relieved to finally see her familiar smile hinting at the corners of her mouth again.

 

Kaylee deserved to be happy. That was something Mal COULD believe in.

 

Emma yanked away from Kaylee and surged towards Mal with arms stretched out to him, grin wide and eyes shining bright. Barely two years of age, Emma Washburne already had the feisty fighting spirit of her strong willed mother and the wacky sense of humor of her late father she would never personally know. But it was her unusual crystal blue eyes that always got to Mal the most because they were so much like Wash's that it was uncanny. Looking into Emma's eyes was like looking into the eyes of their fallen pilot and seeing him alive once again.

 

It was...haunting.

 

Yet, without any thought, Mal discarded the empty cup and twisted on the step to readily welcome Emma into his arms when she reached him. The toddler giggled as she threw herself against the captain's chest and tugged playfully on one of his suspender straps. Mal didn't try to stop her. He never did and instead offered her a firm raising of his brow that gradually softened into a crooked grin.

 

Malcolm Reynolds hated to admit it, but he had his soft spots and Emma Washburne was one of them.

 

“You are happy this evening, Little One,” Mal mused as he hooked an arm securely around Emma's body to hold her in place on his lap. “I heard tales of you waking the training house with your screaming this morning.”

 

Kaylee laughed softly as she took a step closer to the pair. She tucked a stray strand of messy hair behind her ear and slowly lowered herself to sit beside Mal on the edge of the step. “I think she had a nightmare or somethin',” she said thoughtfully. “Woke up crying for her mama. Had to send a wave to Zoe on Serenity to come get her.”

 

“Caused quite the panic is what I heard,” Mal returned.

 

“Not really,” Kaylee countered. She reached out and adoringly smoothed the silken curls of hair away from Emma's face. “Just a few tears and some screamin'. Nothing that her mama couldn't fix.”

 

“Looks like she interrupted your sleep good and plenty last night,” Mal turned his full attention on the mechanic, studying her closely for a brief moment. “You look exhausted, Kaylee. Ain't getting enough sleep these days.”

 

At first, Kaylee started to roll her eyes, but she brushed the annoyance aside and instead tilted her head to rest it on Mal's shoulder affectionately. “No worse than you, Captain,” she murmured. “You ain't been sleeping either.”

 

Mal knew that Kaylee was right with her rebuttal, but what was his excuse? Kaylee had an infant to look after and had been gracious enough to care for Emma over night so Zoe could return to the ship to sleep. Mal, on the other hand, had no excuse except for the inner demons he was battling and he was neglecting himself in the process. He had no response to give either. Not a good one anyway.

 

Kaylee's brows furled as she tilted her head back to look up at Mal. “You been drinking...” she stated cautiously.

 

Mal's gaze met hers, recognizing the concern in her eyes. “Just a little spiced tea,” he answered to dismiss the notion. “Nothing you need to be concerning yourself with.”

 

“I always worry about my captain,” Kaylee chided him lightly.

 

“Well, it isn't nothing you need to be worrying yourself about.” Mal grimaced when Emma lifted her hand to pat him gently on the cheek, tilting her head to the side in curiosity. He wanted to look away from the weight of her stare, but he couldn't and he felt himself growing considerably weaker in his demeanor. “Don't you start either, Little One. Dong ma? [Understand?]”

 

“Mal!” Emma squealed at him as she scrunched up her nose.

 

“She worries about her captain too,” Kaylee mentioned before attempting to stifle a giggle behind her hand.

 

Mal's expression became firm again. “I get enough of it from her mother,” he muttered.

 

“Who, Zoe?” Kaylee's knowing smile was light-hearted. “She's only looking out for you. Says she has to because you don't look out for yourself enough.”

 

“And next you're gonna tell me she calls me reckless,” Mal snorted.

 

Kaylee shrugged. “Zoe only says that sometimes,” she conceded. “She says you were worse during the war.”

 

“I don't see much of a difference between now and then,” Mal thought out loud. Sighing quietly, he returned his attention to Kaylee. “Where's Sebastian?”

 

“Oh, Inara's looking after him,” Kaylee answered with a sheepish smile. “Everyone here's just been so nice and accommodating, y'know? And they've been doting on Sebastian like crazy. It's like they ain't ever seen a baby before.”

 

It wouldn't surprise me none if some of them ain't seen one before,” Mal gruffed under his breath, a little more weary as the conversation carried on. “I didn't figure I'd see you more than a foot away from the little crying machine any time soon. Why aren't you with him right now, Kaylee?”

 

Kaylee bit her bottom lip nervously. “Inara told me to go for a walk with Emma. Said I've been keeping myself inside too much and I need to get more fresh air while I have the chance.”

 

“Can't say she's too far off from the truth...” Mal trailed.

 

“How's it any different from when we're up in the Black?” Kaylee returned. “I spend even more time on Serenity. Weeks even without setting foot on solid ground. It don't bother me none.”

 

Mal shook his head, fighting back a chuckle. Sometimes there was no reasoning with the mechanic when she became set in her views and he didn't have the patience or the capacity in his brain pan to argue with her over the matter. “How's Simon?” he spoke up after a while when the silence between them became too bothersome. “Didn't expect you would stray too far from him now that he's awake and doing this side of better.”

 

Kaylee looked down at her hands resting in her lap. They were less grease stained these days with the lack of time she had been spending in Serenity's engine room; being pregnant had really put a damper on what Kaylee loved doing most, but she wouldn't trade Sebastian for anything and if she had the choice, she would do it all over again.

 

It took a bit for her to work up the courage to answer and when she did, she was noticeably fidgety in her mannerisms.

 

“Simon still ain't been awake much,” Kaylee explained. “Doctor's got him heavily medicated 'cause of the pain and all. I hate seeing him that way, Captain. It don't make me feel good seeing it.”

 

“I'm sure it ain't something to feel good about,” Mal nodded, not questioning the hesitancy in Kaylee's voice. He turned Emma on his lap so she could look out over the landscape. The toddler leaned back against him, content with the change. “Simon waking up is something to take account for though and I reckon you oughta keep that bit in mind.”

 

“I am,” Kaylee answered him quickly. She picked at a fraying thread on her pants in thought. “I been so worried about him, seeing him so broken and all. It's not like him, being hurt like he is. He's strong, Captain. I know you don't believe it sometimes, but Simon is strong.”

 

“I've never said the boy isn't strong,” Mal countered, almost a little too defensively. “Simon ain't exactly right in the head, what with the reckless decisions he's made in his time and the risks he's taken, but that don't make one question how strong he is. Maybe I haven't given him his due credit like I should. I can admit that. Still, I know the difference between one who isn't deserving because he's a coward and one who would risk everything just to save his family because he ain't a coward.”

 

“I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at...” Kaylee sighed.

 

“Point is...Simon ain't a coward and he's a damn good doctor,” Mal asserted. “And...he ain't so bad for you either.”

 

Kaylee looked quickly to Mal in surprise, her eyes lighting up with thankfulness. “Captain,” she drawled, fighting a relaxed smile. “I don't think I've ever heard you say something like that before.”

 

Mal's forehead creased in a hard line before he allowed his eyes to meet Kaylee's. “Listen, I know I can be a yu bun duh yo cho yo ying [stupid stubborn] fool sometimes, but I can admit to what I know is right when I need to and I know this is right, about you and Simon. I may not like it and I won't try to hide that, but I can't stop it.”

 

“You've tried,” Kaylee lightly chided as she nudged Mal in the ribs with her elbow.

 

“I have my quirks,” Mal muttered with a nonchalant shrug.

 

Kaylee offered him a trademark grin that let Mal know without doubt that the happy go lucky mechanic he was so fond of still existed under all her complex layers of stress. “I don't mind your quirks,” she replied with an encouraging nod. “I love my captain and I wouldn't change him for nothin'.”

 

“Sometimes you're just too Gorram cheerful, Kaylee,” Mal chuckled and looked down at Emma to find her staring up at him quizzically. He attempted to scowl, but the expression didn't quite surface. “And you, Little One...I know the sneaky tricks you play with me, wrapping me around your finger.”

 

Kaylee leaned up and pressed a kiss to Mal's cheek. “She knows you're a big softy, even if you deny it.”

 

“No...” Mal grunted with a tight shake of his head. “No. I'm a horrible old tyrant, Kaylee. It would do Emma well to learn that quickly. She'll see. There ain't enough of your cheerfulness in the Verse to teach her otherwise.”

 

“You can't always be right,” Kaylee chided him again.

 

“I've been trying to tell him that for years,” Zoe's voice broke through the air behind them. Emma twisted on Mal's lap and squealed in delight at the sight of her mother. This time Mal did scowl, but it didn't phase Zoe any as she crossed her arms over her chest. “If he hasn't been convinced by now, I don't see it happening.”

 

Mal slowly rose to his feet, holding Emma tight. “If I didn't know any better, Zoe, I'd say you were rallying against me just now,” he said.

 

“Sorry, sir,” Zoe stoically replied. Even with her straight-faced serious expression, there was still a twinkle of humor in her eyes as she reached out to draw Emma into her embrace. “I am simply saying that an old dog can't be taught new tricks.”

 

“An old d-” Mal stuttered with a gruff of being taken aback. He looked indignant for a moment and squared his shoulders. “I may be old, but- Well that's not the point.”

 

Zoe nodded stiffly. “Whatever you say, sir.”

 

Mal cursed quietly under his breath in Chinese as Kaylee rose to her feet to stand straight, but there wasn't a single part of him that wasn't good natured about it. He knew he needed to lighten up a bit more and focus his attention on what he knew were certainties, like the fact that Simon had indeed awoken and seemed to be on the mend and that meant soon enough they would be getting off this Gorram rock. Then maybe Mal could put this load of go se [crap] behind him, chalk it off to just one more bad mark on his memory.

 

“Um...sir?” Zoe spoke up with a brow raised. Mal looked to her and she straightened her posture. “You're talking to yourself.”

 

“I am?” Mal questioned, then cleared his throat and rolled his shoulders. “Right, well that's nothing to be drawing attention to. Best you be getting Emma in out of the rain before it falls harder. And you, Kaylee...figure you should be tending to Sebastian about now. Probably needs to eat or...something.”

 

Zoe shifted Emma onto her hip, hooking the toddler securely in place. “We'll be retreating to the ship for the night,” she mentioned. “Jayne's going a little stir crazy. Need to make sure he isn't tearing the place up. The ship could probably make do with a little cleaning up as well.”

 

“See, now that's something I don't get,” Mal said with a disgruntled face. “A woman's desire to clean something that can't be tidied.”

 

“Serenity deserves to look pretty,” Kaylee told him. “She does us well, so we gotta take care of her.”

 

“I don't particularly care for you referring to my ship as pretty, Little Kaylee,” Mal replied shortly. “I'm thinking you should keep that to yourself.”

 

“Good night, sir,” Zoe bid farewell amidst her chuckling as she turned to depart from the two. “Good night, Kaylee.”

 

Kaylee watched the pair start to leave and casually called after them, “Night Zoe...”

 

Mal stood there studying the mechanic as her gaze remained distracted in the wake of Zoe and Emma's departure. Eventually, he reached out and lightly placed his hand on her shoulder to draw her attention back to him. “Something's on your mind. Either that or you're thinking too much about nothing and that's just gonna give you an undue headache.”

 

Kaylee exhaled a shallow breath as her eyes slowly shifted back to Mal. “I can't stop worrying.”

 

“...About?” Mal prodded.

 

“Everything,” Kaylee whispered. “It's too much.”

 

Mal drew Kaylee close and wrapped a strong arm around her shoulders. “You keep fighting until you can't fight no more. And even then, you keep fighting because there's always something to fight for,” he said and even as he said it, he realized he was saying it just as much for his benefit as he was for Kaylee's. “I learned that especially in the war. Zoe learned it too. You can ask her. She'll tell you the same.”

 

“But this ain't the war...” Kaylee trailed.

 

“It's life,” Mal replied. “Life is just as much a war and that's something.”

 

Kaylee sniffled and tried to offer Mal a small smile. “I know. I'm just being weak right now.”

 

Mal hugged her tightly to his side. “Weak is something you ain't, Kaylee.”

 

Nodding, Kaylee swallowed thickly and pulled away from the captain. “I should get back to Sebastian. I can't expect Inara to watch him all the time. It's not fair to her.”

 

“I don't suspect Inara is complaining either way,” Mal noted as he bent over to pick up the empty tea cup he'd previously discarded. “You'll be okay, Kaylee. We always see to that.”

 

Kaylee started to turn away from him, but she stopped before she could move even a foot away. She looked nervous again as she rung her hands together. “Will you go see him?”

 

“Sebastian?” Mal questioned in confusion.

 

Kaylee shook her head. “Simon...”

 

Mal avoided Kaylee's gaze at first. “...Maybe another time.”

 

Kaylee hesitated as she wrapped her arms around her midsection. “It's just...I know you haven't gone to see Simon in days and now that he's awake, I thought maybe...well I thought it would do him some good if he saw you. Might make him feel a little more safe, y'know? Knowing he's got the captain on his side?”

 

“Kaylee...” Mal eyed her. “I'm not sure I know what to say to him right now.”

 

“Then don't say anything,” Kaylee frowned in response. “It ain't a matter of saying anything.”

 

Mal looked down at the empty tea cup, considering what Kaylee said. She was right and she didn't have to accuse him outwardly, but she knew he was avoiding Simon like a plague. Mal had been avoiding him for days and it wasn't exactly something he was proud of, not really. It was more of a deeply rooted inner turmoil the captain couldn't seem to grasp hold of though. It all came back to the fact that regardless of the turn of events, Mal still felt responsible and he wasn't sure he would ever stop feeling that way, like many things in his life.

 

“..Alright...I'll go look in on him,” he finally mustered.

 

Kaylee appeared to relax at the response and lifted up on her feet to press her lips to Mal's cheek for the second time that evening. “Xie Xie [Thank you], Captain,” she murmured and turning her back to him, she moved to make her way back into the training house to seek out Inara and Sebastian, wherever the two were. But now as Mal watched her walk away, she looked even more at ease and that meant a whole deal of good to him.

 

Holding back a sigh, Mal set the tea cup on a nearby stone ledge where it would later be found and stepped out from beneath the roof's overhang, ignoring the way the lightly drizzling rain began to dampen his hair. The medical facility was nearly two miles away and it would be a journey Mal would have to take on foot because he knew Zoe would have taken Emma on the mule to return to Serenity. However, all things considered, walking in the rain was the least of Mal's concerns at that point in time.

 

Kaylee was right. Mal needed to see Simon.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen


“You need to eat...”


Exhaling a quiet sigh through his nose, Simon turned a weary gaze away from the rain streaked window across the room to find River's attentive eyes watching him patiently. In one hand, she held a small bowl with steam wafting off the contents and in her other hand, she delicately held a silver spoon poised and ready for use. For a long moment, their eyes locked and in the silence that passed between them, Simon welcomed the comfort he found in his sister's presence. It was that familiar sense of safety that relaxed him from the inside out and he was thankful for River in that moment, truly thankful.


“Need to keep your strength up,” River added with a soft smile that was filled with such warmth, it made the corners of Simon's mouth curl upward in a faint smile of his own. So when his sister dipped the spoon into the bowl and then extended a spoonful of light amber liquid towards his mouth with such grace that not even a droplet fell, he didn't argue. Simon merely parted his lips to welcome the offering.


The soup was warm, not too hot – a broth base with chicken and vegetable undertones to make up the flavor profile – and it made Simon's stomach grumble with hunger as it slid smoothly down his throat. Eating was an uncomfortable endeavor because there wasn't a part of Simon that didn't still hurt. Although the regiment of pain managing medications relieved him considerably. Doctor Hammond said it would take time to heal and being a doctor himself, it was a concept Simon was all too familiar with. As his mind gradually cleared, he could easily recall the time he needed for each of his injuries to heal. It wasn't pleasant, but Simon was still alive. He had to remind himself of that. That in itself meant something.


Licking the taste of the soup from his lips, Simon lifted his hand to grab hold of River's and stop her from offering him another spoonful. His gaze was thankful and he stared back at her in wonder. “Mei Mei...” he rasped. “You don't have to do this. I'll be okay.”


River's eyes bordered on glistening in response, but they twinkled all the same. She slipped her hand from Simon's and fingered the spoon thoughtfully. “You always take care of me,” she said, her voice wavering only slightly. River's eyes flit to the bowl of soup briefly. “It's my turn to take care of you now, Simon.”


He should have expected that response to come out of his sister's mouth, but that didn't mean Simon appreciated it any less to hear it. There were some things about River that would never change, despite the damage she had sustained at the hands of the Alliance. Broken or not, River's intentions were pure and little by little, Simon continuously saw the same little sister he grew up with begin to shine through to the surface. And it made Simon proud because River was a fighter, maybe even a little more so than he and the others. She had to be.


“Do you feel obligated to do so, River?” Simon questioned a moment later. It wasn't until River turned a sharp stare of disbelief upon him, as if she were silently calling him an idiot child, did he realize how incredibly ridiculous he had sounded. Sighing, Simon relaxed back against the pillows elevating him and attempted to convey his apologies. “No...that's not right. I shouldn't have said that.”


River set the bowl of soup aside and shifted to sit on the edge of Simon's bed. Her hand was gentle when she took hold of Simon's, taking command of his attention. “Little sister isn't so little anymore, Simon,” she stated with another smile. “Still broken, but cares all the same.”


Simon squeezed River's hand, his thumb brushing over the back of it. “I know,” he whispered. “And I am so...so proud of you, River.”


Reaching out with her free hand, River fluttered the tips of her fingers against a healing laceration on Simon's temple. The concern in her eyes was evident, though she didn't speak of it out loud. “You didn't give up on me. You always believed,” she murmured. “You saved me.”


“You're my sister,” Simon answered her with assurance. “My beautiful, perfect sister and I'll never give up on you.”


“Never?” River teased him.


Simon squeezed her hand again. “Never.”


It seemed the declaration appeased River for the time being, but then her smile faded and the tell all lines of worry began to surface on her face once more. Simon was taken in by his sister's innocence, because it reminded him just how truly fragile River still was. No matter the horrors she'd experienced or the trauma she'd been through, there would always be that child-like nature that would reside within his sister. There was a part of River that would always believe in the greater good, a part that despite her progression of age into young adulthood would always need protecting. And Simon was her protector. He would always be her protector.


“Mei Mei...” Simon whispered as River's eyes darted nervously over him. “What is it?”


The pads of River's fingers glided feather-soft against Simon's face, as if she were taking mental inventory of every unjust perfection that had been done to him back on Jirah. He could see that she trembled and there was brewing conflict in her stormy eyes. It made Simon fear that River was finally teetering on the border of another one of her breakdowns and he wasn't certain he would be able to handle it this time. Simon had been told of River's surprising success with coping in his absence, but he couldn't help but wonder just how much longer his sister would be able to hold herself together under the pressure of the aftermath.


Simon's hand rose to hold River's in place against his cheek and in his tired and weary gaze, he beckoned her attention back to him. “River...”


“Nightmares,” River stuttered in response and at first, her eyes darkened and appeared to stare far off into the distance. Shallow breaths of distress puffed past her lips, her eyes brimming on the verge of tears, and Simon found himself wondering if she really even saw him right then. Much akin to past recollections of memories she would rather forget, River looked as if she wanted to curl in on herself. But she didn't withdraw her hand from Simon's cheek and she didn't move from his side.


“Your nightmares?” Simon questioned in her confusion.


“Yours,” River pointedly told him. Her eyes fluttered shut, almost fearfully. “Scars fade but memories haunt,” she continued with an audible tremor in her tone, her pitch rising a partial octave. “The voices tell lies but make you believe and you don't want to listen, but you can't shut them out. They laugh because they think it's funny what they done. Hands only bring pain. Footsteps mean they're coming. You don't want them to come again but you can't hide. Make it stop.”


It didn't take long for Simon to understand what it was that River was talking about; it was his fears, his nightmares she spoke openly of. The sound of her ramblings awoke in Simon a rolling well of unease, even made him physically ill in his stomach just at the thought of it because River spoke truth in everything she said. True to the very nature of being a Reader, she could see into the truth of Simon's inner turmoil, his fear, see the demons he had to battle, no matter how well he thought he would be able to hide it from showing on the surface.


A single tear made a long solitary track down River's cheek before she pried her eyes open to look down at Simon. “I couldn't save you...” she mustered brokenly.


Simon didn't think twice about wiping the tear from River's cheek, delicate and somewhat sluggish in his movements, but attentive all the same. His heart hammered in his chest, the palpitations triggered by memories of his kidnapping and brutal assault. Every touch of a hand made him recall the blow of a clenched fist. The sound of every footstep left the breath caught in Simon's chest in preparation for the beatings to start again. River was right. Simon was terrified.


“Too much red,” River shook her head vehemently. “There was too much red. River turned to blood and overflowing. You were drowning, Simon. I called out to you but you wouldn't answer. You always answer, but you couldn't.”


“I heard you, Mei Mei,” Simon told her. “I dreamed of you.”


River's eyes were fretful and threatened to shed another tear as they locked upon her brother. “Couldn't save you.”


Swallowing a bout of pain and his flaring insecurities to tend to River's well being in that moment, Simon drew his sister close to his side and curled an arm securely around her. The physical action hurt and made it harder for him to breathe, but as he cradled River to him and felt the way she gradually began to relax, Simon knew it was worth it. She still needed him just as much as he needed her.


“I dreamed of you and Kaylee,” he told her quietly and allowed his eyes to shut in an attempt to mentally will his discomfort away. “It gave me hope, River. I...I didn't mean for this to happen.”


“Still scared...” River curled herself to fit to the contours of Simon's side. Her head rest carefully against his shoulder, but she took extra care not to apply too much pressure because she knew just how much he was hurting, could feel it flowing like an angry river through her awareness, even if he refused to admit to it because he cared more about her than he did about himself. “Afraid they'll come back for you.”


“I...” Simon's voice trailed off for a lack of better response. He exhaled a heavy breath, wincing and prying his eyes open.


“Jayne fought the monsters,” River stated whimsically, her demeanor returning to a calm and collected manner of content. “Slayed the dragon and rescued you.”


Simon nearly laughed out loud at the irony in River's statement. He knew of the mercenary’s involvement in his recovery and he had his memories, memories Simon originally thought were nothing more than delusional hallucinations, but River's assessment of Jayne's act of heroism was humorous. That was partly for the fact that Simon had a hard time comprehending the idea that the big brute would honestly go out of his way to do much of anything for him, let alone risk his own life just to save Simon's.


However, before he could ponder the thought further, the iconic bravado of Mal's voice broke through the air in the room and Simon looked up to find him lingering in the doorway.


The captain's brow was arched with a certain aspect of curiosity as he leaned against the door frame, one hand casually buried in a pocket. The suspenders Mal wore lay just off center on his shoulders and his shirt along with his pants were wrinkled and unkempt, as if he hadn't taken care of putting himself together in days. It wasn't much like him and Simon couldn't be for certain about it, but he wasn't about to question such trivial matters. Not when Mal's sudden arrival came as more than a surprise.


“Jayne? A dragon slayer?” Mal quipped with a short chuckle that echoed on the tail end of his statement. “Now, Little Albatross, don't go giving credit where credit ain't due.”


River lifted her head from Simon's shoulder and managed a small wicked smile in the captain's direction.


Mal's expression became lighter as he looked between the pair, both brows now raising. In fact, he almost looked as if he were caught somewhere he wasn't supposed to be. “Oh, I'm sorry. Am I interrupting?” He pointed back over his shoulder. “I can come back later.”


Simon barely shook his head as River re-situated herself to sit poised on the edge of the bed. “No, you're not interrupting,” he answered with a grimace before adding, “Come in.”


Nodding stiffly, Mal stepped into the room. “River, suppose I could convince you to give me a moment to speak to your brother alone.”


River stared at Mal accusingly with a fair bit of distrust and then turned her attention Simon with a softer glance. Simon lightly pat her arm to reassure her. “It's okay, River. It won't be long. You don't have to go far,” he told her.


Not appearing entirely convinced, River rose from the bed nonetheless and grabbed a chunk of bread from beside the bowl of soup on the tray. She approached Mal and extended the bread, forcing it into his hand. “Simon needs to eat,” she sternly said. “Needs to keep his strength up.”


Mal watched as River glided past him and disappeared without another word spoken. He blinked absently in her wake, a bit at a loss for words before staring quizzically down at the chunk of bread he held in his hand. “Uh...” he chuckled as he reached up to scratch at his temple. “I'm gonna say this lightly, doctor and I mean no disrespect. Don't figure we got time for disrespectin', but...I don't feel a mighty want or need to be feeding you right now.”


Simon sighed and as much as he attempted to offer the captain an awkward smile, the expression never quite reached the surface of his face. “River is just worried,” he murmured, his eyes drooping until they were nearly shut. “She means well.”


“Yeah, well...” Mal drawled absently. He placed the chunk of bread back onto the tray and lowered himself to sit in the chair beside Simon's bed. “I'm gonna place my bet on it's right guessing to say your sister is lingering somewhere outside the door.”


“She won't go far,” Simon conceded. His eyes shut and he tilted his head against the pillow away from Mal.


“No, I suppose she won't,” Mal muttered in return with a tight shake of his head. Eyes wandering around the room, he picked at an imaginary piece of lint on his thigh before gradually bringing his gaze back to Simon. “Ain't this something... I come to visit you, walk a couple miles in the rain just to do so, and you're calling for nap time. Kinda makes a captain start to think he ain't welcome.”


Simon's brows furled and even though he finding it more difficult to remain conscious as the moments passed, he managed to find himself looking at the captain once more. “I...I'm sorry. It's the medications,” he all but stuttered as he brought an unsteady hand up to rub delicately at his forehead. “They make it...difficult to stay awake.”


Mal waved a dismissive hand. “You need your rest, doctor. Best thing for you. Don't need to be trying to explain yourself on my account.”


Slowly, Simon tilted his head back in Mal's direction. “...I appreciate your kind visit, captain.”


“Now that's the medication talking,” Mal chuckled inwardly. “Seriously, though...it's good to see you awake and talking. You had us scared there for a moment that you were checking out and taking early leave. Had Kaylee beside herself with worry.”


Deep inside, Simon knew the captain's words weren't intended to sting him as intensely as they did, but he was unable to deny the wave of guilt that washed over him. And by the looks of it, Mal could sense the sudden shift in Simon's demeanor because his firm gaze became less confident and he looked down at his hands.


Simon had put the whole crew through Hell...and for what?


Mal cleared his throat and straightened his posture in the chair. “'Course, River surprised everyone with how well she held up in your absence. I figure she's been on the verge of meltdown the entire time, but she didn't show any crazy. Not that I think a one of us would have been able to pick up the pieces of that disaster. Jayne would'a been likely to go off the deep end and I-” Mal paused abruptly mid-sentence, realizing he had been absently rambling for the sake of keeping the quiet in the room from becoming too thick. “Well, not that that matters now, seeing as you're back and maybe now we can get off this kwong-juh duh [crazy] planet and return business to normal.”


“You're surrounded by women,” Simon offered quietly. “Being's it's a companion training...it should be right up your alley...”


Mal actually appeared offended momentarily, any traces of humor absent from his face as he suspected was the intended result of Simon's response. He gruffed under his breath. “Sounds like those meds they're pumping through your veins is really messing with your head, doctor. You've mistook me for Jayne.”


“My apologies,” Simon all but chuckled and if Mal looked close enough, he may have been able to see the corner of Simon's mouth barely curling upward in a faint grin. “You have more taste than that ape.”


“Besides...” Mal shrugged. “If I wanted a companion, I would get me a companion.”


“The last I checked, you already have one,” Simon returned with a hand pressed to his side. He exhaled a slow calculated breath that only made his ribs ache more than they already were and the discomfort showed on his face enough that Mal found himself wondering if he should call for someone.


“You alright there, doctor?” Mal questioned him.


Simon exhaled another breath, managing a small nod. “Rib fractures. Just needs time to heal,” he explained.


“Your doctor filled me in when we brought you here,” Mal confirmed. “Now I don't mean to be the dark in a spot of light since you pulled through, but it was bad and not our kind of bad either. Could'a been ruttin' worse, too.”


“My captors...they intended to kill me,” Simon mustered


“I conjure they did,” Mal returned. “Would have too if-”


“It weren't for Jayne,” Simon interrupted to finish the captain's statement. He looked pointedly at him as if to challenge him to argue the point, but he knew just as well as Mal did that Jayne had played more than a vital role in his rescue.


“That's the popular theory,” Mal grunted. He wrung his hands together and shifted in the chair. “He could have gotten himself killed as well, defying my direct orders and going into that house those go tsao de [dog humping] sons of bitches were keeping you in before Zoe and myself could get there.”


“He shouldn't have done it...”


If looks could have been the end of Simon, he was certain Mal's resounding stare was a vision of Death itself. There was venom in the captain's eyes, cold and unforgiving and yet at the same time, Mal looked as if he had been slapped in the face. His skin drained of all color momentarily, to the point that Simon wasn't sure if he was going to yell or merely rise to his feet and walk out of the room. Yet, Mal didn't do either. Instead, he released a low throaty chuckle that actually had Simon wondering if the captain had finally gone mad.


“Is that so...” Mal finally responded with a sharpy click of his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “You reckon we should have just...what? Turned the other way, let those bastards do as they wanted with you, and just broke atmo? Leave you behind?”


“I made a mistake,” Simon weakly countered. “I...I put all of you in a horrible position.”


“You're right, son,” Mal spat with just as much venom as his stare contained. Then his tone softened and it was unlike Simon was used to hearing from the man he had come to know as hardened and relatively unattached. “You caused me and mine a whole heap of trouble, doing what you did. But it ain't the first time and I suppose it won't be the last either. I've come to learn that over time, having you and your sister on board will end in trouble, one way or another. That doesn't change anything.”


Simon clenched a clammy fist against the soft material of the blankets covering his lower half and offered Mal a faint grin. “Was that meant to make me feel better?” he asked.


Mal stood and paced away from the bed with his arms tightly crossed over his chest. His forehead creased with a line of troubled expression until he stopped at the window across the room with his back to Simon. Pulling back the golden silk drapes, he stared out at the mist laden landscape.


“See, I don't understand why this is a concept so hard for you to grasp, doctor, seeing as you got the brains and all, some boy genius, top of your class or what not you claimed...” Mal trailed. His voice was troubled and distracted. “You and your sister...you're part of my crew. Have been for some time now. It's time best you start understanding that.” Mal turned back to Simon, his face vacant of typical judgment. “I'm tired of repeating myself on the matter. Dong ma? [Understand?]”


“Shi, [Yes,] I understand,” Simon returned.


Nodding to himself, Mal wandered back over to the bed. “Kept you and your sister on my crew on account that you've both became like family. You both have your place. Don't understand much why you keep questioning it.”


Simon reached out to grapple for the cup of water on the tray beside his bed, frowning at the failed endeavor until finally the captain placed it in his hand. He looked up at Mal with gratitude. “I would say I'm boo-tai jung-tzahng-duh, [not entirely sane,]” he said as he brought the cup up to his lips and gingerly sipped the water.


“Then let me make this abundantly clear to you, doctor, before you become as kwong-juh duh [crazy] in the brain pan as your sister,” Mal said, taking a seat on the edge of Simon's bed. “You pull another stunt like you did and purposely put the rest of my crew in jeopardy...but most of all you purposely put Kaylee through that sort of pain again, and you will be eating the wake of my ship. I won't hesitate to leave you behind. You'll be on your own.”


Simon stared back at Mal in surprise from the unexpected bitterness laced in his voice. He swallowed thickly and set the cup back on the tray. “...It won't happen again.”


Mal dipped his head once at the understanding. “Good,” he replied. His hand disappeared into his pocket briefly and then he withdrew a small black velvet pouch. Holding it in the palm of his hand, Mal focused his eyes on the object in careful consideration. “Because, y'know...I remember us having talk a mite while back, about your intentions with Little Kaylee.”


Simon eyed the velvet pouch in the captain's hand in recognition and cleared his throat. “As I recall.”


“Then as you recall...” Mal's voice trailed as he held the velvet pouch up for better view. “You asked me to hold onto this for you, peculiar thing it is, until I was ready to give you my blessing to marry the girl. Seeing as her daddy ain't around to give you his permission, I guess that's why you're expecting it from me.”


“Captain...” Simon started to drawl nervously.


“Kaylee's very important to me,” Mal continued without a hint of hesitation. “She's family, like a little sister I feel need to protect. You understand. Point is, I don't take kindly to anyone treating my family in an unwell manner. Makes me feel a mite need to do them harm. That's why I'm expecting you to treat Kaylee well when you take her as your wife. You may not be able to give her the Verse like you could have when you still lived in the Core, rich as you were, but you'll make do.”


Simon took the familiar velvet pouch when it was offered to him and fingered the soft material to feel the outline of the ring hidden inside. “You're okay with it?”


Mal chuckled. “Don't get ahead of yourself there, doctor. I ain't sure I'll ever be okay with it. Ship board romances are trouble. I still stand on that. But for whatever reason, you make Kaylee happy. That girl loves you something awful and I ain't a fool enough to not know that there's nothing in the Verse that can stop that, not even me. So, you do me proud and you continue to make Kaylee happy. You take care of her and you take care of your kid. Be a better father than your own.”


Prying the soft material of the pouch open, Simon shook it gently upside down until the ring landed in the palm of his hand. The brilliant glisten of the gem in the middle reflected the lighting in the room and Simon's mind traveled back in time to the moment that he'd purchased the piece of jewelry from a peddler on a moon just outside the Core, with the thought of nothing more than wanting to ask Kaylee properly for her hand in marriage.


It had cost Simon more than a pretty platinum too, enough that Mal had been none too happy when he'd caught wind of how much Serenity’s doctor had paid to acquire the piece. Mal had seen it as a waste of Simon's cut of the previous job, told him he needed to not be so frivolous with his share, but Simon knew the captain didn't understand and never would. He didn't need the others to understand though. He just needed Kaylee to see and he needed her to understand to the fullest just what she meant to him.


Of course, the ring was more symbolic than anything and Simon was in all sense a traditionalist, but he knew Kaylee would like it. The moment it had caught his attention, Simon could see Kaylee wearing it. He could see the moment he had her before him when he properly made her his, vowing to spend the rest of his life taking care of her and protecting her. Simon could see her happy because that's what he wanted Kaylee to be. Symbolic or not, the ring was perfect, befitting of the perfect woman who had given Simon so much hope.


“Uh...doctor?”


Pulling from his thoughts, Simon re-centered his attention on Mal. “I love Kaylee. I don't need you to understand that,” he said. “And I love my son. I would die for both of them.”


“Oddly enough, I believe that,” Mal replied. “Just don't make me regret saying it.”


Simon slipped the ring back into the pouch. “Thank you, captain...”


There was a shuffling in the doorway of the room and Mal glanced back over his shoulder to find River standing stiff and anxious with nervous eyes. “Guess that's my cue that visiting hours are over,” he muttered and rose to his feet. He looked at Simon again just as the doctor slipped the velvet pouch beneath the pillows. “Rest up, doctor. We'll need you back to work soon enough. Sure there will be plenty of bullet holes, knife wounds, and laser burns requiring your attention.”


“I'm afraid I won't be of much use for a while,” Simon replied with a sheepish lop-sided smile.


“Then we'll just have to try harder not to get ourselves shot or stabbed in the meantime.” Mal lightly pat Simon's shoulder. “Just take care of yourself. We'll take care of the rest.”


Simon watched as the captain turned and began to make his way towards River. When he was almost to the doorway, he called out to him. “Captain?”


“Hmmm?” Mal stopped and turned.


“Jayne...he's okay...right?” Simon hesitantly asked.


Mal's brow arched. “Got his arm hurt good. He'll live though. Bounce back just fine. He's...Jayne.”


Simon nodded, keeping his relief to himself. “...Tell him I said thank you?”


Mal thought on his response before speaking. “You can thank him yourself when you get home. Might do him good to hear it coming from your mouth.”


River's hand pressed upon the captain's arm as she gazed up at him. “Jayne doesn't look better in red after all.”


Unsure what to say at first, Mal calmly pried River's hand away from his arm. “River, take care of your brother.”


“He takes so much looking after,” River sighed dramatically. She offered Mal a shy smile. “Won't let the captain down.”


Swallowing a small chuckle, Mal bid farewell with a silent nod of his head and without another word spoken, he ducked out of Simon's hospital room.


*****


'We're gonna have us some fun and yer gonna realize help won't be comin' for yeh by the time I'm done with yeh, lad. 'Course, yeh'll be good and dead by then.'


With a gasp for startled breath, Simon's eyes shot open as the hateful sound of Jethro's venom-filled voice still echoed hauntingly in his ears. He reached up with a trembling hand and grasped at his chest, his posture more than stiff with anxiety and his eyes wildly wide. The faint sour stench of cheap whiskey and stale tobacco invaded Simon's nostrils out of the depths of his memories, making his weak stomach twist and threaten to rise. Expecting Jethro to jump out at him from the shadows of the room, Simon swallowed thickly and swept his gaze quickly over the room. He feared an attack because that's what he remembered the most, the blow of iron-like fists, booted feet slamming into him, bones breaking and his life slipping away from him...


The fear ran rampant in Simon until his gaze settled upon Kaylee where she comfortably sat in the chair beside his bed. In her carefully secure embrace, she had Sebastian swaddled in a blanket against her chest while she stared down at him adoringly, humming softly beneath her breath.


Kaylee must have slipped into the room while Simon had been sleeping; the last he remembered was River at his side as she relayed to him one of her elaborately spun creative tales, the animation in her eyes reflecting her livelihood. If he recalled correctly, it had involved dinosaurs from long long ago on Earth-That-Was and even Jayne yet again slaying a dragon, although there was far less injury to the mercenary involved.


None of that mattered now. River's tale of magic and pre-historic creatures was long forgotten from the recesses of Simon's mind the moment he laid eyes on Kaylee and their son.


Simon was glad to see them, reassured of his own safety to know they were near where he wanted them to be and where they belonged. And so he had no qualms about laying there silently with his awakening attention set on two of the people he loved most in the Verse. Save for the fact that his mind was still relatively cloudy from the nightmare he'd surfaced from, Simon really couldn't find the words to say. Reveling in the fact that he could merely watch the moment unfolding before him meant far more.


Kaylee's fingers delicately caressed Sebastian's cherubic cheek, her nurturing nature clearly coming at ease. Despite her insecurities about her ability to mother in the past, Kaylee appeared to have no difficulties settling into the role. It looked good on her too, made her glow with a deeper purpose that Simon respected her greatly for. He had no doubts that she would be a fantastic mother, perhaps for the fact that caring for those around her came just as naturally to her as breathing did. Seeing Kaylee caring so attentively for their son in that moment only reinforced that belief and Simon would never stop cherishing her for it.


It also made Simon not want to look away for fear of the image before him dissolving. How close he had come to never seeing it to begin with. The near loss was devastating and though Simon's intentions had been good, he truly had purposely put Kaylee through an undeserving pain, just as the captain had said. But it served no purpose to dwell on what he couldn't change, no matter the regrets.


Kaylee's head tilt to the side, her lips rounded in a warm smile as she lifted the infant just enough to press a tender kiss to his forehead. “There there, little one,” she murmured in content and fulfillment of pride. “Every thing is okay now. You'll see.”


“It will be,” Simon responded to her before he could think twice about what he was saying. Kaylee's gaze swayed in his direction with a bit of surprise to find him awake, but their eyes met with a mutual calm. Promises. Simon wordlessly begged her to understand the promises he was hoping to convey.


“I didn't mean to wake you,” Kaylee apologized as she bit apprehensively upon her bottom lip. “River said you weren't resting well and you hadn't been asleep long when Sebastian and I arrived. I didn't want to wake you. I know you need your rest.”


“It feels like I've had enough rest to last me a life time,” Simon told her with a crooked smile. It wasn't entirely the truth; his body felt weighed down with an unnerving exhaustion he could quite shake, but Simon wasn't about to admit to such. He was just tired of succumbing to the medically induced sleep that quickly ushered in the haunting nightmares. “I'm afraid closing my eyes will cause me to miss too much.”


Kaylee's responsive smile was thoughtful in her own characteristic way as she looked down at Sebastian once again. She found his deep blue eyes staring up at her, alert and almost curious with his tiny hand curled in a loose fist against his cheek. “Sebastian was just falling asleep...” she trailed, a quiet chuckle summing up the wake of her words. “Was a bit fussy before I brought him here. Crying and well...screaming enough that it caused worry at the training house. Don't know why, really. I think maybe he just wanted to see you. He's wide awake now.”


The bed shifted beneath Simon as he reached out to press the button on the panel beside him that would allow for the top half of the bed to elevate. “I want to hold him,” he insisted with a barely withheld grimace.


“Oh, I...” Kaylee appeared uncertain about Simon's request. “I don't know, Simon. Are you sure? I don't want it to hurt you...”


Simon's brows furled and he exhaled a steady breath. “I don't care if it hurts me,” he answered her honestly. His eyes were hopeful when they met Kaylee's for a brief moment and then flit to Sebastian. “I want to hold my son.”


“I'm sure Sebastian would like that,” Kaylee noted as she nodded slowly and scooted to the edge of the chair. Pressing the edges of her teeth to her bottom lip, she rose to her feet and moved to sit on the edge of Simon's bed. “He misses you...just as much as I do.”


Simon extended his hand to brush the tips of his fingers against the soft skin of Sebastian's cheek. “Do you believe that, Kaylee?” he asked.


Kaylee was taken aback by Simon's brazen question as she watched his fingers glide feather-light over Sebastian's cheek. “Of course I believe that. You should too.”


Simon knew his question had been foolish, fueled by deeply rooted insecurities he was unfamiliar with, but now wasn't the time to dwell on those matters he had absolutely no control of. Sighing, he forced a faint smile. “May I hold him now?”


He felt the breath catch in his throat the moment Kaylee gingerly transferred Sebastian into his arms, the weight and the warmth of the infant resting in Simon's embrace invading every bit of his awareness. Simon stared down at his son in wordless awe, unprepared for the brunt of profound emotions to hit him full force. He had imagined this moment from the point in time Kaylee had told him she was pregnant, that moment when he would hold his child proudly for the first time and come to the realization that he was a father.


Then again, Simon had always pictured the moment would occur within Serenity’s infirmary after he had skillfully ushered the child into life during the birthing process. Simon never imagined her would hold his child for the first time while laying in a bed located in a companion medical facility after a near-death experience that in all actuality should have killed him.


Simon hadn't been meant to survive...


And yet, there Sebastian was, tucked within his father's embrace and fully alert with wide curious eyes that had Simon feeling as if he were staring into an identical smaller version of his own. Simon's lips curled upward at the corners of his mouth and this time the breath he inhaled was rather shallow and unstable. So entirely captivated by the way Sebastian stared up at him with a knowing gaze, Simon wasn't aware of the solitary bitter tear that slid down his heat-reddened cheek.


“Tian a... [Oh God...]” Simon whispered before swallowing thickly to contain himself. His hand trembled as he once again caressed the infant's cheek, feeling every ounce of regret welling within him.


Kaylee watched him closely sensing the downward shift in his demeanor. “...Simon?” she called out to him, afraid to move too quickly when she took note of his visible sadness.


“I wasn't there,” Simon answered her in a voice that threatened to give out with each word he spoke. “I promised I would be there, but I wasn't. I should have been. I...I'm so sorry, Kaylee. Please forgive me.”


“You came back to us,” Kaylee sternly replied. “That's what matters to me.”


Simon cleared his throat, offering Kaylee a barely noticeable nod. Sebastian sighed quietly, comfortably at ease as his eyes began to droop shut. “This is really him. This is-”


“Our son,” Kaylee finished, her features relaxing. She smoothed Sebastian's silky hair. “Ain't he perfect? Handsome and shiny, just like his daddy.”


“That's kind of you to say,” Simon mused. “But I'm not much to look at right now.”


“Well I don't believe that for one second,” Kaylee replied dismissively. “I still think you're pretty shuai [handsome].”


“Most would call that biased,” Simon chuckled.


Kaylee's cheeks flushed pink with color. “Hurt or not, you're alive, Simon,” she spoke in a flustered manner. “It don't matter how you look. You'll always be shuai [handsome] to me.”


Simon brought his gaze to her in consideration with a crooked smile. “You still manage to find the positive in everything,” he drawled.


“If you can't find the positive, then what's the point?” Kaylee pressed a kiss to Simon's cheek. “The bruises are already getting lighter and your eye looks so much better. Doctor Hammond said there's even some medicated cream you can put on the cuts once they've healed to fade the scars so they can't be seen.”


“Fadelene,” Simon nodded and returned his gaze to Sebastian to find his son sound asleep. “It was, um...an experimental drug about ten years back. The hospital in Capital City where I used to work was part of the trial run before it was fully approved. They used it on severe burn victims.”


Kaylee settled close to Simon against the pillows. “Did it help them?”


“It was a very expensive drug once it was approved and usually reserved for the most elite,” Simon answered. “But yes, it did help, impressively so. It is typically only found in the Core, unless found through the black market trade. The value of Fadelene is...astronomical.”


“Doctor Hammond said they have a small supply of it here,” Kaylee encouraged optimistically. “He said it wouldn't take much to help you.”


Simon frowned. “Kaylee, there's...there's others who need that more than I do, ones who deserve it more.”


Kaylee pursed her lips together for a moment. “That's not true. You deserve it just as much as they do. Don't matter none if you don't believe that.”


Simon had to hold back a sigh of frustration because he simply didn't the energy to argue the point with Kaylee and the last thing he really wanted to do right then was upset her. He had already put her through too much as it was. So Simon forced the morose thoughts far to the back recesses of his mind and instead focused on the fact that he had both Kaylee and Sebastian there with him. He made himself focus on the real sensation of what it felt like to actually be holding Sebastian in his arms, to watch as the infant slept peacefully without a care in the Verse. It was perfection, true perfection that Simon had never known until that point.


“Tell me about our son, Kaylee,” Simon requested after time had passed with no further words spoken between them.


Kaylee curled herself closer to Simon's side, her head gently resting on his shoulder. “He's such a good baby,” she smiled to herself as her fingers idly fussed with the material of Simon's hospital gown. “I think he's happy, but sometimes he seems so sad when he cries. Not when he's hungry or needs a changing. Just...cries because he's sad. River says it's because Sebastian misses you.”


“Children can be highly intuitive of their surroundings...” Simon thought out loud. “They're sensitive to the emotions of those around them.”


“I...I tried to do my best and be strong around him,” Kaylee stuttered with an audible frown laced in her voice. “Didn't want him to see me weak or crying, but sometimes I just...I couldn't help it. Wasn't fair to him.”


“You did you best,” Simon told her. “I have no doubts.”


Kaylee sniffled quietly. “Sebastian deserves the best.”


Ignoring the flaring pain of guilt, Simon turned his head to press his lips against the top of Kaylee's head. “Tell me more about him.”


“He's just a good baby, Simon.” Kaylee inhaled a deep breath before continuing. “He loves to be held and sang to. Keeps him calm and makes him smile. Captain said it's just gas, but I think sometimes he really is smiling, especially when I talk to him about you. His little mouth curls up in the same way yours does and his eyes are so attentive. They're so beautiful.”


“He looks just like me...” Simon acknowledged.


“I think he's gonna be just as smart as you, too,” Kaylee replied. “May even become a doctor.”


“Not a talented mechanic like his mother?” Simon countered.


Kaylee pulled back, appearing a little embarrassed. “It ain't nothing respectable.”


Simon swept his eyes across Kaylee's face, studying her. “Sure it is,” he said. “Anyone on the ship would tell you the same thing. You keep Serenity in the air even when she should fall. So you should be proud of yourself for what you are able to do because I am proud of you for it.”


Kaylee looked down at her hands. “It's just what I do,” she mumbled. “Serenity talks. All you gotta do is just listen to her.”


“Will you teach me?”


“How to work on Serenity?” Kaylee looked surprised, but her mouth curled into a grin all the same. “You want to learn mechanics?”


Simon lightly shrugged. “I'm afraid I'll be out of commission for a while. Won't be of much use to the rest of the crew with my injuries,” he explained. “But...I figure it would be better for all of us if more than one person knew what makes the ship tick. Two sets of hands are better than one and you know best. You can teach me what I need to know.”


“I can,” Kaylee eagerly agreed. “If you treat her well, she'll do the same to you. Gotta take care of her is all. It's real easy.”


Simon laid his head back against the pillows and rest his eyes shut. “I will have the best teacher on the ship then,” he noted.


“Oh gosh, Simon. I'm sorry,” Kaylee apologized, fighting the urge to reach out and rub his arm soothingly. “You must be so tired still and I'm sitting here talking your ear off.”


“I'll be fine,” Simon assured her. “I feel I'm getting restless being confined to this bed.”


“I bet you'll be home on Serenity in no time, right where you belong.” Kaylee fixed the blanket covering Sebastian, tucking it tighter around him. “Now that you're doing better with Doctor Hammond taking real good care of you.”


“Where I belong is with you, Sebastian, and River,” Simon stated. “The rest means nothing.”


“Serenity means more than just nothing to you.” Kaylee's eyes brimmed with an unexpected wave of emotion. “It's home, Simon, and it's not the same without you there.”


Simon pried his eyes open at the sound of the tremor in Kaylee's voice. “Kaylee, I...for what it's worth, I promise I will make things better again.”


Kaylee swiped a hand beneath her eyes to catch the tears that were preparing to fall. “I almost lost you,” she whispered. “It's not the first time.”


Keeping his eyes firm on Kaylee, Simon reached a hand out to her. “You should be angry at me for this, what I put you through.”


“I can't,” Kaylee sniffled in response. Her shoulders trembled as she took hold of Simon's hand and this time, she was unable to keep the tears from falling. They fell slowly at first, streaking her reddened cheeks. You left that day because of me. I'm mad at myself.”


“That's fèi huà, [nonsense,] băo bèi, [sweetheart,]” Simon answered gently. Linking their fingers together, he attempted to draw her close, though he found his arm to be weak and uncooperative. “Kaylee, please...come here.”


Kaylee fumbled to move closer to Simon and was unaware of the way he winced in discomfort when she leaned too heavily into his side. “It scared me to think I had lost you,” she spoke weakly. “That I was gonna end up like Zoe since she lost Wash. I wouldn't survive that like she has. I'm not strong like Zoe is.”


“You don't have to worry about that anymore,” Simon soothed her. His arm curled delicately around her shoulders to hold her in place. “I'm going to be okay. I'm right here.”


“I love you so much, Simon,” Kaylee managed to return in a voice barely above a whisper. She pressed her face to Simon's chest, gripping his hand. “Been that way for a long time.”


“I know you do. Everything's going to be okay,” Simon promised. “We'll get through this.”


Kaylee's eyes were tired and bloodshot when she lifted her head to look up at him. “Sebastian needs you too. It wouldn't be fair to him not to have you.”


“Stay with me tonight. You and Sebastian.” Simon tried to offer here a solid smile, but he suspected the expression never quite reached his face by the way Kaylee didn't appear any less insecure in the matter. It bothered him to see the all too real fear registering in her eyes and the fact that she seemed more worn down than normal. That responsibility was his alone and he hated knowing it.


“But visiting hours...” Kaylee started to protest.


“They will make an exception,” Simon said. “I'll feel more at ease with you here, both of you.”


Kaylee gradually began to settle once again. “I would like that.”


“Just lay here with me. Tell me whatever is on your mind,” Simon spoke quietly to her, knowing he was on the losing end of a battle to stay awake for much longer. Though now he could finally admit to being truly at ease for the first time in quite a while, with both Kaylee and Sebastian at his side and knowing that River was being well looked after while he recovered. Things would mend, just like they always did...


...But it was the lingering nightmares that made Simon wonder if things would ever be the same again.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

 

Simon had seen his fair share of traumatic situations over the years being one of the top trauma surgeons at the Capital City hospital back on Osiris. Holding the prestigious position had earned him a great deal of respect in the medical community and had he continued in his career, it had him well on his way to paving the path to a very promising future.

 

Simon's own mother had hopes of him one day earning the medical elect and at one point in time, way before life had inevitably fallen apart around him, Simon had held the same aspiration for himself. He had goals. He had dreams. The hospital had become a second home that he had a hard time leaving. Back then, Simon had no doubts it was where he belonged, where his intelligence and his talents could give back to the greater good and he could save the lives that most desperately needed saving.

 

In Some ways, growing up privileged as he had left Simon with a certain sense of entitlement. Not intentional of course; it's just what he knew. Just as supporting unification had been expected of him and when it first came down to it, Simon truly hadn't known any better. He worked hard always and stood for what he believed in, even what he thought he believed in or rather what he was raised to believe in. Unifying the people was for the greater good they said and Simon wanted to see to that greater good first and foremost.

 

See to the people. Help the people. Become a brilliant doctor. The greater good.

 

Then, just as Simon was certain life made sense and he couldn't find a reason to question it, everything changed. Those he trusted, his own parents most of all, turned their backs on him and left Simon to the mercy of those that suddenly opposed him. To say his views and beliefs changed, everything he had ever known true to fact, was a drastic understatement. Simon was thrust into the unknown with no other choice but to restructure his entire belief system. And it had been devastating.

 

That very destruction is what had brought Simon and River to the fringes of the galaxy, testing their limits as they lived their life not as they knew it, but on the run. Relying on the unknown and the uncertain became the normal and a necessity for survival. Life was no longer a given, but a gift they had to fight every day for. And if assuring River's safety meant he had to do it all over again, Simon wouldn't hesitate to do it in a heartbeat.

 

The hospital in Capital City was long behind Simon and so were the days when he hated leaving the facility. Looking around his hospital room now, he openly welcomed the urgency to finally be free, to leave the dark period of hurt and return to Serenity where those surroundings had become more like home than any place else. The pain of Simon’s injuries may not have faded completely, but the medical staff and the ship’s crew were confident that he was well on his way to a full recovery. Simon, himself, had that much to be thankful for. Two weeks he had been in the companion medical facility. Simon just wanted to put the two weeks of uncertainties and constant nightmares behind him.

 

The greater good was now looking after Kaylee, Sebastian, River, and the rest of the crew. Simon couldn’t wait to return home.

 

“Mr. Tam?”

 

Turning his attention away from the task of buttoning up the dark blue material of his shirt, a task that proved far more difficult than he recalled, Simon shifted slightly where he sat on the edge of the hospital bed and focused his sight on the doorway to the room just as Shenzi, dressed in her appropriate medical clothing, stepped inside. Her steps were graceful, eyes warm and full of hope. Simon had come to enjoy the nurse’s periodic company during the time he’d been a patient, those few rare moments when neither River nor Kaylee were at his side.

 

Shenzi was a kind soul, patient and understanding beyond her young years. With physical beauty that made her appear if she belonged more in the companion trade, Simon knew without a doubt that the profession she had chosen to immerse herself in was more befitting of the woman than most of the people he had come across as an active member of the medical field. She had a lot to offer to those in need and she was good at what she did. Even as she approached, her smile was calming and enough to put Simon at ease, allowing him to smile in return.

 

“A man concentrating as deeply as you were is a man with a lot on his mind,” Shenzi noted with questioning in her eyes that was an open invitation for Simon to divulge what he was thinking if he so chose to. Setting a small metal box on the foot of the bed, she sat beside Simon and gently moved his hands out of the way to finish the task of buttoning his shirt. “Your strength will return in time. Be patient and allow those around you to assist.”

 

Simon let his hands rest lightly on his lap as he watched Shenzi work. “I no longer have room for shame in the matter,” he replied.

 

“Shame serves no purpose.” Shenzi straightened the collar of Simon’s shirt when she was finished with the buttons. “Nor do you have reason to be ashamed.”

 

“Thank you…” Simon murmured in response to her act of help.

 

“Your family is here,” Shenzi continued encouragingly as she reached for the small box she had previously discarded. Turning one of Simon’s hands over, she pressed it to his palm. “The tall one in charge is quite opinionated with very few words. If I am wrong, please correct me, but I assume he prefers to rule by intimidation.”

 

“Captain Reynolds.” Simon couldn’t help but chuckle as he shook his head and stared curiously down at the box Shenzi had given him. “No, your assumption is correct. He means well though. Conveying himself proper has never been a strong suit of his, I’m afraid.”

 

Shenzi nodded as she rose from the bed and began to busy herself with Simon’s medical charts. “He has a good heart, but he’s been hardened,” she thought out loud before turning back to Simon. “He fought in the War of Independence, yes? With the Independents?”

 

Simon brought his attention to Shenzi, uncertain how to respond at first towards her brazen questions, but it was her expression of innocence that let him know she hadn’t meant anything threatening or disapproving by it. “How did you know?”

 

Dipping her head sheepishly, Shenzi broke eye contact momentarily. “The duster coat Mr. Reynolds favors, or rather the color of it. I’ve heard plenty about the Independents who survived the war being referred to as browncoats,” she explained. When she looked up again, she tried to convey her apologies. “I, unlike many others, remain neutral. I don’t side with the Alliance. I don’t agree with the Parliament. I just want to help people, Mr. Tam. To take care of them.”

 

“The captain would thank you for saying that.” Simon reached down to grip the cast that covered his left leg, extending from his ankle to almost his knee and withheld a sigh of pain. “A lot of people would thank you for saying that.”

 

“Is the pain bothering you, Mr. Tam?” Shenzi questioned out of concern.

 

Simon had to stop himself from answering too quickly because the truth was exactly as Shenzi had questioned and he hated to admit to it, but the pain had begun to flare considerably. Forcing his hand to relax, he focused his gaze on her. “I’ll be fine.”

 

“I see you prove to be just as stubborn as I have heard you can be,” Shenzi chuckled quietly, much to Simon’s chagrin. His brows furled in his flustered state and he stumbled over his words, only to amuse Shenzi even more. “Your sister,” she offered. “She’s very unique. Though it’s obvious how much she loves you by how endearingly she speaks of you.”

 

Simon’s brows remained furled. “Insults are endearments where you come from?” he asked.

 

“She wasn’t insulting you,” Shenzi chided. “I mean only that she said you were stubborn. It’s clear your sister adores you, Mr. Tam, and she was concerned.”

 

The heat crept into Simon’s cheeks and it was all he could do not to apologize profusely out of humiliation. “River is…well, we’ve always been close. She’s very important to me.”

 

“She said the same of you.” Shenzi winked and turned to move towards the door. “I will get you something for the pain before you depart.”

 

Simon opened his mouth to respond but Shenzi was already out of the room before he could get a single word to project. Sighing, he looked back down at the box he still held in his hand and pried it open. A thin tube lay nestled inside and Simon nodded to himself in recognition as he read the label. “Fadelene…” he muttered under his breath.

 

A few moments later, a tentative knock on the doorway drew Simon’s attention away from himself. He looked up to find Kaylee’s familiar smile greeting him as she poked her head into the room. Simon’s resounding smile was instantaneous as he discarded the metal box, toothy and wide and his eyes lit up with relief at the sight of the mechanic. Extending his hand in Kaylee’s direction, Simon beckoned her over to him.

 

It didn’t take long for Kaylee to reach him, but Simon was entranced by the way she moved. She was ecstatic, rightfully so, and deserving to be at ease in her mannerisms. Simon adored Kaylee for it in that moment, studying her appearance closely as she eyed him as if awaiting his approval.

 

The soft pastel floral printed dress Kaylee wore swooshed gently against her knees as she took step after step. Simon didn’t recognize the pink and cream colored garment, but it suited Kaylee’s character perfectly, especially knowing just how much she loved to dress up even though the occasions were so few and far between. Even Kaylee’s hair was pulled back and styled with little wisps of silky strands framing her face and make up that seemed to be expertly applied. She looked extraordinarily radiant.

 

Suddenly a bit less confident with herself, Kaylee stopped just short of Simon and looked down at herself. “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” she questioned nervously. “Inara thought it would be nice if I could dress pretty for you coming home to Serenity, so she helped me and-”

 

“Kaylee, no,” Simon interrupted before she could stutter further. “It’s not too much.”

 

Kaylee’s eyes met his with hope from his approval. “Oh gosh. Do you like it? When Inara showed me the dress, I just couldn’t say no. I think it’s so shiny.”

 

Simon reached his hand just far enough forward that he was able to intertwine his fingers with Kaylee’s and finally draw her close to him. “You look so beautiful. It’s perfect.”

 

Biting sheepishly on her bottom lip, Kaylee squeezed Simon’s hand. “Captain and Zoe are waiting for us outside. I bet you can’t wait to get out of here. You’ll be more comfortable back on the ship.”

 

Simon dipped his head in a single nod. “I have to admit that I’m not sorry to leave here.” He brushed his other hand against Kaylee’s hip, contemplating further thoughts. “Where’s Sebastian?”

 

“With River and Inara on Serenity,” Kaylee answered with a soft smile. “They’re taking real good care of him. You would be so proud of River. She’s so good with Sebastian. Calm and patient. Doesn’t take to getting upset when he’s crying. She just…sits there and holds him. She sure loves to sing to him too, y’know? River sings these songs that- Well, I’ve never heard them before, but they’re lovely.”

 

“River has always loved to sing,” Simon mustered just above a whisper as he swept his eyes over Kaylee from head to toe. Everything about her was distracting…the way she glowed as she spoke, the awe and pride in her eyes, the very breath that passed her lips. Simon couldn’t stop watching Kaylee and it was difficult to fight the urge to touch every inch of her that he could reach, convince himself not just visually how real she truly was.

 

Kaylee’s mouth curled into a grin as if she were keeping to herself some grand secret until she started to speak again. “And would you believe it, but I even caught the captain spending time with Sebastian this morning, on the bridge, just the two of them. Captain was sitting there with Sebastian in the pilot’s seat, talking about things. Even told him about Wash. I didn’t mean to be listening in, but…”

 

“Imagine that,” Simon responded with a short inward chuckle. “The captain engaging willingly in a moment of vulnerability, and with our son nonetheless.”

 

“Simon…” Kaylee hushed him, but her eyes still sparkled in amusement. “Captain’s been a little different lately. I think he’s finally coming around.”

 

“Coming around?” Simon questioned curiously, a bit in disbelief. “There isn’t much I can see the captain coming around to, being he’s set in his ways. Not sure I trust his intentions with being-” Simon stopped short of finishing his statement as he recalled his encounter with the captain days prior. The truth of the matter happened to be that the captain did seem a little more lax than normal, particularly when it came to Simon’s family including Kaylee and their infant son. And so, he nodded to himself, deciding that giving the captain the benefit of the doubt for once would be more beneficial than arguing the matter. “You’re right.”

 

“I am?” Kaylee appeared a fair bit more surprised than Simon, himself, felt. “He cares a lot more than he shows, Simon. I know you don’t believe it, but I think you’ll see.”

 

“I am agreeing with you,” Simon answered. His smile grew just noticeably and with a deeply inhaled preparatory breath, he managed to push himself off of the edge of the bed and onto his feet. Bracing his hands against Kaylee’s hips for stability, he leaned in to brush his lips against her forehead. “Kaylee, we need to talk. There’s something I need to ask you.”

 

Kaylee found it hard not to lean into Simon and inhale his familiar scent, even if she was more than a little concerned about him standing and possibly hurting himself. “We can talk later,” she assured him as her arms roped securely around Simon’s waist. “Please sit. You shouldn’t be standing right now.”

 

“This is important,” Simon insisted as he leaned back just enough to cup Kaylee’s chin delicately in his hand. “I don’t want to wait. I have waited long enough already.”

 

Fighting a frown, Kaylee attempted to guide Simon to sit upon the bed once more, but he didn’t budge. “I’m not sure I understand…”

 

Simon drew Kaylee’s lips to his in a slow tender kiss that both of them equally lingered in. He didn’t part from her when he exhaled a quiet breath. “There is so much that has happened,” he murmured. “But no matter what has happened, being with you and knowing I have you…it makes everything okay.”

 

Kaylee innocently bit her bottom lip. “Because you love me.”

 

“I love you more than you can possibly know, Kaylee,” Simon answered. “There’s no power in the Verse that can change that.”

 

“Nothing,” Kaylee agreed with a tight shake of her head.

 

“I don’t want there to be any further regrets like there was in the beginning,” Simon continued. “I don’t want anything else to come between-”

 

Shenzi reentered the room at that moment with a wheelchair in tow and an apologetic smile when she realized the manner at which she had happened to interrupt the moment both Simon and Kaylee were engaged in. She approached the pair with questioning eyes. “Mr. Tam, I brought you something for the pain as promised,” she explained.

 

Kaylee withdrew from her closeness to Simon and immediately began to guide him to sit in the wheelchair, unaware of the way he sighed under his breath in irritation. “Goodness, Simon, why didn’t you tell me the pain was bothering you?” she questioned.

 

Simon shifted in the wheelchair, avoiding her question. “Am I free to leave?” he directed the inquisitive statement towards the nurse when she took hold of his arm and carefully pushed the sleeve of his shirt up.

 

Shenzi nodded warmly as she withdrew a syringe from the pocket of her garment and prepared to insert the needle into Simon’s arm. “Your doctor has already given you release,” she said, swabbing a small sterile pad against Simon’s skin.

 

Simon vaguely flinched when the tip of the needle pierced his skin, but the brief pain was fleeting and unlike the excruciating pain he had become accustomed to through his ordeal. He gave it no second thought and sighed in relief as he watched the medication being injected. “You are very kind,” he mustered.

 

Finishing with her task, Shenzi discarded the syringe in a disposal bin and looked between Simon and Kaylee as she returned to the wheelchair. “Are you ready to go home, Mr. Tam?”

 

Simon felt Kaylee’s hand enclose in his as the wheelchair began to move, taking them out of the room. ‘Home…’ he thought with the first ounce of solid security he had felt in a while. ‘Back to Serenity… Home.’ Tilting his head back to look up at Kaylee as they moved, he offered her a comforting glance. “I will thank Inara for making you even more beautiful than you already were.”

 

Kaylee’s cheeks tinted red towards the compliment, but she squeezed Simon’s hand and kept in stride with the wheelchair. “It’s just a dress.”

 

“And you are more than just perfection,” Simon countered. “I don’t want you to ever think less.”

 

Shenzi continued to push the wheelchair forward down the hall before rounding a corner at the end. “Mr. Tam, I think it’s safe to say I have no qualms about you being well taken care of when you leave here,” she mentioned with a lightness in her voice. “From what I understand, there will be plenty of people to look after you.”

 

“There sure is,” Kaylee answered with an assured nod. “He has a whole shipful of people to look after him. Simon will be back to normal in no time.”

 

“A lucky man he is,” Shenzi mused.

 

Simon didn’t speak up as the women conversed amongst themselves, nor did he really pay much attention to the subject of their conversation. All he could seem to focus on was the way the hallway appeared to stretch out endlessly in front of them and he had begun to entertain that idea until finally they rounded another corner and Simon’s sight landed upon an expansive Commons area with a set of double glass doors directly ahead.

 

The area was well lit from both the lights overhead and the brightness of the sunlight reflecting in from the glass of the doors and decorated serenely from wall to wall, but not so much so that it appeared too chaotic or too busy. Simon could appreciate the décor and probably wouldn’t have minded to stop and observe for a few brief moments if it weren’t for the fact that his eagerness to finally be free of the medical facility raised significantly the closer they got to the doors.

 

A breath of relief blew past Simon’s lips as the doors slip open with a quiet mechanical whoosh and the warmth outside began to envelop him. He had to squint at first until his eyes managed to adjust to the extreme brightness of the natural light and when he was able to see clearly, Simon took notice of the familiar mule craft hovering a short distance away. And with the sight, Simon also saw Zoe standing poised against the mule with her arms crossed over her chest while Mal wandered a few feet to her left, kicking absently at the ground as his gaze wandered.

 

It also didn’t take but a moment for Zoe to see the three of them approaching either. She stood straighter, muttering “sir” to grab Mal’s attention and forced a bit of an awkward smile, speaking only when Simon and Kaylee had reached them. “Welcome back, doctor,” she greeted in a business-like tone that was typical of her demeanor. “You’re looking…well.”

 

Simon nodded at her, aware of just how uncomfortable Zoe seemed to be by her transitory glance, but he didn’t afford it a second thought. Instead, he focused his gaze on the mule and considered the idea of how he was to get up into it with his impairment to be a far more pressing concern. “This should be interesting…”

 

“Captain’ll help ya,” Kaylee replied to his statement, even though he was merely thinking out loud. The mechanic looked to Mal expectantly. “Won’t you?”

 

Mal didn’t answer at first, a bit taken aback to have the attention of everyone present suddenly. “I’m sorry, what?” he questioned and when Kaylee scowled at him, he looked between Simon and the mule. “Oh…right.”

 

Fighting a sudden frown, Simon started to push himself up out of the wheelchair. Mal and Kaylee were both quick to grab him by the elbows in an effort to steady him. “We should be going.”

 

“Mr. Tam! A moment, please!”

 

Simon looked back over his shoulder as he wobbled on his uninjured leg and saw Dr. Hammond rushing towards them with a small metal box in one hand and a pair of metal crutches in the other. When Dr. Hammond was near, he extended the metal box to Simon before giving the crutches to Zoe. “You forgot this on the bed, Mr. Tam,” he explained with a knowing look.

 

Simon took the box containing the Fadelene, avoiding the doctor’s stare. “Thank you,” he mumbled.

 

Dr. Hammond’s hand clamped down gently on Simon’s shoulder. “While we are all sad to see you go,” he started. “I speak on behalf of my staff and myself, that we are pleased to see you doing so well. Let’s see that it stays that way.”

 

Mal raised a hard brow, the sarcasm evident in his voice. “Well, isn’t this touching.”

 

“Sir.” Zoe smacked Mal hard on the backside with the ends of the crutches as she moved to place them into the mule. Mal glowered at her, but Zoe’s discontent towards his behavior was enough to shut him up. “Have a little compassion, sir.”

 

“I don’t hope to return any time soon, Dr. Hammond,” Simon assured the man as he leaned his weight into Kaylee’s side. “I think I will find my ease at home, on the ship.”

 

“Without trouble,” Dr. Hammond reminded him. “I cannot stress enough how important it is that you allow yourself enough adequate time to fully recover from the trauma you’ve been through.”

 

“Don’t you worry,” Kaylee interjected with a gentle pat against Simon’s arm. “Simon here ain’t gonna be getting into any trouble any time soon. I’ll see to that.”

 

“Yeah, we stray from trouble,” Mal added with a sarcastic chuckle.

 

Dr. Hammond studied him with a disapproving glance. “I am afraid I have heard different, Mr. Reynolds,” he started to reply. “But I am hoping you may remind yourself in the coming time of Mr. Tam’s recovery just how imperative it is to keep him from that trouble that has a habit of finding you and your crew.”

 

Mal looked to Zoe for defense, but she simply shrugged and moved him out of the way so she could assist Kaylee in getting Simon up into the mule. Taking on a stiff stance, he turned to face Dr. Hammond completely. “I take care of me and mine. Don’t matter none what you may have heard.”

 

“And I truly hope that holds true,” Dr. Hammond nodded in response. “Good day, Mr. Reynolds.”

 

Fighting the urge to roll his eyes just long enough until he had his back turned to the doctor, Mal walked around to the other side of the mule and hoisted himself up into it. He settled himself beside Zoe where she sat at the controls and stared forward. “Get us back to my ship, Zoe.”

 

“Never been more ready, sir,” Zoe said as she took hold of the controls.

 

“Thank you,” Simon mumbled to no one in particular. He allowed himself to relax as the mule finally pulled away from the medical facility and leaning back as the cool breeze of movement brushed over him, he closed his eyes with only one thought on his mind.

 

He had never been more ready to go home to Serenity.

 

*****

 

“Will someone shut that girl up?”

 

Inara frowned openly at the sound of Jayne’s gruff voice as she swayed softly in place, cradling a contently sleeping Sebastian in her embrace. Her eyes traced the path Jayne took as he entered the galley and made notice of the way he appeared anxious in his movements, but the mercenary took all measures necessary to avoid looking in Inara’s direction.

 

Of course, the sound of River’s joyful singing as she danced just out of sight with Emma Washburne was a clear indication of Jayne’s displeasure in the moment, although Inara couldn’t find it within herself to be equally annoyed. The young woman had reason to be joyous, as occasion had risen with the impending return of her brother. It was something all of them found benefit by, even Jayne, but per usual, he expressed his relief from Simon’s return the least.

 

Inara expected no less from the mercenary, not really. As it was, Jayne had been quieter than normal, and he had yet to really open up much to anyone about the recovery of the ship’s missing doctor. Troubled could describe the way he carried himself and while that really wasn’t much different than his typical demeanor, Inara knew better. She could see straight into the heart of what was really bothering him, but she didn’t trust beginning to press him for his inner most thoughts. Jayne worked through matters in his own way and his own time. Not even Inara could change that.

 

A metal cupboard slamming shut caused Inara to jump in place and much to her displeasure, Sebastian began to stir in her arms and released a quiet whimper from being disturbed. Inara once again watched Jayne as he trudged with heavy footsteps over to the table and sat down, cursing sharply under his breath while fumbling one-handedly with the jug of liquor he’d retrieved from the cupboard. Swallowing a sigh as she cradled Sebastian against her chest to soothe him, she continued to watch the mercenary carefully. “Jayne…”

 

Jayne’s gaze flit to the doorway where River’s voice and Emma’s giggles were increasingly elevating in volume. “If you don’t shut her up, I will!” he snapped.

 

Inara couldn’t help her frown of disapproval. “Leave her be, Jayne,” she scolded calmly in return. “River is excited about Simon returning, as she should be.”

 

“Excited? That ain’t excited.” Jayne swallowed a hasty sip of the liquor, a cheap single malt whiskey, straight from the bottle. “It’s downright fei hua [nonsense] and she’s sure picking a sweet bung of a time to make my head explode.”

 

Inara’s frown deepened as she hardened her gaze in Jayne’s direction. “Would it pain you to not act like a kuh wu chwen [despicable dumbass] for one second?” she spat a little more harshly than she intended.

 

Jayne didn’t meet her gaze, but her insult also didn’t seem to faze him any as he swallowed another hasty sip from the bottle and simply shrugged. “Yep.”

 

Muttering under her breath, Inara fought the urge to unleash a string of far more colorful expletives towards Jayne that would put even her to shame. Instead, she focused her attention down on Sebastian and placed a gentle kiss against the infant’s forehead. “It would do you well to relax, Jayne.”

 

“Relax? Now that’s a shiny joke if I ain’t ever heard one,” Jayne chuckled. He licked his lips, savoring the taste of booze, and tapped his foot idly against the galley flooring. “I dunno what fantasy you’re living in, ‘Nara. Sure it’s full of your fancy companion friends, plenty of sexin’ and the like. But there ain’t no relaxin’. Not in this life. That kinda thinking is like right to get ya shot.”

 

Inara stared back at Jayne, aghast. “Could you be anymore crude?”

 

“If there’s one thing I’m good at,” Jayne snorted. “It’s being crude. Think I would have scored high in that if I’da gotten me a fancy education.”

 

“An education is useless if you don’t have the brain capacity to actually learn,” Inara sourly quipped. Turning her back to Jayne, she stepped in the direction of the counter across the galley to prepare Sebastian a bottle. “One must be willing to receive enlightenment.”

 

Jayne’s brows furled as he contemplated the companion’s statements. With the taste of the whiskey turning bitter against his tongue, Jayne figured he should have been a little off put by Inara’s brash remarks, but he was too tired and too nervous to give a good Gorram what she had to say about him. Not that he ever did under any other circumstance, but especially right then, Jayne lacked the patience it would take to engage in a typical battle of wits with the companion.

 

“Cat’s got his tongue,” River announced in a whimsical sing-song voice as she chose that moment to dance into the galley with little Emma following closely at her heels. Her loose fitting, thin-strapped powder blue dress fluttered around her legs as she glided across the floor, creating an illusion of a light breeze surrounding her. Though with the systems shut down on Serenity, the interior of the ship was more humid than normal. Still, it didn’t put a damper on River’s good mood though and her eyes twinkled, full of life from her glee.

 

Jayne glared in her direction, his posture stiffening. “What are you yapping your lips about now, girl?”

 

River merely smiled at him. “Can’t hide anymore,” she shrugged. “Have to face the truth and take responsibility.”

 

There was a barely audible grumble that passed Jayne’s lips. “No one’s got time for your crazy talk today,” he said.

 

“I’m thinking relatively clear,” River returned and for a split second, Jayne thought she actually looked indignant or possibly even hurt because of the jab. Then, the expression of disillusionment disappeared and she smiled in an eerily calm manner. “Crazy is perspective amplified.”

 

Jayne scowled as he turned his attention to Inara where she was busying herself preparing Sebastian’s bottle behind the counter. “See what I mean?” he exclaimed. “Now you tell me that ain’t another one of her mind riddles.”

 

“Is River making your brain hurt trying to comprehend?” Inara casually questioned the mercenary, although she was more than a little amused at how bewildered he appeared.

 

“I can still kill you with my brain,” River added with a hint of laughter teasing the edges of her voice as she danced over to Inara to assist her.

 

“Nobody’s killing nobody!” Jayne gruffed before he slouched lower in the chair. A rustling to his right and a grunt of exertion drew Jayne’s attention to the chair next to him just as Emma managed to hoist herself up onto it. Her bright blue eyes stared up at Jayne innocently, enough to unnerve him that he actually winced. “Now, you listen here, you little snot making machine. Don’t you get started on-”

 

“Jayne Cobb!” Inara interrupted him sharply, so shrilly in fact that the whole of the galley became oddly quiet. “If you even think about finishing whatever it was you were about to say, so help me Buddha, I will see to it personally that you are left behind to burn in the wake of this ship.”

 

“Gee, ‘Nara. I wasn’t gonna say nothin’ to hurt the little ankle biter’s feelings,” Jayne responded defensively. He looked at Emma again, his mannerisms softening. “No harm done, right, kid?”

 

Emma tilted her head to the side in wonder and she reached out to place her hand on Jayne’s thigh. “Jayne has owies,” she stated knowingly, giving example to the way her vocabulary was increasingly growing. “Owies.”

 

Jayne was speechless at first and he nearly flinched from the toddler’s touch, but it was the innocence in her gaze that made him reconsider. He shook his head and awkwardly cleared his throat. “I was shot,” he stated. “Been had worse. But it’s okay, because I shot the bastard who shot me.”

 

Inara released a deeply throated groan as she inserted the bottle nipple into Sebastian’s mouth and stepped out from behind the counter. “You shouldn’t be telling Emma those things,” she scolded.

 

Snorting inwardly, Jayne reached for the bottle of whiskey again. “It’s the gorram truth,” he argued. “Kid’s gonna learn for herself someday anyway. Probably dodge a few bullets of her own.”

 

“She’ll want to know why Daddy won’t come home,” River woefully added as soon as Jayne fell quiet.

 

Inara looked to River in hopes to convey that she wasn’t helping the situation any with her glance alone, but the younger Tam had already turned her attention elsewhere and it left Inara standing uncomfortably in place, especially as she watched Emma force herself onto the mercenary’s lap. Only surprisingly enough, Jayne made no effort to push the toddler away. “She deserves to be innocent,” Inara murmured. “What right do you have, do any of us have, to challenge that?”

 

“We ain’t challenging nothing,” Jayne gruffed once again with his sight focused down on Emma. His grip on the whiskey bottle fell slack. “Least not anything we got purpose in doing. Zoe knows that and she’s still keeping the kid on this ship.”

 

“Mommy,” Emma nodded with a smile that was warm and full of love for her mother.

 

“Right, your overbearing, rigid, tyrant of a-” Jayne stopped mid-sentence when he caught the look of daggers Inara was shooting him and instead of continuing with his original train of thought, he managed to force a sickeningly sweet smile for the toddler’s sake. Not that Emma would know any better about what he had to say in reference to her mother, but Jayne wasn’t about to point that out to Inara. She was already thin-patience with him as it was. “I like your mother.”

 

Emma giggled, seemingly satisfied with Jayne’s offer of motherly praise, and curled herself against him as a show of affection.

 

Standing nearby the table, Inara observed the exchange in wonder as Sebastian eagerly fed from the bottle in her arms. “You are a very complex being, Jayne,” she assessed with a tight shake of her head. “One moment you have me utterly convinced that you are entirely incapable of caring for anyone or anything outside of your own existence and then you say something that is remotely heartfelt.”

 

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you just paid me a compliment,” Jayne retorted.

 

Inara released a short huff. “You don’t know any better. May the Heavens forbid you ever do.”

 

“Gorillas comprehend more than they express. They feel through emotion but we don’t speak their language,” River stated casually as she stepped up to the table and reached towards the nearly empty fruit basket. “I think I’ll have an apple.”

 

Jayne narrowed his eyes at her. “Either you’re talking gibberish again or you just called me a monkey.”

 

River admired the shiny red apple she plucked from the fruit basket and held it up to the light overhead. “Gorilla,” she corrected him. “From Earth That Was. But they were smarter.”

 

The harmless banter in the galley was brought to a halt when Mal’s voice suddenly filtered through the speakers of the ship’s communication system, taking hold of the attention of everyone who was present. He sounded neither angry or happy, but clearly without patience to spare.

 

“Captain to Albatross. My ship better be there and intact when I get back. Don’t much hope to find it blown to pieces.”

 

River twirled away from the table and moved just as gracefully to the control panel on the wall. Pressing a button, she stood up on the tips of her toes and spoke into the speaker. “Albatross to Captain. Made the captain proud. Kept the gorilla off the bridge. Ship’s intact.”

 

They couldn’t be sure if Mal had intended for his laughter to be transmitted, but there was no mistaking the way he chuckled and it made Jayne sulk where he sat. “Captain approves. Prepare for mule arrival. Cargo on board for safe return. ETA five minutes.”

 

“Simon?” River called out hopefully and even as she waited for a response, her anxiety and excitement was apparent all in one.

 

It took a few moments, but Simon’s voice filtered through the speaker as well, quieter than River was used to hearing and slightly slurred in his pronunciations. “I’ll be home soon, mei mei…” he told her.

 

“Doc sounds drugged,” Jayne snorted dryly.

 

River ignored the mercenary’s quip. “Don’t drive the mule, Simon,” she sternly stated. “Need a clear mind to navigate. Your thoughts are muddled. Sebastian needs you back in one piece.”

 

“I’ll be fine, River,” Simon assured her. “You don’t have to worry anymore.”

 

When Mal’s voice returned, River stood straighter, the apple forgotten as her arm dangled at her side. She listened intently as he instructed her to prepare the cargo lock, or in his words “get the cargo lock open, Albatross.” and once he was finished with his instruction, River bolted from the galley. The sound of the apple hitting the floor and rolling away echoed in her wake, but she was far gone before the piece of fruit disappeared from sight.

 

“That’s my cue,” Jayne muttered as he nudged Emma from his lap. As soon as the toddler was securely standing on her feet, Jayne rose from the chair and turned to move towards the galley’s entrance. “I’ll be in my bunk.”

 

“Jayne.” Inara frowned at the mercenary as she watched him pass by. “It would be rude not to welcome Simon back. You should-”

 

“It’s rude the gorram doc put us in this situation,” Jayne cut her off without a glance in her direction. “Couldn’t even listen when he oughta. I’ll be in my bunk.”

 

“I pray you find your peace,” Inara murmured after him, though she had no intention for the gruff man to hear the sentiment. Little good it would do when Jayne was too stubborn to listen to reason and governed by his guilt.

 

Replacing her grim expression with a friendly smile and placing the bottle on the table, Inara turned her attention down to little Emma and extended her hand. “Come, little one. Your mother has returned,” she spoke softly and took Emma’s hand into her own. They left the galley together, moving down into the cargo bay where River was already waiting impatiently for the arrival of the rest of the crew.

 

The cargo lock was wide open and a gentle cool breeze swirled through the expansive space. River stood at the mouth of the opening, bouncing on the pads of her feet as she stared wide eyed out at the sunlit landscape with expectancy. Even as Inara approached her with Emma, she could tell that River could barely contain her excitement; her mannerisms were near childlike in nature, as if River was awaiting the arrival of a long lost parent that she hadn’t seen in a very long time. Perhaps that was very well true, as Simon had been an attentive surrogate parental figure for River as long as Inara herself had known the pair. She suspected the truth extended longer than that though, far past their time on Serenity and all the way back to the roots of their childhood. Simon and River were close and it did them both well.

 

“Jayne is afraid,” River spoke up without so much as a glance in Inara’s direction.

 

Inara stopped beside her, searching for signs of the approaching mule. “What does he have to be afraid of?” she asked.

 

“Simon,” River simply answered. “He’s afraid to see Simon alive.”

 

Inara risked a looked a River, confusion written upon her face. “That is an illogical fear…”

 

“Guilt,” River tried to explain. Her face scrunched up as if she were trying to assess her own explanation. “Jayne watched Simon die.”

 

“But…but Simon isn’t dead,” Inara reasoned.

 

River looked at Inara seriously. “He was. He died in the cellar, in front of Jayne. The captain couldn’t help him. But Zoe did. Zoe gave him life again and they brought him home. Jayne wishes he could have helped. He doesn’t like to admit he cares. Thinks it makes him weak, so he acts angry and pretends he doesn’t care.”

 

“River…” Inara trailed.

 

“Jayne is a bad liar,” River responded with a faint smile and with that, she returned her attention out through the opening of the airlock.

 

Off in the distance, the sound of the mule could be heard approaching, growing louder the closer it got. A short time later, they watched as it came into their line of sight and they quickly moved out of the way, Inara pulling little Emma close to her side to keep her from danger when the toddler squealed upon seeing her mother and tried to lurch forward. It wasn’t until the mule had come to a complete stop within the cargo bay that Inara felt confident enough to let Emma go and the squeals of excitement once again permeated the air as Emma bolted towards Zoe.

 

Zoe had barely landed on her feet after hopping down from the mule when her daughter reached her. She lifted the child high into the air before drawing her close to her chest in a tight embrace and smothered her cheeks in affectionate kisses. “My little one, it never gets easier leaving you,” Zoe told her, without care that the captain and the rest of the crew could hear the statement that was meant only for her daughter.

 

Mal paused in his endeavor to help Simon up and watched the reunion for a moment. It wasn’t too long ago in the grand scheme of things considering how long he had known his first mate that he would have barked at Zoe to assist him, but he wasn’t so blind that he couldn’t see the importance of her affording herself to her daughter alone right then. Years ago, it wouldn’t have mattered with Emma not part of the equation. Now, though, it was just proof of how much everything really had changed. Finally, he called out to her to grab her attention. “Zoe.”

 

Holding her daughter tighter, Zoe turned to face him. “Sir?”

 

Mal nodded at Zoe. “Go tend to Emma,” he answered her. “Kaylee and I will get Simon settled.”

 

Zoe didn’t need to speak her gratitude for Mal to understand how thankful she was for the release. Her eyes expressed the message clear enough before she turned from the crew and carried her daughter towards the stairs to leave the cargo bay.

 

“Alright, doctor,” Mal began to say when he returned his attention to Simon and Kaylee. “Best we get you out of this thing and to your room. You feel to be moved?”

 

Simon stared up at the captain with eyes glazed from the pain medication coursing through his system. He grinned sheepishly. “I feel great to be moved,” he started to say and his words were far more slurred than River remembered them being when he spoke to her over the communication system. “I feel great enough that I could take Kaylee to a fancy dance.”

 

Mal’s brow raised as Kaylee stifled a giggle. “No offense, doctor, but I don’t think you need to be trying to dance anytime soon,” he replied and carefully helped Kaylee lift Simon from a seated position. “That’s gotta be some great medication talking for you right now.”

 

“I feel great,” Simon insisted with a chuckle. “Do you want some?”

 

“Who is this guy?” Mal mused as he looked at Kaylee.

 

The mechanic shook her head, silently warning him to not use Simon for the expense of his own amusement. “River?” she questioned and glanced over her shoulder. “We’re gonna need your help.”

 

River was already poised and waiting to assist by the time Mal hopped down to the floor of the cargo bay. They both reached up and with cautious consideration of Simon’s injuries, they brought him down out of the mule. As soon as Simon was stable, River threw her arms around him and pressed her face to his chest. “I missed you,” she mumbled.

 

Simon did his best to hug his sister in return, but the effort was weak and he leaned into her more than he actually hugged her. “I missed you too, mei mie,” he said just as quietly. “I’m home now.”

 

When the siblings parted, Inara took the opportunity to approach Simon and offered him a sincere smile as she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Lao pung yo, nee can chi lai hun yo jing shen [You’re looking wonderful, old friend],” she stated.

 

Simon’s returning smile was lop-sided, even if somewhere in his foggy mind he didn’t believe a word the companion just said. “Thank you for taking care of my son,” he told her with his gaze flitting to the infant securely embraced in the crook of her other arm. “And for making Kaylee even more beautiful than she already is. It makes me want to bed her, though I am afraid I would rip the dress while taking it off of her.”

 

Mal was in the process of grabbing the crutches out of the mule when he choked on a breath of surprise. “Is he talking about sex?” he asked in disbelief. “I can’t be hearing about that!”

 

Kaylee bit down on her bottom lip to stifle another giggle, although now her cheeks had turned a deep shade of crimson. She took the crutches from the captain and helped Simon get situated with them. “Come on. We should get you to bed so you can lay down,” she told him.

 

“Kaylee?” Simon looked at her. “Stay with me.”

 

“Of course,” Kaylee assured him. “I won’t go anywhere. Just take it easy. The stairs will be difficult.”

 

Mal watched them slowly move away, his arms crossing over his chest in a firm stance. “I see his ability to be awkward hasn’t changed a bit.”

 

“His brain is intact,” River pointed out. “It functions like it should.”

 

“I wasn’t questioning that.” Mal swept his eyes around the cargo bay absently. “Inara, I would appreciate it if you would go help Kaylee get the doctor settled. Maybe put that baby to bed before we break atmo also. I want off this planet as soon as possible.”

 

Inara nodded without a word spoken and turned to leave the cargo bay.

 

“There’s too many ghosts.”

 

Mal had taken no more than a step when River’s voice stopped him. He turned back to her. “Shuh-muh [What]?”

 

“In Simon’s head,” River explained. “It’s too crowded. Too many ghosts talking all at once.”

 

Mal nodded, because oddly enough, he actually understood what River was talking about. “May be that’s the case,” he replied. “Won’t ever go away either, not completely. But your brother’s resilient enough. He’ll make it through. Now, I need you up on the bridge with me. Ship needs to be prepared for lift off.”

 

River stood straighter and knowing that Simon was being looked after by Kaylee, she managed to push her concern for his well-being off to the side for the present time. “Captain’s gonna let the albatross pilot the ship.”

 

“Is that so?” Mal challenged her.

 

“It is,” River simply told him. Winking, she turned from Mal and hurried towards the stairs to make her way up to the cock pit.

 

Mal sighed as he continued to stand in the same spot. The cargo bay was left eerily silent when he was alone. Even the mule looked a bit ominous and out of place, but at least he could entertain the thought that things were at last on their way to returning to normal. As normal as normal was for him and his ragtag crew, which wasn’t normal for the standards of most. But it did them best and that was something Mal could willingly accept. Now, if only he could get them back in the air, secure them another job, and replace the floor space the mule took up right then in the cargo bay with some much needed actual cargo…

 

Mal nodded and carried himself in River’s wake to follow her up to the bridge.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

The cold dampness of the dark was familiar and it instilled in Simon a fear so crippling, he could barely breathe. Even the thrumming of his erratic heart beat was like a haunting chorus in his ears; it threatened to drown out all rationality and hope with the despair that steadily over took him. His body, immobile and rigid, was so racked by a deeply rooted pain slowly destroying him from the inside out, that Simon couldn’t stop himself from falling prey to the realization that he was barely hanging onto life by a thin thread.

He tried to shout for help, tried to inhale a deep enough breath to keep his lungs from further feeling as if they were burning, but his chest felt constricted. Like a weight pushing him further beneath an unrelenting surface, Simon imagined this must be what it feels like to drown. Only Simon wasn’t being tossed about in an angry torturous ocean. It was the darkness that was consuming him whole, swallowing Simon to claim ownership of an unfortunate damned soul, just like the darkness had intended to the first time.

Feeling so utterly alone was crushing and yet Simon was also very aware of the fact that he wasn’t entirely alone. There were those lingering just out of the bounds of his peripheral vision, demonized human beings who intended to do him harm with fatal consequences. Perhaps they were just as bad as Reavers, or were they worse? Simon could smell the scent of their toxic breath and hear the way they roared with laughter that came and went in varying volumes.

Circling around Simon, they drew closer before backing away, over and over and over again, taunting him and stealing any shred of security he could muster. They had no intentions of releasing Simon; they wanted to watch him bleed until there was no life left in him. And bleed, he did.

It was a nightmare personified, one that Simon could find no way out of. The monsters poked and prodded at him and touched him in ways he would never be able to forget. They hit Simon so hard, beating him, that at one point he was certain he could hear his bones snapping. With no shame left, Simon begged for death to take him, because that would be his only rescue.

Not even the faint echoes of River’s voice in his mind gave Simon a bit of reprieve. Try as he might to keep his hope alive, Simon couldn’t reach out to his sister and she couldn’t reach him. His failure to live up to his responsibility to always take care of his sister killed Simon inside just as much as his crippling injuries did. River would never truly know just how sorry Simon was for his shortcomings and now she would spend the rest of her life troubled further by the fact that there was no one untouchable who could honestly save her.

That had been Simon’s job and he couldn’t handle it. After risking everything to rescue River from the Academy and expose the lies of the Parliament, it had been Simon’s ignorance that proved his downfall.

Simon tried to curl in on himself, but any movement, even the slightest, produced an immobilizing pain and white hot flashes of light. His voice lodged in his throat as his lips moved to form Kaylee’s name, although any sound he could have possibly emitted would have been quickly drowned out by the evil incarnate cackles that started to swarm around him once again-

“Simon!”

Releasing a sudden howl of distress, Simon felt the claws of his captors taking hold of him. The sound that ripped from his throat was primitive in nature and with an unexpected burst of energy, his hands flew up to protect himself. Not again…his body simply could not withstand any more of their attacks, but he fought against them regardless. What other choice did he have, because if there was one solid thing Simon had learned from Captain Malcolm Reynolds, it was that you never went down unless you went down swinging.

Simon wanted River and Kaylee to know he had died trying to survive. He wanted his child to know how strong he tried to be, even though the odds were never in his favor and he ultimately failed in the end.

“Simon! Wake up!”

There was a warm familiar quality to the voice that sliced through the chorus of laughter surrounding him, beckoning Simon to focus his attention and listen. As it called out to him again, commanding his ears, Simon’s eyes abruptly snapped open, wild and unfocused. He shot upright in the bed as he gasped for breath, only to fight against the gentle hands that were trying to calm him.

It was moments later that Kaylee’s face came into focus enough that Simon was able to recognize her and register her presence in his jumbled mind. Kaylee’s expression was a mixture of concern and confusion, her normally bright eyes now wide with a tinge of fear. Simon couldn’t make sense of why she sat so stiffly still and appeared petrified until he took notice of the way his hands were tightly clamped around her wrists, so tight that his knuckles were beginning to turn white and his fingers were digging into her skin.

Simon released Kaylee immediately as his lips moved in a silent stutter of apologies, regretful and embarrassed of his actions as he barely shook his head. When Simon finally found his voice, it projected in a broken utterance. “Kaylee…I…I-”

Just as quickly as Kaylee had tensed up from Simon’s abrasive reaction, she allowed herself to calm and become far more concerned with his current state of being. The surface of her wrists throbbed where Simon’s fingers had left indents in her skin and the markings would probably bruise later on, but Kaylee wasn’t about to inform Simon of that. He appeared to feel guilty enough as it was and instead she thrust herself forward to draw him into her arms.

Kaylee could feel the way Simon trembled in her embrace as he clung to her, almost desperately as if believing if he were to let go, she would simply disappear. “Simon, you’re shaking,” Kaylee stated the obvious in a gentle tone that she hoped would keep Simon’s attention grounded and focused on her. “Oh, sweetie. It’s okay. You’re okay. It was a nightmare, right? You’re just fine. I have you.”

Simon tightened his arms around Kaylee briefly before he pulled back and rubbed a weary hand over his face. He avoided her gaze for all that it was worth, feeling the shame still igniting in his cheeks. Simon’s ribs ached from his jostling movements and it was something he knew he would suffer the repercussions from soon enough; there was no avoiding that, though it didn’t make him feel any better. And he couldn’t shake the lingering anxiety from his plaguing nightmare. “I, um…” he mumbled

Kaylee reached out a hand to tenderly rest it against Simon’s cheek. “Look at me,” she coached him.

It took several moments before Simon mustered the courage to lift his eyes to meet Kaylee’s. “I’m sorry…”

“Don’t have to say you’re sorry,” Kaylee told him with a soft smile. She withdrew her hand from his cheek. “…Do you want to talk about it?”

Simon shook his head and looked away from Kaylee once again. The truth was that he didn’t even know where to begin to tell Kaylee the horrors haunting his mind and even so, there was no way she would be able to comprehend. He didn’t want to bother her with it. He wouldn’t allow himself to.

Tugging at the blankets that were tangled around his waist, Simon grimaced. “I’ll be fine. I just need to-” he started to say, only to grimace again in his haphazard attempts to free himself. “I need a moment.”

“You need to take it easy,” Kaylee said as she assisted Simon in pulling the blankets away. Pushing them to the side, she continued to assist until Simon was sitting upright on the edge of the bed. “Don’t push yourself too hard.”

Simon gripped the edge of the bed with his hands as the room teetered around him. His stomach churned with a rolling wave of nausea that he tried to swallow with even steady breaths. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Kaylee. I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t scare me,” Kaylee dismissed, though Simon knew better from the unease in her voice. “I’m just concerned. That’s all. I wanna make sure you’re okay.”

“I know.” Simon’s forced smile was anything but a cheerful expression. He exhaled a shallow breath. “Thank you.”

Kaylee watched Simon carefully, taking notice of the way he still trembled with his shoulders slightly rounded forward. Beads of perspiration had begun to gather along his hair line and the creases of stress at the corners of his eyes made his discomfort notable. “You’re really pale right now…”

Simon swallowed thickly, his hands tightening against the edge of the bed. As the room continued to teeter around him, he felt his stomach churn more tumultuously and he clenched his eyes shut, trying to drown out the ringing in his ears. But no sooner did he try to open his mouth and speak did Simon find the little bit of contents residing in his stomach rising and projecting forward as bile onto the floor between his feet.

“Aiya [Damn]!]” Kaylee gasped as she scrambled to brace Simon upward before he could slump off the edge of the bed while he retched. Her hand rubbed delicate circles of comfort against his heaving back and it was all she could do to not look downward at the puddle of vomit.

The rapid succession of his stomach unraveling left Simon fighting for breath, his eyes watering in the aftermath. “I-It’s the medication-” he choked before swiping the sleeve of his shirt across his mouth. “It needs to be taken with food. It’ll pass.”

Kaylee cupped Simon’s cheeks in her hands to draw his gaze to hers. “I’ll clean it up. You don’t have to worry about it.”

Simon had to bite his tongue to keep himself from vocally questioning Kaylee’s devotion in that moment because he had just given her every reason to turn away from him in disgust. Though it was her encouraging smile that told him without doubt that the mechanic wouldn’t be going anywhere so long as Simon needed her by his side. He was thankful for her, more than he could possibly express. “I don’t deserve you, Kaylee…”

“Of course you do, silly,” Kaylee replied. She smoothed the sweat-dampened hair away from Simon’s clammy forehead. “One of these days you may even stop trying to push me away.”

“I don’t mean to,” Simon frowned and lifted a hand to take hold of Kaylee’s. “There’s…there’s a lot that I don’t mean to do.”

“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, Simon,” Kaylee told him with a light kiss pressed to his temple. “I ain’t going anywhere. You can’t change that.”

Still feeling nauseous from the retching, Simon pulled back from Kaylee and rubbed tenderly at his forehead. “I feel horrible,” he murmured with a sigh of exhaustion.

Kaylee rose from the bed and moved to grab a near by cloth that was already soiled from after one of Sebastian’s feedings and needed to be washed. “You just need a good meal and more rest,” she suggested before she crouched down to clean up the bile on the floor. “Captain and crew’s in the galley having dinner. I bet they’d like to see you.”

Simon watched Kaylee work, fighting a frown. “I…don’t know if it would be a good idea that I join them.”

“Fei hau [Nonsense],” Kaylee responded without hesitation. “You’ve been sleeping since you’ve been back on Serenity. They’re still worried.”

Simon’s eyes flitted to where his crutches were propped up against the wall in a corner of the room. He was almost hesitant to ask. “How long have I been home?”

“Been two days now,” Kaylee answered with a small shrug.

“Two days?” Simon’s eyes shot back to Kaylee in surprise and disbelief. “I’ve been sleeping for two days?”

Kaylee bit her bottom lip as she finished cleaning up the mess on the floor and lifted her gaze to Simon. Her eyes were weary and her expression weathered, her stress returning to the surface of her demeanor. “Dr. Hammond said the primary medication you were on would make you very tired at first. Captain and I agreed that sleeping was the best thing for you right now. I wouldn’t let anyone bother you. Not even River.”

“Two days…” Simon mulled over the thought. How could it really be that he had been back on the ship for two whole days and he had lost every minute of that time because he had been in a medically induced sleep? And River…Kaylee had said that she hadn’t even let his sister near him to assure he remained undisturbed. Simon couldn’t help but wonder how much the separation had bothered River and how much trouble she had potentially caused since Simon’s return. “Was I awake at all?”

Kaylee discarded the cloth in a basket, making mental note to dispose of it later. “There were a few times when you woke up long enough to take you medication and drink some water, but you have been really out of it since you’ve been back,” she explained with a nervous wringing of her hands together. “It took me some explaining to convince you that you weren’t still in the medical facility or back on-”

Simon held his hand up to stop Kaylee from continuing. “Don’t say it,” he requested quietly. “I don’t want to think about that right now. I would rather just enjoy being with my family again.”

“Do you think you can make it to the galley?” Kaylee questioned with uncertainty.

Simon wanted to tell her no with the way his stomach still churned horrendously, but he reached out for his crutches nonetheless with a small nod. “You’re right. I should join the others. And I would like to see our son and River.”

Kaylee fetched the crutches and brought them over to Simon. Propping them against the bed, she carefully helped Simon onto his feet. “Are you in a lot of pain right now?” she questioned as he got himself situated with the crutches.

“Not horribly,” Simon lied with a shake of his head. He allowed himself an extra moment to become oriented with being upright before turning towards the doorway. “I’ll manage.”

“Just don’t push yourself too hard,” Kaylee reminded him with her hand resting securely against his back. “Gotta let yourself heal proper and if you go too fast, you’ll only hurt yourself more.”

Simon’s movement forward was slow because even he knew just how right Kaylee was in her warning. It would be a long time before his body and his strength returned to full capacity, but the truth was that he couldn’t have moved any faster right then even if he wanted to. The jostling of the crutches made Simon’s arms and chest ache with every inch of flooring he covered and the more he exerted himself, the harder he found it to breathe.

He stopped just in the doorway of the room and reached a hand out to brush his fingers against the cold metal of the door frame, staring in wonder.

“Serenity missed you too,” Kaylee said. “It ain’t right around here without you.”

“…I suppose not,” Simon mused. “Is my infirmary intact?”

“Just as you left it,” Kaylee assured as they passed through the doorway. “That’s where Sebastian was born.”

Simon afforded a glance at Kaylee. “Did the captain…?”

Kaylee shook her head firmly. “Zoe delivered him. You taught her well and I trusted her. Captain was kinda useless, but he did hold my hand.”

Simon could hear the quiet laughter that passed Kaylee’s lips as they continued on their way to the galley. He kept his eyes trained on the ground, taking great care not to stumble along the way. “I have much gratitude to be given,” he noted out loud in thought.

“We’re family, Simon,” Kaylee replied. “Family takes care of each other.”

As they neared the galley, Simon began to hear the light chatter that floated through the air from the crew. They sounded at ease and even though Simon couldn’t hear everything they were saying, it was relaxing to take in the sound of their familiar banter. Even the clatter of eating utensils scraping against dishes amidst the occasional bout of laughter was like a calming song because it resembled what Simon knew security to be. It wasn’t just the crew of some weathered Firefly class transport ship…it was his family, tried and true.

Simon’s movements came to a stop when they reached the doorway of the galley and he chose to stand there for a moment with Kaylee close to his side, observing everyone seated around the table. Mal was seated, as typical, at the head of the table with Zoe and Emma to his left and River, who was cradling a swaddled Sebastian in her arms, was situated close to them. Across the table, Jayne sat in the seat facing Zoe while Inara sat a chair’s width to his right, sipping from a cup of tea. And apparently it was something Jayne had said that was this side of remotely funny because the occupants of the galley erupted into a roaring laughter. Except for River, though she cracked a small knowing smile.

Mal looked up from everyone at that moment to take notice of Simon and Kaylee standing in the galley doorway and set the cup down he’d been lifting to his mouth. “Bout gorram time you joined us, doc!” he jovially called out. “Inara cooked a feast. Not me. Well, no. She wouldn’t let me cook actually.”

“We want to keep the ship in the air, Mal,” Inara chided, but the twinkling in her eyes let everyone know she meant to jab at the captain in good nature. “Not burn it to the ground of the nearest planet.”

“I survived long enough before I had your culinary expertise at my disposal,” Mal returned with a shrug of his shoulders before he swallowed a hasty sip from his cup. “Just ask Zoe.”

“You ate beans from a can, sir,” Zoe spoke simply.

Mal’s expression became serious as he looked at Zoe. “And they were good beans, too.”

Simon’s brow arched slightly as he murmured under his breath to Kaylee. “…Is he drunk?”

“Mmhmmm,” Kaylee merely murmured in response. Simon could see her fighting a giggle out the corner of his eye.

Oblivious to the pair’s side conversation at his expense, Mal returned his attention to Simon and Kaylee. “Well, you gonna sit down or not? Best you be taking a load off that leg,” he stated and swallowed the rest of the contents in his cup. “Make the doc a plate, Jayne.”

Simon’s gaze shifted nervously to the mercenary to find him with his good hand clenched on the surface of the table and his eyes narrowed at his own plate of half eaten rice, vegetables, and what looked to be some sort of seasoned protein paste. His sudden silence was unnerving as was the fact that he seemed to be doing everything in his power right then to ignore Mal’s request and not look in Simon’s direction.

Then, Jayne abruptly pushed his chair back with a loud ‘screech’ that echoed through the galley and stormed out of the room, abandoning his dinner without further thought.

Mal blinked in Jayne’s wake until he managed to gather enough of his wits back. He looked at the remaining crew in the galley. “Well someone make the good doctor a plate!”

“That’s really not necessary,” Simon interjected in a distracted tone as Kaylee lead him towards the table.

Inara rose to her feet, moving around the table to pull the chair out next to River for Simon to sit on. “I’ll make you a plate,” she told him with a sincere smile.

Simon tried to offer Inara as much of a smile of gratitude as he could muster in return and lowered himself onto the chair, allowing Kaylee to take the crutches and set them aside. He looked at River, who was staring at him with her head tilt to the side in contemplation. River’s eyes held that look of borderline instability that Simon wasn’t sure he could trust and he sucked in a hesitant breath. “What is it, Mei Mei?”

“The captain’s drunk. He’s imbibed copious amounts of the drink,” River casually explained. “He’ll be sick in the morning. I’ll have to pilot the ship alone.”

“River…” Simon had to purse his lips together to prevent himself from chuckling audibly at his sister’s observation of their captain’s current state of inebriation. One look at Mal found him already engrossed in an animated conversation with Emma, making it safe to assume he hadn’t heard a word River just said and allowing Simon to turn his attention elsewhere. He focused down on Sebastian who was still fast asleep in River’s arms. “How is he?”

“Dreaming,” River answered with a warm smile. “Dreaming of you and Kaylee.”

Simon’s lips curled into a crooked smile. “Is he?”

River nodded. “He dreamed of Jayne earlier, but it made him cry.”

“I imagine that would be a nightmare,” Simon chuckled.

“Not a nightmare like yours,” River said with her attention set upon the sleeping infant.

Simon’s mouth parted, speechless, but Inara returned to the table before he could form a response and placed a plate of food in front of him. “It’s not much, I’m afraid. Mostly rice and protein paste, but I did acquire some fresh vegetables from the training house before we departed,” she told him.

“It looks wonderful, Inara. Thank you,” Simon replied with a troubled expression as he surveyed the contents piled on the plate. Steam rose from each item and if Simon was going to be truthful, it smelled heavenly. His stomach grumbled at the sight of it, mixing with the residual nausea that remained present. He was hungry though, starving actually, reminding Simon that he couldn’t truly recall the last decent meal he’d had. The food consumed while at the medical facility had been plain and not exactly appetizing, so this presentation Inara had placed before him was something he was entirely grateful for.

Mal leaned back in his chair and made a show of stretching his arms above his head. “How about you bring that bottle of whiskey over here, Inara,” he requested in the companion’s direction before she could reclaim her seat.

Inara considered him for a brief moment. “I think you may have had enough…”

“Enough?” Mal glanced at his empty cup before looking at Inara again.

“You don’t agree?” Inara questioned him with brows raised and a lack of utter patience to argue.

“I truly don’t,” Mal scuffed. He pushed his chair back and stood. “It’s my ship, my rules, and I say it’s fine time we drink a little for once. Things are back in order-” He paused long enough to look at Simon and then turned to step over to the counter where the opened bottle of whiskey had been placed. “-sorta. Everyone’s here, on the ship, and that’s a start. Doc’s back and eating Inara’s fine cookin’, so cheers to that.”

“That was very insightful, sir,” Zoe sarcastically nodded in his direction.

Mal seemed to miss the sarcasm in his first mate’s voice as he tipped the rim of the bottle against his lips and swallowed the bitter liquid. “Thank you. And I mean it,” he continued. “We’re moving forward from here on out. I plan us to land a job soon and it will be business as usual.”

“Finding the job is the issue,” Zoe commented.

“We always make due,” Mal countered, leaning against the edge of the counter. “I don’t see this being any different.”

Zoe shifted in her seat to draw Emma onto her lap. “I wasn’t saying otherwise, sir,” she replied. “But we missed the drop deadline on the last job and that’s put a mark on our reputation.”

“We’ve jumped larger hurdles,” Mal dismissed. “This is just another one.”

“Do you have someone in mind?” Zoe questioned pointedly.

Mal considered his answer, only to shrug nonchalantly. “No.”

“It won’t take long before we’re floating dead in the water,” Zoe continued. “A few weeks maybe. A month tops. We lost that job at the rendezvous.”

“There’s always another one.” Mal frowned at Zoe as he swallowed another sip from the bottle. “Your job is to do your job and I’ll do mine. If I’m not worried, then you shouldn’t be either.”

‘But you are worried. I can see it in your eyes’ Zoe thought as her arms tightened around her daughter, though she would never actually say as much to Mal’s face.

The galley grew silent for a while before Mal finally spoke up again. “I’ve got a few favors to call in. Just need a few days to pull through.”

“We didn’t get paid…because of me,” Simon spoke up.

“Oh, Simon, no. That’s-” Kaylee started to say, but Simon interrupted her with a sharp knowing look.

“That is what happened,” Simon reiterated as he set his fork down, his appetite diminishing. “We missed the drop deadline because of me and we didn’t get paid.”

“Can’t change that and payment isn’t something you need to be concerning yourself with,” Mal told him dismissively. He set the bottle of whiskey down and turned to face the crew fully. “You can believe we’ll get paid, because that’s my way. In one way or another.”

“Captain’s right,” Kaylee nodded. “It’s just a little hiccup. We’ve still got enough to get us by until the captain takes care of it. We’ll be fine.” She looked at Mal with optimistic hope. “Right?”

“Aren’t we always?” Mal countered. “I take care of my crew. Don’t need any of you questioning it.”

Kaylee feigned a faint smile. “Then we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Simon stared hard at his plate of food before slowly pushing it away from him. The once delicious aroma now caused the nausea to intensify in his stomach and he feared if he were to take another bite, he would once again spill the contents of his stomach onto the dining table and that was the last sort of embarrassment he wanted to personally partake in.

Kaylee’s optimism and trust in the captain did nothing to calm Simon’s inner turmoil or ease the guilt he felt plaguing him. That had to do partly with the fact that under all of her layers, Kaylee’s fears were very clearly there. Maybe not enough for everyone present in the galley to take notice, least of all the captain who had taken it upon himself to return to the table with the bottle of liquor and partake in more of the drink, but Simon was able to see it. He knew the mechanic too well and with one look in her eyes a moment later, Simon knew he was right. Kaylee wasn’t just nervous…she was afraid.

Inara’s gaze had focused intently on Simon amidst the small buzz and she reached out to rest a hand upon the doctor’s shoulder, almost as if she had sensed his unease. “Don’t mind them, Simon,” she murmured to keep from drawing attention to the two of them. Simon’s eyes slowly shifted upward to look at her and she smiled down at him. “We’re just happy to have you back and that’s what matters. The rest will work itself out.”

“I want to believe that,” Simon mustered in response. His shoulders sagged under a heavy sigh. “But…”

“No,” Inara replied with just as calm of a smile. She slid the plate of food closer to Simon once again. “You musn’t think that way. You’re home, where you belong. Now eat, so you may regain your strength.”

“Dreaming of just you now,” River mentioned with her attention firmly focused upon the sleeping infant in her arms. “He’s happy you’re here. Feels safe.”

Simon’s hand hovered over the silver fork, mind drifting in the familiarity of River’s statement. He looked at the two of them and felt himself relax just enough that he thought he may be able to stomach the rest of his dinner, so he forced himself to scoop up a forkful of the meal and lift it to his mouth, chewing it slow deliberately. When he swallowed, and was certain the food wouldn’t be making a rapid reappearance, Simon turned carefully in his seat to face River. “Let me have my son, Mei Mei,” he requested of her quietly.

As River began the delicate process of transferring Sebastian into his father’s arms, Kaylee stepped up to them with a worried glance. “Maybe I should go lay him down in our room,” she suggested. “It’s late and you need to-”

“No,” Simon told her firmly as he became acclimated once again to the weight of the infant in his embrace. He repeated himself quietly. “No…”

Tight-lipped, Kaylee nodded and averted her eyes elsewhere.

“It is late and this little one needs to be going to bed soon,” Zoe spoke up as she pushed her chair back and rose authoritatively to her feet. Little Emma, tucked securely against her mother’s hip, huffed at the thought of bed time and pointed to Simon with a curious whining of his name. Zoe followed her daughter’s line of sight, focusing on the doctor and his small gathering of family. Emma always had been fascinated with Simon, asserting a connection not everyone could make sense of, and as much as Zoe herself wanted to speak with the doctor, she knew there was a place and time and the galley that evening was not it. Trivial invasions of privacy from the rest of the crew would do Simon no good.

So, Zoe gently grasped her daughter’s chin to draw Emma’s eyes to hers and pressed a kiss to the child’s forehead. “Hush now, little one. You can see Simon tomorrow.”

It wasn’t long after Zoe carried Emma out of the galley that Mal stumbled out of his seat, still gripping the bottle of whiskey. He stepped haphazardly away from the table with movements worrisome enough that both Kaylee and Inara winced in anticipation of him falling over. “I’m going to my bunk,” he announced with a noticeable slur. “Glad to have you back doctor.”

“He must be really drunk if he’s glad to have me back,” Simon attempted to joke.

“He’s had enough, that is for sure,” Inara murmured with a nod and swiftly made her way to the captain’s side. She hooked her hand onto his elbow and started to turn him towards the doorway. “Come, Mal. I will help you to your bunk.”

“’Nara,” Mal slurred happily as he leaned his weight into the companion’s side. “Are you propositioning me? You are propositioning me.”

It was hard for Inara to keep any trace of humor hidden from her face while leading Mal from the galley. “I am certain you would enjoy that,” she casually responded.

“Here I never thought you would switch work ethics,” Mal continued. “Thought you didn’t service the crew. What’s your business?”

“None of yours.” Inara smiled sweetly at him. “And it never will be.”

“Oh, bao bay [sweetheart],” Mal chuckled. “I sure do like it when you talk dirty to me.”

Simon choked on a breath just as the pair disappeared from the galley, Mal’s voice lingering in the distance. “That...did he just imply-”

“It’s a secret,” River interrupted her brother with a mischievous grin. “We’re not to know, but I know.” She shrugged as if it were common knowledge. “…I know everything.”

Kaylee gasped, her eyes opening wide. “…The captain and Inara?!”

“No…” Simon trailed, slowly shaking his head. “River, how do you know this?”

River frowned at him. “Everyone is so loud in my head,” she groaned and jumped up to run out of the galley, leaving her brother’s mouth hanging open in her wake.

It wasn’t until Kaylee sat beside him did Simon slowly shut his mouth and turn his attention to her. “Tell me it’s weird.”

Kaylee bit her bottom lip, as if to consider a careful response. “I…” She elevated one shoulder toward her ear. “Oh, I dunno, Simon. I think it’s sweet. The captain and Inara. You’d have to be blind to not see that they care well enough for each other. And, they sure have been mighty peaceful…well, they ain’t been yelling as much, at least. That’s something.”

Simon shifted his gaze down onto Sebastian to find the infant’s eyes lazily peeking open at him, tiny lips parted in a silent yawn. “Doesn’t matter, I guess,” he murmured as he gently brushed the pad of his thumb across Sebastian’s eyebrows.

Kaylee leaned against Simon’s shoulder with a soft smile, enjoying the quiet moment, now that the three of them were alone in the galley. “What does matter?” she questioned.

“You,” Simon answered without hesitation. “And our son.”

Kaylee’s lips pressed to Simon’s cheek. “I love you,” she whispered.

Simon didn’t say anything in return; his closeness to Kaylee right then was enough of a response in the silence. With dinner once again forgotten on the plate before him, Simon allowed himself to find solace in Kaylee and Sebastian’s presence. He had what he needed for the time being. And the captain was right…they could only move forward from here.

*****

If ever there were a place on Serenity that Simon felt the most at home, the most in his element, the ship’s infirmary was his safest place to find that inner sense of peace. Even when he wasn’t fixing one of the crew’s physical mishaps or counting inventory or any of the other mundane tasks he busied himself with to pass the time when they were soaring through the Black, just sitting within the quiet atmosphere of the infirmary while listening to the even quieter buzzings and whirrings of the ship’s inner workings was enough to make Simon feel as if he were that much closer to where he used to be, doing what he did best at the hospital back in Capital City.

Of course, even when it was quiet, Serenity’s infirmary was still chaotic and not the kind Simon was used to. It had its quirks, because someone was always barging in to make a mess of things when Simon was trying to keep order in place. That someone was usually Jayne, tearing the place apart for God knows what when he had no business being anywhere near the infirmary. Sometimes, Simon thought the mercenary caused the chaos just to get under his skin. Other times, he thought Jayne had a pathetic deeply rooted need for attention.

Chaotic or not, though…the infirmary was Simon’s home on Serenity.

In the days Simon had been back, days that he had already lost count of mostly for the fact that his mind was still so jumbled, the majority of his time had been spent immersed in the solitude of the infirmary’s interior. It was his space. His safe spot. His place he could go to and try to forget. Forgetting wasn’t really an option though when the moment Simon tried to forget was the moment the memories came flooding back in. And they were unforgiving memories, too.

Kaylee had started to worry that Simon was withdrawing, not just from her and Sebastian, but from the crew as a whole. The captain called it some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, as if he really knew what he was talking about just because he’d survived the war and had his own troubles, but he never went out of his way to check in on the recovering doctor. Nor did the rest of the crew (except for Kaylee and his sister) make it a point to draw close to Simon to help ease him back into life on Serenity. Except for Zoe, who had developed the habit of bringing Emma by the infirmary early in the mornings or late in the evenings before putting the toddler to bed. Simon and Zoe never really spoke more than a few words during those visits and instead found mutual comfort in the silence of each other’s company.

Simon knew what Zoe had done for him back in that cellar on Jirah and he would be forever grateful to her for it.

What Kaylee didn’t realize, however, was that every night while everyone else was sleeping and Simon couldn’t manage to shut his mind off long enough to sleep himself, he spent countless lonely hours sitting in the dim lighting of a lit candle in their living quarters, watching Kaylee and Sebastian as they slept. He thought, too. Thought way too much. Over thought. But nothing Simon ever did drove the nightmares away.

Post-traumatic stress, yes, but not how Mal understood it.

“I brought you a cup of tea and an apple…”

Simon wearily lifted his head from the edge the counter and sat up a little straighter on the stool he was perched upon. Sighing quietly to himself, he braced his hand against the counter and slowly turned to find River standing tentatively in the doorway to the infirmary, her eyes planted on the ground around her feet.

“Mei Mei,” Simon called out to her quietly. “It’s late. What are you doing up?”

River shuffled in place, creases of tired anxiety crinkling the corners of her eyes. “Couldn’t sleep,” she mumbled in response. “The silence is too loud. Worried.”

“I couldn’t sleep either,” Simon admitted, though something told him that River already knew that much and it was a big part of the reason why she had gravitated to the infirmary to find him. He continued to watch her, fighting a frown towards her clear anxiety. “Would you like to come sit down?”

It took a few moments of thickening silence before River slowly lifted her head to meet Simon’s gaze. Her eyes were tired and ghost-like and her face appeared paler than normal with the way her dark hair framed her cheeks. But her lips curled into a faint smile just as quickly as she looked at her brother and her posture visibly relaxed. “No tests?” she questioned with a hint of teasing in her tone.

Simon’s returning smile was crooked and he shook his head. “No…no tests,” he answered.

“No tests for you either?” River glided towards Simon, careful not to spill any of the tea in the cup. “I can study your brain and try to make you better. Just like you did for me.”

Simon took the apple and the cup of tea from River when she reached him, distracting himself from the way River compared the two of them by inhaling the scent of the tea wafting from the cup. He sighed at the aroma and offered his sister a sheepish smile. “I’m afraid there isn’t a test that can help me.”

River gracefully hopped up to sit on the edge of the counter. “No test can help me either,” she said with a small shrug and stared down at her hands. “But you’ll always try. Have to fix her, even though you know their secrets.”

“That’s because I’m your brother,” Simon merely replied. “It’s my job to take care of you.”

“No, Simon. Have to learn to take care of yourself now.” River grasped the shiny red apple from where Simon had set it on the counter and extended it to him. “You need to eat.”

It was hard for Simon not to chuckle at the firm authoritative expression that appeared on River’s face as she insisted he indulge in the sweet fruit. But as their eyes locked and understanding was exchanged in the silence between them, Simon knew River was concerned and only trying to take care of him. He was appreciative too, even if it was hard for him to accept. So, Simon took the apple back from River and lifted it to his mouth to bite into it.

River watched him closely, as if expecting Simon to discard the fruit once more. “Have to eat so you don’t become weak,” she explained. Her hand reached out to wipe away a dribble of the apple’s juice from Simon’s chin. “Kaylee’s worried.”

Simon finished chewing the bite of apple in his mouth and swallowed before lifting the tea to take a sip. “She doesn’t need to worry.”

“Stubborn,” River chided him and Simon frowned at her. “More stubborn than me.”

“That’s not possible,” Simon tried to joke.

“It is,” River told him as a matter of fact. “Too many thoughts in your head. They argue and it drowns you. You’re suffocating but you don’t say anything. Don’t wanna cause worry. You’re stubborn.”

Simon’s brows furled and he shifted his gaze down to the steaming tea in the cup that he had yet to sip. River’s riddle-like assessment couldn’t have been closer to the truth and yet it still astonished him every time she read him out loud like a book she had closely studied. Simon couldn’t argue with her either. Not in the least and River knew it too.

“The captain dreams about the war every night,” River spoke again a short time later. “He hears the guns and lasers and the men shouting as if it’s still happening. It’s always still happening in his head. Over and over. Every night. The pain is real to him too and he can’t forget it, but he doesn’t want to. It reminds him that he’s still alive.”

Simon exhaled a quiet sigh, but kept his eyes trained on the tea cup. “The captain is strong, River,” he muttered.

“…Sometime he doesn’t think so,” River replied. “He gets scared and sad because…because he thinks he should have been able to do more.”

“One person can only do so much,” Simon countered. “And the captain fought a good fight. This he knows.”

“He still doesn’t give up, even if he is afraid.” River scooted closer to the edge of the counter and extended a hand to gently grasp Simon’s chin and lift his gaze back to hers. The younger Tam’s eyes were patient but laden with heavy concern and an almost inability to work through all the mess twisting around in Simon’s head. “He keeps fighting.”

For a brief moment in time, the infirmary dissolved around Simon and it was just he and River who existed. The feel of her fingers against his skin was real and comforting, enough to anchor him and allow him to really understand what River was saying beneath all of her babble. “I’m not giving up…”

River’s fingers fluttered against a healing laceration on Simon’s left temple and she tilted her head to the side in contemplation. “You’re stubborn like the captain. You don’t wanna admit when you’re afraid,” she told him. “Afraid of the monsters that come out of the dark. It’s easier to act like nothing is wrong, but you can never forget. They won’t let you.”

Simon took River’s hand into his own and drew it away from his face. He squeezed it, mostly for his own sake, and smiled in adoration. “When did you become so grown up?”

“Aging is merely a measurement of one’s life from the moment of birth through maturity,” River explained with a dull shrug. “It’s unavoidable.”

“I used to believe it was me who was teaching you.” Simon chuckled and took a sip of the tea, savoring the smooth flavors of chamomile and honey as he swallowed it slowly and further considered his thoughts. “But now…I think it has always been you teaching me.”

River idly picked at a loose string dangling from the soft material of her ivory thin-strapped cotton nightgown. The frock had been a gift from Inara months prior and was nothing expensive, but River had been impressed and eagerly accepted the offering as if it were the most glamorous piece of clothing she had ever owned.

“Makes Simon proud,” she said with eyes that reflected reminders of her youth.

“Very much,” Simon agreed with a nod. “And I always will be.”

“I had to learn to fight the monsters.” River hopped down from her perch on the edge of the counter and slowly began to make her way around the infirmary, the tips of her fingers dancing over the various surfaces as if she was committing to memory what she felt. “Don’t give up, have to keep fighting…need to become the sister you remember again.”

“River…” Simon trailed as he watched her. “…You’ve always been my sister.”

“She became a ghost,” River continued as if she hadn’t heard her brother speak up. “Neither here nor there. Trapped in between. She was lost and he had to bring her back. She was his responsibility and he gave up everything he had to bring her home, to make her like he remembered. But…she’s not like how he remembered. She can’t be…”

“She’s wrong,” Simon countered gently. “She’s exactly how he remembers.”

“Not a ghost?” River whispered with her back to him.

Simon shook his head even though River couldn’t see the gesture. “No, Mei Mei. Better than. And she’s the bravest one he knows.”

River turned back to Simon, her eyes glued to the floor of the infirmary with an expression of forlorn. She appeared to struggle with her thoughts, trapped momentarily by a painful torrent of memories that were nothing new, but rather ones that were always locked away in the chaos of her mind. Simon could tell River was troubled, almost afraid to speak exactly what it was that she was thinking. Then, just as he was about to question her, River’s lips parted to speak and her voice was unquestionably haunting.

“Do you still miss it?”

Simon’s gaze returned to focus on the tea. The creases of stress at the corners of his eyes became more apparent with each passing second and though he would never admit it out loud, that familiar ache of sadness and longing that had plagued him for the past several years began to gnaw at the pit of Simon’s stomach. The same fleeting visions of his home and life back on Osiris used to keep him awake at night, questioning the decisions he had made. Even visions of his parents, despite the betrayal they had committed against him and River, was just as equally troubling. Simon used to miss all of it more than he could possibly ever describe. He used to…

“You miss Mother…and Daddy.”

Pursing his lips together, Simon carefully set the cup of tea aside on the counter. “I used to miss the idea of it,” he admitted quietly. A heavy breath passed his lips and as his shoulders slumped forward, Simon clasped his hands together on his lap. “Our life back on Osiris, I mean. I used to miss the idea of the false sense of home and security we had back before I knew it wasn’t real, before I knew any better. And our parents… I…I used to miss the notion that they truly cared about us, that they loved us.”

“It makes you sad,” River noted with a frown as she studied Simon intensely. He could almost feel her prying into his mind to see the true depth of his thoughts. “You wish you could go home.”

Simon lifted a hand to rub at a dull ache forming beneath the surface of his forehead. “No, Mei Mei,” he answered firmly with a shake of his head. Their eyes met more securely this time and Simon offered River a comforting smile. “That isn’t what I wish, because we’re already home. Serenity is our home now and it’s been more of a home than our house on Osiris ever was. Just like the crew of this ship has become more of a family to us than our own blood relatives.”

River’s eyes hinted at a faint lingering of uncertainty. “No regrets? Even though you found her damaged.”

“Don’t be a dummy,” Simon chided her lightly with a crooked grin. “I will never regret what I’ve done to save you and keep you safe. Never.”

River smiled sheepishly, dipping her head down to shield her face from Simon’s sight. “You don’t break promises.”

Simon found it easier to allow River her assertion than to try to argue with her otherwise and he shifted his attention to the doorway of the infirmary when he caught sight of a blur of movement out of the corner his eye. Kaylee stood there, lazily leaning against the doorframe with tired eyes, but Simon could tell she was staring at him with curiosity about why he had once again abandoned her in their bed. And so, he sat up a little straighter and called out to her. “Kaylee…? Is everything okay?”

“I woke up and you weren’t in bed,” Kaylee answered before turning an apologetic glance in River’s direction for interrupting the moment between the two of them. “I thought something was wrong.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Simon explained. “And I didn’t want to wake you. Sebastian was fine and…well, I thought I would busy myself in here for a while.”

“Nightmares,” River added with a simple shrug of her shoulders before she brushed past Kaylee and left the infirmary.

Simon’s lips parted to stutter a response, but it was Kaylee’s knowing glance that had him remaining quiet as she approached. When she finally reached him, Kaylee’s hand extended to brush against the stubble that had accumulated along his jawline. “You don’t have to lie to me,” she told him. “It only makes me worry more when you do that.”

Simon sighed quietly and turned from Kaylee to fiddle idly with the surgical instruments he’d placed in a row on the counter’s surface. “I’m getting better,” he all but mustered under his breath.

Kaylee’s hands rest gently upon Simon’s shoulders. “River doesn’t have to tell me that you’re still having the nightmares. I already know. You talk in your sleep.”

Wincing, Simon kept his back to Kaylee. “Do I keep you awake?”

“Sometimes…” Kaylee hesitated with her answer. “Mostly when you start talking or moving about. You just seem so miserable. It worries me some.”

Simon reached over his shoulder to place his hand upon Kaylee’s. “I close my eyes and I still see it, Kaylee,” he explained, his fingers tightening against her skin. “I can still feel it too. The things they did to me, they-“

Simon’s voice fell silent prematurely, unwilling to go into the horrendous details because he feared just how much it would overwhelm Kaylee and he wasn’t about to purposely allow her to become plagued by the same nightmares that tortured him. “I just want to feel normal again,” he finally finished. “I hate that you worry.”

Kaylee’s arms slowly curled around Simon’s neck. “That’s my job, Simon,” she huffed with a subtle laugh. “Worrying about you just like I worry about Sebastian. It’s because I love you. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to a wall, always having to repeat myself about it.”

Simon tilted his head back to frown up at her, but his expression softened immediately. “I’m trying to get better.”

“You’re healing and that’s all that matters.” Kaylee pressed a tender kiss to Simon’s temple. She smiled shyly as she pulled back. “You’re even becoming more shuai as the days pass.”

The stool Simon sat upon turned so he was facing Kaylee. “Your bias is astounding,” he chuckled and took her left hand into his. “But I appreciate everything you do. You don’t realize how amazing you are, Kaylee.”

There was a notable crimson glow that flooded Kaylee’s cheeks. “I’m not really…” she trailed.

“I don’t know about that,” Simon countered. “I think you may be more of a genius than I am.”

“The medication must be getting to your head if you’re calling me a genius,” Kaylee laughed openly, but her eyes were lit with adoration.

Simon pursed his lips in thought and averted his eyes elsewhere. Perhaps genius wasn’t the correct term to use because in all actuality, Kaylee was so much more, even if she couldn’t see it. Though he was prepared to devote himself to helping her understand it in each way possible. Kaylee deserved it too. She deserved the entire Verse handed to her. At one point in time, had they existed together in the Core, Simon would have even been able to give Kaylee all of the riches money could buy, what with his family inheritance and the embarrassingly large stacks of money he’d earned at the hospital and all.

But Simon and Kaylee hadn’t existed in the Core together. They’d lived worlds away.

Kaylee squeezed Simon’s hand to draw his attention back to her. Her head tilt to the side out of curiosity. “What’s going through your mind that has you thinking so hard?”

Simon stared up at her with a steady gaze, a little unsettled by how transparent he had just been. “Well…” he drawled, unsure of how to proceed. “It’s just that I think a lot, about many things. And…I don’t know the proper way to-”

Giggling quietly under her breath, Kaylee hopped up to sit on the edge of the counter, forcing Simon to twist slightly on the stool when their hands remained clasped. “I don’t think there’s a power in the Verse that can keep you from being stiff,” she teased.

Wrinkles surfaced on Simon’s forehead to signal his flustered state. He exhaled a hard breath through his nose and sighed. “And there’s not a power in the Verse that can stop you from giving me a hard time about it,” he countered Kaylee’s statement.

“Oh, Simon. I just wish you would relax more, that’s all,” Kaylee replied with a small shrug. “Don’t gotta be so proper around me all the time. I know you think you still have to, but you don’t.”

“Some habits are difficult to break, I suppose,” Simon said as his hand began to reach into his pants pocket, but he paused and Kaylee quickly took notice of the change in his demeanor. He caught her glance and allowed himself a moment to take in the sight of her before his hand disappeared into pocket and closed around a small familiar velvet pouch.

The sound of the captain’s voice telling Simon to do right by Kaylee filtered through his mind as he assessed the feel of the soft material against his skin. Mal, of all people, was someone Simon figured would be least likely to offer his blessing for the two shipmates to make proper of their relationship. Despite his begrudging recognition of the fact that Simon and Kaylee had moved past just a personal connection with each other, something that led the resident doctor to want to take the mechanic’s hand in wedded bliss and now had an infant in the mix, Mal had given no inkling that he would ever grow to accept the matter. Yet, even Simon couldn’t deny that something changed in Mal’s demeanor when he returned the engagement ring to Simon with his permission for the affair to proceed the way it ought to.

It was just one more thing Kaylee truly deserved. Perhaps the captain had actually learned to honestly trust that Simon wouldn’t let her down in that respect. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

“I’m glad you’re here right now,” Simon told Kaylee with his hand securely wrapped around the velvet pouch in confidence in his pocket. “There’s something important I need to ask you.”

“Something important?” Kaylee repeated. With her tired eyes beaming regardless, Kaylee’s expression was typical of the way she always enthusiastically showed interest in what someone was saying to her. “I’m listening.”

Simon pushed himself up from the stool and leaned his weight heavily against the edge of the counter in an effort not to strain his injured leg. Ignoring the urge to wince when the whole of his body protested the movements with a flaring of pain, Simon made sure his focus upon Kaylee didn’t waver. “This is something I should have done a long time ago,” he started to explain. “Kaylee, I-”

Kaylee’s head suddenly whipped in the direction of the infirmary’s open doorway when the sound of Sebastian’s sharp cries could be heard echoing from their living quarters. “Sebastian’s awake,” she murmured with a frown as she scooted off the counter. Though she turned back to Simon before she could take a step towards leaving the infirmary, her face conflicted. “Oh, Simon, I’m sorry. I know you want to talk, but I should go tend to Sebastian before he wakes someone…”

Simon’s shoulders sank as his confidence dissolved at the missed opportunity. He lowered himself slowly upon the stool once more and forced a tight understanding smile. “It’s okay. Sebastian needs you more. We can talk tomorrow.”

“Please come back to bed soon?” Kaylee requested as she inched her way towards the doorway.

Simon nodded. “I won’t be long.”

As empty as Simon knew the promise was, it was enough to ease Kaylee from the infirmary and once she was gone from sight, he turned back to the counter and hunched over to rest his forehead on the cold surface. With the moment passed and the ring now once again forgotten in his pocket, Simon resigned himself to another long night alone in the infirmary with only his thoughts to keep him company.