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Catching the Flood

Chapter Text


Love has its tides; before ebb tide you must take advantage of the flood.
Chinese Proverb

 

When their little Firefly touched down on Persephone, she was looking a mite banged up and a touch worse for wear. She flew a straight sight better than she looked, and that was the most important thing on board. Serenity had more than a few friends on Persephone, some of them even above-board. Mal and Zoe headed out in search of work, a shopping list tucked away if they got money enough for their needs. Kaylee sat down on the cargo bay's ramp, a sign next to her in English and Chinese advertising transport rates. Wash was inside, settling in with his dinosaurs and keeping an ear out on the communications channels. Simon and River were otherwise occupied inside the ship. Jayne had left quickly, not saying where he was headed. That was just as well with Kaylee; she would rather read a book and take in some sun. She missed Shepherd Book, but realized that the pull of the black wasn't for everyone. He had others to preach to, and she didn't begrudge him leaving. Plus, she was sure she would see him again. Most people loved talking to a good preacher once in a while, especially one that didn't necessarily turn everything into a message from God.

"Do you do deliveries, child?"

Kaylee looked up into a grizzled old woman's face and smiled. "Of course. Just about anything, really. What do you need?"

"I have a letter, but it's very important. It's for my son on Kashmir. He's in one of the mining towns there, sends home money every time he can. Can you take it to him personally? You seem like a nice girl, and such an honest face. I can trust you with this."

Touched, Kaylee smiled and blushed. "That's sweet. I'll get this to your son. Don't worry."

The woman smiled, giving Kaylee a toothless grin. "I was hoping you would say that, my dear."

The old woman handed her a letter bound in tape and dropped some money into Kaylee's outstretched palm. She watched the woman walk away, blending into the crowd. She tucked the envelope into her book, then continued to read.

One by one, the crew filed back to the ship. Mal and Zoe found a few transport jobs and a hint about a potential heist on Granite. It wasn't that far from Granite to Kashmir, and there were plenty of places on Kashmir that were a little less than savory. Mal thought that even Simon and River could walk about for a spell on Kashmir and take in some sun. River had actually begun dancing about the cargo bay in her bare feet on hearing the news.

Jayne was the last to get on the ship, swearing up a storm. "Ben tiansheng de yidui rou," he muttered, stomping up the ramp past Kaylee. "I didn't do nothin'."

"What happened, Jayne?" Kaylee asked, folding up her chair and tucking her book under her arm. The mercenary shook his head and kept going past her, still muttering to himself. "Oh well," she said, shrugging. She put everything away and hit the button to bring up the ramp, and then signaled to Wash that they were ready to go.

***

 

The job at Granite actually went down fairly easily. All parties very nearly shook it; the other guys got stole from fair and square. Kaylee thought it was right nice of the captain to leave them something to buy dinner with, at least. She didn't hear the whole story, but apparently dropped pants figured in there somewhere. It must've been a doozy, but she missed the windup by making sure one of the distillation coils didn't snap in half while she was at dinner. She didn't think washing dishes in undistilled urine would do anybody any good.

She smiled at Simon, who flushed a bit and mumbled something halfwitted. River laughed for him, and tilted her head to the side. The girl swayed in her seat, dancing to music only she could hear, and laughed at a funny thought that flitted through her mind. Kaylee liked her in this kind of mood. She was fun to play games with, and she seemed like a little sister Kaylee would've loved to have had back home. "Mis promesas pueden volar," River sang as she left her seat, twirling her plate in her hands. She pirouetted, grinning at Kaylee. "Solamente tú puede ahorrarme," River chirped, waving a hand in front of Simon.

"Where did you learn that?" Simon asked, grinning at River's infectious laugh. "I haven't heard you speak these languages before."

"You were away at school. And then I was away. No time to listen. I like languages. I like what they say between their words." River deposited the plate gingerly on the counter beside the sink. It was Kaylee's turn to do the dishes. "Je souhaite que je pourrais me rappeler tous ce que j'ai perdus, tous ce que j'ai voulus pour être."

"Flawless accent there," Kaylee said, impressed. She'd heard Inara speak French once. It was one of the Romantic languages, Inara had said. Spanich, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian were, too, but Inara had learned French and Italian only. It tended to impress some of the higher ups that she knew these languages; everyone knew how to swear in Chinese.

"Merci beaucoup," River said, bowing deeply. Then she gave a curtsey before running out on the tips of her bare toes.

"I wish I'd learned a language," Kaylee murmured.

"I actually know French," Simon murmured, looking up. He helped Kaylee clear the dinner plates from the table, acutely uncomfortable under her amazed gaze. "I learned it a long time ago, but I think I remember enough that I could probably teach you."

"Really? Shiny!" Kaylee grinned at Simon and impulsively hugged him. "That would be fun, don'tcha think? Xièxie!"

Flustered, Simon only nodded. He seemed transfixed by her smile. "Yeah. I'll look for some lessons in my workpad. We could start tomorrow if you like."

Kaylee waved him off, then began washing the dishes. Simon wandered back to his room, where River was coloring with pencils. "Why did I do that, mei mei?"

"You like her. You like her like her."

Simon glared at River. "You're a seventeen year old genius. Why are you talking as if you're six years old?"

"You understand that best," River said simply, not looking up. She shaded the face she was drawing, then looked up at Simon. "You're kinda dumb sometimes."

Simon smiled, then sat down next to her. "Well, we can't all be scary geniuses like you." He picked up the drawing River was working on. It was Kaylee at the dinner table, holding her chopsticks in hand. "This is really good."

"For you. Until you have the real thing."

Simon flushed. "Mei mei..."

"Well, if you're so impatient, just say something. She likes you."

"I know. That's the problem. What do I have to offer her? What could she possibly see in me?"

River looked up at Simon, that half grin on her face. "Your stitches are neat. You smile at her and it makes her all wobbly inside. And you make everything okay when you can. You try and try and try, and you never give up. Even on me. And you make her smile."

Simon swept her up in a hug. "You always did know what to say," he said, grinning. "Thanks."

"Now I'll start on another one. Temporal influences passed, and now it won't be the same drawing I was working on." She handed the sketch over to Simon. "You keep it, it feels like you now, not like me anymore."

He pinned it proudly on his wall. "There. It looks good right here."

River huffed gently and then took her pencil to the next piece of blank paper. She could be a mouse, creeping across the floors, knowing all the nooks and crannies of the ship. She could hear the thrumming of the engines, the quiet heartbeats of the crew. She could feel their thoughts, soft and warm, sleepy thoughts, waiting for dreamtime.

River always seemed to be waiting for dreamtime to end.

***

 

Kaylee found Harristown easily enough on Kashmir. The mining town was just outside the dock city, and Mal let her play mail carrier alone. Simon and River stepped down in the dock city, and went off in search of things to buy. River didn't like the boots she had, or the ill-fitting dresses that were randomly picked up for her. She liked dark, dramatic colors. They made her stand out, and didn't look anything like the pale blue of the Academy. She didn't like anything that might remind her of the Academy, and Simon didn't mind taking her shopping.

Mal, Zoe and Jayne spent some time in the local bar, attempting to pick up other work. Wash actually locked up the ship after a bit and stepped out to spend time with River and Simon. He liked the girl, and they seemed to share a wacky sense of humor. "The wind will blow us back home," River had said serenely when Mal reminded them not to stray too far. Mal had rolled his eyes and ducked after Jayne into the bar.

Partway through the shopping spree, River stood stock still. "Trouble. He likes her too much, the lady lied to her."

"River?" Wash asked, confused. He looked at Simon, who was staring at River with a troubled look on his face. "Translate to English, I don't speak psychic."

Wash started when River touched his arm. "Kaylee's in trouble," River murmured clearly. Her eyes were wide and almost fearful.

Simon bolted for the door. River and Wash followed suit, but they quickly lost sight of him. Wash turned to River with a worried look. "Aiya, women wanle," Wash murmured. River nodded, then suddenly grabbed his hand. "What?"

"They're coming."

Wash looked around, and saw the others leaving the bar, sure enough. They walked over, and he told them what River had said. "Damn fool doc, not figgering the crazy loon could say where little Kaylee is," Jayne muttered.

River shook her head. "Not when she sleeps. Her dreams are too soft and black."

Mal looked concerned. "You're saying they're taking her to the black?"

River shook her head again. "Her thoughts are gone. I don't feel them flutter and fly."

"Must've knocked her out, sir," Zoe murmured. She looked around the sleepy town. "Don't suppose we'd find out who she was supposed to deliver that letter to?"

"Worth a shot. At least we'd find Simon," Mal said. "We'll split up. Zoe and me, we'll go that way," he said, pointing to his right. "Jayne, you go with Wash and River. Go that way, we'll cover more ground," Mal added, pointing to his left. "Call on the comm if you see something that don't add up."

They split up, each going in a different direction. Zoe and Mal found Simon soon enough, knocked out on the ground behind a building at the edge of town.

The others didn't find anything at all.

***

 

Stars were yellow and red and white on black. Stars always seemed real friendly in the black, if only because most of 'em held terraformed worlds and new friends to make.

Kaylee wasn't liking her time on Kashmir much anymore.

Her vision was full of stars. Etoile, her memory whispered to her in Simon's voice. He had taught her numbers and some words of things, so she was counting chopsticks and books and stars and chairs and tables. They had laughed, working on her pronunciation, making sure she had it as close to perfect as she could get it. They had even tried working on spelling, though French didn't spell straight like English did, and Kaylee couldn't spell too great in it yet. Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix... She could see the letters in Simon's straight script, her own looping letters too girlish next to his.

Someone had hit her on the back of the head. Sadly enough, Kaylee knew how that one worked. It hadn't been in such a long time, though, not since she'd left Pa's farm, really. She'd been real good, working on machines and bits and pieces of things, and of course making Serenity fly on spit and polish. It worked, bypassing things here and there; Serenity was a tinkerer's dream boat to fly on. Kaylee was always busy, and there was so much of it that she loved. It wasn't a job, it was a love. Just another of Kaylee's many loves, along with strawberries, dark chocolate, frilly dresses, pink and Simon.

Simon. He would know what it was called when your head was feeling awful fuzzy and all you saw were stars. He would know why stars were red and yellow and white. Simon knew all sorts of stuff, could be stiff and proper, but he never made her feel stupid for not knowing book learning. She wasn't stupid, but she wasn't smart like he was. Her knowledge was simpler, more concrete, more piecemeal. But it worked, and she had a place.

Kaylee wasn't stupid, she knew Simon was feeling lost and lonely out in the black. It wasn't for everybody, though he seemed to be getting better at being in it. He was a fancy doctor, a trauma surgeon at one of the biggest and best hospitals in the Core. He could've been a director one day, with fancy society ladies on his arm. But he had given it all up for River, and while he certainly said it was worth it, Kaylee couldn't help but wonder if a small part of him missed it still. The Core was a big place, and he had been a big fish. Now he was in a tiny little pond with tiny little people, and she wondered if it stung.

Her head hurt. It was almost an effort to think, but she kept at it. Sooner or later, she'd have her eyes wide open and all, and see what happened. Right now, her eyes felt gritty and swollen shut, and she knew she was on a mule riding somewhere far out of Harristown. It had hardly been a town, with dirt roads and a few sorry-looking board buildings. Maybe it had once been pretty nice looking, but it looked as though hard times had hit and stayed. Kaylee could sympathize, having seen too many towns like it in her life. The one she had grown up in was only marginally better, but the Fryes had always kept themselves afloat. They weren't afraid of hard work, and they knew that hard work usually got you something good.

There was probably just a misunderstanding here. She probably didn't introduce herself properly to the people, and they didn't know she was delivering a letter. When they got to wherever they were going, Kaylee could explain it better.

Hopefully, the situation wouldn't seem so bad then.

***

 

"Zhe shi shenme lan dongxi?" Simon hissed. He hadn't enjoyed being told that not only was Kaylee missing, but that he had been attacked trying to find her. And worse yet, he didn't remember any of it. Jayne was teasing him mercilessly, but he couldn't remember anything.

And Kaylee was still missing.

Simon tried to push himself up to a sitting position, but his head swam and his vision grayed out at the edges. With a groan, he let himself collapse back onto the stretcher. "How long was I out, then? How long has she been gone?"

"Near as we can figure, close to two, three hours," Mal said from his perch along the cabinets. "So far, Zoe is still asking the townfolk about that letter Kaylee had to deliver. Did she say anything about it?"

"Just... Some old lady asked her to deliver it to her son."

Mal seemed thoughtful for a moment. "Now little River said something before you took off, didn't she? She knew Kaylee was gone when it happened."

Simon tried to think back. His memories felt muddy, and it seemed as though slogging through the mess was tiring him. "You'll have to ask her," Simon muttered after a while. "I can't seem to remember what she said. The lady lied, something like that."

Mal nodded, then pushed himself off of the cabinet. "I think I will. She's pacing the cargo bay. You rest up. We'll find her. You can't go far on this dustball without transportation."

Simon could feel himself falling back into unconsciousness. There was something about that comment that struck him wrong, but he couldn't quite place it just yet. His head hurt, and it felt as though it were wrapped in batting.

Mal left the tiny infirmary and headed to the cargo bay. Sure enough, River was still pacing, stomping about in the bulky combat boots. Her hands were twisted together, nervously. She was staring at the floor, waiting for Zoe and Jayne to return from their search. "You got an inkling on where Kaylee might be?"

River looked up, tears shimmering in her eyes. "He liked the look of her too much, I said. And she lied to her, it wasn't just a letter."

"Do you know where she is?"

"In the dark now, deep in the tunnels, left right left right, tunneling down in the dark." River grasped her temples as she shook her head. "I can't hear her, can't feel it, I lost it, I lost it."

This was one of River's better days, too. Mal hated to think how this could have been if it were one of her bad days, when even the thinnest thread of conversation was too much for her. "Are there tunnels 'round these parts?"

"Dust. It's black, can't breathe, arms are black with dust."

"Mining someplace?" Mal pressed, insistent.

"Can't breathe, can't see. Stars, red and white and yellow on black, all over, stars everything, everywhere. Can't breathe, sharp, too sharp, can't follow it down."

Mal changed his mind; this swiftly was becoming one of her bad days. "All right. I'll go off and join Zoe and Jayne. You stay here, if Kaylee gets loose and comes back. We won't take off without her, all right?"

River nodded miserably as Mal strode down the gangplank. She watched him with overlarge eyes that brimmed with tears. Something didn't feel right; it wasn't an ordinary kidnapping. But she couldn't place what was different just yet. River couldn't feel Kaylee's thoughts, couldn't feel the minds of the townspeople. Something didn't make sense. If she could only make her thoughts keep still, if she could only find the feelings, River knew she could figure it all out. She just needed a little more data to make the calculations...

***

 

Jayne spat on the ground, not liking the answer he had just received. Which was really just as well, since he hadn't had a fight in weeks, and Mona was just itching to get involved in a good old fashioned dogfight. She'd only been used once after she'd been christened with the name, and that was quite a bit ago.

"Say it again, I got bullets with your name on 'em."

"Good. I could use 'em. Don't like it here much anyhow."

The dusty-faced individual in front of him didn't seem overly concerned by Jayne's behavior. He had apparently seen worse; this worried Jayne, truth be told. It meant that they had stumbled across something much bigger than themselves, and Mona was too small a gun for the job. Vera-sized problems were not solved with a Mona.

"Let's try this again, nuòfu," Jayne said through grit teeth. This time he jabbed Mona into the man's ribs hard enough to make him grunt. "A girl with way too much smile on was deliverin' a letter to some wan ba dan, and now is gone. That girl was mine, and I want 'er back. Dong ma?"

"Can't have 'er back, I tole ya." The man's eyes shone with something that looked a little too crazy for comfort. It wasn't quite as bad as River on a bad day, but it was getting clsoe. "It's all done right up, ain't no one come back from it."

Oh. That was new. "Really?" Jayne pressed harder with the tip of Mona's nose. She was solid steel, so that had to have hurt. "And where is it?"

Beneath his dirt, the other man paled. His eyes shone with fear now, not crazy. Jayne preferred fear; you could work with a man that was afraid of something. "No. Not 'less you really got those bullets for me."

"I could spare ya one," Jayne said, sounding a touch more obliging. Whatever this man was afraid of, he apparently had no loyalty to it. "If ya talk, that is."

"The factory," he gasped.

"That don't do me no good," Jayne snapped, irritable. He leaned in on Mona, got himself another good grunt for his effort.

"They all die there, horrible-like."

"Now how is that? Nothing horrible about a bullet in the gut."

The man shook his head fiercely. "He's got a doc on board, wicked man."

"A doctor bein' wicked. Now somehow I don't think that's true."

"It is.... You don't understand. The doc ain't right in the head. Never was when he touched down on this rock."

"So?"

"Doc's workin' 'er up."

Jayne shook the other man's shoulder roughly. "Fer what?"

"Ain't no girls here, he took 'em all. And they all killed 'emselves proper soon after. We had to bury 'em, had to dig down deep and look the other way."

"The doc do that?" Jayne scratched his temple with Mona's barrel. The man in front of him didn't seem to even notice that he could have escaped.

The man shook his head desperately. "No.... Doc ain't nothing but sick. He don't act right."

"And this other him you're talking 'bout?"

"But he got that girl, the one with the letter. Him. His old lady sends 'em once or twice, whatever looks like it's heading this way."

"So he likes to beat on 'em?" He'd heard of such a thing before, but couldn't imagine someone hitting a whore so badly they would rather kill themselves rather than hold a hand out for more money. Then again, he was brought up right. You didn't disrespect women, even whores. His Pappy was strict on that from the beginning. Whores had a tough enough time of it as it was, and they didn't need any more disrespect. They were women, too.

The man shook his head. "The girls here before, that's used to be done, that's normal. But we don' know what's up there. Nobody goes in the factory that don't end up dead."

Jayne couldn't imagine Kaylee dead. She was too happy for that, too bouncy. Rather like his real life little sister, truth be told, and Jayne hadn't liked it when his real life little sister decided to up and get herself married to some hundan that didn't deserve her. "And you? Why you need a bullet in the brain so bad?"

"I've seen it. I've seen the factory. It's hot out here, it's tolerable. But it's cold in there, all cold and white. Ain't nobody come out o' there whole in the head, catch me? And if they know I told, I'll head there too."

"So a bullet in the pan is better?"

The man nodded fiercely. "The mines ain't right. It's doin' something to us, I know it. And I feel like I can't take it no more."

"In that case, since you're so helpful-like, I think I'll even be merciful today." Jayne smiled at the man, who had stopped shaking. "Yessiree, I do think I will."

"Make it look like I ain't tole ya nothing," the man pleaded. "The dead don't always stay dead 'round these parts."

Jayne paused for a moment. "What?"

The man nodded. "Ain't natural. Ain't right. That doc up there, he ain't right, and I don' wan' go like them he works on."

"Then you best start running," Jayne said softly. "I give you two seconds and I cut you down."

The man nodded, a desperate look on his face. He started running, and Jayne turned around shot him in the back of the head at once. "Two," he muttered under his breath. He walked over to the dusty man and kicked him over, onto his back. There was a surprised look on his face. There, that would do him all right.

Zoe came running, her gun drawn. "What happened?"

"Thought he could fake me and run," Jayne muttered. He eyed Zoe. "I guess we gotta try again later, when they ain't prepared."

She looked around the street, eyes squinting past the sun's glare. No one was around, but she had the feeling she was being watched. She nodded and put her gun down. "Fine. We'll try again."

They both felt eyes on their backs as they left.

***

 

Cold and white. Thrumming machine, heartbeat. Breaths. Someone stroking her hair, soft and gentle. Breathing too loud. Her arm ached, and she didn't understand. Her heart began to pound, she felt drugged. Someone was here, and she didn't want them to be. Something was happening to her, and she didn't like it one bit.

"There now. It'll be all over soon. Just had to fix things, make it right," the voice next to her said. It felt oily somehow. It touched her and rolled across her mind and she couldn't open her eyes and she could feel the panic begin to build.

Engine that was not engine. Something cold and white just past eyes that refused to open. Her eyelashes made a screen, and she could see white and lights beyond it. It seemed almost like a surreal doctor's room, but nothing like Serenity.

Something cold at her arm, then a sharp sting like a needle. Her fuzziness descended.

Cold and white. And dark.

***

 

River cried out, feeling herself fall. The floor of the cargo bay was cold, and it shocked her out of the rest of the dream. If she was dreaming. She didn't know anymore; Simon told her that she had psychotic symptoms, that it looked as though she had a schizophrenic break even though they both knew better. But it helped to have him name things, it helped to have something to look up in the archives on his computer. It helped to have something to look for when she saw drop boxes as they passed. Psychosis. Out of touch with reality. Lack of reality testing. Delusions, thought disorders. Hallucinations, flights of ideas, loosening of associations. Not knowing where anything ended and something else began.

It was just words. Words and words and just words again.

"River!"

Simon. He would be confused. He might think she was trying to hurt herself. He would quote statistics; too many schizophrenics committed suicide. Too many had concordant and comorbid illness. He would be worried about her, she would feel guilty even though she knew it wasn't her fault she couldn't think or communicate properly. It wasn't right, but it wouldn't change things. She had never felt this way before the Academy, but now this was all she could recall.

"Mei mei?"

He was cradling her now, his crazy schizophrenic sister. He had given up a world for her, and she didn't think she was even worth it.

"She's cold," River whispered. She felt the remnants of Kaylee's mind as they slid over hers. It was calmer that way, brighter. Kaylee always lived and loved in a simple way, all of herself given at once. It was calming to know this. "He comes and takes your life, this life begs a lot."

Simon's hands tightened on her arms. River didn't mind; that was feeling. "What has he done to her? Has he hurt her?"

"I don't care where it's been before," River said in a voice not her own. Her thoughts swam with it, taking in the feel of the other mind. It was almost strange like hers. "Make the best of it, just a little bit. That's what feeling is. This is the factory. I can make what I want."

Jayne and Zoe were back. Their thoughts slid in and added to the mix. They were radioing for the captain. Little words sliding around, little words from a little man and covered in dirt. Simon was talking, though River had already lost the thread of that aspect of reality. She had to reverse her brain, backtrack and follow back and pick up another lost thread. "Doing it, sir," River was saying, not even aware of what she was saying. "Just following the protocol."

Sounds reached River through the haze, and it sounded like someone hitting the roof. Simon. He let loose his heart once before, had it rent to shreds. He had picked up the pieces, set his hopes all on her. He was afraid to love again, though he already had. He only just realized it.

"Pick up your heart, Simon," River whispered into his chest. "She's waiting for you."

Chapter Text

When Kaylee woke, she found herself in the infirmary next to Jayne. Jayne was wide awake and yelling at Simon, which had woken her up. Simon was very still, stitching together the rest of a bullet's graze wound on Jayne's arm. He was doing a great job of ignoring Jayne, and Kaylee grinned at them. Jayne looked up mid-rant and cut himself off.

"There you go. Now you can live to fight and shoot another day," Simon said dryly. He snipped the thread with his pair of suture scissors. "Less than sterile conditions, but you'll live."

"I love it when you talk dirty," Kaylee teased, trying to prop herself up on the stretcher.

Simon dropped both needle and suture scissors onto the nursing tray next to Jayne and helped. "Kaylee! How are you feeling?"

"A little dizzy and tired. What happened?"

"That qingwa cào de liúmáng you delivered the letter to kidnapped you," Simon said.

"Didn't know you had it in you, Doc," Jayne muttered, impressed despite himself.

"Some situations call for that kind of language," Simon said, shrugging. "But I've done a physical, and I've checked whatever labs I was able to analyze here."

Kaylee looked around the infirmary. "I don't remember that doohickey thingie being over there before." She pointed and Simon followed her finger. "It's all new-looking."

"Well, I figured they didn't need it..." Simon said, nearly stammering. "The captain asked me to take a look around and see if there were things there that we might need."

Kayle stretched and yawned. "I'm feelin' mostly okay. So how'd you get me back?"

"Well, Jayne here managed to find some information. So they went into the place where you were being held and got you back out. They won't bother you anymore," Simon said, stroking Kaylee's hair. When he saw himself doing it, he straightened up abruptly.

"I dunno, Doc. When the crazy Doc went batshit and started actin' up worse than that moonbrain sister of yours, you did pretty good yourself," Jayne said. He had to be honest on that one; the gun the other doctor had been holding had originally been aimed for Jayne's head. He watched Simon shrug off the praise, amused at the reaction. "It were a good dogfight," Jayne said, looking over at Kaylee. "Over a bit too soon, but my new gun got off some good shots."

"You rest up," Simon said, when it looked as though Kaylee was about to push herself off of the stretcher. "It's just past lunchtime. I'll come get you for dinner. Just rest until then."

"But all I've been doin' is restin'! They had me drugged up and knocked out!"

"It's not the same as real sleep. And that'll make you feel much better." Simon squeezed her hand encouragingly, and it took the fight out of Kaylee. She pouted at him playfully, but let him tuck her in. She was a little tired anyway.

Jayne was shaking his head on the way out of the infirmary. Kaylee ignored him and closed her eyes to sleep. No stars there anymore, and Kaylee found it comforting.

***

 

Around the dinner table, the tale of the rescue was told. Jayne told everyone what he had discovered from the dusty little man in the dusty little town. It had been a bit back and forth on how the rescue would go down, but there was never a question of rescue. Between River feeling Kaylee's mind and the other doctor's mind, they soon had a good idea of what the layout was in the factory. It was cold and white, very austere and sterile. Mal, Zoe and Jayne and led the way into the factory, guns blazing and shooting anything that moved to shoot them back. Simon had carried the rear, a pistol in his right hand and his doctor's bag in the other. Kaylee had been held in a room toward the back, an IV line dripping fluids and a steady dose of sedative. The other doctor had been running a series of blood tests, and a rather large man with tiny watery eyes was sitting next to Kaylee, patting her head fondly.

Kaylee playfully shuddered at this point in the story, laughing along with everyone else. "He did not! Like I'm a puppy or somethin'?"

Simon nodded earnestly. "And then that other doctor aimed his gun at Jayne's head."

"Oh no!" Kaylee breathed. "How'd you duck it?"

"Our doc here shot him, right full in the chest," Jayne said, nodding at Simon. "Turned out he's a steady shot. Then he unhooked you and we got you back here."

Kaylee whistled in appreciation. "I owe everybody a thank you cake!"

Mal laughed and shook his head. "You keep my boat in the air and I'd say we're square."

Everyone laughed as Mal and Kaylee shook on it. As if she would allow anything different. She leaned back in her chair and looked up through the ceiling to the trailing stars above. "You know, I was out of it most of the time, but it's good to be back on the boat."

River leaned over as Simon opened his mouth to speak and hugged Kaylee tightly. "He would have been lonely without his heart."

Kaylee looked down with a grin, missing Simon's expression as he looked away. Another opportunity missed, another lost chance to say something. He was used to it by now, but it didn't mean he liked it.

***

 

Life seemed to settle back toward center. Kaylee noticed that everyone seemed a little more protective of her, but that actually felt nice. It was almost like the time Papa Frye realized his little Kaylee was starting to turn heads in town, even when covered in engine grease. Of course, Papa Frye was a practical man. Kaylee had always been more than a little headstrong growing up, and didn't always know when she'd overstepped herself until she'd gone and done it. So Papa Frye had simply taken her aside and explained the whole business about sex and birthing babies, and told her that she was on no account to go around birthing babies until she had a ring on her finger and was absolutely certain she was ready for them. It was hard enough squeezing into tight spaces full of engine, and it would be harder still when she had a full belly in front of her.

Kaylee smiled wistfully as she lay in her hammock. She was writing a letter back home. She hadn't written in a bit, but that was fine. Her family knew how much she loved it in the black, and knew that a ship didn't always dock in planetside. She always had tales to tell once they got a letter packet, and their baby girl was always doing well. Some coin tossed their way once in a while helped things along nicely, and was always a good bonus to have.

"Kaylee?"

Kaylee perked up at the sound of Simon's voice. "I'm over in here."

He appeared at the door of the engine room, his computer in hand. "I was wondering if you still wanted to work on French lessons," he said, lifting up the computer. "I could come back some other time if you're busy."

"Oh no, Simon. I ain't busy. Just writin' home, is all. I can do that later. Maybe pass along some French to them. I'm getting all fancy out in the black." Kaylee effortlessly dropped out of her hammock and then caught the frame of the engine room. "Ooh. All woozy there for a second."

He had rushed forward to steady her. "You just got up too quickly, the blood just hasn't caught up to your brain. It's called orthostatic hypotension. You feel dizzy when it happens."

She smiled up at him. "Now look at that! A fancy name for everything!"

"I heard once that when you graduate medical school, you know over ten thousand new words, almost like it's another language."

"It sure sounds that way sometimes," Kaylee said with a grin. She let Simon help her sit down on the floor, and the computer was laid out in front of them. "So what are we working on today? More counting? Or new words?"

"Some new words, some phrases. Maybe verb conjugation."

"Ooh. That sounds naughty." Kaylee giggled as Simon grew a little red in the face.

"It's just how we make verbs agree with what we're talking about. Take talk, for example. From the verb 'to talk,' we get I talk, you talk, he or she talks, we talk, they talk."

"That's an awful lot of talkin', Simon," Kaylee joked. "And it sounds the same."

"In French, a lot of it sounds the same, too. The words are spelled differently, though, and there's two different you's. There's a formal you and an informal you. And it's a terrible insult to use the wrong one too soon."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you use the formal you for anyone you just meet, anyone who is higher ranking and should get great respect. You have to ask if you're close enough to use the informal you. That's just between family and friends."

"Like us."

Simon swallowed almost painfully. "Yes. Like us."

"Mmm... I think I get it." Kaylee looked up and to the side as she was thinking. "So, anytime someone new comes on board, I gotta use the formal you. 'Cause they're a stranger. Or if I was talking to someone like Book, who should get more respect and all."

"Right."

Kaylee turned to Simon with a lopsided grin. "Very formal, those French were. Couldn't everybody be friends?"

Simon tried to smile back, but it came out almost like a grimace of pain. "It all depended on how close you were. Not everyone could be friends."

"But we are."

"Yeah," Simon said, his throat painfully tight. Friends. That was all she saw him as.

"So you were saying somethin' 'bout conjugating?" Kaylee asked teasingly. Her grin was infectious, and Simon swallowed down his pain to smile at her.

"Sure. There's three kinds of verbs. -ER, -IR and -RE verbs. And there's all sorts of irregular verbs that break the rules, but why don't we start with regular verbs first."

"There's rules?"

"Well, sure. You have to have rules. That way you can figure out how to conjugate a new verb you've never seen before. You apply the rules to it." Simon looked down at his computer pad and pulled up the lesson for -ER verbs that he had once taken as a child.

Aimer, to love.

"Aw, that's a good one to know," Kaylee said, looking over his shoulder. "I'd like to know that one." He could hear the smile in her voice.

"Sure," Simon said, his voice tight and almost cracking. He cleared his throat and pulled up the lesson on his computer.

"Je t'aime," Simon murmured, pointing to the first person singular conjugation.

"Silly, that's not what it says," Kaylee laughed, pushing on Simon's arm slightly. "I know how to pronounce this enough to know there's no T in it."

Simon turned to Kaylee. "It's a sentence. Je t'aime. I love you."

Her eyes widened in surprise. "Simon?"

"I..." Simon swallowed nervously. He was going to fuck it up, he knew it. But there was no going back now. "I love you, Kaylee." He reached up and touched her cheek gently, almost reverently, and it made her smile. "I don't know how I ever lived without you."

"You're the most shuai boy I ever knew," Kaylee murmured.

Simon leaned in to kiss her. Kaylee resisted the urge to giggle, because he looked so worried and it had certainly taken him long enough already.

It felt like static when he kissed her. His lips were a little dry and cracked, but no more than hers were. It was soft and fragile, full of insecurity and wonder. He pulled back after a moment, searching her eyes. Kaylee smiled at him. "It's about time," Kaylee teased, and settled in for another kiss. This one was better, less unsure and more tongue and lip and teeth.

Mmm, that boy could kiss, Kaylee thought dreamily when their second kiss ended. She gave him a hazy grin, and he returned hers with a goofy one. "Worth waiting for," she murmured.

He stroked her cheek gently, tracing her cheekbone beneath his thumb. "I've waited so long... I never was sure if it would be okay."

"More 'n okay, Simon," Kaylee grinned. "And there's more 'n that. Though kissin's nice."

His thumb dropped down to her lips, and he watched them move as she spoke. "I think I was always afraid it wasn't real. I don't have much anymore, certainly nothing that's real for me. I didn't want this to be something else that got away from me."

Kaylee cradled his face in her hands. "Simon, I ain't goin' nowhere. Serenity's my baby, mine to fix up an' fly. And I got you, don't I?" Simon grinned at her in giddy relief. "And it's all I need. I got everything I want right here."

Simon tightened his hand around hers, pulling it away from his face. He kissed her rough knuckles reverently, and looked up into her eyes. "I don't have much to offer you, Kaylee. But anything I do have, I'll give."

"I just need you, Simon. Everything else will take care of itself."

"You think so?"

"I know so. The 'verse can be a nice place if you let it."

He smiled at her gently. "It hasn't been nice to me for a long time."

"Let me show you," Kaylee murmured, squeezing his hand. "It ain't the same as the Core, but there's plenty of other nice places."

"I'm finding that out more and more every day."

They kissed again, hands tangled together, computer forgotten between them.

***

 

Kaylee was getting dizzy a lot, and it was more annoying than anything else. She and Simon would practice some French, but more often than not they would just kiss. It was rather nice, kissing and not worrying about something going wrong. Simon was too proper for anything to go wrong, and he had barely even tried to take advantage of the situation. She had tried pushing Simon onto his back on the engine room floor, but he still didn't take the hint.

At least he was a good kisser. Boy, he was plenty good at it. And he knew he was driving her wild, he was just delaying the obvious conclusion. It was kinda fun, actually. It was sweet. She hadn't been courted in a bit, and with nowhere to go on the ship, he was trying to create dates without going anywhere.

After yet another wave of dizziness, Kaylee sighed and sat herself down. She waited for it to pass, a good two minutes she could've used to contort herself around a part of the engine casing. She yawned and stretched, feeling her belly roil up in protest. She hadn't been eating much in the past two days, since the scent of burned protein mash didn't do anything but turn her stomach. Poor Simon might've been a good doctor, but he wasn't much of a cook. River had laughed at him and said something about houses and horses and falling down. It didn't make much sense, but the expression on his face had been priceless.

Kaylee slowly pushed herself to a standing position and looked over the engine casing again. It was a mite stressed, but nothing that would bust right away. If it were cracked, that would be a different story. She climbed up on a ledge and peered over the top of the casing, eyes traveling over the dull spots. It wasn't cracked yet, but it would be soon enough. She'd have to keep an eye out for a new casing piece. Of course, the other side might be close to cracking, too. Kaylee jumped down from the ledge, a good foot from the floor, and her vision swam with gray for a moment before settling back down into color.

"Well, that ain't right," she murmured to herself. It was probably time to get Simon to examine something other than her tonsils for a bit.

Kaylee took a quick look at the other side of the engine casing and didn't notice any signs of possible cracks. That helped a bit, though she wasn't about to climb up on top if it would only send her into a tailspin again. It didn't make much sense, though. She'd already gotten a clean bill of health from Simon three weeks ago. She couldn't think of anything that would simmer that long before making someone sick, and Simon himself had said that it appeared the nasty doctor man in Harristown was giving her a full physical. Simon had double checked a lot of the tests the doctor had done, and it basically had said that Kaylee was fit as a fiddle.

So why the dizziness?

Kaylee wiped her hands on her coveralls and headed down to the infirmary. River was there, rearranging all of the glass bottles into alphabetical order. It looked as though she had already rearranged every syringe in the containers by size and volume. "Whatcha doin'?" Kaylee asked with a grin.

"Helping Simon clean. He takes such looking after, he makes such a mess. He never thinks of order when he's in a rush," River said, looking up. She was grinning at Kaylee as she held one of the bottles. It looked as though she were in one of her better moods.

"I was wondering where he was. I wasn't feeling so good."

"You wanted Simon to kiss it and make it better?" River asked, placing the bottles down on the counter. She then turned and lined them up neatly.

"Well, I've been real dizzy lately, I figured I might be comin' down with something. Better not to let anyone else catch it."

River only smiled as she turned around to face Kaylee again. She was wearing one of those overlarge sweaters over a tiny babydoll dress, and she seemed so much younger than her age. She rushed up to Kaylee in a moment and hugged her tight, unmindful of the grease working its way into her sweater. "And when I'm an auntie, I can share the secrets of the universe."

Kaylee only laughed, and patted River's head fondly. "Not for a bit yet, River. Simon's only just started takin' me places."

River looked up with large eyes and a grin to match. "The heavens are wonderful. They glitter with sprinkled stars. They whisper their secrets before they go to sleep. I can hear them when I close my eyes."

"Do they say nice things?"

River's face darkened. "Not always."

Kaylee pushed the hair out of River's eyes. "Well, don't dwell on the bad. There's good out there, isn't there? There's got to be."

"Sometimes," River said in a small voice. "Those whispers are softer."

"Well, just try harder for the nice parts." Kaylee gave River a swift hug. "Know where Simon is?"

"Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair," River replied, disentangling herself from Kaylee's embrace. "I'll show you."

Kaylee let herself be tugged by the hand toward the kitchen, where Simon was making a cup of green tea. He turned around, startled at the sound of boots clanging up the stairs.

"Hey there, Simon," Kaylee said, grinning. "River said you were goin' to the fair."

Simon looked at River, confused for a moment. He noticed her smile and decided it wasn't worth it to ask what she had meant. "If tea makes a fair, I guess so."

"Think I can have some?" Kaylee asked.

"Sure," Simon said easily. "River?"

"I only brought the princess," River said. "I can't dance in the galley."

Simon blinked as River bounded out of the doorway, back in the direction she came from. "Should I be afraid that I think that almost made sense?"

Kaylee laughed. "Naw... She made me a princess in the bargain."

"I can live with that." Simon pulled her in for a kiss, which made her giggle. "So what brings you here, other than tea?"

"I've been awful dizzy lately."

Simon frowned and looked at Kaylee. "Any other symptoms?"

"Nope. I'm feelin' fine, and you said I was fit when I got back shipside. I don't know what it could be."

"When did it start?"

"Later last week, I think."

Simon frowned. "Dizziness is pretty nonspecific. I might want to run some tests..."

"Oh, you ran plenty enough tests when I got back three weeks ago. I was just wondering if I caught something that might've snuck up on me. Doesn't do me any good to be sniffling all day if I need to fix things. The engine casing looks like it might need replacing."

Simon felt her forehead. "No fever." He looked at her carefully. "You sure nothing's wrong?"

"Other than the fact we haven't gotten past kissing?" Kaylee teased.

Simon flushed. "I just... I don't like rushing things before their time."

Kaylee leaned in and kissed Simon in response. "You think too much," she murmured. "I think I'll run over to my bunk and get washed up." She pulled back and grinned at Simon. "I'd do it here, but I ain't wearing nothing under this outfit here."

Eyes wide, Simon watched as Kaylee sauntered out of the kitchen. He couldn't breathe.

Tea forgotten, Simon raced after her.

He caught up with her just outside her bunk. She was laughing and giggling all the while, then kicked her door open and beckoned for Simon to follow. "Qingjin," she said with a laugh, beginning to climb down her steps.

Oh hell. How could he say no?

Simon followed her down, eyes shut. His stomach was aflutter with nerves. Oh, this wasn't new, but it was at the same time. This was Kaylee, this was different. This was something that was important, something special. He couldn't afford to screw it up.

She locked the door and pressed herself against him. Her zipper and his buttons pressed into his skin, and he could feel the curves of her body against his. Simon cradled her close, feeling the play of her muscles through the jumpsuit. No lines or seams met his fingers, so Kaylee really didn't have a shirt on under it. The thought went straight to his gut, twisting in with his nerves. He kissed her jaw, then nipped on her earlobe with his teeth. "Nĭ ài wŏ ma?" he murmured.

"Wŏ ài nĭ," Kaylee whispered into his ear. "Always."

Simon pulled down the zipper and pushed the coveralls off of her shoulders. Kaylee hit the lock on the door to her bunk, and the sound reverberated through the room. No going back, though Simon couldn't ever think of why he would want to. She was lush and warm, smelling of engines and soap and Kaylee. He showered the tops of her full breasts with kissed, his fingers skimming the skin of her back. He was reverent, respectful, laving her breasts with his tongue before beginning to suck on them. She let out a small cry, and ran her fingers through his hair.

Yes, he thought. This is what I was supposed to do with my life.

Simon pulled the coveralls the rest of the way down, over her hips, down to the floor. As she stepped out of them, Simon moved to kiss his way down her belly. She wore cute blue panties with blue lace trim. He could smell her, sharp and feminine. Wanting him. Him, awkward and backward as he could be, stuffy and proper and rigid as he could be. He was special, he was someone important here. He was someone that could be loved, someone that could be worthy of it without having to save a life.

"Si-mon," Kaylee whispered, her voice fracturing across his name. Her hands were tangled up in his hair, brushing over the tops of his ears. The touch burned, shot straight down.

He was much too clothed for this.

He let her unbutton his buttons. He didn't flinch when one of them popped off and flew in an unknown direction. He let her touch his chest, trace the muscle he had developed after being on board with nothing to do but work away his worries late at night. They kissed, tongues dueling as her hands dipped down to his waist, working off his belt. Fine grain leather, a remnant of another life that wasn't real, wasn't important, didn't mean anything anymore. And down went the pants, a quiet zipper parting without protest.

Zippers were wonderful, beautiful things.

He could feel her fingers through the cloth of his boxers. It was a barrier of simple gray cotton, worn almost thin by now. Her fingers were hot, touching him just where he ached most. She tasted like sweet wine, berry-flavored lipgloss swirling over their tongues. Simon was drowning in the taste, the feel of her pressed against him, skin to skin. This was too perfect to be real, but somehow it was, somehow he was good enough to deserve something this good.

Kaylee broke the kiss to return the favor, to trail her tongue down his chest as she hooked her fingers into the waistband of his boxers. Simon groaned as they were dragged down to the floor, as her breath ghosted across the tip of his anxious penis. He could feel his entire body tighten in anticipation, could feel his heart stop when her lips brushed up against the head.

"You're beautiful, you know that?" Kaylee murmured, looking up at him. He looked down, saw his erection just a breath away from her parted lips.

Simon couldn't breathe, couldn't do much more than numbly shake his head. "'M not," he murmured, unable to think. Oh no. Doctors weren't beautiful. They didn't have time to take care of themselves. It was the patient over the doctor, it was their needs first. A doctor didn't have time to eat or sleep properly, not when there were others needing him. He still carried the ghosts of too many sleepless nights on call in the trauma room.

"My shuai boy," Kaylee whispered, smiling at Simon. She didn't miss the fine tremor in his body, the jerk of the erection just in front of her. "Of course you are."

His mind shut down when her lips closed over him, and he could do no more than groan, holding on to the wall for support. She moved her tongue over the head before taking him in deep, rubbing the roof of her mouth across his length. Speech was impossible. There were no such things as syllables. He had no bones.

And then she pulled away, purring, smiling at him. Simon groaned, let her pull him away from their piles of shed clothes. It was shedding a skin, he decided. They shed their roles and all that was left was the very core of them, the center of everything. Simon pushed Kaylee down to her bed, the colored lights above them splattering her skin. His mouth descended over hers, his hand at a breast and the other propping himself up. She was the most beautiful girl in the entire 'verse, and somehow she thought he was worthy of her. He had to have done something good in a past life to have deserved her; it boggled his mind to think that she felt the same way about him, that he was somehow her reward in life.

Simon skimmed his fingers down, reaching the frilly band of her panties. He reached beneath them, feeling the springy curls there, then moved even lower. Kaylee's breath caught, and she arched up against his hand. "Nî hâo mêi," Simon murmured against the skin of her throat. He could feel her pulse against his lips, erratic as his own.

He could feel her wetness against his fingers, and pushed a finger inside. Kaylee nearly leapt off of the bed with a keening cry. Simon dragged his damp finger across her clit, and she mewled softly against his neck. Slow circles, too slow. Hand inside her panties and mouth over her breast and oh, Kaylee was about to explode from it, legs moving restlessly beneath him. More, more, Kaylee wanted to say, too good, oh, almost too much... But words failed her, she couldn't speak, she could hardly even string a coherent thought together.

And then she could feel her body begin to clench. "Simon," she moaned. "Ah... just like that... Oh, I like that..."

He switched from one breast to the other, gasping himself. "Kaylee," he whispered against her skin, his breath hot and making her shiver.

And then her control broke, she was clenching down around his fingers, she was shivering with a hoarse cry. Simon's fingers slowed, then stilled. His breath was hot against her, ragged, yearning, not quite done with her yet. "Simon..." she whispered.

"I love you, bao bei," he whispered, fingers beginning to move again. "I love you."

The world was going to explode. Serenity would be blasted to bits. That was it. Kaylee couldn't care if everything went up in flames; she was on fire already.

"Wo detain, a."

"Kaylee..." Simon whispered, kissing the valley between her breasts. Then he kissed his way down to her belly, licking a trail down. He stopped his ministrations long enough to pull off her panties, dropping little kisses along the inside of her thigh. So thoughtful and methodical even in his seduction, and Kaylee wanted to giggle.

But then his mouth was on her, and she could do no more than gasp. His tongue sought out her aching clit, teasing it, circling it, stroking it. He had a finger inside her, stroking her. The other hand was at her hip, keeping her steady. Kaylee kept her hands at the side of her head, her pillow fisted in them. She couldn't breathe, ah, that attention was too good to think against.

And when she cried out again, legs shaking, Kaylee could have sworn she would pass out from the pleasure. Simon pushed himself inside of her, stretching out over her. She opened her eyes as she sighed with contentment. She traced his lips with her finger as he began to move, slowly but surely. "Simon," she murmured. He looked almost as though he was concentrating on her a little too hard, a little too long. He closed his eyes when she shifted her hips to move against him, and her heart did a silly flip-flop when he bit his lip. Kaylee closed her own eyes and arched up to meet each thrust, her hands running down his back. He felt as good as she had hoped he would, as wonderful as she dreamed he would be.

"I can't... I'm gonna..." Simon gasped.

"I'll catch you," Kaylee gasped. Her eyes snapped open as she felt him jerk against her. Their eyes locked and his breath hitched. She could feel him inside of her, the warm spill of him. She touched his cheek gently, tenderly. She didn't quite come this time, but there was plenty of time for that later. "I'll catch you."

He turned and kissed the inside of her palm, unable to say what he felt. That was all right; she knew already anyway.

***

 

When Kaylee started vomiting in earnest later that week, Simon sat her down in his infirmary immediately. She rolled her eyes at him when he had her lie down as he ran blood tests and took her vital signs. "I've been sick before, Simon. I just don't feel so good."

"You were fine before. And we haven't hit the drop point yet, so you shouldn't have caught anything new." Simon frowned. He knew he was being overprotective and overworried, but he couldn't help it.

"You know, just 'cause you're in my bunk most nights don't mean you should worry so much," Kaylee teased. "Maybe you need a break? It's just about time to hold back a bit anyhow...." Her voice trailed off as she thought. "No, that can't be right." Kaylee pushed herself into a sitting position. "I should've had my courses last week sometime, before we started."

Simon frowned. "What? Are you usually on time?"

"Of course. Didn't think about it, though. I was kinda distracted."

Simon smiled at her blush, then turned back to the analyzer. He punched in another test, and waited for the computer to process it. He stroked her hair gently. "I'll take care of you, bao bei," he murmured.

Simon checked the analyzer after a few minutes. Chemistries were fine, complete blood count was fine. Liver panel was fine, endocrine panel was fine. With one obvious and important exception, everything was within normal limits.

"Kaylee, you're pregnant."

***
***

Chapter Text

Kaylee was crying; this wasn't the way it was supposed to be. This isn't how the story goes, this isn't how it all ends.

But her thoughts spun out of control and things were now someplace complicated. It was wrong, it wasn't right, she couldn't be pregnant with something other than Simon's baby. But he was testing hormone levels against his books, and yes, she had been pregnant ever since they had gotten her off of that rock of a hellhole planet. They had played with her hormones and triggered her body to accept a pregnancy for the head of the factory, but they were already dead so there was no way for her to go back kill them all dead again.

All she seemed to be able to do was cry. When the drop was made, Mal had gone about looking for a new engine casing. He had spent part of his share on it, two new shiny pieces. Kaylee hadn't even been able to look at them without crying. It wasn't right, her mind screamed. It wasn't fair, it shouldn't have happened!

Simon kept staying nearby, though she couldn't understand it. Why would he still care? Why would he still want her? Someone else had messed with her, someone else tainted what should've been good for him.

He stroked her hair as she lay in her hammock, face wet with fresh tears. "It doesn't change anything," he tried to say. Gorram lie, that was. Everything was different now, everything was changed. She was going to be fat and lumpy and it wasn't even his.

Oh god, that was the worst of it, too. It wasn't even Simon's. If it was Simon's baby, she wouldn't be crying so hard. That would've made the getting fat and unable to work so well be okay. It would've been a baby Tam with some Frye mixed in, and her Papa Frye would love it and everyone would be happy. But it was some pisspot's baby, someone she didn't know, someone who took advantage of her kindness to try and make a breeder out of her. It made her want to cry and scream and cry some more.

"It's ours, Kaylee," Simon whispered in her ear. "Don't you see? It doesn't change anything between us. I still love you, and you still love me. This can be our baby, ours alone." He stopped making sense at that point. Kaylee just couldn't listen anymore. The tears kept falling from her eyes, her cheeks were still wet. Simon kissed her on the temple. "I'll be back later, bei bao," he murmured softly.

Time passed, spinning out away from her. Kaylee stopped keeping track. Beeps and boops, nausea and sickness, heart sickness and pain.

"Will you make me an auntie?" River whispered, creeping into the engine room. On a tiny ship like this, there were no secrets. Her bare feet made no noise over the metal floors. Kaylee wondered if her feet were cold, but couldn't bring herself to speak. "You hurt him today, your tears rip up his heart."

Kaylee couldn't move, couldn't speak. Her head hurt.

"I know," River murmured. She picked her way around the engine. "How did you know it would be like this? How did you know it would be this way?" She looked up over the spinning heart of the engine. "You didn't, that's what. You couldn't know."

But River, Kaylee wanted to say. I ain't stupid, either.

River nodded, as though she heard Kaylee's thoughts. Perhaps she was. Kaylee didn't know if it was just easier that way. Her chest hurt.

"Right here," River murmured, coming back into view. Her right hand covered her left breast, palm over her heart. "It hurts here, pain when you breathe, love you think is gone."

Go away, River. I can't do this.

"It shines in you," River insisted. "You are his heart."

Kaylee remembered River saying so before, hadn't understood before. But it didn't matter now, everything was ruined. Everything good and shiny had been thrown away.

"No. No, no, no. Not like that at all, nothing broken down, nothing shy and waiting." River walked up to the hammock. "Don't shy away, don't lose it all, don't let the shine be lost by the riverside." River reached out to stroke Kaylee's hair, ignoring the fact that Kaylee shrank back from her touch. "It's all Simon's now, all of you, all inside you, too. It's all Simon's, even the not-Simon. He'll say so. He'll take everything you give him because you are his heart, and he will fade without you."

Not true, Kaylee wanted to say. He has you to take care of.

"And you," River whispered. "And now you hurt him most of all. I can walk and stand, one day I will fly. But you curl up in the palm of his hand, and he can't help it. He loves. And he doesn't know what to say to make it better, he opens himself to you. He takes you inside his heart, he makes you his heart. He needs such looking after, and you help me with it."

No I don't, not the way he needs, Kaylee thought desperately. I'm broken.

"No, not like me. Never like me." River pulled on a lock of Kaylee's hair. "Come. Not broken, only pulled. Pulled out can still smile again."

Kaylee closed her eyes tight. It was too much today, too much.

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps forth this petty pace from day to day, and all my yesterdays spin back, lost to the sands of time," River murmured, still tugging on that lock of Kaylee's hair. "But you can build, you can build tomorrows."

"No I can't, River," Kaylee murmured, voice thick with tears. "I can't give him what ain't his, I can't do that to him."

River bent down next to Kaylee's ear. "But it is his, if he says so."

Somewhere deep inside, Kaylee was almost afraid to hope.

***

 

Later that night, Simon crept into the engine room. "Kaylee?"

Sniffling, Kaylee struggled to sit up in her hammock. Her vision grayed out, damn it all, but now at least she knew why. Shadows moved across her face, and she wasn't sure she would be able to keep from crying again.

"Feeling okay?" Simon tried again. Kaylee had missed dinner, had merely screamed that she wasn't hungry and if she wanted to starve herself then all of the niao shi de dugui just had to sit back and accept it.

"No."

Simon stood next to her hammock, hands empty and open at his sides. "Nothing's going to be different," he began.

"Sure it is," Kaylee snapped. "I get big and fat and ugly. I can't do a durned thing around the boat and it ain't even yours!"

He reached out and touched her face gently. She flinched. "It can be."

"It ain't," Kaylee insisted, tears in her eyes. "But it should be."

Simon traced the lines of her lips with his thumb. "It's mine if I say it is. It's mine if I want it to be." He looked up at her eyes, desperation lining his mouth. "I want it to be, Kaylee. I want to be with you, through thick and thin, through every hardship the 'verse has for you. I want to be there for you, Kaylee."

"It's an awful lot to want," Kaylee sobbed.

"Kaylee," Simon murmured. She watched him swallow nervously and felt her stomach plummet down to the floor. "Kaylee," he began again. "Will you do me the honor of being my wife?"

Stunned, Kaylee watched as he brought a ring from his pants pocket, a simple gold band with a tiny diamond in it. He held it out to her, eyes full of hope.

"But I ain't... it's not..." Kaylee looked up at Simon from the ring, startled. "What do I say?"

"Please say yes," Simon said gently. "Please."

Kaylee swallowed painfully. "I ain't good no more, Simon."

"The best I know," he replied.

"I ain't no fancy lady from the Core. Can't be good for that."

"Please, Kaylee. I don't want to think of my life without you."

She shut her eyes, feeling the hot tears seep past her lashes. "I don't want to be no burden."

"You couldn't be. You're carrying our child."

Her eyes snapped open and flashed fire. "It ain't yours, don't you get it! They did something to me and now I ain't having your baby!"

Simon stepped closer to the hammock, still hold the ring. "But you are, Kaylee. Those men have nothing to do with us. Us, Kaylee. They've got nothing to do with this. I love you. And this baby's going to be part you, and it's going to be ours, yours and mine. Nobody else's, and no one can change that."

"How come you ain't mad at me?" Kaylee sobbed, leaning forward so that their foreheads touched. "How come you still love me?"

"Because I do. I don't know." Simon stroked her hair gently. "I want you to be my wife, Kaylee. We can do this. We can do this together."

Kaylee sniffled. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

She pulled back and watched herself hold out her left hand. She watched Simon slip the ring onto her finger. It wasn't real. It couldn't be. This was all strange and odd and it wasn't real somehow, she was going to wake up in the morning and she would be alone in her bunk and thinking she had just woken from a nightmare.

Boy, did that ring sparkle something nice, though. Kaylee knew he would've been able to afford something huge and gaudy if he was still working in the Core, knew it must have hurt him to get her something so tiny.

"You're so beautiful," Simon murmured, holding her close. "You'll always be beautiful to me."

"I wish it was yours," Kaylee whispered. "I want it to be yours."

"Then it is," Simon said. He stroked her hair. "It's our baby now, our responsibility. I'll be a good father. I'll take such good care of the both of you."

Kaylee threw her arms around Simon and cried. For the first time in nearly three days, they were tears of hope.

***

 

"What're you so happy for?" Jayne groused the following week. Kaylee was humming as she set the table for dinner. "You smile too gorram much." He hadn't liked her tears either, truth be told, but nobody asked him and nobody thought he had a heart anyway.

"Don't it sparkle nice?" Kaylee asked instead, flashing her ring around. After some wheedling, Simon had admitted that it wasn't a high karat gold, but the diamond was real. He would never have settled for anything less. "That ain't necessarily huge, but it sure does shine."

Jayne snorted. He had been there when Simon had picked it out, had sized the ring from his memory of Kaylee's fingers in between his. He had told the doctor he was a gorram fool, that Kaylee wouldn't have known a real diamond from a fake. "Girls like 'em big and shiny, doc," Jayne had said. "She don't need the real thing. Get that one."

Simon had refused the ring with the larger stone. He hadn't said it, but he had felt painfully small at not being able to afford something finer. But Kaylee deserved something real, even if it was a tiny speck. "The band could be iron, but she deserves the real thing."

Jayne had mused that one over, then slowly nodded. "Your money, doc. Throw it away on something stupid if you want."

Simon had merely smiled like a fool, and thanked Jayne for coming into the store with him.

"You big softie," Kaylee giggled. "Just wait, one day one girl will make all the whores seem silly and not important."

"Can't pin me down long enough to get me to buy a ring," Jayne muttered.

"You ain't found the right one yet, then."

Jayne shook his head. "Not everyone wants to be tied down tight."

"I wonder if we can ask Book to do the ceremony," Kaylee mused, setting a cup down. "Oh, I'm all excited. There's so much to plan!"

Jayne rolled his eyes. "Keep on like that, and I'm gonna be sick."

"Well, Simon'll patch you right up."

"He's just as bad." Kaylee giggled, and went to get more cups. "It ain't funny!"

"Well, we fit then, don't we? Silly, the both of us."

"That's for sure," Jayne muttered. He paused for a moment, then took the cups from Kaylee. "I guess nobody's gotta tell you nothing about if he does you wrong."

Kaylee's eyes widened for a moment. "Are you playing Papa for me?"

"Oh ta ma de! Don't go making a big deal out of this!"

Her face softened into a smile. "Thanks, though, Jayne. It's good to hear."

Jayne nodded brusquely. "Right, then. Just so's we got that clear. Your daddy ain't here to do it up proper, but somebody's got to and I don't see the Captain doin' it."

"He talked to Simon already."

"Huh. He did. Well, then, we got it all covered."

"Seems so."

"Huh."

Kaylee had to suppress laughter at the sight of Jayne's thoughtful face. Every once in a while he did something like that. He cared in spite of himself. "Thank you, Jayne. Really."

"Someone's gotta take care o' you. It's a rough game out there."

"I'm seeing so," Kaylee said, watching Jayne put the cups down on the table. After a moment, she paused. "You opposed to bein' godfather to the baby?"

"What?!"

"Well, I was thinking of asking the Captain, but you seem awful concerned."

"Ain't nothing special. Same if Crazy got herself knocked up." Kaylee snickered and Jayne glowered at her. "I ain't nobody's godfather. Not even my sister's kids."

Kaylee quieted. "You got a sister?"

"Yeah," Jayne muttered. He turned back to the table and didn't say anything else.

"She pretty?" Kaylee asked gently.

"Pretty enough," Jayne grudgingly admitted. "Don't know 'bout now, though."

"You a good big brother?"

Jayne turned around. "You got enough troubles of your own, you don't need to go borrowing none of mine. Next time we're planetside, I'm makin' sure you can shoot."

"I can shoot," Kaylee protested.

"I'm meaning if you need to, not just if you can aim."

Startled, Kaylee watched Jayne stalk out of the kitchen. She didn't follow. Papa Frye had gotten into those moods before, and it was always best if they could calm themselves down. Men like that never liked womenfolk pointing out how silly they were.

Kaylee surveyed the table and smiled to herself. They could get married right here on Serenity. If they couldn't get Shepherd Book, Captains of any ship were allowed to marry people. It would be nice to have her family involved, but they could always go visiting after. Her Papa would love Simon, Kaylee decided. He was a bit stiff and proper at first, but he warmed up real nice, just like her Papa. And Papa would be happy with anybody that took care of his little girl. Papa will hit the roof when he finds out he's a Grandpapa, but he'll love it. More Fryes to love.

Her smile faded slightly when she thought of Simon's parents. They disowned him when he broke River out of the Academy. They wouldn't even know about a wedding, wouldn't even know there was a grandchild. They might not even care. Poor Simon. She would have to write a letter to make sure her Papa was extra special nice to him when they met.

***

 

"Do you think mà mà or bà bàn would've liked Kaylee?" River asked, perched on a stool in the infirmary.

"I know if they gave it a chance, they would've. But they wouldn't have been able to see past the clothes or the accent." Simon looked up at River after reconstituting a bottle of antipsychotic. "It's okay, mei mei, it doesn't hurt so much now."

"You lie. It's a knife."

Sighing, Simon uncapped the five milliliter syringe. "Hopefully this one will work better for you. I have to see about getting pills, but they're harder to find out here."

River extended her arm obediently. "It makes me ache inside."

"I'm sorry, mei mei," Simon sighed. He swabbed the side of her arm, then injected the medication into her muscle. "But it's working better for you, isn't it?"

"Until the next time the dreams begin in the day."

He capped the syringe and dumped it into the disposal unit on the wall. "You've gotten so much better, River. There's such a difference in you."

"Do you think I could ever have a baby of my own?" River whispered. "Wrong as I am, could I ever be loved like that?"

Simon cradled her in his arms. "Oh mei mei, I don't know. I hope so."

"I have no mind, I have no brain. Nothing can make me whole again." River whispered. "My mind ebbs and flows, and it flows away from me."

"No... Don't say that. We'll find something that works. This is working for you so far, this might be the one. Everything will be okay, mei mei, I promise."

Don't make promises you can't keep, she wanted to say, but that would've been cruel. He wanted to do right by her; it wasn't his fault she was broken beyond repair. River closed her eyes instead, and let him rock her gently. Let him think she would be fixed. Let him think it would be okay. Let him play hide and seek with the demons of the 'verse.

Everyone needed their illusions.

***

 

River silently sat on the stairs down to the cargo bay, thoughts wandering in their usual odd directions. It was hard to catch hold, hard to center. Hard to leave things in an order, to find the breadcrumbs left along the way. Something listless, something found, something hidden in the dark of the ground. Over and under, over again, couldn't put the pieces of her back together again. Poor girl, poor girl, too tired and still. Poor girl, poor girl, nowhere left to go, nowhere left to be, nothing else but stars above and black between, nothing else but the voices in the stars and the cries of lost hope.

River blinked, and her mind was wiped clear. New blank slate. Black on black on black, tick tock, giggling upstairs in the mess. Simon and Kaylee making a mess in the mess.

She tried to ignore the whispers of thoughts as well as she could, and today it seemed to be a bit easier. Plus, these whispering thoughts were all familiar, easily dismissed as irrelevant to the matter at hand. It was just difficult to concentrate her focus, difficult to form a single beam of understanding to light the darkness of contemplation. She could hear boots clang above her; the sound was irrelevant and insincere, hollow booms upon a hollow heart.

"You okay, River?" Zoe asked.

"The natives cluster like a swarm of flies. How can I govern and lead them aright? I cannot even understand what they say."

Zoe sat down on the stairs next to River. The girl seemed to be focusing on her hands, trying to mentally gird herself with some odd bits of poetry or some such. "Is it hard on you? Them marryin', I mean."

"I gain a sister and become an auntie. I will be loved even so." River's voice sounded tiny, even to herself. "But nothing is level, nothing is safe and plumb-lined just yet. I see it, but the square is not a square and is not even."

Zoe took one of River's hands in hers. "It's a hard thing, watching someone else move on in their lives and leave you behind. But it's not the only thing in life, and it shouldn't be something to beat you down."

River looked up. "This girl wishes she could think in lines."

Zoe let the statement pass. "You seem better these days."

"New drugs haven't soured yet. But lines are still curves, and words have a hard time to follow them back to home."

"Simon's doing his best."

"Yes. This girl is pleased."

Zoe stared out into the emptiness of the cargo bay, not sure what she could say. "He's real happy with her, it seems like."

"She makes us happy. She makes us whole."

"They don't mean to leave you out."

"But it's lonely here in the dark," River whispered. "Even if they can't see it."

"Give it time. Everything looks better when you step back."

"Perspective. Distance. Outdistance and outstrip."

"He's not going anywhere, River. You won't be left behind. Family doesn't do that."

"Ours did."

Nonplused, Zoe leaned back. "I suppose. But ours don't."

She cocked her head to the side, thinking. "Have we been adopted?"

"Sort of," Zoe said, her lips twisting into a bit of a smirk.

"Acceptable," River replied with a firm nod. "Yes, this is acceptable. Not congruent, but families often aren't."

"Feeling better?"

She grinned at Zoe, suddenly seeming like an ordinary teenager. "Muchly so."

"Well then, I've done my good deed for the day." Zoe got up and started heading back upstairs. "Dinner's on in ten, just thought you should know."

"I'll be there."

River looked out over the shadows of the cargo bay. "And when I lie here, broken and still..."

Something flashed at the corner of her eye, and there was the sound of footsteps. River turned, peering into the darkness, looking for the sound.

She could see a little girl with unruly brown hair and bright blue eyes running around boxes and ducking under the stairs. She was small, with a pink bow in her hair and a shirt that was torn at the sleeve. She had caught it on one of the tools in the engine room, when she had squeezed into a corner while playing hide and seek with her earlier. The girl was laughing, shrieking with laughter. "You can't catch me!" the girl cried as she ran under the stairs. With a gasp, River shot to her feet and peered between the stairs. No girl, no ghost of a girl.

"Oh. Secret yet. I didn't realize it." River shook her head out a bit, feeling her hair fly out all around her. Maybe it was a good thought, maybe it was nothing more than a psychotic vision meant to torment her. Either way, a niece would be lovely.

River raced up the stairs toward dinner.

***
***

Chapter Text

Kaylee was in Simon's bunk. It was pretty spare looking, everything neat and in its place. At first she would've said that it held no personality, but there were small touches that told her what he was all about. Simon had carefully pinned River's sketches on his wall, including the ones she had drawn of Kaylee. They were his only decoration in the entire room.

"You afraid of feelin', Simon?" Kaylee asked, touching the paper of the drawing. If Kaylee turned around, she was sure that Simon would likely have his hands in his pockets and look perplexed. It was all right; love was a plenty perplexing kind of thing.

Simon was shrugging. "No. But it's just... My family wasn't so demonstrative. Everything had to be proper, it had to be in its place. It had to be perfect."

"Ain't so such thing, you know."

"I know," Simon said, running a hand along Kaylee's arm. "I'm learning it."

She turned around and let herself be framed by Simon's arms. "I think you'd like my Papa. I don't remember my Mama much, she died when I was real little, and I don't have any sisters. Papa had to raise me on his own. Easiest to watch me in the garage where he worked, and I just picked it up so quick." Kaylee smiled and traced the curve of Simon's jaw. "It's not hard to be happy, if only you let yourself be."

"So when did you get so wise?" Simon asked, dropping his head down toward hers.

"Living on the edge of the 'verse teaches a girl a thing or two," Kaylee replied with a grin.

Simon kissed her forehead. "Well, Miss Frye, I am very glad you will soon be Mrs. Tam. I could use a little of that kind of wisdom." He took her earlobe between his teeth and gently tugged. His tongue flicked out, tracing the edge of her earlobe, then he moved down to her neck. She leaned into his touch. It gratified him to feel her arms around him, holding him tight. He pulled on the pins holding her bun up, and her hair came spilling down around them. Her arms tightened around his back, keeping him pressed tightly against her.

Simon was slowly backing her toward the bed. Oh good. Kaylee giggled as she fell backward onto his bed, nearly bumping her head on the wall. He had apologized to her the first time he had pushed her back, and she had only laughed. She hadn't bumped her head, so no harm done. Real good sex was clumsy and messy and loud, not all prissy and clean. It was hard to have a good time when you were too busy worrying about cleanup afterward. Laughing with her, Simon had relaxed. And didn't you know it, the sex that day had been messy and loud and not at all clumsy, but still really good.

"I'm thinking I'm pretty lucky to have found you," Simon murmured, moving to kiss Kaylee on her mouth. She quickly undid his belt and pants, then moved her hand over his cock in reply, stroking gently. His breath caught, and then he kissed her fiercely. She rather liked that, making Simon lose control and be more passionate. Kaylee understood that plenty. One of his hands moved down to the junction of her thighs, and the hand around his cock tightened convulsively in response. She willed herself to relax, to keep up the slow rhythm of her motions. No use finishing things up too fast. Girls went for the long run, and boys just went bust way too quick.

Simon moved his hand up along her belly to cup a breast through her prettiest floral shirt. Kaylee didn't tell him, but she had found his missing buttons in a corner of her bunk and saved them in her underwear drawer. She was a sentimental sap that way. He slid his hand across the front of the shirt, feeling her nipples begin to harden through the fabric. "Now, why can't I feel any underclothes, Miss Kaywinnet?" he teased.

"Ain't wearin' none." Kaylee grinned up at him shamelessly. "I thought I'd tempt you away from work for a while."

He kissed her again, slow and languorous, his tongue sliding across her teeth. "I like how you think," he murmured, kissing his way across her jaw.

"Mmm... I like this. I like how this feels... Why do I feel like I'd die without this?"

"Only because I do, too," Simon murmured against her throat. Her pulse leapt up to meet his lips, and he licked the spot. He began unbuttoning her shirt, careful with each one. He knew Kaylee was squirming beneath him, impatient, but he took his time. All the little touches against her skin were driving her crazy, but they only made him smile. Then he touched her lush breasts, and her breath caught. She'd admitted once that he was too careful with her, too busy touching her everywhere else to get down to business. Simon had merely grinned and replied that he was learning her, and that he liked to learn things very thoroughly.

He liked what he knew of Kaylee, the soft sleepy scent of her when she woke from a nap, the carefree grins she flashed him when she was happy. He liked the weight of her curled on top of him after sex. He liked the way she kissed, the way she hummed when his cock was inside of her mouth, the way she would look up out of the tops of her eyes at him just before she would do something deliciously wicked with her mouth. He liked the rough feel of her hands on him, he liked the way her other skin was soft. He liked her lush curves, the way she curled in against him when she came. He liked the way she looked at him, as though he were special, as though he would always be cherished.

"Touch me everywhere," Kaylee gasped as his fingers pinched a nipple. "I'm gettin' all sticky."

Laughing, Simon obliged by pushing aside the edges of her shirt and unbuttoning her pants as best as he could with one hand. "No zipper today?"

"Weren't thinking about that, just that these are pretty."

"You just like making me work for it."

"That too," Kaylee replied with a cheeky grin. Then off came her pants and panties, and Simon's hand was between her legs. "You're wearing too much clothes," she added helpfully.

"Someone didn't let me get undressed first," Simon teased.

"Yeah, well, you fold it all up neat. This way I get you to be messy."

Laughing, Simon pushed another finger into her wetness. Kaylee nearly leapt off of the bed with a wail. He took his other hand away from her breast and pushed off his own clothing. "I can't wait," he murmured.

"Then don't."

He removed his fingers and thrust into her, hard and swift. Simon lowered himself down to his forearms, altering the angle of penetration. Kaylee's breath caught. He was hitting a pretty sweet spot, and it was all she could do to move along with him. She wrapped her legs around his waist, hooking her ankles together. Kaylee made little humming noises in the back of her throat, her back arching up. She could tell by Simon's grunts that he was close, getting closer. His eyes scrunched up tight, and Kaylee would never say so, but he looked awful silly like that. But then, sex faces were always funny looking.

It was over much too quick for her liking, but there was always later today. She kissed him brightly, taking in his dazed look. Her shuai boy was just wonderful, more generous than she'd ever thought she'd find in the black. "You look pretty tuckered out."

"I feel it, too. Good thing there's no emergencies today."

"We'll be by Haven tomorrow to pick up Shepherd Book, then we're off to Inara's latest Training House. It's awful nice of her to let us have a wedding there."

He smiled at her, playing with a loose lock of hair. "They're our friends. They should be there."

Kaylee hadn't told him so, but even Papa Frye and her three brothers were on their way to the wedding. She didn't want to scare him yet.

"It's gonna be real lovely." Kaylee leaned into his touch at her cheek and smiled happily.

***

 

"Shepherd!"

Shepherd Book turned around at the sound of Kaylee's exuberant voice and grinned. She gave him a tight hug, and there were the other Serenity crew members right behind her. "I see you're doing well, Kaylee." He took her arm and they walked back to the others. "How has everything been since I left?"

"Oh, so much to tell you. Not all good, but not all bad."

"That sounds like the Kaylee I know," Book replied with a smile. He kept the smile on his face for the others. "Captain. It sounds like I've missed a few tales."

"We can all share 'em before we go, make it a nice visit all around," Mal said with a nod. He had his serious face on, but Book was used to it.

He noticed River Tam already running after the children at Haven, caught up in a game of tag with them. "Why don't the rest of us just head on into the main hall of the Abbey? It should be a bit more quiet there."

Book watched as Simon took Kaylee's arm, and let her go off with him. That was proper, and he couldn't help but see the love in each other's gazes. He turned to Wash, who was trailing behind Zoe and Mal. "Nobody minding the ship?"

"I dunno, Shepherd, seems like she's cleaner'n usual. And we got a more fuel-efficient gas for her, so less smoke for the village. Not much to mind."

Book shook his head and laughed. "I've actually missed being aboard."

"Always nice to have someone else get my jokes," Wash said with a nod. He gestured toward Jayne. "Though the man-ape thing makes a great target."

Laughing, they entered the Abbey. It was mostly empty, since there were many chores that needed to be done during the day. They had the entire main hall to themselves. The crew all pitched in to tell stories of some pretty close calls. Simon was carefully quiet during the story of Kaylee's abduction, and said very little about why she was taken. He did perk up when Kaylee laughed and showed off her engagement ring. "We'd appreciate it if you could marry us," he said, and Book nodded in reply. "It means a lot to us."

"I'd be honored," Book replied honestly. "I was always hoping you two would get together."

Kaylee laughed as Simon flushed. Some things just never changed.

***

 

They didn't see past the dancing or the playing. The night sky fell, the stars came out, tales were told 'round the fireside. River danced away, skipping hard past the sharp thoughts skating beneath the surfaces. She needed the quiet and silence that was not complete silence but less than the shouts of a crowd. Out past the firelight was something less; it was nothing but blackness, swirling endless spots flickering and flying and shining brightly in the back of her eyes. It wasn't right, being left behind this way, though she knew they couldn't help it and didn't mean it. Hurt, hurt, a sharp kind of ache and loss. She couldn't close her mind enough to keep from drowning in deep darkness, in the clouds of confusion threatening to rise. It was difficult, but River could tumble into the wild, into the forest that existed only in her mind. Flip past it, skating into the dark and lonely. She couldn't be the only one, but knew she was.

Except... leather and death. Sharp objects, dull mind.

Maybe there was a way out.

***

 

After the holiday in Haven, Serenity flew toward Inara's latest locale. She had visited several different Training Houses, finally settling on one that was just past most peoples' comfort zones. It was a bit of a journey from the Core, but they were desperately in need of a good Companion to teach the novices and serve as an example.

The crew was welcomed with open arms, and Kaylee gave Inara a squeeze and a squeal of delight. "I missed you! Lookit! All pretty and glamorous."

Inara smiled at Kaylee fondly. "I'm so happy for you, Kaylee. I made all the arrangements for the wedding, and there's surprises for everyone."

"I'm sure there are," Mal said, not meaning anything nasty by it. He realized after the fact just how petty his comment sounded.

Inara looked up, face freezing. "Mal. I see you're the same."

He nodded. "Not much else to be."

"True enough," Inara replied stiffly. She turned back to Kaylee's grinning face. "Tomorrow is going to be a busy day. We'd better get started."

"Tomorrow?" Simon choked. "I didn't... I thought..."

"It's all right, son," Book said gently. "Everything will be taken care of." He smiled fondly in the face of Simon's panic. "Why don't we all get a good start on it?"

"River..." Simon began, looking around for his sister.

"There are some novices that can show her around the visitor's areas," Inara said briskly. "They'll know to keep her away from the more sensitive areas."

Simon was whisked off by the men he had slowly begun to think of as family, and watched as Inara swept all of the women away. River seemed so sad, he thought, holding up a hand in farewell to him. He would have to find her later, see what the problem was.

And then he was swept up in the planning.

***

 

It wasn't her. Kaylee looked in the mirror carefully, turning her head in either direction. The dress was red and gold, the traditional wedding colors, and the dress was tight enough to seem like a second skin. The Mandarin collar was closed with a gold frog button, and tiny hidden buttons kept the rest of the dress together. The side slits went up past her knees, and Kaylee felt awful naked in it. Inara had brushed out her hair and done her makeup, but this time it was different from when they spent time in the shuttle. This wasn't play, this wasn't a game of sorts. Kaylee looked... breathtaking, some pretty creature she didn't think she could be. The headdress was put on, gold with her hair curled around it. Gold drop earrings and red slippers with gold embroidery completed the outfit.

"I don't look like me," Kaylee whispered to the mirror.

When Inara had offered up the Training House for the wedding, Kaylee had just been thinking that Inara would be there for the ceremony. She hadn't thought about being gussied up and prettified, hadn't thought she would wind up looking as pretty as a Companion. But here she was, and it was frightening and nerve wracking and wonderful at the same time. Aiya, how did she never know she could look like this?

"I'm pretty," Kaylee murmured.

Inara smiled at her fondly. "Of course you are. You always were."

River was sitting in the corner, bare feet splayed out in front of her. She had been outfitted in a burgundy dress, her hair pinned up with jeweled barrettes from Inara's collection. There were matching slippers in River's hands, and she was frowning at them. She had wanted a Mandarin dress like Kaylee's, but had liked the burgundy silk well enough. Zoe was perched on a chair next to Kaylee, dressed in a slinky dark green satin dress. She was smiling at Kaylee. "Simon will love it. You never forget your wedding day."

"How was yours, Zoe?" Kaylee asked nervously. She turned away from the mirror and looked at Zoe with wide eyes. "Was it good?"

"I wore a white and black striped dress. It was my one and only dress," Zoe laughed and shook her head at the memory. "It was a horrible day, raining and turning this dustbowl town into a muddy mess. I thought everything was ruined."

"Oh no..." Kaylee breathed.

"But it was wonderful," Zoe corrected, shaking her head. "Didn't matter what it was like outside at all. Once we got inside the church, and the preacher started talkin', nothing else mattered. I had Wash, and that was all I needed." Zoe smiled at Kaylee. "All you need to do is look at Simon when you start walking. That's what you got to stay focused on. After the pretty stuff is gone, it's the two of you from here on in."

Kaylee nodded gratefully, brand new curls wobbling. "I will."

"It's okay to be nervous," Inara said, tucking a curl behind Kaylee's ears. "But this isn't a show. It's you and Simon vowing to spend the rest of your lives together."

"He ain't nothing but a man, too," Zoe said helpfully. "He'll be stupid and forgetful, he'll say silly things and not know how to do lots of things you can. But he'll do whatever he can to make you happy, and he'll try. That's a world of difference."

Kaylee grinned at Zoe. "It is, isn't it?" She grinned at her reflection in the mirror. "I think I'm ready now."

At the same time, Simon was getting dressed in the traditional marriage suit. Mal, Jayne and Book were with him. Jayne was sneering at the outfit, at the silver embroidery on blue silk brocade, stating it was a girl's dress. "Don't start it," Mal growled at him. "Ain't nothing to mock here."

Simon looked at the other men. "I'll be all right. It's Kaylee. No need to be nervous."

"Son, it's going to be all right," Book began. "The Lord has been kind and allowed the two of you to find each other."

Simon nodded and watched Book leave to go to the ceremony site. "Captain, are you going to go down soon, too?"

"Well, sure. You going to be all right? You look a little green in the gills."

"I think I'm more nervous now than before my first surgery."

"Then think of it as surgery," Mal suggested with a rakish grin. "Your job is to cut through the go se and frippery until you get to the important part."

"That doesn't help," Simon muttered. "But I'll be fine."

"Good. 'Cause I don't got much else to say. Now there's a wedding downstairs, and you're about to get hitched up good. Let's not keep the womenfolk waiting."

***

 

Later, Simon and Kaylee couldn't remember everything. He was waiting for her near Book, with Mal at his side as best man. He had been surprised about that, but Mal had simply said there was a last minute switch. Simon remembered having the breath knocked out of him at the sight of Kaylee walking down the aisle. He saw the resemblance to her father right away, and held his breath as Papa Frye brought Kaylee to him. "You look fancy," Papa Frye had said, eyeing Simon warily. "But hurt my girl and I got lots of guns to end you with."

"Yessir," Simon had replied dutifully. He watched as Kaylee kissed her father's cheek and then held out her arm to Simon. He took it gently, and they turned toward Book. He remembered saying the appropriate words at the appropriate times, then sliding a plain gold band onto Kaylee's finger. Book had kindly gotten them rings, and had refused to be repaid. His gift to them, he had said.

River held a bouquet of orchids and watched the wedding kiss with solemn eyes. Book had said that Simon was a good man to take in Kaylee's child as his own, that they would be a good family together. She stood at Kaylee's side and let everyone call her mei mei, she watched them be shocked when Inara told them there was a cottage next to the lake near the Training House that they could stay in for a week. Her gift to them, everything taken care of.

After the happy couple disappeared into their honeymoon, everyone else piled into the Training House to finish off the remnants of the banquet Inara had arranged for. River sat down next to Wash and Zoe, Book on her other side. Mal, Jayne and Inara were sitting on the other side of the table. Almost like old times, sitting around the kitchen table on Serenity. But River could feel the differences prickle, something haunting the back of her mind. She ducked away from the table for a moment and found a small throw pillow on one of the couches in the next room. She slid it under her dress and crept back to sit at the table. No one seemed to notice her changed body; she would have to announce it.

At a lull in the conversation, River looked up at everyone with a large smile on her face. "I have a secret to tell," she announced proudly. "I'm pregnant, too."

Stunned silence met her announcement. "What?" Mal finally sputtered. "With who?"

"I have to get married to Jayne now."

Instead of the happy congratulations Kaylee had received, chaos erupted.

Jayne's eyes goggled as he choked on his beer. Mal stood and angrily spat "Chùsheng xai-jiao de xiang huo! She's still a little girl!"

Book was immediately up and out of his seat, talking about a special hell in store for Jayne. Inara had her hands over her mouth and looked at Jayne reproachfully.

"I ain't touched her, she's too skinny and little and crazy!" Jayne screeched. The others weren't listening, and he was swearing in very creative Chinese as Mal shoved him.

"Second we break atmo, you're out the airlock!" Mal yelled, face turning red. "I trusted you not to do nothing else!"

"You liu kuoshui de biaozi he houzi de ben erzi! I didn't do nothing!" Jayne yelled. He pointed at River. "She's crazy! Shingjingbing!"

Wash and Zoe were painfully still. Confused, River touched Wash on the shoulder, eyes beginning to water. "But we can be a family. It can be good. I'll be good. Babies are good things. Why are they angry?"

Mal was shoving Jayne in response, and Jayne shoved him right back. "Gôu pì!" Mal yelled. "You're a dirty sumbitch!"

Something tickled the back of Zoe's mind, and she tuned out the shouting and protesting not five feet from her. "River, did he really touch you, or are you just tellin' tales?"

She burst into tears, and Wash put an arm around her. Zoe hushed everyone, and the noise abruptly died. "I just wanted to be happy like them, I just wanted to be a family. I promise I'll be good, I promise. I promise I'll stop being bad, I'll stop being lonely. I promise, I promise. But I want to be happy too, I wanted to not be alone anymore."

"There's no baby, is there?" Wash asked gently. River shook her head, burying her face in the crook of his arm. "But you're not alone, River. You've got us."

River shook her head and pulled back from Wash. "Simon has Kaylee. You have Zoe. Book has God. Captain has Inara. Jayne is alone, and I'm alone. Why can't we be alone together? Then we won't be alone anymore," River sobbed. She wiped at her eyes hastily. "I don't like the noise but I don't like the silence either."

"See? I tole ya I never touched her," Jayne spat at Mal, shaking the other man off. "She's just a feng le troublemaker."

"Shut your mouth and sit down," Zoe hissed. Jayne blinked, but did just that.

River looked at everyone with big wet eyes. "I didn't want trouble. I was just lonely."

Everyone seemed to settle down and sit at the table again. Mal and Inara were carefully not touching and not looking at each other.

"Well now," Book began. Jayne glared at him, and Book settled his eyes uncomfortably somewhere else. "This is..."

"I just wanted a family. I thought Jayne did, too," River pleaded. She looked at Jayne sadly. "Didn't you?"

"I ain't gonna sit here no more," Jayne growled into the ensuing silence. "This is gôu pì."

"I'm sorry," River sobbed as Jayne stalked out of the room. "I'm sorry."

Wash gave River a gentle hug. "You don't have to be lonely, little River. We're here for you."

"Not the same. There's still so much alone time."

There was really nothing to say in response.

River found him later, looking out over the lake near the Training House. She was still in the burgundy dress and slippers, though she had taken the pillow out. "I'm sorry," she said quietly, standing just outside arm's reach. "I thought it was a good idea."

"Well, it ain't," Jayne growled, not looking at her.

"I thought we could make a new family, and not have to be so lonely."

Jayne watched River look at her fingers, twisting them in each other. He didn't say anything for a moment, the began to patiently explain it to her. He wasn't used to explaining anything, but this little feng le girl didn't take to sense very well. "I ain't lonesome. I got my guns and my girls and I'm just fine."

"I'm not a good sister," River said sadly, looking out over the water. She moved to stand beside the balcony's railing.

Jayne looked over at River. Everything seemed to hang on her just a little bit off. "I had a sister once," he said slowly. She looked at him, eyes large and shining, reflecting the dim starlight above them. "Married a feng le houdan man we tole her not to. Killt her while I was gone." He almost reached out to touch her arm in half comfort, but stopped himself. That would be a very bad idea, and even he could see that. "But that don't make her bad, see? Mistakes don't make 'em bad sisters."

"You're not a bad man," River whispered.

"Sure I am, baddest in the 'verse," Jayne said proudly. "It's why I'm on the boat, gotta help haul in loads and shoot who needs shootin'."

"Is it that bad to think of me?" River asked. She was still refusing to look at him, and he frowned at her. "Am I bad?"

"You're crazy. That's different." Jayne seemed almost uncomfortable, and took a half step back, away from her. He glanced over his shoulder at the Training House. "You go talk with them, okay? They'll set you straight."

"They have somebody."

"I ain't meant for nobody, dong ma? So no more crazy ideas."

"I was hoping for truth made flesh," River whispered. She was looking down at the stones, at the railing, at the water. Anywhere but at him, and that was just fine by Jayne. He didn't want to look into those eyes and feel as if he was kicking a sick cat. "I wanted to see the lines straighten and the curves stop. But it's not happening for me. I wanted the stars to stop spinning and coming into my head."

"Don't think I'm any kind of truth," Jayne warned. "Just ask the rest o' them."

"Then who? Who can be my truth?"

"Don't know. Man's not me, though."

River watched Jayne head back inside the Training House. She turned back to face the lakeside, and rested her arms on the balcony railing. Not so much to vault over it, twist into the darkness and take off running. Not so much to break it, to send stone dust dripping in a fountain from her hands. Not so much to cry, let a heart break to pieces.

Easier to fall, let the stones meet her shins. Easier to let her hair fall, cover her face. Easier to twist the pain and drop it, swallow down the pins of it. Easier to forget, say it was a crazy spell, say it wasn't truth. Easier to pretend it away.

River tilted her head up to look at the stars. Each one seemed so very far away.

***

 

For Simon, it was like unwrapping a present. The red and gold dress was a delicious little wrapper, rather like a li xi envelope at New Year's. He unbuttoned the top buttons of the Mandarin dress, then knelt down in front of her and looked up. Kaylee was grinning, hands out, waiting and wanting but ready to let him take his time and play a little. The adoring gaze was sweet, always fun. He traced the edge of her leg, skirting past the hem of the dress. He could feel the stockings and then her skin beneath his fingertips. It was a tease of what the rest of the night would be. He could already imagine what she would feel like, the weight of her breasts lying in his palm or the feel of her flush against him. "You're so pretty," Simon murmured, leaning against the side of her knee.

Forget this. He could worship her later. Kaylee scrambled down next to him, until they were eye level. "Simon, it ain't never good to keep a girl waiting."

He grinned at her. "It is if you make her come seven times first."

Good lord, he had counted. Oh, but of course he did; he was Simon, after all, and it made sense that he'd count something like that. Kaylee laughed, and pushed him onto his back. She plucked at the buttons on his suit, moving aside the brocade. She would have to thank Inara later. For the moment, it was just in her way.

Once the fancy fabric was gone, Simon lay naked in front of her. Mmm. Nice. He'd been working out lately. Kaylee grinned at him, and then bent her head down over his bare body. She ran her tongue along the length of his cock, tasting the precome. She ran her lips around the ridges beneath the edge of the head, then the slit at its very tip. Simon couldn't do much more than make an incoherent moan. Mmm... That was very interesting. Kaylee liked the sound of that, actually. Smiling at his cock, she took him into her mouth and began to bob up and down. His cock slid along her tongue, then into her cheeks, then in the hollow beneath her tongue. Simon was groaning, his hands tightening in her hair. At last, loss of control!

"Uh... I'm.... I'm gonna come... I'm gonna...."

Kaylee immediately stopped and leaned back. The top of her dress gaped open, exposing the smooth curve of skin where it sloped into breast. Simon gulped and closed his eyes tight. He reached out for her blindly and touched her knee. He shifted so that he could run his hand along her thigh, pushing the dress out of the way.

"Nuh uh, Simon. I get to torture you, too. We're equal."

"But I like doing that to you," Simon protested weakly.

Kaylee leaned up on her knees and shimmied out of the top of the dress. It puddled around her, softly rustling. Simon opened his eyes and gaped at the sight of her. It never ceased to amaze him that she was with him, that she would smile at him, that she would want him. Somehow he had never quite gotten around the idea that he was only good at medicine.

"I like it when you look at me like that," Kaylee whispered. "I like it a lot."

"Like I love you? I'm always going to look at you like that, then."

"Good answer!" Kaylee squeaked happily. She went down again, licking the tip of his cock with a swirling motion. He groaned in reply, and Kaylee sat back on her haunches again. "Hm... you think I'm doing that right?" she teased.

"God, yes," Simon moaned. He tugged on the fabric at her knees and Kaylee obligingly stood up to step out of it. She plopped back down in place, kneeling by his side. "Kaylee..."

She twisted to lean on her elbows and take him into her mouth. She felt his hand reach up to touch her, tracing his way up her thigh. She smiled around his cock and gave it an experimental suck. Simon sucked in a breath, then reached around her leg to feel his way to her clit. His effort was greeted with a soft mewl. Kaylee lifted her head and pressed her face against his stomach, her breath unsteady. "Not fair."

"Only fair to play with you, too," Simon said with a grin.

Kaylee made a growling noise in reply, then blew a raspberry on his belly. Laughing, Kaylee leaned against his sprawled body. "We're gonna have lots of fun."

She kissed her way along his ribs and belly, occasionally licking at his rising erection. She nibbled at the skin of his thighs, and Simon forgot how to breathe as one of her hands stroked him. "Oh yeah, definitely," Simon breathed.

"I do think I made you forget words."

"S'okay. Don't need 'em."

Kaylee giggled, then turned her attention back to his cock. She had to say, she didn't think they were that pretty. But then, they didn't have to be. Boys were angles and planes and knobby bits of bone. Girls were the ones that were curvy or pretty. Cocks were full of fun, though, and she didn't even mind swallowing.

When she did, she curled up around Simon. She could hear his belly gurgle a bit under her ear, and she giggled a little. It was all so very, very silly. Bodies were silly things, full of gas and slime and mucky bits, hiding all the fun things you could do with them.

And then Simon's hand found that secret spot between her legs, and thinking was a chore Kaylee didn't feel like doing anymore.

Good thing was, she didn't have to.

***
***

Chapter Text

"You look very well.... rested," Wash said, noticing Kaylee and Simon coming back aboard Serenity. A dirty look from Zoe had changed what he was about to say.

"Looks like she sexed you six ways from Sunday, Doc," Jayne said with a grin, stacking supplies in the cargo bay.

Simon ignored Jayne and just grinned at Wash and Zoe. "Good to see you. I hope River was okay while we were away."

"It wasn't any trouble," Wash assured him. Everyone missed Jayne's snort. "She's absolutely adorable. Makes us think of having a child of our own."

Simon eyed Wash warily. "What's she done?"

"Nothing! Nothing a little washing can't handle, anyway." He smiled at Simon and Kaylee. "She took her watercolors to my dinosaurs and turned them blue."

"Aw... she missed us!" Kaylee said, squeezing Simon's arm. "I'll go off and find 'er."

Simon watched her race up the steps and into the ship. He turned back to Wash and Zoe with a tired smile. "Thanks so much. There weren't any episodes, were there?"

"Not at all," Wash assured him. "Nothing we couldn't take care of. And Zoe got real good at dispensing that medication for her."

"She's family," Zoe said, cutting off Simon when he was about to thank her. "No need for thanks, just doing what needs to be done."

He grinned at them both. "Okay then. It's good to be back."

They watched him climb up the stairs after Kaylee and head toward the kitchen.

Wash sighed. "Well, lamby-toes. We handled it all right."

"It's all right to have kids in space," Zoe said, putting her arms around her husband. His shirt was surprisingly docile, given his collection.

"I must say, you're probably right. I guess... we can think about giving their kid a playmate. It might be awful lonely for a little one to be playing alone."

Zoe gave Wash a kiss. "You always surprise me, husband."

"I live for those days," Wash said with a grin. "Well, those and when you wear a slinky dress. I like the slinky dress days. Those are most excellent days to have."

"I still have the green one."

Wash flashed her a hopeful grin. "Think I can see it again?"

"If you play your cards right, you get to take it off."

He waggled his eyebrows at her. "I'm very good at cards."

Zoe grinned at him. "I know." She hit the button that closed off the cargo bay. "Now git this boat off the ground and into the sky. You'll get a reward later."

Laughing, Wash headed up to the cockpit.

***

 

River was drawing on her sketch pad when Kaylee stopped in for a visit. She didn't look up at her new sister, didn't stop the comforting back-and-forth of the dark blue pencil. She had cried away her tears long ago, and Kaylee didn't need to see new ones when she was so happy.

"Whatcha drawin'?"

"Flowers," River said absently. "They're all blue."

"Is it your favorite color?"

"No. Blue isn't any good. Too many connotations."

Kaylee sat down next to River and pulled some of the strands out of the way. "Now we're really sisters, not just sayin'. I never had sisters."

"I don't have any," River replied. "They didn't want to try again."

"Aw. We'll be good sisters to each other."

But I didn't want it. I didn't want to lose everything to you. He's not mine anymore, it isn't the same. But it wasn't any fair to Kaylee, who only wanted to help, who was her friend and couldn't imagine hurting her.

"Yes," River said, looking up at Kaylee. "I'll try."

She did try. She was a good sister during dinner, keeping her meandering thoughts to herself. It took effort, but she even was able to track one of the jokes and laugh along with it. Her brother was so happy, laughing without screens over his eyes. It broke her heart to see it; he should have been happy with her, too.

She heard their voices in the middle of the night through the walls, laughing. They couldn't help it. They were just so happy, and it was infectious. Zoe and Wash were infected. Mal was protected, but his heart was left behind. It was too high a price to pay. Book had God and it kept him insulated from this kind of thing, but he was happy also. Jayne was Jayne. There was no changing things.

River creeps out of her room. The nightgown she is wearing fits for a change, and is flowing down her legs. White shell, with tiny pink flowers on them. Not blue. She had insisted on not blue, though some of the things they had gotten her were blue. She tried telling herself it was just a color, it didn't mean anything. But sometimes she forgot, and would be startled when she saw blue on herself. If it was the same shade, she would stop, look at her feet and hope when she looked up she would still be on Serenity. At least darker blues weren't the same color, not exactly, and it didn't give her as much pause. She used to like blue.

River sat on the steps to the empty cargo bay. "Sleep, little River," she whispered into the dark. "I will always be here when you wake."

But there was no one to hear, no one to remember. The wash of memories came over her, a deluge, a flood. Some of them were not her own and some of them were. Some of them even made sense.

River closed her eyes and began to cry. Her heart was spiraling out of control, her thoughts stilled by the water of the flood. Pain, just there, locking her in, keeping her from joining the other soft thoughts flitting through the walls.

"It can't be that bad," Shepherd Book said, coming down the stairs. River didn't bother to hide her tears.

"I can't stop," River sobbed. "I still hear everything, I still feel everything. No contradictions can tie me up for long."

Book held out his hand. "Here. We'll talk. Tell me what you need to say. There's more ways to bond with someone than marriage, more ways to not feel alone."

"How do I stop bleeding through the floor? How do I stop being special? I want to learn to fly again, to feel my wings unfurl."

Book lifted her up to her feet. "Let's go to the kitchen. Green tea and honey and stories. They'll help you settle down for the night."

She sniffled, feeling like a small child. Book was more comforting then her own father had been, though it made her guilty to think so. "Can I have cookies?"

"I'll see if we have some," Book said with a smile.

"I like chocolate chips," River said with a small voice. It felt as though she were seven again.

"I've always liked coconut cookies myself," Book said gently, turning on the kitchen light. He set the kettle on the stove after filling it with water. River was sitting on a chair, her feet up on the seat and her nightgown pulled down over her legs. "Was it a nightmare?"

River shook her head. "I hear them laughing. I know it's not at me, but they're so happy and I'm not, and I don't know how to be. It's not the same."

Book's mouth twisted sadly. "No, it's not. But then, things haven't been normal for you in a long time." River shook her head, hair flying all about. "Tell me what it was like for you, before the Academy came along."

And then she was talking. Playing at soldiers with Simon. Rigging his drop box to send messages at inappropriate times so he could get a brand new one. Using his used drop box to write up her own dreams and sorrows. Dancing in a ballet recital as a child, wishing she could be a professional dancer; her parents would not allow it. She absorbed ideas quickly, reading all of her brother's texts in her spare time. There were no other children near them, and their company was kept with each other alone. She could play at distance, but her brother was her constant company; when he went off to medical school, she did what she could to get the attention of a school nearby. Instead of the school, she found the Academy and its web of secrets.

"You're here with him now, River," Book said gently over tea. "You're sharing things with him now. You're here as his family, his only family. You will be the one to help keep focus when Kaylee can't talk to him. The two of you are special in different ways, and take different roles in his life. Simon has room for you both, more than enough love for you."

"How? You can't measure, can't quantify and hold."

Book smiled at River's frown. "How big is the universe? What's the weight of every star combined? How deep does the black go?"

"Nonsense. Irrelevant. Unable to compute."

"So is love." He watched River look at him with childlike innocence. "You can't measure love, can't pin it in place, can't tell it to behave. Love just is. It exists, it holds you, it comforts you. But it can't be seen or understood in mathematical terms. It isn't science. It's faith."

"Your book," River said, straightening in her chair. "The book I broke. It talked of love."

"That it does. Love is mentioned a lot because love is faith. You have to have faith in the person you love, faith that the right thing will happen."

"I don't have much," River sighed.

"It takes time to build. You started with none, but I think you came a long way."

River looked at Book with her head tilted to the side. "You've been missed, preacher man."

"So have you."

Smiling, River sipped her tea.

***

 

Mal watched River dance in the cargo bay. One of Kaylee's music collections was playing, and River was dancing along with it. She hadn't really acted up since the wedding, and he was glad of it. At least she was playing at something not violent. Mal nodded at Book as he made his way over. "Wash says it's another three hours before we touch down on Haven."

Book smiled. "Ah. It will be nice getting back to the Abbey."

"You sure a planetary life is what you want? It was mighty comfortable with you on board."

"It was nice to be here for a spell and see how everyone was doing. But my place is with other people, to bring comfort where I can. I'm not much for sailing for long periods of time. I need a sky over my head and a ground beneath my feet."

"Well, you know how to find us when you want a break."

"Of course." Book nodded at River. "She should be a bit better now. It's hard for her. No one to really see her for what she is."

"And what's that?"

"Not a child, for starters." Book smiled at Mal's start of surprise. "She needs to do something around the ship. Give her something to do, something she can take pride in. It will help her immensely to know she's doing something good in her life."

"Well, other than dancing or drawing or cracking up, what's she good at?"

"Ask her," Book suggested, picking up his Bible. "She's quite a talented young lady."

Mal frowned at that, but nodded. "All right, then. We'll see what we can do."

He mulled over the conversation for a few days after taking leave of Haven. He hadn't noticed River doing anything special. Sometimes she sketched, sometimes she played games with Kaylee, sometimes she wandered about aimlessly with a faraway look on her face. When asked how she was at that time, she would finally focus on something. "Thinking. Cataloguing. Weighing and measuring, coming to conclusions."

"And what would they be?" Mal had asked.

"Unformed still, cannot dispense inaccurate information."

Huh. She seemed awfully childish to Mal. Then again, he hadn't been a child in a good long time himself. He waited until she seemed more put together. "When's your birthday?"

"I turn nineteen in nine months and twenty-three days," River replied. She was balancing on one of the cargo boxes on the tips of her toes.

"So you're already an adult in the eyes of the law."

"Affirmative."

"Then you shouldn't be slacking off and letting the rest of my crew do your work." Mal nearly smiled at River's frown, but managed not to. "So what do you know how to do?"

"I was a pilot once. In dreams."

"I already got a pilot. Choose again."

River's face scrunched up tight as she thought. Then she brightened. "I can cook very well."

"Well then. You got cook's duty. Try it out tonight for dinner."

Mal shook his head as River somersaulted off of the crate with joy. He headed back up toward the bridge. They were pretty close to Persephone. There had to be someone there who could use a Firefly for their job.

***

 

Life settled in comfortably. Kaylee and Simon shared a bunk now, though any part of the ship was fair game for them. His old bunk in the guest quarters were cleared out, and it really looked as though there had never been anyone living there. He had his pictures pinned up in Kaylee's bunk now, and she did put away some of her decorations that even she admitted were tacky. They got a bigger bed and gave it an energetic workout most nights. Kaylee would check on the engine every day, and they continued with the French lessons. Kaylee gave up remembering most things, but it was something fun to do together. Simon didn't do well with children's games, but Kaylee spent time with River after lunch to play. The girl actually did cook very well, and so it fell to her to cook every night. She even took on dishwashing duty, which went over real well.

When Kaylee hit the fifth month of her pregnancy, she had to admit that her life was good. It was settled and even. Her family felt safe and whole.

Looking back on it later, that of course meant that the other shoe was about to drop.

***

 

The ship was a bombed-out shell, with scorch marks along its sides where it was hit. Nothing could decay out in the vacuum of space, so it was impossible to tell how long the husk had been floating in space. It was just past the usual travel lanes of the Rim Worlds, but nowhere near Reaver territory. Very little debris lay near the ship as it drifted along in space. Something may have happened, but the husk wasn't telling.

"We suit up and go to salvage," Mal had told Zoe and Wash. Wash had sighed and eyed his dinosaurs. The watercolors had washed off easily enough, and River at one point had gotten him another dinosaur when she was planetside.

Wash caught Zoe's hand as she left the cockpit. "Xiâoxin," he murmured softly.

"Of course," she replied just as softly. She squeezed his fingers tight, then took off after Mal. She and Jayne would accompany the captain into the ship. Salvage jobs were easy, but that didn't mean they couldn't turn tricky at any point in time. Step wrong, and something gave way. The salvage ship could spin on a too-wrong axis and hurl you out the door before you could anchor properly. It wasn't really a salvage job, and there were other scavengers or Reavers lying in wait for them. There were a hundred different could-bes, and it was hard to be sure which it was going to be before you touched down.

Once in the suits, the three of them went over to the other ship. Serenity hung there next to the wreck, thrusters on nil to keep it in place. Zoe landed hard on the other ship, bumping into Mal on the way in. He heard her grunt and saw her step down hard. "Okay there, Zoe?"

"Méi guänxi." She waved him off. "Let's get to looking."

It had apparently been picked clean a long time ago. Jayne had suggested cutting up some parts of the ship for scrap metal, which would always go over well in a junkyard. They didn't have a good enough torch on hand, and even the ship's tools were missing.

"They got a weapons locker?" he asked suddenly. Mal and Zoe swung their gazes to him. "Maybe something we can use on another job."

"Go check the bridge," Mal said with a sigh. "Might as well see. At least we won't have to buy too much ammo at the next stop."

"'Xactly," Jayne muttered. "Think there might be anything in the galley."

"Ain't nothing in the hold. Might as well keep it from being a total waste."

Jayne moved toward the bridge to look for a hidden weapons locker. Mal and Zoe headed to where the galley would be. "You think it was Reavers?" Zoe asked him.

"Well, no bodies to tell for certain. If it's so, they're a mighty long way from home."

"Could be they've exhausted their previous food supply, sir."

Mal shot her an annoyed look. "That's something I don't even want to begin to contemplate. You just look over that way, I'll be over this way."

Nothing, nothing and more nothing.

And then a bang from the cockpit.

Mal and Zoe stopped looking for something to appear in the wreckage and ran toward the cockpit. There was a slight hissing sound coming from over the suit's transmitter; Mal sincerely hoped it wasn't Jayne's air supply. Breathing wasn't a good idea in the open black.

"Ni meí shì bà?" Zoe called out.

A groan. Mal and Zoe hurried, pushing past the wafting debris coming from the cockpit. "Is everything okay?" Kaylee called out over the intercom. "We heard a bang."

"Checking it out, Kaylee. Put Doc on alert, just in case."

"Will do, Cap'n," Kaylee sang out, some tension in her voice. When she clicked off, the airwaves seemed very silent.

Jayne was lying on the floor, sprawled. His helmet was cracked, and it was the source of a steady leak of air. So was the hole in his side, though he was doing his best to keep the edges of the suit and his ribs together.

"We'll get you out of here," Mal said, rushing forward.

"Rigged," Jayne panted. "Didn't see it 'till I triggered it. Ain't fair to blow a cache like that. It looked like some nice pieces."

"Let's just go. It was a bust."

Zoe looked up through the cockpit windows as the intercom began to spark with static. "Sir?"

Mal looked up. "Now what?"

"We'd best get moving."

Mal followed her gaze and paled. He looked down at Jayne. "Well now, good thing you can take some pain, 'cause we've got to go."

"Captain..." Wash's voice began over the intercom.

"We know, we're coming back."

Jayne looked from one tense face to another. "Oh come on, it ain't... it can't..."

"We're goin'. Now."

"Go se," Jayne muttered as they left the cockpit for the gash in the side of the ship. It hurt with every step, but he swallowed it down. "Ain't fair."

"Nope. That it ain't. Get a move on," Mal said. He and Zoe both shouldered Jayne and began at a rapid pace. At the edge of the gash, he pushed Jayne across the way toward the open airlock. He and Zoe jumped across, then hit the button to close it up. "I suggest you hoof it!" Mal bellowed over the intercom.

"Got it," Wash replied.

Mal stood in the airlock for a while after Simon and Zoe brought Jayne to the infirmary. They had cut it pretty close. The Reaver ship hadn't come any closer, but it had been an awful lot closer than he'd have liked it.

He saw Kaylee in the engine room later, her belly beginning to get big. Her eyes were round as saucers and shiny with fear. "Hey there, Mrs. Tam." She smiled weakly and sagged down to the floor to sit. "It's all right. Didn't come close." Mal tried grinning at Kaylee. "Had to give the hubby some work to do. Couldn't have him getting bored now."

"Nope, can't have that, Cap'n." Kaylee favored him with a watery smile. "Good thing the engine's all shined up to specs."

"Good thing." Mal turned to leave, but noticed Kaylee's forlorn look. "What is it?"

"What if they got us?" Kaylee whispered.

"We got ourselves a heck of a pilot. We'd've gotten out somehow."

She patted her belly. "I get so scared now. You ever think sometimes it's too hard out here?"

Yes. No. Always. Never.

Instead of speaking up, Mal walked over to Kaylee and sat down next to her. "I think we got a good thing going here. Ain't nobody telling us what to do or how to do it. We got our sky and our boat, we got our lives to live as we please. It's a fine thing to have."

Kaylee nodded. "I'm just worryin' over nothing, I guess."

"Not nothing," Mal answered quietly. "It's got dangers, that's for sure. Same as planets got some dangers. But we know these, we can handle these. We'll be okay. And you're a mother now, Kaylee. You got two to worry for."

Three, she wanted to say. Four if you count River, too, and I should. Kaylee rested her head on Mal's shoulder. "Just tired a little, I think."

"You nap. Then River'll fix up something for you."

Kaylee smiled. "I'll be all right. I will."

"We'll get through it," Mal said, standing up. "And if not, I'll order you to. I'm the Captain, and this is my boat. You got to make it work if I say so."

As expected, Kaylee grinned. "If you say so, Cap'n."

"That's right." He smiled. "She's a good boat. And she'll miss you if you go."

"Oh, I wouldn't leave her for the world. I just... it's worrisome sometimes."

"It can be."

"Thanks, Cap'n."

Mal nodded, and left the engine room. She'd likely get better comforting from that fancy husband of hers, but at least that should tide her over.

As for himself, he had a bottle of whiskey in his bunk to erase the fear still caught in his mouth.

***

 

There were days Kaylee forgot the baby wasn't Simon's. He would read to her and the baby, kiss her stomach and rub her feet when they got sore. He rubbed her back and held her close at night so she would be comfortable enough to sleep. He and River would toss name ideas at her, usually bad ones to make her laugh. River kept giving them girl names, and Simon refused to check what sex the baby would be. He would go through his computer and pick out names that sounded awful with the last name Tam.

And sometimes she would pass by her reflection in a mirror and think you liar.

The baby would kick, and it sent River into a tizzy of laughter and wonder. She said she liked baby thoughts, that they were fuzzy and hazy and not so sharp. River would pat Kaylee's belly and talk to her little niece whenever she could. "I am River, and I am here, little girl. Your gū mŭ will protect you."

Simon merely smiled and would kiss Kaylee on the cheek. "I'm a lucky man," he said in a husky whisper. If River was elsewhere, that whispering voice would say a whole lot of what-else that sent shivers down Kaylee's spine. And if River was there, Simon merely promised Kaylee with his eyes how he would show her his appreciation later.

As Kaylee approached her eighth month, Simon would've said he was the luckiest man alive.

It changed the night he woke from Kaylee screaming in the bed beside him.

***
***

Chapter Text

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."

"Shepherd?"

"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...."

"River..."

"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.

"What?"

"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.

 

The End.