In his nightmare, Kaylee was still pregnant. Oh, it started out normal enough, an ordinary day on Serenity, but it quickly devolved into the surreal.
She had that funny wobble that all pregnant women had, and her walking was fairly broad-based due to her lower center of gravity. She had picked up maternity dresses and pants on Persephone and had proudly shown them off. Straight black or brown pants with the expanding elastic tops. Floral print tunic tops and brightly colored lounging shirts that hung down to her waist. When her belly was flat again, she joked, they would make great dresses on their own.
Simon was in the infirmary when it happened. He was stitching Zoe's arm after digging out a bullet she had received on a job gone south. Nothing too bad; they had walked away with the cargo and the money, and were able to resell the cargo elsewhere. All in all, it had been a fairly simple day.
He knew something was wrong when Book entered the infirmary, his hair all wild and undone, sticking up in every direction. "You have to come out, Simon."
"You have to. They'll kill us all otherwise." There was no inflection in his voice or expression, and somehow that made him all the more terrifying. He remembered old horror waves when he was a child. Has someone taken over everyone on the ship?
River. Kaylee. The baby.
"It's time to go, Simon Tam." The shepherd held out one hand, as if to beckon him out of the infirmary. His palm was covered in blood.
Simon had to blink in surprise. "Shepherd? What are you doing here? You should be on Haven, at the Abbey. When did you get on the ship?"
"Not important now."
Simon dug in his heels. "Yes, it is important now."
Book looked around, eyes wild and terrified. "You have to come out."
"What? Why?" Simon eyed Book warily, noticing that he wasn't crossing the threshold into the infirmary for all of his terror. Was there something about his domain that was special? He couldn't think of anything that would offer him protection. There were ordinary tools and ordinary medical supplies there, from the fluids and medicines to the surgical tools in hand. He wasn't special, and didn't carry any kind of magic in him. There was nothing in him to repulse demons, nothing to keep the evil away.
Zoe turned to Simon and calmly plucked the needle from his hand. "You'll have to listen to the preacher, Doc. He'll know what's good for us and what's not."
Simon watched in horror as Zoe plunged the needle into her right eye. "Zoe!"
"It don't hurt none. Nothing does."
"Your eye!" Simon sputtered. He liked to think that he normally wouldn't sputter quite so much, that his time on Serenity had hardened him somewhat.
"Nothing does when you're dead."
Simon gasped and spun around to face Zoe head on. Her good eye was bloodshot and her skin was ashen. Her hair looked as though it had been torn out in hanks, and there were scratches on her bare scalp. He could see a thin line of blood trickling from a fresh cut at the side of her mouth. She smiled at him, and her teeth were covered in blood. None of her teeth were fangs, but that didn't mean anything anymore. "It don't hurt none if you're dead, Simon." She smiled widely at him, not noticing his discomfort. "Nothing does anymore. Nobody can hurt you when you're already dead."
Simon turned around and looked at Book. He didn't seem to think that Zoe looked odd. He didn't even look in her direction. "Shepherd?"
"Nothing good lasts forever, Simon. You knew they would come for you."
"River," Simon breathed. He pushed past Book and ran out into the depths of the ship screaming for his sister.
She was sitting crosslegged on the cargo bay floor, playing with marionette puppets. She was humming a nursery rhyme from the Earth-That-Was.
"Ring around the roses, a pocket full of posies...."
"Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!" River threw down the marionettes and clapped her hands gleefully. She turned around and faced Simon. She looked the way she did when she was ten, and was even dressed in the private school uniform she used to wear before he had gone away to medical school.
"What's happened, River?" Simon asked, voice breaking.
"Zhen tama yaoming. Zhuyi," she said in her little girl's voice. She pointed behind him, and Simon turned to look over his shoulder.
A Reaver was biting into Mal's neck as he tried to move the mule. It looked as though he were already dead, which was as small a mercy as anyone could ever hope for. With a cry of shock, Simon twisted and stumbled backward, falling down next to River. He turned to her. "Mei mei, you need to run."
"You need to turn," she said, her voice small and oddly resonant. "They're coming for you, Simon. They're coming to take back what's theirs."
Simon turned and instead of the Reaver eating Mal, saw the doctor and the round man from Harristown. The doctor held a bag and a syringe, and the round man was holding Kaylee in his arms. He was having a hard time keeping her still. She was struggling, swearing up a storm, her pregnant belly large in front of her. Simon could see the child kicking within her, Kaylee's panic stirring it. "He chusheng zajiao de zanghuo!" Kaylee screeched. She kicked the doctor's hand, sending the syringe flying.
Simon rolled to his feet and ran toward them, but strong hands pulled him back. He pulled against the hands, and turned to face whoever it was.
Adult River, her eyes bloodshot from crying. "It's already too late."
The front of Kaylee's bright yellow dress was dark with spreading blood.
Simon woke up screaming.
Next to him, Kaylee was already screaming, blood streaming out from between her legs. "Simon!" she screamed, shaking his arm. "Simon!"
He took one look at her and then raced to the door to bang on the emergency button. "We got to get you to the infirmary, bao bei. I need to take a look and see what's going on."
Her eyes were wide with fear and panic. "I don't feel our baby no more," she wailed, hands on her belly. "I don't feel nothing!"
Simon was pulling open the door and screaming for help. "Let's get you up the ladder, bao bei. Come on, get up..." He helped Kaylee get to her feet and shouldered her weight. "Sh... I'll take care of you, bao bei. For better or for worse, remember?"
"Give her here, Doc."
Simon looked up, and there was Jayne, partway down the ladder. Between the two of them, they lifted Kaylee up out of the bunk and into the hallway. The others were milling about, worried. He didn't spare a glance for them, but continued to carry Kaylee. He ignored the feel of her blood beneath his bare feet, the blood smeared over his pajama bottoms or chest. He ignored the blood on Jayne's pajama pants, the sheer worry on Zoe's face as she looked at Wash. He carried their secret well; they hadn't wanted to annoy Mal too much, but Zoe was nearly two months along now. He had told Zoe just last week that she should tell Mal before she started to show, but she hemmed and hawed and finally Simon had just let it drop.
Jayne and Simon managed to maneuver Kaylee into the infirmary. Simon immediately turned on his examining light and peered into the bloody mess. Kaylee was pale and weak, her breathing shallow. "Simon..." she moaned. "Save our baby... Please...."
Simon looked at Jayne, who was staring at the blood on the floor with a dazed expression. "I need your help."
The mercenary turned at the sound of his sharp voice. "I don't know nothing about medicine, Doc. That's your job."
"Hand me that jar over there, the red one."
As Jayne went over to find the jar in question, Simon tied off Kaylee's right arm with a tourniquet. "Kaylee, honey, you've lost a lot of blood," he began. He felt along her inner arm for a vein. "I have to run a transfusion. You've lost so much fluid."
After swabbing her inner arm with alcohol, Simon began a line with a large bore needle. The saline was running in swiftly, and he turned to look at Jayne. The mercenary handed over the bottle of blood substitute that Simon had stolen months ago back on Kashmir. Simon hung it up quickly and fed it into the main saline line, then went back to Kaylee.
"The baby's coming early," Simon said. Kaylee's eyes met his. "I'm going to have to deliver."
"We're going to do this best as we can, then," she replied.
Simon looked at Jayne. "Are you going to be okay with helping me?"
Jayne looked a little green. "You don't want me doing this."
"You're here," Simon said firmly. "I'll make do with what I've got."
"Made!" he swore softly. He moved into position anyway, and set his jaw. "Okay, then, Doc. Tell me what to do."
"We're going to try and deliver the baby ourselves." Simon washed his hands with the waterless cleanser and then slapped on a pair of sterile gloves. He slipped his hand inside of Kaylee, feeling for the cervix to determine how far along she was. Jayne looked a little green still, and Simon took pity on the man. "I've done this before. It's going to be okay."
"Maybe so, but I ain't doin' that."
"You don't have to," Simon said quietly. Kaylee looked at him with hopeful eyes. "It's going to be okay, bao bei. I'll take care of it."
He could feel the eyes of the others on his back, but he tuned it out. He could feel himself slipping back into his old mindset. He was back in the Core, at the head of the OR table. Eyes meant nothing here, since there were too many different hands dipping in to help. Medical students. Interns. Nurses. He was a senior fellow, head of the trauma team. Blood didn't mean anything. Staunch the flow and move on. Cauterize the vessel, cross clamp. Cut out the part that couldn't be saved. Get in and out as fast as you could, then stitch it back up clean. Tiny knots with the dissolvable threads and then it wouldn't scar at all. His mentors had all said he had a future in plastics if he wanted it, but Simon hadn't been interested. He wanted the thrill of the chase, the hunt and catching the quarry to save the life.
He didn't want to say it, but he sincerely doubted that Baby Tam was going to make it. But he had done worse with better, and done better with worse. Every case was different. If he could put his mind aside for the moment, let himself work on autopilot, then it would work itself out. His hands knew what to do.
Simon could feel River behind him. He had always seemed to be able to know where she was when she was near him.
"That's not right," she whispered. "It's a boy, not a girl."
"It's going to be all right, bao bei," Simon crooned as he removed his hands and stripped off the bloody gloves. He looked at Jayne. "I'll show you how to scrub up. You'll need to be sterile to hand me things if I need them."
"Is it bad?" he asked softly.
"Not yet. Let's move."
They scrubbed up, Jayne mimicking Simon's movements. They put on gloves, and Simon moved back in front of Kaylee. It felt like forever since he had first woken, though he knew that no more than ten to fifteen minutes had passed. "Guess what, Jayne?" Simon asked, his voice creeping up into the edge of hysteria.
"You get to help give birth to a baby. Now you can add that to your repertoire."
"Don't know what a reper-tw-whatever is, Doc."
"Don't worry about it." Simon was terse, his eyes on Kaylee. She wasn't so pale now, at least, and her breathing wasn't so shallow. She was trusting him to do this right. She was trusting him to save their child, coming a full month early. If it had just been the amniotic fluid, his mind wouldn't be racing. But he had seen it, covering her gown. There had been drips across the floor, marking a trail to the infirmary. There was so much blood...
He put his hands back inside of Kaylee. He could feel the baby crowning. "Looks like you're pretty far along, bao bei. I can feel the tip of the baby's head."
She flashed him a happy but tired grin. "Really? You can?"
"Yes. You're doing great. Don't push just yet, okay? Not unless you feel like you have to." She nodded, and looked over at the side as everyone slowly crept in to watch. "Don't touch anything on the tray," Simon barked. "I'll need them sterile if I need them."
River perched on the edge of a countertop near Kaylee's head. "It's not the girl I thought it was."
Zoe took hold of one hand, Wash at her side. "We're here for you, Kaylee."
Mal squeezed in on the other side of her. "Hey there, Kaylee. About ready to be a mom?"
Kaylee wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. "I reckon so, Cap'n."
Simon's heart squeezed painfully in his chest. The labor was progressing, but it was much too slow. He eyed a clock on the wall of the infirmary and amended that thought. Not slow, then, but it felt slow because he also had the feeling that something wasn't quite right with this. He couldn't say what exactly it was, but his trauma sense was flaring. It was the same sense he had when a gut shot in the inner city arrived past the twenty minute mark and the septicemia had already set in. It was the same sense he had when an elderly woman took a fall and shattered her hip in a dozen places.
It could work, but it was so much harder. So much harder.
Simon looked up at Kaylee, propped up and surrounded by the rest of his family. This was his family. This was everything he needed, right here in one room.
It was worth the work.
He could feel the progression of the head. At least he had that much going for him, that the baby had turned and was coming down headfirst. Breech would've broken his heart; he would've had to perform a Cesarean, and under the conditions it would've been rougher than it should have been. He wasn't going to think of that though. Normal delivery, that was all.
"You're doing great, bao bei. Just push when you feel it, okay? Take deep breaths, like we practiced. Just keep going..."
Kaylee shut her eyes tight and squeezed Zoe's and Mal's hands as tight as she could. She heard an inhuman scream erupt as she pushed; dimly it registered as her own voice. Odd, it didn't sound like her. Didn't sound like little Kaywinnet Lee Frye Tam.
River's hands were cool at her temples, massaging gently. She was singing something in French, and Kaylee could pick out a few words. It kept her mind off of her squeezing belly. It kept her mind off of her tense-as-hell husband. She wasn't stupid. She knew something was up by the way he was standing there, the crease between his eyebrows that said something wasn't right. She knew him, inside and out. But it was okay. She trusted him to do right by her. He wasn't stupid either. It wasn't right, but he would make it right. He would move heaven and earth if he had to, and with his bare hands if he had to.
"Simon!" she shrieked through the next contraction.
Simon stared. And stared some more. "Jayne. Clamp. Two of them."
Jayne jumped, staring at Simon in horror. Bad enough he was watching Kaylee give birth. It was unnatural and horrific. That place wasn't supposed to be all bloody and gross, was it? He handed over the items Simon had pointed to, and watched.
The cord was wrapped around the baby's neck. Twice.
Simon carefully cross clamped one loop of cord, then cut it apart. "Another set."
Jayne swiftly handed them over, and watched as Simon clamped the next loop and cut it apart. He looked up at Kaylee, red in the face and sweaty, the moony girl singing to her in some strange language from the Earth-That-Was. Birthing definitely was a gross process.
Simon cradled the head and then worked the shoulders free. Another twist and then came the hips and legs. Simon held the fragile child in one hand – boy! It was a boy! – and grabbed the suction bulb in the other. He cleared the mouth and each nostril, then gave the child a smack on the bottom when he didn't cry immediately.
Infinity multiplied to the infinite power. That was eternity.
And then the child took a deep breath and began to cry.
"His name is Edward Wade Tam," Kaylee said proudly, displaying her child to the crew. He was sleeping against her breast, wrapped in a blue towel.
River was frowning and poking at the child. "You were supposed to be a girl. I was supposed to have a little niece to play with. You were supposed to be a little girl with brown hair running around and playing hide and seek with me. How can I be a good gū mŭ if I don't know what to do with you?"
"Maybe the next one's a girl, River," Kaylee said with a yawn.
Jayne looked as though he had just been through the wrong end of a gunfight. "Next one?" He looked about ready to lose what was left in his stomach. "What d'you mean next one? Why would you want to do something like that?"
Kaylee gave Jayne a tired smile. "'Cause he's a beautiful baby. He'll be a good older brother like Simon is. 'Cause it's as much fun makin' the baby as helpin' it grow up."
The mercenary's nose wrinkled. "It's all gross and nasty, Kaylee."
"You didn't need to look, Jayne," Kaylee laughed. She stroked her son's head. She never did get a look at the bastard that had kidnapped her, so there wasn't anything to look for in her son. He was her baby, hers and Simon's, and there was no one to say different.
"He's tiny," Jayne groused. "Hardly big enough for two hands."
"He'll be a good boy," River said, eyes unfocused as she swayed in her seat. "He'll be a good ge ge to his little sister. And I know I can be a good gū mŭ for them. I can share the secrets of the universe, I can show them how to listen to the stars."
"Etoile," Kaylee murmured. It had been one of her first French words. "You were singing me something about stars."
River's eyes snapped back into place. "The star of the night, the field of forever. Love of all things, despite the pain of the world. Simon had a strange dream. I might have sent him things, I don't know. And he woke to pain and blood and screaming in the dark. It wasn't nice of me, I wasn't a very good sister."
Kaylee caught River's hand in hers. "Oh no, honey. Don't think so. You're such a sweet girl, River. It's not your fault he got in trouble to get you out. But he'd do it again, and never think about it."
"He thinks about it."
She looked up at River. "Not seriously. He'd never just leave you there. You're his baby sister, and he'd never leave you locked up and tortured." She squeezed River's hand tight. "And you're my sister now, sweetie. And we'll both take good care of you."
River brought Kaylee's hand up to her cheek and smiled at her. "Xie xie."
Simon ducked his head into the infirmary. He had spent a good amount of time cleaning up the ship with Book and Mal while Wash and Zoe went up to the kitchen to start on breakfast for the crew. He smiled at his family, and stepped inside. "And how is everyone doing?"
"Good," Kaylee murmured. She nodded at the baby. "So's Eddie."
Simon came over to her and kissed her temple. "You two get some rest, okay? I'll bring in breakfast when it's cooked."
"I'm guessing we should git," Jayne muttered. He stood up from the stool he was perched on and slipped through the infirmary door. He had learned a bit too much about birthing babies just then, and it was enough to turn a man's stomach. Necessary, he supposed, but still. There was something just unnatural in how it all happened.
The next thing he knew, there was a hand in his. That feng le girl just didn't give up. Jayne turned to her, jaw set. "Now I tole ya..."
River nodded. "I know."
"Then why you touchin' me like you got a right to?"
"'Cause I'm lonely," she said softly. "And we can be lonely together, can't we?"
Jayne patted her head gently, the same way he would stroke a pet. "Not like Doc and Kaylee."
"Okay." River nodded firmly. "Girl finds it acceptable to engage in this arrangement. This girl wasn't ready to be a mother," she confided in a whisper.
"Good. It prob'ly ain't a hot idea anyhow," Jayne muttered. "Wash and Zoe are makin' some kind of breakfast. Let's go up and see what it is."
Smiling, River let go of Jayne's hand and skipped up the steps. Shaking his head at his own foolishness, Jayne followed her up.
Simon in the meantime brushed Kaylee's hair from her face and dropped another kiss on her forehead. "Wŏ ài nĭ," he murmured. "Gòng kàn míng yuè yīng chuí lèi, yī yè xiāng xīn wŭ chù tóng," he recited, looking down at his wife and son.
His wife and son. It sounded so amazing.
"That sounds pretty," Kaylee said sleepily. "I don't know that, though. Just a few words."
"It's an old poem from the Earth-That-Was. It was one of my mother's favorites," Simon said, twirling a lock of Kaylee's hair around his finger. "River and I used to memorize things like that and recite them at parties."
"What's it mean?"
"We look together at the bright moon, and then the tears should fall, this night, our wish for home can make five places one."
"Oh... I like that." She reached up at touched Simon's hand gently. "We're home, Simon."
"I know. We're with family," he said, smiling down at her. She never ceased to amaze him. He kissed her lips gently. "Rest, bao bei."
"Wŏ ài nĭ," she whispered, smiling at him sleepily. "Ed does too," she murmured.
Simon laughed softly. "I know."
He tucked the blankets tightly around Kaylee and stroked Edward's cheek with the tip of his finger. The little baby burrowed deeper into the crook of his mother's arm, and Simon smiled at him. "Sleep well, little one."
Simon left the infirmary and climbed the stairs, heading for the kitchen. His family had been absolutely amazing. It had been a long time since he had thought of his parents as family, and he honestly didn't seem to miss them. They hadn't understood what he had considered important, and hadn't wanted to try and understand him. They wouldn't have accepted Edward the way he had, and they wouldn't have grown to love Kaylee. Gabriel and Regan Tam missed out on so much by focusing on minutiae; if anything, going on the run had been the best thing to ever happen to Simon.
He looked in on the kitchen. Zoe and Wash were dishing up protein mash pancakes, and Book was getting out the syrup. Mal was setting the table, and there was River and Jayne getting out the juice. It was all so normal and wonderful at once. Simon nearly staggered from the flood of love washing over him at that moment.
This was his family, right here in the heart of Serenity. Not all of them were his family by blood, but it didn't matter to him anymore. These people were family by spirit and heart, and that was the most important thing of all.
This was everything he had ever wanted. This was home, and this was perfect.